Thursday, August 28, 2008

‘Dark Knight’ success ushers in dark days for all

Memo to Warner Bros.: You’re doing it wrong.

As the parent company of DC Comics, Warner is increasingly desperate for superhero franchises that can match those of Marvel Studios, the corporate sibling of DC’s longtime rival, Marvel Comics.
But apart from the Batman series — ably resurrected by director Christopher Nolan — Warner hasn’t had much luck. “Superman Returns” was a bloated, expensive bore, and the only thing epic about “Catwoman” was how much of a disaster it was. “Catwoman” managed to rack up Razzie awards for worst picture, worst actress, worst screenplay and worst director. Who lets someone named Pitof direct a movie, anyway?

Warner has batted around movies based on other DC characters for years, but none has gotten past the script stage. Most recently, Warner shelved a Wonder Woman film written by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon.

Another memo to Warner Bros.: You’re not going to do better than a Whedon-scripted “Wonder Woman,” so stop trying.

Never fear, though. Warner has a plan to finally bring DC’s stable of superheroes to the big screen. First, Warner has scrapped its troubled “Justice League” movie for the foreseeable future. Instead it will focus on solo adventures for Justice League members like Wonder Woman, the Flash and, of course, Superman.

The move echoes Marvel’s strategy of establishing Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America separately before having them team up for “The Avengers” in 2011.

So far, so good.

Next, Warner will reboot the Superman franchise and hope we all forget how dire “Superman Returns” is.

Again, this is following Marvel’s example. After director Ang Lee’s “Hulk” disappointed Marvel executives, they opted to start from scratch with this year’s “The Incredible Hulk.”

Now, I could nitpick and point out that “Hulk” cost less to make and will probably earn more (adjusted for inflation) than “The Incredible Hulk,” but for some reason, everyone in Hollywood thinks Lee’s film was a flop while the new one is a success. And in Hollywood, perception is all that matters.

Again, so far, so good. Director Bryan Singer, who did a great job of bringing Marvel’s “X-Men” to the screen, made such a mess of “Superman Returns” that it’s difficult to imagine where a straightforward sequel could go. Just take a mulligan.

But after that, Warner’s plan begins to reek. The studio has learned all of the right lessons from its competition — but all the wrong lessons from its own success.

To understand Warner’s mistake, you first need to think like a studio executive. So, I’ll give you a few minutes to take some tequila shots and bang your head into a brick wall.

Ready? Here goes.

The thinking at Warner Bros. goes like this: “The Dark Knight” was a “dark” movie. It made a lot of money. Hey! All of our other superhero movies should be dark, too!

Really, wasn’t the last Superman movie dark, moody and angst-ridden enough? Singer even darkened the colors of Superman’s costume to fit the mood of his gloomy picture.

See, Batman is a dark character. He’s named for a bloodthirsty, nocturnal mammal. So, his movies should be dark. Superman, however, is not a dark character. Neither is Wonder Woman, nor the Flash. Green Lantern? He’s not dark, either.

Meanwhile, none of Marvel’s most successful movies is dark, and the best of them — “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man” and the second “X-Men” — all have a pretty good sense of humor.

Last memo to Warner Bros.: You want a successful superhero movie? Just stay true to the spirit of the characters. Marvel does that. “The Dark Knight” and “Batman Begins” did it. A “dark” Superman movie does not.

I predict dark days ahead for Warner Bros. — in more than one sense of the term.

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