Creators, not Characters

At time of writing, I’ve not seen Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, though I expect I will before too much longer. Taking into account the polarising opinions washing around the ‘net, I suspect I’ll find it… okay. Not good, not bad, but… okay. Roughly equivalent to Iron Man 3, or a bit better than The Dark Knight Rises: not the worst way to spend a couple of hours, but a missed opportunity from the creative team.

There’s a saying about comics: Follow creators, not characters. Simply put, it acknowledges that as IP (intellectual property) changes hands from one creative to another, changes inevitably occur; not always for the better, but not always for the worse, either. Once upon a time, this didn’t matter much beyond comics. Most other long-running IPs (with the exception of soap operas) were generally creator-owned. Following a character was following a creator. When I was a kid, even Doctor Who looked like this was true, as the then producer, John Nathan Turner, held sway over the classic series for the last decade or so of its life, lending it consistency (if not necessarily quality).

Nowadays, IP is licensed, purchased or simply slides into the public domain where anyone can play with it. (The latter, by the way, will doubtless provoke all kinds of legal shenanigans over the next couple of decades as copyrights lapse and companies strive to hold onto them. The last few years have seen opening shots fired over the ownership of Sherlock Holmes, Buck Rogers and Zorro, to name but a few.) Hell, some IPs vary wildly without ever changing hands. Don’t believe me? Watch The Hobbit films and The Lord of The Rings films back to back. Do they feel like the work of the same director?

The end result is that characters, and their IPs, are changing as never before. It’s getting rarer and rarer for one man or woman to be the ultimate arbiter of fate, which means that for pretty much any media (or art?) derived from pre-existing source material, the presence of copyrightable aspects of a character or setting are no guarantee it’ll match what came before, or your tastes. For characters like Batman and Superman, this has been going on for years.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that Zack Snyder’s Superman is not the character created by Siegel and Shuster. On the other hand, nor was the Superman written by Geoff Johns, Dan Jurgens, Grant Morrison, and so on, and so on. Modern Batman fans deride the 1960’s TV series, forgetting that it’s also a not-unfair reflection of some Silver Age comics.

So, what is the ‘true’ character of Batman or Superman? What’s a ‘good’ Superman film, or a ‘bad’ Batman film. Who’s got it right, and who’s got it wrong? I can’t tell you. Christopher Reeve is the yardstick by which I measure all Supermen, just as Kevin Conroy is my Batman baseline. Both are simply iterations of what are, like it or not, costumes clothing characters portrayed inconsistently over the course of decades. It’s not about right or wrong. It’s about preference. Or, more accurately, it’s about my preference versus that of the mind behind the film. It’s about the creator, not the character.

Look at it this way. In my lifetime, there have been eight Batman films (counting BvS:DoJ). I love Tim Burton’s films (even if he arguably takes more liberties with the character). Joel Shumacher’s films make me cringe. Chris Nolan’s run the gamut of great to below average. Your mileage may vary – in fact, it almost certainly does so – but I’ll bet you don’t love all of them, which means that Batman himself isn’t a good guide. Superman’s just as tricky. Much as I love the Christopher Reeve films, they range from excellent to oh-God-why-didn’t-someone-stop-them. Superman Returns is fun but flawed, and Man of Steel is morose and flawed. No help from the characters, then. On the other hand, pretty much anything I’ve seen from Zack Snyder has topped out at ‘okay’, which is why I’m confident BvS:DoJ will do the same. His taste and mine are not generally in alignment.

Would I prefer to have a Batman vs Superman film that I can rate better than ‘okay’? Of course, and I still hope that – despite past evidence – this one exceeds my expectations. If not? Well, the one thing that history has taught me about Batman films is that there’ll be another one along in a couple of years.

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