I Was Wrong About DC Comics (sort of)

The Emerald Knight vs. the Scarlett Speedster

If you’re not watching Arrow and The Flash, you’re missing two of the best superhero comic adaptations on TV ever. And by DC Comics, no less!

I’ve attacked DC Comics’ wrongheaded film efforts many times in the past on this blog as well as to anyone who would listen, but I did so before seeing Arrow and The Flash. Both shows are more than worth your time. In fact, they’re successfully doing on TV what Marvel has mastered in film.

DC Comics and Warner Bros. have been chasing Marvel Studios “Cinematic Universe” for years now. DC’s first genuine “lap” in that race was 2013’s Man of Steel, a new Superman reboot and a starting point for their shared universe. Despite my criticisms, I genuinely like the film.

I am still not sure how Man of Steel stands as the first step in a new shared movie universe, though. It’s Superman done “realistic;” at least as realistic as an alien made invincible by the sun’s rays can be. And it feels embarrassed to embrace its comic book roots. That’s not to say it’s embarrassed of spectacle, because it has oodles of that. To a fault. The foundation of DC’s cinematic universe is built on a film in which Superman introduces himself to the world and then destroys Metropolis in a knockdown drag-out fight with General Zod and his mini army in the same film.

Superman is supposed to be a boy scout, a beacon of hope, and a savior. He did put himself on the line to save humanity, but left a path of destruction behind him that would leave the most optimistic supporters hard pressed to defend him. So, we’ll see how Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice develops this universe further. In my heart, I am a DC over Marvel guy — I love Batman — but it’s hard to defend how badly they’ve treated their properties on film (Nolan-verse aside, of course).

Yet, in 2012 Arrow premiered on the CW as a gritty re-imagining of the laughable Batman rip-off superhero Green Arrow. In the comics, Green Arrow is probably most famous for sometimes shooting people in the face with a “boxing glove” arrow and looking like a Robin Hood rip-off. Although, Green Arrow appeared in the Bruce Timm animated universe, specifically Justice League Unlimited, as a pretty cool character who questioned the league’s authority as a voice of the “common man.” He was also voiced by the guy who played “Scotty” on General Hospital in the 90s… uh, *ahem*, not that I would know much about that.

In any case, Arrow is better than it has any right to be. It plays sort of like Batman Begins with the would-be hero, Oliver Queen, returning from a long exile and setting up his crime-fighting apparatus, complete with a training montage featuring salmon ladder pull-ups which my wife very much enjoys watching. But it’s OK because I ogle Ollie’s sister, Thea, a young woman who never met a shirt that didn’t show her midriff.

The story plays out, at least initially, with “villains of the week” and serialized elements guiding the story forward. Interestingly, Oliver Queen’s crime-fighting persona is not “Green Arrow.” At least not at first. He is “The Hood.” Playing into the Batman Begins comparison, Ollie is not fully baked at the end of episode one. Part of the fun is watching Ollie learn how to wage war on his city’s criminals and learn the ropes of urban vigilantism. As he does, the show’s story and characters expand and become more complex. Even better, the show’s leadership and writers are very comfortable geeking out with DC comics minutiae. For example, Ollie faces off with a version of Batman’s Royal Flush Gang in one episode.

The fight scenes are well done and surprisingly brutal. Ollie is not above filling guys who pose a threat with arrows. The costumes are reasonably good… although as with any superhero property there is necessary suspension of belief after a point.

Arrow eventually introduced crime scene investigator Barry Allen aka: The freakin’ Flash and spun him off into his own show, which introduced the concept of super powers and “meta-humans” into this universe. The Flash has been a fantastic show with an endearing lead and surprisingly good effects for a CW show. It’s also developed a very strong central mystery which has been propelling the story forward.

Since The Flash premiered, it has crossed over with Arrow several times yet both shows have maintained their own stories and arcs. In fact, I’ve been thoroughly impressed by how the shows have maintained ties to each other (whether characters from either show appear or not) and haven’t forgotten that these people exist in the same world. It’s one of few criticisms that I would make of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — once the characters diverged, other than prearranged crossovers, the two worlds were entirely separate. Normally, this would have been OK except that on Buffy the world was ending every year and you’d think that maybe someone would have noticed a flying dragon (Season 5 finale) or the fact that the sun was blotted out in LA for several days on Angel (season 4).

Amazingly, while “kingmaker” Marvel was struggling to give it’s first TV property, Agents of SHIELD, solid footing, Arrow was into its second ambitious season developing a “big bad” that had been foreshadowed since the pilot episode and shaking up the status quo every week. It wasn’t until Captain America: The Winter Soldier came out that Agents of SHIELD improved drastically and made what came before a lot more relevant. But I would argue that Arrow was still the better show even though it was very cool to see how events playing out in the Marvel films affected the wider universe that Agents of SHIELD lives in week to week.

Which leads me to how DC is still screwing this up and lets me explain how I was only “sorta” wrong about them.

After Man of Steel came out there were questions about whether or not Superman and Arrow’s Oliver Queen existed in the same universe. Unlike Marvel, DC doesn’t have a unifying figure like Kevin Feige keeping these things locked down. DC was cagey about the continuity between universes for more than a year. Fans clamored for a shared movie and TV universe like Marvel has, although given the world changing events of Man of Steel it seemed odd that Arrow seemed unaffected by nor mentioned the near worldwide cataclysm. Then in late summer 2014, DC guru Geoff Johns confirmed what fans dreaded: Arrow/The Flash are not in the same universe as Man of Steel. They are “separate universes,” says Johns. The point was further hit home by the casting of a separate Flash for the upcoming Justice League and Flash movies (Grant Gustin plays an exceptional Barry Allen/Flash on TV and Erza Miller will be the movie Flash).

Disheartening news. DC had an opportunity to build off of a fantastic existing property, Arrow, and tie it to its big movie franchises and they have shut it down. Worse yet, CBS is developing a Supergirl TV show and there is a question as to whether or not that will be part of the same universe as Arrow and The Flash. Would it be part of the movie universe? It’s own thing?? It’s not clear yet and that, in of itself, is proof of DC’s shortsighted, bad planning.

Now, let me be clear about one thing: I actually would not mind, in principle, if the DC TV universe and the movie universe were separate entities. Let the movie world be one thing and the TV world be another. Sounds fair.

Except it’s not.

The DC movie universe has free reign to use whatever characters and properties it wishes (assuming licensing rights aren’t an issue, of course), but DC TV does not. For example, Batman and Superman are off limits. I don’t think I’ve seen it expressly stated anywhere, but I suspect that Wonder Woman is off-limits, too. Junior Varsity Batman villains are OK (Deadshot, Clock King, etc.) but not the Joker or even Harley Quinn for that matter (brief Arrow easter egg aside, that is). Now, it probably wouldn’t make much sense to have the Joker without Batman anyway, but my point remains: TV is limited in what characters it can use while the movies are not. This doesn’t make sense to me. If the universes are “separate” why does it matter if there’s a TV Batman and a movie Batman? Hell, at this point, there’s a TV Flash and a movie Flash; so why are we holding back on the characters that fans want to see?

DC has been schizophrenic about this for almost 15 years. Justice League and Justice League Unlimited were victims of a so-called “bat embargo” that gradually prevented the usage of Batman characters and villains on the shows for… reasons. In the linked article, it’s suggested that because of the Batman Begins reboot in 2004 DC was sensitive about confusing people with multiple versions of the same character. It’s also noted that because Aquaman appeared on Smallville (ugh), he couldn’t be used on Justice League anymore either. What is DC’s deal??

Anyway, I’ll drive myself insane trying to understand why DC is contradicting itself. But if you take anything from this post, it should be WATCH ARROW AND THE FLASH! They’re fantastic. You have to do it in chronological order, though. Watch the first two seasons of Arrow and then watch The Flash pilot and then trade off Arrow and The Flash episodes after that.

Marvel’s “Villain Problem”

I’ve had a vision of a world made free from magic tricks.

*LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD*

Marvel Studios, for all its great decisions and fantastic vision, is not doing its villains justice. It’s the only area where DC is supreme.

Mike Cecchini at Den of Geek has written a fantastic piece, with which I completely agree, about how Marvel’s cinematic villains aren’t up to snuff. There have been 10 Marvel movies now and, of them, only one memorable villain who headlined in two of those films. I’m referring to Loki, of course, in case you’re blind. Mr. Cecchini even makes the rather damning point that Captain America: The First Avenger wasted Hugo Weaving as Red Skull. He’s right.

Alternatively, the Warner Brothers’ DC films have done its villains justice. Of course, Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were great for their characterization of the man himself, but the villains were also given a great deal to do. Even Man of Steel, which I’ve criticized in another post, has a formidable villain in General Zod played by Michael Shannon. Zod has real motivation and a point of view, that while we don’t necessarily agree with it, we can understand. Plus, since his goal (essentially terraforming Earth into a new Krypton) is something that Superman struggles with as one of the last beings of his race in the universe, the conflict between them takes on added weight.

In Batman Begins, Ra’s Al Ghul wasn’t just a monologue spewing evil machine — he had real objectives and beliefs and the threat of force behind his actions that challenged Batman physically as well as philosophically. In many ways, Ra’s and Batman have the same objective. They just have radically different methods for attaining it. The drama of their conflict is borne out of their similarities and, indeed, the bond of mentor and student shared at the beginning. It also doesn’t hurt that Liam Neeson is amazing.

So much has been said about Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight that I can hardly say anything new. He was brilliant and terrifying and funny. It was the ultimate depiction of the character on film because everything he did, he did through action and motion and violence or the ever-present threat of violence. You cringe to watch him in some scenes while not daring to look away. Performance aside, the Joker is the yin to Batman’s yang. And in The Dark Knight that was literally true because, thematically, the Joker was a consequence of Batman’s escalation against criminals. The Joker even thanks Batman for it. While he claims to have no motive and no goal, that’s not true and we see it play out over the course of the film. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Ledger’s performance as Joker and of his role in The Dark Knight, is that a truly good villain truly shows us the hero in a new light. The Joker tests Batman and tests the police and forces them to stand by their morality or not. Because of Joker, we learned a great deal more about Batman’s character and his resolve than we did in the previous film.

Finally, in The Dark Knight Rises, realizing that no one could compare to Heath Ledger’s psychological performance as Joker, Nolan and team went a different way: position Batman against a foe that’s not just a philosophical threat, but one who can physically match and surpass him: Bane. While lacking some of the thematic value of Ra’s and Joker, Bane’s presence as a physical threat played into the idea of a Batman past his prime who could no longer cut it. Bane was young, muscle-bound, and powerful, while Batman had been off the streets for years, walked with a cane, and was unbalanced. Again, it was another prism through which to see Batman and bring out more aspects of his character. The film is not nearly as perfect as The Dark Knight, but still a pretty satisfying portrayal of Batman as well as a villain with real menace.

Unfortunately, none of the Cinematic Marvel villains have the weight of the DC villains — even Loki. He’s a great foil and is a good villain, but Tom Hiddleston’s performance is 99% of the reason that is the case. What does Loki tell us about Thor or the Avengers? Nothing, really. He’s just a foe, presenting a challenge, which the heroes must defeat. It’s a shame because in the comics Marvel villains are usually more nuanced and human than their counterparts in the DC Universe (Batman’s rogues aside, of course).

I can hardly fault Marvel for putting so much love and attention into their protagonists because we are seeing some really good comics-to-screen adaptations. But I can’t help but think that Iron Man and Thor (as well as the actors who portray them) would be better served by facing off against fully-realized villains that challenged their very souls as opposed to just some scheme or plan or MacGuffin that everyone is after.

Mr. Cecchini gave faint praise to Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its villains. I’d like to respectfully disagree and say that those villains were worthwhile foes that presented a genuine threat to Captain America as not just a challenge to overcome, but they made him confront who he is, what he is doing, and in what he believes. I suppose that the overall situation provided this threat, but even still, Captain America is a “white bread,” boy scout. He’s immovable in his honor, courage, and beliefs, so to wring drama out of him you need to put him against a philosophical threat that doesn’t neatly slot into “good” or “bad.” Plus, the Winter Soldier provided a physical challenge to the Cap that not many villains faced thus far have as well as emotional resonance in his relationship to him. Think of how successful Captain America: The Winter Soldier was — I would argue that it was great for its rich story and compelling villains as much as the spectacle of its set pieces.

Overall, Mr. Cecchini’s article is spot-on. Marvel is clearly building towards Thanos as the super villain our heroes will have to face either en masse or through proxy battles (probably both) and he deserves respect. They’ve already cast Josh Brolin to play him–which is a good start to invest in talent–but if all Thanos is going to do is make menacing faces and give monosyllabic responses, Marvel may be building up to its first genuine disappointment in an otherwise masterful cinematic adaptation of its properties.

Marvel vs. (Batman vs. Superman)*

Marvel is so dominant that even footage of Ben Affleck as Batman facing off with Superman and Wonder Woman costume photos don’t make much of an impact.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Please don’t construe my statement to say it made no impact, it’s just that I found myself more excited by what was going on in the Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man panels than in the Batman vs. Superman panel. It kills me to say that, too, because I love Batman. He’s my guy. When someone asks me “who’s your favorite superhero” my answer is always Batman.

But this isn’t a piece about why Batman is awesome. This is about how DC is “Johnny Come Lately” when it comes to making good superhero movies aside from Batman films.

Think about what we’re discussing here: they’re finally making a Batman vs. Superman film and it’s not the biggest, most exciting news out of Comic Con. In what universe is Ant-Man even come close to Batman and Superman finally appearing in the same movie? With Wonder Woman (and every other DC character, apparently), too!!

Well, this universe apparently, because DC and Warner Brothers have dragged their feet, unwillingly, into the Cinematic Universe business and it shows. I have to give DC credit for finally doing it, but that’s the only credit I’ll give them because they’re doing it the wrong way. It’s sloppy, it looks sloppy, and there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny and cynicism going into Batman vs. Superman that need not be there.

The biggest problem, unfortunately, Man of Steel is our entry point into this universe and it’s not as strong of a film as 2007’s Iron Man was for Marvel’s universe. Hell, it’s not even as strong as Thor, which I consider to be the weakest of the 9 Marvel movies released to date. Because the Nolans were involved, everything was focused on “realism” and “grounding” the story. Now, given what happens in Man of Steel, it’s not very grounded. But it is a largely humorless film that seems to take no joy from reintroducing Superman to film audiences. And I liked it! It’s not a bad movie. It’s not X-Men: The Last Stand or Spider-Man 3, but it felt like there was disagreement on what kind of Superman story to tell, so they just threw everything into the movie. The problem with going that route is, as is often the case, trying to please everyone usually pleases no one.

Zod, kneel before Son of Jor El.

I’ve said, and I stand by it, that it was a ballsy creative decision to go so full-tilt into Superman’s extraterrestrial origins with the war on Krypton and the “science” of Kryptonians and whatnot. I liked that. I thought it was really cool, too, to talk about some of Krypton’s internal politics with regards to its caste system and even a subtle commentary on the morality of cloning. I even defend the film’s ending where Superman makes a very tough, moral decision that, traditionally, comic book Superman hasn’t made (that’s as specific as I’ll get to avoid spoilers). But the film was trying to be part origin story, part mystery, part disaster movie, with maybe a smidgen of romance and it only partially succeeded at any one those categories.

Let’s be clear: I loved the Christopher Nolan Batman films. I think they represent the definitive version of the character in film to this point. But I always criticized the hyper-realistic world that Nolan’s Batman inhabited. First and foremost, it eliminated the possibility for other superheroes like Superman to exist. But more relevant to Batman’s world, it precluded villains like Mr. Freeze or Clayface from appearing. Regardless, that trilogy has ended and we now have the Man of Steel universe.

I’m Batman.

I’ve dreamed of seeing Batman and Superman together in a movie since I was a kid. Batman: The Animated Series spawned a Superman: The Animated Adventures series (as well as Justice League) and put these two titanic heroes together in a pretty definitive way. I have lofty expectations. When the film was just Batman and Superman, I felt more optimistic. However, DC keeps adding more characters in an already bloated cast that wasn’t really developed even in the first film. The relationship between Batman and Superman (to say nothing of fights between them) is complex and needs screen time. How do you service that if you’re also servicing Lois Lane, Perry White, Jenny (?) Olsen, Lex Luthor, Alfred, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Cyborg, and all of the other 40 characters they’ve thrown into the film?

Get her

 

Marvel figured out how to service all of its characters by not putting themselves in an untenable situation. You don’t put everything into one movie all at once, you build a universe, establish individual heroes and stories, and then you start to cross-pollinate. That’s why The Avengers works. We don’t care about Pepper Potts or Rhodey or Jane Foster or Betty Ross or Peggy Carter because those characters and stories have been given their due. Even the comics that all of this is based on did that! When the Justice League gets together, who cares about Alfred? He belongs in Batman’s world and since he lives there and inhabits that place, if he doesn’t appear or appears briefly in another property we don’t notice.

But now DC and Warner Brothers have decided to reboot their Batman character within their Superman property as well as every other DC character that’s ever existed. I’ll definitely see Batman v. Superman and I certainly don’t wish it to be terrible, but I’m giving as much thought to the franchise as DC has — not much. Sure, they paraded out some thematically cool looking footage that gave us our first good look at Ben Affleck’s Batman, but it feels like pandering. Even the Wonder Woman reveal leaves me feeling… meh.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios wowed convention attendees with its Avengers 2 and Ant-Man panels because they’ve established a relationship with the audience. They’ve proven they respect the material, the characters, and how to depict it. Because Marvel’s done the hard work of building this world and the characters’ relationships, Joss Whedon can craft a party scene in Avengers 2 with everyone screwing around trying to lift Thor’s hammer. Doesn’t that sound great??

The crew… oh, crap! That’s Rhodey!

Again, I’ll see Batman v. Superman (how could I respect myself otherwise?), but I pledge, here and now, that I’ll see Captain America 3 first.

 

*I thought I should represent the conflict in proper SQL syntax.

A Dearth of Strong Females in Game of Thrones? I think not.

Hermione on the Throne

How great would it be to get Hermione on Game of Thrones?

Time Magazine just reported that Game of Thrones fans are disappointed by the supposed* absence of a female character in the series upcoming 5th season.

The author, Nolan Feeney, is referring to Arianne Martell, heiress to the capital city of Dorne. She’s apparently a significant character in the books (I haven’t read that far yet — I am almost done with A Clash of Kings as of this writing.) Mr. Nolan noted: “…she was a strong, complex female character in a fictional universe that doesn’t have too many of those.”

If that’s supposed to be sarcasm, I didn’t get it. Setting aside, for the moment, the character’s supposed importance to the story in the books, I don’t see how Game of Thrones is lacking in strong female characters. Let’s count them out: Catelyn Stark**, Arya Stark, Cersei Lannister, Melissandre (The Red Woman), Daenerys Targaryen, Brienne of Tarth, Asha (Theon’s sister), Osha, Lady Olenna, and, my personal favorite, Ygritte** (of “You know nothing, Jon Snow” fame). All of these women fit the “strong female character” label to me.

And I’m being somewhat dogmatic, too. I think a case can be made that Margarey Tyrell belongs in that list. She’s not stabbing people with swords or directing governments, but she’s playing a pretty high-level political game with Cersei Lannister and it’s one she’s been pursuing since Renly Baratheon. I would also suggest that Sansa deserves credit (although she has annoyed me at times) for surviving as a hostile prisoner in very bad circumstances; however, our final glimpse of Sansa suggests she’s taking control of her fate like never before. Hell, she was bat-shit crazy, but Catelyn’s sister, Lysa Arryn**, is a candidate — she was a queen and clearly in charge of her realm (again, albeit unstable in the brain space).

Consider, too, about what the author (and some of the sampled Twitter postings) are complaining. One female character is (potentially) being omitted. But they’re still adding four new female characters, that (as I understand it) are all “strong females” — Oberyn Martell’s daughters, the so-called “Sand Snakes.” The show has apparently even added a conflict (read: fight) between one of them, Obara, and another major character, which does not happen in the books. And that’s on top of the list of characters I noted above.

My point is: what are we even talking about here? What’s the purpose of this Time article? It feels like the ongoing, forced media narrative about a “war on women” or underrepresented women… or something? You tell me. I can’t figure it out.

Is the argument that there are more male characters in Game of Thrones than women? Is it that of the number of men characters vs. women characters, more men are “strong?” I wouldn’t try to refute either of those points (if that’s even from where this is coming), but take a look at some other series on TV right now. Are there even more than one or two primary women characters in the cast? Are they “strong?” Did they, for example, like Brienne of Tarth, take on, in hand to hand combat, one of the most formidable male characters in their series (to say nothing of all the other men she’s killed in combat)? And that’s just Brienne — Daenarys has been burning and burying guys left and right. Arya — freakin’ Arya — a little girl, is more badass than 90% of the males on the show.

On NCIS, they have only two female characters. Of them, they’re both “strong,” I suppose (in a network TV sense), but really only one of them is out there kicking butt and dealing justice (I’m just considering Kate, Ziva, and whoever the new one is, the same role — it satisfies the same purpose in the cast). On Special Victims Unit, there are two females, both “strong” among a cast of numerically more men (at least in my last viewing). So, are we calling out these shows as well?

Not only is this Time article unnecessary and reaching in its point (whatever it is), but I think just the opposite: Game of Thrones is setting a new standard for “strong, female characters” in entertainment. Think about who we root for on the show (or, at least, for whom I root): Daenarys, Arya, Brienne, Catelyn, Ygritte… and while I hate her guts, Cersei Lannister is a force to be reckoned with, one who has the upper hand over just about every male character.

Do some critical thinking, Time Magazine.

 

*We don’t 100% know that this character has been omitted. It just looks like, from casting info, that the role does not exist in the TV series as of now.

 

–SPOILERS BELOW–

 

**I realize that Catelyn, Ygritte, and Lysa are no longer with us, but they were on the show and were definitely “strong, female characters.”