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DC Comics movies need to relax a little

The superhero movie reaches new levels of bombast with Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, if the advance notices are true. It not only brings in the two main attractions, it will introduce members of the DC Extended Universe (to use the official geeky title) - namely, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and The Flash.

Believe it or not, that already ear-shattering volume level might be breached next month when Captain America: Civil War arrives.

It's an Avengers movie by another name, as it will have Iron Man and Black Widow. And, of course, we have the introductions to the B-team, the relief players hoping to step up to summer blockbuster status on their own: new Spider-Man (Tom Holland, replacing Andrew Garfield), Black Panther, Ant-Man and more.  

These movie versions of wrestling spectaculars featuring the superstars of the ring should be major cash-earners, bringing together, as they do, major brand names in one massive round of mayhem.

It also marks a new era in the game between the two comic-book universes. The  "versus" doesn't seem to be between one man in Lycra versus another; it's between Marvel Comics and DC Comics.

For now, Marvel's universe is the front-runner. Because the comics empire licensed its characters to a number of studios (Disney, Sony, 20th Century Fox), the Marvel world has more filmed content out in the wild.

Because DC Comics (Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Arrow and others) and the studio Warner Bros belong to Time Warner, the movie release schedule is tied to what a single studio, Warner Bros, can handle each year. The result is fewer movies and a more cautious approach to artistic freedom.

Warner Bros has burnt itself on DC flops several times: Jonah Hex (2010) and Green Lantern (2011) tanked badly; Superman Returns (2006) and Watchmen (2009) were so-so.

That caution has created the DC artistic style, shaped by two giants: Christopher Nolan, helmer of the Dark Knight trilogy (2005 to 2012) and Zach Snyder (Man Of Steel, 2013). These two produced the highest-grossing DC movies, so it's no wonder their styles rule.

Nolan brought angst, the idea of the Christ-like sacrifice of one for the good of many and stunts featuring real cars and planes. He also made sure the villains were as interesting and complex as the hero, if not more  so - think the Joker (Heath Ledger) and Bane (Tom Hardy).

Snyder brings a cleaner emotional quality - his good guys have pure love and devotion, a simple desire to serve mankind. His villains, too, are simpler; they are just bad people, as seen in Man Of Steel's General Zod (Tom Shannon).

Snyder prefers his fight scene visuals to be insanely busy, long and created with digital effects.

But Nolan and Snyder share the idea that comic-book movies have to be dark in tone; saving the world is serious business and has no place for one-liners, smart-mouths, femme fatales, comic-relief sidekicks or other tropes that distract from the hero's nobility.

Marvel doesn't have that hang-up, perhaps because its range includes smaller-budget films (Deadpool, released last month, cost US$58 million, or S$79 million, to make - a bargain) that do not have to be hits in non-English- speaking countries to make a profit.

With the release of Batman V Superman, DC Comics is drawing closer to Marvel in the "battle of the superstars" contests.

If the movie is a hit, let's hope it will relax a little and allow more leeway to break out of the Snyder-Nolan mould.

As Marvel's Deadpool showed, just costumed hero movies are dull and rote only if you follow the same rules as everyone else.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2016, with the headline 'Will DC let its superheroes have a little more fun?'. Print Edition | Subscribe