Tuesday 16 September 2014

Justin Bieber could have been great for DC's comics and films

This is actually a thing that's a year old but here's the short version: Justin Bieber chucked a selfie on the internet a while back with a faked up Batman Vs. Superman script and the hashtag #Robin. It was fake, obviously, there was no script at the time and yadda yadda yadda. I heard about it on an old podcast but the thing is, I got thinking and, well...

It might actually be a good idea.

Oh, don't look at me like that! I have no opinion on Bieber as an artist, good or bad. I've heard a few of his songs, one I found catchy, most I found bland. I have almost no point of comparison for him as an actor. His public persona is obnoxious but since I am as far from the target demographic for his stunts as it is possible to get I'm more than willing to let that pass. Also, everything I just wrote equally applies to my opinion of early-career Elvis so let's see where we stand in twenty years if and when Bieber reaches his mature artistic phase.

Moving on...

You know what casting Justin Bieber as Dick Grayson or Tim Drake would mean if it had happened? It would actually give me, as a viewer, some sense of creative vision behind this film.

I'm not saying good, I'm not saying bad, I'm just saying that creative vision would be seen to exist. Man Of Steel was bland to me. I paid my money, picked up my 3D glasses, sat through the trailers and then the film started. 143 minutes later I left the cinema with no sense of who the production team thought was Clark Kent in any sense other than the visual. I hate Joseph Campbell and his damn mono-myth theory with a fiery passion but if you're going to do the bloody cocking pissing hero's journey then “refusing the call” should involve refusing the bloody call not just looking broody before saving the oil rig crew anyway.

Perhaps I'm being overly harsh but in all honestly when I look at Man Of Steel I can't actually point at any aesthetic decision and say it was about Superman. Almost the whole visual style and aesthetic was lifted wholesale from Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and the one thing that wasn't, the huge display of military hardware, was straight out of Michael Bay's Transformers series.

So, aesthetic decisions lifted straight from other popular franchises, a longterm plan that's a cut down version of Marvel's Avengers franchise and a character arc with no arc beyond Clark gaining the physical props of Superman (costume, Fortress of Solitude, save Lois, put on some glasses, roll credits). Henry Cavill is actually a very good actor but one with almost zero public profile in the US and only really known for one role here, as Charles Brandon in The Tudors. Casting him says little and all that's left to make a statement with it is what you do with him but... eh, we've covered that.

On a similar level, I like Ben Affleck and I'm eager for his Batman but here we have the opposite problem: an actor whose range is so varied he could comfortably play any version of Batman from Adam West to Michael Keaton. Again, until this performance is on screen we've no way to judge where its going no matter how much Affleck's critics invoke Daredevil.

Bieber, meanwhile, has a huge public profile, a well-known public persona and a built-in following amongst a single demographic not generally associated with comic fandom or films: pre-teen and early-teen girls. Cast this guy as Robin and the statement is clear: stunt casting in the classic Batman tradition and an attempt by at least one arm of DC to actually grow its audience into new demographics. Yes, I would sure as hell question whether he is the right actor to use for those purposes but those purposes are inherently good, especially that last one.

I'm not even saying that in a social justice context, I'm stating it as blatant fact: comics as a business need new audience demographics! The audience is shrinking and has been for years because of poor marketing, limited distribution and an uncanny ability to court all the wrong controversies but most of all because of the companies' fetishistic desire to pour what little marketing budget they do spend on pursuing not a new audience but the same one they've always had: men aged 18 to 35.

So, yeah, comicbook companies: listen up because here's the master plan. Stage one: stunt cast an icon of teeny-bopper pop as Robin to draw young girls into the theatre. Step two: embrace the fact that comic films are at least halfway marketing stunts for your product and put an advert for your comics at the end of the trailers, “if you like the film why not try...” yadda yadda yadda, you can see where this goes. Most importantly, stage three is...


I am not kidding, this is the most important stage of the master plan. Once you have this new audience drawn in and trying out your comics you DO NOTHING ELSE! Keep the product as it is. Oh, by all means stop screwing up on the race and gender fronts but that's a separate debate. The product, absent its frequent socio-political failures, is fine. Female fandom exists, it exists in spite of the considerable apathy and even hostility publishers have demonstrated towards it for decades.

And if you're thinking about introducing a bunch of new female characters to please this demographic then STOP! That's called pandering and even little girls will notice it. Women and girls don't need female characters to identify with any more than I need a male figure to identify with. Audience identification is a really weird concept and a bit false and some day I will write a takedown of the whole bloody thing but that is not this day.

That said, there is virtue in exploiting the female IPs the companies already own better than they do. Here are the female intellectual properties from the Big Two I wrote down off the top of my head over the course of half-watching a five minute internet video (I don't own a stopwatch):

Wonder Woman, Birds Of Prey, Storm, three flavours of Batgirl, Batwoman, Kate Bishop as Hawkeye, Black Canary, Huntress, Power Girl, three flavours of Spider-Woman, two flavours of Spider-Girl, Black Cat, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Ms.Marvel, Renee Montoya as a cop or as The Question, Rogue, She-Hulk, X-23, Wonder Girl, Catwoman, Supergirl, Mystique, Zatanna, Harley Quinn and slap in the Young Avengers for having an admirable equal focus on male and female characters throughout its comparatively short history...

and going back to my earlier point these are just properties that either currently or in the recent past have supported at least a decent length limited series. Exploiting that, and they're getting better at exploiting that, alongside existing product is the smart move. You know why?

Because girl geeks are as completist as boy geeks. Draw then into a character and they're going to want to read up on that character's history and you want that history to exist and be in print to sell it to them. New characters don't have that, established characters do.

So, yeah, a genuine argument about how Justin Bieber could be the best thing to happen to the comics industry in years.

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