Comic Fodder

DC Comics and the Success of Dark Knight

Let's Get Real

A quick show of hands. How many managed to see The Dark Knight?

Not too long ago a seeming run-away movie based on comic material would be thought of as an opportunity for the general public to discover the source material of the comics themselves. The thinking was that John Q. Public would be so enthralled by the exploits of Spider-Man, Batman and other cinematic translations of superheroes that there would be a run on comic shops for material featuring the superhero of the weekend.

I think we can safely say the illusion that movie audiences would somehow depart the cinema and filter right into a comic shop has been a bit dispelled in the past six years.

Whether there's a short-term bubble of enthusiasm that might spill over for a week, and a brief run on a certain character, the success of super hero movies isn't creeping over to the print side of the business. And that doesn't just include the non-comic purchasing masses. Comic readers aren't exactly changing their buying habits based on how many tickets a superhero movie moved.

A huge opening weekend hasn't shot Ghost Rider to the top of the charts for any sustained period (a year on, its selling around 25,000 copies). Hellboy and his pals at the BPRD haven't exactly found a home at the top of the sales charts. And any increase in sales for Superman comics in a post Superman Returns world had far, far more to do with a new creative direction for the books and the ousting of editor Eddie Berganza. And it certainly never bounced the Super-titles into 100K+ territory.

The comic business seems to have accepted that a $155 million opening weekend isn't going to increase sales of Batman comics, but contenting themselves with whatever slice of the pie they'll get, plus merchandising. Ah, sweet, sweet merchandising.

Most likely, they're making far more on those crazy Batman suits you can buy for your kid than on the whole line of Bat comics this year. (You don't see Batman comics stacked 20 deep at Wal-Mart, Target etc... do you?)

Last week's release of The Dark Knight , and it's subsequent $158 million dollar, 3-day haul is an interesting counterpoint to internet chatter that DC can't launch a movie. (You've all contracted amnesia on that particular bit of "common wisdom" already, haven't you?)

But, honestly, Batman is a cultural icon who only happens to have his roots in comics. He's been in toys, movie serials and radio since the 1940's, had multiple TV series (live action and otherwise), and so many action figures out there, it's sort of mind-boggling. Nolan's Batman Begins managed to re-sell the franchise to the masses, and that's not a bad thing. Whether they've accidentally sold Batman to an adult audience rather than the kids who tend to buy toys in mass numbers is another question. But aside from the occasional mention of "Killing Joke", or "The Long Halloween", has the mainstream media really taken note that The Dark Knight is bringing to the screen a Gotham City comic fans have known existed for decades?

At least DC will be able to ride into San Diego this summer without floor buzz working against them when it comes to movies. And, in fact, I'd expect the buzz around Dark Knight to be a bit distracting.

So what lessons can DC and WB learn from The Dark Knight? And, more, importantly, what should they be doing that recent history might have taught them?

A Pound of Flesh

Marvel's decision to form their own studio is the right way to go. There's always going to be some creative difference between what occurs on the pages of the comics and the move to celluloid, but Marvel is, at least, having a say. The characters are getting much more of a chance to succeed or fail on their own merits, rather than through the filter of a producer, writer, director and actor, none of whom have a multi-decade investment in a property.

In order to maintain control in Hollywood, you have to control the purse strings. Selling the rights to a character for film production essentially means that the owner of the rights can take the character and essentially do whatever they like. See the near miss of Tim Burton's Edward SuperScissorhands for an example of a cultural icon who was almost lost to one director's ego.

While properties like Smallville have made money for DC and WB, the series has diverged so far from the source material of the comics and movies that it actually stands a chance of harming the Superman franchise. They've spent the better part of a decade spinning the Superman mythos into a teen soap that includes the elements of the DCU, while greatly reducing them and turning the traditional visions of the DCU into a matter of inconvenience for Smallville fans (check the comment sections at Superman Homepage sometime). In many ways, the discrepancy between Smallville, the movies and certainly the comics, is a turn-off to the viewers who have hundreds of hours of TV at this point which have spun a completely divergent version of the DCU.

A DC studio within WB could, potentially, seek out investors such as Legendary (who co-produced Superman Returns and Dark Knight), and keep DC free from relying on the usual Hollywood suspects who like to get involved in such productions (Jon Peters, Jerry Bruckheimer, etc...), and who tend to want to dumb things down for the masses.

This outside funding could allow DC to behave with more autonomy in bringing their characters to movies, television and animation, creating attractive packages on their own to bring in producers, writers, etc... all while acting as Executive producer to ensure that there are no more mishaps like Steel and Catwoman. DC has managed to dodge a few potentially damaging movie versions of their characters (see: Jack Black as Green Lantern), but a DC studio could greatly assist to keep things reigned in. In short, the studio would ensure that DC properties aren't sold like scrap with no regards to ensuring the actual property isn't just treated with integrity, but that it enhances the brand and franchise.

It also keeps the money from merchandising a little closer to DC Comics as well.

Through whatever alchemy that occurred to bring in Christopher Nolan to the franchise AND keep him on the rails as far as interpreting Batman as a twin in spirit to the Batman of the comics (rather than a Bat-nippled Adam West stand-in) DC has to find a way to bring that to bear with ALL of their characters.

Creative Differences

The primary difference between Marvel and DC adaptations has always been scale. Spider-Man came closest to replicating the myth-making of the Donner Superman movies, but that's not necessarily where the Marvel characters who've come to screen thus far succeed (I suspect Thor and Captain America could be a different story). Nolan managed to up the ante from the Burton myth-making of Batman through style, and made it an allegory of substance. Of chaos versus order. And that's absolutely the right path for DC to try to maintain. Superhero epics rather than adventure pieces.

Nolan's Batman films seem to be building an epic mythology for a new generation without the trappings of "Prophesies" or anyone winding up as "The chosen one". And even "Superman Returns" was telling a multi-generational tale of fathers and sons beneath all the water and kryptonite.

It doesn't hurt that we're also in a generation of directors, producers and actors who've grown up in a post-Wertham era, who don't necessarily feel that comics are something to find embarrassing. They don't need to hide behind laughs in order to cover up the characters for what they are, or the stories they can tell, as some sort of apology for bringing comics to the big screen. A tip of the hat to Burton for seeing the darker underside of Batman and not feeling he needed to revisit the 60's TV series. But the current spate of movies can really look to Sam Raimi for bringing Spidey to the big screen. So credit where credit is due.

While DC hasn't been able to rush as many movies featuring DCU properties to the screen in the Mighty Marvel manner, they've got some wins they can point to, if a lack of failed attempts counts for anything. While Ambush Bug hasn't landed a movie, there also hasn't yet been a bad Ambush Bug movie, which is more than you can say for the poor Fantastic Four, who've suffered through two mediocre "family" movies. Throw in Elektra, two Hulk films that didn't take with the public, the gutting of Miller's efforts on Daredevil, and the so-bad-it's-awesome Ghost Rider, and box office aside... While Marvel's been putting a lot of movies out there, there's a reason they've decided to form a studio and take control.

Secondly, DC has had movies out. V for Vendetta, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the upcoming Watchmen, just from Alan Moore. Hellblazer/ Constantine. A History of Violence. And, Gaiman's Star Dust. They've just failed to bring their superheroes to the screen, aside from Superman and Batman.

As I mentioned above, without a certain amount of reverence for the material, the DC characters may well not work on the big screen. Do we need Green Lantern to finally arrive in a wacky comedy? Do we need another Catwoman? Or... shudder... JLA TV pilot?

Comic fans can enjoy the current success of Dark Knight, just as comic fans have had an embarrassment of riches all summer. Iron Man was terrific, and Incredible Hulk provided the sort of smashing of public porperty I was hoping for. Hellboy II was very pretty and fun, if not the most original of scripts.

The winter is set to bring us Miller's take on The Spirit, but the real test for whether or not a studio can treat a comic adaptation with the reverence it deserves will be next spring's Watchmen.

So in Conclusion

DC has a terrific opportunity with their as-yet-unproduced films. But a strong hand needs to take hold of each property, directors and producers with a vision greater than merely getting the heroes on screen. Without an attempt to work with icons and build mythologies, the movies are almost certain to fall in with so much other forgettable summer entertainment.

If DC can regain control of their properties and find directors like Raimi and Nolan, with crisp visions for their properties, DC stands a chance to continue to strike high notes within the sub-genre of the superhero movie, and create the potential for additional box office success. Otherwise, DC is looking at either continued delays in development while producers get distracted with the next Speed Racer, or decide they have a really funny idea for Aquaman.

Questions? Comments? Hate mail?

Come on, I can take it.

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Ryan is an Op/Ed columnist for Comic Fodder. He keeps his comics and himself in Austin, Texas where he manages the long running blog League of Melbotis.

He likes Superman.

You can reach Ryan (aka: The League) at theleague.cf@gmail.com

Good read, I agree with a lot of what you said. However, lay off the Speed Racer smack talk. The movie was not half as bad as the critics panned it to be. The movie was fun, visually original, and something that will probably sell far better on DVD.

It's too bad people didn't give it a chance. How else did you expect a Speed Racer movie to be like?

-- Posted by: uLy at July 24, 2008 2:58 AM

Honestly, I never saw Speed Racer. There's been so much out this summer, and I wasn't a huge fan of the original material, so...
Anyway, it's interesting to see what producers will glom on to. That said, Silver sort of owed the Wachowski's, so I'm not that suprised that's where he directed his attention instead of Wonder Woman. The problem is: as long as he has his hands on Wonder Woman and continues to get distracted with other projects, the less likely we'll see Wonder Woman on the big screen.
And as someone who salutes the Amazing Amazon, I'd rather have WW than Speed Racer any day.

-- Posted by: Ryan at July 24, 2008 3:05 AM

Hey Ryan,

People may not be flocking to comic book shops to pick up the Batman monthlies but sales sure has picked up on a couple of trades post The Dark Knight. Right now Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Moore's The Killing Joke are 20 and 22 on Amazon's best seller list.

Amazingly enough based on the strength of the movie trailer Moore's Watchmen is number 2 on the list.

-- Posted by: Simon MacDonald at July 24, 2008 11:31 AM

Interesting. I think something similar happened with 300.

So weird that comics that I read when I was, like, 12 or 13 are getting that kind of attention by the masses. Especially when those are comics that have been perennial favorites, and iyou asked me, I'd have assumed that those comics had already saturated whatever audience was out there.

I don't think this means, and I don't think you mean, that Dark Knight and the Watchmen trailer have made comic geeks out of the populace. But it is VERY interesting that the movie struck that vibe for non-comic geeks wanting more, and not requiring an FCBD to get them in the door.

-- Posted by: Ryan at July 24, 2008 12:09 PM

Yup, you hit the nail on the head. I'm truly amazed that The Watchmen jumped up so much after a trailer.

-- Posted by: Simon MacDonald at July 24, 2008 9:46 PM

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