NOTE: This post was written in June 2013. Since then, DC and Warner Bros have released Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, and Justice League, plus a parallel DC TV Universe on the CW. While DC and WB stuck to their vision, I still think my strategy would have given them even bigger box office wins and happier fans.
Whether you love or hate the Marvel Comics movies of the past decade, the way they used each character’s solo films to introduce other characters and build toward the inevitability of assembling The Avengers was marketing genius. It was also good, smart, logical storytelling based on character and theme.
So why can’t DC do the same thing?
With all due respect to Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, and the other writers and creators of the recent DC films, Warner Bros. has completely botched the launch of a DC film universe. I could rant at length, but let’s sum it up in one point:
Once you have Superman, you don’t need other heroes.
The Marvel movies do a great job of balancing every character’s role within their ever-expanding cinematic universe. They allow us to believe that Hawkeye, who’s essentially a soldier who specializes in archery (for god’s sake), is as legitimate a hero as Thor, who’s a god. If they didn’t grant equal weight to their characters, there’d be no reason tell stories about any of them except the most powerful.
DC missed that lesson when they insisted on launching Man of Steel, a newly dour take on a hero who’s always epitomized honor and idealism. He burst into theaters to the tune of $120 million and a chorus of middling to frustrated reviews that focus on, among other things, the film’s wanton destruction and lack of a moral center.
Because that’s what DC superhero movies have to be in the wake of Christopher Nolan’s globally unstoppable Batman trilogy: grim, gritty, and obligatory.
Paradoxically, it’s Marvel — the comic book company that was launched 30 years after DC as a realistic response to DC’s 1930s-era idealism and innocence — that’s now producing films which are relative joys to watch (The Avengers, Iron Man, Thor) compared to DC’s squalid nightmare of Gotham in Nolan’s Dark Knight films.
In the modern DC universe, fun is dead.
And now that Batman and Superman have had successful film launches, it’s a safe bet that Warner Bros will churn out a Justice League movie as soon as possible, so it can get all of its most commercial properties onscreen at the same time and let the market sort out the sequel opportunities from there…
… except that movie is on pace to be The Least Fun Anyone Has Had at the Movies Ever.
It’s Spider-Man (a Marvel character) whose pages coined the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility,” but it’s the DC universe that treats power as a horrible burden, as though being a superhero is somehow the worst job imaginable.
And so, as we psychologically prepare ourselves for a decade of miserable superheroes with ill-fittingly happy names like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, I’d like to propose a fanciful escape:
Not that anyone asked, but here’s how I think DC (and Warner Bros.) should have handled the rollout of their post-Batman superhero film universe.
1. Reboot the Batman franchise.
Christopher Nolan dragged Batman to hell and took the whole DC universe with him. A Batman movie that was comparably lighter in tone (we’re talking Tim Burton here, not Joel Schumacher) would allow us to see the hero in his traditional role: a wealthy, charming, paranoid genius who’s an expert fighter, strategist, and mechanic.
But wait… that sounds a lot like Iron Man, doesn’t it? Well, here’s the difference: Iron Man is a walking weapon who fights global battles, but Batman is a localized vigilante who defends his city from evil in the streets. Iron Man is a drone strike; Batman is hand-to-hand combat.
And if any hero feels the burden of duty, it’s Batman. He’s a hero whose entire life is a reaction to feeling helpless as he watched his parents get killed by a street thief. His quest to never feel helpless in the face of evil again isn’t just a great motivation for a single hero — it’s also the perfect rationale to launch the rest of DC universe onscreen toward the inevitable assembly of The Justice League.
2. The Flash
Barry Allen was a police scientist (they have those?) who was sprayed with chemicals during a lightning strike (hey, it happens) and developed the power of super speed. The Flash is known as The Fastest Man Alive, and that’s a bottomless well of storytelling possibilities, because there’s literally nothing the Flash can’t do if he has enough time… but who does? And it’s the choices The Flash has to make — how to use his powers for the most amount of good — that makes for good drama.
Plus, The Flash’s sheer exuberance at his newfound potential makes him the opposite of Batman in terms of tone. Where Batman sees his heroism as a gravely serious duty, The Flash sees his powers as a lifelong adventure. Introducing them as counterpoints to each other would create the kind of “buddy movie” juxtaposition that good multi-hero stories require. (Think of it as DC’s “World’s Finest” comics, only with The Flash taking Superman’s place in the lineup.)
In cinema reality terms, there’s no way The Flash could operate in the public eye without Batman being aware of him. Hell, retcon Barry Allen into a Gotham police officer prior to his accident so he has a direct tie to Commissioner Gordon and Batman’s larger narrative. (I know The Flash defended Central City in the comic books, but let’s bend a bit for the sake of cinematic narrative.)
The other reason to introduce The Flash so early in the Justice League buildup? His rogue’s gallery is nearly as good as Batman’s, which gives each hero a litany of villains to help define them. I’d establish the Weather Wizard as the Flash’s arch-nemesis here, since a villain who can control the weather within a structurally flawed metropolis like Gotham would create rescue-focused action scenes aplenty.
And if nearby Metropolis newsman Clark Kent just happens to be on hand to report on the story… well, that would make sense, right?
Then, once The Flash and Batman coexist onscreen, let’s go global.
3. Hawkman and Hawkgirl
In the comics, Hawkman’s origin has changed over the years, but it usually boils down to something like this: an archaeologist discovers an artifact that imbues him with the Egyptian warrior spirit of Hawkman, because we eventually find out that this archaeologist is actually the latest incarnation of the original Hawkman. And Hawkman and Hawkgirl are soul mates who have loved each other throughout the centuries, as they’re reincarnated time after time to rediscover each other in times of great trouble.
This would be the perfect opportunity to introduce distinctly non-American heroes. (A Middle Eastern Hawkman and an Indian, Japanese, or Chinese Hawkgirl would be thematically consistent with the characters’ origins and a nod to our newly global cinemascape.) And they’d also be the first heroes in this new universe with the power of flight, which gives them an ability that Batman and The Flash, for all their upside, can’t match.
Also, by launching Hawkman and Hawkgirl early in the Justice League buildup, they could be established as far more pivotal characters than they’re usually allowed to be in the comic books, where they’re surrounded by far more powerful heroes. They’re also one of the few romantic duos in superhero comics, and their bond of love is a much-needed human linchpin in a narrative that might otherwise seem built around men fighting for supremacy. And if Batman / Bruce Wayne is an emotionally unavailable playboy and The Flash is a ladies’ man who’s looking to settle down, the Hawks represent the emotional stability that the other, more powerful heroes lack.
Which brings us to…
4. Green Lantern
No, not the Ryan Reynolds version. Let’s relegate that to the dustbin the same way Marvel keeps insisting that previous versions of Hulk movies never actually happened. Instead…
Let’s have a retcon twist on the John Stewart version of Green Lantern: instead of a Green Lantern who’s a rich black architect, let’s introduce a Green Lantern who’s a streetwise black kid. Green Lantern’s whole conceit is that the Guardians of the Universe gave him a ring to protect Earth, and this ring manifests whatever the wearer can think of as a sheer projection of his will. Call me crazy, but a kid surviving on the streets of Baltimore or D.C. — or Metropolis — is exhibiting an impressive amount of willpower already, which would undoubtedly put him on the Guardians’ radar. And giving a kid who’s previously been focusing only only protecting himself the power to suddenly protect the world would be a source of endless character growth.
In our new DC universe, the ring’s arrival could also serve a double meaning. Until now, the villains in our previous movies were fairly pedestrian foes like thieves and mad scientists, operating on a local, national, or global scale. But Green Lantern has a cosmic origin, which implies an entire galaxy of sentient creatures that could come calling on Earth — for better or worse. (In other words, shades of “all the unknown unknowns”… including the eventual emergence of Superman.)
And once we’ve established a cosmic scale, let’s take it a step further and get mythological.
5. Wonder Woman
She’s a statue who was turned into a woman by a god on an island of Amazons. This isn’t exactly an origin story that jibes with tech and science heroes like Batman and The Flash, but it does allow for the expansion of our DC film universe beyond the spiritual (Hawkman) and intergalactic (Green Lantern) to establish that this same world is broad enough to encompass the existence of actual gods.
The problem with Wonder Woman as a character is that Superman’s existence renders her somewhat redundant. How many invulnerable paragons of truth and justice do we need running around Earth anyway? Thus, introduce her first — not just as “a strong woman,” but “the strongest hero we’ve seen yet.” Give Wonder Woman the place in DC’s pantheon that she’s always been afforded without ever truly making it her own: Earth’s mightiest hero.
And if her rival in this film is a fellow mythical creature like Circe, it allows our pre-existing heroes to gauge their powers against those of gods and find themselves lacking, which makes Wonder Woman’s existence a necessity for combating the threats that are beyond the others’ control. Plus, a temporary romantic triangle between Batman, The Flash and Wonder Woman would be fascinating… at least until…
Yes. Motherfucking Aquaman.
Poor Arthur Curry has been the punchline of every superhero satire since… basically forever. He wears orange and green, swims really fast, talks to fish, and he can’t be out of water for more than an hour? HOW USEFUL, right? In the ’90s, Peter David did his best to make the character “gritty” as a way to get people to take him seriously, but — as with most attempts at seriousness — it robbed the character of his joy. (And his hand.)
Introducing Aquaman this late in the Justice League buildup would automatically imply that he’s a force to be reckoned with, as he should be. He’s the King of Atlantis, which means he’s the ruler of all the water on Earth while the rest of us are fighting over scraps of land. And with water expected to become a resource worth warring over in our own lifetimes, Aquaman just might have something to say about all these land creatures trying to invade his territory.
To that end, if Aquaman were to use his speed, strength, and command of all sea creatures to cause a few natural disasters that destroy some Wayne Foundation deep sea oil rigs (notice how we’re graduating up from the Weather Wizard plotline from a few movies ago?), he might initially be seen as a villain that the other heroes would need to stop… or, realizing his power, a creature they’d need to reason with. (Or, if you’re Wonder Woman, someone finally worth falling in love with — like her, he’s a king in one context who’s nearly helpless in another, and who must occasionally depend on “lesser creatures” in order to survive.)
Not only would Aquaman’s introduction be a cinematic tour de force effects-wise, but it would also be the final plot point required to setup the arrival of You Know Who.
Thus far, all the films to this point have introduced heroes who each represent specific skills and values:
- Batman (intellect, responsibility)
- The Flash (speed, potential)
- Hawkman & Hawkwoman (spirit, love)
- Green Lantern (protection, willpower)
- Wonder Woman (justice, equality)
- Aquaman (leadership, honor)
They also each continually expand the scope of the DC Universe:
- Batman (the city)
- The Flash (science)
- Hawkman & Hawkwoman (time, globalism)
- Green Lantern (the universe)
- Wonder Woman (mythology)
- Aquaman (nature, war)
He’s an alien who was sent here from a dying world to become a beacon of inspiration for our people. It doesn’t get any bigger than Superman, which is why he needs to be introduced last in the lineup of central DC heroes. His very existence negates the need for almost every other hero, aside from the things they do well that he cannot.
Batman is smarter than Superman. The Flash is faster than Superman. Hawkman is wiser than Superman. Green Lantern is more imaginative, Wonder Woman is more empathetic, Aquaman is a better leader.
But Superman is stronger and harder to kill than any of them.
And that means the kinds of battles Superman can fight — and the scope of threats his existence can unleash on Earth — are larger and more dangerous than anything else we’ve seen.
Once you have Superman, you have a range of perspective that puts every other hero into his / her context. You can still have Batman fighting to save his city, or Aquaman fighting to save the planet, because you always have Superman fighting to save the idea of freedom.
And it’s from that core ideal that Batman would create…
8. The Justice League
Batman is the person this cinematic DC universe would revolve around. He might seem like he’s proactively forming the Justice League to fight threats to the world on any scale, but he’d also be doing it so he could keep tabs on all his superpowered peers… in case one of them snaps. He’d be their founder and their potential nullifier, should anything go wrong.
And once all those pieces have been united, each character could carry on in his or her own solo film storylines, with the inevitable team-ups and crossovers in-between Justice League movies. From here, DC could introduce secondary characters like Green Arrow, Black Canary, Zatanna, The Atom, Firestorm, Metamorpho… the possibilities really would be endless.
And everything would exist within a hierarchy of context and meaning.
Alas, we won’t ever have that experience now that Man of Steel has redefined Superman as a glum destroyer of people and property before almost every other hero we’ve mentioned has appeared onscreen.
But hey… when DC decides to reboot their whole cinematic universe again in 15 years…