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Attention, DC fans! The tremendously DC Universe - Rebirth #1 launched a universe-transforming arc! Spearheaded by Geoff Johns, and with art by Gary Frank, Ethan Van Scriver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez, it set the DC Comics Universe on a whole new path. Largely a course correction after the unpopular "New 52" reboot, #Rebirth was a surprising comic that actually made strong criticisms of DC's entire range since the mid-'80s. It pointed a brand new direction for the whole company, one that even looks set to have an impact on the films...
The Watchmen Effect
To truly understood DC's "Rebirth," you have to know a little about the history of comics. In 1986 and 1987, writer Alan Moore headed up #Watchmen, a comic like no other at its time. Working with artist Dave Gibbons, Moore offered a deconstruction of modern comics, setting a dark and dangerous tone that would be mimicked by the comic book industry as a whole. In 2009, Moore told Mania.com he regretted this.
"Can I just say I’m sorry?... It seemed to me that people basically took from it what they were able to take from it—mostly a slightly depressing atmosphere and the idea that everybody had to be a grim, ruthless psychopath... It was never intended as a blanket approach for all comic books. It was just an experiment that I was trying, and it worked better in some cases than it did in others."
The dark themes of Watchmen increasingly characterized DC's Comic Universe. Their superheroes became gods walking among men, distanced from the world. The "New 52" even abandoned the idea of Superman's relationship with Lois Lane, an aspect of the character that had always humanized him; instead, he was given a relationship with fellow superhero Wonder Woman. Meanwhile, Batman became increasingly dark and brooding, an almost spiritual force whose presence pervaded Gotham.
This was after the pattern of Doctor Manhattan, the Watchmen character whose godlike powers and phenomenal intelligence gradually removed him from the rest of the human race. To give an idea of Doctor Manhattan's power levels, at one point it was stated that he'd be able to destroy 99% of the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons at the same time as "destroying" large parts of Russia! Given Watchmen was based in the Cold War era, this rooted his powerset in contemporary life, and gave a tremendous indication of just how powerful he was. Tellingly, when Doctor Manhattan's last relationship ends, he leaves the Earth completely - he no longer has anything in common with the people of Earth.
Director Zack Snyder began his relationship with superhero films with 2009's Watchmen, adapting Moore's script for the big screen. The comic had a profound impact on him; as he told Entertainment Weekly:
"Watchmen is like the music you feel is written just for you. ”That’s my song, no one else gets that but me.” That’s why the fan base is so rabid, because they feel personal about it. The difference between Watchmen and a normal comic book is this: With Batman’s Gotham City, you are transported to another world where that superhero makes sense; Watchmen comes at it in a different way, it almost superimposes its heroes on your world, which then changes how you view your world through its prism. That’s the genius of this book."
It's no coincidence that DC Film put Zack Snyder in an influential position in the #DCEU. The goal was to tap into the same zeitgeist as Watchmen, which DC Film believed was critical to DC's modern comics. As a result, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice present mythic takes on the superheroes we know and love. Superman is a brooding Christ figure who ultimately gives his life; Batman is a near-spiritual being whose introductory dream-sequences include Bruce Wayne descending into a pit of despair, to be raised up on the wings of the bats.
The popular reaction has hardly been what DC Film had hoped for. Man of Steel received mixed responses; #BatmanVSuperman has had an even harder time of it. Critics slated the film, and fans were divided, with a heated debate beginning that shows no sign of ending. Although the film easily made a profit, and merchandising will have been strong, DC Film can only have been disappointed by the popular reaction. Since then, DC Film has been in a constant state of restructure, with Zack Snyder's influence lessening by the day.
The Response of DC's "Rebirth"
In a single week, we effectively saw the end of DC's "New 52", with Geoff Johns penning both Justice League #50 and DC Universe - Rebirth #1. Both Justice League #50 and Superman #52 were essential reading before you pick up Rebirth #1, but that was particularly the case for Justice League #50. It began Geoff Johns's criticism of the post-Watchmen DC Comics.
Over the course of an arc entitled "#Darkside War," Johns has imbued the iconic members of the Justice League with the power of gods. This final issue, though, stripped them of it; and then, in a powerful scene, the League assembled against a cosmic threat. Notice Superman's words:
"We were never gods."
Although part of the narrative, #Superman's words were an implicit criticism of the idea of superheroes as gods. They were followed by Wonder Woman's reflections, as she became Johns's mouthpiece:
"Clark's right. We were never gods. Gods watch the world from above. Gods don't intervene. Gods don't bleed. Or cry. Or laugh. Or love. Not like us. We struggle. We fight. We fail."
But DC Universe - Rebirth #1 put the criticism even more strongly. Taking the perspective of fan-favorite Wally West, Rebirth revealed that Wally has been lost in the timestream. As such, he became aware that something has gone terribly wrong with the wider DC Universe. Take a look:
As the issue continued, we learned that a cosmic force stole ten years of comic book time. As Wally continued to look, though, he realized something else:
All that was good, and positive, and exciting was ripped away. Relationships and friendships were torn apart. Bereft of love and hope, the DC Universe became a dark and doom-filled place. We soon learn just who the villains of the piece are.
The deed was done by the cast of Watchmen.
From a meta-narrative perspective, this is a powerful criticism of everything DC's comics have been since Watchmen. The narrative of Rebirth argued that Watchmen has led to the creation of a universe with no hope, no joy, no love. Legacies have been lost, friendships have been broken, all as a result of Watchmen's influence on the comics.
Rebirth, then, posits Watchmen as an enemy to be defeated. In scenes running through the comic, it's pretty clear that the direction of Rebirth is a rejection of everything DC Comics has become since Watchmen. In triumphing, the heroes will regain their joy once again. Take the teaser poster for the Rebirth reality - and notice the smiles.
Watchmen transformed the comics, and has gone on to transform the films. Now, the comics are systematically rejecting Watchmen's influence. In the year when Watchmen's influence pervaded the DC Extended Universe, that's pretty startling - especially considering how successful the relaunch has been, with relaunched series selling 4-to-1 compared to pre-Rebirth.
How will this affect the films?
But this is only a change in the comics, right? It won't have any impact on the films?
Actually, it will. DC Universe - Rebirth was Geoff Johns's last comic book project for DC for quite some time. He's now become overseer of DC Film, with responsibility for managing the fledgeling DC Extended Universe. A lot of sites are describing him as DC's answer to Kevin Feige, although I suspect they're overstating the case.
The fact remains, though, that Rebirth is Geoff Johns's vision. Talking to THR, Johns explained the process for deciding what needed to change:
"We have a writers room here with a whiteboard that covers the entire wall, and I spent hours in there listing out all the things I love about DC and the things that I thought were not in the books right now. I sat down and I read everything, and I thought, I don't feel any sense of history, legacy, hope, optimism, a cohesive universe — and by that, I don't mean crossovers every week — emotional bonds was a huge one. Over the years, some of this stuff had been lost. Not just characters, but smaller things too, tonal things that are really hard to nail."
For Geoff Johns, optimism should be at the core of everything DC Comics stands for. If this is the case, that logically extends to the film universe as well. I think we'll see Johns exerting a similar influence on DC Film, ensuring hope and optimism become core to the film franchise. I don't think that means an end to darker stories; but I do think the overall tone of DC Film is about to dramatically change, and Rebirth shows the way.
It's no coincidence that Ben Affleck - Batman star and director of the forthcoming Batman film - said that he was excited about Rebirth. It shows the film staff have a level of awareness of what Johns has just done for the comics.
The current ongoing Rebirth event is a milestone for DC Comics. It marks a transition between the DC Comics Universe as it has become, and the restoration of the DC Comics Universe as it was (when I grew up with it). I for one couldn't be more excited - Wally was Flash when I got into the comics, for one thing! But it also looks set to have a dramatic impact on the direction of the DC Extended Universe, and I think that's a good thing.