In 1979, after many false starts and over a decade of anticipation, Paramount Pictures released Star Trek: The Motion Picture to movie theaters. The film was a lavish production, with a budget of $45 million dollars, which in today’s money translates to well over $200 million. Although the film was a financial hit, it didn’t make close to what Star Wars had made two years earlier, and the reviews were anything but kind. There was no Rotten Tomatoes back in the day, but believe me, if there had been, the Tomatometer would not have been fresh.
Despite the return of the original TV cast to their iconic roles, most fans weren’t happy either. Sure, the Starship Enterprise looked much better now with a budget behind it, and the effects were lightyears ahead of the old show. But the movie took itself way too seriously, was ponderous, and was drained of all the brightness and joy of the original series. Where were the bright colors? The witty banter between the characters? Where was the fun?? Despite the financial success of the movie, which did end up barely making a profit, Paramount was faced with tough decisions going forward with the franchise.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because the reaction to Batman v Superman now is almost identical to how fans felt after Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out. And the similarities don’t end there. One can make an argument that the very reason that Star Trek: TMP even happened was because of the massive success of Star Wars. Similarly, who knows if Warner Bros. would have ever gone for the shared universe approach with their DC characters if Marvel Studios hadn’t raked in billions doing it first.
Interestingly, Warner Bros. made all the same mistakes that Paramount did 35 years ago. In an effort to “elevate” the material—both of which had brightly colored, somewhat “cheap” pulp origins—they made the whole thing ultra serious and lacking in joy. In doing so, they both forgot what made their respective properties beloved in the first place.
Paramount’s course correction reaction to Star Trek: TMP was swift and severe. The box office numbers showed there was an eager audience for this series, but changes had to be made. First off, the director was not asked to return. This was not a slap in the face of Robert Wise, who was the genius behind films like The Sound of Music and The Day the Earth Stood Still. He simply didn’t get what made Star Trek click with its fans and needed to be replaced.
Paramount also replaced series creator Gene Roddenberry as producer. In the 10 years since the original series had aired, his views on the show had changed, and he wanted to make it something different—something more akin to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Paramount brought in producer Harve Bennett, who watched all 79 episodes of the series, to distill what made this show so special and try to bring that essence to movie screens. He hired newbie director Nicholas Meyer, and together they created Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, arguably the best of all the Trek films ever made. The franchise was now a fan favorite once again, and people actually looked forward to the rest of the films, instead of dreading them.
Warner Bros. is in precisely that same position today as Paramount was back then. Sure, BvS made a fortune in its opening weekend, but the second weekend drop off was severe (on the level of misfires like Ang Lee’s Hulk and X-Men: Origins – Wolverine severe). The final box office tally of BvS would be epic for almost any other superhero movie—or any other movie, period—but when you’re talking about the first live-action meeting between three of the biggest icons in American popular culture for nearly 80 years, anything less than $450 million domestic is somewhat embarrassing. Right now, there is a strong possibility that Deadpool might outgross BvS domestically. Think about that for a minute.
So it’s time for the folks at Warner Bros. to stop being tone deaf to what people want out of these movies, and stop doubling down on what was too divisive, or what plain didn’t work. Time to take a page out of Paramount’s Star Trek playbook. For starters—although I hate to say it, because I believe that the man has talent—director Zack Snyder has to be let go. If he needs to stay on as a producer to save face, so be it. But Justice League needs a new voice. Someone who understands the comics better.
Yes, Snyder is versed in comics, but the ones he clearly loves— Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Kingdom Come—are all dystopian, bleak deconstructions of beloved characters. Can we just have the beloved characters first before they’re deconstructed, please? And if you’re wondering which lighter-in-tone DC stories to draw from, there’s no shortage. Things like New Frontier, Grant Morrison’s JLA, and the Bruce Timm animated Justice League Unlimited series are ripe for the picking.
Justice League needs new blood behind the camera. Someone who can make things fun. And “fun” doesn’t have to mean fluffy and empty-headed and forgettable. This doesn’t need to be the same reaction Warner Bros. had to Batman Returns, which at the time was critiqued for being too “dark,” leading them to fire Tim Burton and replace him with Joel Schumacher. Again, WB should look at Wrath of Khan as an example. The movie deals with weighty subject matter like aging and death. I mean, Mr. Spock dies at the end for Pete’s sake (SPOILERS: he gets better). But it’s still manages to be a fun adventure film, with a clever and witty group of characters you like, all fighting a memorable villain with clear goals. Going lighter and more fun doesn’t have to equal stupid and campy.
And much like with the Star Trek movie franchise, the baby doesn’t need to be thrown out with the bathwater. Star Trek kept the original cast intact, and Justice League should do the same. Everyone loves Ben Affleck as our new Batman, and the same goes for Gal Gadot as our first big screen Wonder Woman. And if Henry Cavill flashed that Superman smile on occasion, we would all love him too.
Unfortunately, you can’t sell a Justice League movie merely off the back of BvS at this point; on some level, it has to be seen as a fresh start, so lots of new elements have to be added. Forget saving colorful characters like Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter for further down the line. Bring them in now, and make this the League that fans really want to see, not some half-assed attempt. Time to cash in all the chips.
Also, make a concerted effort to make Batman less dark. No, it doesn’t have to be Adam West, but he can’t go around branding people. I say go the extra mile and have Affleck in navy blue and grey, with the yellow oval bat symbol. If they want to keep Affleck in black for his own movies, fine. But Justice League Batman is a different Batman; he a superhero, not a vigilante. And for Highfather’s sake, bring in some color. The JLA is the most colorful assembly of superheroes in history. Stop being ashamed of it.
Thirty-five years ago, Paramount took stock of their Star Trek film franchise and took the necessary steps to fix it, and all these years later it’s a franchise that’s still going. Time for Warner Bros. to stop sticking their fingers in their ears and saying “La-la-la I can’t hear you!” and do the same thing for their DC heroes. They deserve it, and so do the fans.
Images: Warner Brothers / Paramount Pictures / DC Comics