By Roy Sevilla Ho
Editor’s Note: We welcome Roy Sevilla Ho, Manila-based movie writer and director, to the awesome fold of OSM! www.justcliqit.com with his blog, ZAPRUDER. Roy used the same name in his entertainment and culture column of The Freeman Newspaper in Cebu in the late 1990s. ZAPRUDER is named after Abraham Zapruder, the most famous accidental film maker who shot a home video and inadvertently captured the assassination of Pres. Kennedy. Roy, by organic constitution, is not an accidental filmmaker. Begin to enjoy his blog and catch him on twitter @roysevillaho.
MANILA – This is not a hoax, not a dream, not an imaginary story – when I was seven-years-old, the Justice League of America saved my life.
I don’t remember much of the details, as I guess it was deemed too complex for me to understand at the time but I had been in the hospital for several months due to a malfunction in my immune system. Plus my mother wasn’t much for boring details. It was much later, that, in between sips of noni juice and corn hair tea, she told me in passing that, oh yeah, the doctors had told her there was a probability I would shuffle off this mortal coil and go to fat boy heaven.
All I remember is being virtually immobilized as the engorged lymph nodes on my neck made it painful to move. The only break from the monotony was the moment when the nurses had to scour my arms for somewhere else to stick the needles because my blood vessels were spent.
Enter the White Priest
Anyway, it all changed one day when an Irish priest came a-knocking. This was the first time I had ever seen a white man so I was googly eyed but I did notice he was dragging a trolley with him, stacked high with what looked like encyclopedias. Now, let me give the millennials some time to Google what those are.
So Father White Guy left a few of them in my care after showing me what was inside the tomes: They had taken a ton of comic books and bound them together for easier storage and to effectively destroy its resale value during the great Comic Book Speculation Boom of the 90s.
I began with two bound volumes, one following the adventures of the satellite-era Justice League of America and another introducing me to the far-future disco stylings of the great Dave Cockrum in the Legion of Super-Heroes. It broke my damn fool mind and it began a lifelong love affair with Dave Cockrum Comics. I have had bouts of infidelity, of course, with Marvel Comics, who was younger, cooler and more popular, but I would always found my way back home to the warm embrace of spandex, capes and multicolored briefs over tights of my beloved DC.
As far as movies go, DC had the best ones for a long time. From Richard Donner’s Superman films to Tim Burton’s Batman films, DC was rocking the cinemas just as they were being pounded mercilessly by Marvel in comic book sales. It seemed like a fair tradeoff. It wasn’t until Marvel filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 1996 that the status quo would begin to change.
Marvel’s financial collapse forced the company to license the film rights to their characters to other parties and had success with the Blade, Spider-Man and X-Men films. But it wasn’t until Marvel Studios was formed and they reacquired some of their character licenses to create and control their own films that Marvel not only found its greatest box office success, but also changed the Hollywood landscape forever like a Biblical plague.
Marvel Studios Bounces Back with Iron Man
Studios at this point had changed their focus from making mere blockbusters to creating franchises – lucrative cash cows that can sustain them for years. Marvel Studios was an upstart independent studio that had one key advantage: An extensive library of characters that had a history of crossing over to other properties in other media. Thus the ‘shared universe’ entered our film jargon and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born with the first Iron Man film and continues to this day with 21 films and counting and astronomical box office returns.
(NOTE: One can argue that an earlier example of a shared universe was Kevin Smith’s ‘Askewniverse’ featuring the hijinks of the drug dealers Jay and Silent Bob, but that certainly hasn’t had the same mass appeal or cultural impact as the MCU. Some of you probably don’t even know what I’m talking about.)
Warner Bros. Deconstructs Superman and Batman
Following the success of the Marvel model, Warner Bros, who now owned DC Comics decided to compete head on with its own shared universe, buoyed by the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and looking to replace the lucrative earnings of the recently concluded Harry Potter film series. After all, not only did they have superheroes in their pocket as well, but they hold the most recognizable ones in the entirety of civilization. Surely they could do no wrong.
Unlike Marvel Studios though, ran by the creative minds behind the characters, Warner Bros is an old school film giant manned by accountants and lawyers. Their first attempt at kick-starting the DC Extended Universe was Green Lantern and it was so rife with studio interference to mimic the elements of a Marvel film it ended up looking like a Superhero parody. The same was true of a later installment, Suicide Squad.
Their next attempt was with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, a Randian Objectivist deconstruction of Superman. This attempt was a different approach, creating a departure from the family friendly, light hearted formula of the Marvel films, who had since been purchased by one of Hollywood’s true evil empires, Walt Disney Studios (a story for another time).
The darker take on the seminal icon of superheroes did not go down very well with critics, although it did perform decently enough to kick-start the DCEU and led to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film equally as divisive and even more profitable.
Humanizing the Writing
In order to right their ship, Warner Brothers looked for a man to course-correct their franchise, much as Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige did for theirs. They chose Geoff Johns, a superstar writer for DC comics who has risen through the ranks and has engineered a critically acclaimed reinvigoration of their comic books by going back to the basics and focusing on the core ideals of their characters.
The plan was to inject the same spirit into their films. (Feige and Johns have another interesting connection. Their film careers began with Johns as an assistant for seminal Superman director Richard Donner, while Feige was an assistant to Donner’s wife, X-men producer Lauren Shuler-Donner, giving the rivalry of the two studio heads a WWE-like symmetry.)
Johns first foray as the head of DC Films was the wonderful (ahem) Wonder Woman, that went on to become the most successful of the DCEU films and the first one to garner universal acclaim. Despite all the political and sociological issues surrounding the film, at its core was the purest iteration of the superhero archetype in recent memory, embracing the noblest sentiments of these interim gods. When asked what would be the strategy for his tenure, he said that, just like he did in the comics, he intends to inject hope into their films. With everything else going on in real life, it was exactly what the audience needed.
And so the DCEU’s beginnings were marred by the studio picking gravel from their collective teeth after an opening gate pratfall. In attempting to differentiate itself from the MCU, they resorted to the deconstruction of the most beloved characters of super-hero-dom into beings of frailty, insecurity and trauma.
Superhero stories are supposed to be simple morality tales. In fact, it is as formulaic as they come. The powerful protect the weak. Good triumphs over evil. Love conquers all. These are stories that are supposed to cater to the simplest denominator and appeal, if I may, to a seven-year-old boy convalescing in a hospital bed somewhere in the world. (Photos from Google.com)