How DC Can Distinguish Itself From Marvel

Over at IFC, Terri Schwartz reports that Ben Affleck’s been approached about directing DC’s Justice League movie, and has a smart assessment of his strengths and weaknesses in the position that also suggests a way DC, as it tries to build a viable movie franchise to match The Avengers, could distinguish itself from Marvel’s approach:

For now, we’re just intrigued by the possibility of Affleck. He has some experience with superhero films, but we’ll be the first to admit that “Daredevil” wasn’t great. Fortunately Affleck has greatly matured as an actor and a director since then, which is good for this project. However, Affleck doesn’t have any experience directing with CGI, which could be a boon or a curse. He filmed some great realistic action scenes in “The Town,” which could make a “Justice League” film more in line stylistically with Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” trilogy. To us, the more realistic this film is, the better, though we know there’s no way to make characters like the Green Lantern and the Flash work without some semblance of computer assistance. Hopefully Affleck is up to the task.

Mike Fleming at Deadline is more skeptical of the prospect that Affleck is going to happen:

This is a story I checked out days ago, and didn’t run when Affleck’s reps stated that it was not going to happen with him. Now, it makes sense that Warner Bros would offer Affleck the project. Chris Nolan is top man over there, but after three Batfilms and after producing the Superman reboot Man of Steel, he’s gotten spandex-clad protagonists out of his system. After Nolan, the studio then offers everything else to Harry Potter director David Yates (who is now keen on Tarzan) and Affleck, who has become a major director with Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and the upcoming Argo. Just because the studio wants Affleck doesn’t mean he will do the movie, and several sources tell me he might take a meeting, but that’s it.

After putting his acting career in the dumper with questionable choices like Gigli, Affleck admirably scripted a second act for himself with his writing and directing skills, and did it by taking on unexpected, thoughtful films. His reps clearly denied he would take this, and why would he want to direct a Justice League movie, unless he himself had figured out a way to make one that would compare favorably with Joss Whedon’s billion dollar Marvel smash The Avengers? I don’t see it.

Whether or not Affleck ends up being the man to do it, I think that DC would be strategically and creatively smart to create a franchise that’s less cosmic and more realistic than Marvel’s, and that maintains at least the gloss of ideas from Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Given that Whedon’s locked in for Avengers 2, it probably doesn’t make sense to get into an witty arms race with him. Similarly, Marvel is, I think, potentially going to test audiences’ tolerance for cosmic characters and conflicts with Guardians of the Galaxy, and DC could distinguish itself by grounding its conflicts in the real world, and potentially even in real issues. Even if I think the politics of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies were ultimately flimsy and inconsistent , they got people talking without getting in the way of the movies’ blockbuster status, and that’s not a terrible brand if you can find directors and writers who can walk that line intelligently. It may not be possible to do emotional connection and dialogue better than Whedon, but given the way The Avengers has been set up so far, I think it’s possible for DC to come off build a more grounded world that gets audiences to connect to the characters and conflicts in a more serious way. We’ll see whether that’s Zack Snyder’s actual approach in Man of Steel, but DC’s certainly selling the initial hero’s journey as deeply rooted in the American experience and landscape rather than foregrounding the cosmic elements of it.

I also think that a more grounded, naturalistic (in so much as these things can be naturalistic) approach to the DC Comics universe might be a smart hedge against the day that mass audiences get a little tired of superhero movies. If you don’t need to to use Skrull spaceships and giant space lizard fish in the climax of your action sequences, you can make excellent action movies on smaller budgets. In boom times, that can mean bigger profits. If trends slow, it can mean preserving a margin. I don’t really expect DC to think that strategically, given the general death of the mid-budget action picture. But the company needs some smart insight to distinguish itself if it wants to do more than tag after Marvel’s coattails.