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.

Influences

Avengers' Height Chart

I’ve explored inspiration for particular stories, characters, and situations. Titan was inspired by a nugget of an idea born from the character/technology of “T-1000” from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It expanded from there. But that’s an idea.

There is a broader effect that acts on us as we create.

Influences.

Everything we have experienced throughout our lives is rattling around in our brains. It makes us cautious when we sense familiar danger. We perk up when we smell a favored food no matter who’s making it. And we enjoy new stories similar to tales we enjoyed long ago.

If it isn’t immediately evident, I am influenced by the superhero myth. I have my favorites (*ahem* Batman *ahem*). But I’m strongly influenced by the notion of the superhero, which is that one person receives great power and uses it to combat evil. I always use Spider-Man as the best example of this.

Meek, kind, and intelligent Peter Parker is bullied, maligned, and ignored — a boy without power. His good-hearted, responsible Uncle Ben raised Peter and treated him like his own son. Ben instilled in Peter the principle that power is a responsibility. When Peter is bitten by the spider, which gives him super abilities the power goes to his head. Uncle Ben is killed as a result of Peter’s inaction. From that day forward, Peter Parker uses his power to help people who have none and confront individuals that abuse theirs.

In the real world, I think we’re used to people actively seeking power for their own selfish purposes. They keep it despite the costs personally and at large. Furthermore, we’re accustomed to people of privilege having power or individuals with physical prowess be it attractiveness, athletic, ability, or both. It’s a rare thing when you find someone who has power and it’s used selflessly or, even rarer, freely gives it up.

I think often about the first American President George Washington with regards to power. He knew why we fought the War of Independence and knew the King’s arbitrary rule well. When Washington’s second term was over, he did not seek reelection. Washington could have been reelected until he died, but he was making a point—this new republic could only work if individuals elected to power freely gave it up when their time was over. Think about the politicians we have now. I can’t see very many of them giving up their power.

I am drawn to superheroes because they use power selflessly (for the most part). They’re also pretty cool. But it’s the use of power that influences me. I’m comparatively short and not especially physical, so the idea of the powerless gaining power is attractive.

Most superheroes are tall, broad chested, and heavily muscled or, in the case of women tall, long-legged, large breasted, and thin. In Titan, the hero is 5’5. I’m not looking to deconstruct the superhero myth, but I wanted to expand it to include people who don’t fit the type.

And, of course, my own physical dimensions bias me. I know how my height is a punch line. I know that I am overlooked (…pun) and underestimated purely because of it. Spider-Man is considered a short superhero, but he’s still 5’10. And yes, I know that Wolverine is short (he’s 5’3 – Titan is taller!), but Hugh Jackman, who portrays him in movies (see X-Men: Days of Future’s Past this summer!), is 6’2 so I’m going to go ahead and not count him.

On another track, I am also disillusioned by “regular” people getting superpowers and being expert with them five minutes later. I like big superhero fights and romance and all that, too, but I think it means more when it’s earned. I prefer what I call the Breaking Bad method of story telling. Walter White became a drug kingpin over the course of 5 seasons; it didn’t happen over night or through a fun, quick montage set to “You’re the Best Around.” We watched every painstaking detail and decision, which led him along the way. That’s called “story,” and if it’s done right it’s better than a superhero fight any day…

…well, most fights. The end battle in The Avengers was pretty amazing.

Although, Robert Downey Jr. calling out the guy playing Galaga was pretty good, too.

Inspire the Hero

It’s a pretty popular trope for heroes, human and super alike, to inspire the people they protect.

In my humble opinion, this was done best (and most visibly) in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Literally, Batman’s mission statement was to strike fear into Gotham’s criminals and show the people that anyone could be a hero. He wanted to spur the people to action to save their city. In The Dark Knight Rises, it comes full circle and literally Gotham’s people have to fight alongside Batman against Bane’s army. While TDKR isn’t the film that The Dark Knight is, it’s a powerful closing sequence.

I always get a rush when Batman flies the bomb over the building and that kid shouts: “It’s Batman!”

Fuckin’ Batman. What a world, right?

But I started wondering about the reverse; what does Batman get from the people of Gotham? He tells Lt. Gordon not to thank him (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). And it’s clear that he takes on the mantle as a duty, a commitment. He does it for the people of Gotham. He needs them to thrive.

Set Batman aside for a moment and consider the question more broadly. What does a hero get from the people he protects?

I think we’re accustomed to the notion that our heroes are selfless and do what they do out of duty or innate goodness. In Peter Parker’s case, it’s both, right? Peter was a good kid and his Uncle Ben instilled in him the duty to use his power for just purpose (With great power comes great responsibility).

The X-Men are especially selfless. Not only do they sacrifice their lives in service of others, but they also suffer terrible prejudice over their mutant abilities. All they get from people is hate and mistrust.

Quick aside, though: Why are the X-Men persecuted and the Fantastic Four lauded? They exist in the same universe, but for some reason the F4 are like rock stars and well-respected while poor Professor Xavier and Co. are suffering through mutant registrations and military attacks… Anyway…

I’m driving at a point, I promise. I’m working on a follow-up to my first book, Titan, and I’m playing with the question of “What does the hero derive from the people he protects?” No spoilers, but for my character it’s two-fold: 1. He draws confidence and resolve from knowing the people are behind him, and 2. There may be practical benefits from the support of “the people.”

I feel like all fiction and story on heroes revolves around the idea of people gaining strength from the hero, but not vice versa. If I’m wrong, please tell me, I’d like to read some examples. But I wanted to explore this in the development of my character, Eric Steele/Titan, and his path to becoming a superhero. The first book is an origin story and explores the themes of responsibility, secrets, and choice in the development of good and evil.  I’ve always thought about Titan as the Breaking Bad of superhero stories because, much like the evolution of Walter White from Mr. Blue Chips to Scarface, I didn’t want Eric Steele to just be Titan after a convenient montage of superheroic hi jinks. I wanted to show how a person, with dreams and aspirations and fears and issues already, reacts to obtaining superhuman abilities and inheriting crushing responsibility. In my mind, that’s not just a finger snap. That would take a while.

But now that I’ve told the origin story and my character has his powers, I want to explore this theme of how the hero draws upon the people he saves as much as the people he saves draw upon him. Eric Steele is still not a veteran superhero–not even close–but I think his evolution needs to touch upon this concept. Frankly, I think the only way he can ever become a fully fledged superhero is to learn what his role is in the world and how he needs the people around him, friends, family, and the unwitting public alike.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of TitanCatch up with the first one if you haven’t read it yet.

Why Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is succeeding and DC’s isn’t

Why Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is succeeding and DC’s isn’t

This “Wired” interview with Marvel’s Kevin Feige is essential reading for anyone trying to understand why Marvel’s cinematic universe is thriving and DC’s is barely getting off the ground. Please read for full context.

It says, essentially, that the Marvel cinematic plan works for two reasons: 1. They HAD a plan, and 2. Kevin Feige keeps it together. From what I can tell, both from my own industry observations and this article DC and Warner Brothers don’t have a plan and they don’t have anyone leading the effort.

Man of Steel was a good movie, but I wouldn’t declare it a resounding success like 2008’s Iron Man was. Plus, the announcement of Superman vs. Batman feels spontaneous and not well thought out. For example, DC has changed course on their shared cinematic universe a few times since The Avengers came out. If you recall, DC initially said they would release Man of Steel and follow it up with Justice League in 2015 (when The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron will come out, FYI). Then, they backed off that plan and said, “Well, let’s just see how Man of Steel goes…” Not great planning.

Marvel has had a plan for years now. The article confirms that Feige had a plan since 2006 for what he wanted to happen. The goal was to make Iron Man an awesome movie that could stand on its own, but also add details that could point the way forward towards a larger world. Nick Fury appearing at the end of the credits is the biggest “detail,” of course, but Agent Coulson carries the larger SHIELD story forward throughout the “stand alone” narrative. Tony Stark and some “blink and you’ll miss them” visual Easter eggs carry the torch forward in The Incredible Hulk.

Furthermore, Feige executes the plan like a manager overseeing departments. Each department (movie) does its job and stands on its own, but works towards a unified purpose. Kenneth Branagh made Thor and it told the story of the titular hero and his nefarious brother, but it also planted major seeds for The Avengers. If you only watched Thor, that would be OK because the movie stands on its own story, but elements of that story serve a larger narrative because Feige is managing those macro details.

The only thing Man of Steel did was insert some easter eggs about Batman and Lex Luthor. It stands as a movie on its own, but it’s not clear to me how it supports a larger universe other than to say, “Oh, hey, Wayne Corp exists.” In fact, I would argue that it presents a challenge for the makers of Batman vs. Superman since it had such wanton, extravagant destruction. How do you top that? It will be hard. And choosing Ben Affleck as Batman smacks of stunt casting to me. I’m not hyper-critical about him as Batman like some are, but it’s fair to say I didn’t jump for joy when I heard. It sounds like yet another half-cocked idea from Warner Brothers and DC without much of thought behind it.

The real tragedy here is that Warner Brothers and DC have a lock on all of their properties, but aren’t doing anything with them. I am not a lawyer with inside knowledge on that , but from what I’ve seen, it looks like they have everything they need to build a shared cinematic universe in-house. Marvel only has some of their properties. Fox has X-Men and Fantastic Four. Sony has Spider-Man. In fact, Spider-Man had been Marvel’s most lucrative property once upon a time, but The Avengers and Iron Man changed that 2 billion dollars later. Now, Marvel has thrown in with Disney (who now owns Star Wars, too…) and has earned enough capital to get a little bit more experimental — next summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy is somewhat of a risk, but I believe it will be worthwhile. DC can’t even make a good Green Lantern movie or even get Wonder Woman* and The Flash off the ground. At this rate, we won’t be seeing a Booster Gold or Cyborg movie any time soon.

My question for DC is: who is your Kevin Feige? Doesn’t look like they have one. If they asked me (and they haven’t), I’d nominate Bruce Timm or Paul Dini. These guys made Batman: The Animated Series and crafted a compelling cartoon universe that eventually grew into the Justice League containing just about every conceivable hero and villain in DC comics. The Question was a character, for goodness sake.

Your move, DC.