For many years, comic book fans have wanted to see their favorite four-color creations displayed on the big screens of movie theaters. Way back during the Golden Age of Comics, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel and others appeared in movie serials. Movie serials are a product of a bygone age. To the current movie goer, the experience is quite different from that in days of yore. Consider, back then there were trailers, cartoons, a serial, a news reel and possibly a short feature that all preceded the main feature. Just imagine when there was a double feature!
The serial was essentially a weekly episode of a TV show. You had to go back every week to follow the story. They ran in 12-15 episodes frequently. The Adventures of Captain Marvel serial starring Tom Tyler, is widely regarded as one of the best of the comic book serials. It adhered to the comic book portrayal of Billy Batson and his alter ego, while never feeling silly or campy. Captain America didn’t fare so well. He not only had no shield, he wasn’t even Private Steve Rogers of the U.S. Army. With those startling changes, it doesn’t seem like Captain America at all. While film historians have some interesting ideas about why this serial was produced as such. At the time, with no internet, no social media, or even comic book fandom, it’s hard to imagine how it was received. However, such a gross departure from the source material would likely be regarded as heresy by fans today.
It’s no secret that DC Comics based films have struggled mightily when compared to their marvelous counterparts. It’s probably easy to point out that Marvel has its own studio that produces their films, and that there is a sincere attempt to portray their characters with accuracy that is believable in modern cinema. They are certainly visually recognizable, despite choices made that deviate from exact depictions from the comics. It’s probably safe to say that Marvel Studios tries very hard to portray their characters with a synergy to their comics. Personalities may not always be spot on, but they aren’t that far from the mark. It certainly seems like Tony Stark has a little more Robert Downey, Jr. in him than his comic book counterpart, but it’s not an attitude that feels out of place with the character. In comparison, Ryan Reynolds’ Hal Jordan is a bit too much Ryan Reynolds and not quite enough Hal Jordan.
There are four upcoming DC Comics based films currently set for release or in production, Wonder Woman 1984, Aquaman, Shazam! and Birds of Prey. That line up either makes you really excited or a little worried. 2017’s Wonder Woman was an unqualified hit with critics and fans alike. It’s not hard to see why. The character is instantly visually recognizable, and the film found a way to incorporate many of the aspects associated with the character over the years in a unique, yet identifiable manner. By giving Wonder Woman a longer life span with a history reaching back to World War I, they were able to incorporate her traditional origin story with Steve Trevor’s crash on Paradise Island and a believable motivation for her foray into Man’s World. There doesn’t seem to be any misgivings about Wonder Woman 1984, so far. Diana’s nature as a descendant of the mythological tribe of immortal women, the Amazons, fits nicely into the portrayal of immortality that her movie appearances are cultivating. It neatly mirrors her nearly 80 years of comic appearance, still not seeming to have aged a day. While not a direct analogue of her comic book character, there’s nothing here that doesn’t fit with the character.
First on the release schedule is Aquaman, set to debut in the United States on December 21, 2018. So far, the worst thing about this movie seems to be the main character! Aquaman was teased in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice back in 2016 with a brief cameo. He made his full fledged debut in 2017’s Justice League. While taking his visual appearance from Peter David’s run on the character back in the early ‘90’s, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman bears little visual resemblance to the short haired, blond Arthur Curry which has been in the comics for almost the entirety of his publication history since his debut in 1941, and more recently in the highly acclaimed run by Geoff John’s and Ivan Reis in “The New 52.” Despite a largely ignored period of classic stories in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s by creators such as Nick Cardy, Steve Skeates, Jim Aparo and Gerry Conway, Aquaman was one of the first characters to experience true real life events and consequences. The themes in these stories were echoed again in Dan Abnett’s “Rebirth” era stories, as Arthur Curry faced some real world conflict that was largely informed by the themes of the stories in the ‘70’s, most notably, environmentalism and kingly responsibility. While not always happy about his responsibility to Atlantis, the character always maintained a mature and serious depiction.
What’s troubling about the film version is not only his visual appearance, Momoa looks nothing like the blond, blue-eyed comic book character, but his attitude resembles Conan the Barbarian more than Aquaman. In the Justice League movie, he’s depicted as a hard drinking, irresponsibility loner. Sounds like Conan, right? Where’s Arthur Curry? Where’s the conflict between his surface and underwater responsibilities? When has Arthur Curry ever been depicted as a hard drinking slacker in the comics? The comic book depiction includes an intellectual and informed inner conflict, that the movie version turns into visceral and reactionary disinterest. Even an early reaction from Andrew Dyce of Screen Rant compares Momoa’s performance to ‘80’s Schwarzenegger . It should be fairly obvious to comic fans that Aquaman is not Arnold!
Perhaps, what’s even more significant is that Amber Heard’s Mera appears to be PERFECT. She’s a dead ringer for her comic book counterpart, down to the bright red hair! Her costume is also perfect…. The decisions in visual depiction already defy comprehension. Let’s just make a Mera film and leave Aquaman out altogether.
The Aquaman trailer is startlingly good. It appears they’ve got the origin down, and an intriguing Indiana Jones archaeological adventure. While not necessarily themes associated with Aquaman, as they pertain to his lineage, it works quite well. Again, the most troubling element is that Mera is not only the brains, but also the heart of it. She understands the stakes, she seems to care for what happens to Atlantis. Aquaman just seems like a surfer-dude along for the ride. It’s most evident as it’s revealed that a device that simply needed water to make it work perplexes the pair, and Aquaman’s response is, “I could’ve just peed on it.” Oh, it’s hilarious, but I wouldn’t even attribute that to Conan. Even he’s more knowledgeable and sophisticated than that. Perhaps, we haven’t been treated to Arthur Curry’s frat boy education, because that’s what this scene evokes. Forgive me if I paraphrase Paula Cole, “where is my Aquaman, where is my Arthur Curry?”
Let’s look at Shazam! next, due out April 5, 2019. This is an interesting situation in which the trailer appears that it will very closely adapt Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s “The New 52” re-introduction of the character, renamed Shazam, deviating from the traditional, Captain Marvel who debuted in Fawcett Comics’ Whiz Comics #2, January 1940. One would think that adapting an actual comic book tale would be exactly what this author would want! However, the comic being adapted isn’t that good, and it departs from the character known by so many in drastic ways. Captain Marvel and Plastic Man are characters that didn’t originate form Marvel or DC that have a place in the public consciousness. Captain Marvel outsold Superman during the Golden Age of Comics, and Plastic Man is such a unique chracter that he is also remembered. To put is simply, Geoff Johns’ one story doesn’t effectively change the perception of what Captain Marvel (not Shazam) should be.
The only part of the Shazam! trailer that is exciting is Billy Batson’s subway ride. The design of the costume too closely resembles what was in “The New 52” version of the comic, and as stated before, the character deviates too far from the classic mold. It boils down to this, if you liked “The New 52” version of the character, you will probably like the silly antics that the trailer promises, but if you are fan of the classic character, Shazam! will most likely fall short and you’ll want to re-watch that Tom Tyler movie serial from the ‘40’s.
Unfortunately, the redesign of the costume by Gary Frank does not improve upon the original. The hood is no replacement for the button-down flap on the chest, which had reappeared in Jerry Ordway’s excellent Power of Shazam! series in the ‘90’s. Perhaps, what’s most disappointing is that this film has been in development at New Line for years, and they chose to go with the newest version instead of the classic approach. Despite being a huge fan of Geoff Johns’ comic books, (John’s Shazam! not included), it feels like a bit of nepotism as he’s been the chief creative director for DC and associated films. It feels like kissing your sister. It’s just not the same as the real thing, no matter how much you may love the idea of your sister.
Next up is perhaps, the most troubling film on the DC docket, Birds of Prey. (Do I have to mention the parenthetical title? It’s not only a mouthful, but extremely distasteful! “YES!”) Sorry, the complete title is Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). UGH!!
While I’ve already stated my problems with the basic concept of this film, Harley Quinn has absolutely nothing to do with the Birds of Prey concept, there are other issues with this film. On the positive side, Ewan McGregor as Black Mask seems intriguing. However, outside of that, the casting calls into some serious questions.
If you’re going to have Harley in this film, I suppose Margot Robbie is acceptable, unfortunately, her role in this film is entirely questionable. Have Cathy Yan (director) and Christina Hodson (writer) actually ever read a Birds of Prey comic? I highly doubt it, because if they had they’d realize that Barbara Gordon is the central character…and she’s not even in the bloody film!!!! How is that even possible?
If we look at who has been cast, it appears that the actresses playing Huntress and Black Canary have been reversed! I hope everyone realizes that Black Canary is not actually black, right? She’s not African American, she’s not DC’s answer to Marvel’s Black Panther. Yet, the casting seems to indicate just that. Jurnee Smollett-Bell has been cast as Dinah Lance in this film, and yet it appears she would be a better choice for Helena Bertinelli
Grayson, the Dick Grayson (Robin) comic published during “The New 52” depicted Helena Bertinelli as a mixed race or African American character. While it was a deviation from previous depictions, it was acceptable considering the publishing initiative that promised changes and diversity. If the films are looking for diversity, this is an obvious choice that would be in keeping with the comics, maintaining that recognizability with the comics, something Marvel manages to do. In looking for diversity, Marvel cast Samuel L. Jackson as the traditionally white Nick Fury. However, Marvel had a comic book accurate African American Nick Fury in their Ultimate line. It might come as a surprise to some that this version of Nick Fury was actually modeled on the actor well before he was cast for the role in Iron Man. Casting Smollett-Bell would’ve been a perfect combination of diversity and comic book accuracy as Bertinelli has continued to be depicted as non-white into the Rebirth era.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead who has been cast as the Huntress, would likely be a more natural Black Canary. Winstead, a brunette, would easily evoke the traditional visual appearance of Dinah Lance, a brunette wearing a blonde wig. It remains unclear if plans are to have Smollett-Bell wear the blond wig, but no doubt, it would be more appropriate on Winstead than Smollett-Bell. It was right under their noses the whole time….
The talent behind this film seem not understand that adhering to the source concept is important to its success. Just because they are introducing diversity for diversity’s sake and a completely unrelated character (Harley Quinn) does not mean that this will be a success. These decisions are alienating a built in audience that would attend this movie with Barbara Gordon as Oracle and recognizable Black Canary and Huntress. Birds of Prey exists independently of Harley Quinn, and she is not only not needed, but not wanted in a Birds of Prey film. Sorry, Margot, I appreciate you wanting to graft yourself onto this exciting property, but you don’t belong, unless you’re willing to be the villain and have Barbara Gordon kick your ass from her wheelchair- that, I would pay to see.
While comic book films are adaptations and not direct translations, there remains a responsibility on the filmmakers to maintain a recognizability between both visual appearance and characterization. Marvel seems to understand this, and they’ve made very minor changes to their properties and always have a comic book antecedent. The majority of films depicting DC characters seem to be making reactionary and poorly considered decisions to appear relevant or cool. Until DC films can find the essence of characters they will lag behind. Certainly Wonder Woman, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight show that adherence to source comics will pay off in the theater. The blueprint already exists, no need to reinvent the wheel. DC should not be surprised if deviation form the comics is not a recipe for success.