For the last 30 years, DC Entertainment—the publisher responsible for Batman, Superman, and the Justice League—has had a unique problem. It’s a simple problem, but a strange one: In the mid-’80s, DC published some of the most important comics in the world, and they’ve been creatively tied down to them ever since. It’s afflicted them at just about every turn, from the pages of comics to the movies based on their characters.
But now DC and Warner Bros. are looking to pivot, with a leadership shakeup that places longtime DC comics writer and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns in charge of a newly formed DC Films unit along with studio exec Jon Berg in order to oversee DC’s superhero movies adaptations. The pair have not said much about their plans yet, but Johns has been very vocal about what he sees as the primary selling points of DC heroes: Hope and optimism.
That’s a far cry from Batman v Superman, quite possibly the most cynical superhero movie ever made. It could also mean a radical pivot away from this particular problem DC’s had—as the successes of the ’80s have become tethers holding the publisher back.
Look at just about any top ten list of the best graphic novels or superhero comics of all time and you’ll see a few staples, all published by DC: Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One. Despite being periodicals at the time of their initial publication, they were complete works that could be neatly collected and sold and referred to in perpetuity. These books were huge moments in the comic book world, and they’re largely responsible for making comics Something For Adults To Enjoy. They deconstructed superheroes, and they’re why we have adaptations as good as Christopher Nolan’s bat-movies and as bad as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
And this is a big part of the problem. Comics, maybe more than any other entertainment medium, is afflicted with perpetual Golden Age Syndrome: There’s a lot of talk about all the great comics that came out back in the day, and the creators that made them are afforded a generous level of celebrity with no expiration date. Consider Frank Miller, whose name alone is perceived as valuable to DC: The man has not produced any meaningful output since the conclusion of his Sin City series of crime comics in 2000, and his work since then—most notably a 2011 graphic novel named Holy Terror, where a Batman-like protagonist fights jihadist forces—has even been met with open, vehement derision. But it’s his work from which the movies are repeatedly drawn, it’s his Batman that Ben Affleck dresses up as, and it’s his story from which Nolan took cues, because tribute must be paid. George Lucas would kill for the number of second chances a guy like Frank Miller gets.
Geoff Johns’ Rebirthessentially serves as an apology for the past five years of DC comics. It could also be read as a direct response to the Zack Snyder ethos of darkness and cynicism.
It’s not that Frank Miller’s work isn’t worth adaptation—The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One are seminal works, about as good as their reputation suggests. But it’s rare that you’ll hear anyone outside of comics move past him to bring up other greats like Neil Adams and Denny O’Neil, or recent acclaimed creators like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, or even Bruce Timm and the team of animators behind Batman: The Animated Series, probably the finest Batman adaptation ever made.
Marvel’s movies, on the other hand, have become a grand mashup of stories across its publishing history. Ultron was created in the late ‘60s; The Winter Soldier and Civil Warare loosely based on stories told in the mid-2000s; all that crazy cosmic stuff fromGuardians of the Galaxy to the Infinity Stones are mined from stories created in the ‘70s; much of the characterization of The Avengers stems from a 2002 series called The Ultimates.
A lot of this is by accident. Marvel, because of its soap-operatic method of storytelling and weird refusal to invest in graphic novels and bound collections until fairly recently, didn’t really have many self-contained, complete stories to point to. None that stood imposingly on a bookshelf the way The Dark Knight Returns could, anyway. And DC’s relevance isn’t limited to just the ‘80s—there were countless important and game-changing stories told in the decades preceding, and more told in the decades to follow. But the priorities have long skewed in that era’s favor.