DC Dives into The Trench... Dragging its Creative Prospects with it

The Hollywood Reporter announced on Friday that DC/WB would be developing a horror spinoff of Aquaman about the Trench monsters that appeared in the film. James Wan, who to be fair has some good horror experience, is supposed to produce it, and it won't feature any of the main cast. Let me preface my thoughts on this by saying I've been a lifelong fan of DC comics. I absolutely love the characters, from the big three of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all the way down to nobodies like Arm-Fall-Off-Boy and Detective Chimp (they're real, look 'em up). The stories the comics have told, too, have fascinated me for most of my life. I am an avid believer in the potential of DC's massive span of creative property. One would think that someone like me would be happy with the slate of two dozen films (give or take, depending on who you ask) on the table at DC right now.

I'm not. It makes me sad.

DC's approach is not uncommon among movie studios nowadays, at least when it comes to franchises. It's just become the way you do things now, taking all the wrong lessons from Marvel's innovative concept of the Cinematic Universe. After Marvel's great success, everybody wanted to follow in their footsteps. And by everybody, I mean everybody. From Universal's Monsters Universe to Sony's Amazing Spider-Man movies, all the major studios started pulling out all their big franchises to try and capitalize on Marvel's popularity. But the problem is, they all did it wrong.

The thing about Marvel's way of doing things, though, is that it didn't start off with a big interconnected bang. The early films of the MCU were individual projects, each with a focused creative vision that the individual filmmakers carried out. The interconnected elements of each film served mostly as fun Easter eggs, and they were always secondary to the creative vision at the heart of the project. As the MCU evolved, greater and greater emphasis was placed on the direction they wanted the franchise to go. It's clear that at some point, the heads at Marvel sat down and made a plan about where they were headed and to some extent how they were getting there. But even with this overarching framework in view now, Marvel managed never to lose sight of the thing that fueled them: the individual movies that made up their interconnected web. By hiring people with focused creative visions for their projects and letting those people carry their visions out, Marvel has stayed on top of all the shifts in culture and film that have taken place over the last ten years.

The reason everybody else failed, like the Monsters Universe and the Amazing Spider-Man franchise, is because the goal was never to make good films. The goal was to make money, and to do that, they focused on the overarching plan. Of course, when you focus too hard on the bigger picture, you tend to lose sight of the details. That's what happened to The Mummy, and that's what happened to The Amazing Spider-Man 2. You need a strong base of good individual movies to build a franchise.

Then we have DC. More than any of the other would-be competitors for Marvel, DC had a clear and feasible creative vision behind it. Zack Snyder led the DCEU in exactly the direction he wanted it to go for a time, and more importantly he made the individual films he wanted to make. The only problem with what he was doing was that it sucked. Snyder's fundamental misunderstanding of not only DC's characters but of superheroes in general led to widespread dissatisfaction with the films he put out. After Batman v. Superman, Snyder was sidelined and the studio put Geoff Johns in charge of the DCEU. I want to really stress something here. Geoff Johns is a great creative talent, and he gets superheroes in a way Snyder doesn't. But Johns is a comic book writer. He is not a filmmaker.

In comics, the idea is just to have a whole bunch of ongoing stories running independently of each other. Each creative contributor does a run on a particular book, throws himself or herself fully into the project, and then steps aside so they can do something else and someone else can take over the book. While this works great for comics, it's not how you make movies. If you want to make a movie, you need a committed group of creative talent with a strong creative vision that will see it through to completion. And if you want to turn those movies into a cinematic universe, you need a strong plan with a structured framework that will guide the development of that universe. You can't just take a whole bunch of independently running stories, draw thin lines of connection between them, and call it a universe.

But that seems to be DC's approach. And the thing is, it might work on an individual level, if each project had a strong creative vision behind it that the filmmaker carried to fruition. But that's not what we see. Instead the directors that have strong creative visions get fired because of those visions. The mere fact that every director who's signed on for The Flash/Flashpoint has rewritten the script and then left because of 'creative differences' is evidence of this. With this approach, it's a wonder any films are getting made at all. And the result of that kind of managing misstep is that some 24 films are in the works, in varying stages of development. The Trench movie marks number 25. A large number of these films have been in the pipeline for a very long time, years even, and no motion has occurred for six months at least. It's because these projects have no creative vision beyond an 'oh, that could be cool.' A Blue Beetle movie? Cool, but what's the vision? Gotham City Sirens? ...okay, but what's the vision? A New Gods film? Um... sure, I suppose, but you have to have a vision. And apparently, even just having a vision isn't enough anymore. Your vision also has to get past DC's wall of creative stifling. Good luck with that.

The other thing is that these films are getting made due to the whims of audiences, because a character is popular and not because there are stories to tell about them. We've seen it with Star Wars in Solo, along with those Boba Fett and Obi-Wan movies that are as stuck in development hell as Flashpoint. We've seen it with Fox's X-Men, in projects like Gambit and X-23 that exist only because the characters were popular in other movies. Now even Marvel is bowing down to the whims of fans, with a bunch of popular characters getting their own shows on Disney's streaming service for no good reason. Some of these projects may turn out to be good. But the point is that they don't exist because somebody had a creative idea that they are driven to develop into a project. They exist because people liked the character somewhere else, and the studio thinks it'll make them money. It's a good marketing strategy, and filmmaking is a business, after all. But filmmaking is also an art, and the art is being stifled by the popularity-contest method of greenlighting projects.

People ask if superhero movies are dying out, and it doesn't look like they are. But if the industry can't get things together and start running on creative inspiration again, maybe they - along with the other franchises - should.

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CoramDeo cares a bit too much about fiction and art and that sort of nonsense.

2 comments:

Aaron Studer said...

Really interesting read - yeah, this is something I've been talking about with anyone who will listen over the last two or so years, it truly is for me a little fascinating actually to see DC and Warner stuck in this 'development-hell' when it comes to getting comic book films off the ground. I had a good laugh reading this announcement about this Trench-spinoff getting greenlighted meant DC's execs were more confident than going forward with a Man of Steel 2, Green Lantern solo film, Batman solo film, Martian Manhunter film, Black Canary film, or hell, even a Detective Chimp solo film.

Mikey Heinrich said...

I would absolutely go see a Detective Chimp solo film.