DC Superhero Movies and The Dangers of Gritty Realism

Warner Bros. and DC Comics are determined to endlessly mine the '90s in their quest for "realistic superheroes." It's a fool's errand.

It would appear that the superhero movie war between Warner Bros. and Marvel Studios has been fired. Kevin Tsujihara, Warner Bros. CEO recently spoke about how the films in the DC universe are “steeped in realism, and a little bit edgier than Marvel’s movies.” Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice director Zack Snyder made a crack about Marvel movies like Ant-Man featuring “flavor of the week” heroes, despite the fact that Ant-Man has been around for roughly 50 years.

Neither is exactly what you’d consider a broadside, but it’s the first real sign of the coming rivalry between two studios who, by the year 2018, will be competing for a minimum of five prime pieces of movie release calendar real estate.

Really, though, this isn’t much of a rivalry. At least not yet. Marvel has nearly a dozen superhero movies in their cinematic universe, with no end in sight. Warner Bros., under its current model at least, has produced exactly one (Man of Steel). Since I’m feeling charitable at the moment, we’ll bump that number up to four, in order to include Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the franchise that all future DC superhero movies will try to live up to (or live down, depending on who you ask), and whose “edgy” and “realistic” tone is clearly the blueprint that Warner Bros. is looking to follow.

There’s really nothing inflammatory about Tsujihara or Snyder’s statements. In fact, a little competition, friendly or otherwise, between these two studios could only benefit everyone, especially the audiences.

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Marvel is riding a wave of sustained success that is unparalleled in the history of live-action superhero productions. 2014 saw the critical and commercial successes of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, with the latter earning a staggering $700 million at the box-office. It also gave us the return of an improved Agents of SHIELD for a second season. 2015 brought the launch of critically acclaimed event mini-series Agent Carter, the successful (if not beloved) Avengers: Age of Ultron, and the unlikely success story that was Ant-Man. It wouldn’t do for Marvel to get complacent.

But Warner Bros. has nothing to show for themselves except the increasingly long shadow of Christopher Nolan and the rather dour, violent Man of Steel, a movie whose $600 million worldwide box-office take was “disappointing” enough that the only way to make the sequel feel like the safest possible bet was to stick Batman in it…with top billing and maximum screen time, no less! The trailer for that movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, appears to take the characters down an even darker path than we’ve become accustomed to, if that’s even possible.

The disparity in the tone of these two studios extends beyond the screen. Marvel is so confident that they unveiled their film slate between now and 2019 at what amounted to a party hosted by Kevin Feige and attended by cast members past and present, open not only to an increasingly receptive press, but a select group of adoring fans. Warner Brothers’ Mr. Tsujihara on the other hand, unveiled their long rumored film slate with comparatively little fanfare at a shareholder’s meeting. Marvel is no less interested in the bottom line than Warner Bros., but when one studio is throwing parties while another is making proclamations at places like the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference, it’s easy to guess who popular opinion is going to favor.

[related article: Complete DC Superhero Movie Release Calendar]

It’s understandable, especially given the false starts of Superman Returns and Green Lantern, that Warner Bros. want to establish a distinct identity for their superhero movies in order to dispel the perception that they’re simply chasing after Marvel’s success (and the almighty dollars that follow). Marvel can churn out four eminently watchable, entertaining blockbusters a year, and its cinematic approach certainly favors a lighter touch than what we saw in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies or Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Green Lantern was a desperate attempt to duplicate the Iron Man model, and we all saw how that turned out. But is it really wise to swing quite so heavily in the opposite direction?

Christopher Nolan is an immensely talented filmmaker, and instead of delivering an open-ended franchise that could exist in a shared universe (for that’s the magic word these days), he closed the book on his vision of Batman with The Dark Knight Rises. The Christopher Nolan backlash has already begun, with some fans inexplicably trying to rewrite the history books to cast his Dark Knight trilogy as a hiccup in Batman history. But even the Nolan era and the shockwaves still being felt at Warner Bros. can be seen as an overcorrection from the excesses of the previous iteration of the franchise.

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After the critical disaster that was Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin, the only way to re-establish Batman was by grounding him as firmly as possible in the real world. But going back even further, the franchise that met its neon-drenched demise in its fourth installment had its roots in an overcorrection of its own. For over two decades public perception of Batman was shaped by Adam West and Burt Ward in full pop art glory. Batman comics quickly moved on from the outsized camp influence of the excellent TV show, returning the character to his Dark Knight Detective roots within a year of the show leaving the airwaves, but fifteen plus years of constant rotation in syndication did little to dispel the TV influence.

But in 1985, DC Comics published two very clear statements of intent: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. While there’s little to be said about either of these books that hasn’t been said elsewhere, and they need no further praise heaped upon them, it’s sufficient to say for now that they helped dispel the popular notion that the superhero genre was one aimed primarily at children.

The problem is that the comic book industry quickly learned the wrong lessons from The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. Underneath the sex, violence, neuroses, and psychoses on display, there were actual stories, political allegories, and rich characters, all tied up with some wonderful artwork. Within five years, comic book publishers, in a desperate attempt to reinforce the legitimacy afforded by increasingly scholarly examinations of these books, piled up caped dead bodies and foregrounded all of the violence and little of the nuance of the works they were continuously chasing.

It’s a trend that continues to this day, occasionally with uncomfortable or unintentionally funny results (DC’s Identity Crisis and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Reign come to mind). The words of the day were “grim” and “gritty” which sound an awful lot like “realistic” and “edgy” when you think about it. When DC Comics relaunched their entire line in 2011 under “The New 52” banner, it was with one eye on making these characters more friendly for potential TV and movie adaptations, and they haven’t exactly been a barrel of laughs.

DC is going back to this well once more, bringing Frank Miller back for another sequel to The Dark Knight Returns. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing, were it not for the fact that the first sequel to that legendary work, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, was a critical (albeit not commercial) disaster, and Miller’s other relatively recent Batman work, All-Star Batman and Robin, flirted with self-parody. The fact that this one bears the unfortunate title of The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, isn’t winning any converts, either.

Like DC and its competitors did with the work of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, it’s possible that Warner Bros. learned the wrong lesson from Christopher Nolan. The impressive work that he did on the Batman franchise isn’t anything resembling a “one size fits all” approach for multiple franchises, especially when it’s unlikely that the studio is willing to give anyone the kind of creative freedom Nolan enjoyed on the Dark Knight movies this time around. Part of the secret of Marvel’s success is consistency, and that means they keep a close eye on most of their directors (just ask Edgar Wright and Alan Taylor). It’s safe to say that WB will happily take that particular page out of Marvel’s playbook.

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Perhaps a little moderation is in order. There was a similar non-story back in August, when it was reported that Warner had a “no jokes” policy regarding their superhero movie universe (something which clearly isn’t the case, since The Flash movie is flirting with LEGO Movie masterminds Phil Lord and Chris Miller). This may have been blown out of proportion, but those extraordinarily downbeat Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice trailers did little to clear the air.

On the other hand, there’s clearly no such edict in place for their television superheroes. The Flash revels in nerdy humor every week, while Arrow (which began life as a Batman Begins clone) embraced the Marvel movie method by its second season, offering up plenty of fan service on a weekly basis. Even the first episode of the upcoming Supergirl TV series showed the title character in costume and (gasp!) smiling.

In fairness to Warner Bros., it’s entirely too soon to judge the direction of their cinematic universe based on a few stray quotes, General Zod’s broken neck, and the fact that multiple people in charge apparently think calling a movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a good idea. A little moderation might be in order, and the folks in charge might want to look at comic book history for a warning about what not to do, just as surely as they should look there for potential stories.

A version of this article originally ran on March 9th, 2015.