What DC Comics must learn from Joker's success

The story of the super villain of Todd Phillips prankster is well on its way to a likely billion dollar gross at the global checkout, making it the second most successful DC Comics movie of the era after Christopher Nolan. (It is currently expected that it only ends in the back Aquarius, who amassed a worldwide gross of nearly $ 1.15 billion.) Less than a month after the release, prankster the global acceptance of both has already passed Suicide team and Justice League, two DC movies with Batman.


On top of that, prankster has R as an appraisal, which is a striking commercial attack against comic book adaptations because the appraisal limits access to the teen segment of the public. That is a barrier that the other DC films have not had to overcome. Still, prankster returned to the number one slot at the American box office in his fourth weekend of release.

So what explains this huge success? What did DC do well this time that it couldn't capture with most other recent movies? The simplest answer is that the company finally went back to the strongest aspects of its corporate identity. Phillips wanted to portray prankster as innovative and groundbreaking for a DC movie, but it actually marks a return to the kind of stories that DC used to excel in publishing – and the kind of freedom that creators had to make those stories.

The main characters of DC have always demanded radically different approaches to storytelling than those of Marvel. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created the Marvel Universe in the early 1960s, they defined their character through more realistic human traits and relatable psychological premises than their counterparts in DC. Spider-Man was about high school student life, the Fantastic Four was a family and squabbled as one, the X-Men defended their civil rights, Daredevil had a physical disability, and so on. That is in direct contrast to DC, whose main characters were mostly aliens (Superman, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, the Green Lantern Corps, the Legion of Superheroes), billionaires (Batman, Green Arrow), or derived from mythology (Wonder Woman, Aquaman , Shazam).

That relative recognisability has undoubtedly made it easier for Marvel to translate his characters into hugely successful film features. But ironically, the imperfections grafted on Marvel's characters during conception made them so perfect as fictional traits that they are difficult to change. That is not so important in the movies – which have only scratched the surface of the Marvel mythos – as in the comics, which are forced to cycle endless lines to stay in about the same place. In the meantime, the lack of recognizable flaws among DC's main characters has led to constant reinvention and experiments to preserve the reader's interest.

And that is actually a good thing. To compete with Marvel for market share, DC had to create better stories, take more risks and embrace actual change. It is hard to make Superman and Wonder Woman inherently more interesting than Spider-Man and Iron Man. But Superman and Wonder Woman can be written by better writers or be adapted to films by better filmmakers. At its best, DC has been the company that offers more exciting creative opportunities, because that is the key to unlocking everything it can do that Marvel cannot do.

Photo: DC Comics

DC & # 39; s film is struggling

DC editors have understood this intermittently over the past 50 years. prankster is a welcome proof that the studio side of the company may now finally understand. Phillips & # 39; film represents the first time in the postAvengers film landscape that DC finally stopped trying to defeat Marvel in the game of Marvel, using the rules of Marvel.


Regardless of what you would personally think of Justice League or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – and there is a loud cult on Twitter that swears Batman against Superman is the great misunderstood masterpiece of our time – it is empirical truth that these films failed. They were obvious attempts to copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe business model, they were critically reviled and far below financial expectations. Justice League (adapted from DC & # 39; s marquee superhero franchise) earned less money in his entire domestic theater performance than Black Panther (adapted from a Marvel hero from the second or third row) made in just his domestic opening weekend.

It is not that the characters of DC are basically badly conceived. They are simply harder to translate to the screen. That's why we have two films about Ant-Man (a Marvel character who has never been able to keep up with a running comic series for more than a few years) for a single film about The Flash, one of DC & # 39; s flagship characters for more than six decades. And it means that Marvel has had an easier time attracting new fans and retaining old ones, purely on the conceptual power of his top characters.

Stan Lee always used to mention Marvel's strategy "The illusion of change." That was the corner that such great characters forced Marvel into – they couldn't resist permanent change without bleeding readers. Since Lee, Kirby and Ditko created the Marvel Universe in the 1960s, a few later changes have been made to those characters that weren't reversed within a few years. Peter Parker graduated from high school, Beast got a blue coat, Gwen Stacy died and Invisible Girl got a second child and changed her name to Invisible Woman. As far as true, lasting changes after the & # 39; 60 go into Lee / Kirby / Ditko characters, that's damn close.

Once upon a time, DC learned that it could take a different route. It took the staff a while to figure out, but when they did, DC became the company that took the greater creative risks and offered the greater creative rewards. For two glorious decades, from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s, DC was the company that embraced real change and evolution in its superhero universe, while also providing a platform for & # 39; the world's best makers to make real author comics for an increasingly mature readership.

Neil Gaiman & # 39; s Sandman.
Photo: Vertigo Comics

How DC found its identity

The new DC identity, which was forged in the mid-1980s, can be traced almost to an exact moment. In October 1983, two historic DC strips – The new teenage titans # 39 and The Saga of the Swamp Thing # 21 – were released in consecutive weeks, and together they created the blueprint for most of what DC would do in the next 20 years.

In the Titans edition, Dick Grayson quit Robin (his identity for over 40 years) and Wally West quit Kid Flash (his alias almost 25 years). Those changes were permanent. In the 35 years since that release was released, there have been new Robins and Kid Flashes, but Dick Grayson and Wally West have never returned to those roles. Shortly thereafter, Grayson took on the new identity of Nightwing and West became The Flash after his predecessor and mentor (Barry Allen) died. For the first time in modern comics, this issue determined that DC would evolve its characters. Grayson and West outgrown their old roles, which was a fundamental recognition of the passing of fictional times – something Marvel never wanted to fully embrace.

In the Marsh thing number – the legendary story & # 39; The anatomical lesson & # 39; – new writer Alan Moore unveiled the biggest retcon of all time of comics and changed everything about the origin of Swamp Thing. The issue is invaluable for the history of comics, starting with the fact that it was Moore & # 39; s upcoming celebration in American comics. He was the first British comic strip author to launch a viable career in America, and with titles such as V for Vendetta, From hell, The murder jokeand Watchmen, he became the most acclaimed comic writer ever.


In the next decade, dozens of other British writers and artists became stars in the American comic strip industry, mostly in DC. Equally important is the theme of Moore for adults Marsh thing stories prompted DC to remove the Comics Code approval label from the series, just 10 issues later. By the end of 1986 Marsh thing became one of the first DC or Marvel strips to officially carry a & # 39; For Mature Readers & # 39; label on the cover, and in 1993 it became one of the flagship titles for DC & # 39; s pioneering adult readers print, Vertigo. If comics have a Beatles-on-Ed-Sullivan moment, & # 39; The Anatomy Lesson & # 39; it.

Photo: DC Comics

These two releases launched a new era in DC, and the company soon embraced initiatives such as finding new talent abroad, producing comics strictly for adults, giving real creative control for top writers to their to follow muses, and make permanent changes to main characters. In just the next five years, DC has restarted the entire superhero universe and killed its Silver Age flagship hero, The Flash. It launched the careers of other immensely acclaimed British talents such as Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.

And it also allowed top makers John Byrne, Frank Miller and George Perez to re-interpret the origins of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The Justice League was re-invented as a slapstick comedy title, Green Arrow became a dark title for adult readers where the hero never even used his codename, and Animal Man went on a metaphysical journey that culminated in him literally discovering that he was a comic character used to be. And DC published the three comic series that are often announced as the best of all time: Watchmen, sandmanand the dark Knight returns.

This all started by accident. DC leadership had no idea that the Teen Titans from the 1980s were re-launched or those of Moore Marsh thing term of office would be such game changers. But the company's capitalization on these new opportunities was anything but coincidental. Only two months after these releases were released, DC began to brand its comics with the slogan “The new DC. We cannot stop now. & # 39; It was both a courageous statement about the future and an implicit acknowledgment that the company had gone its own way.

Those strategies from the 80s continued into the 90s and the first half of the 2000s, with even more daring movements. Vertigo launched. DC acquired the edgy Wildstorm print from Jim Lee. DC experimented with various niche, author-driven series, including Gotham Central, Hitman, Ghostand Star manand enabled them to end the way their makers wanted. Event series such as Kingdom come and The new limit experimented with the expansive imagination of the DC Universe.


Various outside-the-box experiments such as 52, Wednesday comics, Soloand Batman: black and white became huge critical (and sometimes commercial) hits. DC launched out-of-continuity epics such as Batman: the Long Halloween and All-Star Superman. And it made several dramatic, intended as permanent changes, such as Aquaman who lost a hand and the death of the original Green Lantern Hal Jordan, replacement Robin Jason Todd and former Green Arrow Oliver Queen.

One thing that unites almost all the great DC comics of this era is not only that Marvel did not publish them, but that Marvel could not have published. They were all too far outside of Marvel's business model. Marvel refused to publish adult comics for readers until the 2000s. The company generally did not allow writers to bring their series to natural conclusions – they wanted to continue with titles as long as they could sell. Marvel refused to kill his Silver Age characters, and on the few occasions they did (Jean Gray in the early 1980s, Tony Stark and Reed Richards in the mid 1990s), they were brought back fairly quickly by editorial mandate.

Photo: DC Comics

Identity crisis, Redux

DC could have partially stayed outside of that Marvel business model and continued an eternal agenda for the maker, but unfortunately it changed course about 15 years ago. After Identity crisis and Green Lantern: Rebirth became massive hits in 2004, star writer Geoff Johns and publisher Dan DiDio shifted DC to a more event-driven publication model. All dead characters were raised in huge story lines that yielded temporary sales boosts, but renounced the fundamental DC identity of the past 20 years.

These constant, huge events required editorial harshness that suppressed the authorism that DC had signed. Several star writers left the company completely. Wildstorm and Vertigo were both castrated and then closed, with Vertigo maker and executive editor Karen Berger after more than 30 years with DC eventually running over to Dark Horse Comics. Like she said it herself, "Business thinking and creative risk taking do not go together."

In 2011, with limited prospects for the future, DC drew an orphan greetings and restarted its entire comic line in a massively announced event called The New 52, ​​but after a short sales bump, falling returns continued. Now, instead of being the company that embraced the vision and courage needed to promote creations like Watchmen, sandmanand the dark Knight returns, DC is usually reduced to stair constant sequels, spin-offsand reboots from the same series instead of original creative ventures.


What DC has done wrong with both the comics and the movies over the past decade is the same – instead of promoting a business model based on what they can do that Marvel cannot do, DC has just recreated the Marvel playbook. But without offering the levels of creative freedom, opportunities, and risks that Marvel cannot match, the only thing left to try to beat Marvel is purely based on the fundamental appeal of the characters. For DC that is an unbeatable battle.

Batman against Superman

How DC can make better films

In a Interview in June 2018 On VarietyIs the & # 39; Playback & # 39; podcast, director Brad Bird said this about his film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol:

The Mission Impossible series embraced the differences between filmmakers. It was not about us all subscribing to a house style. The Brian De Palma was different from the John Woo, which was different from the J.J. (Abrams) one that is different from mine. The refreshing thing about it was that they came to me and said, "Is there something you wanted to do in a spy movie?" And I said, "Oh, yes, there are a lot of things I want to do in a spy movie! & # 39; And they just said: & # 39; Well, just try it. & # 39;

Everything Bird said there represents exactly what DC can and should do with their films, precisely because it is something that Marvel cannot do. The Marvel films are subscribed to a house style and require house content. Each film has a plot largely generated by the commission, and designed to fit into the overall plan for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Any directorial or authoritarian style can only exist within that imposed structure. (But to be honest, filmmakers love it Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi and Black Panther Ryan Coogler was still able to eat and eat their cake.)

This will undoubtedly have a tangible effect on how many A-list filmmakers will be willing to work with Marvel, and DC should seize that opportunity for a market correction. They can become the company that gives great drivers Mission Impossible offer: “Is there something you wanted to do in a comic? Well, go ahead. & # 39;


That is a big part of what worked so well with prankster. According to co-writer / director Todd Phillips, "I am not talking about the competition with Marvel and I have not been to the comic book world. When we came up with this idea, it was a different approach. I don't know what effect this will have on other filmmakers." prankster star Joaquin Phoenix says in the same way that he was attracted to the project because “we would approach it in our own way. I did not refer to earlier iterations of the character. It just felt like it was our creation. & # 39;

This is the kind of business model in which DC movies should work – giving talented people the chance to follow their creative muse while playing with some of the world's most recognizable IPs. DC must show that they give top film makers the opportunity to make their vision.

And certainly, some of the resulting films will be bad, but bad films are easy to survive if they are isolated failures, rather than errors intended to lay the foundation for an interconnected film universe. That's why Justice League is actually a greater failure than for example the disastrous 2015 of Fox Fantastic four reboot. Fantastic four earned much less money, but it was not intended to launch the full-year five-year plan.

DC has a few other balls in the air that hopefully can follow the new path with which they are mapped out prankster, such as a Blackhawk movie developed by Steven Spielberga Ava DuVernay New Gods movie, and a Matt Reeves Batman movie with Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz and Paul Dano. None of these films are still in production, and the first two have not made any casting announcements, so they cannot happen. But only the fact that these are the filmmakers with whom DC cooperates is a suggestion prankster may not be an isolated success.

Photo: Niko Tavernise / Warner Bros.

The past and future of DC movies

This strategy of having great filmmakers bring unique visions to the screen is not new to DC. They always excelled. With the Dark Knight trilogy gave the company Christopher Nolan the freedom to make the films he wanted to make, free from a larger universe. And the films were such huge critical and commercial successes that the Oscars even the size of the Best Image field changed to meet them.

That should have been the necessary proof that DC should act as a primary commodity in creative freedom, but unfortunately the company's leadership has learned the wrong lesson from The dark knightThe succes. They looked at the checkout numbers and the accolades and came to the conclusion that the audience clearly wanted dark and sandy films. And they looked at the success of the Phase One Marvel films and concluded that the audience clearly wanted an interconnected universe. So DC turned to Zack Snyder to try to combine Nolan's style in one way or another Dark Knight trilogy with the ambitious scope and distribution of the MCU. But Snyder instead created a series of films that usually failed on both fronts.

The reality is, the Dark Knight movies were not loved because they were grim, they were loved because they were made by one of our greatest contemporary filmmakers who worked at the top of his game. And although Todd Phillips is not in the Christopher Nolan competition, prankster remains evidence that talented people with a distinctive vision and the freedom to perform – and an interest in exploring the more human side of DC & # 39; s character stable, rather than the alien / billionaire / mythical side – remain a much better recipe for success than trying to shamelessly re-create what worked with other comic book films.

pranksterThe creative and commercial success of Marvel also takes place at a crossroads for Marvel. Avengers: Endgame was a giant global juggernaut, but it meant (at least for the time being) the end of an MCU that was determined and supported by Iron Man and Captain America. Phase Four still looks very promising for Marvel, but it seems to be missing one Avengers-style-unifier that would require the audience to see every episode. And now that the MCU is about to stretch its legs in the streaming realm of Disney +, it can begin to test the limits of how much content casual fans will be willing to keep up with before they just check out completely.

Marvel and DC have been fighting this fight for decades as comic book publishers and the constant loss of readership is becoming more alarming every year. Ultimately, the backlog of continuity in their comics becomes too discouraging for new or casual readers. For the MCU, that rubicon may be ten years or more away, but it may also be closer than we think. By the end of 2021, the cumulative duration of all MCU films and Disney + series will hit more than 100 hours. Ultimately, that number will be too high. DC films can completely prevent this problem by continuing to make stand-alone films prankster.

And then there is quality control. Although Marvel honcho Kevin Feige has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt after more than a decade of great choices, Marvel cannot make the right decisions forever. Again, bad movies are harder to survive when they are designed to support various others. In other words, the current climate, in which Marvel dominates the register three times a year, will not last forever. Like Lucasfilm (another Disney company) found out Solo: A Star Wars Story, life comes quickly at you.


That is why DC should not panic about the prospects to compete with Avengers films for the coming decades. Instead, the company needs to re-focus on what it did well in the past. The evidence is clear: most of the best comics and the best movies in DC's decorated history share an obvious deal. DC found a number of very talented people, gave them the keys and let them create what they wanted to create. That is a strategy that never goes out of style.