[8 April 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Over the weekend of 4 April, HBO premiered last Summer’s divisive DC tentpole Man of Steel. For those unfamiliar with the property, this was Warner Bros. attempt, with help of Dark Knight maestro Christopher Nolan (in a producer’s role) of bringing Superman back to the big screen. After 2006’s equally contentious take by Bryan Singer, Superman Returns, many saw limited possibilities for harnessing Krypton’s last hope into a Marvel like movie dynasty. Indeed, while that comic label became a billion dollar multinational conglomerate, director Zack Snyder was still trying to map out a strategy that would make our greatest American hero “super” again. Some say he succeeded. Others had serious reservations. Overall, the film was a big enough hit that Warners ordered a sequel and that’s when the shitstorm happened.
One day, without warning, a logo appeared online suggesting the direction that the studio was heading in. It was a clever combination of Superman’s signature “S”... and another famous facade. The easy to identify bat symbol, clearly marking the return of everyone’s favorite Dark Knight, spawned speculation that Warners and DC had decided to go into the long gestating Batman vs. Superman saga, something that has existed at the company for at least a decade. Names like J.J. Abrams, McG, Andrew Kevin Walker (of Se7en fame) and Wolfgang Peterson had been involved in the development, but the suits were never satisfied. This time around, Snyder seems to have found the right approach (though we still don’t know what “that” is) and there’s been casting carnival that’s more sideshow than midway.
It all began with Ben Affleck as the aging Bruce Wayne. Cue Internet uproar. Then Gal Gadot was hired to play a character which turned out to be Wonder Woman. Amplify said web racket with additional sexism and inappropriate body shaming. Then the Messageboard mayhem went nuclear when Jesse Eisenberg was cast as… hold on, let me prepare my office work station… Lex Luthor (**ducks and covers**). Seems like no one is happy with any aspect of this intended title. Even those speculating that every new hiring (Holly Hunter, Callan Mulvey and Tao Okamoto being the most recent additions) is somehow connected to a pseudo-Justice League like event seem less than excited.
In fact, it’s almost safe to say that DC doesn’t know what the Hell to do with its characters. We’ve seen shabby treatments for Jonah Hex, Constantine, Green Lantern, and Catwoman, just to name a few. In fact, only Marvel’s Hulk has had more false starts in the comic book genre universe. Most of that is because The Avengers’ home base is controlled by one man with a vision - Kevin Feige. Since taking charge of their properties, the label has become a financial and aesthetic juggernaut, offering twice-yearly examples of their superhero movie expertise. While Singer was still struggling to find the right way to reinvent Kal-El, Marvel was learning from their past mistakes and planning for the future (a recent report says Feige and company have the movie universe mapped out for another 15 years!).
In fact, by jumping right into the whole Dark Knight/Clark Kent pairing, DC once again shows how clueless it is regarding the handling of their heroes. Christopher Nolan just spent the last nine years rejuvenating Batman, using his realistic artistic aims to incredibly fiscal and critical acclaim. Snyder’s Superman, however, is akin to the 2005 effort Batman Begins: a good place to start, but far from perfect. For analogy purposes, Batman vs. Superman (or Man of Steel 2, whichever you prefer) has to be as good as The Dark Knight for audiences to have the same reaction. Remember, that movie had two villains (Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning Joker, and Aaron Eckhart’s equally impressive Harvey Dent/Two-Face) and lots of added characters.
But in the case of something like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which just spent the last few days dominating the box office, Marvel made a far wiser decision. They crafted an origin story for the character first, found a really inventive (read: ‘70s style spy thriller) to position Part 2, and have now successfully set up things for a showdown come 2016. And who will Steve Rogers and Company be battling at the box office that weekend (unless wiser studio heads decide to move it)? That’s right, Batman vs. Superman. Because of the Captain’s cinematic strength, and company’s marketing genius, as well as the all important return of the Russo Brothers (who surprised everyone with their Winter Soldier efforts), there is genuine fear the now-picked “Unnamed Marvel Movie” will clobber the in desperate need of a home run competition.
DC has real reason to worry. In this critic’s humble opinion, they are going about this all wrong. Man of Steel was all about discovery. It was about learning your limits (or lack of them), about defining your personal philosophy (limited casualties) and ignoring them when necessary (i.e. killing General Zod). It’s about the assumption of responsibility, the risks of being different, and perhaps above all else, the acceptance that humanity might need some help from outside itself—not just on Kal-El’s part, but the planet itself. So how do you immediately jump into a pairing with Batman, the presence of Lex Luthor, and the addition of Wonder Woman (and god knows how many other heretofore secret superheroes/villains)? It’s like watching a baby crawl initially before demanding it run a triathlon. We need to see Superman struggle, challenged, defeated and then re-focused.
Instead, DC and Warners is running right to the spectacle. Marvel made six movies before doing the whole group initiative thing (and they even tried, somewhat successfully, to reconfigure Hulk beforehand). DC has done one (they have made it very clear that Snyder is reinventing Batman for this installment, so don’t expect your growling Christian Bale take on the character this time around). Man of Steel was very personal and kind of poetic before it went ballistic and big budget building destroying spectacular. Any other superhero in the Justice League running should have that shot as well. It’s called creating a brand, not bashing people over the head. Perhaps they believe they can piggyback on Marvel’s many successes, thinking that—rightfully or wrongfully—your average moviegoer doesn’t care who is or how their superbeings are being served up. Who knows?
Of course, we could be over-thinking this. Most elephantine budgeted Hollywood fare is not fashioned on the fly. Unless the conversation went something like “So, we’re a success. What do we do for a sequel?”/ “I don’t know? Add Batman?”, there must have been a plan. Discussions. At least a bit of preplanning. Man of Steel 2 is a huge risk for DC and Warners. The movie has to be a success or the first film will be seen as a fluke and all future projects will be instantly jeopardized. It was the same fate that faced Iron Man when it was first released. Had it bombed, Marvel’s plans would have folded, or maybe reconfigured, but it would have been a major setback. It’s just hard to see the explosion of the sequel matching the maturing intimacy of the first film. Maybe it will work. DC better hope it does.