The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Let’s hope Superman saves the DC Universe soon
In the 70s and 80s, DC overshadowed Marvel, but in recent times the tide seems to have turned.Updated: Sep 19, 2018 10:23 IST
When I was a child, one of the classic you-have-to-choose question (like: choose between The Rolling Stones and the Beatles) was: Marvel or DC?
The hip kids all chose Marvel whose super-heroes seemed more grown-up and had real-world problems. But I always chose DC because for me, at least, DC had the better superheroes. No Marvel hero came close to Batman and Superman.
And it seemed as though I had chosen the right side. The campy Batman TV show of the Sixties did not conform to my (or the comic books) idea of Batman but it was great to actually see a live-action Batman. Marvel had nothing similar till the 1970s, when it came up with cheapo TV shows about the Hulk and Spiderman.
But by then, DC had got even grander. In 1978 (I think), the first Superman movie, directed by Richard Donner and starring Christopher Reeve came out. It remains, to this day, one of the best superhero movies ever made. It seemed to have sprung from the comic book (Reeve looked like he had stepped out of a panel in a Superman comic) and yet, because of its vast budget and its all-star line-up (Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, etc.) it had a top quality, high gloss feel to it.
Marvel had nothing to counter that. Superman II which was nearly as good as the first film came out a little later and DC seemed all-conquering.
In the 1980s, DC finally returned to Batman, basing a movie on Frank Miller’s re-invention of the character as a dark, mysterious, obsessive, slightly maladjusted guy. Tim Burton’s dark directorial vision turned the movie into an instant classic as did Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker. Next came Burton’s Batman Returns which was nearly as good and though most DC fans thought that Michael Keaton was nothing like the Batman we had imagined, he filled out the suit adequately.
Marvel tried countering with a really bad Hulk movie and the Spiderman series, but it was too late.
Us DC fans had chosen the winning side!
Then it all went badly wrong.....
And last week, as if to prove how bad things were, Warner Bros (which now owns DC and makes the superhero movies) announced that it was abandoning all plans for any more Superman movies. A projected Batman movie to be called The Batman, starring Ben Affleck was put on hold. There would be no more Justice League movies. And so on.
This announcement coincided with massive success for Marvel which had stormed the cinemas with the latest Avengers movie and seemed ready to keep turning out blockbuster after blockbuster.
So, what went wrong for DC?
Lots of things, actually. But basically, at some point, DC movies stopped being true to DC, tried to become like Marvel and became nearly unwatchable. As a lifelong DC fan, I found it hard to sit through the Justice League movie, easily the worst big-budget superhero movie ever made. Not surprisingly it tanked.
I always thought that the success of DC superheroes (at least on the screen) lay in the fact that they were great characters. The first two Superman movies worked because they were all about the central character. So did the first two Tim Burton Batman pictures. The series went downhill after they introduced Robin and Batgirl. When Christopher Nolan revived the Batman franchise with three excellent movies, he focused once more on the central character and got rid of Robin, Batgirl, etc.
Marvel, on the other hand, believed in what the trade calls crossovers. So Captain America could appear in a Thor movie. So could The Hulk. And Iron Man appeared in everything. Sometimes all the Marvel heroes came together as The Avengers. DC fans like me thought that Marvel needed to do this because the characters themselves were not as strong as DC’s. So it helped to pack each movie with more than one character. Besides, Marvel had always been more smartass so it helped to include lots of humour in the movies.
For instance, Iron Man must be the most boring super-hero ever created. But he became a phenomenon in the movies because his alter-ego, Tony Stark was played so well by Robert Downey Jr that viewers warmed to the series.
That could never have happened with DC heroes. When you went to a Superman movie, you went for the big guy himself and not for Clark Kent. Bruce Wayne is only interesting because the death of his parents led to the creation of Batman. Otherwise nobody cares about him.
If DC had recognised this essential difference, then I reckon it would have been all right. But somewhere along the way, the guys at Warner Bros. lost faith in the characters.
There were misjudgements with Superman Returns – the casting of Brandon Routh as Superman was an error and the film plodded along. But I thought it was a perfectly good film.
Nevertheless DC was disappointed by the box-office returns (I can’t see why; it made as much money as Batman Begins), sacked Routh and brought in a new creative team.
And that is how the decline began.
In 2013, Zack Snyder, of whom great things were expected (he made the acclaimed Watchmen, for instance), decided to turn Superman into a science fiction story. Large chunks of The Man of Steel movie were set on the planet of Krypton and the second half consisted of loud crash-bang sounds made by fights with invading aliens.
Misled by the success of Batman’s outsider persona, they turned Superman into a figure who was treated with suspicion by the authorities. I didn’t like the movie and I thought Henry Cavill was the most wooden Superman in film history. Nevertheless, it did okay at the box-office.
Except by then, the bar had been set higher with the second and third Batman movies, each of which made over a billion dollars.
Warner Bros. tried pointless stunts to increase its grosses. Why not bring Batman into the next Superman movie? And why not make them enemies? And hey, didn’t Superman die in one top-selling comic book? Why not kill him off here as well?
That is how the God-awful Batman v Superman came to be made. Following in the Marvel tradition, they threw in Wonder Woman too on the grounds that three superheroes were better than one.
Nobody liked the movie but they kept Zack Snyder on to direct DC’s answer to The Avengers. That was The Justice League with the Flash and Aquaman added to the line-up. Superman was brought back from the dead and the film made less money than Batman v Superman.
In contrast Wonder Woman, a film that focussed only on the title character, made much more money than Justice League and earned rave reviews. And more to the point, Marvel’s Avengers Infinity War made one billion dollars in just 11 days and as of now, has a gross of two billion dollars.
It made as much money as Justice League has in total in just the first three days of its release!
Which is why DC has panicked. And Warner Bros is busy sacking everyone and trying to find a new direction. Cavill has gone. Ben Affleck is out. It is too late to do much about an Aquaman movie which is shot and ready for release and a Flash project will go ahead.
But , in essence, the folks at Warner Bros. have taken the two greatest superheroes ever created, Superman and Batman, and put them in a situation where they are worth less at the box office than say, the minor league Guardians of the Galaxy, a Marvel franchise.
So it is not a good time to be a DC fan.
Philistines and buffoons have been put in charge of great characters and have destroyed their legends.
But all is not lost, The DC family has gone through bad times before. Superman IV, made by a pair of shysters who ran Cannon Films was a disaster. But the character recovered. The last Batman movie in the old franchise was so bad that even George Clooney could not save it. Nevertheless, Christopher Nolan brought Batman back to life in a new series.
And away from the idiocy of Warner Bros, DC characters thrive on TV in what is called The Arrowverse, an interconnected set of shows that includes The Flash, Arrow and Supergirl. This Arrowverse has its own continuity. Its Flash and Superman are nothing like the ones who appear in the Warner movies.
So I guess DC may well be back. It won’t be as big as Marvel which now dominates the entertainment world. But somehow, you just know that one day, Superman will crawl out from under the wreckage and fly off to save the universe once again.
Well, to save the DC universe at any rate!
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First Published: Sep 19, 2018 09:06 IST