Counterpoint: How To Make DC Comics Movies That WORK

Published 6 years ago by , Updated February 26th, 2009 at 1:06 am,

warner bros and dc comics round up Counterpoint: How To Make DC Comics Movies That WORKWith DC Comics about to have another hit on their hands when Watchmen premieres in theaters on March 6th, a lot of movie blogs/news sites have been pondering where DC/Warner Bros. should go from here.

With all the hype surrounding Watchmen, and all the internet chatter about  DC Comics’ uncertain cinematic future, I found myself wondering: Why hasn’t DC had as much success at the box office as rival company Marvel?

In an attempt to answer that very question I came up with this comprehensive guide to how DC Comics SHOULD be making movies.

This week, writer/director Joss Whedon (Dollhouse, Firefly) spoke up about why he believes DC Comics has had a hard time making the transition to the big screen. According to Whedon, Batman has been a cinematic cash cow in the last few years primarily because The Caped Crusader is one of the only heroes out of the DC stable who’s whole reason for being a “hero” is an all too human anguish that makes him easily relatable to the average person.

I get what Whedon is saying on that front: I’ve always maintained that Superman Returns flopped in large part because the film was this grand meditation on why Superman is better than the average person–not just because of his god-like powers, but rather the moral strength of his character. In this day and age what moviegoer wants to pay money to see a film where they’re being told that some Superman is better than them? If Superman Unleashed hopes to revitalize the struggling franchise, I hope the filmmakers are out there right now scouring comic shops and compiling the most celebrated Superman stories they can get their hands on.

Marvel on the other hand, has always had the luxury of building their movie franchises on the backs of characters that Stan Lee purposefully created as allegories for the experiences of the common man, so that the common man would better be able to relate to them. Peter Parker is the geek who never gets the girl; X-Men are minorities who face discrimination and prejudice at every turn, etc… etc… We relate to these characters because they’ve been fashioned for us to do so. It’s easier for a fanboy to believe he can be Spider-Man than Superman; therefore it’s easier for the moviegoer who doesn’t read comics to believe the same.

However, I do think Whedon’s comments overlook an important point. Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were big $uccesses at the box office (IMHO) because the filmmakers drew their screenplays from some of the most celebrated Batman lore that is currently in print. Batman Begins borrowed heavily from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s now-classic reimagining of The Caped Crusader’s origins, Batman: Year One. The Dark Knight’s intricately woven crime-saga was built off the comic book bones of Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s noir-epic, The Long Halloween, while Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as The Joker borrowed from the more dark and modern renderings of The Clown Prince of Crime such as Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.

batman thelonghalloween 1 Counterpoint: How To Make DC Comics Movies That WORK

And for those who’ve been paying close attention, DC/Warner Bros.’ next big venture, Green Lantern, has generated positive early buzz primarily because the script for the film will reportedly adhere closely to “Emerald Dawn,” one of the most famous GL stories ever told.

Do you see the pattern here?

The powers that be over at DC/Warner Bros. need to start thinking not only of which DC characters deserve a box office run, but also which famous DC Comics stories need to be told. To phrase this another way: DC, let Marvel worry about the character stuff; you worry about the many, many celebrated storylines you have at your disposal.

Watchmen is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. It’s one of the most famous Comic book stories ever told under the DC banner–now it’s poised to be one of the biggest movies of 2009. Watchmen has endured not because of people’s fascination with the particular characters (aside from maybe Rorschach), but rather because of the impact of the story as a whole. Name me one Marvel storyline (storyline, not character) that has had THAT kind of social impact.

So what other famous stories does DC have to tell? Obviously there is Frank Miller’s iconic vision of Batman’s future, The Dark Knight Returns–a subject which resurfaced once again this week, in an interview First Showing conducted with Watchmen director Zack Snyder. (Snyder would still like to tackle the project, but there’s no guarantee yet that he will. Maybe Watchmen will change that if it does well enough at the box office.)

DC/Vertigo’s The Losers is on track to becoming a feature film. The comic had only a small cult following, but many of those that read it have had good things to say about it. We’ll see how the film turns out.

preacher gone to texas Counterpoint: How To Make DC Comics Movies That WORK

If I ruled Hollywood (and I aim to), I would love to see the early Preacher storylines compiled into a film (I’m talking the “Gone To Texas” and “Until The End of Time” storylines). There’s also Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Batman: Hush, or Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman–arguably one of the best Superman stories I’ve read in the last decade. Another safe bet would be ANY of the stories Grant Morrison told during his run on Justice League, should a JL movie ever crawl its way out of the grave.

Of course I’m just scratching the surface here. There are many, many, great DC Comics storylines that I’m totally blanking on at this moment. But then, that’s why I have you my wonderful, knowledgeable, readers. What DC Comics Storylines do you think DC/Warner should be adapting for the big screen? Hit us back and let us know.

Sources: Slash Film & First Showing

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  1. Nice writeup (though Mr. Park should be Mr. Parker =0). I disagree on two things here, both based on my mere unsubstantiated thoughts:
    - Along with what you’ve contended, people will also choose Spiderman over Superman, because Superman’s a terribly boring character. I’ve always thought the Marvel universe has had the better share of interesting heroes and villains.
    - While ‘Watchmen’ is a DC Comics publication, I’ve always thought it more as Alan Moore product (plus, it isn’t based in the DC universe, is it? or does that even matter?). No matter who Moore works for, his work going to be in its own class.

  2. I’d love to see an amalgam of several elements from Batman: Hush and JLA: Tower of Babel. I think they should make a Justice League film, then make this as the sequel, with the justice league becoming depowered. And since I do not presently have a girlfriend(sweet freedom) I have already begun my script for a fanfilm to this effect. Of course, this is after I complete my Batman fanfilm which borrows heavily from Hush, Knightfall and the Long Halloween. If anyone’s interested, post your e-mail and I’ll keep you updated on it. We plan to start shooting in June, and hopefully we’ll have it out by next year. I hope other fans can get as excited by this as me.

  3. I have to say I agree with most of what is said in this article. Except for one point. I disagree with all that is said about Superman. I think Superman is a great character. I get what is being said though, he is too much of a goody goody. That is why Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and the Dark Knight Strikes Again are amazing. They show how Superman gets manipulated because of his moral standings. But I dont think that is why Superman cannot be translated to film well. Or that is to say his much anticipated comeback fell too short. The audience does not want to see Superman deal with the everyday things like saving citizens from muggings. I want to see Superman go head to head with a Superpower that will showcase a lot of action. In Superman Returns, we didnt get to see that. It was too much of the old stuff Superman always does. Save Lois Lane. Thats it. Thats all he does and it gets boring to an audience. I remember reading The Death of Superman when I was a kid and was so shocked and upset. If you want to reach an audience bring in Doomsday…Kill Superman… It will definitely get a different reaction on the Man of Steel.

  4. You know, I prefer the god-like and mythical depiction of DC’s characters over Marvel’s realistic ones. Not to say I don’t enjoy compelling characters, but otherwordly stories about the fantastic are simply more grand and epic than Peter Parker having trouble making his rent. Moreover, I want to read about the lives and thoughts of the people with those kinds of powers, experiences and responsibilities. Even Batman, for all his humanity, continually gets elevated to this unbelievable status that it’s impossible to call him a “mere” moral.

    I think the trick for DC is to give them realatable personalities (which they all have) and at some point make their conflict about maintaining their humanity. Superman’s a nice guy, and that can be very easy for audiences to relate to, but his best villains are fellow aliens that want to convince him to abandon humanity.

    I could mention some great DC books to influence the characters, like Superman for All seasons and Wonder Woman’s gods and mortal. But really I think WB should take a look at how the DCAU handled itself. It streamlined a lot of ideas from the comics throughout the entire history and, more importantly, depicted the characters as very realistic and personable people. If WB could somehow work towards achieving a live action version of the Cadmus ark I think A LOT of people would be satisfied.

    But I belong in the camp of people who kinda liked SR so what do I know.

  5. Oh and one more thing. Yes, Marvel makes a lot of movies. Way more then DC does. But honestly, alot of Marvel movies tend to suck ass.(No offense Marvel) And dont get me wrong. I am an equal Marvel Fan as I am DC. But Spiderman 3? X-Men Last Stand? DareDevil? Elektra? Blade 2? Ghost Rider? Come on… These movie were TERRIBLE movie that could have been SO much better. DC doesnt make alot of movies but at least the ones we do get are quality…somewhat.

  6. DC’s main problem has always been Gods and Clods. Their characters with name recognition are either Gods (nearly omnipotent) or Clods (people in capes) Beings with godlike powers (Superman, Green Lantern, Flash, Spectre) only get defeated through truly stupid, contrived methods while the audience is always asking “Why didn’t he just…” The other option are clods; guys and chicks in costumes (Batman, Green Arrow, Black Canary) which look truly stupid in a high tech world where badguys can carry uzis.

    Batman worked because he was retooled into Ironman with a car! Imagine the Adam West Batman today. Of course add the personality and you have an interesting character but if he was just a guy in a cape – you’d laugh at him, anguish and all!

    The problem is: All the recognizable DC characters are HORRIBLE: Aquaman, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Black Canary, Wonder Woman, Hawkman, Atom etc etc. Interesting DC characters don’t have audience drawing recognition: Fire and Ice, Teen Titans, Guy Gardner…

    Either take a recognizable DC character name and thoroughly retool him… depower the gods and uppower the clods and change the STUPID costumes… OR try less recognizable characters and roll the dice – I think Teen Titans would have a shot!

  7. I agree that with the right story any character can work. I would love to see an Aquaman movie. Not the prettyboy teen of the Smallville universe, but the proper dark totally got screwed over and had a freaking harpoon stuck to his arm Aquaman.

    Now I’m a Marvel fanboy but I absolutely love the first 2 Superman movies. The reason Superman has become boring is because Lex Luthor and Kryptonite has been overused and used badly too. Stop depowering the Gods in every movie, have Gods fight God level villains. People may not be able to relate to “Superman fights Doomsday” but they can certainly relate to “fighting the impossible fight.” Exact same theme. Different wording. Kryponite has been a crutch in the movies. Stop it. Superman: Doomsday had the perfect response to the Kryponite problem when Luthor was in the red-sunlight room.

    Sean was right, Marvel has far more movies out there, they were bound to get the formula right some of the time. DC has been too precious and has had too many suits involved. Some of the Marvel movies have suffered from idiotic suits who didn’t understand how to make a decent movie let alone how to make a decent comic book movie.

  8. LL,

    You’re right, the Cadmus storyline would be great either for a Superman OR Justice League movie. Good call.

  9. @huntthejest

    where would you post this movie when done? or are you planning on posting online?

  10. This is a tangent of the main topic, but has anyone talked about an Identity Crisis film? Or Civil War?

    If The Avengers is successful, and/or ( if it gets made ) the Justice League rakes in a lot of attention and cash– will we see these movies?

    I’d love to see either of these on the big screen.


  11. I disagree with the notion of Superman in the article. I do not think he has to be relatable but that he stays the way he is. As someone you look up to, someone that you know that will never fall to the waste side, someone that will always do the right thing. We need people like that in this day and age. I personally am a bit tired of the anti-hero or someone with flaws, I would like to see someone whose values are just in Black & White, no shades of gray and him them stay that way. I do not know who said it, but I do recall maybe a comic-writer state that if you make villains compassionate to audiences, have them understand his reasons then they are not a villain anymore, they are just someone with a different view point. Something to that affect but you get the idea.

    I think Batman gets waaaayyyy too much credit than he deserves. I hate the fact that he is relatable because he has no super-powers, whatever-son! That is a cop-out! If anything, the most relatable hero is Spider-Man! Stan Lee hit the honeypot when he & Ditko created him! And, as for Marvel not using storylines, well, Spider-Man 2 used the “Spider-Man No More!” story for it’s basis, Amazing Spider-Man #50 1st run. Look how amazing (yes) S-P2 turned out? Some might not agree, but you cannot deny the fact that S-P2 was a huge leap for “comic book” films!

  12. @almanza
    1)cool name
    2)yeah, we’ll be posting it online, and we can’t sell anything since we don’t have the rights to any of the characters. The script and footage will all be original, but the properties are copyrighted(boo!) so even if this turns out better than most of the comic stuff that actually gets into theaters(except The Dark Knight) I won’t make any money off it. Which is depressing, because I’m pumping most of what I got into it. After the Batman fanfilm though, we’re gonna try to do a Captain America origin film, and who knows, maybe Marvel will see something they like and blam, I’m a consultant!

  13. I think this being overanalyzed WAY too much here. The reason the first 2 Superman movies were successful, as well as the more recent Batman films, was because they were well written AND had a visionary director behind the camera. I’m sorry, but if you put George Lucas behind the lens for TDK with the SAME exact script, you’d end up with stiff acting and dazzling effects but NOT the great movie that Nolan made.

    Kofi, I have to disagree with you on Watchmen. The only ones who even know what the hell the Watchmen are are comic book afficinados. The average person had never heard of them until the movie info came out. However, EVERYONE knows who Batman, Spider-Man and Superman are.

  14. Kofi, you’re great but I have to also disagree, like others have posted. SR failed because it was boring and the stupid super-child concept. If they made that movie with much more action against a villian that actually challenges Supe’s strength, that movie would have rivalled TDK. I’m a Marvel fanboy but DC has some really good characters in Supes, Flash, Green Lantern, Batman and some good groups in Teen Titans and Justice League. Hopefully TDK has shown DC how they need to go with their movies.

  15. My opinion my be a little biased seeing as I have prefered Marvel comics over DC. That being said I disagree with you Kofi about Marvel not having impactful story lines. What about the Gwen Stacy death? Wasn’t that one impactful in showing the hero can’t always save the day? Also I agree with Andy S on Watchmen. Most people had never heard of it. Heck most haven’t heard of Sin City either. Lastly another reason Marvel movies have worked is because the younger generations still finds their characters cool. How many DC’s ones can this be said for. Look at the Green Arrow for example, most will ask, “Why does he look like Robin Hood? That’s corny!” Marvel was built to adjust.

  16. It’s difficult because you need to create a full world that people can relate to and feel for the characters involved, at the same time balancing the truthfulness of the story for fans, and entertaining enough for the average moviegoer.

  17. How about a Superman vs. Gokuh movie? That argument on who’s stronger has been going around for years. They could start out fighting each other but then ban together to fight a common enemy.

  18. Wouldn’t it be great to have a Marvel/DC crossover movie that pits Supes against The Hulk???

  19. @Andy
    That would be an epic battle! They could have Lex pulling Hulk’s strings by making Hulk think Supes is trying to kill Ross. Supes tries not to kill Hulk but with every blow, Hulk gets stronger and Supes realizes that he either kills him, or somehow reason with a brute who’s trying to smash him. In the end, Supes finally shows Hulk that it’s Lex who is the enemy.

  20. I do think it’s a valid point that DC’s heroes are too elevated, and it does make them difficult to translate into film. Let’s take the one member of the so-called “DC Trinity” who has yet to make it to film: Wonder Woman. There’s a good reason why she hasn’t made it to film… actually there are several. Tell me how she makes sense in a real world. Why is she running around in that ridiculous outfit? Seriously. You can’t have someone step out in that costume and not provide an explanation. There’s the fact she comes from this isolated “Paradise Island.” Why is she even out fighting for the rest of the world? These aren’t questions that can be ignored, but they aren’t also that easy to answer without something that sounds very contrived.

    X-Men worked because why they do what they do makes sense. It’s quick and easy to explain. Even Superman is a bit easier to explain, because he’s this farmboy with the power to do what’s right for everyone, Batman… obviously easy to explain… but then let’s get to some of the other more prominant DC characters.

    Of course, the other DC problem isn’t just the characters, it’s their entire “universe.” With DC, the universe seems to revolve around the heroes. With Marvel, the characters are part of the world with most forced to even hide within it. I find it easier to compare Marvel’s vision of the world to ours, but DC’s seems completely alien… and given so many of their big names come from other worlds/hidden cultures (Superman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, etc.), that kind of makes sense.

  21. @Sean and darkbhudda

    I don’t think its fair to say that Marvel has made so many that they were bound to get it right sometime. Marvel Studios has only put out Iron Man and Incredible Hulk. Other companies, Like Fox, ruined a lot of those other movies. I think a lot of people let Batman Begins and Dark Knight wash away their memories of batman and robin, Catwoman, and steel. Plus, if we are counting all production companies, DC was responsible for The Spirit. I would also hope that DC/warner bros would put out a really awesome batman movie. It is their like 6th movie with the character. Same with superman, if unleashed is good.

  22. To the people who disagree with me:

    I hear you and you make very valid points about why SR might’ve failed or the fact that Watchmen wasn’t known to the majority of the culture until the movie surfaced. that’s true.

    However with Watchmen I believe the staying power I’m talking about has less to do with how many people knew about it than the reverence with which Watchmen is treated by those who do know about it. It made Time Magazines list of most important literary works of the 20th Century. It beat out so many famous novels that its ridiculous. What Marvel work has done that?

    I agree that Marvel’s CHARACTERS have stayed more relevant in popular culture than DC’s, but I know that DC has been more praised and awarded for the caliber of their storytelling more than Marvel has. That’s why I think that if DC/Warner approached their movies from a storytelling standpoint rather than a character roster we see movies like Preacher getting pushed to the forefront over Wonder Woman or Flash. And I believe the resulting movies based on those celebrated stories would do well–if placed in the hands of able filmmakers of course.

    Does that change your mind any?

  23. Kofi, I can see your point, but it still hasn’t changed my opinion. Watchmen is an adult comic, something that is not generally read by younger kids. I have no problem with that and I hope that the movie kicks butt. However, the well known heroes; Superman, Spidey, Bats; are characters kids grow up with. That’s why they’re so popular because when you grow up reading these comics and watching the cartoons, the movies are a momentous occasion when they come out. These are characters that ALOT of people know very well and a passionate about. I think THAT is why the studios go after those characters first. They know they will have fannies in the seats no matter what.

  24. i liked superman returns, while i didn’t find the ideal or epic superman movie it could have been, as a film and self contained story it worked, but yeah some of my friends say how boring it is. i still find it a good well acted/directed film. which did make superman seem…iconic or strangely flawless, in an unhuman way.i liked that alienation.

    @ huntthejest yeah i’d be interested, i love fan made movies and stuff

  25. The whole relatable thing gets on my nerves. I’ve rarely ‘related’ to any superhero. Parker is too nerdy for me, Wayne too accomplished. I still love them though. I’m in awe as they suffer and achieve.

    Speaking of relatable and Superman, and seeing as Randomgu got a mention on here, I loved his storyline. I thought that was the best thing done with Superman for ages. It captured what he is truly about – nobility and honour and always doing the right thing.

    Agree that the Superman movie was just plain boring. Also agree that the Marvel movies have been hit and miss, if some of the worst ones have gotten high figures.

    Love Goku vs Superman. :D

  26. Randomguy, not randomgu!

    ‘They don’t want to strain their necks’

  27. Considering myself a avid comic book reader, I have to chime in, Whedon’s comment is on point.

    The more successful graphic novels are using a human element that readers can relate to. One of the greatest Superman stories mentioned above, The Death of Superman, is so good because Superman is finally mortal–the invincible boy scout, killed. You mentioned All Star Superman, but the story is the same: Superman is going to die, just like everyone else. In “Emerald Dawn,” Hal Jordan isn’t the “God” he is on Earth, he’s got to use his mind to get himself out of a jam. [Imagine if that ring were in Bruce Wayne's hands... can we say: Overpowered!]

    I relate to “Identity Crisis” because the DC heroes are forced to figure out who they are, inside, which is a very human thing to do. I have to disagree: a good DC movie isn’t just a bestseller, it’s a god knocked down a notch. But I do second your request for “Hush,” I think it could be the next Batman villain.

  28. I don’t think you can say Marvel films are hit or miss because other studios control a lot of their best properties but the two Marvel Studios films that I have seen I really liked and they seem to be wanting to treat the other properties they are developing with the same I will assume that Marvel Studios films will be great..However Aside from SPiderman I & II, X-Men I & II most other studios treatment of MArvel characters is for the most part forgettable..DC has control of the chessboard now with regards to owning all their characters and having one studio WB developing those properties..THey truly have the power to create a single universe for their stable of characters that Marvel will never be able to realize..If I were WB I would definitely use what Marvel Studios is doing right now as a blueprint for building a cohesive DC universe for the big screen.

  29. After all the talk I read from a lot of posts here regarding Hush I went and bought the Two volumes of the Hush series in graphic novel form and the Hush returns as well and after reading them I wasn’t impressed by the story arc or the character itself..I want my money back… ;) He was just a Batman who will go the extra step and kill.he was smart but IMO he was no different than Wrath aside from the fact that Hush had no humanity whatsoever except for his hate and contempt for Batman ruining his big plans to do in his mother..I was expecting more and I guess I was expecting too much in the end that it disappointed..