One of my most anticipated movies of 2017 is Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. To say nothing of that fact that one of the best and most lauded characters in superhero comics is finally getting a big screen outing, or of the fact that we’re FINALLY getting a major superhero flick with a woman as the lead character, what I’m really looking forward to is seeing if Jenkins will be the director to finally break the pattern of DC Comics‘ dark and broody brand of comic book movies made by people who grew up reading Alan Moore and Frank Miller comics in the ’80s. That time is over; we need to move on.
In the 1980s, writers like Miller and Moore (and a host of others) channeled their frustrations with Reagan-era politics into their work, turning the oft-derided comic book medium into something more grown up in the process. They deserve a lot of adulation for elevating comics to an essential and necessary form of literature, by way of works like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. But what those books all had in common was a deep sense of cynicism, a lean toward violent characters and scenarios, and an overwhelming bleakness that felt refreshing and immediate at the time. I love those books, but they’re a time capsule, not a way forward.
Thirty years have passed since those days and the comics medium has changed time and time again. Different regimes have come and gone; comic book movies have evolved from novelties to top commodities. While the vibe of present day Marvel Comics informs the positive ideology seen in most Disney’s Marvel films, DC’s parent company Warner Bros has chosen to follow the Christopher Nolan model with the belief that buzzwords “dark” and “gritty” are the only things that translate to film success. The Nolan movies worked not because of their darkness but because they were true to his premise of a “real” Batman world. In films that embrace a higher degree of comic bookery, like the ones DC is making today, grit becomes much less integral.
I’ve already talked about how comic book movies are most successful when they’re true to the source material, and about my hope that the big screen version of The Flash be the bright light in what’s shaping up to be the DCEU’s dark filmic tunnel. I think I’ve boiled my feelings down to a single crux: DC movies will always be dark as long as Miller and Moore devotees are making them, and once they start getting made by people who grew up watching the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini Batman: The Animated Series universe, we’ll finally see movies that don’t rely on the most dour of everything.
And this is largely where I fit in. I was an impressionable eight-year-old when Batman: TAS first aired, and it shaped the way I saw both the character and superheroes in general. Mixing together art and images from the 1940s version of Batman, the Tim Burton feature films, and matinee sci-fi and horror serials, the show is one of the most distinct and striking cartoons ever produced. And that show was insanely dark, but visually. It never became muddy or ugly or cynical. It told Dark Knight stories in a grown-up way, but in a way that people of any age could engage with and enjoy.
Batman and all of his iconography is perfectly suited to shadows and creepy villains, but there’s also a definite tragic quality to a lot of those bad guys. Let us not forget it was TAS that legitimized a lot of the canon’s more ridiculous joke villains, specifically Mr. Freeze (in the Emmy-winning episode “Heart of Ice“), who was nothing but a punchline up until then (and, sadly, again following the Joel Schumacher debacle). It also handled Robin’s tragic past and subsequent rage thoroughly and maturely (in the episode “Robin’s Reckoning“). What the show, even at its most Gothic, never was was cynical or violent, vying for darkness of mood rather than darkness of content. At least not for the sake of it.
They also knew that the Batman mold would not work for every character. Their follow-up series, Superman: The Animated Series, was a completely different animal, with a different color palate, a different point of view, and a much more hopeful edge, more in keeping with who Superman was as a character and the history of what he represented. Each of the Timmverse’s further shows (Batman Beyond, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited) continued to tailor the tone of the series (or even episode) to the characters involved.
I don’t want to point all the fingers at Zack Snyder, but he’s very clearly a fan of that era of comics, having made a slavishly faithful adaptation of Moore’s Watchmen and Miller’s 300. He’s also said that he doesn’t like the character of Superman, which is abundantly clear in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. If he prays at the altar of The Dark Knight Returns, then naturally he’d have those feelings about Superman, and why Ben Affleck’s Batman could essentially just be a murderer with zero moral code. And so far, the only overarching vision we’ve seen in the DCEU has been his.
I’m not going to harp on any more about how the current DC CW TV universe is doing everything right tonally, but it’s worth noting that a lot of the creative direction on those shows comes from people (Geoff Johns and others) who actually write and work for DC Comics currently. Since he’s now in an overseer role with regards to the DC Comics films, it’s likely–I truly am hopeful–that we’ll start seeing variation in films despite the shared universe, but as long as producers and directors come from the dark-and-gritty days of the ’80s, we’ll never be truly rid of that sensibility.
But one day, friends, once the men and women currently in their late 20s and early 30s who grew up as boys and girls who watched the Timmverse get to take hold of the filmmaking, we might actually see stories told that can be universal, relatable, and wholly uncynical make it to the big screen. Schumacher’s Batman was played by Adam West; Snyder’s Batman was drawn by Frank Miller; our Batman was animated.
Images: DC Comics/Warner Bros