While I’m not a huge mainstream comic fan, I’m averagely familiar with Marvel’s and DC’s franchises. Really, living in America, it’s hard not to be at least somewhat familiar with them. They are fairly pervasive in the culture, and with the recent string of superhero movies, they are pretty well-known characters. That being said, those familiar with the current state of movies know one thing: Marvel is doing better. Not to say, of course, that Marvel always has masterpiece movies, but Marvel has had more successes in the past few years than DC. In fact, outside of a few Batman movies, such as The Dark Knight, most DC flicks are forgettable or laugh worthy.
Why is this? This is a pretty important question since Marvel has proven that superhero movies can be box office successes. Though I’m sure certain fanboys/fangirls would say Marvel has better franchises, I would disagree considering Marvel and DC copy a lot of characters from each other. This is not to mention that DC does have iconic characters like Batman and Superman, so the flaw in the movies more likely lies with their execution.
As I pondered this question, I also considered the fact that DC gets a ton of other great material in different media. While Marvel has put most of its eggs in live action productions, DC still gets a lot more animated shows, video games, and so on. Though there are certainly flops, a lot of these productions are successful. Take for instance Young Justice who just got renewed for a third season because of the passionate fans. Or, consider perhaps, Injustice 2 which just released and received high praise, in part for its writing and not just its game mechanics. Heck, even consider, despite all the years that have passed, people still talk about Batman: The Animated Series because of how masterful of an animated show it was. The point is, whether you personally like the productions or not, DC can succeed as shown by their success in other areas.
So, why are their movies so ill received?
Thus comes my personal opinion on the matter: DC movies are getting the tone entirely wrong.
Tone in stories can be subtle but very important. Describing a rainstorm as “light and cascading” sets up a different tone than describing it as “an unforgiving torrent of water.” Though movies are clearly more visual, the dialogue, music, light choices, and more all characterize what the tone of the movie will be. Tones dictate everything even if one doesn’t understand them completely; they not only encourage consumers to a specific interpretation, but also help manipulate the emotional responses that will occur.
In the case of DC movies, there seems to be a common trend of making the tone as serious as possible. The movies will focus on the darker sides of the DC characters, from Superman’s inherent threat from being so powerful to Batman’s broodiness and vengeful attitude towards stopping crime. The conflicts they face will often have dark implications, and lighting choices will be fairly dark or have a gloomy atmosphere to them. All in all, the choices in the movies set up a serious tone to remind the consumer that this is serious business with serious stakes and angst.
Unfortunately, this is inherently the problem with their tone. Everything in the movies (with exception to a few specific movies) is meant to be taken seriously. Consequently, all the joy and fun of superheroes is sucked out of the production. These are, at the end, people running around in costume; to not have a little fun with that is to do the concept a bit of a disservice.
Now, that being said, I’m not saying the franchises shouldn’t be treated seriously. After all, there are some DC movies who did the exact opposite, and were as poorly received as the serious ones. However, what there should be is a balance of treating the franchise seriously and having fun with it.
To example this, let’s take a quick look at the 2001 animated Justice League TV show, a generally well-received animated show for the time. Now the show was definitely a serious one and the conflicts were treated seriously. There was an episode about Diana/Wonder Woman being banished from her home, an episode where Superman was thought to have died, and so forth. The show did not skirt around serious conflicts and made sure to convey some heavy emotions. However, the tone was never overly serious, and the show added lots of light-hearted moments as well to keep the tone from being too heavy. A lot of this actually came from Flash, who was depicted as a goofball with some funny lines, especially his failed pickup lines. Overall, the best word to describe it is the show was relatively witty.
I could go on and on and analyze several incarnations in other media but lack the time for this post. Regardless and suffice it to say, in my personal experience, the good DC productions all achieve this balance. They are serious, but never forget to add some humor and wit at regular intervals. When done well, it blends in seamlessly, and one gets to have fun even despite the heavy conflicts going on.
As such, for me at least, it is the tone of the DC movies that is failing them. If one looks at Marvel’s movies, they do not fall into this trap; rather, there is a lot of humor in Marvel’s movies. Even when there’s a hole in the sky, there’s still time for some witty banter from Iron Man. The movies are fun, so many flaws can be overlooked. Since DC movies treat themselves so seriously in tone, though, their flaws don’t receive this benefit; people will judge the movies in a completely serious and unforgiving manner in the same spirit.
While, of course, I don’t expect this trend to change anytime soon, I thought this analysis might be insightful for some people asking this same question. I’m sure other aspects also hurt the movies greatly, but for me, the tone is the truest culprit that changes what could be a fun depiction into an overly serious, nonsensical, travesty.
Mentioned Marvel franchises (Iron Man, The Avengers, etc.) are © to Marvel Entertainment LLC and affiliated parties.
Mentioned DC franchises (Batman, Superman, Justice League, etc.) are © to DC Entertainment and affiliated parties.
Image: Justice League (2001) animated show promotional image.