I’m A Marvel… And I’m A DC

Posted: March 25, 2012 by J. Marcus in Comic Books, Film, Up on The Soap Box
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Ever since those old “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” commercials came out, some enterprising folks immediately capitalized on them and made an analogy between the two big comics companies, Marvel Comics and DC Comics.

For anyone who has read on both sides of that aisle, the differences can be very much like night and day.  Whereas at their core Marvel Comics characters deal with very human emotions, frailties and situations, DC’s characters and problems seem to be more of the melodramatic, galactic scope (or so the argument goes).

Of course each company has its exceptions, but when you ask this is generally what people say the difference is (other than to say that one is just cooler than the other).  I’ve always been more of a DC man myself, but usually that’s been when the characters have found the right balance between being grounded and being larger than life.

Superman is my favorite character, but my favorite Superman was the John Byrne/Dan Jurgens variety which was a bit more human, subject to doubts and concerns, and who for the most part thinks of himself as Clark Kent instead of Kal-El.

This dichotomy between the two companies has unfortunately been carried onto the big screen and the victor seems to be pretty clear. It pains me to say it, but Marvel clearly has dominated the theatrical front.

If you were to ask me why a few weeks ago, I probably would have had a harder time putting it into words.  But recently HBO has been playing Green Lantern (starring Ryan Reynolds) pretty much non-stop.  Also, I just got the Blu-Ray of Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth. [Side note: I DO have the Blu-Ray of Green Lantern, but as we all know, if it’s on cable you’re likely to see it more often than you would just popping in the disc.]

On the surface, these two films are perfect for comparing each company’s approach to filmmaking.  Each has a rich history with galactic scale.  Each has multiple fights going on multiple fronts.  Each is an origin story.  So now that we know what they have in common, let’s talk about how each did things differently.

Both films started with a bit of exposition which, let me tell you, can be rather off-putting.  When you have to start with a ton of backstory, then your story might just be too big to tell.  Or maybe you’re just not telling it right.  The difference here is that once Thor got going, for the most part, exposition was left behind. We started to tell the story we needed to tell.  The stage was set, the players were identified, so now we could kick back and enjoy it.

Green Lantern, on the other hand, almost stopped every 20 minutes or so to give you some more backstory.

Thor had a few balls to juggle during the film.  We had what was happening on Asgard, what was happening on Earth and what was happening with the frost giants.  Green Lantern had us dealing with what was happening on OA with the Corps, what was happening with Hal Jordan, what was happening with Hector Hammond and keeping tabs on Parallax.  Offhand, this doesn’t seem like GL had many more things than Thor.  What is apparent when watching, however, is that while Thor happens in a more-or-less linear way, Green Lantern bounces from place to place, character to character, interrupting flow so that you have no idea where you should be looking next.

Now, Thor’s story is relatable.  How can it be relatable if we’re talking about the Thunder God, you ask?  How can any of us relate to gods?  Well, most of us can’t, but what we can relate to is family, and at the core of Thor is a very simple story about a father’s relationship with his sons.

Green Lantern kinda has that too, but it’s convoluted and wrapped up in such a mess that you almost don’t really care.  You see, this comes back to the backstory issue.  Because Thor got that out of the way in the first ten minutes, you can spend your time concentrating on the story unfolding around you.  Green Lantern, however, is trying so hard to shoehorn in so much continuity that the story itself gets lost.  And here you have a lesson you could have learned from Doctor Who or, if you want to hit closer to home, Superman.

Doctor Who is the longest running science fiction show in the history of television.  One of the more notable aspects of this is that the premise for the show was a work-in-progress and still hasn’t been finalized.  The show did not arrive fully-formed on that fateful day in 1963.  Instead, over the course of over 25 years a rich tapestry was unfurled and the picture became fuller.  In the late 1990s there was an attempt to bring Doctor Who back to television—years after its cancellation, a TV movie was made to reintroduce the character to the public while, at the same time, not starting from scratch.  Unfortunately, the telefilm nearly consumed itself with continuity.  Characters spent half the time spouting exposition from the original series’ 26 years of content rather than actually just telling a story.  The film was overburdened and suffered poorly.  It spent most of its running time shouting “look at me!  I know about my history, see?  Quiz me!  I can tell you about this and that.”  Few people want to see that.  They want to see a good story.

In 2005, Russell T Davies tried again to bring the Time Lord back to television, and he was successful where the earlier TV film failed.  Why did he succeed?  Chief among many reasons was the fact that he did not spill the entire backstory of the character in the pilot.  He only gave us what we needed to get through the story.  The rest would come later.  In the case of Davies, he was still finding new nostalgic nuggets to show us by the end of his run years later.

And what about Superman: The Movie?  Largely considered one of the greatest comic book films ever made, it had a bigger burden than, say, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man or Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.  Why?  Because unlike those two, it had the serious burden of having to tell an intergalactic story within its own framework.  Director Richard Donner’s insistence on verisimilitude is constantly cited as one of the main reasons why this film works, and I’ll even take it a step further.  The film itself is a three-act story.  Act one is a science fiction tale set on another planet.  The second act is a Capra-esque story set in middle America.  The third act is a contemporary action/love story.  With little more than passing exception, the story structure stays intact.  Each act is more or less self-contained.  As a result, the audience is given ample time and ability to process what is going on.  The story itself remains relatable because you are on this journey.  If instead, the film was bogged down by Kryptonian technology (and explanations of it) as well as constant references to the more alien aspects of Superman, the audience would have likely been turned off.  If you don’t believe me, go see Superman Returns.

If Green Lantern wanted to have any chance of succeeding at the box office, it should have broken the story into two films.  The first film should have been Hal getting the ring and figuring out (more or less on his own) how to use it.  There should have been a powerful, Earth-based villain (Hector Hammond more-or-less as portrayed would have worked nicely).  As the credits were about to roll at the end, that would’ve been when you introduce the Guardians, OA and a promise of larger scale for the second film.

Instead, the writers tried too hard to shoe-horn in too many buzz incidents.  Parallax, the Corps, the Lantern Wars, etc. It’s too much to put in one film.  Remember the primary complaint of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 was that it felt like Batman was a guest star in his own film.  What do you think happened here?

It’s in this vein that I have to say that I come back to Zack Snyder’s upcoming The Man of Steel.  Already, in my mind, too much thought has been given to the Kryptonian side of this story.  As my “exhibit A”, I present this quote from costume designer Michael Wilkerson at last week’s 5D | FLUX conference:

Wilkinson explained that since they created a “neo-medieval” back story for Krypton (which included the creation of a new language), it made sense to utilize the suit design as part of the mythology. “Everyone on Krypton wears this suit,” he suggested. Using ZBrush and rapid prototyping, Wilkinson came up the blue/gray color and chainmail look. “It has function and purpose and a logic to this fantastical world,” he added.

Superman should not be about Krypton in film. NEVER.  Not if you want to appeal to a mass audience.  If you want to hit the niche stuff, fine.  But I ask you, who cares about going to see a Superman movie about Krypton?  I want to see Superman and lots of him.  I want to see derring-do.

Superman, James Bond, Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk… if you look at the most successful iterations of these characters away from the comics, you’ll see that they don’t have to be 100% faithful to the subject material to work.  What they do need is a healthy dose of respect for the source material and they have to get the broad strokes right.  And you have to know why people enjoy the subject material and how to pace your story.

Again, a Corps War comic series works for Green Lantern mainly because you have so much backstory already told.  If you started a new character and, right off the bat, introduced this cosmic event, 9 times out of 10 he won’t be a long-term character.  Take, for example, DC’s attempt to make Armageddon 2001‘s Waverider into a lasting character. He works plug-and-play as needed, but we didn’t really get a chance to warm up to him before he was foisted upon us.  We went along with him for the story, but once that story was done he was unnecessary.

But I digress.  I fear that DC has not and will not learn the lessons of its past.  I fear that consolidating the DC Entertainment unit might have even made all this worse.  I have lost faith in their creative leadership despite the fact that I know and love every name on that masthead.

Co-publisher Dan Didio sat at the head of DC Comics during some of the best series I had read in the company’s history (as well as some of the less-than-stellar ones of course, but the man has a damned fine pedigree).  Geoff Johns is the chief creative officer and his work has been outstanding.  In addition to making the JSA more interesting than it had been in years and penning the beautifully crafted Superman story “Up, Up and Away”, he is also credited with bringing Green Lantern back to top-tier status in the comics (which makes the “failure” of the film even more confounding.)  And let’s not forget co-publisher Jim Lee whose incredible art has graced landmark covers from almost every major publisher.

Somehow when you put these people in a room together you expect something huge (and I don’t mean galactic in scale, I mean amazing).  And yet I feel like the folks at Marvel still seem to understand what these gentlemen do not.  The key to getting these things to work is to make the worlds inhabitable.  Comic book fantasies (in my humble opinion) work best when their reality can almost be layered on top of ours.  The further you get from that, the less likely anyone is going to want to care.  After all… look at Superman.  You’re already asking the audience to believe the guy can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes.  How much more fantastic do you need to make his world before you’re just burdening the audience with too much work?

Gentlemen, the competition is eating your lunch.  Please do something about this.

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