The Top 5 Best DC Comics To Adapt For Warner’s New ‘Elseworld’ Films


With the recent reports of Warner Bros.’ planned Joker origin film, and its status as a standalone one-shot release kicking off a new category of DC Comics adaptations unconnected to the larger DC shared cinematic universe of films, there’s been speculation about what other projects might arise under the new DC film “elseworld” banner. There’s plenty of great options to choose from, but I’ve made a short list what I feel are the very best, plus the reasons they’d make great movie projects.

Source: Warner Bros

Cover for Warner’s “The Killing Joke” animated Blu-ray release

The sheer existence of this new standalone label for superhero filmmaking could usher in a whole new era for the genre — or more accurately, reintroduce us all to the way these films used to sometimes be made in the era before shared cinematic universes. Remember, studios were releasing unconnected superhero movies and series regularly for decades, until 2008 brought the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But even the arrival of the MCU didn’t instantly change how we think about superhero movies. It wasn’t until the whole experiment paid off to mind-blowing box office and critical results with 2012’s The Avengers that our way of thinking about the genre changed completely.

In fact, Warner itself was releasing stand-alone Batman films, adapting Watchmen, adapting V for Vendetta, Jonah Hex, and The Losers, so while that’s not quite the same as a dedicated banner for standalone films, by default that’s what they were doing anyway. Now those films will find a more consistent home and label, and can include characters already existing in other films over in the DCEU proper. So Warner is really reviving a concept that was working pretty well in the past but got sort of lost by the wayside amid the scramble of studios to forge shared universes for every brand.

Red Son is one of the single greatest comic book stories ever written. It’s also a story that gets to the nuances and ideals of Superman, the complexities and contradictions, and its portrayal of Superman and his impact on the world is among the finest in comic history. Likewise, the story’s version of Lex Luthor is perhaps the best in any story on page or screen. For years, fans have hoped for some sort of live-action or animated adaptation, and in the aftermath of word that Warner is creating a new banner for live-action standalone one-shot DC movies separate from the larger library of DCEU films, Red Son is probably the most popular choice for what fans hope to seen next from that new corner of DC cinema.

Source: DC Comics

Cover for the DC Comics comic book series “Red Son”

There are three possible ways to adapt Red Son to live-action, so the question is, which works best for Red Son? The first option is just the standard cinematic adaptation. But would Red Son work as a single movie?

There’s so much rich history and so many important details to explore that make Red Son so great, and it would be a shame to see it finally adapted only to fall short of potential. On the other hand, Zack Snyder adapted Watchmen — a twelve-issue comic series that included lots of additional material — and despite losing some added layers and deeper background in the story, the theatrical cut was largely faithful and excellent. The Ultimate Cut, which incorporated deleted scenes and an animated adaptation of Watchmen’s comic-within-the-comic, was a masterpiece achieving a level of faithfulness rare in cinematic adaptation. Perhaps a similar method would work for Red Son — a shorter theatrical cut, with a planned longer version for home entertainment.

The second option is to film a roughly seven-hour theatrical version that splits up into a trilogy of two-hour twenty-odd minute installments, and release them back-to-back over the course of three years. This would allow a much more faithful, richer adaptation as well as maximizing the box office potential. On the other hand, if audiences don’t really take to this alternate version of the popular heroes, then the expense of three chapters becomes a liability to its profitability. And with these new banner “elseworld” releases coming amid the other library of DCEU titles, it could be less appealing to have several Red Son releases three years in a row while other DCEU films play out their own connected stories.

Which brings us to a possibility that I feel might be the best options — a Red Son miniseries on TV. The comic is only three parts, but could easily fill a five-part TV series on HBO or Netflix. In fact, Red Son would be a perfect title for a primetime network miniseries on NBC, CBS, or FOX. By investing to get the visual effects right (Flash costs roughly $3 million per episode, while Game of Thrones comes in north of $10 million per episode), and with some really inspired casting choices, a Red Son series could set a new standard for what superhero television can achieve. It’s so different, so strange and shocking at times, so brilliant and dramatic, it could capture audiences’ imaginations in a way no other comic book show has.

But would Warner take their new one-shot banner to television, or is it exclusively reserved for the big screen? My opinion is, if the Joker origin movie is a hit, and if perhaps one more of the new standalone films likewise proves the concept is successful, then using TV as well as cinema makes perfect sense if the idea is to transcend limitations on what’s possible for filimmakers and for adapting DC stories to whatever medium works best for a given tale. Indeed, even if the Joker or other such films don’t seem to quite catch fire as hoped, maybe having a TV backup option is still a smart move, to find out what works and what doesn’t for this new banner concept. It could be that it’s so popular the idea fits on both big and small screens, or that it seems to work best only in theaters or only on TV. The only way to find out, is to try, and that’s exactly the thinking behind the whole effort to begin with, right?

For an example project that seems destined for big-screen glory, perhaps none is as perfect as Kingdom Come. It’s a future version of the Justice League filled with the same sort of complex examination of heroes and their implications for our world that make Red Son so iconic, and is another story fans have long hoped to see adapted to live-action. My own feeling is, there’s an added bonus that could make Kingdom Come a mind-blowing standalone adaptation — what if they cast Michael Keaton as Batman, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, and Brandon Routh as Superman (or perhaps Jon Hamm), making the film an alternate version of the DCEU in which the previous live-action incarnations of heroes existed together and now converge for their own Justice League? It would be pretty amazing to see, and I bet it would add a whole other level of buzz and anticipation among mainstream audiences as well as fans.

Source: DC Comics

Cover for the DC Comics comic book series “Kingdom Come”

However it wound up being adapted, Kingdom Come definitely needs to be on the short-list of Warner’s planned “elseworld” releases, not just because it’s so great and lends itself so perfectly to this exact sort of alternate-reality cinematic status, but also because it has some of the best potential to be a huge box office hit that boosts the value and popularity of the label for this corner of the DC movie adaptations.

Catwoman: The Dark End of the Street is among the greatest (collected) Catwoman stories/runs ever, and I’ve long argued someone needs to adapt it and/or its version of Catwoman to the big screen. With the arrival of the “elseworld” banner, it’s possible to do it even if that particular story/incarnation isn’t what the studio plans for the character in the larger DCEU. We’d get a terrific noir approach with detective elements and anti-heroism that could deliver a definitive live-action version of Catwoman.

Source: DC Comics

Cover for DC Comics comic book series “Trail of the Catwoman”

If Warner/DC Entertainment plan to use that story and inspiration for Catwoman in the DCEU, then by all means save it and use it there. But if not, it deserves attention and adaptation in the standalone corner of DC on film, and after a Joker origin one-shot I think a Catwoman one-shot could be the perfect choice for a follow-up of a similar sort (a modest budget and more down to earth noir-crime storytelling). As a side note, another option for Catwoman is for Warner to spin her off from Gotham into a miniseries adapting The Dark End of the Street (but altered to fit Camren Bicondova’s age from that show. Or, in keeping with my earlier point about letting the “elseworld” banner develop projects on TV as well as film, do a Catwoman TV miniseries adapting this source material. One way or another, this story deserves the live-action treatment.

We should probably talk about the one-shot standalone movie a lot of fans probably want to see, but which could be problematic at this point — The Dark Knight Returns. It is undeniably one of the most well-known, popular, and important of modern comics, and a few years ago I’d have included it on this list as probably the top candidate for Warner’s new banner of “elseworld” tales. But in the previous five years, we had not one but two films heavily inspired by this comic, with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises borrowing heavily from it (albeit with significant changes and inspiration from other stories as well) and then last year’s Batman v Superman taking lots of inspiration, dialogue, and entire sequences lifted straight from the pages of The Dark Knight Returns comic. There was also a two-part animated adaptation of the comic released on Blu-ray/DVD/Digital-HD.

So is it really necessary to attempt yet another live-action adaptation, especially any time soon? I’d argue not, and instead feel there’s plenty of other options that deserve attention first. On the other hand, I’m not blind to how great it might be to see the entire four-book The Dark Knight Returns series brought to life in live-action, especially considering the very best part of that series has been largely ignored in live-action so far, which raises a compelling idea…

Source: Warner Bros

Cover for Warner’s “The Dark Knight Returns” animated Blu-ray release

What if this new banner of DC one-shot adaptations allowed for films that can have sequels and turn into their own “elseworld” series apart from all other DC movies? The Dark Knight Returns could become four separate films instead of a single movie cramming the whole comic storyline into one release. I like that idea, because Book One of the comic — the chapter where Bruce becomes Batman again, to battle Two-Face — is one of the single greatest Batman stories ever told, is the most perfect and definitive Two-Face story, and has possibly the most sublime ending of any Batman comic in history. A movie that just adapts that one story would be magnificent, and allows future “elseworld” banner releases to continue the story with adaptations of the subsequent chapters too.

Of course, doing this would restrict the ability of other Batman films to adapt or otherwise take inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns in a way similar to The Dark Knight Rises and Batman v Superman, so it might not be ideal after all. And really, I do hope the whole one-shot banner of films avoids just becoming a playground for primarily Batman-centric releases. I’m a huge fan of Batman, obviously, but there’s going to be plenty of Batman and bat-family releases in the coming several years, including the Joker origin movie that kicks off the whole “elseworld” concept on screen, so other stories should take precedent.

One project that’s already been in development a few years, and which has gone through a few different incarnations already on its rocky path to the big screen, is Justice League Dark (aka Dark Universe). While that film has been intended to exist within the larger DCEU, I just want to mention that it might make sense to develop it entirely on its own within the “elseworld” banner instead. Why? Well, it opens to the door to using any and every character a filmmaker decides to include, it allows the possibility to do things to the reality and world of the story that might otherwise be precluded if the story is set in the same world as the Justice League characters (for example, a world-threatening Cthulhu crisis would probably attract the attention of Superman or Aquaman, and would at the very least be important enough and historic enough to be mentioned at some point in the other DC characters’ films, right?).

Source: DC Comics

Cover for DC Comics comic book series “Justice League Dark”

While JL Dark can of course be developed and work fine within the larger DCEU, I personally feel that it would be cool to see it get its own world to play with and to perhaps have sequels that include cameos of different iterations of the main DCEU heroes/villains, or perhaps even lacking the rest of the DCEU characters, for example. Regardless, while it seems unlikely to happen, I hope Warner considers this option for the project.

Besides just adapting existing source material stories, it’s also of course entirely possible to let filmmakers come up with unique original stories using various DC characters. In fact, it may be not only possible but in fact probable, in light of the Joker origin tale seeming to be a mostly original concept inspired by certain background stories for the character but not directly adapting them to the screen entirely. The idea of period settings is especially interesting if the new DC film banner takes full advantage of potential to play around not just with the stories and characters but even the stylings and tone of various cinematic periods.

For example — black and white film noir, technicolor musicals, silent films, ’70s exploitation cinema, and other such examples of utilizing not only period story settings but period-accurate filmmaking would be a wonderful way to truly let this banner become a place for artists to experiment with the boundaries and lack thereof in comic book storytelling. Some black and white 1930s and 1940s noir is the most glaringly obvious example of a period-precise playground for such experimentation (especially if a lot of the “elseworld” films wound up being tied to the bat-family, which again I don’t want to see happen if it’s to the exclusion of so many other great story options), but hopefully the full array of opportunity would be explored.

A 1940s technicolor-style Justice Society of America patriotic musical film could be spectacular, as would a 1950s horror/sci-fi Swamp Thing movie mirroring the undertones about fear of communism and nuclear power/war. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Green Lantern-Green Arrow team-up movie or TV series set during the Civil Rights Movement, mirroring 1960s and 1970s film and television style, adapting the classic awesome run by Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams from the ’70s comics. This idea of films pretending to come from bygone eras of film arises from my belief that Tim Burton’s Batman Returns is perhaps best enjoyed when watched in black white, with the sound turned off and closed captioning on, while a Wagner album is played for musical accompaniment to create the impression you’re viewing an old silent German expressionist Batman film inspired by the character’s earlier, darker, killing-is-okay days.

There’s lots of other stories that offer good potential for adapting within an “elseworld” banner, and I’m sure Warner will come up with plenty nobody has even considered yet. This is all getting way ahead of ourselves, admittedly, since so far only one film — the Joker origin movie — exists under the standalone branding, and we have to wait and see if it’s as successful as the studio hopes (and as at first glance seems likely, since the Joker has obvious built-in brand power). But while we wait, it’s interesting to consider the options and speculate about what could potentially result in the best use of one-shot cinematic adaptations. So expect more articles like this in the coming months and years while we wait to see what Warner has in store for us, and enjoy!

Box office figures and tallies based on data via Box Office Mojo, Rentrak, and TheNumbers.

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