At first, there doesn’t seem like enough content exists to fill a piece on the superhero film rights of the CD Universe characters. Warner Brothers Studio owns these rights and has done since March 1989 with the only caveat being the live action Batman TV rights which belong to 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios). What is interesting enough to write a piece about, though is the history of these films and how it culminated in the DC Extended Universe. The first live action feature film starring any of the characters would be 1966’s Batman: The Movie starring the late Adam West, but would be released by 20th Century Fox. Sadly, it would be their only Batman film, though Warner Bros would go on to make two animated movies based on West’s portrayal- Return of the Caped Crusaders and Batman Vs Two-Face. Whilst Fox owned the live action 1966 Batman rights, Warner Brothers still had the right to make his animated adventures. All 3 of these films would be positively received.
Warner Brothers’ first foray into the live action DC universe would be 1978’s Superman and 1980’s Superman II, starring Christopher Reeves as the man of steel. The original gives us baby Kal-El of Krypton (our Superman) as he lands on Earth in his infancy after the destruction of his own planet. Once grown, he learns to control his powers and fight the villainous Lex Luthor. At the time it was the most expensive film ever made, with ground-breaking special effects. It received hugely positive reviews with Roger Ebert awarding it four stars out of five. The sequel sees Kal-El, living human life as Clark Kent, facing off against one of his fellow surviving Kryptonians- The mighty Emperor Zod- as he attempts to take control of the planet. Shot back-to-back with the first Superman, this one again had spectacular effects and a brilliant story. This duology has gone on to become some of the most iconic pieces of Superman media and media in general. If you’re thinking of a theme song for Superman right now, I guarantee it’s this one. Their follow up, Superman III, would not be as well received. It centred on Clark being split into two bodies by synthetic kryptonite.- one good and one evil. The film was criticised for its re-hashed plot points and slapstick comedy. In an attempt to freshen up the franchise, Warner Brothers released a spin off about Clark’s cousin Kara Zor-El in 1984 entitled Supergirl. It sees Kara coming to Earth in the hopes of retrieving a powerful orb that she had lost but having to fend off a witch. The film was panned for having cheesy effects and for being really un-interesting to watch. This would not be enough to defeat the Superman franchise, with that award going to 1987’s Superman V: The Quest for Peace which sees the man of steel facing off against Lex Luthor’s newest creation- Radioactive Man. It would be ridiculed for its poor special effects, and inconsistencies, and would go on to be dubbed by many as one of the worst films ever made.
Having tried their hand with one of “the big two” from DC, it was time for Warner Bros to attempt the other- Batman. Released in late 1989, Batman (dubbed Batman ’89 [review here]) see the caped crusader facing off against The Joker. The film was mildly criticised for being too dark, but the performances from Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson were lavished with praise. Bruce Timm would use the look of this film in Batman: The Animated Series which is still praised as one of the best cartoons ever made. Three sequels to the Keaton films would follow. 1992’s Batman Returns saw our titular hero facing off against both Catwoman and The Penguin. It was praised as a brilliant sequel by most, but some still felt it was too dark. It would be the final Batman film from director Tim Burton who would be replaced by Joel Schumacher for the remaining two films. 1995’s Batman Forever starred Val Kilmer as The Bat and would see him facing off against The Riddler and Two-Face. It was much lighter in tone but would receive mixed reviews for being overly loud and less entertaining that the previous entries. 1997 would see the last Batman film for a whole decade in the form of Batman & Robin which starred George Clooney as the hero and Chris O’Donnell as his trusty ward. The film saw them fighting off Mr Freeze, Poison Ivy, and (for a moment) Bane. It was an exclusively child friendly escapade but was deemed frantic, mindless and over the top by many. It is believed to have killed the Bat-franchise, with a follow up titled Batman Unchained being cancelled. The film would have seen Scarecrow using fear toxin to make Batman believe that The Joker had returned from beyond the grave, with Harley Quinn set to appear as Joker’s daughter.
The next 3 films from Warner Brothers/ DC would be solo ventures. 1997’s Steel saw Shaquille O’Neal playing John Henry Irons- a weapons developer- as he suits up to stop terrorists from using the very weapons he designed. Next came Catwoman in 2004, starring Helle Berry in the leading role dealing with corporate conspiracies. Finally came Constantine in 2005 which saw Keanu Reeves in the starring role as a supernatural exorcist helping to prove a policewoman that her sister’s death was not a suicide. All 3 of these films would be mocked for how ridiculous they were, with poor acting and even poorer GCI. Of the 7 films that followed, only 4 of them would be solo ventures. 2006 saw the man of steel return in the appropriately titled Superman Returns, starring Brandon Routh. The film saw Kal-El once again facing off against Lex Luthor in his attempt to take over America. It was received fairly well, but many thought it was just an average flick without anything that really made it special. 2009’s Watchmen would also be received fairly well, becoming a cult classic among CBM fans. It followed a group of former superheroes as one of their colleagues is murdered and the surprises that it awakens. Any criticism took aim at the 3 hour runtime and the complex plotline. the 2010 release Jonah Hex would be less appreciated. Josh Brolin plays a Bounty Hunter who must take out a terrorist who threatens all life in order to gain his freedom, and it would be a box office failure, making back only $10 million of it’s $47 million budget. Then in 2011 came the infamous Green Lantern starring Ryan Reynolds, which has gone down in history as one of the worst movies of all time. It sees Hal Jordan discovering a powerful ring belonging to the Green Lantern Corp when he is suddenly called to save humanity from the world destroying Parallax. It was seen as boring and the CGI costumes were laughed at, which led to the cancellation a sequel which would have presumably seen Sinestro as the main villain.
It may seem like mostly bad news from the mid 200’s to the early 2010’s, but there was a light in the darkness- Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. It is, to many people, one of the best film trilogies ever made, and practically dominated superhero movie conversations at the time. 2005’s Batman Begins re-introduced us to Bruce Wayne as he suits up as the caped crusader in order to defend Gotham City from corruption and his former mentor Ra’s Al Ghul. This was followed in 2008 by what is considered by many as the best in the trilogy- The Dark Knight. Once again, Gotham is under threat, this time from a man known only as The Joker who aims only to cause chaos and anarchy. The trilogy concluded in 2012 with my personal favourite- The Dark Knight Rises– which has Bruce crippled in a fight against guerrilla terrorist Bane. Never willing to back down from a fight, The Bat must return and face him one last time with assistance from Catwoman.
Over the course of 34 years, there were many ups and downs for the Warner Brothers DC franchise. Some have gone on to become iconic, while some have been abandoned to the voids of history. With the success of Nolans Dark Knight trilogy, the future was looking bright. It was clear going forwards that their movies would need to be dark, gritty and grounded in reality. Perhaps they should also implement the “shared universe” concept that seemed to be working so well for Marvel Studios.
The Story Continues…