DC has been playing catch-up with Marvel on the cinematic playing field since 2008 when Marvel released Iron Man and forever defined the expectations of movies in the superhero genre.
This is not necessarily a criticism of DC, but rather a testament to the incredible foresight and planning displayed by Marvel creatives. The criticism of DC comes from their sloppy efforts to make up an inordinate amount of lost ground with quick fixes. Having tried their hand (and failed) with re-evaluations of DC’s most famous characters in the form of Batman and Superman, DC’s recent revelation of an upcoming movie based on the Joker demonstrates a change in focus that could differentiate them from their main competitor.
Embracing the darkness
Marvel movies suffered criticism of a lack of variety between movies, although the recent release of Avengers: Infinity War to rapturous critical acclaim have overshadowed any issues with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by renewing the sense of purpose of every preceding movie. Infinity War became just the fourth movie to surpass box office hauls of $2 billion, proving that superheroes’ popularity is higher than ever. Deadpool 2 has demonstrated that there is a market for anti-heroes too, with a rating of 82% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, Deadpool’s heart is firmly in the right place by the end of each movie, even if it loses its way at times. The Joker has no such redeeming qualities but is rather an incontrovertibly evil character. It will be interesting to see how DC can portray such a character in a way that makes them a compelling lead.
Yet DC may finally be playing to their strengths rather than performing a poor impersonation of Marvel. With movies such as Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice criticised for their overtly dark tone, focusing a movie on a villain may finally provide a narrative to match the atmosphere. The Joker is an iconic character, but many felt that Suicide Squad did a disservice to Jared Leto’s efforts. Furthermore, Leto’s efforts did a disservice to the character in a movie rated a disappointing 6.1 on IMDB. The Joker is so iconic that one movie will not suffice; The Guardian has reported how Joaquin Phoenix is slated to inhabit the role in a movie set in the 1980s and produced by Martin Scorsese. This tale will exist in a universe separate from that of Leto’s, emphasising the disjointed nature of the DC Extended Universe that became a glaring issue when Ezra Miller’s cinematic incarnation of The Flash was introduced in addition to the long-running television appearances of Grant Gustin as the titular character.
Overshadowed by heroes
Heroes such as Superman and Batman have almost endless crossover appeal. These characters transcend mediums, from appearing as the focus of books to providing themes for online slot games. Superman is perhaps the most instantly recognisable superhero across the world, his name synonymous with virtuous qualities in places such as the Lazlo Bane song ‘Superman’ that became the theme song to the American comedy Scrubs. Batman’s ethical dilemmas are discussed in a book with the unlikely title of “Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul”. Edited by Robert Arp and Mark D. White, the book features ruminations from a variety of contributors on the real-world problems and moral quandaries that Batman faces. Such a book could not have been written about the Joker, a character devoid of morals. Batman has also provided the focus of the successful series of video games that began with Arkham Asylum, while a plethora of DC heroes appear in the fighting game Injustice 2. Betway UK Casino has analysed the influence of popular characters on online casino games, acknowledging the impact of heroes such as Iron Man and Wonder Woman in providing thematic inspiration for slot games. Though, in these games, it’s the hero that is the focus, rather than their adversary. The same is true of the Arkham Asylum series; it is more gratifying to inhabit the role of the hero than villain.
This emphasises the difficulty that DC will have in pulling off successful movies focused on villainous characters. Critics enthusiastically praised Heath Ledger’s engrossing interpretation of The Joker in The Dark Knight, but it was his interplay with the hero that made him so compelling. While Ledger’s performance commanded viewers’ attention, only the darkest members of the audience would have been able to empathise with The Joker’s ambitions. The Joker did become a more sympathetic character when played by Zach Galifianakis in The Lego Batman Movie, but it is difficult to be intimidated by anything made of Lego. It will be intriguing to see how DC find a balance between adopting a tone that is appropriate for a legendary character while providing sufficient emotional investment for viewers.
The future of DC
The biggest criticisms of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been levied at their roster of villains. While Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a captivating character, the likes of CinemaBlend contend that he is the exception rather than a rule in a series of movies full of incredible heroes confronting mediocre villains. This is the area in which DC can make up ground, but they may have hamstrung themselves with a lack of cohesion in their planning. Their plans regarding the Legion of Doom may be sensational enough to compensate for any planning deficiencies. The Legion of Doom are the evil counterparts to the Justice League who have enjoyed a resurgence in the comics of late, with rumours abound regarding a movie outing. With villains such as Lex Luthor and Deathstroke who have greater allure than the characters featured in Suicide Squad, DC could establish themselves as the leading purveyors of cinematic villains.