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The DC Movie Universe: Adding Frights to the Tights

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While certainly a giddying concept for comic fanboys, a movie with the likes of Superman, the Flash, and Wonder Woman don’t really whet a horror fan’s whistle.  Sure, we talk Batman a lot here, but he’s kind of the exception out of the Justice League’s colorful cast of characters.  However, the DC universe is rife with supernatural and horror themed characters that could easily carry their own films while riding the wave of cinematic canon that DC and Warner Bros. is planning.

Where Marvel has a greater, cosmic thread tying together its books and movies, DC has always had a more occult angle that weaves together the fabric of its universe.  It’s this supernatural undercurrent that should be the common theme tying together not only the Justice League, but other potential films to follow.  Marvel’s movies had Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. as the common ground, so the DC Universe should employ The Phantom Stranger.


 

The Phantom Stranger is easily DC’s most mysterious character with a cloudy origin that hints at, but never reveals his true background.  There are hints at him being anyone from a fallen angel doomed to walk the Earth to an immortal Judas Iscariot, but no matter what his origin his omniscience is the reason why he should be the common thread in the universe.  While he takes an active role against the supernatural, his ability to hang back and be a sort of occult consultant would provide the best angle, offering not only the common character to bring the movies together (just like Nick Fury or Agent Coulson) but also to hint at a greater threat coming from supernatural forces.

So now we have the supernatural tapestry laid out, and The Phantom Stranger as the linchpin, which of DC’s more horrific offerings should receive the cinematic treatment?  Even more crucial, which directors should helm these features?  Marvel made its bank by hiring fantastic genre developers to oversee its films (Joe Johnston doing Captain America and Kenneth Branagh directing Thor were exceptionally well-picked), so DC should do the same.

Deadman, directed by Guillermo del Toro

Deadman will easily be DC’s most accessible supernatural character, but he will require a solid director to make him truly shine.  Deadman, nee Boston Brand, is a murdered trapeze artist turned vengeful ghost seeking out his killer, and later other threats.  However, for the first film, the story should focus on Deadman doing detective work and coming to terms with what he has become.

Guillermo del Toro is the ideal director for this project (he’s been rumored to want to produce a Deadman feature for years) as he understands how to make monsters sympathetic.  While Deadman may be a hero, his visual appearance (especially Kelley Jones’ iconic imagining of the character, pictured above) is horrible, and his plight is truly tragic, with the once-handsome showman reduced to a skeletal spirit.  One need only watch del Toro’s Cronos to understand that he is a master of portraying monsters in a tragic light (the vampiric old man lapping blood off of the bathroom floor is still a chilling and sad visual), and Deadman could continue this theme that he has become known and respected for.  There’s also a great potential for a murder mystery here, which American audiences clearly appreciate, unless those zillion CSI and Law & Order spinoffs are just flukes.  The movie, honestly, could play out much like David S. Goyer’s The Invisible, although with the greater universe hoisting it up (and without it being completely awful, as well).  After all, Boston Brand was a trapeze artist, much like young Dick Grayson before he became Robin and later Nightwing, so there is definitely the potential for greater tie-in off of that theme alone.

The Spectre, directed by James Wan

The Spectre, on a rudimentary level, is DC’s analogue for Ghost Rider, a spirit of vengeance (actually the embodiment of God’s wrath) that delivers poetic punishment on sinners.  Embezzler?  The Spectre will find a way to kill you with money.  Bank robber?  You’ll probably wind up in a bank vault with a very limited air supply.  Murderer?  You’ll probably find yourself on the receiving end of your own weapon of choice.

These ironic ends seem oddly similar to a certain puppet-wielding serial killer from the SAW films so James Wan, director of the first (and best) of the series, could lend his painfully gritty lens to the movie to great effect.  In fact, The Spectre could play out much like a slasher film with its creative kills, but one where we wholeheartedly root for the killer as he dispatches those who have escaped justice.  Wan would probably have to dial back the gore meter a few steps (I can’t imagine DC wholly embracing an R-rated feature set in their new universe), but the eerie flashbacks of the first SAW show that he’s capable of shooting harrowing situations in a way that make them even more awful to the viewer.  The Spectre’s origins also tie tightly into the Judeo-Christian mythology that DC has folded into their own mythos, which makes not only him but his arch nemesis Eclipso (another tool of God’s vengeance) characters with roots that are familiar to your average Joe outside of comics continuity.

Swamp Thing, directed by David Cronenberg

Swamp Thing is no stranger to the silver screen, with a Wes Craven-directed feature already bearing his name as well as a…unique sequel (Heather Locklear eating a hallucinogenic cucumber-penis…oh my), as well as a long-running television series and a cartoon.  However, a new take on Swamp Thing would easily be the biggest challenge of the three characters discussed.  Swamp Thing has had a rather fluid background over the years, starting with the outright horror of the Len Wein/Berni Wrightson era of the 70’s to the weird, elemental take on the character that Alan Moore penned, and his origin has been just as vague.  For the movie, DC would be best suited to lock down the more traditional origin of Dr. Alec Holland being transformed into a botanical beast, revolted and horrified by what he’s become.

When it comes to the theme of “body horror” that Swamp Thing embraces, the best option for direction would have to be David Cronenberg, whose brutal twists on biology and anatomy grossed out viewers in the 70’s and 80’s with films like Rabid, The Brood, and The Fly.  Who better than to bring the monstrous muck-man to life?  Even better, with today’s CG effects, subtle touches that can make Swamp Thing seem truly real, like snaking vines and bugs crawling in and out of his hulking frame will make him feel even more real than the prosthetics-only approach of the 80’s.

Later films could expand further on the grand ideas Alan Moore brought to the table, including the classic tale “The Anatomy Lesson,” (seriously, go read it, it’s great stuff), as well as a springboard for other possible characters.  John Constantine first premiered in the pages of Swamp Thing, so hopefully we can get a proper, Keanu Reeves-free take on Hellblazer.

There are plenty of other characters in a similar vein that DC’s holding onto, such as The Demon Etrigan (a couplet-reciting beast carried forth from the days of Camelot) as well as the monster-mashing team Justice League Dark.  Any characters I missed?  Better suggestions for directors?  Let us know in the comments!

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