Revenger Submission: ‘The Elseworlds Paradox: Isn’t Every Movie A Standalone?’
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Today, reader Diego F. Salazar takes a provocative look at the way movies adhere to canon in an age where DC Entertainment is preparing to launch its own Elseworlds movies. What if every movie, at its core, already is an Elseworld tale?
Revenger Submission: “The Elseworlds Paradox”
By Diego F. Salazar (@DFSP2)
Being involved in the ongoing DCEU-related Twitter conversation for the last two years, either as a participant or just observer, something stands out to me when listening to some detractors of Zack Snyder’s vision of DC’s Trinity: “They could work as Elseworlds tales, not as part of the main continuity.” This perception seems to come from fans pointing to his often “controversial” creative choices. What hit me recently, aside from the fact Marvel often does radical changes to their “canon” as well- without as much of a side comment here and there from fans (if any)- is this concept that movies are “main continuity” when, in fact, they are all Elseworlds tales. All of them.
First, a little background. Elseworlds was (unofficially, as I think it was never labeled as such) a DC Comics imprint, now officially replaced by DC Black Label (that has some upcoming books that look really interesting), that allowed creators to come up with stories for already established characters, that could play by their own rules, without concern for years and years of existing continuity. These limited series included books like the well regarded SUPERMAN: RED SON by Mark Millar and Dave Johnson and, yes, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by Frank Miller. And Black Label starts with BATMAN: WHITE KNIGHT by Sean Gordon Murphy (which is awesome, you should read it) and soon to be followed by BATMAN: DAMNED by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo, SUPERMAN: YEAR ONE by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr. as well as re-releases of books like ALL-STAR SUPERMAN by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, BATMAN: YEAR ONE by Miller and David Mazzuccheli and KINGDOM COME by Mark Waid and Alex Ross.
And that’s what movies share with these Elseworlds tales. First, they are not tied to any existing continuity so filmmakers are (or should be) free to tell their own stories using these characters. Pre-2008, that’s what they did (some with more success than others, it has to be said), sometimes coming up with radical reinterpretations of those characters. Just think about Batman appearing on TV in 1966 in a campy comedy. And later, when that became the most recognizable version of the character, Tim Burton would reinvent him again (inspired by Frank Miller’s work), turning him back into a darker character, closer to what we expect of him today.
Guillermo Del Toro’s beloved HELLBOY (both of which are among my favorite comic book movies) changed the tone of the whole world, from a straight supernatural thriller, to a funnier, quirkier version of it. And even post-2008, you have the eponymous team becoming a comedy ensemble in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in their transition from page to screen, not to mention Thor’s transformation in Taika Waititi’s THOR: RAGNAROK being even more egregious, as it changed from previous movies to that one.
Stephen M. Colbert at Screen Rant already covered why Marvel’s interpretations are better received than DC’s, and specifically Snyder’s, in a great article last year (https://screenrant.com/dc-marvel-movie-reviews-rotten-tomatoes-bias/) so I won’t get there in detail, but I think this conception of movies being something more than just the point of view of the creative in charge influences this as well. And, in fact, Marvel might have exacerbated that.
MARVEL VS. DC – JUST NOT THE WAY YOU ARE THINKING
See, I have enjoyed the MCU so far, up to Infinity War, and I really respect what Kevin Feige and co. have done to build up this massive, interconnected universe, so this is in no way intended to shed a negative light over their work. But it might have unintentionally influenced in a negative way how we perceive the way comic book movies “should” be. The changes mentioned above (as well as other big ones, like Tony Stark and Bruce Banner creating Ultron instead of Hank Pym, Zemo being sort of a tragic figure instead of a fairly two dimensional villain and Thanos’ motivation not being winning over Death) that Marvel introduced in their movies, are often overlooked (if not outright praised), not only because very few people knew these characters prior to these films, but because they were done by their creators. Marvel has been pushing their name in front of every single one of their movies so people know they are Marvel characters. DC on the other hand? Not so much because, despite being owned by Warner Bros., the studio that makes the movies, DC had a much more hands off approach over their characters, leaving those decisions to the studio heads at WB, often giving enough creative freedom to the filmmakers to deliver their vision (or instead, push their corporate vision first and foremost, with filmmakers acting as hired guns).
Add to that the fact Marvel created their Cinematic Universe as a continuous narrative, almost like comic books do, with every superhero having their solo own series but all of them building up to a big event in a team up film. And like comic books, recent efforts demand a long investment to be fully appreciated: you would be very much lost watching the new Spider-Man or Black Panther film without having seen Civil War… which in turn wouldn’t make sense without having seen the last Captain America movie and both Avengers films. Then you have the fact Marvel did all this without their widely known characters like Spider-Man (he would join later), and establishing a fairly consistent tone, style and look, and you have the perfect storm for the idea of the “main continuity” to take hold. And then, you have to consider Kevin Feige becoming the face of the MCU, making it clear HE was the person guiding the whole thing, with the filmmaker’s specific vision coming way below the “big picture” in the list of priorities.
All these factors played a role in shaping the public’s perception so much that we expected DC to follow the same pattern (at least naming an “overseer” for the whole Universe) and when they didn’t (Warner Bros. pushed the narrative that their films were going to be filmmaker driven, with Snyder’s films becoming the starting point for other characters to spin off from), it became a point of criticism of the whole endeavor, not only from fans and critics, but from filmmakers and people within the comic book industry as well: from issues regarding the tone (more on that later), to universe-building stuff like Superman needing a second solo film before teaming up with Batman, or us needing a Batman solo film to understand him or, and this was the big one, that the Death of Superman shouldn’t have been used in his second appearance and should have been saved for later. And yet, we never stopped to consider that maybe Snyder wasn’t planning a long term Cinematic Universe where things like the Death of Superman would be used ten movies down the road, after the Justice League would finally assemble in movie number seven; That his plans for Superman and the Justice League had more in common with Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY than anything Marvel had done up until that point, with other heroes getting their solo movies as spinoffs, rather than build up to an event. Like the Elseworlds stories, it was conceived as a limited run.
And while the MCU is not a limited series, so it can’t be called an Elseworld story, it would share a lot in common with the Ultimate Universe in that it works as an Elseworlds (with no continuity to stick to) but is an ongoing series (I’ll keep using the term Elseworlds to encompass both for brevity’s sake). Bottom line: as long as Marvel and DC keep creating comics, those will be the “official continuity”, and movies will be Elseworlds. And despite Marvel seemingly adapting certain character traits, likeness and line ups from the movies into their comics, it doesn’t overwrite their existing continuity.
Looking at it this way, some of the most contentious changes Snyder did to these iconic characters should be more palatable, at least on paper (execution is another matter). There’s no disrespect of existing characters because there’s no canon to respect or continuity to stick to. This is Snyder’s version of this character the same way All-Star Superman was Grant Morrison’s and Red Son was Mark Millar’s. Obviously, what would be the point in making a Superman movie if, say, his inherent goodness and selflessness is totally ignored. And, while Snyder does respect this, we see things we, probably, never saw happening to Superman before: being forced to kill his enemy to stop him from killing a family, being unable to stop the fight for a moment and save people and, probably the most controversial one, doubting of his ability to do good in a much more cynical and mistrusting world. And that’s totally OK, the same way it was OK for Mark Waid and Alex Ross to portray a Superman that turned his back on humanity after they hailed the “hero” who murdered Joker.
The most important thing to understand, in my opinion, is that there’s always going to be another version of the character depending on the creative mind that’s working with him. These characters are always going to outlive those creating comics and movies about them and there’s always going to be another interpretation that appeals to you: for instance, I was fairly “meh” on Superman before Man of Steel and I thought Raimi’s Spider-Man films didn’t show me what I wanted from the character the same way the 90s animated series did (or Marc Webb’s films would do later). My point being, there’s no “right” way to adapt them.
THE SKY IS THE LIMIT
A common complaint about Snyder’s Superman was that he was “the wrong director” for the material, considering his background with darker, more serious movies with heavy subject matter (although some also pointed out some alleged issues with his narrative abilities which would be a valid criticism, although subjective, in my opinion). But by that logic, Taika Waititi, known for quirky comedies, was the wrong director for Thor as well. Both of them reinvented the characters they were working with, yet Waititi’s approach was (much) better received than Snyder’s. The reason, like Colbert says in his article, is that Superman already has an incarnation someone out there loves (a lot of people prefer Christopher Reeve’s), and fans get protective of those incarnations (it happened to Spider-Man before and it happened again, but taken to an extreme, with the reception of The Last Jedi among a certain group of fans). Thor had none (or very little) of that.
And Waititi is not the only director Marvel has hired thinking “outside the box”. James Gunn, Scott Derrickson, Kenneth Brannagh, Shane Black, Jon Favreau and even Edgar Wright (despite leaving Ant-Man before shooting began) could all be considered that way. And only Black faced something resembling a backlash for Iron Man 3, and only because of a third act twist that completely changed a beloved comic book villain, but went unnoticed for most people in the general audience.
The thing is, I don’t believe there’s a director who’s not fit for the material. And what that director can bring should be the whole point of the movie, especially those for characters that already have been adapted for the big screen, just like that being the whole point of Elseworlds stories in comics: to bring a different point of view. Otherwise, why bother? You don’t need to like it (just ask Mario about the arguments we’ve had about Man of Steel’s third act), but I believe it’s worth considering that there’s value in seeing someone taking a character you know and giving it a totally unexpected interpretation (As a side note, coming up with the idea for this piece has brought a newfound appreciation for Thor: Ragnarok. I still don’t think the movie works as it should, but I came to respect and even embrace what Waititi did for both Thor and Hulk. And I’ve come to think that, with a better script, Batman & Robin could have worked with the tone Joel Schumacher went for).
If I had to TL; DR this piece, I think it would come to this: there’s no right or wrong way to adapt these characters, especially as well-known as Batman and Superman. Movies, like comics, offer so many narrative possibilities that I think it’s a disservice to both filmmakers AND the characters to limit them within a certain template. Just like the Elsewolds stories in comics, once a filmmaking team fulfills their vision, a new one will come, bringing their own sensibilities to the forefront, “rebooting” and starting from scratch or, sometimes, taking over the same film series but bringing a new energy to it. It would be disingenuous to believe this responds to something other than monetary gains for the studio, but this also allows the characters to remain fresh in people’s minds, as well as creating a new generation of fans that will keep them alive in the public consciousness. And while Snyder’s take on DC’s big two might have brought the anger of longtime fans, it also created new ones, like myself, who are eager to see where they will be going next.
And I think that’s beautiful.