On Jan. 17, Warner Bros. announced that the debut of the next Superman movie – the one tentatively titled Batman vs. Superman – has been pushed from July 17, 2015, to May 6, 2016. Injuries? Script problems? We don’t know. What we do know is that the highly prized summer release spot was quickly nabbed by Marvel Films – for Ant-Man, starring Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas.

That’s right. DC Comics – through its parent corporation, Warner Bros. – can’t get a Superman movie off the ground for another year. But chief competitor Marvel is ready and waiting to jump in with a new star ... one whose super-power is to get very, very small.

What’s wrong with this picture? Across the Internet, fans whine and wonder why DC has such trouble turning its famous superheroes into successful movie franchises, while Marvel releases four movies a year, and can even build a film around a C-list character who talks to insects.

And that’s with one hand tied behind its back – Marvel Films can’t even use all of the characters from Marvel’s own comic books! The movie rights to Spider-Man are held by Sony. The rights to Fantastic Four, Wolverine and the many X-Men characters are clutched by Twentieth Century Fox in a death grip. Until recently, Daredevil and Ghost Rider were off limits, too.

But so what? Marvel has managed to turn Captain America, Hulk, Iron Man and Thor into solo stars, and their team, The Avengers, into money-making machines. That allows Marvel the luxury of experimenting with lesser lights, like Ant-Man in 2015 and Guardians of the Galaxy this year.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. keeps failing with some of the biggest names in the history of comics. Superman and Batman have done all right, but Green Lantern was a flop; Captain Marvel, The Flash and Green Arrow have never appeared anywhere but the small screen; and Wonder Woman … oh, for Pete’s sake, how can there not be a Wonder Woman movie?

The Internet isn’t shy, of course, in launching lots of theories about why DC seems so incompetent with its own characters. Let’s take a look at a few:

1. It’s not as bad as it seems.

I agree, because nothing is ever as bad as the Internet thinks it is.

Sure, DC looks lame now, but how about Marvel around 30 years ago? DC had the successful Superman franchise in the ‘70s and ‘80s, while Batman was boffo box office in the 1990s, plus plenty of TV shows and serials before that. Marvel had no characters on the silver screen, and what it had done – some cheesy made-for-TV Spider-Man and Captain America movies, and the Incredible Hulk TV show – wasn’t very good. They’ve turned it around, and so can DC.

And, hey, actress Gal Gadot will appear as Wonder Woman in Batman vs. Superman, as part of a three-picture deal. Figuring the second of those movies will be Justice League (scheduled for 2017), the third could well be that elusive WW solo film.

2. Warner Bros. doesn’t understand its own characters.

This actually may be a tiny bit true.

While I was watching Man of Steel, I was stunned to see Pa Kent advising young Clark that maybe keeping his secret identity might be more important than saving the lives of a busload of kids. Before I had time to express my disgust of this fundamental misunderstanding of what Superman stands for, not to mention what Pa Kent stands for, the middle-aged black lady next to me said loudly, “Nuh-UH.” Pithy, and entirely accurate.

And having Superman – the one superhero who famously has a code against killing – break Zod’s neck seemed like it was designed specifically to distance the character from what made him famous for all these years. I expect situational ethics from other characters, especially those like Captain America, who have served in wartime. But from the Man of Steel I expect Super-ethics, because that’s what is so amazing about him – not that he has super-powers, but that he resolutely refuses to use them for his own gain or convenience. Now, that’s super!

Then there’s Batman. In the recent trilogy, the third movie begins with Bruce Wayne having retired for eight years. As every Bat-fan knows, Batman retiring is like Ahab giving up on that white whale. It’s a mission, not a hobby.

3. Marvel characters are just better.

This one I don’t buy.

It is true that Marvel characters were deliberately constructed with internal conflicts that are inherently interesting. Spider-Man’s famous mantra about how great power brings great responsibility almost makes his super-powers seem like a curse. That stands in opposition to DC’s major characters, who are essentially icons more than characters, born of the square-jawed heroism and idealism of the 1940s, something that can seem quaint today.

But, as we like to say on my website, there are no bad characters, just bad writers. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have been popular for more than 70 years, so the appeal is there – it’s up to the screenwriters to find it.

4. WB makes movies; Marvel Films makes superhero movies.

I actually kinda agree with this one.

Marvel Films has one job and one job only, and that’s to turn Marvel’s catalog of characters into successful movies. That focus has no doubt meant a lot of man-hours figuring out how to translate the virtues of one medium into those of another – and successfully so. Warner Bros., meanwhile, releases a lot of movies in a lot of different genres every year, and only has to think about what makes superheroes tick every once in a while.

There are more theories, of course, but mostly variations of the ones above. As fans we can only hope that the bad ones are wrong, and that Warner Bros. has a better plan for bringing its characters to life than plopping as many as possible into Batman vs. Superman, followed by a Justice League movie crowded with a bunch of strangers. The characters deserve better than that – and we long-time fans do, too!

If not, there’s always Ant-Man.

Contact Captain Comics at capncomics@aol.com.

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I agree it's #2. The biggest problem is that DC is afraid of Superman. He's a shining beacon of doing good and being reliable, and they don't think that will sell today. So they make him dark and dour and turn him into a killer when no convenient solution presents itself. They don't trust that he can be what Reeve made him--a defender of the weak with an impish glint in his eye and a bright costume you can see for miles.

The concept that Superman and Batman don't get along because they have different styles has some validity, although they're both smart enough to understand why the other one does it the way he does. But I don't see any reason why they won't be fabulous pals in the coming movie--they're both darkly costumed, with dark mentalities, who do what's necessary to win. What do they have to disagree about?

I agree with you, Cap, about Pa Kent. The real Pa would've turned keeping  his secret into a game, so Clark could keep finding clever ways to save people without giving his identity away. He'd be coming home ready to share the trick he used to save the bus without letting anyone see. But that's happy and it doesn't lead to a brooding trek across America.

Spidey taught us that great powers are a great responsibility, but he also taught us they are a heckuva lot of fun. We got about 10 seconds of super-joy over being able to fly, and that was it. My biggest reaction to MOS was embarrassment, that these writers looked at Superman and that's what they saw. Shame on them.

Marvel understands that the movies are about likable characters who happen to have super-powers. My wife is always ready to go see a "Tony Stark movie," as she calls them. Clark Kent? Not so much. 

-- MSA

Characterisation matters, and the nuances of characterisation matter. It's hard to pin down why Indiana Jones is such an entertaining hero in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Actors bring qualities to the characters they play that aren't there in the script. A different actor might've made a hash of the part.

 

In the Christopher Reeve movies Superman looked grim in the dramatic moments, but smiled at other moments, conveying an idea that there was a fun side to being Superman. That kind of thing matters, because one of the things a Superman movie offers is the fantasy of being Superman. I've not seen Man of Steel.

 

Brandon Routh wasn't a Superman one would fantasise being in Superman Returns. The problem was partly with his appearance (he looked slight in the costume), partly with the script (which didn't give him many opportunities), and probably partly with his performance.

 

I have a theory that Superman embodies an ideal masculinity, so people doing Superman stories need an idea of what that means that the audience will respond to if they are to make him strongly appealing to the audience. I think there's not just one way this might be done. Hugh Jackman was masculine as Wolverine, and Chris Evans as Captain America, but in different ways.

 

It's false to say that evil is always more attractive than virtue. If that were true, we'd always prefer movies about villains to movies about heroes. Chris Evans's Captain America shows that decency can be an attractive quality in a hero.

 

Superman isn't a natural underdog, and doesn't ordinarily risk his life helping people (that is, when he rescues people from fires, stops robberies etc.). Possibly this throws some writers, but other things can be at stake for him. The desire to help people in trouble is a widespread impulse, so it should be possible for a modern audience to relate to a character who wants to do this (which is not to say that the audience will relate to him if this is all he wants to do. Real people have a variety of desires.)

 

In addition to strong characters, a movie needs a strong story. The best-known stories associated with superheroes are their origins, and some movie makers don't seem to know what stories to tell apart from these. The makers of Fantastic Four (2005), for example, didn't have a strong Doctor Doom story to tell. I suppose the next logical step for the movie, after covering how people became aware of them, would've been to tell a story about how they became established as popular, professional superheroes. In the film's Doctor Doom plot he pursued his vendetta by alienating the Thing from the others and curing him, making his plot against them too much of a private matter for that purpose despite the final street fight.

Luke Blanchard said:

Brandon Routh wasn't a Superman one would fantasise being in Superman Returns. The problem was partly with his appearance (he looked slight in the costume), partly with the script (which didn't give him many opportunities), and probably partly with his performance.

He did look kind of wimpy. It's like they cast him for his face without considering his body. Of course, he isn't strong because he lifts weights. He's strong because he's from Krypton. I had a major problem with the teeny, tiny chest symbol.

Superman isn't a natural underdog, and doesn't ordinarily risk his life helping people (that is, when he rescues people from fires, stops robberies etc.). Possibly this throws some writers, but other things can be at stake for him.

I wonder if "other things at stake" is why all those comics about saving his secret identity were written? His personal life, which depends on keeping his secret, is about the only thing that can create a problem for him short of kryptonite or magic.

In addition to strong characters, a movie needs a strong story. The best-known stories associated with superheroes are their origins, and some movie makers don't seem to know what stories to tell apart from these. The makers of Fantastic Four (2005), for example, didn't have a strong Doctor Doom story to tell.

Was having Doom as the fifth passenger on the ship that gave them their powers an Ultimates concept, or was it new to the movie? Having him as a cosmic rays victim just isn't as interesting as his comic book origin. The combination or science and black magic was very striking to me.

Richard Willis said:

I wonder if "other things at stake" is why all those comics about saving his secret identity were written?

I think so. Also, it was an accessible issue for the comics' young readers.

Superman stories offer two fantasies, of being the costumed Superman, and being the secretly powerful Clark Kent. These are both satisfactory fantasies, in different ways.

He can potentially lose if there's something he wants. In Superman #119 he saves a Kryptonian colony by a method that means he won't be able to subsequently go back there. Although he loses his people again, in a sense he accomplishes his unfillable desire of saving Krypton. I find that moving.

How's this as an alternative premise for Superman Returns? Before leaving Earth Superman split himself into Superman and Clark Kent. When he returns Lois has married Clark. Clark doesn't want to be Superman again and won't remerge with him. The movie is otherwise similar, except they remerge at the climax. It's too high concept, really, but the movie had an insufficiently imaginative plot.

I'm not familiar with the Ultimate FF. The movie quite failed to capture whatever it is that makes Doom a compelling villain.

If I had to pick one of the theories I'd probably go with #1. I really don't think it's that bad. But then again, I don't think the Marvel movies are all that great. They have found a formula for serving up popcorn fluff with broad appeal. And there's no denying the ticket sales. But I have to say, I think I prefer the Christopher Nolan Batman movies over any of the Marvel stuff. The problem is that Nolan was going for more than just broad based appeal. He was actually trying for significance and social commentary which hampers commercial viability to some degree.

Also, people seem to forget that there have been some atrocious Marvel movies. The first Hulk, Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider, Daredevil and Spider Man 3 come to mind.

Regarding my statement that Superman Returns's plot was insufficiently imaginative: it might be objected that it involved Luthor finding Superman's Fortress and using its technology to create a new continent, which is more imaginative than his plot in Superman (1978). Perhaps I should have said insufficiently interesting plot. I'm not sure I can justify the claim that a villain plotting to create a new continent isn't very interesting.

I'm inclined to think Luthor's scheme in Superman wasn't all that interesting, and the movie got away with it because it the first big budget superhero film. It was a campy element in the film.

#2? A tiny bit true? Tiny? Let's try 100% true. DC movies are usually painful to watch. I still cringe when I watch the never-ending coincidence filled Batman film with Scarecrow. That plot is beyond convoluted. The "Ra's feint" was beyond transparent; seriously, we're casting a huge star in a minor role? Please.

As for Superman doesn't kill, we've already been there and did that in the mid-1980s when he did it in the comic books. And before you rant about "better than that", do the research; Batman carried and USED a gun when he first appeared!

The question is, will Superman learn from this? After all, he literally became Superman during the movie. It was his first real fight.

The main difference between Marvel and DC is Marvel has humans with powers, while DC has characters with them. At DC, the characters are motivated by doing what's right, which is indeed quaint in this day and age because why would anyone be motivated to do the right thing? It's not even cliche or trite these days. It is looked down on. The very things we as a society should hold up as virtuous, we instead vilify. Whereas at Marvel, those flaws that should make us dislike those people are instead celebrated (or did I miss Tony apologizing for his drunken fight in Iron Man II?). Overcoming those flaws, THAT should be celebrated; it's why we like Spider-man; he's constantly trying to improve himself.

I agree with not seeing Marvel characters as better.  But they are better written. Marvel from day one crafted stories and characters made for telling human stories. DC's characters are made for adventure. And that, I believe, is where the screenwriters fail. They want to tell Marvel-like stories with DC characters; but those characters are built for adventure!

Marvel movies mine the company's history for its stories (everyone knows most of what they've seen on the screen appeared first in the pages, right?), but DC movies have steadfastly avoided what's in print. Quick, name the great Lex Luthor story. Will you stop using Lex as a villain now? How about Mongul? We all know that one! Why don't we have that movie???

I totally agree with the ban on origin stories, even for villains! I can't stand reading them in comic books, and they're even worse on screen. Please stop!!! I'm begging!

The solution? Use what you have. Stop using screenwriters who think they no what they're doing. Bring in some fresh talent with a new perspective OR mine DC's 75+year history for its greatest stories (again, stop using Lex! He's not a visual presence anyway. We're talking movies here, where visuals count for 50% of the grade). Quit messing with your creative people once you've hired them; stop the focus groups and rewrites and all that Hollywood drivel. Make  a great movie and let real audiences tell you if it's crap or not. Or if you do use a focus group, listen to them; I can't imagine a focus group on Green Lantern said spending more on special effects would solve that movies problems (by the way, Ryan Reynolds did something Green Lantern writers hadn't done for years; he gave Hal Jordan a personality!).

Well the Green Lantern movie also suffered from way too much badly done CGI effects. And way too many GL's . The GL Corp is a bit much for a a first movie and also let us face it, a lot of the alien GLs are very silly looking.  Made more so by bad effects.

A Hal only movie vs the Star Sapphire would have been a lot more interesting and understandable to a general audience.

I agree, and that's one of the advantages of live action movies. Actors have to have a personality to perform: if the character isn't well defined they're going to use parts of their own personality, people they know, whatever works. I bet even Barry Allen would find a personality! Much as I love the character, he was a bit of a stiff.

Dan Long said:

 (by the way, Ryan Reynolds did something Green Lantern writers hadn't done for years; he gave Hal Jordan a personality!).

Barry Allen has been on the Arrow recently. He's more like Wally West with Barry's job, but that's a good thing. I can see him spinning off on his own.

The biggest problem with the DC characters in the SA was that they didn't have much personality. Using them as the license means fabricating something to make them more relatable. The animated shows were great at figuring out how to make them distinctive but still likable.

Hal as a hot dog makes sense, as does The Flash as a young, impulsive guy. Stan Lee would've played that up, Julius Schwartz didn't care so much.

-- MSA

Barry being stiff was his personality. He was a slightly shy guy, and a little socially awkward. Made his personality stiff. It wasn't played up much beyond as an excuse to hide he was the Flash. A lot of DC heroes alter egos were to hide that they were heroes, and that was the basis for the personality traits. It's not a good way to define a person.

Mark Sullivan (Vertiginous Mod) said:

I agree, and that's one of the advantages of live action movies. Actors have to have a personality to perform: if the character isn't well defined they're going to use parts of their own personality, people they know, whatever works. I bet even Barry Allen would find a personality! Much as I love the character, he was a bit of a stiff.

Dan Long said:

 (by the way, Ryan Reynolds did something Green Lantern writers hadn't done for years; he gave Hal Jordan a personality!).

Agreed.

Frank Roach said:

Well the Green Lantern movie also suffered from way too much badly done CGI effects. And way too many GL's . The GL Corp is a bit much for a a first movie and also let us face it, a lot of the alien GLs are very silly looking.  Made more so by bad effects.

A Hal only movie vs the Star Sapphire would have been a lot more interesting and understandable to a general audience.

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