30 October 2014

True Believers: how Marvel/Disney just 'faced DC/Warners. Again.

So I was chatting with a friend Tuesday night and this came up:

“Is it me,” she wrote, “or is there a lot more glee over Phase 3 than DC’s announcement?”

“Not just you,” I replied. And then I referenced this:

For those of you who live under rocks yet somehow have wifi connections for those rocks, some context: two weeks ago, DC/Warner announced a slate of movies based on their mutually owned superhero properties in a shareholder meeting:

2015: Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
2016: Suicide Squad
2017: Wonder Woman, Justice League
 2018: The Flash, Aquaman
2019: Shazam, Justice league sequel
2020: Cyborg, Green Lantern

 The slate made the news and the response was . . . positive but muted. “Oh, hey, pretty cool. Hope they can pull that off.”

 On Tuesday, Marvel did this:

And the response was: “HOLY SHIT YES AAAAGGGHHHHHH”--after which many towels were needed.

Not even kidding here. Twitter (which I was on at the time) practically exploded under my feet. The geek/comic/film press exploded with speculation on casting, and with pictures of Chadwick Boseman on stage with Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. There was even a hilarious Civil War fakeout. There was a teaser for Infinity War. With Thanos. Wearing the Gauntlet.

 As someone said yesterday on io9: There are no more mics, they have all been dropped. And yeah, it made the DC/Warner announcement look pretty anemic by comparison. There are a lot of reasons for this, some obvious, some less so. Here’s a few:

The Marvel characters are cinematic in a way the majority of DC characters don’t seem to be. You wouldn’t think this is so, but it is. Within a few years of launching its modern line, Marvel started doing some seriously epic, seriously cinematic stuff: Galactus. The Inhumans. The Kree-Skrull stuff. Kang the Conqueror. The Savage Land. Thanos. Whereas the most epic stuff DC was doing for a while was when Starro would show up and the JLA would have to fight it off, or if you got a good juicy multi-parter in Legion of Super-Heroes feature. Now, this is not to say that the DC heroes can’t be cinematic; Nolan proved that with his Bat trilogy, though he fell into the diminishing returns arena with the third film (a fault of the script, not the character). Burton’s Batman movies were decent movies, though maybe not very good Batman stories. Donner’s Superman was a conditional success--a story of a god come down to earth who then essentially stops a shady land deal while altering history because his girlfriend was needlessly fridged by Mario Puzo and a small cadre of screenwriters (and if you think I’m being uncharitable towards the Donner film, ask me what I think about Dick Lester's Superman II sometime). The Green Lantern movie should have been a cinematic home run, but the effects were crap, and the script sucked syphilitic hyena balls. Man of Steel had some great moments and a decent amount of gravitas, but it was also saddled with what I like to call Zack Snyder’s Asymptomatic Superman.

Which, while debatably cool to watch, is not the Superman I grew up with. And maybe that’s part of the problem: character development.

Marvel has developed its characters smartly, and stayed largely true to them in the movies--something DC has not always done, as per Asymptomatic Superman in Snyder’s film. Of course, DC hasn’t always been great about that anyway. It jettisoned or reinvented most of its Golden Age roster during the 1950s in an attempt to boost sales. Even before then, DC developed its heroes more or less by throwing shit at the wall to see what would stick. One of the best elements of the Superman mythos, Kryptonite, actually came from the radio series, for instance (to be fair, it was based on a Siegel/Shuster comic script that had been languishing, but still). It didn’t exist in the comics until DC retconned it in. Batman used to shoot people, for fuck’s sake, until someone intimated to Bob Kane that maaayyyybe a man who lost his parents in a back alley shooting maaayyyybe shouldn’t be waving a pistol around. And this comes full circle into Burton’s films, which has someone named Batman blowing criminals up with the rocket launcher in his car. DC/Warner’s problem is that they are trying to take idealized, idealistic Golden/Silver age characters and "update" them for modern audiences and it's just shit. They’ve proven over and over that they simply don’t get the characters, or worse, that they only see them as a means to an end, that end being money. Thus we have the characters being bashed and battered into shapes they should never take in the name of “grim and mature storytelling” aimed at “modern sensibilities.”*

Meanwhile, Marvel has made a few superficial changes to its characters--Thor’s Asgard, for instance--but the core of those characters remain the same. They didn’t fuck with the basic models like DC seems to want to do. And you’ll notice Marvel is making money hand over fist. DC has Zack Snyder’s problematic-if-profitable vision of heroism, and a modicum of goodwill left over from Nolan’s Bat-films that they are rapidly using up on stunt casting and kitchen sink sequels.

And while I’m on that subject . . . One thing Marvel really has going for it is what I call an integrity of continuity, an interconnectedness that the DC characters lack. By this I mean a couple of things, each related to the other. First is actual continuity, that is the ongoing events of a comic having a consequential and/or lingering effect further down the line in that character’s adventures. As an example, the events in the Star Trek episode “Space Seed” had long-lasting effects further down the line for the Enterprise crew fifteen years later. Closer to the subject at hand, events in one Marvel book tend to have a ripple effect, cascading outward until more than one book, and more than one character is affected (for instance, any good Galactus story). Secondary to this and dependent on it is the idea that the Marvel Universe is a shared one. Meaning characters can (and do) know of and know each other and can (and do) appear in each other’s books. This leads to integrity of continiuity, and as a result of it the Marvel Universe hangs together remarkably well, with a few stinkers like the Spider-Clone saga (OH GOD JUST DON’T ASK ALL RIGHT) being the exception that proves the rule.

DC has nowhere near that level of continuity-integrity. The golden age stories frequently had nothing to do with each other, and often outright contradicted each other, especially when it came to defining the limits of Superman’s powers--more of that throwing shit against the wall to see what would stick. And in the main the DC heroes never guested in each other’s books. (The early intercompany team book, Justice Society of America, actually had a rule that heroes would leave the team after getting their own eponymous title). Aside from the occasional guest shot, World’s Finest (which took 71 issues before it started to feature Batman/Robin and Superman in stories together as well as on the cover), and eventually Justice League of America, the DC characters had little to no interaction with one another. Until Marvel’s success in the 60s and 70s forced their hand and started them on that road as well.

The reason this is important is that this continuity-integrity has allowed Marvel to put its phases together out of pre-existing parts. Marvel can put these characters together and make them work because they already know intimately what makes them work together. Whatever relatively minor change have been wrought on the heroes in the MCU, the things that make them work together are the same. Because of this, and because Marvel has been extremely canny in landing top notch writers, directors and actors for its films, they were able to get the framework in place for Phase 1 relatively painlessly. The helped them ease into Phase 2 as well, not without missteps, but finishing out in incredibly self-confident and assured fashion.

Which leads me, naturally, to this:

Marvel movies are a shitload of fun to watch. They are brimming with confidence, everyone seems like they’re having a hell of a good time, and are putting some pretty superior entertainment up on the screen, where that confidence and sense of fun is evident in every frame. For all the collateral damage and angsting and epic storylines, there is also a sense of humor and, more importantly, a sense of wonder. Compare this with Man of Steel or the Nolan Bat-films, which are so dour they should be running a farm in Vermont somewhere. I loved The Dark Knight, but when I went to see it in the theater I felt like I was being bludgeoned with AAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHH. When I saw The Avengers? I wanted to jump out of my seat at the end and fuckin' dance. That’s huge.

Finally, Marvel has a MASSIVE head start on planning. They have been at this for years now. The first Iron Man movie came out in 2008, the year my son was born. My son is now in the first grade. I’ve gone through at least eight pairs of shoes and two couches in that time (to be fair, one of them was a really shitty couch). Meanwhile, Marvel has been carefully building their universe from movie to movie, working in setups for later plots in sequel movies, and in more than one case setting up entire other movies. Now, with Phase 3 on the horizon, Marvel is in the catbird seat. Meanwhile, DC is having to come up with what feels like excuses to get their heroes on the same screen together, and is straining credibility in so doing. I honestly believe DC had no intention whatsoever of doing a JLA movie until Man of Steel hit it big, at which point they grabbed David Goyer and started throwing heroes at the shit wall. And now Marvel is encroaching on the TV territory that has been DC’s for years, and spreading into the VOD market, where DC has no presence whatsoever. It’s pretty clear Marvel has been for at least the last two or three years regularly catching the “Distinguished Competition” (as Stan Lee used to call them) with their pants down.

Note the differences: the number of sequels in Marvel’s slate versus the complete lack thereof in DC’s. (To be fair, DC’s slate is largely about establishing its shared universe--but even so, Marvel made sure that they planned for multiple movies with their characters to keep them at the front of the moviegoing psyche between Avengers flicks.) Note that the movie Flash is going to be a different actor than the one currently portraying him on TV, which doesn’t really make sense and further exacerbates the lack of integral continuity in DC’s stuff. Note Jason Momoa’s generic, ambiguous no-land nationality Aquaman versus Boseman playing the fucking King of an African country. Note the fact that Marvel already has logo designs for their titles. Finally: note that Marvel has release dates all picked out for these movies. Now I know this is the movie business and release dates change, but still: Marvel has been pretty reliable about putting their movies out when they say they will. So to come out and say “Yeah, we’re doing this on May Blank, and this on November Blink,” is a huge indication that Marvel is a lot farther along on its planning than anyone thought. Whereas DC is a lot more vague: we have years, but not dates, heroes but not titles.

And interestingly: no Batman. Which says something about their confidence in Ben Affleck.

So yeah, Marvel just completely ‘faced DC on the movie slate front. Whether Marvel can now pull this off is the question. However given that they have done at least yeoman’s service on their movies so far--and gone above and beyond the call on several of them--I am pretty confident that they will follow through. DC? Who knows. They’re a dark horse at this point. I’d like to think they can make something of this slate of theirs . . . but given their extremely uneven track record so far, I highly doubt they will.

*...A note on this, and on Zack Snyder, and on the damage Alan Moore inadvertently did to DC heroes. Zack Snyder’s cachet rises largely from his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen. I still haven’t seen 300 (I have no desire at this point in my life to be exposed to more of Frank MIller’s post-Dark Knight psychosis), but I have seen Watchmen and I can tell you that for every thing Snyder did right, or at least competently, he screwed up two more. Like so many creators in the post-Watchmen era (including Frank MIller), he included all the gritty, bone-crunching violence--but none of the deep-seated psychological motivations behind it that Moore so carefully laid in. Similarly his take on Superman has none of the Golden Age optimism that defined the character. Snyder learned the words but he still couldn’t sing the tune, and the result in both cases is the prototypical sound and fury, signifying nothing. I don’t blame Alan Moore for this per se, but it’s easy to see the toxic effect his works have had by being so badly misinterpreted by other creators with little of his talent and none of his ability.

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