While Marvel Comics continues to draw success from reaching further and further into its stash of lesser-known characters, the competing DC brand might seem like it's destined to play catch-up forever. But something different is being attempted by DC that is potentially more ambitious and more rewarding.
When Man of Steel (2013) director Zack Snyder claimed that "Batman and Superman are transcendent of superhero movies" late last year, it was more than a casual snipe at Marvel. We can mine the seemingly throwaway line for insight into what we might expect from the DC universe as it develops on screen. In anticipation of the March opening of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Snyder and starring Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, it's worth considering its significance in the continued resurrection of DC's brand.
We should remember that selling Superman on the big screen has caused DC trouble in the past. After a steady decline in the quality of Richard Donner's films starring Christopher Reeve, there have been no fewer than four failed major attempts by Warner Brothers to bring the character to fruition. These have included Tim Burton's cancelled Superman Lives starring Nicholas Cage, and Superman: Flyby, scripted by J.J. Abrams. The film that did come together, Brian Singer's Superman Returns, didn't hit its mark in 2006 and killed a planned sequel in its tracks.
You'd think they wouldn't have so much trouble putting him on screen. You'd think Superman, a guy with limitless power, would excite us like he did forty years ago. In the late seventies, it was enough to see a man withstanding a bullet or flying into space. But his abilities have now receded into something too obvious and too simple to stand on their own. We demand intricate conflict from our superheroes now, an ambiguous enemy, and an ambiguous self. We demand an exotic realism where the superhero has to be in danger of being foiled by more than a single substance. This is the way that the superhero genre has itself been transcended by the shifting standards of Hollywood drama.
Marvel has conquered cinema so far by developing a cast of heroes with powers that can be variously opposed with technology and mature criminal or governmental organization. Ironman is only as good as his mind and the limitations of his suit; Spiderman and Captain America are basically athletes on performance-enhancing drugs; Hawkeye, Black Widow and Daredevil, little more than avid gym goers. Hulk might seem like an exception to this trend, but only if Hulk is seen as a character, which he isn't. He's a weapon, wielded awkwardly by Bruce Banner.
Only Thor requires special consideration. His power is great enough to challenge Marvel the way that Superman has challenged DC. Marvel has managed to muscle through, in part by taking away his power, in part by moving the Thor narrative off-planet, where the foes (Ice Giants, Dark Elves, Loki, Thanos, the Collector) and the forces (Tessaract, Aether, the other Infinity Stones) are potentially as, or far more, powerful than he. Moreover, Thor's narrative is developed more and more by the Avengers storyline, where he is but one of a host of stars that draw our focus.
For DC the situation is trickier. It essentially has only two major players in the popular imagination, and Superman is the most famous. The stakes are inevitably higher. Snyder could continue to go the way of Marvel's Thor and take Superman's power or face him off against others like him, but you can only play these cards once or twice before they become boring.
How to make Superman more human then? I don't think we'd buy latent psychological trauma over his parents' death, since he was barely conscious of them before it happened. I guess he's entitled to feel mildly displaced when he realizes he has no home to return to, but this can hardly be pushed especially hard, given that it is a reality faced by the millions of refugees fleeing the Middle East - and without super-strength and the power of flight, to boot.
Of course DC's second star, Batman, has managed to find his place in a realistic world. The trauma and psychoses resulting from his parents' murder is a plentiful well from which to draw in explaining both his driving impulses and his conflicted nature. And being human, Batman's body is vulnerable to the kind of wear and tear you'd expect of an overbooked professional stuntman.
The solution we are left with, obvious in hindsight, is to invite Superman into the world already created by DC's ace in the hole: Batman. The gritty atmosphere surrounding Batman (which is largely responsible for the character's success) comes from a kind of faux realism that bounds and limits him in consistent ways. His limitations are emphasized to make him more human, more heroic. It is a world in which the superhero is reduced to the developing dramas of human consciousness. The model here is hardboiled detective and film noir, Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine rather than Christopher Reeves' Clark Kent.
Though Superman can't occupy this world on his own, Snyder will likely be betting that there is much to be gained by association. This is the transcendence we can ultimately expect: for Superman to transcend his superhero status by facing off against an ordinary man armed with extraordinary gadgetry, and to be brought down to earth accordingly.
This is the importance of the next film, and the responsibility placed on Snyder's shoulders. DC is actually poised to become the purveyor of a new species of superhero universe, transcendent or not, with dominion over psychological depth. If he gets it right, Snyder will have a franchise commanding near universal fascination, freed from the usual genre novelties of character and plot; if he gets it wrong, DC's recent successes will be drowned out by the claps and clangs of endless Avengers sequels.
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