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. @ParrotSoup
    Oops. You’re right.

  2. @huntthejest,

    E-mail me about your fan film.

    I expect plenty of you to disagree but I am going to go a head and say that Superman is outdated. The problem of translating him to film is the general absurdity of the character in general. If there was never a Superman created and someone created it in the last twenty years I highly doubt it would have been successful.

    Now, I respect the Batman and Superman, among others of course, laying the foundations for the structure of superheros we have today but Superman is not a good contemporary charcater. And to change any of his main aspects would in essence destroy the very original character because he is so iconic.

    Just my opinion but as far as a quality story and character… Superman sucks.

    As far as DC’s cinematic future as compared to Marvels — I think the reason Batman successfully translates to film (Batman, Batman Returns, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) is because he is DC’s best character… by far. It has seemed to me that DC’s writing has always been aimed at a more mature audience, at least as opposed to Marvel. And I’m just speaking in general, both companies have children and adult stories. Because of that, the source material that DC has should be more viable for film.

    I also agree that DC has more… cultured stories, I don’t know if that is the best term to use but as far as memerable stories Marvel has plenty.

    In my opinion, Spier-Man 3 should not have had Venom (he’s ruined) and these next 2/3 Spidey films shouild be based off of the extraordinary and lingering story line of Maximum Carnage. Perfect.

    Someone already pointed out the impact of Gwen Stacy’s death in the series. That should of been Spider-Man 1.

    X-Men has a seemingly unlimited supply of quality story lines. I don’t want to get started because the X-Men films do not do justice to the comics. Nor does it seem like they tried to.

    Someone else also pointed out: Civil War.

    Wouldn’t it be awesome if The Avengers is an epic hit and they make two more films based around the Civil War story line?

    Daredevil does not do Frank Millers run on the book justice, which for many fans is the best writing the book ever had.

    I think that the DC stories appeal more to adults because I grew up on Marvel (80′s/90′s circa) and the only DC charcter that grabbed my attention was Batman.

    But as we have seen, good comics don’t necessarily make good films. It is up to the filmmakers in the end. Any character or story can be portrayed for better or for worse on the big screen, I think it is solely dependent upon the talent or the lack there of behind the camera. To make a fan pleasing film, I think it essential to have someone on that film team that either appreciates or understands what made the character popular in the first place and how fans identify with him.

    Just because it is a DC film or a Marvel film doesn’t mean it will be good or bad.

    No way I’m spellchecking this! Sorry for the rant!

  3. 2 words:

    Kingdom Come

  4. Mr. O,
    Kingdom Come = Yes Please.

    High Kalibur,
    I agree that an able filmmaker like Chris Nolan or Jon Favreau are essential elements. Good films require good filmmakers, ‘natch.

    However a major part of the good filmmaker’s “good filmmaking” is knowing how to get at the essence of the character or story and have it resonate with audiences. IMO, the essence of comic book characters are found in their most celebrated or enduring stories. The Gwen Stacy death, for example, was a defining moment for Spider-Man, a story that forever effected the essence of the character.

    Ang Lee’s Hulk was a “well made” film. Still some of the best editing I’ve seen with the whole comic book panel shifts. However Lee decided to depart from the source material and go his own route telling the story of the Hulk and ended up missing everything about the Hulk that has helped the character endure. Not one actor in that film (except maybe Sam Worthington) was able to grasp onto the essence of their character. Eric Bana = worst BB EVER.

    So I do think that the great history of stories these characters have do play a large part in how these films turn out. Iron Man for final example, was built off off the modern origin story Marvel concocted in series like Iron Man: Extremis.

  5. I will say that while “Kingdom Come” and “Civil War” are both incredible storylines that would make for an incredible movie… I don’t see this ever happening. To make either work, you have to create a world populated with a large number of super-powered individuals. That equals an insanely large cast, and that is even-more-insanely expensive. I don’t think either DC or Marvel has populated their realities enough on film (thus far) to make this work. Certainly, Marvel has the advantage at this point. Just going by the previous Superman film, it’s pretty clear the films treat him as alone among super-beings in the world. Ditto for the more recent Batman films.

    I think X-Men 3 is the closest either has come to a large-scale population of super-beings, and I also think most of us would agree that film was awful (doomed from day one because of a dreadful script).

  6. @High Kalibur

    I don’t have your e-mail address. I think the first thing I’ll do is post cast photos, and a sort of plot outline. But you guys record the dates I post these things so I’ll have witnesses, cuz I’ll be damned if I go to see a Justice League movie and its like, “wait, didn’t I write this?” and never get a penny.

  7. Only disagreement I have is that Superman Returns didn’t flop because of his character, it flopped because instead of starting it over like batman did, they decided to make it a so called 3rd installment of the old Donner Supermans. Don’t get me wrong they were great for their time but looking at them now I just laugh, they are out of date and just plain cheesy. I know people have a soft spot in their hearts for the old ones but come on. The other problem is that they had him fight Luthor once again, superman does have many other villains. They need a full all out showdown with him and a powerful villain (not a blond superman created by Lex Luthor). Re start the series give him a powerful villain (from a story line in the comics and following such story line). It’ll work much better.

  8. Oh and Kingdom Come might confuse people a bit. It is one of the best stories ever written though.

  9. Why does a new Superman movie need a villain that is from the comic book series? Are screenwriters not talented enough to come up with a NEW, ulatra-powerful villain that requires Superman to utilize his strength, brains AND compassion?? THAT is what made Superman 2 the best of the old films.

  10. Wow, I didn’t expect so many responses to the film on one site! This is great news. And to remain relative to this thread, I gotta say, that’s part of what I hate about movie adaptations, that they take so many liberties and ignore the rich history of the comics. Why invent new villains from scratch that nobody cares about when you have so many awesome big bads that people are dying to see onscreen, or even several crappy ones that could, given a nice revamp, bring a new vitality to the comic counterpart. But at least we’re all agreed it should be a total reboot, and not have Lex(I’m not an actual threat) Luthor as the main villain, unless its in his natural puppetmaster capacity. Why can’t Hollywood take notes from Bruce Timm?

  11. @Kofi…

    I reread my post and realized that it didn’t come out the way it wanted it to. I know that Zod was from the comics; I didn’t mean to imply that HIS character is what made Superman 2 so great (although that was a huge part of it!) What I was getting at is that in that movie Superman was challenged to use ALL his abilities, not just his superpowers. He had to use his brains AND his humanity to defeat Zod and his cohorts. There is no reason why a talented screenwriter can’t make up a powerful villain that requires him to do the same.

  12. @greenknight

    Have you seen the Richard Donner version of Superman 2? It’s MUCH better than the original theatrical version.

    They put so much bizarre crap in that one that it was ridiculous… cellophane “S,” tractor beams from fingertips (there’s a super-power I wasn’t aware of), and my favorite: Superman’s “forgetfulness kiss.”



  13. Sorry, to clarify: the dumb stuff is in the theatrical version, I wasn’t referring to Donner’s re-cut version of the film which is BETTER.


  14. @Andy S

    Yeah, that’s a good point. They need to make the plot involve something more complex than “Superman Smash!”

    I don’t like how they’ve started using Clark Kent as comedic relief, either. In many ways Superman thinks of himself as being Clark, the inverse of Batman, who thinks of himself as being Batman rather than Bruce Wayne.

    The filmmakers need to understand that about the character and approach the character from that angle. And why waste a good premise: Clark Kent is an INVESTIGATIVE reporter. Add some complexity or mystery to the plot! Add a plot, period!

  15. I’m much more knowledgeable on Marvel than DC.

    My impression of DC is that their heroes don’t really have great villains who can challenge them physically. A lot of the characters are just weird. Marvel has its fair share of ridiculous characters but DC I’ve always found very unbelievable in general.

    I do think the non-continuity stuff that DC has published is really great and it’s really the only DC stuff I’ll read as I don’t have to worry about continuity.

    I can still read classic Stan Lee Spider-man and still enjoy it today even though I know they’re dated. I’ve tried reading some of the really old Superman, Batman stuff and I just can’t get into it. A lot of it is really cheesy with no emotional resonance.

  16. @Vid….

    I like Marvel ALOT, but I am also a fan of DC’s staple characters (Batman, Superman, JL) and I think that the villains in the DC realm are a bit more believable than some of the Marvel ones. Joker and Lex Luthor come to mind. Yes, they aren’t physically as strong, but they are fantastic, realistic, chilling villains nonetheless. NOt to say that DC doesn’t have it’s share of cornball villains and heroes, but label them as more unbelievable than Marvel is just wrong, IMO.

  17. A lot of people complain about the lack of relatable qualities of DC characters (a sentiment with which I disagree), but for the sake of intelligent discussion, I propose a DC story that I think would work quite well as film (provided an able director and actors worked on it). “Secret Identity” (written, I believe, by Kurt Busiek) is an excellent story in which a normal boy teased by his peers for having the name Clark Kent, though clearly living in the mundane real world, discovers one day that he does in fact possess the powers and abilities of his comic-book namesake. The story remains firmly rooted in the real world (he even explains why he has to be careful with certain rescues and how the comic book rescues would turn disasterous because of the laws of physics) but NEVER lacks for adventure. There are no aliens, but other amazing individuals are hinted at. The tale delivers a strong narrative with great characterization AND even recognizes the DC Universe. This means that this film can be a wonderful stepping stone for DC to reintroduce and revisit the Superman mythos. Finally, in terms of film viability, Clark narrates the story, so you even have someone clarifying any plot points for those who do not normally spend a great deal of time in the realm of spandex and superpowers. What does everyone think?

  18. Good article, I agree and disagree with a few things. Marvel has done a better job when bringing their stories to the big screen but I don’t think its because moviegoers identify more with a hero like Spiderman over Superman. The fact is DC is sitting on a goldmine with the characters they have in the stable, ie TDK. DC needs to learn from what Marvel has done in their films to introduce and develop the characters and what they have done themselves with the Batman franchise. If DC reboots Superman and makes it the way we all want to see it, it would hold its own against Spidey 4. On to JLA, just think about how amazing this movie would be. All of the great DC characters together, its a blueprint for the #1 grossing movie of all time. Yes it is a huge undertaking but the payoff would be an amazing movie with huge profit.

  19. I think a new Superman movie should have him, not only older looking and more “experienced”, but just plain gritty. Imagine im on an alien planet battling numerous foes(that are true to the comic book) and having them look beautifully rendered in CGI. With lots of blood….a well thought out(and deep) story line etc. etc. etc.

  20. I am an equal fan of Marvel and DC comics and would love to see more good stories from either make it to the big screen… but really, before even wishing for a movie to be made, you have to be realistic and consider what should be done for the movie to even stand some chance of quality.

    I think Marvel’s movies are doing it the right way, first introducing some heroes in their own stories and backgrounds, and now slowly moving towards an Avengers movie. Iron Man, Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man 1 & 2 are good examples of well-made superhero movies that can also be good introductions for these characters to be in The Avengers movie.

    About a JLA movie, what DC and WB are lacking is just that: not enough characters properly introduced to the big screen yet. Justice League may be a lot about Superman and Batman, but even these two are far from ready for a JLA movie.

    First, we need another good Batman movie to complete the trilogy, see the character truly evolve and deal with the situation that The Dark Knight has left him in. Then we’d need a damn good sequel to Superman Returns, which in my opinion wasn’t a really bad movie, just kind of a simple one, a plain re-introduction of the character. If I remember well, B. Singer said somewhere he had plans for a sequel where Superman would face more challenge and a greater enemy, and Singer promised to go all ”Wrath of Khan” on that one. (yes, he is a big Star Trek fan hehe)

    So who knows, maybe if these 2 movies get made first and work well, then we could see more DC characters appear and eventually a JL movie can take place. But rushing things and trying to do a JLA movie right now just to try and catch up with the Avengers project would not only be unrealistic, it would be plain stupid… and could even ruin the possibility of some future good movies getting made about the DC heroes.

  21. Um am I the only one sick of seeing Superman fight Lex Luthor. It gets old real fast. I want to see some punches being thrown, not Superman saving cats out of trees. Had Superman Returns been done right the next film might have been The Death of Superman, that is if an actual supervillain (I’m talking Mongul) been introduced in Superman Returns. Bryan Singer killed Superman Returns as well as X-Men. Put the movies into the hands of someone who cares about Supes. If Superman’s next movie tries to take the conservative route and make Lex the main villain again, we can say goodbye once and for all to the Superman movie franchise

  22. “am I the only one sick of seeing Superman fight Lex Luthor”

    No, you’re not. Give us another villain, PLEASE.


  23. This thread may be old now, but one of my favorite story lines in DC was in the pages of The Flash (Silver Age run). Barry’s arch nemesis, Prof. Zoom, decides to kill Barry’s wife, Iris, with a simple vibrating hand to the brain. He doesn’t soliloquize about it; he doesn’t boast about his plans to do it; he just does it. To top it off, Barry was drugged (and unable to help) and a massive investigation began to determine just who killed Iris that spanned several issues. What I liked most about it is that it dispensed with all the silly Rube Goldberg-like plots and with Barry drugged, there was no need to develop a silly explanation for why he couldn’t stop Zoom. Zoom just killed Iris, plain and simple, and it destroyed Barry.

    Of course we all learned years later that Iris didn’t really die and that ruined the whole story, as DC usually does. But a film wouldn’t have to make the same mistake.

  24. Watchmen was a disgrace. What is this guy talking about?