DeFlip Side #101: Man of Iron, Man of Bat

DS101.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

The spectacular success of Iron Man 2 has once again confirmed that Marvel reigns supreme in the comic book film adaptation arena. Spider-Man, X-Men, even Edward Norton’s enjoyable though less-than-profitable take on The Incredible Hulk have catapulted the Marvel hero lineup to popular heights that allow it to transgress occasional turkeys like Fantastic Four, or Ang Lee’s dismal Hulk movie.

So how do they do it? How can Marvel take a second stringer like Iron Man and make him into a box office superstar while DC can’t even make a good film about Superman, the most popular and beloved superhero of all time? Why is Marvel getting it so right and DC getting it so wrong?

Well, there is Marvel’s grand plan to build an interconnected movie universe that will eventually culminate in a multi-character Avengers film. But this is mainly fanwank stuff the average moviegoer really doesn’t care about. In the end, this big picture thinking can only guarantee some measure of storytelling focus. It’s no guarantee of success. I think the real reason the Marvel films have been so successful comes down to something much simpler:

They’re cool, and fun.

Iron Man 2 screams into action from the first frame, with Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark leaping out of a plane to AC/DC’s Shoot to Thrill. I have to admit that this got my heart racing, immediately putting me in a great mood. Director Jon Faverau is no fool. Being a fortyish-year-old fanboy himself, he knows that this is the music we grew up on and that most of us will eat it up. It’s the same reason he used Back in Black in the open of the first Iron Man film. It may seem insignificant, but the fact that Tony Stark is working in his lab listening to the same music I listen to when I’m working in my garage draws me into the Iron Man universe much more readily than any sweeping dramatic score ever could because I immediately identify with the character on a visceral, personal level.

The same goes for the real world setting of Iron Man 2 and Marvel movies in general. Having the Stark Expo take place on the site of the old World’s Fair in Queens, with the Unisphere and New York State Pavilion front and center adds another layer of plausibility. It’s the same with Spider-Man web-slinging his way through Manhattan. The real world backdrops ground these otherwise fantastic films, making the fantasy elements at once more credible and more fantastic.

DC, on the other hand, appears determined to take its comic book film adaptations in the complete opposite direction.

Look no further than Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. You can’t have any discussion about the state of modern superhero films without acknowledging the runaway success of these two movies, both critical and financial. They have unquestionably raised the bar on what a superhero film should be and have lent the genre unprecedented mainstream credibility.

But I maintain that while the Batman films may be technically superior, the Iron Man and X-Men films are just better. A lot of this has to do with the charisma of Robert Downey, Jr., and Hugh Jackman as opposed to Christian Bale. But that’s not saying much since a mannequin in a Batman cowl would have more charm than Bale.

(Sound bite—Bale: “I’m Batman.”)

Yeah, yeah, we know. But you’re also a walking cardboard cutout with zero screen presence.

What it really comes down to is character versus story. The Marvel movies are about characters first, with stories growing organically out of their conflicts. In the DC films, characters take a backseat to plot and universe building.

Now before you disagree with me, consider: every character in Batman is a direct byproduct of Gotham City. The Joker, Jim Gordon, Rachel Dawes, Harvey Dent and the Caped Crusader himself wouldn’t exist—would have no reason for existing—without Gotham City. Half the characters spend the film plotting to destroy it, and the other half use their screen time spouting mordant soliloquies on the importance of saving it. About the only exception to this is Alfred, which is probably why his scenes stand out as bright spots in an otherwise bleak cinematic landscape.

Director Christopher Nolan is apparently under the impression that bleakness equals realism, going out of his way to cast Gotham in a noirish pall that emphasizes its corruption and urban decay. But paradoxically, the grittier and dirtier he made it the more surreal it seemed, rendering fantastic characters like Batman and the Joker less believable.

And heavy thematic elements aside, The Dark Knight is just too long, too fretful and too fraught with its own self-importance. And here we get back to the importance of amping up the cool/fun quotient. Which billionaire would you rather hang with? Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne? Which movie are you likely to watch over and over again? And let’s put my Batman prejudice aside. How many times have you sat through the equally heavy Watchmen again, despite its faithful adaptation or how much you liked it in the theater? Or Superman. Which did you enjoy more? Brian Singer’s heavy-handed messianic allegory or Richard Donner’s spirited origin story?

When it comes to their future comic book movies, DC and Warner Entertainment would do well to heed the Joker’s quandary:

“Why so serious?”

The good news is that they have a ton chances to get it right moving forward, starting with the Green Lantern movie in 2011. Granted, their choice to go with the Hal Jordan Green Lantern makes this a bit of a challenge since he’s one of DC’s most notoriously humorless characters, but when your hero’s primary weapon is a ring that creates green light constructs bound only by his willpower and imagination, you’d have to try really hard to make that not work on some cool, fun, creative level.

And DC should also swipe Marvel’s approach of introducing its signature characters in stand-alone films that clearly exist in the same universe as a build up to an eventual Justice League of America team-up movie. Internet columnist Devin Faraci of the CHUD website even offered the perfect opening salvo, suggesting that Morgan Freeman’s Lucias Fox character from the Batman films make a cameo in Green Lantern. Similar crossovers could easily be included in the Flash and Green Arrow movies currently in development.

Well, this sounds good to me, but I’m not Christopher Nolan. And he has publicly resisted the idea of a shared DC film universe. This is especially problematic, since he’ll be helming both the next Batman sequel as well as the Superman reboot projected for 2013. Bats and Supes would be two-crucial-thirds of any JLA movie. And the third lead member, Wonder Woman, has problems of her own. The Wonder Woman movie remains in development hell. For all intents and purposes, it’s a dead project.

This is just baffling, because the DC hero lineup is the most iconic and recognizable in the world. Everyone knows these characters. You’d think that Warner Entertainment would spend less time on no-name properties like Jonah Hex and The Losers and focus all its energy on the big guns.

Well, there is a ray of hope moving forward. Now that the Harry Potter franchise is coming to an end, Warner Entertainment honcho Alan Horn has announced that the DC Comics roster will be tapped to fill Harry’s tentpole-blockbuster shoes. So these iconic characters may just make a big splash on the big screen yet, culminating in the team movie to end all team movies. But as I said before, a collective, big picture approach is no guarantee of success. It still remains to be seen whether the Man of Steel will take a lesson from the man of iron.

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