Why does DC do so well in videogames, but drop the ball every other time on the silver screen? That’s the question the top brass at DC are still asking themselves with the three poorly received films that proceeded the surprisingly successful Wonder Woman (opens in new tab) in their DC Extended Universe. Why does an ultraviolent Batman work so well in Batman: Arkham Knight, but trend almost into farce with the Batfleck?
It’s a conundrum that’s going to seem all the more perplexing now that Injustice 2 has dropped, running at a superpowered pace into the number one slot in the UK charts (just like its predecessor did in 2013, dethroning Bioshock Infinite no less a mere month after its own release). A game, I might add, that features a mass-murdering Superman.
We could argue it’s all a matter of understanding the source material - after all, Marvel has built the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by preserving the colourful, fun side of its comics without straying too far into Alan Moore and Frank Miller territory. It knows its core audience are children and man-sized children and it unashamedly markets its films to capture their hearts and wallets.
But then there’s the inverse: Marvel has long struggled to gain a proper foothold in games bar a handful of crossovers with Capcom. The Spider-Man games have always failed to live up to the hype (Spider-Man 2 notwithstanding), the MCU tie-in games were so bad Marvel eventually stopped bothering and now we’re left with a bunch of mobile freemium titles nobody wants or needs.
So we have the two biggest players in comics enduring opposite successes and failures when it comes to adapting their properties to other mediums. (Although, with that big deal signed with Square Enix and Insomniac’s PS4-exclusive Spider-Man reboot, things could well be set to change…)
The Injustice of it all
For all intents and purposes, Injustice 2 is pretty much Batman vs Superman in gaming form: an ultraviolent reimagining of these classic DC characters that skews far from the blueprints we’re so accustomed to. Yet the DCEU gets gutted almost every time it tries something similar be it critically or commercially.
Has Injustice 2 suffered a similar fate? Practically the opposite, in fact. Sure, it’s no industry darling, but with a raft of positive reviews to its name it’s now become the first fighting game to hit the number one slot in the UK charts in over two years. It’s also one of the highest rated fighters on Metacritic at 87 (remember the beloved SFV only has 77).
Let’s be brutally honest - the issue here isn’t necessarily a matter of source material, but whether a medium and its audience is open to creators taking well known properties and trying something new. The videogame industry is filled with as many sequels and reboots as the silver screen, but there’s a lot of broad reinterpretation with these new incarnations, and a greater willingness to give these fresh takes a go from the gaming public.
Both the gaming public and critics seemingly have a greater faith in developer’s to deliver a complete experience, especially if it’s taking a globally recognisable brand and going off the reservation with it. We all felt The Dark Knight Rises' final act offered a damp squid of an end to a largely credible trilogy, and it rightly got a critical kicking for it in the world of film.
Yet 2015’s Batman Arkham Knight went all out in its own final act, offering perhaps one of the memorable last hour’s I’ve ever played. It played with tropes and convention and offered something that was both against the grain and true to its source. Sure, the actual Arkham Knight himself was a bit pap (and that Batmobile really split critics down the middle), but we applauded Rocksteady for trying something new and doing it well to boot.
Held to account
Perhaps as film goers, we find it harder to dismiss the memory of a creator’s previous efforts when preparing for their next. So many people seem to think Warner Brothers is purposely trying to ruin DC’s new cinematic incarnation - partly because its current take is so radically different from what we’ve seen before, but mainly because people don’t like the guy who directed 300 and Sucker Punch being anywhere near Batman.
But do we hold the forgettable and bland Urban Chaos: Riot Response against Rocksteady? After all, that middling title was the last thing the studio worked on before it embarked on Batman Arkham Asylum. We even gave NetherRealm the benefit of the doubt when it announced the original Injustice, despite the fact Midway Games utterly screwed up an MK/DC crossover game some years before.
Question is, can the top brass at Warner Bros find a way to capture the lightning that continues to maintain DC’s dominance in the gaming world and translate it to film? Wonder Woman is a good start, but if Geoff Johns and the rest of the creative minds now attempting to course correct the DCEU want to find the right formula they need to stop looking back into the comics that inspired them, stop trying to emulate everything that’s worked for Marvel in the past (because filmgoers aren’t stupid… well, most of them aren’t), and start studying DCs strong portfolio of recently licensed games instead.
Batman: A Telltale Story reimagines Batman in a way that harks back to the character’s roots while still offering a take that doesn’t feel rote. The Arkham series took the classic Batman template and slowly expanded it into the perfect amalgamation of Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder’s vision of the iconic hero.
Hell, even Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham managed to marry its vast roster of characters without feeling like it was flogging a dead horse (despite the fact both it and Injustice 2 have Brainiac as the big bad). In reality, we know the DCEU films are probably just going to carry on down the path they’ve carved out for themselves, but at least we can console ourselves knowing the best Batman film never made has Kevin Conroy firmly in the cowl.