All DC Comics fans have to do is look at the last decade-and-a-few-years to see that its parent company, Warner Bros., is no stranger to live-action superhero adaptations. Sporting a list that includes a successful ten seasons of “Smallville,” the not-nearly-as-successful “Birds of Prey” and the unaired “Aquaman” pilot, the CW (partially owned by Warners) is now ready to roll out the Green Arrow-based “Arrow” and is developing a new Wonder Woman series it’s calling “Amazon” (though the title may change later, for all we know). In the world of film, Warner Bros. has released “Superman Returns,” “Green Lantern” and Director Christopher Nolan’s phenomenally successful Batman trilogy of “Batman Begins,” “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” And, of course, Nolan is now producing the upcoming Superman reboot “Man of Steel,” directed by Zack Snyder, who famously adapted Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “Watchmen” to mixed reactions from fans and public alike.
But despite the obvious awareness of the value in the source material, some of the most recent projects seem to be going out of their way to distance themselves from the comics, noticeably avoiding costumes and the portrayal of an exaggerated reality. One could argue this is just a trend in TV and film these days. Shows such as “Heroes,” “Misfits,” “Alphas” and “No Ordinary Family” all feature characters who gain impossible abilities and have strange adventures but never adopt costumes. But those were original shows created with a direct post-modern style. In direct adaptations of superheroes, especially ones as iconic as Superman and Wonder Woman, fans get nervous about the final product when there seems to be an attitude of embarrassment over the fact that the source material is a colorful comic book.
While it originally hewed tightly to a “no capes” approach, “Smallville” eventually decided to embrace more of Superman’s mythos, bringing Clark to Metropolis, turning up the level of sci-fi and having him working alongside superheroes, some who wore full-blown costumes. Yet despite all that, he never wore the official costume, only “prototypes” based on street clothing. Some argued this presented Clark in a more “realistic” light than he had been seen in the past, but by this point, the show featured clones, aliens, shape-shifting artificial intelligences, time travel, parallel universes and the ghosts of witches possessing modern-day teenagers. Seems like “realistic” was already redefined by that point. Displaying Superman’s bright costume didn’t keep many from enjoying the films with Christopher Reeve or the TV series “Lois and Clark” with Dean Cain, so it makes little sense to believe it would have ruined “Smallville’s” overall formula.
Christopher Nolan said he wanted to create as realistic an environment as possible in bringing Batman and Gotham City to the big screen, so it’s somewhat ironic that his critically acclaimed trilogy hews closer to its source material than just about every other DC Comics live-action adaptation. As a hero with no super powers who often fights street criminals, mobsters and human serial killers, this approach is definitely one that can work. At the same time, the lead character is still clearly a man who dresses as a bat, uses bat-shaped weaponry and is summoned to crime scenes by a personalized spotlight rather than by a smartphone with a scrambled signal. In “The Dark Knight,” the Joker is a man wearing make-up rather than someone with altered skin pigmentation and hair color, but the end result is still an arch-enemy who’s a villainous clown in a custom-tailored purple suit.
For “Green Lantern,” the costume was taken to the opposite end of the spectrum. Rather than spandex or practical body armor, Ryan Reynolds was outfitted in a completely CGI costume. There was a lot of negative reaction to the suit’s appearance, and the film itself performed below expectations.
Meanwhile, on the small screen, David E. Kelley attempted to develop a new live-action Wonder Woman series. The leaked pilot received a largely negative response, but even before fans saw the finished product, photos of the show’s Wonder Woman costume incited reactions that largely ranged from unimpressed to angry.
Zack Snyder, known for directing films imbued with colorful, over-the-top atmospheres such “Sucker Punch” and “300,” has stated “Man of Steel” is “probably going to be the most realistic movie I’ve made.” Depending on what he means by “realistic,” that could obviously either be great or bad. From what we’ve seen of the costume so far, while star Henry Cavill is instantly recognizable as Superman, what he’s wearing looks a lot like body armor rather than a traditional costume, and the character’s traditionally bright, iconic colors have been noticeably dulled.
This week, “Man of Steel” screenwriter David Goyer poured more fuel on the speculation fire with a public comment. “Working on this reboot, we are thinking about what would happen if a story like this one actually happened,” Goyer said. “How would people react to this? What impact would the presence of Superman [have] in the real world? What I really like is writing genre stories without a cartoonish element.”
While those questions are valid and can lead to interesting discussion, that last point causes concern. This story is still about Superman, a fantastic character brought to life in comics featuring super powers. Does Goyer’s comment about removing “cartoonish elements” mean taking out over-the-top camp and people accepting an alien hero with open arms? I could go for that. Nobody wants a repeat of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin” or the recent television series “The Cape.” (Seriously, did you see “The Cape?” How do you waste talented actors on that? Moving on…) Or does removing those elements mean no Fortress of Solitude, taking away Superman’s inspirational optimism or replacing banter or humor with tragedy and sadness? That seems like it would take the fun out of Superman. I love Batman, but not every superhero has to have the same flavor.
In the CW’s new “Arrow” series, Arrow’s costume (not Green Arrow, as he’s called in the comics) is basically just a hood and some sportswear with a little bit of paint on his face. In some footage, you can barely make out its color, and most of the recent ads and posters don’t have him wearing the suit at all. This week, a new “First Look” featurette was released where the creators involved said several things that seem to reflect a desire to distance themselves from the well-known visual elements of the source material. “Even though it started from comic book origins, it’s a very real story. There’s no capes, there’s no super-villains,” said Executive Producer Andrew Kreisberg.
According to Executive Producer Greg Berlanti, “He’s a hero, not a superhero.”
I find these statements a bit ironic, considering the current “Green Arrow” comic has gone the opposite direction, bringing back super-villains and other sci-fi/fantasy elements to the hero’s adventures.
Meanwhile, the talk about the potential Wonder Woman series “Amazon” is that it will feature Diana sans costume, in the years before she becomes a full-blown superhero. Is this just because the “Smallville” premise successfully spawned a show that lasted ten seasons? Or is this a reaction to the ridicule the Kelley pilot’s costume received? If it’s the latter, it seems like a strange fear to have when shows like “Once Upon a Time” receive good ratings and positive reviews while featuring the Mad Hatter, Little Red Riding Hood and an expanded version of Snow White’s dwarves that includes an eighth member named “Stealthy.” People will accept a lot of “silly” things in exchange for entertaining characters and stories.
Marvel Studios, on the other hand, has fully embraced the costume aspect and heightened reality of superheroes, to the point where the characters play them up on screen. Tony Stark customizes the colors of his armor in “Iron Man” simply because he likes “hot rod red.” The Asgardians in “Thor” don’t wear realistic Viking armor; they rock out exaggerated Jack Kirby-like apparel. While Steve Rogers’ battlefield costume in “Captain America: The First Avenger” is utilitarian, it still shouts “superhero.” He even gets a new, brighter outfit in “The Avengers.” Why? Because he’s Captain America and evidently S.H.I.E.L.D. thought he shouldn’t operate without a costume. It’s worth noting that embracing these costumes, capes and heightened realities of technologists in high-tech armor who co-exist with radioactive rage monsters and aliens has not prevented the Marvel Studios films from finding successful box office results.
I genuinely hope “Man of Steel,” “Arrow” and “Amazon” all turn out to be great projects. But this continuing attitude expressed by those working on Warner’s DC properties that superhero adaptations must dismiss the strange and memorable aspects that helped make the characters popular in the first place is, I think, something to be concerned about.