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The valuable lesson Warner Bros. should be learning from Lego Batman

Susana Polo is an entertainment editor at Polygon, specializing in pop culture and genre fare, with a primary expertise in comic books. Previously, she founded The Mary Sue.

It's been pointed out that Warner Bros.' attitude toward superhero films is to seem slightly embarrassed by the idea of the superhero in the first place. The Hollywood Reporter's interview with Greg Silverman, the studio's president of creative development and worldwide production, does little to belie this idea.

Warner Bros. isn't exactly in the most enviable of positions. Their last unequivocally well-received superhero-based blockbuster was 2008's The Dark Knight, and while Marvel pushes ahead with movies about talking raccoons and trees in space, the company has become known for producing movies that manage to suck the joy out of ideas as primal as "space cops" and "a man who can fly." Even without the pressure of constantly, inevitably being compared to the consistently successful and usually critically acclaimed output of Marvel Entertainment, Warner Bros. is still working uphill against its own record.

A Superman who needed two dead dads to convince him to use his powers for good

And that record is the context in which Greg Silverman is asked whether the grim tone of Batman v Superman's first teaser is Warner Bros.' "trademark" for their superhero films, and answers:

"There is intensity and a seriousness of purpose to some of these characters. The filmmakers who are tackling these properties are making great movies about superheroes; they aren't making superhero movies. And when you are trying to make a good movie, you tackle interesting philosophies and character development."

Silverman isn't wrong. But on the other hand, Man of Steel gave us a Superman who needed two dead dads to convince him to use his powers to do good, and where characters seemed almost allergic to saying his name out loud. Marvel has produced epic fantasy drama, a World War II-era period piece, space opera and action-comedies as well as action-dramas, all of which were definitely superhero films.

Silverman's statement implies that "superhero" is a genre, when in reality comics and Marvel film have shown repeatedly that it's simply a framework of narrative ideas and tropes that can be applied to nearly any genre and tone. After all, this is how Dr. Strange and Iron Man, Superman and John Constantine, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four all exist in the same universes.

"We have a great strategy for the DC films," he tells THR, "which is to take these beloved characters and put them in the hands of master filmmakers and make sure they all coordinate with each other." It's worth pointing out that this is materially the same as Marvel Entertainment's method for creating their franchise. But where Marvel has carefully chosen directors who specialize in a certain relevant tone first, and action fare second (such as tapping Kenneth Branagh to tackle Thor, or the director of The Rocketeer to helm Captain America: The First Avenger, or expert ensemble director Joss Whedon for The Avengers), Warner Bros. has put the tentpoles of its strategy (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, both parts of The Justice League) in the hands of one director, Zack Snyder.

Great popcorn, but no butter

Snyder's films — from 300 to Watchmen — depend on undeniably stunning visuals to make up for his less than stellar ability to tell a tonally consistent story. And there's nothing wrong with popcorn-scarfing, special effects-heavy action films, it's just that Snyder's talent is in making visually delicious action cinema, not using it to move a coherent message. Great popcorn, but no butter, if you will. It's hard to claim that you're breaking ground by making "movies about superheroes" and not "superhero movies" when your chief director is a guy primarily known for making comic book movies. I won't even get into David Goyer's tacit dismissal of the very premise of aspirational heroism at the heart of the concept of the superhero.

Perhaps what's most ironic about Silverman's statements is that he's one of the folks instrumental in bringing The Lego Movie to life. That's the flick that gave us both the first official appearance of Wonder Woman in a feature film and the latest cinematic version of Batman to take film audiences by storm: a hilariously self-important, gravel-voiced jerk who composes achingly stupid electronica anthems to his personal problems.

If I had a piece of advice for the WB going forward, it would be to take a moment to reflect while they're busy greenlighting that Lego Batman movie. And in that reflection, ask themselves why, exactly, a version of Batman who is a gleeful parody of darkness-obsessed superheroes might have resonated with a movie-going audience in the year 2014.

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