Super Heroes At Home

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Big screen movie franchises such as X-Men, Spider-Man and The Dark Knight might be pulling all the media attention, but there’s a whole other world of comic book related movies out there, and surprisingly enough they’re going straight-to-DVD… but don’t fret, its not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it might just be the best thing to happen to the comic book film genre in a long time. 

With Blu-ray reshaping retail shelves and the personal libraries of today’s cinephiles, various studios have taken it upon themselves to reinvent the perception of straight-to-DVD titles, thanks to a new generation reaping the benefits of improved quality and affordability of home theatre systems. When the direct-to-video genre first gained traction during the early eighties, it was initially reserved for B-grade fare. Generally it was far easier and less expensive for studios, especially the independents, to mass produce these guilty pleasures and ship them out to rental stores and bargain bins at a fraction of the price demanded by commercial box office releases.

Ironically, the nineties saw this niche market become such a stalwart commercial entity that studios began producing movies explicitly for the direct-to-video and DVD market, a trend that has found new life with franchises like America Pie, Starship Troopers and Bring It On. One of the first studios to appreciate the possibilities of the direct-to-DVD market was Disney, which underwent a rejuvenation during the nineties with a wave of box office hits such as The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and so on. During this same period, a new trend began spreading into lounge rooms across the globe. With DVD taking root as the family’s primary entertainment format, the VHS player became relegated to the kids’ room. So with legions of children armed with their own remote controls, Disney began commissioning numerous sequels to their box office hits, cheaply producing them offshore and marketing them directly at children.

In fact, animation has become amajor force in removing the stigma previously associated with the early days of direct-to-DVD product. Apart from Disney’s raging influence on younger audiences, animated characters like those originating from the DC and Marvel universes have predominately been used as a catalyst for social expression and a way to reflect on the political climate of the times. Superman, for example, was born from The Great Depression, often fighting crooked businessmen and corrupt politicians; Captain America was a patriotic symbol to aid American morale during WW2; and Wonder Woman became a figurehead of the feminist movement. The inception and success of these fictional characters resonated directly from the public psyche, perhaps explaining their current popularity and dominance on today’s big screen.

But with the average superhero film budget exceeding the $US200 million mark, both Marvel and DC have invested considerable effort into revitalising the direct-to-DVD – and now direct-to-Blu-ray – market for many of their animated properties. The results have been stunning, often paralleling anything generated for cinema in terms of production values, storylines and talent.

One of the key figures involved in this direct-to-DVD evolutionary step is Bruce Timm, whose recent work as producer on DC’s Batman: Gotham Knight, Justice League: A New Frontier and Superman: Doomsday (which he also directed) has set a new benchmark for animated features and direct-to-DVD productions. One of the biggest criticisms relating to this new wave of animated features, however, is the manipulation and sacrificing of certain backstories in order to update the franchise to a new format and audience. “The range of opinions is so widely varied” explains Timm, referring to the multitude of fan forums and blogs that have appeared online. “We try to read into it what we want to. We use it as a focus group. With some of the criticism, we just let it roll off our back, because there are some people that you just can’t please. For the most part, they’ve pointed stuff out to us that we may not have thought up before. But sometimes we’ll just agree to disagree. Joss Whedon [the creator of Buffy and Firefly] had an interesting quote in an interview that I read. He said that you can’t really give the fans what they want, because sometimes what they want is not going to make for a good show. You have to give them what they think they’re gonna want. If you give them exactly what they want (a) it’s going to be really predictable, and (b) if you made a show strictly for comic book fans, it would be so alienating to the rest of the audience.”

The same holds true for the recent slate of next generation video gaming, a media previously reserved for graphic first person shooters, hunt-and-kill monster mashes or sports simulators. As direct-to-DVD releases are proving that beloved, and sometimes forgotten characters can still attract an audience, the video game world is taking note of direct-to-DVD insurgence and following suite. Thanks to the technological advancements made with the PS3 & X-Box 360 a new wave of  games are able to offer engaging complex characters, sophisticated storylines and state of the art graphics, blurring the line between film narrative and gameplay. And like their DVD counterparts, the production of these games is attracting industry heavy weights investing their talents toward a premium product.

“If you can do something to entertain fans that hasn’t been done before, you’ve accomplished a great thing” reveals Stan Lee, the former president of Marvel Comics whose ‘Ultimate Alliance 2’ features 24 of Marvel’s finest characters engaged in a civil war led by Ironman and Captain America. “Its genius how they have put it together. Not only are the characters so exciting, but every one of them is using their powers exactly as they should be according to the comics. Each character is true to their own gestalt.”

With Marvel currently tackling the gaming world, Bruce Timm’s latest entry into the DC Universe is the first Green Lantern animated film Green Lantern: First Flight, directed by Lauren Montgomery, whose previous works include the direct-to-DVD film Wonder Woman, which featured actors Keri Russell, Nathan Fillion and Rosario Dawson in its impressive voice cast. Having received broad critical acclaim for its portrayal of strong female characters, mature themes and emotional context (scattered amongst gritty and violent action sequences), Montgomery explains her motivation in bringing the Amazon into the new millennium on the direct-to-DVD format. “We’re trying to make movies that we ourselves want to watch,” she has said. “In Japan, it’s been this way for pretty much forever; they don’t regard animation as a medium only geared towards children. It’s just another medium. It’s another way of storytelling. In America, anything animated is assumed to be for kids. We’re trying to change that; we’re trying to bring animation up to a standard where everyone can watch it, and everyone can enjoy it.”

In fact, the movie going habits of Japanese cinephiles are perfectly tailored toward a direct-to- DVD market. The hectic nature of Japanese society and the availability of new technology have seen the theatrical box office return conservative figures considering Japan’s large population, while the home entertainment industry continues to flourish. As a result,the direct-to-DVD and gaming industry caters to its public more out of consumer demand than studio cost cutting. Combine this with Japan’s low birth rate and their traditional obsession with Anime and Manga, and it’s easy to understand how the animated direct-to-DVD genre has continued to dominate the mainstream entertainment market, with mature films written and produced for adults, and commonly known as V-Cinema. Another uniquely Japanese spin-off of the animated direct-to-DVD market is the inception of OVA (Original Video Animations), which often feature exclusive stories relating to hit animated TV series, films and games, but which carry with them a greater amount of anticipation and respect, with directors and producers delivering broader content and themes that they may not have gotten past the TV censors.

But while the films themselves continue to evolve in both content and animation styles, DVD has always been heralded as the film lovers’ medium due to its capacity to include extra features and bonus material. This attribute was poorly under utilised in most direct-to-DVD releases during its early days, reinforcing the public’s negative opinion about the genre. With Blu-ray now front and centre, however, many of the animated features now coming through are fully utilising the medium to showcase not just the artistic merits of the production, but to create a well defined context in which their story exists.

Green Lantern: First Flight is a wonderful example of what can be achieved. With over four hours of additional content, this direct-to-DVD release literally unravels the animated world of DC comics while placing the story of The Green Lantern firmly in its historical, cultural and comic world context, delivering a package to rival releases that were once the product of specialty distributors such as the iconic Criterion Collection.

It’s not just fans who have noticed this shift in perception and the almighty sales figures. Animated features used to rely on obscure voice talent, but with studios willing to back the direct-to-DVD format with greater confidence, the films have also begun attracting established actors. “We assembled an amazing cast” reveals an enthusiastic Bruce Timm, looking back over the casting of First Flight. “Christopher Meloni from Law and Order: SVU is Hal Jordan, Victor Garber from Alias is playing Sinestro, Michael Madsen is playing Kilowog, and we have Tricia Helfer from Battlestar Galactica playing Boodikka. So it’s a really, really good cast treating the source material with a certain amount of respect. Even diehard fans will be surprised and excited.”

But while the revitalised format is attracting actors who may never have considered “lowering themselves” to animation, let alone direct-to-DVD titles, it’s also opening the door for familiar voices and beloved characters to return to the small screens after their series cancellations. After the recent success of Futurama’s series of direct-to-DVD feature releases, the cancelled series has been re-commissioned by Comedy Central in the US with all its original voice cast intact, an unusual result that can be attributed directly to DVD sales. “The results were more than satisfactory for all,” reveals writer and executive producer Matt X. Cohen on the sales figures for Futurama’s first direct-to-DVD title, Bender’s Big Score. “Everybody was taken quite by surprise by the overall sales. In a good way, I should add.” As for the reason why fans respond so well to animated direct-to-DVD feature films, Cohen turns a little pensive before continuing. “I like that in the age of 3-D kids’ movies, occasionally something like the animated film Persepolis can slip through. It gives me hope when we’re doing things like Futurama. With Persepolis, you can learn a lot more from that movie than you can from a whole week of news.”

So, from its less than glamorous beginning inside dump bins and weekly rental shelves, the direct-to-DVD genre has managed something of a transformation, gaining respect from industry players and consumers alike. While technology may have forced the hand and upped the ante on distribution avenues in a somewhat over-crowded film market, the animation world has managed to embrace the genre as something of a holy grail, able to shine through and deliver to fans what had been missing previously. “Animation fans are very detailed, and they enjoy plot,” explains Cohen. “They like to go back and see what they missed the first time around. They pay special attention to the DVD extras. If you do the work and provide the details, they’ll stay loyal for years.”

As for remaining the poorer sibling to their big screen counterparts, Bruce Timm explains how both genres have managed to find a balance within the studio controlled reality that dictates what we see and, at times, how it’s told. “It’s pretty well known that they’re developing a Green Lantern live action movie. In some cases where we’ve done them simultaneously, they’ll say, ‘No, you can’t do that yet, because we’re going to leave the market open for the live action film’ or ‘Oh, you gotta make sure you don’t do this, because that’s gonna step on what they’re doing in the film’ and so on and so on. Fortunately, we got our Green Lantern film started long enough in advance that we didn’t have to worry about not stepping on their toes, because a lot of times that’ll happen.”

By James Fletcher. Originally published in Filmink Magazine, October 2010

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