As recounted elsewhere, the first comic book I ever owned was a Batman 80-Page Giant. Over the years the stable of characters owned by DC Comics (neé National Periodical Publications, now a tiny sub-branch of Warner Communications) was my mainstay for modern mythology: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and their associates remained my go-to characters.
Like every comic publisher, DC has had its ups and downs. Marvel invented the angsty superhero in the ’60s with Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the Hulk, and for the first time superheroes had to deal with problems like making rent and school bullies — alongside the traditional cosmic menaces. Adolescent boys — the primary market for comics at that time — flocked to Marvel’s characters instead of the big blue boyscout and his larger-than-life cohort.
In the ’80s DC got some of its prestige back by taking risks on high-concept and expensive experimental titles, taking perhaps ill-advised inspiration from an obscure UK comic series1. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) posited a Batman who retires after the Joker murders Robin, only to be lured back into the fray as a bitter, angry old man. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986-7) took a gimlet-eyed view of the entire concept of superheroes operating in the real world, dragging into the light all of their flaws, hubris, and petty humanity. And while there were other titles from other publishers quickly following in the trend, those two books turned the world of superhero comics inside-out.
I’m not going to go into all the other factors that contributed to the ’80s and ’90s becoming one of the weirdest periods in the history of American comics; suffice it to say that the explosion of independent publishing, underground comix, the comic collector valuation bubble, and the creation of direct sales channels to comic shops played a big part, too. The end result, though, was that in the rush to duplicate the unprecedented success of Watchmen and Dark Knight, the two major comics publishers stumbled across something painfully obvious in hindsight: the only thing adolescent boys love more than imagining that their heroes lead lives as complicated and frustrating as their own, is the opportunity to vicariously experience hyper-violent revenge fantasies against their enemies: hormonal rage with added heat vision and super-strength. And these dark, bloody anti-heroes — “grim and gritty” versions, in the parlance of the day — sold better than anything else since WWII.
Superman had, in the past, been tempted to use his godlike powers to reshape the world in his own image. However, he never succumbed to that temptation; if he did, it was in an “imaginary story” wherein the folly of that choice was laid bare. It is essential to his character that he is the man who could be king, but chooses instead to serve humanity, restricting the use of his abilities to the minimum required force.
Batman saw his parents shot down in front of his eyes by a gangster, and while he made the questionably sane decision to devote his entire life and inherited fortune to eradicating crime, he refused to take a life.2 Again, it is essential to his character that he rise above those who destroyed his family and his childhood; he should never stoop to the level of violent revenge.
But in Miller’s magnum opus, Batman does precisely that, becoming a violent, revenge-crazed, death-seeking lunatic fighting a literal war in the streets of Gotham. Superman has become a super-stooge for a Reagan clone, bringing the American Way to the rest of the world, whether they want it or not. I admit that at the time — and for some years later — I loved the hell out of this book. The art is fantastic, and the story is cinematic in a way that comics had seldom even attempted to that point. It even has the great lines you’d expect from an action movie.
It has not, however, aged well. From a modern perspective,3 Batman comes across as little better than a tin-pot dictator in power-armor with a Bat-logo. He’s anti-state, but that’s easy to pull off when the state is cartoonishly corrupt. He’s pro-individual rights, as long as you agree with him. And he sees civilian casualties as acceptable losses in his renewed war against crime. (It’s clear that in Miller’s universe, the Batcave is in Galt’s Gulch.)
Watchmen has fared better, in part because it’s a period piece. Its world is an alternative ’80s where costumed heroes were a brief fad in the 1930s, then faded away until a godlike “superhero” was created as a by-product of the Manhattan Project. The foundation is much closer to our world, allowing for a more realistic portrayal of super-heroes without violating any of the tenets of the form. Still, it bears some of the blame for what was to come.
Watchmen was long considered unfilmable, with people like Terry Gilliam taking a crack at it from time to time, without success. Then Zack Snyder came along, a director whose love of the book — no, worship of the book — was well-known. And he succeeded in filming it, more or less.4 He used the actual pages from the graphic novel as storyboards, obsessively recreating large chunks of the book, panel by panel. It’s simultaneously beautiful and creepy, like coming home to find your apartment filled with roses and chocolates from someone who knows nothing about you.
Because while Snyder clearly knew he was looking at genius when he read the book, he still didn’t understand exactly why it was genius. That failure to comprehend is obvious in every frame.
Still, it made several tons of cash for Warners, so in the eyes of the suits, Zack was clearly a guy who gets those comic reading kids. Hence the decision to hand him first Superman, via Man of Steel, and then the entire DC Universe, starting with Batman vs Superman. I am not certain they could have made a poorer choice had they hired Uwe Boll.5 This is a guy for whom, it is clear, the ’80s were the best thing to ever happen to comics and superheroes. Snyder’s one of those angry, hormonal, frustrated adolescent boys who want to see bodies ripped in half and necks snapped in a Superman movie because dammit that’s what he’d do if he had the power of a god.
(I’m about to get a little biz-talky. It’ll be over soon.)
Marvel (aka Disney) is kicking DC’s (aka Warner’s) ass up and down the street when it comes to monetizing their superhero movies. That’s because Marvel has people at the top who actually understand the source of the value of their properties; in fact, if Marvel hadn’t danced around the precipice of bankruptcy for so many years that they had to sell off rights to many of their major characters, they’d be the dominant force in the genre for decades to come. DC, unfortunately, wasn’t given the budget to buy a single clue. The only places where they’ve been successful are areas where no one was expecting to make money: direct-to-disc animated movies and TV. (Somewhat ironically, those are the two areas where Marvel has had little success (although the Netflix deal has changed that dynamic with the R-rated Daredevil and Jessica Jones).
Globally, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are three of the most identifiable and marketable characters around. If Warners had any understanding as to why those characters retain their power they’d be able to forge a franchise universe that would dwarf anything Marvel could build. Unfortunately, they understand less about the popularity of their own characters than any kid on the street does.
Superman’s a good guy. He’s an alien, and stronger than anybody, but he’d never hurt you.
Batman’s scary, but he’s a man, and you only have to worry if you’re a crook. Even then, he still won’t kill you.
Wonder Woman is some kind of goddess, and is as powerful as Superman, but just wants justice for everyone.
See, that’s not hard. Simple, relatable concepts.
I know some readers are thinking that this is just the rant of an old man who doesn’t like change. (Those readers don’t know me very well.) The reality is, though, that I love these characters. They’re American myths, like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill or John Henry — they can change, they can be contradictory, the aren’t consistent, but they’re myths. They certainly don’t deserve this treatment. They don’t deserve to have their fates handed over to a director who has so little respect for the stories that he’d… well, kill off Jimmy Olsen just as a joke.
Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen was the title of a comic in the ’60s and ’70s. He’s the classic goofy cub reporter/photographer who hangs around annoying Lois Lane and getting into accidental adventures with Superman. Although a popular supporting character, much of the time Jimmy was just comic relief; still, he’s a well-loved part of the mythology.
In a brief sequence early in Batman vs Superman, Jimmy Olsen accompanies Lois Lane to Africa to interview a warlord. He’s quickly outed an a CIA spy, and has his brains blown out in front of Lois. When asked about this decision, Synder responded:
“We just did it as this little aside because we had been tracking where we thought the movies were gonna go, and we don’t have room for Jimmy Olsen in our big pantheon of characters, but we can have fun with him, right?”
Yes, because putting a bullet in the brain of the comic relief character is always fun. I loved it when Mickey Mouse had to put down a rabid Goofy — best scene ever.
At this writing I haven’t yet seen BvS, but my employer is taking everyone out to see it on Tuesday afternoon. Frankly, if I could gracefully bow out, I would; I really don’t want to contribute to any perceived success it might have. But I will see it, and wince all the way through, and maybe even shed a tear for that poor sap, Olsen.
That’s just me, though. Let me tell you of another opinion.
There are a couple of kids I know, good kids — smart, literate, nerdy kids. They’re teens now, but younger when we first met, and they’d never paid any attention to comics at all. I thought this was unfathomable, so I sent them a bunch of back issues and some
toys action figures. Being a DC fan, they were all characters from that line; no Marvel comics at all. (No prejudice was consciously intended; I just didn’t have anything to give them from my collection.)
They quickly became fans of the comics, and then of the various animated series. Eventually they even watched the Burton Batman films, and enjoyed them. Nothing past that did anything for them, though.
Being modern, media-hungry kids, they eventually watched a couple of the Marvel movies. Even though they knew nothing about the characters, they liked them. They rented Guardians of the Galaxy and loved it, and now they want to rent Ant-Man. But when asked — with no little trepidation — if they wanted to check out Man of Steel, or go and see Batman vs Superman, they were completely uninterested.
“Why’s it so dark?” — “Everyone looks mad.” — “This doesn’t look like fun.”
These are not prissy kids. Ever since they figured out the remote for the Amazon Fire TV they’ve been watching anime, and they were reading some questionable manga before that. They’re smart, though, and difficult to manipulate; putting Batman in the title wouldn’t be enough to convince them to watch.
And these are ostensibly members of Warner’s target audience: media-savvy genre-oriented teens with a little disposable income. And they don’t give a damn about seeing these versions of Batman or Superman; they’d rather watch a movie about a third-string Marvel character they know nothing about than a grim and gritty “black and white” movie where Superman and Batman fight.
Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all in the same film for the first time ever, and Warners can’t make a movie that will make two teenaged DC fans want to see it.
Between this enormous misstep (and the shitshow that’s been the publishing arm’s attempt to refocus and rebrand itself over the last decade, but that’s a rant for another time), I’m thinking that the heroes may have met their match.
The holy trinity of DC characters can save the world on a daily basis, can face challenges that would make any mortal quake in fear, and can stop villains from beyond time and space. They can even rewrite the history of the universe.
But not even the combined powers of Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman can save the world from clueless middle management.
1 Alan Moore’s fascinating and complex 1982 revisionist view of a ’50s Captain Marvel rip-off called Marvelman for Warrior Magazine. It was renamed Miracleman (and picked up by US publisher Eclipse, and still later Marvel), went through a million different legal battles regarding ownership and publication rights, none of which we’re getting into here. However, it’s well worth tracking down; after Moore left it was taken over by the still-unknown Neil Gaiman.
2 Yes, I know that in the very early days that rule wasn’t as set as it later became, but remember that his character was born of the pulp tradition set by The Shadow, the Spider, Doc Savage, and others who saw murder as just another tool in their ruthless war against crime.
3 From a modern perspective it’s also clear that Miller’s jingoistic, xenophobic, misogynistic attitudes were present from the start. I imagine that before he became revered as a god in the industry (and made an ass-ton of money off Sin City), he did a better job of hiding his warts.
4 I actually like the film, to be honest. It just isn’t really Watchmen. And not because of the change to the ending. I’m actually okay with that change; it’s the weakest element of the original story.
5 Sorry, that’s slightly inside baseball. Here, this should explain.