Man of Steel Still Sucks: Why DC’s Cinematic Universe Can’t Fly

On my planet, it means hope, because I’m going to need all I can get.

I don’t like Man of Steel. I may have mentioned this before. This wouldn’t matter too much, except a lot of other people don’t like Man of Steel either. A lot of people still paid to see it, that has been enough to get a sequel off the ground, but the vultures are circling DC’s hopeful new universe already. DC have canned sequels before, of course. Superman Returns did well with critics, and did enough at the box office to justify a follow up, but by the time it came to greenlight it public opinion had turned on the Richard Donner nostalgia piece. Man of Steel arrived in a different climate. The attitude of studios these days is to take a lesson from Disney, sell your movie like it’s Citizen Kane, even when everybody hates it.

Of course, Warner Bros. faces a bigger problem these days. The Avengers franchise has been a winner since Iron Man hit in 2008. Between then and 2012, Marvel delivered six high profile films based on their properties, culminating in one of the best (and most successful) superhero pictures ever released. DC was slow to respond, because they had another hit on their hands.

Bane in Darkness
Remember when I played a clone of Captain Picard?

Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy looked set to define the comic book movie in 2009. Batman Begins was a reasonable success, and a hit with critics. The Dark Knight, landing at the same time as Iron Man, was an enormous success. Fuelled in part by Heath Ledger’s tragic death, it was a dark and brooding picture that propelled Batman to a level success he hadn’t enjoyed since Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989.  In 2012, both publishers saw massive successes for their properties when The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers arrived. However while Marvel’s future looked brighter than ever, DC was left on shaky ground. While Marvel borrowed heavily from television writing to weave a continuing, collaborative story arc, Warner’s approach was a self contained, director driven franchise. When Nolan brought his trilogy to an end, he sent DC movie adaptations back to square one. This left Warner without a competitor to The Avengers until 2013, by which point Marvel had already released Iron Man 3. Now we come to Man of Steel.

I’m not going to talk a lot about why I don’t like Man of Steel. I’ve done that already. I’ve done that a lot. I know it’s divisive and that a lot of people out there do like it. If that’s the case, great. I’m genuinely happy for you. What I am going to talk about is the future, how Man of Steel fits into a shared universe, and why I don’t think Batman vs. Superman will be the start of something great for DC and Warner Bros.

Man of Steel sounds like a great idea. After the success of The Dark Knight, adapting a big budget Superman origin with Nolan’s input seems like a great idea. In execution, I think it turned out to be a big mistake. The problem was Warner’s inability to commit. They know that they need a property out there, Batman is the hot thing but they’ve just finished with an incarnation of Batman. Superman is well rested after his last disappointment and so he’s brought out of retirement. But something’s new this time, Marvel has this shared universe building and Warner would be crazy not to want in. What is needed is a clean cut, heartfelt Superman adaptation. A Superman: The Movie for the new millennium, that builds a foundation for DC’s own shared universe while establishing the tone. DC’s Iron Man.

Batman Superman VHS
I will wager real money that this turns out to be the better film.

The result is a much more timid venture. A movie that feels like it belongs to The Dark Knight universe without any connections established, another auteur driven piece that clings to strong themes and psychoanalytical interpretations of its characters. A film about destiny and drive and alienation. In much the same way that The Dark Knight was a Batman movie and a gritty movie about corruption and organise crime, Man of Steel is a Superman movie and a story of isolation and immortality. Like a boring version of Highlander. The Marvel Cinematic Universe works because each film explores the strengths of its characters, while keeping a consistent underlying tone the audience accepts as, for lack of a better word, “reality.” Man of Steel, as the bedrock for a new franchise, is too idiosyncratic in tone and in look to serve. It would be as inappropriate as building a shared universe on Batman Returns.

The cause of this is, as far as I can see, quite obvious. Man of Steel was not intended as the first step towards a shared universe, but a Batman Begins. It fails, of course, because it attempts to be both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight at the same time. An origin story that reintroduces a beloved character and a heavily thematic mood piece that brings out the deepest in the audience. There are no hints to the wider world in Man of Steel, it is entirely self contained and explores a world without superheroes. And a lot of people hated it. When Warner chooses to follow this with Batman vs. Superman, they know something is wrong with their latest attempt.

Movie studios aren’t stupid. I know it seems like they are. They don’t commission films that sound great, they commission films that sound terrible and they make some very odd choices when it comes to adaptations. But they do make a lot of money. A hell of a lot of money. More than they would ever really admit. And one of the things they know is that reboots sell really well. I have always maintained that this is because origin stories bring in the widest audience. You don’t need any prior knowledge, you’re usually dealing with a story people are familiar with and new actors, new visual styles, new takes capture people’s interest. The problem is that this spike comes with a drop off in both audience and critical reception. (See The Amazing Spider-Man, Casino Royale, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four etc. etc. etc.) Often, looking back, the rebooted film isn’t even as good as the franchise it replace. (God I hate you, Amazing Spider-Man.) People just like the fresh perspective.

Dean Cain Superman
Reference: The colour Superman’s costume should actually be.

So, what do you do when that formula stops working? Man of Steel sold a lot of tickets, but the critical reception that comes with a franchise reboot just wasn’t there this time. The audience seemed divided and even though it had its defenders, it stood to reason that the drop off for the sequel was going to be enormous. They doubled down. Well, actually the double-doubled down. Their strategy had been two-fold. Reboot Superman and get some of that awesome Reboot money; Replicate The Dark Knight trilogy and get some of that awesome Batman money. Batman vs. Superman is basically: Reboot Batman; Bring Back Batman. People like Batman. Of course, they can’t bring back the Batman everyone loves. Nolan’s done, Bale’s done (Adam West is too old) so rather than suggesting Man of Steel exists in Nolan’s Batman universe, we’re getting a new Batman, created in Man of Steel’s world. This leaves Batman vs. Superman with an awkward choice; forge its own style and sit awkwardly next to its predecessor, or try to be a true sequel to Man of Steel, and undoubtably suffer the same lousy critical reception. (Ticket sales aren’t an issue this time. C’mon, it’s Batman vs. Superman! I’m 99% certain it will be shit, and I’m still going to see it.)

This is a problem that will only multiply as this franchise continues. Where Marvel worked to establish a consistent tone, a blank canvas universe in which all our heroes exist and compete on their merits, DC is hoping to build form what it has already. This can not work. As we go forward, Man of Steel isn’t just going to be a crummy superhero movie, but an anchor weighing the hole franchise down. Already we are going to see Batman in Man of Steel’s grey, lifeless, walk into a hurricane to save a dog world. He might just work, but Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern? Or will they all be relegated to second players in Superman’s dull destiny?

The way I see it, (and I know I’m biased) is to minimise Man of Steel’s contribution to this universe with each release. Tone it down, soften its edges until it feels a like a world in which DC’s other, more lively characters can inhabit. But if their only strategy is to double down, more Batman, More Destiny, More Grey, this franchise not only can’t fly. It doesn’t even have legs.

  • We haven’t disagreed on something for a long time, so this was bound to happen. The first thing I want to talk about is your issues with building a universe with MoS being such a stylized, tone driven foundation. It’s really easy to think of the Marvel universe as a whole, with similar tone and style, this isn’t the case. Iron Man differs completely from not only movies like the near-camp fest that is Captain America or the character piece that is Thor. Iron Man even differs in tone from the other two movies in it’s part of the franchise. Iron Man 2 is a film dealing heavily with legacy and the inability to match it. Iron Man 3 is completely different than the first two in tone and look as it explores issues like PTSD. Not to mention The Winter Soldier’s spy movie approach or the shiny 80s space opera that Guardians of The Galaxy turned out to be. Differing styles and tones doesn’t mean a shared universe isn’t possible.
    We also don’t know nearly enough details about the script or plot to know just how they’re going to explain the existence of other superheroes in the universe MoS started. Considering how far along the Marvel Universe was by the time MoS came out, I find it hard to believe that they didn’t have some sort of idea when it came to a shared universe. It wasn’t like they made MoS and then said, “Oh hey, I just saw Iron Man 2, we should totally do what Marvel is doing.” Remember, all the allusions to a shared universe in Iron Man were basically Easter eggs or easily forgettable bits that could’ve been dropped if it never took off.

  • Maybe tone was the wrong word, but I’d argue all the Avengers films so far take place in the world defined in Iron Man / Iron Man 2. (Incredible Hulk not so much, but it’s the black sheep of the series anyway.) Sure, each film explores different ideas, themes and stories, but they do so within a world that is consistent and believably independent of its characters. DC is going to have problems with this because Man of Steel is a very different type of film, it doesn’t just have themes and motivations for its characters, it has style, tone, even weather, driven by the feelings and experiences of its characters. It is the world of a self contained film, and it means that future films will either have to tone it down, making Man of Steel feel out of place in the franchise, or position themselves as Man of Steel sequels. Neither of which is going to work out as well as Marvel’s work has.

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  • No absolutely not. But that’s because the Nolan-verse (or whatever you want to call it) is far too serious for it’s own good. They were great movies but everything was too “realistic” to have room for other superheroes. Whereas I believe that MoS had just enough, for lack of a better word, craziness. There are already little hints in that movie that suggests a larger universe, Waynetech satellites Lexcorp tankers,”Keep Calm, Call Batman” posters. As for it having the feel of a self-contained film, I don’t necessarily think that’s a problem. If you look at the comics themselves (yes, I know they’re two different mediums with two distinct sets of rules) these characters share a universe but their stand alone titles don’t look or feel the same at all.

    Do I think it’ll be as successful as Marvel’s universe? No, I don’t. But, I don’t think it’s going to be a failure or even bad.

  • Oh I would say Man of Steel is every bit as serious as Nolan’s films. Worse still, it’s entirely wrapped up in its themes. The posters and references to the shared universe hint at a wider world, but the film is absolutely a poor foundation for one. The difference with the comics is that you have multiple books for multiple characters without the assumption that the reader will read them all. Fans of crossover characters will read JLA, fans of Batman will read the core Batman books, crossovers are usually contained to the supporting titles. When bigger crossovers do occur (Batman/Superman, Crisis on Infinite Earths, No Man’s Land) an unprecedented level of editorial control is usually exerted onto the books to bring them into line thematically. When they don’t do that, the result is a mess like Bruce Wayne: Murderer. I’m not saying Man of Steel can’t be the foundation for as franchise, I just see only two options going forward for them. Either the following films will be as heavy handed and suffocating as I thought Man of Steel was, or Man of Steel’s influence will be toned down with each pass. If they’re clever, Man of Steel will be treated a bit like The Incredible Hulk, or even the Ang Lee Hulk. It happened, and it’s sort of part of the story, but we’re not going back to it for material.

    • Red Stewart

      I don’t think I’ve read a stupider comment.

    • DarthWader

      Yeah but the problem is Superman isn’t Batman, the dark thing doesn’t apply to all superheroes. And even Nolan didn’t forget humor in his Batman movies. Man of steel barely has a joke, cracking a smile is like a sin in that movie. A dark and gritty movie doesn’t mean you suck all the fun and joy out of it. It’s a comic book movie, but they obviously don’t know what a comic means.

      • I agree completely. I still maintain Man of Steel is a Superman movie made by people who don’t like Superman.

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  • Disappointing is probably a better word. I don’t see a hopeful set up for a DC film Universe either. It CERTAINLY wasn’t there in MOS zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

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