When it comes to superhero films, we tend to think positively about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but rather negatively about the DC Extended Universe. The DCEU has gotten off to a rocky start, and while there are some things to look forward to, many fans are less than optimistic. Perhaps Warner Bros. needs to reset its vision before moving too far forward and reconsider its strengths. One possibility is to shift focus towards animation.
DC Needs A Fresh Start
The #DCEU came quite a while after the MCU, and it's been floundering from the start. Not one of their three films to date has qualified as "fresh" on Rotten Tomatoes. Even if DC films were relatively well-received, they'd still be facing an uphill battle, because Marvel Studios set the bar pretty darn high.
Some people might blame DC's rough start on rushed production. Others might blame it on the apparent ever-shifting direction from DC's higher-ups. Whatever the reason, the DCEU has left a bad taste in audiences' mouths. Looking forward isn't very comforting either, with constantly shifting release schedules and directors dropping out. Even with some great properties coming to life this year — like Wonder Woman and Justice League — it's hard for many people to get truly excited about DC Films.
DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. seem determined to continue the path they're currently on and course correct as best they can. However, maybe they're not on the right path to begin with.
DC Should Distance Itself From Marvel
Marvel Studios made cinema history when it created the cinematic universe, and we love them for it.* Far too late, DC decided it needed to do the same, and now DC is facing some real problems. Most of them stem from the fact that DC is playing Marvel's game, which means it's playing by Marvel's rules. (The only ways in which they're not imitating Marvel are the ways in which they're imitating Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which has a tone appropriate for Batman, but not for most other superheroes.)
DC acts like it's in competition with Marvel. This may be the case for comics, but the same doesn't go for movies. If anything, the two film studios might support each other — the more a moviegoer watches a superhero flick, the more likely he or she is to watch additional superhero flicks, regardless of the studio. So, why is DC so determined to beat Marvel at its own game? DC needs to simply make good films by setting itself apart from Marvel.
The Animated Superhero Movie Market Is Wide Open
There are only three animated superhero films released in cinemas to date from DC and Marvel, with one more on the way. The first is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which many will argue is the best Batman film ever made. The next one wasn't until Big Hero 6. This year saw the release of The Lego Batman Movie, and soon we'll see Sony's animated Spider-Man film. However, neither Big Hero 6 nor the Spider-Man movie tie into the #MCU, and The Lego Batman Movie is a spin-off of The Lego Movie, not of the DCEU. It seems neither company is heavily invested in animated films for theatrical release. If Marvel's not moving to far on that front, maybe DC should.
The three animated films that we've seen so far have been well-received:
- Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was quite a hit, and it certainly would have won some awards if it hadn't been overshadowed by The Lion King.
- Big Hero 6 won an Oscar.
- The Lego Batman Movie is the highest rated DC film in the past eight years.
And who can forget The Incredibles? No one! Everyone loves The Incredibles! People enjoy animated superhero movies. If you make them, people will watch them.
Sure, there's the hurdle of the "animation is for kids" stigma, but there's no reason it can't be overcome. If Marvel can create the cinematic universe, DC can establish the wildly popular superhero films that just happen to be animated trend. DC's got what it takes.
A Proven Track Record
As strong as Marvel has been in the live-action films department against a much weaker DC, the reverse is true for animation. Marvel has made a number of animated shows, but the only high quality ones over the past 15 years were The Spectacular Spider-Man and Wolverine and the X-Men, and those were tragically short lived. Marvel's only real success from recent projects is derived from toy sales. Moreover, Marvel's direct-to-video animated films are frankly not even worth mentioning. DC, on the other hand, has done some remarkable animated projects.
The DC Animated Universe
First, there's the much beloved DC Animated Universe, with Batman: the Animated Series, Superman: the Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, and Justice League. Each gained a solid following. Batman: the Animated Series alone is remarkable in that it balanced a dark tone with a kid-friendly approach, had superb animation and voice-casting, and it told great Batman tales (both adapting classic storylines and creating original material that fit perfectly in Batman's world). Naturally, the rest of the series in that universe followed suit.
- Superman: the Animated Series updated the visual style and became a template for so many cartoons that have come since.
- Batman Beyond continued the legacy of a popular character while focusing on an original character, and it took a very new take on that world. Years later, there is still a hardcore fan base.
- Justice League Unlimited had a subtly-crafted, ongoing storyline with mature themes and the payoff was terrific, so it's a wonderful show in its own right.
There were also movies released in the DCAU continuity. As mentioned before, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was a huge success; Batman & Mr. Freeze: Subzero and Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker were also met with critical acclaim. There's even The Batman/Superman Movie: World's Finest, which proves that a showdown between DC's two biggest characters can be done, and done well.
More Recent TV Series
Beyond that, Warner Bros. Animation has continued to make more DC shows, and these can be broken into two groups: shows that are silly and targeted toward a particularly young audience, and shows that are serious (though still fun) and are appreciated by adults. Here are some of the ones belonging to the latter group:
- Teen Titans
- Young Justice
- Green Lantern: the Animated Series
- Beware the Batman
While Teen Titans was extremely popular, the other three were tragically short lived. Even so, they were very well-made. Not "pretty decent for an animated show, if you're into that," but genuinely good TV shows. Young Justice, Beware the Batman and Green Lantern: the Animated Series all had complex and serialized stories, mature themes (yet not too "adult" for younger viewers), intriguing character dynamics, attractive and smooth animation, solid voice acting, and well written dialogue. On top of all that, they were fun.
DC Universe Animated Original Movies
Three times a year, Warner Bros. Animation releases a direct-to-video film on its DC Universe Animated Original Movies line. Some of these are standalone films, some are part of a series and some tie into other DC projects. Most are adaptations of classic DC storylines, but some of them have original plots. They aren't kids' shows either — most of them are rated PG13, and at least one is rated R.
Some of the movies in this line, like Batman: Under the Red Hood, Wonder Woman, and Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, rank among my very favorite superhero films. Again, there's been some stellar voice acting and impressive animation. Warner Bros. Animation has showcased quite a range of visual designs, which is neat. All of them are sleek and boast impressive action sequences.
The Shortcomings Are Manageable
Unfortunately, even though many of these products were of high quality, recent viewership has been low. That's not the fault of the production team, but of the marketing and distribution teams. Young Justice, Beware the Batman and Green Lantern: the Animated Series were poorly marketed and aired at inconvenient and inconsistent times. For some reason, Warner Bros. or Cartoon Network (or whoever) simply didn't care enough about those shows. Thankfully, #YoungJustice has developed a strong enough fan base that it's finally getting renewed.
As much as Warner Bros. marketed its mediocre-at-best DCEU, it's a shame that the studio didn't better advertise the high quality property. Imagine how much better DC Entertainment could be doing right now with solid marketing for its quality animated works.
Of course, not every single animated project meets the gold standard. Some of the more recent entries in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies fall short because they are trying to fit more character growth, team dynamics and backstories (where there's already a lot of central characters) into 80 minutes, all while progressing the plot. As a result, a lot of characters don't get their due, and some important developments aren't setup well enough. However, suppose the production team had 120 minutes (give or take) for a theatrically released film. Honestly, the biggest problem with the animated films so far could be solved if the run-time was longer.
Animation's Technical Advantages
Animated movies look so good these days, whether they're sleek and detailed, more cartoony or anime-inspired. In comparison, CG effects in live-action movies is a tougher sell. Although we love to see them, they're incredibly expensive. Moreover, no matter how realistic they look, it's hard not to compare them to real life (think of the uncanny valley, which quickly pulls audiences out of the moment, despite the impressive technical achievement). Producing monsters, hard light constructs or super speed is incredibly difficult, and even though we applaud how well they've been done in recent movies and TV shows, it still usually looks even better when it's animated.
If it's cheaper and more visually pleasing to do it through animation, why not just do that? Even though it may look less realistic, it's on par with the scenery and characters, so audiences buy into magic, flight and other powers more readily than with live-action films.
The same can be said for action sequences. Superheroes — even non-powered ones like Batman — perform incredible stunts in the comics. Consider, for example, flips through the air or huge leaps or using a grappling gun. When adapted to live-action, it's often either unimpressive or unrealistic in a cheesy way. However, when it's animated, as unrealistic as it truly is, audiences not only accept them, but are in awe when they seem them.
My favorite example of this is in Batman: Under the Red Hood when a villain throws a car at Batman. Batman jumps through an open door of the car, climbs though it, then jumps out a door on the opposite side all before the car hits the ground. It's incredibly impressive, and I can't imagine it done better if it was live action.
Embracing The Fantastical
As mentioned previously, audiences buy into unrealistic things when the film is animated. Superhero stories are essentially a sub-genre of fantasy. There's been a push over the last several years to make superheroes more grounded, but while that works for some characters, for some settings and for some stories, there are plenty of times in which the grounded approach just doesn't take.
Myriad alien races, magic, the Speed Force, power rings and ancient supernatural races like Atlantians or Amazons simply aren't grounded. Why is DC trying so hard to convince us that they can be? What's wrong with fantasy anyway? DC should embrace the fantastical aspects of its property. In bringing that to the big screen, animation can embrace fantasy better than live action can.
Animation has plenty of advantages, Warner Bros. has what it takes to pull it off, and DC is well-suited for it. DC Films needs a fresh start anyway, so why not shake things up with feature-length animated films?
What do you think? Would you be less excited about a superhero film if it was animated?
* Technically, shared universes already existed in Hollywood (for example, the Universal Monsters, or the combined Alien-and-Predator franchise), but none had been done with the planning and scope that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing now.