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MARVEL v. D.C. (pg. 4)

Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and others discuss THE PUNISHER, WATCHMEN, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS,
and the origin of the "Batman vs Superman" battle.

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Tilda Swinton as the archangel Gabriel in D.C.'s CONSTANTINE (2005)


     As Marvel films such as HOWARD THE DUCK and Corman’s FANTASTIC FOUR wallowed in the subpar arena, the D.C.’s properties made hand-over-fist millions, and received critical accolades, for everything from its Burton BATMANs (even the Joel Schumacher films were profitable), to TV endeavors such as LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN, SMALLVILLE and THE FLASH (a critical hit though not a ratings one); onto its acclaimed animated universe which included BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES, the lauded theatrical film BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM and more. 

     D.C. television hits

     At the dawn of the new cinematic millennium however, Marvel (and of course by now you’re seeing how this “back and forth” seesaw goes) would again “leap frog” over D.C. in the (apparent) popularity department for the first time since its original publications of the 1960s. “Apparent” because while (in media at least) the D.C. films of the 2000s would come under criticism for being too dark, and therefore supposedly shunned by audiences, in actuality they - with the notable exceptions of CATWOMAN (2004), JONAH HEX and THE LOSERS (both 2010), and GREEN LANTERN (2011) - would all be financial hits around the world. Yes, even Bryan Singer’s SUPERMAN RETURNS! (2006). Oh, and if you’re wondering, we’re not counting 2003’s THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN film (loosely based on Alan Moore’s comic book series published by D.C.’s “America’s Best” imprint) because, produced by 20th Century Fox, it was not a D.C. / Warner project.

     D.C. theatrical misses

     At any rate, as mentioned at the beginning of this piece, when glancing at a box office tally breakdown of the so-called “D.C. vs. Marvel Battle”, it’s remarkable to notice (not counting at the time of this writing the recently released BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, and soon-to-be-released CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR) that the combined worldwide ticket take of Marvel & D.C. comic book adaptations over the last 25 years has been a whopping $16 billion pretty much evenly divided between the properties of both companies.  

     The largest bulk of that “$16 bill split two ways” began in 2004 for Marvel with the founding of its Marvel Studios self-financing slate, and in 2009 for D.C. with the official establishment by Warner Bros. of “D.C. ENTERTAINMENT”.  In launching DCE, Warner Bros. assigned Diane Nelson - former Walt Disney Records promotions director, and former Warner Vice President of Global Brand Management, the new triple-threat titles of “President of DC Entertainment”, “President Of Warner Bros. Consumer Products” and “President & Chief Content Officer of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment”.

     Quite a bit for one person to take on all at once, especially when considering the “believe it or not” fact that, even though Warner Bros. for years had cranked out a successful series of films based upon their D.C. properties (incl. the Burton BATMANs, SUPERMAN RETURNS, Nolan’s first two DARK KNIGHTs, and Snyder’s WATCHMEN), until Nelson was appointed head of DCE the studio really had no officially designated D.C. Comics film division. Before 2009 the decisions on which films to make, and how to make and market them, largely fell to the WB brass themselves with now and then input from particular film makers. For this reason for a short period director / producers Nolan and Snyder became the defacto “creative heads” of Warner / D.C.’s unnamed-at-the-time film division.

  President of D.C. Entertainment Diane Nelson

     In October 2014, on the eve of the release of Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR, the Wall Street Journal detailed how Nolan had come to be revered (and wield the creative power) of few film makers within a single studio since Hitchcock, Spielberg or Cameron. Owing to the fact that not only were his first two Batman entries, BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, worldwide smashes, but that his INCEPTION (2010) - a complex and heady non-franchise film, was just as equally successful with critics and audiences, Nolan had established a name (and filmic brand) within the WB studio for entertaining genre crossed with artistic intellectualism. As such he became the darling of the studio, along with Snyder, who’s 300 and WATCHMEN were also critical and audience faves displaying an intelligence considered not usual for the comic book genre at the time.  

     Nolan declined the offer to spearhead D.C.’s upcoming slate of comic book films, though he would show his gratitude for Warner’s support of him over the years (from INSOMNIA through INTERSTELLAR) by co-producing (via his Syncopy production banner) with Snyder MAN OF STEEL, DAWN OF JUSTICE, and (if reports hold true) the upcoming WONDER WOMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE.

     While the Marvel films tended to be more “upbeat”, the D.C. films would (counter-programming-like) deliberately work the “Dark Side of the  Comic Book Street” - this to the chagrin of some. For a brief time yes, Marvel would flirt theatrically with darker material via it’s short lived “Marvel Knights” banner. But when their licensed properties featured in the films PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008) and GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGENCE (2012) failed to sufficiently ignite the box office (RIDER was profitable; WAR ZONE was not), the characters reverted back to Marvel’s ownership.

  Marvel theatrical "minus" column - WAR ZONE ('08) / TV "plus" column - JESSICA JONES('15)

      Fiege and company then made the decision to reserve it’s darker material mostly for the burgeoning OnDemand / Netflix-like television streaming world where fans of those edgier denizens of the Marvel universe - like DAREDEVIL, JESSICA JONES and LUKE CAGE - would find a more suitable arena in which to explore the fascinatingly murky psyches of those cult characters who don’t quite fit into the more pastel-colored landscape of SPIDER-MAN, THOR, CAPTAIN AMERICA or THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Hey, that ass-kicking vigilante Frank Castle himself (aka “The Punisher”) would even show up, to great critical acclaim, in Season Two of Netflix’s DAREDEVIL.    

     With its choice to work the “darker side of the street” (a decision confirmed by the failure of its “lighter” comic-book-to-film adaptation GREEN LANTERN in 2011) D.C. would boldly stake its cinematic claim with a series of edgier-than-Marvel comic book films such as the Jack The Ripper thriller FROM HELL (2001), BATMAN BEGINS (2005), CONSTANTINE (2005), the politically incendiary “V” FOR VENDETTA (2006), THE DARK KNIGHT (2008), WATCHMEN (2009), THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) and MAN OF STEEL (2013).

       ROAD TO PERDITION (2002) - Based on the 1998 D.C. / Vertigo graphic novel

(click image to enlarge pane)

     At the same time, refuting the myth that darker themed comics-to-film don’t register with audiences, a slew of numerous other “dark and edgy” non-D.C. / non-Marvel adaptations exploded across movie multiplexes - nearly all of them critically and financially successful. Among the many (which many audiences didn’t even realize were adapted from comics sources) were ROAD TO PERDITION, SIN CITY, 300, AMERICAN SPLENDOR, VIRUS, THE MASK, WANTED, GHOST WORLD, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, HELLBOY and HELLBOY: THE GOLDEN ARMY, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, RED and RED 2, DREDD, WHITEOUT, BULLETPROOF MONK, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL, KICK-ASS, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, PRIEST, KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, SURROGATES, and 2 GUNS.

COMIC BOOKS UNBOUND: "The New Hollywood" (2008) - excerpt:
  With Guillermo del Toro, Stan Lee, Ron Perlman, Edward Norton, Kevin Fiege,
Robert Downey Jr., Mike Mignola, Gweneth Paltrow, Paul Pope, Jeff Bridges


BATMAN v SUPERMAN (2016) score - "Men Are Still Good" (H. Zimmer / Junkie XL)  

     At the time of the finishing of this article (we actually started it last fall, stepped away to attend to film and podcast works, then returned to it) Warner / D.C.’s BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE is in its second week of release. Officially bowing on Friday March 25th, 2016, it received an “early bird” debut (increasingly common these days) on Thurs. night March 24th. And not even through the U.S. Easter holiday weekend it, in spite of mixed reviews, received immensely positive film-goer word of mouth to the tune of taking in a whopping $424 million globally in 2 ½ days.  Not too shabby. In fact the “Cinematic SuperSlam match” took the box office crown away from previous March opening weekend champion THE HUNGER GAMES, and it trails only STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, JURASSIC WORLD and HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HOLLOWS PT. 2 as the top weekend opening of all time. To date the highest ranking comic book-to-film adaptation on that list.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) opening weekend

     In our recent GullCottageOnline article “The Kobayashi Maru of THE FORCE AWAKENS” , and also earlier in this piece, we posited the notion of the “perpetual motion” concept of popular success, wherein a film (or book, album, TV series or any trend in general) becomes increasingly popular … because it’s popular; and the average person, unwilling to be left out of the conversation, must find out for themselves “what all the talk is about”. While this can account for a surge of interest in a project, it cannot account for the sweepingly cross-cultural global box office of something like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE EXORCIST, JAWS, STAR WARS, E.T., TITANIC, THE DARK KNIGHT or PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN.

     In other words, there’s isn’t that much curiosity in all the world to make those films as successful, right out of the gates, as they all were / are. They all, in their own unique way, managed to somehow tap into the current sub-conscious sociological zeitgeist of their eras – which is usually a larger scale extension of the shifting turmoil within the minds of individual audience members.

    BATMAN V. SUPERMAN concept art

     This is how a film such as BATMAN V. SUPERMAN can be simultaneously critically derided by some, but publically embraced by many. And yes, we realize the film isn’t universally panned by critics. Many have given it high marks including Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers who proclaimed …

     “Better than MAN OF STEEL but below the high bar set by Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT, DAWN OF JUSTICE is still a colossus - the stuff that DC Comics dreams are made of for that kid in all of us who yearns to see Batman and Superman suit up and go in for the kill”.

     And Mark Hughes, in his Forbes Magazine review “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN TRIUMPHANT” referred to the film as …

     “… the follow-up to THE DARK KNIGHT that many viewers and fans wanted or hoped for; … it's visually stunning, with powerful emotional storytelling; an awe-inspiring action spectacle”.

     Perhaps the most telling, … or at the very least the one with which we most concur, Charles Koplinski of the Illinois Times, in his piece “Intelligent Script Grounds JUSTICE” called it …

     “… a brooding, but most importantly intelligent take on the seminal figures of our 20th century pop culture mythology; a movie that at once pays tribute to these characters' roots while offering up modern incarnations of them that ring true for our times”


     Perhaps via coincidence of time of birth, which made us one of those split down the middle / Robert Bolt / A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS-kind-of personalities (we were raised on both the more traditional “family friendly” versions of Batman and Superman as well as on the darker revisionist take of the 1980s - 90s) we clearly understand why some love, while others despise, the Snyder MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE reworkings of the characters – much of the debate seeming to stem from subjective individual perceptions / conceptions of what those characters are, and what they personally mean to each individual audience member.


     As many aren't familiar with the “canon” of Marvel characters such as IRON MAN, the X-MEN or NICK FURY as laid down when they were first created back in the 1960s, they aren't aware of the massive differences between those original versions and their 1980s re-working / revamping / upgrades if you will. And as such they aren't bothered by the canonical changes to them within the current Marvel films … simply because they weren’t aware of original canon to begin with.

     Because many were familiar, however, with the original canon of Marvel's most iconic SPIDER-MAN, many didn't take too kindly to the two Marc Webb films, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2012) and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014), even though they were rather faithful to the tone of the Spidey books of the later 80s / 90s era. Once again, an audience can only judge / gauge a film as “good”, “bad” or “faithful” to the extent that it is aware of the original material on which it is based. This is normal.


     Because every audience member certainly is aware of Batman and Superman, even if they’ve never read a Batman or Superman comic book, they will be in love with their own childhood conceptions of these characters - perhaps mostly taken from the George Reeves, Adam West and Richard Donner TV and filmic depictions. But when you make a Batman / Superman film (or films) drawing material from the Frank Miller / Alan Moore era - where Batman, after a lifetime of battling crime, and repeatedly witnessing the deaths of those he loves, becomes near villainous, you're bound to encounter flack from those unfamiliar with that character arc. Case in point - were you aware that there were a number of other "Robins" in the BATMAN stories after Dick Grayson? 

       BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE makes reference to one of the most famous (or infamous) of them, Jason Todd, the next young man to don the Robin costume after the departure of an aging Grayson. In 1988's BATMAN: A DEATH IN THE FAMILY story arc, Todd is captured and killed by The Joker; and for years Batman blames himself. That's what the "Ha! Ha! Ha! Joke's on you Batman" message painted / scrawled on that suit in DAWN OF JUSTICE was all about.


     In an attempt to avoid (we'll reuse that phrase from our earlier D.O.J. film review) "re-blocking old hat", in the late 1980s / early 90s the BATMAN comic book creators made the Bruce Wayne character more intriguing by allowing him to age - with all of the positives and negatives which go along with it. Among the positives was an even more cleverly stealthy (damned near ninja-like) Batman slinking through the nocturnal landscapes of Gotham. On the negative side however, the "World's Greatest Detective" also became more like a Detective who's spent too much time on the street, ... with that time beginning to soil his very soul. This was the Batman which re-emerged in Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS (1988). And it's also why director Zack Synder chose Ben Affleck (approaching his mid 40s he's to date the oldest actor to portray Batman) for DAWN OF JUSTICE.

     Now, this is (relatively) newer material to which many are unaware, and which they will therefore mistakenly interpret as being unfaithful to previously established "canon". But canon, not unlike those "Uncanny X-MEN" is forever changing / forever evolving. Today Kryptonite, Lex Luthor, the Fortress of Solitude, and the backstory of Superman's father Jor-El are all considered near-biblical canon within the SUPERMAN mythos. But most of these concepts didn't exist when the character was first created. They were added years later; and now, in historical retrospect to modern audiences, are assumed to have "always been there".

"Accepted as canon" depictions of Frankenstein's Monster & Medusa are actually newer re-imaginings

     The same with the depiction of a flat-headed FRANKENSTEIN with neck bolts, or a Medusa with the body of a serpent. It wasn't until the 1931 James Whale film that Frankenstein's monster (created by Mary Shelly in 1818); and the 1981 appearance of the legendary Gorgon (created in ancient Greece) in CLASH OF THE TITANS, that these depictions of those famous characters came to be considered the canonical depictions. In fact today there are those completely unaware that these depictions have not "always been there". The same with the BATMAN and SUPERMAN characters, and their newer "sacrilegious" reinterpretations in recent films. Quite simply when you make reference to a reworking / re-inventing of a canon to which the majority of an audience is not familiar, the perception (as sincerely and unknowingly slanted as it may unknowingly be) becomes that that new film(s) are being sacrilegious to laid down and established rules … when they actually aren't. They're just faithful to rules of which many are unaware.

SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006): Superman prevents a 9/11 inspired calamity  


     Also, it’s important to keep in mind (and just simply notice) that, while maybe slightly updated a bit here and there, the Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman characters in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE aren't really all that dramatically different from their earlier depictions. The world in which they now live, however - a violent, cynical, xenophobic, post 9/11 world, very much is. And as such those characters in BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, and in MAN OF STEEL, are having difficulty "fitting in" with it. That to us is what is so fascinating with BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, and the Snyder films in general. Superman is still Superman, but a xenophobic world (as depicted in the films) isn't embracing him now in the manner in which they did back in that entirely different, innocent and alien world of America during the 1950s.

  MAN OF STEEL (2013): Superman fails to prevent a 9/11 inspired calamity

     As also alluded to in our THE FORCE AWAKENS piece, we deduce that many are upset that (more than with the characters being supposedly altered) their fond childhood memories associated with those characters are being usurped. So, in a way the newer films become "guilty by association" with those memories. The new adaptations can't win because, in the subconscious minds of some audience members, "NOTHING will ever compete with, when as a 12 yr. old, I saw Chris Reeve fly for the first time as Superman". In this all too common – if unrecognized – scenario we’re not comparing the new film to its own established canon of which we may or may not be familiar, we’re comparing it to the personal canon our own lives at a certain point in our own well remembered history. Our judgement becomes based more on personal recollection, and emotions associated with that recollection, rather than being based on the fact that the film is a "good" or "bad" new adaptation in and of itself.

     Not unlike with the original releases of SNOW WHITE, FANTASIA, BLADE RUNNER and THE THING, the objective determination of the “good” or “bad” of the film itself is being swallowed up by said film’s conformity, or lack thereof, to the current popular (and personal) zeitgeist.  

     One more thing in closing … .

     Too heavy a topic / subtext for the panels of a comic book, or the frame of comic book film? Then you really don't know either.  One of the greatest strengths of film in general, and the genre film in particular, is the manner in which the latest additions to the art form (intentionally, but more often than not unintentionally) mirrors the brooding inner trauma of society at large – essentially becoming the “waking dream state” in which audiences purge / exorcise dark and brooding fears, concerns, anxieties and other hang-ups via the cathartic osmosis of seeing others play them out before us on screen. Arguably second only to the horror genre, the comic book genre (in print and in film) does this more often, and more effectively than any other. 

     During the 1940s, when, in the minds of many, the line between good and evil was much more cleanly delineated, the comic book heroes all (Superman, Wonder Woman, the earlier versions of Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and others) went off to fight Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan with great gusto and (now realized in retrospect) a degree of ethnic simplicity. And both of these were a parallel to the feelings of the public at large. During the post war / Cold War 1950s the comics industry endured its own mini version of the McCarthy “Witch Hunts” as comics were blamed for that rise in juvenile delinquency. Then subsequently, just as in society at large, the individual uniqueness of many characters was homogenized into saccharine cookie-cutter “family friendly” paternal versions of their former selves.


(February 1976)

     During the 1960s – 70s, the backlash against those societal expectations for everyone to conform to LEAVE IT TO BEAVER / BRADY BUNCH-like ideals, mirrored itself in the rebellious rise of the marginalized “counter culture” (and growingly minority based) heroes of the Marvel universe – realized in characters such as SPIDER-MAN, X-MEN, HULK, BLACK PANTHER, FALCON and a time-displaced CAPTAIN AMERICA.

     During the “carry a big stick” Ronald Regan / Margaret Thatcher years – when “actions speak louder than words” filmic heroes such as Schwarzenegger, Norris, and Van Damme ruled the multiplex, anti-hero characters such as the WOLVERINE, THE PUNISHER, GHOST RIDER, DAREDEVIL, ELEKTRA and SPAWN saw a surge in popularity as they spoke to the “Why do criminals get all the rights?” angst of the day. Batman would re-emerge as a more emotionally scarred version of his former self. Superman would take on new psychological depth – he even beginning to question whether or not he, as an alien, truly belonged. And new characters such THE WATCHMEN would arise to question accepted concepts of heroism and political patriotism.

      The next seismic shift within the zeitgeist of popular Western consciousness was the fateful morning of September 11th, 2001. With the terrorist attack on, and decimation of New York’s World Trade Towers, mainland America, and by extension those nations under her protective umbrella, were rudely awakened to the fact that they were as open and susceptible to mass acts of subversive terrorist warfare every bit as any warlord-torn so-called distant Third World nation. Triggering a defensive net, both geographically and mentally, America would see herself fall into a level of political paranoia the likes of which had not been experienced since the days following Pearl Harbor or the advent of the Cold War.

    New York City - September 11th, 2001

     Politicians began to speak of building walls, civil rights would be curbed in controversial actions such as the Patriot Act, the NSA would be granted greater powers of surveillance, and the government would begin to lean on corporations such as Apple in attempts to force them to apply its technological knowledge in services deemed essential to national security. The internal pressure would aggravate pre-existing social fault lines, and split even wider ethnic, economic, religious and racial divides; pitting citizens against one another not only in voting booths, but in physical protest clashes such as the “Occupy Wall Street”, “Black Lives Matter” and “Ban the Confederate Flag” movements.

 Cap is introduced to S.H.I.E.L.D.'s controversial "Terrorist Deterrent" in THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014)

     As was the norm, both comic books and their film renditions would both foresee and then comment on this state of civil unrest. How could they not? Echoing Stephen King's "What makes you think I had a choice?" truism, both Marvel and D.C. - and we're not just talking the corporate entities, but the artists and writers and their families and other loved ones, had lifelong connections to New York City. And many personally lost some of those loved ones on that tragic September morning. How could a cathartic "exorcism" of sorts, ... a creative purging of consciousness and anxiety not show up in their work from that point onward?

      While in many ways the comic books of the early 2000s themselves explored and made commentary on 9/11 specifically, years later the films based on the comics of that not-long-ago era would (logically and chronologically) explore the fallout (societal "collateral damage" if you will) of that cultural shift point in American history. Hence MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER and (if it lives up to specs) CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Once again we remind you how the world itself has changed dramatically since the days of Richard Donner's SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE.

  MAN OF STEEL (2013) - The quintessential post 9/11 "First Contact" film?

     The “First Contact” sci fi film has long been a staple of genre history. For our purposes divided into two categories – the “Benign Visitation” First Contact and “Alien Invasion” First Contact - the popularity of each tends to vary according to the social climate of the day. The optimistic “Benign Visitation” saga, such as CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, E.T., STARMAN and John Sayles’ THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET, features a peaceful (even Christ-like) visitor from another world who brings wisdom and knowledge, and causes humankind to reexamine said humanity in the hope of bettering themselves for the future.

     The more cynical “Invasion” yarn on the other hand is self explanatory. With WAR OF THE WORLDS, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE THING, INDEPENDENCE DAY and the like, the “Invasion” tale often mirrors the paranoia of the era in which it is released every bit as much as the “Benign Visitation” saga mirrors it’s sense of hope. Zack Snyder’s MAN OF STEEL is among the most unique of science fiction films ever made in that it is simultaneously both!

     In MAN OF STEEL Superman / Clark Kent is the benign visitor – with all of which that entails; and General Zod and his force, armed with their “World Engine” planetary terraforming devices, are the antagonistic invaders who (true to filmic history) come to represent contemporary national fear and xenophobia. Unlike the way in which Superman is embraced in the beloved Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1940s, TV’s THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN in the 1950s, and Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN THE MOVIE of the 1970s, in the post 9/11 era MAN OF STEEL, while Superman himself is still the classically benign, Christ-like visitor, he is met not with welcoming arms, but by a wounded, fearful and suspicious world which can’t tell whether he is friend or foe, and essentially decides the most expediently wise course of action is to treat him as the later.


     This sentiment is clearly carried over into BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE wherein Bruce Wayne / Batman, both emotionally scarred by the senseless murder of his parents years ago, and guilt-ridden over the more recent tragic yet seemingly preventable loss of a number of employees under him, commandeers the mantle of self-appointed savior of humanity, and declares of Superman, “He’s a potentially dangerous alien who, if he wanted to, could annihilate our entire world; and if there’s even a one in one thousand chance he might do that, it’s our duty to act to prevent it from happening”. A rather familiar line of monologue heard during many a contemporary Sunday morning political interview show, is it not?

Illustration by Alex Ross (2002)

(click image to enlarge)

     For those eager to use this as fodder for the argument that D.C. is indeed taking things far too seriously these days (with all of those post 9/11 paranoia references and such), please note that Marvel's AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) - you know, from the "lighter" side of the street - does the same thing. Only in place of the alien / foreign  "benign or threatening" paradigm, AGE OF ULTRON does it's clever "two sides of the same coin" post 9/11 subtextual paranoia narrative using the concept of the present day cyber threat.

     Just as the degree of optimism or pessimism of the "First Contact" subgenre varies depending on the socio-political mood of the day, so has / does the "Cyber" subgenre follow(ed) suit.  Think about it. During the Cold War / nuclear fear days of the 1950s - 60s the new all powerful computing machine was often the modern day version of the "magic antidote" or elixir which helped stave off 3rd Act cinematic calamity in films such as THEM!, EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS and THIS ISLAND EARTH.  But by the time we get to the much more politically cynical Vietnam / Watergate era of the late 1960s / 1970s the once marvel of man has become a threat in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT, DEMON SEED, THE TERMINAL MAN, WESTWORLD, etc. 

    1970s vs. 80s Cyber-tech (clockwise): DEMON SEED (1977), D.A.R.Y.L. (1985), SHORT CIRCUIT (1986)

      During the more optimistic 1980s, just as "First Contact" films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, E.T. and STARMAN encouraged us to lay aside old school fears of the unknown, so too did the "Cyber" film genre introduce more benign and trusting "silicon based" characters like SHORT CIRCUIT's "Johnny Five", the government created A.I. child in 1985's D.A.R.Y.L., and even the defense system WOPR / "Joshua" of 1983's Oscar nominated WARGAMES. What's that you say, "In WARGAMES Joshua damned near started a Third World War!"? Yes, maybe so. But remember it was only because he / it was following (mirroring) us in what we seemed to deem the important and logical course of action. In the end his more logical central processing mind deduces that thermonuclear war is "a strange game", and that "... the only way to win is not to play". So, in essence, he / it begins as a threat, then (in popularly optimistic 80s era fashion) becomes a hero, ... even though he / it doesn't realize it. 

   AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) - The quintessential post 9/11 "Cyber" film?

      With AGE OF ULTRON we're in the midst of the same post 9/11 MAN OF STEEL thematic paradox of being both types of cyber films - the "positive" and "negative" - at the same. After that fateful day in September dashed the optimism of an entire generation, and replaced it with mistrust, AGE OF ULTRON gave us a comforting (not in what we want, but in what we expect) cyber terrorist threat in the title character himself; he / it cut from the classically antagonistic mold of 2001's "HAL 9000", Professor Forbin's "Colossus", and DEMON SEED's "Proteus IV" - right down to he / it attempting to create a "child". But, just as with MAN OF STEEL, we also at the same time have the more benign and wise side of the same coin in the cyber character "Vision". Partially created from "Jarvis", Tony Stark's computer in all of the previous IRON MAN films, AGE OF ULTRON maintains a wonderful sense of conceptual consistency in having acclaimed actor Paul Bettany (who voiced Jarvis in the IRON MAN films) portray the new character.  

     The current controversy over “Is it civil responsibility or the erosion of civil rights / is it wisdom or xenophobia to take preventative action against a possible or perceived threat?” was predicted over thirty years ago in Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES graphic novel – which, with its Batman vs. Superman climax, serves as partial basis for the current DAWN OF JUSTICE film. It was also kinda / sorta foretold ten years ago in Marvel’s AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR (2006 – 2007 / by Mark Millar & Steve McNiven) where the controversy over a government sanctioned  “Superhero Registration Act” causes an ideological division within the Avengers, which then erupts into those in favor of the act and those opposed to it turning upon one another.  This plotline is adapted into the soon-to-be-released CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR - the first film of the next phase of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.  

     In both the Marvel & D.C. universes a foreign / alien threat leads to controversial policies and actions

     Via these newer films, while still patrolling their respective “lighter” and “darker” sides of the street, both the Marvel and D.C. franchises are thematically concerning themselves with attacks on homeland soil (from both foreign / alien and domestic sources), which leads to increased “security precautions” and an erosion of civil rights, which then leads the members of a community to turn upon one another. Sheer coincidence … or contemporary artistic prescience? It’s fascinating either way; and perhaps more than anything else causes us to double-down on our long held assertion that, within the long (so-called) history of “Marvel vs. D.C.” we champion the side-by-side, “light” and “dark”, “split-right-down-the-middle” reign of both.

      This also brings us full circle regarding the earlier mentioned Gandhi-ish, Robert Bolt "MAN FOR ALL SEASONS / LAWRENCE OF ARABIA / ZHIVAGO"-like "duality" roosting (sometimes dormantly / other times violently) within both the individual as well as the society in which  he / she lives. From microcosmic representations of the divisive struggle within one's own heart and mind to do what's right, to the more macro-cosmic battle within contemporary society to do what's right for the population at large, both the comic book world, along with it's filmic adaptation off-shoots, have proven themselves to often be much more than lighthearted / light-headed / feel good popcorn fodder and nothing more.

     And, for those long-standing comic book / graphic novel fans out there (who haven't read the inset BATMAN V. SUPERMAN film review on pg. 2  - for this issue was broached there as well) as far as so-called “faithfulness to canon” we ask, why are so many in favor of new and revisionist interpretations of ancient, even what some would call sacred, text in films such as THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and NOAH, as well as literature such as Salmon Rushdie’s THE SATANIC VERSES.

     So many of us proudly stand behind those works when they’re criticized by others as being blasphemous. And we champion the concepts of an open-minded and fresh take on a long standing (borderline cliched’) philosophical trope. Yet when it comes to James Bond, STAR WARS, STAR TREK, Superman or Batman, … we’ll have none of it! Uh, uh! To alter them into a new revisionist mode is to either treat them as less than the icons they deserve to be preserved as, … or those doing the modern adaptations have little respect for the value of the originals.  Take a moment to think about that one if you will.

     As with any genre there is a time and place for both the frivolously fun as well as the darker, more penetrating, multi-layered rift on a theme. And to criticize the Marvel films of yesteryear for not being as serious as the Tim Burton / D.C. BATMAN films, then to years later criticize the darker D.C. films for not being as “fun” as the current crop of Marvel releases is as foolishly (and unrealistically) tantamount to the narrow-minded demand that there be no various shades within the comedic film genre. No dark satire of M.A.S.H., political comedy of BULWORTH, perceptive romantic social humor of TOOTSIE, but only the flat out non-sequitur spoof-fests of AIRPLANE, BLAZING SADDLES and I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA’.

      The same with thrillers. We don't insist they must all have the gritty and visceral tone of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, and that lighter ones can't exist laced with humor such as TREMORS, or that others can't be erotically charged like BASIC INSTINCT? The only reason the comic book / comic book film genre is so pigeonholed is because those largely unfamiliar with the source material (and yes, even some who are familiar) still have a problem viewing them as anything other than "kiddie stuff" traded during lunchtime for a baloney sandwich, or adapted into a Saturday morning cartoon. But from the very beginnings of SUPERMAN in the 1930s, the comic book has been but another form of literature. And as such it has that geared towards children, adolescents, teens, and some which is strictly for adults only. R. Crumb's FRITZ THE CAT anyone? 

     Time to give the Adam West version of BATMAN, and the animated THE SUPER FRIENDS rendition of things a rest as being the only kind of representation possible. As societal mores, angst, fears and general beliefs (be they "Left", "Right" or "Middle of the Road") fluctuate, so does the arts in it's music, literature and other forms of popular (and pop culture) entertainment. You may despise Andy Warhol, Philip Glass and Zack Snyder's SUPERMAN next to Goya, Prokofiev and Richard Donner's version, ... but there is room (and a necessity) for all.  

     As both comic book and film fans (as well as world philosophy and religion students) since childhood, we’ve always felt there was room for both traditional and revisionist takes on material. In the end one doesn’t necessarily have to agree with , or even like, that take. But one must (at the very least) give breathing room for both to exist.    

     As such, when viewing those new trailers for the upcoming SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) - sort of an urban DIRTY DOZEN mission with of a band of D.C.’s top villains, we react with a resoundingly shocked “Goddamn!”, immediately followed by a resoundingly impressed “God – f**kin’-damn!”  But there is already talk of Warner / D.C. considering reshoots to tone things down and make them a bit lighter.

    David Ayer's film version of D.C.'s SUICIDE SQUAD

     Written and directed by David Ayer (TRAINING DAY, END OF WATCH, FURY), and with a cast featuring Will Smith as "Deadshot", Jared Leto as "The Joker", Margot Robbie as "Harley Quinn", Jai Courtney as "Boomerang", Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as "Killer Croc", and with an appearance by Ben Affleck as Batman / Bruce Wayne, one wouldn't expect a lighter take on the material. But the finished product either way - lighter or darker, and set to debut in August 2016 - will tell the final wisdom of the decision.

     In the meantime, as long as the creative apple-cart is now and again upset with the surprising addition of a more humorous Marvel based GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY or ANT-MAN; or D.C. pulls a surprisingly more adult-oriented something like SUICIDE SQUAD or FROM HELL from their sleeve of creative tricks, we’ll continue to challenge those naysayers who predict the eminent demise of the comic-to-film genre.

 (click image to enlarge)

     Many foresaw the death knell of the popular printed novel … then along comes JURASSIC PARK, HARRY POTTER, FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, THE HUNGER GAMES, TWILIGHT, ... keep naming 'em! At the height of the “reality TV” movement the same predicted the final gasp of intelligently scripted television; … then we get DEXTER, HOUSE OF CARDS and THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON. Now social media trolls, a handful of critics - who generally didn't care for the genre in the first place (and we admit those muscle filled tights are sometimes a difficult visual pill to swallow), and others peer into cracked crystal balls from whence they divine the end of comic-books-to-film, citing how “too much of the same thing” leads to burnout. And we couldn’t agree more.

     Therefore perhaps it is high time we stop insisting that all Marvel, D.C., and other films snugly fit into the tonal / thematic paradigm of last week’s most successful comic book movie. For from IRON MAN to TANK GIRL, and from SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE to MEN IN BLACK, to MYSTERY MEN, ROAD TO PERDITION, 2 GUNS, BLADE, AMERICAN SLENDOR, MAN OF STEEL and BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, as long as Marvel, D.C., and every other publisher stapling and gluing illustrated pages together, continue to reinvent and reinvigorate the genre, we'll always say there's room for Michael Jackson and Prince, Coke and Pepsi, McDonald's and Burger King, and (of course) both The Stones and The Who.

    Hey, D.C., it's been a long (at times difficult) road in bringing respect to this genre. But you're on the right track.  And you too Marvel.  As mighty as ever, you continue to live up to your name!

     "EXCELSIOR!" to you both.


Super thanks to those extra sets of eyes -
"Wonder Woman" Cindy Falteich and "Dark Knight" Jim Delaney -
for invaluable editing suggestions and creative input.


Pg.  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

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