7 Auteur-Driven DC Superhero Movies That Need To Happen
The bloodless battle between DC and Marvel has raged since the breakout of the Silver Age of comic books in the 1960’s. Along with DC re-establishing The Flash and Green Lantern, Marvel helped bring superhero comics back to popularity with characters like The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. The battle has now extended, in earnest, to cinema, after some false starts in the 80’s and 90’s. While the war still trades victories in the comic book world, DC has all but won the animation battleground with the brilliant self-contained continuity and stylistic integrity of their Batman, Superman, and the Justice League shows (not to mention some fine animated features).
In cinema, however, Marvel seems to be winning with a quantitative approach. After establishing enough capital to strike out on their own as an essentially self-sustaining company, Marvel has pounded out a strong series of popcorn movies, focusing on continuity and thrift over auteur-minded cinematic voice (admittedly after the failure of the very auteur-driven Hulk). Their approach resembles the classic Hollywood filmmaking engine of the 1930’s and 40’s, cranking out a consistent, slick, committee-driven catalogue.
DC, on the other hand, has struggled to crank out consistent studio crowd-pleasers. Many of their films become stuck in development hell for years. It seems DC fails at the type of committee-driven consistency that Marvel has attained, most likely because of their strong tie to parent company Warner Brothers. DC movies are made like any other studio movie, and that process can be murder on source material with deep-running roots and broad possibilities. The proof is in Green Lantern, a movie that aimed to establish a cinematic DC continuity, but faltered amidst heavy studio meddling and grossly unfair market expectations. Now they’re trying to wrangle the mixed Man of Steel into a launchpad for an expanded narrative universe, and I think that’s a mistake.
When DC films do succeed, however, they’re more akin to the auteur-driven films of the 1970’s; guided by a clear directorial voice that, despite straying from source material, still manages to result in singular, unique “films”: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Superman Returns, and Watchmen. Like them or not, each of these is driven by an unmistakable directorial vision. They function almost in the way a graphic novel is driven by an artist/writer collaboration, rather than a monthly serial.
Clearly, an auteur mentality is DC’s best chance at giving audiences a flip-side to Marvel’s candy-coated coin. Let’s ditch the attempts at crossover continuity and tonal consistency amongst franchises. Go let some name-brand directors explore these characters and create true genre cinema, outside of the superhero sub-category.
Here are some other DC characters that deserve feature films, paired with the perfect and most interesting directors to get the job done. Comic book nerds beware… These guys would value subversion over mythology.
The Coen Brothers’ SHAZAM!
The Characters: Billy Batson is a homeless orphan that has been granted magical powers by the wizard Shazam, which give him the ability to transform into an alternate entity: The all-powerful, hulking Captain Marvel. With roots deep in the Golden Age of comics, Batson and Marvel give us an interesting flip-side look at what childhood and masculinity were perceived to be in the 1940’s.
The Auteurs: I’ll make the strong argument that there are no filmmakers alive than can depict an expressionist ideal of post-World War II America better than Joel & Ethan Coen (The Man Who Wasn’t There, The Hudsucker Proxy). Combine that with their youthful energy (Raising Arizona) and respect for childhood (A Serious Man, True Grit), and you’ve got yourself a perfect combination.
The Movie: The Coens cast Josh Brolin as a juiced-up Captain Marvel in a 40’s adventure film with the suspense of No Country for Old Men and the twisting reality of Barton Fink.
The Character: Green Arrow is the superhero alter-ego of Star City’s playboy tycoon, Oliver Queen. The billionaire makes like a medieval archer in his spare time, on a mission to quell injustice. The Robin Hood connection was enhanced during the Adams/O’Neill run of the 1970’s, and since then, Green Arrow has only become more socially conscious, a more sardonic vigilante than his colleague in Gotham City, always looking out for the plight of the underpriveledged.
The Auteur: When I think of Soderburgh, two things come to mind: Style and Social Justice. The man can make anyone look cool (Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight), and seems to be able to approach any social topic with a measure of balance (Traffic, The Girlfriend Experience).
The Movie: Imagine a Green Arrow movie where Oliver Queen’s self-righteous mission is tempered by the snazziest, snobbiest threads along with the LSU alumnus’ wry brand of sarcasm, grounded action, and visual flare.
Alfonso Cuaron’s Legion of Superheroes
The Characters: The Legion is a unique team that was introduced to DC readers in a late 50’s Superboy story (Adventure Comics #247). They hail from the 30th century, when superheroes, all inspired by Superboy, are commonplace and organized in communities. The catch is that all of the Legionairres are teenagers, essentially X-Men from the future.
The Auteur: Alfonso Cuaron is at his best when examining childhood. His Y tu mama tambien and Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban are angsty and, in the case of Y tu mama tambien, provocative examinations of our developmental years. Even his greatest film, Children of Men, examines the impact of children by way of complete omission. Combining Cuaron’s youth-oriented instincts with the technical wizardry he pulls off in A Little Princess, Azkaban, and Children of Men would be a startling direction for the Legion, possibly the most “Silver Age” of all the surviving DC properties from the late 50s and early 60s.
The Movie: Expensive, challenging, and emotionally volatile, but still a roller coaster ride, this is probably the imaginary movie on this list I’d like to see most.
Gus Van Sant’s Sandman Mystery Theatre
The Characters: The most popular iteration of a character called Sandman is currently the character known as Dream, from Neil Gaiman’s ethereal Vertigo series from the 1990’s. His world of “Sandman’ is not at all related to the golden age vigilante known as Sandman, who solved mysteries in grimy urban settings behind a World War I gas mask, putting criminals to sleep with knock-out gas. Imagine The Shadow, minus the hocus pocus. Sandman Mystery Theatre, specifically, is a Vertigo series from the 1990s in which writers Matt Wagner and Steven Seagle resurrected the long-dormant character.
The Auteur: I’ll be honest. I have never seen a Gus Van Sant movie other than Milk. I’ll proceed whilst dodging tomatoes.
The Movie: Now that that’s out of the way, just imagine this: A stripped-down, low tech mystery story in the (reportedly) lyrical and barren style of Elephant or Paranoid Park, focusing on an obsessed masked man. Do I really need to say more?
Quentin Tarantino’s Spectre
The Character: A revenge-driven ghost that acts as the Wrath of God incarnate.
The Auteur: Not many people play the revenge game better these days than the man who brought us Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds.
The Movie: DC Animation recently released a grindhouse-styled Spectre short that showed off some real flair. Yes, it was overwrought and apparent, even more so than a Tarantino movie, but the director of Pulp Fiction has always brushed with Old Testament vengeance. This would be the most literal interpretation of that idea.
The Characters: Starman is a tricky character, having gone through many iterations and identities over the years. His power is simple: he has a cosmic wand that allows him to bend reality with “stellar radiation”. In recent years, James Robinson has written the character in a critically acclaimed way by portraying a cluttered, gutter punk descendant of the original Starman, struggling with his family’s legacy.
The Auteur: Hot off the heels of his most challenging film, Tree of Life, Malick has once again proven that he is a cinematic voice like no other. His name, evoking poetic elliptical editing and dreamy camerawork, is probably the most prestigiously regarded name in movies today. In fact, I feel like suggesting Malick should spend his temporal currency on a superhero film will probably get me into more hot water than admitting I’ve seen little of Van Sant’s oeuvre.
The Movie: That said, if I was a studio exec, I would write Malick a check for $300 million and an unlimited schedule to allow him to ruminate about the implications of a loser gaining the ability to warp the universe around himself.
Then I’d get fired.
But my grandkids would thank me when they got to college and they have proper fuel for their inevitable rambling late night conversations about the cosmos and philosophy.
The Characters: With origins more varied and convoluted than Starman’s, the Hawks have the most widely publicized, cluttered backstory- so much so that its confusing elements have been written into numerous origin reboots! At this moment (I think), the story has diverged greatly from Gardner Fox’s original mythology. Hawkman is a reincarnated Egyptian prince, living in the body of archaeologist Carter Hall. Using armor made of an other-wordly element called Nth metal, Hawkman fights crime with super strength and the the ability fly. The hitch is that in ancient Egypt, he was married to a princess, who has also been reincarnated into the body of Hawkgirl (Shiera Sanders), who does not remember this formerly requited love. You get my point about the confusion. Just thank me that I left out Hawkworld.
The Auteur: Almodovar is at his best when he’s juggling strange romantic trajectories (Talk to Her), and dealing with the tension that’s generated out of these internal struggles (Volver). He also injects his films with a tenuous sense of reality, often allowing for art to conquer logic.
The Movie: Would it be sacrilege or possibly ethnically ignorant for me to suggest Almodovar re-locate the Hawks’ ancient royalty to the Mayan civilization? How about casting Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz as the leads, struggling to come to terms with their cosmic responsibility to fight tyranny and Carter’s determination to convince Shiera is his eternal soulmate?
So there you have it. Seven directors that deserve a giant playground, and seven DC characters that deserve a serious cinematic treatment. So, I’ve done my part saving DC comic book movies by quickly writing a little-seen, easily digestible blog post from the comfort of my living room. The ball is in Warner Brothers’ court.