What We’d Like To See in the DC Cinematic Retcon

A longtime fan’s unsolicited suggestions for the new heads of the universe

Warner Brothers Discovery brass’s dramatic mid December hiring of James Gunn and Peter Safran to helm yet another DC cinematic universe reboot is only the latest attempt to fix the frustratingly underperforming platform. However, this time DC’s much-abused but resilient fanbase may truly have reason for hope.

Gunn’s and Safran’s opening salvo cancellation of a good part of the upcoming slate of major DC movies, as well as seemingly passing Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Gal Gadot their pink slips, is a clear indication this time the people entrusted with the reformation of the DC Universe really have the authority to start anew.

So with this great power, what should Gunn and Safran do?

First, celebrate what DC does well: Character design. Second, fix what they do poorly: Narratives and storylines. It was Walt’s genius to describe Disney as being in the business of creating characters and stories. You have to excel at both.

Gunn, who will take the creative lead, and Safran, who will handle the business side, seem ideal choices to address these issues. Importantly, both are genuine DC fans. Gunn seems to love and recognize the sublime nature of the superhero genre while at the same time appreciating and celebrating its wonderfully innate ridiculousness. These two thoughts happily coexist in the hearts and minds of fans and the genre’s best creatives. Saving the universe is a guilty pleasure. Dressing up in tights to do so is even guiltier and more pleasurable.

Gunn’s potential tone perfect approach to a new DCU that would emerge from this mindset was evident in his wildly, broadly successful Guardians of the Galaxy series. Guardians was an unabashed, good-natured open embrace of the genre, flaws and all.

One can surmise that the new DCU under Gunn’s control will look a lot like the Guardians of the Galaxy. Gunn’s light touch is a particularly good fit for the DCU which, along with the grandeur of the Superman arc has (Bouncing Boy?)  no shortage of richly satisfying embraceable silliness.

On this question of the tone of the new DCU, it’s important to note that in some of Gunn’s earliest statements in his new role he has acknowledged the undeniably popular grim iterations of the Batman, most recently portrayed by Robert Pattinson will not play a part on the main stage of his revised DCU. The dark Batman films’ glum, grey, drizzling, inward looking mood never fit the rest of the relatively perky DCU.

It appears Gunn, Safran and the WBD brass now recognize it was a huge mistake to try and impose  that darker mood on the broader DCU in some misguided attempt at “seriousness”. Thus, according to Gunn, the pointy-eared one will, from this point on, remain safely ensconced on one of those marvelously convenient alternate Earths.

It seems safe to say Gunn’s Earth Prime Batman, while unlikely to enter Adam West territory, will be no downer.

All to the good.

Having signaled a lighter tone and beginning afresh Gunn and Safran next need to mine DC’s  enormous library of valuable market tested IP that has been almost 100 years in the making to determine what DCU characters, narratives and storylines to focus on and introduce to the wider world as part of their reconfiguration.

With regard to the selection of key characters for the new DCU, the so-called DC Trinity–Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman–are a given and, appropriate alterations to Batman already noted, relatively easy to deal with. Those franchises are almost idiot proof. The interesting question is what second-tier characters and overarching franchise intertwining DC storylines will Gunn and Safran choose to fill out the new DC movie and streaming series slate?

When it comes to selecting lesser-known characters around which to universe-build at DC Gunn and Safran find themselves in a happy situation,spoilt for choice. Outside the abovementioned Trinity, the DC superhero character population is particularly rich at the second-tier level. Strong overarching storylines in the DC comic book history are a bit harder to find. But they are there.

As to how Gunn and Safran can combine the two, we have some suggestions.

Relaunch the Green Lantern Franchise and This Time Get It Right

Those behind the failed 2011 Ryan Reynolds anchored Green Lantern franchise initially had the right instincts. The power-ring-wielding, space-faring Green Lantern, like Marvel’s Iron Man, before him was and remains an ideal conduit through which to introduce his brand’s broader universe. An attempt to relaunch the Green Lantern franchise also brings with it some of the best storylines DC ever produced.

Gunn and Safran could do worse than bringing to the live action big screen a retelling of the innovative and uniquely DC  War of Light/Blackest Night storyline which ultimately drew in almost all the key elements of the DCU.

This very conceptually strong, visually stunning crossover epic which first appeared in print in 2009 tells the story of the formation of the seven original Lantern corps and the eventual war between them. Each of these groups draws power from a different element of the so-called “emotional electromagnetic spectrum” represented by a different color. The Green Lanterns, oldest of the lantern corps, draw their strength from willpower, Yellow Lanterns from fear, Red Lanterns from rage, Orange Lanterns from avarice,  Indigo Lanterns from compassion, Violet Lanterns from love, and Blue Lanterns, the weakest and simultaneously most powerful group, from hope. The narrative also makes room for a universe threatening sinister Black Lantern corps that incorporates zombie forms of the DCU’s mightiest heroes.

What’s not to like?

On a less universe-shaking level Gunn and Safran, keeping with the Green Lantern storylines, could revisit the much heralded Green Lantern /Green Arrow team up of the early 1970s.  The “Hard Travelin’ Heroes” series was penned by a young Denny O’Neil and featured the unparalleled artwork of the dearly missed Neal Adams. In this storyline Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern is pulled down out of space and into an extended road trip with a testy Green Arrow across a horribly divided and challenged America. Timely! During their travels the duo faced–in an entertaining not overly proselytizing way– issues such as addiction, racism, and political corruption.

It might be time for Olly to resto-mod that banged up old pickup.

Reintroduce the Wider World to the Hugely Popular Flash vs. Superman “Fastest Man” Contests

The three main crowd-pleasing published iterations of this always popular and engaging story could be stretched to include the many other variants that have appeared over the years. In fact, a nod to the popularity of this storyline appeared in a less than two minute post-credits scene at the end of the theatrical version of the ill-fated Justice League (2017) movie. For many it was the best part of the film.

This storyline would also serve as an opportunity to introduce a revised version of that most essential DC character, the Flash, to the new DCU. For many reasons, the Ezra Miller Flash incarnation just wasn’t working. Central City’s favorite son needs just a little more gravitas. At the same time they can rejig his look. The current DCU Flash costume in its latest evolution looks like just about every other live action superhero’s ensemble these days–a closely-fitted suit of “nanotechnology”-derived interlocking armor. This clockwork mechanical look obviously works for Iron Man and may lighten the load for the CGI crew when it comes to special effects but as far as character look goes, the DCU needs to move away from this mind-numbingly monotonous trend in outfitting heroes.

Produce a Live Action Film Version of the Legion of Superheroes

Give audiences a taste of the wonder that is the Legion of Superheroes. In 1958, Otto Binder and Al Plastino created this 30th and 31st century team of multi-powered teenagers and young adults from across the galaxy . The Legion is a great group, particularly in its late 1950s through the 1960s iterations. The innovative writers of the Legion stories of that era including, a then 14 year-old Jim Shooter, introduced a since-unequalled range of characters with inventive powers that other publishers have continued to draw upon and copy.

Just a partial list of those making up the team’s roster gives a sense of the rich variety of characters involved. There is Saturn Girl, a powerful telepath, Cosmic Boy, who can control magnetism, Chameleon Boy, who can alter his form in any manner he desires, Lightning Lad, who can control electrical energy, Shrinking Violet, who can reduce her size, Colossal Boy, Phantom Girl, and the Invisible Kid, who are pretty self explanatory and the aforementioned Bouncing Boy who, as advertised, inflates and er… bounces. All sworn to safeguard “the United Planets”.

The unsung women at DC who colored the inked pages provided by the legendary Superman family artist Curt Swan and others setting out the myriad characters typically involved in these stories each month pulled off something of a mini miracle by effortlessly differentiating what seemed like over a hundred different interacting characters. The resulting page layouts were colorful, clean, crisp and alluring.

The Legion of Superheroes has the potential to become, if handled properly, The Guardians of the Galaxy of the DC Universe.


Embrace the Ethereal: Resurrect the Satisfyingly Spooky Spectre

Finally, recognizing Black Adam mostly didn’t work does not mean Gunn and Safran (who was involved in the earlier Shazam movies) should ignore DC’s more supernatural characters. There are in fact several who could nicely anchor a live action film or premium platform streaming series. Among fine candidates one could include both Spiderman co-creator Steve Ditko’s Creeper and the Golden Age’s Dr. Fate who, played by Pierce Bronsan, was one of the few bright spots in the Black Adam film. But the mystical DC character most deserving of a free standing live action film or streaming series is one of DC’s oldest and arguably most powerful character, the Spectre.

Described as the literal manifestation of God’s vengeance the Spectre made his first appearance in–naturally–More Fun Comics in 1940. As far as powers go Jerry Spiegel and Ben Bailey’s creation has been described as about as close to God as the comics get. Wearing an eerie emerald and grayish white costume topped off with a swirling green cape and brooding hangman’s hood worn low over the eyes, the Spectre sports an iconic look that has endured almost untouched for over 80 years. It’s another example of first-rate DC character design.

Although at one point a member of the Justice Society of America, the predecessor of the Justice League and the “oldest” team of Superheroes, the Spectre’s full complement of powers bordering on omnipotence and remote disposition meant he was an awkward fit with a team of mostly normal humans. His powers are such he has brushed Superman aside more than once. A Spectre film or streaming series would, by necessity, have to deal with issues on a cosmic scale.

Unfortunately, like so many innovative DC characters, no one has ever fully realized the potential of the Spectre. Safran’s success with the Conjuring Universe, one of the most successful supernatural focused franchises in history, augurs well for any attempt to properly bring the Spectre to the large screen. The fact the Spectre has drawn the attention of both Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, who both included references to The Spectre in work for DC featuring other characters, only scratches at the quality and tantalizing potential of the Spectre character.

Landing either Moore or Gaiman to develop a live action or streaming series project featuring the Spectre would be another step in the right direction for the DCU and a major coup for Gunn and Safran.

James Gunn, bring back The Spectre!

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Samuel Porteous

Samuel Porteous is a Shanghai/Hong Kong-based artist/author and founder of Drowsy Emperor Studio represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA). His work includes visual arts, illustration, graphic novels, screenwriting and film. Sam has published in the WSJ, Financial Times, SCMP, Fortune China, the Globe and Mail, National Post and Hong Kong Standard among others. He is also the author of "Ching Ling Foo: America's First Chinese Superstar" a biography of the late polymath magician come diplomat and author/illustrator of the graphic novel series Constable Khang's Mysteries of Old Shanghai.

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