This past week we lost Darwyn Cooke, one of the great comic book artists of our time. Cooke was an artist who did everything from superheroes to crime comics, but he'll likely be best remembered for his DC Comics work. His DC stuff, including the iconic The New Frontier, presented the classic characters of the DC Universe as bright, bold and exciting figures, usually with big smiles on their faces. His DC heroes had one foot in the mythic and the eternal and one foot in the every day. The New Frontier itself was a gorgeous paean to the hope and joy that had once defined the DC Universe; set between the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, The New Frontier follows Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman through years where superheroes decline and then through the beginning of a new age of colorful, positive characters. Filled to the brim with Space Age optimism (filtered through a clear-eyed real world understanding of the time period), The New Frontier is a mission statement for superhero comics.
For whatever reason the executives at Warner Bros opted not to use The New Frontier as their mission statement when it came to the DC Movies. They didn't use the animated Justice League that helped define the DC characters for a new generation. They, at the behest of Zack Snyder, skipped past hope and optimism to grab at deconstruction. Paul Dini and Darwyn Cooke weren't the DNA of the DC movieverse, Frank Miller and Alan Moore were. Which isn't to bring down those writers, as they're two of the greatest to ever work in the medium. But their best and most iconic work is dedicated to probing the dark corners and disturbing problems of superheroes. The comics that defined the DC movieverse were comics that were often cynical about superheroes, a weird place to launch your blockbuster franchise. That kind of stuff makes sense after years of stories that cover the same ground, but coming out of the gate that way? Defining your films that way? A baffling choice at best.
It's been disheartening to see this happen to the DC characters, and to recognize that it was all because some of the best comic books ever made had been profoundly misunderstood. The people in charge of the DC movies were, fundamentally, people who did not get the DC characters. Anyone whose default Batman tale is The Dark Knight Returns is not a person who really understands Batman. Anyone who portrays Superman as an alien who is reluctant about helping out doesn't understand Superman. A person like that could definitely create an interesting 'take' on the characters - sometimes outsiders bring needed clarity to characters who have become stagnant - but that's no way to launch a cinematic universe. You create the icons first, and then you examine them from unique - and sometimes critical - angles.
This past week the power structure that oversees these DC movies has changed. Geoff Johns and Jon Berg have become the heads of a new entity known as DC Films, a silo within Warner Bros that will focus exclusively on DC properties. On paper this doesn't change much, but my understanding is that behind the scenes this means that Zack Snyder's influence has been curbed. If that's the case what Geoff Johns said recently in an interview can only make us happy.
Talking to the press about his upcoming DC Universe: Rebirth, which is going to shake up the status quo of DC Comics and its five year old stumble The New 52, Johns avoided questions about DC Films. But he did talk about his vision of the DC Comics universe, and it doesn't take a "Jump to Conclusions Mat" to guess that this attitude will be what he brings to DC Films. A reporter from Vulture summed up what Johns had to say about the DC Universe:
One phrase came out of his mouth over and over again as he talked about DC’s comics: “hope and optimism.”
And here's a quote from Johns about Superman, the character who has been most mishandled by the movies:
“I think people make a mistake when they say, ‘Superman’s not relatable because he’s so powerful,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? He’s a farmboy from Kansas who moves to the city and just wants to do the best he can with what he’s got.’ That’s the most relatable character in the world."
That attitude could not be more different from how Snyder has approached Superman, who has been a brooding and confused hero unsure of his place in the world. And the words "hope and optimism?" That describes an attitude that is 180 degrees away from films like Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Back in January I called on Warner Bros to make Geoff Johns the face of the DC movieverse, and it's because of stuff like this. As with any creative person you can like or dislike Johns' output but you cannot deny that he truly loves these characters. He lives and breathes DC characters in a way that none of the other decision-makers at WB do, and he's the guy who understands them the best. Johns, ever a loyal DC soldier, has supported BvS in public but I simply cannot believe the guy who says the above about Superman is completely happy with how that film treated DC's most iconic character.
Hope and optimism. A new frontier, if you will. There are many who think I hate DC, but they couldn't be more wrong. I grew up reading both DC and Marvel, and in fact during my prime comic book years - when I was old enough to spend hundreds of bucks a month on comics - I was buying almost exclusively DC. I have fallen out of DC in recent years - the grim New 52 gave me a good jumping off point, and the movies have betrayed the spirit of the comics - but my criticisms of DC in recent times have come from a place of honest love for these characters. And now I hear "hope and optimism" and I get filled with exactly those feelings.
Look, the DC movieverse is going to be a pain in the ass to turn around. Justice League is already filming, Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad are in the can. Johns has a lot of work cut out for him if hope and optimism will be his rallying cry at DC Films. But I'll tell you, for the first time since those early Man of Steel trailers (which captured hope and optimism so well) I'm feeling good about the DC movieverse. What's more, this turn of events is very much like a classic DC crossover - the heroes look defeated, the universe is all but destroyed, but at the last second the sheer willpower of a Superman or a Batman (or the Phantom Stranger and the Spectre holding hands or Damage recreating the Big Bang or...) turns the tide. It would be pretty fitting if this Crisis In The DC Movieverse has a happy ending, just pages after it seems like all hope is lost.