Friday, December 12, 2014

Comic Book World Building for Dummies (and Studio Executives)

The Flash on the CW. So good. So Very Good.

I have an axiom that I use whenever people want to discuss rumors about upcoming super hero movies, and stuff that “they” have said “they” are working on: Until I see a picture of the alleged actor, in costume, on the set, with a cup of Starbucks coffee in his hands, talking to the Director about the next shot they are lining up, my official policy is, It’s Not Happening.

That axiom has saved me a ton of grief over the years. I’ve used the hours I didn’t spend freaking out about things that ultimately did not come to pass to write books, cherish loved ones, and learning to ballroom dance. It’s added much to my quality of life, and I suggest you all implement it immediately.

I bring this up because right now, there’s a lot of talk going on about Warner Brothers’ plans with the DC Universe. You’ve seen the announcement by now, I imagine, but just in case you haven’t, here’s Entertainment Weekly’s coverage of the press release. Forgive me if I don’t get excited, just yet. This sounds like a fanboy’s wish list, and looks like it closely mimics the Marvel Universe movie line up, like their recently-announced Phase Three Plans.

When you compare the two lists, a couple of problems bubble immediately to the surface. Number one, Marvel is into Phase Three of what is clearly a complicated, overlapping, interlocking network of movies—and in fact, every single one of the movies in Phase 1 and Phase 2 has been made or is about to wrap up. DC, on the other hand, has made, remade, and in some cases, re-remade Batman and Superman origin stories until we are sick to death of them. Their one foray into the wider DC Universe was Green Lantern, and it was a hot emerald mess from top to bottom.

And if you remember the not-too-recent history, Warner Brothers has a habit of starting and then scrapping plans when it comes to their super hero franchises. The Doomed-From-the-Start Nick Cage/Tim Burton/Kevin Smith Superman movie is proof of that. How far down the line did they get? And it never got made, right? So, what does this announcement about two Justice League movies mean to me? Bupkiss, is what.

When we do get a Batman and Superman movie—again, because I’ve totally forgotten their iconic-to-the-point-of-being-imprinted-on-our-collective-DNA origin stories, they are either happy accidents (Nolan’s Batman trilogy) or controversial wedges that divide the Geek Nation (Zach Snyder’s Superman). Warner hasn’t hit one out of the park since Nolan’s second Batman movie, The Dark Knight (2008), and even then, there was a small sub-segment complaining that the movie was too dark. But it was that success that took us directly to neck-snapping Superman, because Warner Brothers executives don’t understand their intellectual properties and haven’t in decades.  For the reasons why this is so, I’ll point you to this excellent article on how the accountants are running Hollywood these days, as well as why this is so.

In short, I have no faith, nor any confidence that Warner Brothers Studios will be able to fulfill or deliver on any of the promises made in their grand announcement. It would be great if they could, but if you’ll look closely at me, you’ll notice I’m not holding my breath. I feel like Charlie Brown, trying to kick the football, only instead of trusting Lucy one last time, I’m walking off. I’ve got better things to do.

I told you all of that to tell you this: I am in love with what Warner Television is doing right now.

Arrow. It's gotten much better.
I wasn’t, for a long, long time. Arrow did not grab me, initially, and that’s mostly because I suffered through an excruciatingly long marathon of Smallville—nine seasons, in fact—to get to the “good stuff,” only to find that I really didn’t like where Smallville ended up. I hated the soap opera elements of the show, and I really hated the casual name drops that showed someone in the writer’s room googled “Superboy” but that didn’t always connect with an actual in-show concept. It was too intense, too apologetic about the source material, and way too back lit for my tastes. But for a decade, it was the only live-action super hero show in town.

Yes, I know, there was Birds of Prey. I stand by my original statement.

The first season of Arrow looks and feels exactly like 2001 Smallville, only 30% more Grim and Dark. The Geekster Eggs are dropping like drone strikes, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. “See? We named his SISTER Speedy! Eh? That’s what you guys like, right? Lots of in-jokes?” Then there’s the back story... However, despite all of that, Arrow covered a lot of ground for a show that had nothing more powerful in it than guns, arrows, and martial arts.

The second season felt like a response to the Internet, and so here come the super powers. Nothing major, just yet. Super soldier stuff, mostly. I suspect this toning down of the Four-Color Hero stuff was a way to pitch it to executives that didn’t quite get what the show was about. “Green Arrow? Why is it green? You know, studies have shown that Orange is trending with the kids right now. Let’s call him Orange Arrow!” Hey, I get it; you had to get the show on the air. That’s why the soap opera elements are cranked up through the roof and there’s not a lot of trick arrows flying around. But it got better. And it continues to move closer to what we wanted to see in the first place: super heroes doing super hero shit.

But in the middle of the series, we get to watch the Flash’s origin play out, and then suddenly, the kid gloves are off, and they never come back on. It’s still Grim Dark, and major characters are dropping like flies, because that’s how you keep people’s (and hero’s) interest; by slaughtering everyone around them.  Somewhere in there, it was announced that they were spinning off a Flash TV show. Helmed by the same guy that did Arrow. Very cool, but...will it be Grim and Dark? I was initially worried, because in the new, retconned, and thoroughly unnecessary origin written by Geoff Johns, young Barry Allen witnesses his mother’s death at the hands of a super speedster dressed in yellow. Because we can’t have nice things, apparently. Everyone has to die, or there’s no reason to be a super hero.

Aside from that, the show has been a real breath of fresh air, throwing villains out into the show, nilly-willy, and with alacrity in its heart. Actual super powered villains. Captain Cold, for example. Granted, he’s not dressed in the blue and white parka, but you didn’t really expect him to be, now, did you? And instead of reworking his name, they kept Leonard Snart. No stupid fake Easter Eggs here that go nowhere and do nothing. When one of the characters says Ralph Dibny (and he does), he’s talking about the guy who will become The Elongated Man. Really? How cool is that?

And you can really appreciate the difference in tone from the two part, two show crossover (one of which was named The Brave and the Bold) and see these two characters working side-by-side. It’s striking at just how different the shows are. But the more important thing going on here isn’t the transformation that has taken place in just two and a half seasons of Arrow and a half season of The Flash. No, the thing you need to be checking out is the world building going on.

Those two shows are building the DCU right under Warner Brothers Studios’ noses.

So far, in the two series, Arrow and The Flash, we have been introduced to, among other minor and lesser and non-powered characters the following DC staples:

The Huntress
Count Vertigo
Black Canary
Amanda Waller
The Suicide Squad
Deathstroke, The Terminator
The League of Assassins
Ra’s Al Ghul
Brother Blood
Bronze Tiger
China White
Captain Boomerang
The Atom
S.T.A.R. Labs
The Flash
The Crisis on Infinite Earths event
Captain Cold
Reverse Flash
Weather Wizard
Simon Stagg (and Java)
Gorilla Grodd
Firestorm, the Nuclear Man

Grodd! Grodd! I swallowed my gum when I saw this.
This is not every single reference in both shows: I specifically omitted characters whose names were appropriated in a stupid way and never used (Arrow, seasons 1 and 2) and that list of characters we all heard, but haven’t seen yet (The Flash, season 1) I ended with Gorilla Grodd and Firestorm on purpose. Show of hands, here: who among you ever thought in your wildest dreams that we’d ever see Gorilla Grodd and Firestorm on live-action TV? If you actually raised your hands, then take a well-deserved victory lap, because the rest of us just snort-laughed and said, “Sh-yeah, that’ll be the day. We can’t even get a Wonder Woman movie.”

That list above encompasses some very large concepts and real estate in the DC Universe. First of all, I want to point out that the League of Assassins and Ra’s al Ghul are Batman Family concepts, and pretty big ones, at that. So Star(ling) City and Central City are in the same world as Gotham and Metropolis. That means, Bludhaven, Hub City, Coast City, and in fact, they’ve already mentioned Keystone City. Pick your favorites, place your bets, ladies and gents! The Question? Nightwing? Who’s up next in this collection of shows? Another spin-off? Sign me up, man.

Greg Berlanti, the creator of both Arrow and The Flash, is in a unique position at the moment. He’ll have two full seasons of Flash and four seasons of Arrow under his belt before the next turgid, overblown Zach Snyder movie trundles in and splits the comic con hall in twain again. Considering how fast (forgive me) The Flash is developing, how much extra world building do you think he can get done between now and then? Firestorm? Metamorpho? The Atom? 

Granted, it’s not Hawkman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern, but at this point, who would you rather have helming those projects? The movie studio that gave us that last Superman fiasco, or the guys who just pulled off a Two-Part Green Arrow/Flash Cross Over that introduced Prism (formerly known in the Silver Age as the Rainbow Raider, I swear to God) and Captain Boomerang? You heard me, Captain Boomerang, and he was a bad ass from start to finish. I’ll take door number two, every single time.

I should be the target audience for this. Instead, I'm
dreading it worse than a trip to my German Dentist.
So stop worrying about the DC movies. There’s nothing you can do to save them, except, you know, stop thinking they are going to be great. The odds are not in your favor, here. And they won’t be, either. Let them go. If you want to see them, fine. But if you don’t like them—and you probably won’t—the worst thing you can do is contribute to their bottom line. The only way to get what you want in today’s culture is to loudly explain why you’re not giving the company any money, and then, you know, don’t give them any money.

Better instead to loudly talk about what you DO want. For example, Grant Gustin is currently owning The Flash. Likewise Stephen Amell as Green Arrow. If you think they deserve to be in The Justice League Part 1 and Part 2, then boost that thought to the rafters. Dangle money in front of that idea. That’s what the studios will reply to. Kvetching about what’s maybe going to happen online is akin to building a moat around your house in case the Visigoths ever decide to attack you. It’s a big waste of time, and there’s no guarantees about anything anyway.

The really sad thing is, Warner Brothers Studios could use the television shows to its advantage. After all, Arrow and The Flash are doing all of the heavy lifting, right now. They could swoop in after two more seasons, scoop everyone up, and announce a JLA movie with all of the current cast members and get not only the movie-going crowd, but every single person watching any of the TV shows. And they would spend exponentially less money on marketing, salaries, and so forth. But they won’t do that. They are incapable of playing nice with others.  So we’re going to see this weird TV versus the Movies thing play out, and fans are going to try to convince themselves that it’s Earth 1 and Earth 2 and this was the plan all along, and yadda yadda yadda. And it’s not any of that. It’s willful ignorance and petty jealousy propping up tent pole movies and counting the bottom line and calling that movie-making. 

I’ll stick with Berlanti, thanks all the same.

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