Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is the DC Universe too Weird to Make it in Movies?

I've been thinking lately about the supposed upcoming slate of movies from DC Entertainment/ Comics.  In the summer of 2011, the Green Lantern (and-all-that-that-implies) is going to hit cinemas everywhere.  Hal Jordan, a cocky, brash test pilot will be given an alien artifact that will enable him to...  not fight crime or overcome a mad scientist...  but to become a patrolman of Sector 2814, one of thousands of green-long-johned spacecops.

Last night I was watching part of 2002's Spider-Man feature, and its all so straight forward.  Guy gets bit by radioactive spider, is more than human, realizes he has a responsibility to use his power for others, beats up thugs and bank robbers, and eventually fights a mad-scientist.  Repeat in Spider-Man 2.  And when they didn't do that in Spidey 3?  It kind of fell apart.

Even the X-Men films boiled down to superheroes vs. Mad Scientist, and Iron Man 1 and 2 both made sure that was the case.

Green Lantern is not this.  I think we'll see some elements of this in the movie, but in the comics, it isn't usually Hal Jordan v. Mad Scientist.  Except that the major villain is Hector Hammond, the lone mad scientist I can think of in Green Lantern's rogues gallery.  And, yeah, he's in the movie.

That said, unlike the masked Green Goblin or the straightforward mecha suits of Iron Man (or Magneto is his dandy maroon finery), DC's heroes and villains tend to tilt a bit more... odd. Hammond may have started off a mad scientist, but for a while, he's been a guy with an giant, immobilizing head that enables him to read minds and project thoughts.

But he has a great personality

While I have no doubt that DC will take a page from Nolan's take on superheroes and try to find some areas where the costumes and suits will look like something somebody might actually do... how does one bring Gorilla Grodd or Ultra-Humanite to the screen and expect for anyone but a kid (or those of us already bought into the idea of Ultra-Humanite) to take the idea seriously?

There's a reason that with multiple movies under his yellow belt and countless hours of TV, too, that Superman's rogues gallery has been largely presented as beginning and ending with Lex Luthor. After all, Lex, unlike Brainiac, isn't a green guy in a pink leotard with USB ports on his head.

Fact:  Brainiac is an intergalactic jerkface

But the real issue to me is that Brainiac's deal in the comics is that he goes from planet to planet shrinking cities until they fit in a bottle, stealing all their data (or copying it, Napster users), and, in some versions, he then blows up the planet. Because Brainiac is a real big jerk.

Brainiac is a villain in his own right, but his original primary function was to bring Kandor, the shrunken, microscopic, Kryptonian "city in a bottle" into the comics. And then you have to talk about Kandor, and just the concept of Kandor is so... well, us Superman fans think its awesome, but everyone else just finds it kind of... weird.

Silver Age villains are always really happy about their evil schemes

Now, does this make sense as a movie? I... don't know. There's a certain level of zaniness you have to embrace in the DCU proper, and when you start to strip that away, sometimes the pieces don't necessarily work together so well anymore.  But I think there are some pretty concrete reasons Superman's movie nemesis is a guy a bit too obsessed with real estate rather than, say, Terra Man.

is America ready for the menace of a cowboy from space and his flying horse?  Terra Man is an actual Superman villain, btw

There's an inherent problem in that:  Would Green Lantern still be interesting if all he did was fight street crime, like Spidey or Batman? When people say they want a gritty, "real" Superman, have they really run the numbers of what that might look like? How interesting is it really going to be watching Superman take out bank robbers for two hours or liquifying people with a single punch?

It's not that Marvel doesn't have weird villains.  It most certainly does.  Have you heard of my pal, MODOK?

Also a big, giant head.  MODOK, btw, = Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing.  Again, I am totally not kidding.

Now, given the opportunity to make a whole bunch of movies, Marvel didn't immediately say "hey, let's put MODOK out there as a villain!". They could have, and they didn't. Because, seriously... look at that guy.  And when Marvel made a movie about Galactus, they did literally everything they could not to show my favorite Marvel villain of all time.

This they turned into a cloud with no lines in FF2.  One of 1,378 cataloged things wrong with the movie.

But somehow running with this sort of thing and believing that everyone thinks stuff like Batmite (Batman's 5th dimensional fan) and Bizarro (I mean, Bizarro... for @#$%'s sake...) are perfectly cromulent ideas is sort of DC's thing. If the villain doesn't look like something your five-year-old niece scribbled on a Denny's children's menu, then they have a background that sounds completely crazy to a lay audience.

Oh, hell go read up on Reverse Flash (aka: Professor Zoom) on your own, and then come back.

Read it?

That's sort of The Joker for The Flash. This guy is in the comics all the time. Now put that in your movie.  The changes that would be required would essentially water Zoom down so much, he wouldn't be the same character anymore.  And that's kind of okay.

Comic fans get all giddy and they really want to see Brainiac and Reverse Flash and whatnot, but when it comes down to it...  I'm not sure you can do this in two hours and not get some puzzled looks from audiences.

This is why a Flash movie, by its nature, is going to have a hard time putting someone against Barry Allen.  All of the Flash's villains, while awesome on the comics page, are completely ridiculous.  The Pied-Piper?  Captain Cold?  The Trickster?  Mirror Master?  And what sort of bag of madness do you introduce with Grodd and Gorilla City?

And that's just The Flash.  I haven't covered Wonder Woman's slate of bad-guys, such as Egg-Fu and Giganta (an attractive red head who can grow to enormous sizes, and who used to be a gorilla, btw).

The secret to those gorgeous curls?  A strong potassium diet.

In the 1980's the audience for comics began aging, growing up with comics that had a feel that previously had come only from movies and tougher TV shows and novels.  The grittier content allowed by the Direct Market began giving comics a bit of credence as a medium that you didn't need to give up on just because you'd finished middle school and had it in mind to talk to girls.

Certainly DC looked at its slate of comic characters circa 1985, and with Crisis on Infinite Earths relaunching their entire universe decided to clean house to continue to appeal to the readers by insisting that these same characters who once had adorable sidekicks and who were buddies with police chiefs could also be rebels, outlaws, antiheroes and as tough as the criminals older readers must know exist.  And, to an extent, in order for comics to make it to the big screen where they wouldn't be rejected as content for little kids and the mentally deficient, Superheroes have always shed the wackier aspects of their mythos.  Certainly you don't see Beppo the Supermonkey showing up in the third reel of Superman 2.*

I look forward to Christopher Nolan's dark take on the Legion of Super Pets.  Also:  Telepathic horse (sort of.  That's the least complicated part about Comet the Superhorse.)
In the past five or six years, however, on the comics side DC has sort of begun to realize that they were running in place continually because they kept trying to find reasons to do everything BUT use their major characters and the zaniness associated.  And in the past five or six years they found out:  their readership actually likes this stuff.

But that's comics.  If DC is going to bring their characters to the big screen without just making up new villains and environs for their heroes...  they're going to need to go about this whole thing very, very carefully.

It doesn't just make the characters easier to understand when you don't clutter them up with nonsense, it also means that critics aren't quite as likely to immediately dismiss your movie about the man in bat ears punching poor people and mental patients.

Marvel's heroes have the advantage of feeling somewhat more grounded in reality.**  Buying a teenager putting on tights as Spider-Man works to an extent because for the first part of the film he's a smart but normal teenager, and then becomes extraordinary in an ordinary world.  And then his villain is extraordinary, too, and... blam.  Fight.  And I think because so many villains in Marvel's U are sort of warped mirror opposites of the hero, it never feels that odd on the big screen.  Its Rocky vs. Ivan Drago.

But if we start with "oh, he's the king of Atlantis"...  suddenly an Aquaman movie sounds much harder to grasp.

When Green Lantern is finally released, I'll be curious to see how/ if people bite.  An interstellar police force run by creepy blue guys on a distant planet is quite the pill to swallow, but its also been one of my favorite comic concepts since middle school (which is why I was so bummed that just after I learned about GL, DC went about mucking with the basics of the GL Corps for 20 years).

But he will be on Earth for at least part of the film, and he will have his mad scientist to fight.  So... there you go, mass audiences.

*although this would be, categorically, awesome

**that is until Thor is released as a movie


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you mentioned MODOK, because talk about weird villains ...

They should make a Jimmy Olsen movie. A wacky comedy type.

The League said...

While I would definitely pay to see a Jimmy Olsen movie, I'm thinking the best we could ever hope for would be Jimmy-centric episodes of a Superman TV show. Unfortunately, that never worked very well on Smallville.

Simon MacDonald said...

I'm kinda excited about the Green Lantern movie but only for the galactic police force type of thing. I think the GL books work best when he's fighting off alien invaders. I'm not too sure if this Hector Hammond thing is going to work.

The League said...

Much like the first X-Men movie, I sort of think Hammond will be in place just to give the characters something to fight while they spend the movie explaining the basic set-up for the franchise.

I'm not sure they couldn't have done something with Qward, etc... but I think this was their way of grounding the first film on Earth.

Fantomenos said...

I guess I'm in the tank for sci-fi world building. Maybe the studios think it's a stretch, but Star Wars, original Star Trek, LOTR all have no earth connection.

And how good would an Alien vs Predators movie without humans be?

Could you pull off a Green Lantern movie where just the first 10 minutes (and maybe the last 5) take place on earth? Flash Gordon did it...

Anonymous said...

I really don't think that the DC Universe is any weirder than anything else brought to cinema, most notably, transforming robots, a space opera samurai/western flick, Dances with Blue Elves and a lost champion frozen in ice that teaches empires peace through kung-fu moves.

The main recipe for super-hero movie success to me is 1) Is it "cinematic" enough? Strong concepts, consistent moral duality and central narrative with good relatable characters; and 2) Is it Kick-ASS! Knockout special effects, no silly concepts, actual action sets and scenes. Also, anything kicking and some ass.

A Green Latern movie can be very successful if it's streamlined of the typical Green Lantern silliness. No Green Lantern planet. No boxing gloves/pillows/train on tracks power ring special effects fights. Keep the hot Star Sapphire costume though. If they use a plot like human being chosen as intergalactic cop to fight against alien invasion of White Martians, I'm there. Needs plenty of lazers, smashing of alien spaceships with ring powers and, again, hot Star Sapphire costume.

Superman Returns would have been much better with Brainiac. A networked Brainiac that builds giant robot mechas to destroy Earth in his deathskull spaceship. SOLD!@ That's how you do Bryan Singer! Instead I got a snoozefest where Superman didn't even get to punch Luthor. Lame.....


horus kemwer said...

Interesting post.

One point: I think we need to be clear on self-contained weirdness vs. weirdness that only makes sense in the context of the broader history (of either the hero at issue or the DCU as a whole). While the latter never has a chance to make it in movies, the former certainly has, I think.

Second point: And how much of this is to do with trends in movies anyway? Certainly, there's been a swing toward "gritty" recently in film that may be as much responsible as anything in the source material (just compare the various eras of Batman adaptations for an example). Surely (hopefully?) there will be a swing back toward the more fanciful in cinema someday, which adaptations can take advantage of . . .

Finally, I think you and some of the commenters are exactly right: the quality of an adaptation depends on the extent to which it succeeds in changing the story to fit within the new medium. Making a character less weird, or changing the nature of that weirdness, in order to sufficiently justify that weirdness within the context of a two hour movie can only be a good thing.

The League said...

Interesting points, fellows!

I guess I feel that so much of the DCU relies on its own self-reflexive weirdness, its going to take some doing to grind down the characters and concepts so that you don't need to spend hours and hours upon exposition every time a character walks on the screen. But, yeah, if they can keep it self-contained (ie: no Beppo).

I do have to point to NTT's point about "no boxing gloves, no planet of GL's"... I consider those absolutely crucial to Green Lantern. Maybe not a boxing glove, exactly, but constructing shapes, not just shooting lasers and making force fields... And absolutely I think Oa is required for GL.

So, one man's weirdness is another man's requirement, I guess.

Anonymous said...

When I said "no Green Lantern planet" I meant Mogo, not a planet of GLs. Sorry for the confusion.

Oa definitely is essential.