DC Universe looks to be a mixed bag

DC Universe looks to be a mixed bag September 11, 2018

Here on Schaeffer’s Ghost, thanks to the magic of advance screenings and galley copies, we review works before they’re released all the time. Yet I believe this is the first review we’ve done of an… item, I guess? Product? Whatever an “online service” counts as… before it has been released to the general public and without having seen much of the product itself.* So more than anything this is really a review of the stuff said in the Kevin Smith-hosted DC Daily. Take everything said here about DC Universe with a grain of salt.

Just to clarify, “DC Universe” is DC Comics’ online streaming service. It provides access to a curated selection from the DC archive; streaming TV shows; streaming movies; an online store; some kind of social networking; and eternal life. Kidding on the last one, but they’re working on it. “DC Daily” is a show that will be streamed on DC Universe (henceforth “DCU”), well, daily. The first episode, hosted by Kevin Smith, has been released already and is available on Youtube.

If you went ahead and clicked through to DC Daily above, you might notice that it was originally broadcast live on August 29. And if you are further wondering why something that was available on August 29 is just now being reviewed here, the answer is simple: I have a job and small children. Thinking I could just catch it on my lunch break I didn’t bother watching it live. Imagine my surprise then when I opened it up and saw that it was two and a half freakin’ hours long! Don’t get me wrong, I’ll sit and listen to Kevin Smith geek out on comics all day long (I even got to do it live once when I was an undergrad). But again: I have a job and small children. I do not have 2.5 hours in one block that involves me being conscious. Hence this review is being published a couple of weeks after the episode dropped, but hopefully still before DC Universe goes live on September 15. So, you know, apologies to DC for being behind.

As an important disclaimer: I’m on team DC. Yes, Marvel has dominated the motion picture market. Green Lantern was a rancid hot dog wrapped in CGI that’s best forgotten. Only about half of the Batman movies have ever been worthwhile; the same is true of Superman. One hundred percent of the Wonder Woman movies have been good, but experience says that time will cut into that number a bit. And while some of the MCU movies have been worse than others (for my money, Age of Ultron is the weakest of the bunch), in general they’re all solid.

And yet, I’m still a DC fan. I think it tends to be better on TV, better with its animated films, and, most importantly here, has better characters and stories. That last is not a shot at Marvel, I just think that DC’s superheroes are more… super. **

Source: DC

Needless to say, I’m excited at what something like DC Universe could be. And I say “could be” on purpose, because at this point all we’ve got are a few teasers and 2.5 hours of Kevin Smith alternately reading a teleprompter and going full geek.

The (Potentially) Good

The Comic Books 

I’ll be honest, I’m in this for the comic books. My exposure to comics is spotty at best. I read the original “Trial of Superman” series when it came out in the mid-90’s, the short-lived Untold Tales of Spiderman, and the ill-conceived DC vs Marvel storyline. Then while working at the once-great Borders bookstore (the year it went out of business, no less), I spent a year using my lunch breaks to read everything out of the graphic novel section that I could get my hands on. I couldn’t name them now, but I think it was a hefty mix of classics (I know I read The Killing Joke) and then-recent releases (I know I read some of the Blackest Night). All this to say that I’m looking forward to being able to read some kind of combination of classic and contemporary comics. This will also be a (potentially) bad aspect of the service as well, see below for more on that. Still, with “thousands” (I’ve not been able to find an exact number) of comics available in some kind of rotation, the price (~$75/year or $8/month) seems reasonable enough.

The TV Shows

I said above that I think DC’s TV shows are generally stronger than Marvel’s (though Marvel has some good ones too). But then again, I’m a child of the 90’s and as a result have more tolerance for sub-par television. I did enjoy Lois and Clark and The Flash when they were released and still like them today—though I recognize that they are fairly weak shows overall. I suspect that, like Netflix, DC will be promoting its original material more heavily than the older shows. But that seems like a reasonable price to pay so long as the older material is available as well. If nothing else having it all in one place instead of spread out across Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime will be worthwhile. (One big question that went unanswered in DC Daily was whether or not Smallville would be included. I suspect it will not be, given that it’s not featured in the ads.)

The Movies

As with comics and TV, we can’t tell from the promotional materials which movies will not be included. For example, DC Daily was emphatic that SupermanSuperman II, and Superman III would be available. But what about Superman IV? I mean, nobody wants to watch it because it’s terrible. But did they leave it off the list because it’s a giant pile of excrement, or because it won’t be included in the DCU service at all? What animated movies will be included? Again I think that DC’s animated films tend to be excellent, but not all of them are equal. I know some of this will be decided not so much by DCU as by existing copyright obligations, but there is still potential to have movies made available that alone are worth the price of the service. I think it’s still a better idea to own the best of them rather than relying on streaming (see below), but having access to the second-tier films is definitely something we should hope for.

So, all told I think that DC Universe looks to have pretty solid content and, if you’re into these kinds of services, will almost certainly be worthwhile.

The (Potentially) Bad

The Selection

Even the most die-hard comic book hipster will admit (albeit grudgingly) that comics took a huge step forward in quality in the 1980’s. No doubt the fans and authors and artists of the 80’s were inspired by the Golden-, Silver-, and Bronze-Age comics that came before them, but Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen changed the look, tone, mood, and above all quality of comic books.*** One concern I’ve got with DC Universe’s “curated collection” of comics (“updated weekly!”) is over what exactly will be available. I know that we won’t get access to everything DC has published in the past 80 years. I don’t think any reasonable person should expect that. But I also don’t know how much we can trust DC to make available 1) their best material, and 2) complete sets of material. What I mean by 1) is that if DC is simply releasing “thousands” of Silver Age comics, that’s hardly a deal. The Silver Age had its place, but it isn’t worth the asking price. You could go your whole life without ever reading a Silver Age issue of Superman, for example, and not necessarily miss out on anything that would make the top 50 comic books. What I mean by 2) is that I could see the temptation to make part of a show or series available, and then ask the reader to purchase the rest. You know, release the first few issues of the Green Lantern Blackest Night series (to go with one of my favorites), or the first three seasons of Smallville (something I’m just lukewarm on), and then make access to the rest available at a “great member’s discount!” This ties into the second (potentially) negative aspect of DCU.

The Promotions

At one point in DC Daily, Kevin Smith asked Jim Lee (one of the DC bigwig artists) why they had created the DC Universe at all. The two honest answers that he of course couldn’t give are

  1. Because Marvel has already done it.
  2. Because it’s a way to convince people to give us more of their money.

I don’t mean either of those in a negative sense (a good idea is a good idea regardless of which company thought it up first; and I’m a capitalist), but we’re fooling ourselves if we think this is anything less than a chance for DC to make money. It might be more than that. But it’s at least that. Which means we can expect DC to have crunched the numbers and figured up exactly what the maximum we’ll pay for a subscription is, as well as what the minimum amount is they can provide while offering additional content for purchase. In fact, I know they’ll do that because one of the answers to a viewer question on DC Daily explicitly said that yes, we will in fact be able to shovel more money toward DC if we want to.

In one sense this obviously isn’t unique. Amazon does the same thing. There are shows that stream with Prime, and shows that stream but that you have to pay more for. And to be sure some of what DC will charge for includes things like “action figures”, which would be beyond the streaming side of the service in any case. And yet, I’m somewhat grumpy about the idea of paying DC for a service and then paying DC more for DC’s own product. At least when Amazon charges to stream something, it’s not an Amazon production. Ditto Netflix. Ditto Hulu. (That said, I’m no expert in what Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime provide, so feel free to yell at me in the comments if I’m wrong and if in fact they do at times charge extra for their own productions if you are a subscriber to their services.)

Again, I know, I know, it costs them to make things available, and no doubt making everything they own available for the price of streaming would break the bank. But I don’t have to like it.

The Tech

If you make it through the 2.5 hours of the first episode of DC Daily (which is worth it over all), you’ll get almost as much information about the features and tech of DC Universe as you will its contents. “How many devices can you use at once?” “Will this stream on this gadget? How about that one?” DC has clearly invested heavily in making this as accessible as possible. And that’s fine, I think. I mean, I don’t really do the gadget thing. Obviously I’ve got a computer (I’m no Wendell Berry). But I don’t have a smart phone, tablet, or… whatever the other options are.**** And, well, this isn’t the place to go on that particular rant. The rant that is appropriate here is that what we have access to matters as much as the gadgets by which we can access it. I suppose in a sense this is just another way of stating my concern about selection. I don’t want DC to double down on accessibility at the expense of what they’re providing access to.

And that is a good point to go on a mini-side-rant about the idea of “access services” in general. (And also, this is where I remember that this is supposed to be some kind of theology/religious blog, not just a chance to talk about DC Comics.) It’s pretty clear that streaming is in and actual ownership of media is out. The political implications of this are just being felt, and we should all be a bit concerned. (You know I’m concerned, given that I just shared something from The Daily Beast of all places!) But we should also think carefully about this as Christians. The best pastors and professors I’ve ever had have all encouraged me to build up my own library (the worst are those who begin sermons or class lectures with “I’m not really much of a reader.” No, really, that has happened more often than I care to think about). What does it mean that increasingly instead of building libraries that we own and can access as often as we like, we are simply purchasing access to someone else’s library?

Frankly, I don’t know. My gut says that things like Amazon Prime, Netflix, and now DC Universe should be supplements to our own libraries, rather than replacements for them. If I think comic books (or “graphic novels,” to use the phrase people feel less bad about) are worth investing in, then I should spend time making sure that the best of them make it onto my shelves. DCU can fill out the good-but-not-great materials that I don’t want to pay full price for and I get the best of both worlds. That way, when a show I genuinely believe to be phenomenal is removed from streaming I can still have “access” to it because it’s on my shelf at home. Think of how much happier 30 Rock fans would be if they’d saved a few dollars a month and eventually bought the set instead of relying on Netflix and then having to write sob stories for the internet. I guess what I’m saying is that streaming services are fine, as long as they are not the only thing we do.*****

Anyway, those are my unconsidered thoughts. Maybe more to come about access vs ownership down the road. Back to

The Tech (Con’t) 

As a part of DCU, they are also really pushing the social networking aspects of the service. Again, not to go full cranky old man, but I’ve got enough social network options. I suppose it might be slightly more convenient than joining a Facebook Group, Reddit thread, or whatever you call the Twitter equivalent. But I’m skeptical about whether this will bring anything new or unique to the table. [shrug] We’ll see, I guess. I mean, I won’t. Because I doubt I’ll have time to take advantage of that part of the service (see above: a job and small children). But in general someone will know whether it’s worthwhile or not.

They’re also hammering the DCU “encyclopedia”. How is it different from Wikipedia? From what I can tell, the DCU encyclopedia involves direct links to the materials in question. When you’re reading about Batman’s origin story, you can click the link and be reading the comic (or, I assume, watching one or more of the movies) telling you that same story. I suppose this is fine, I won’t really know what I think until I’ve tried it.

And this review is pushing 3000 words, so I should stop now. Especially given that I’ve not actually used the service yet. I’ll return with more thoughts after the product drops.

Finally, I couldn’t find a place where this fit organically into the rest of the review, so I’m sticking it here at the end: Green Lantern is the best DC superhero, so long as we ignore the movie. Do with that what you will.

By day, Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO. By night he doesn’t fight much crime, because so far Bolivar, MO has been a pretty quiet and peaceful little town. Also, he has no known superpowers other than general awesomeness.

*  Requests for early access for review were submitted to DC. I never did hear back from them. I don’t necessarily think DC was wrong not to respond, given the general grumpiness of this review.

** Of course, in terms of what really matters (to DC and Marvel), DC sells more comics, but Marvel is worth more overall as a company.

*** I don’t necessarily mean to argue that all of these changes were automatically positive ones. While the quality of storytelling went up astronomically, the grimness and grit also went up. And while I think there’s a place for that even in comics, I could also stand a little bit more light.

**** The wife does have some of these things. I’m not entirely sure why.

***** The exception is books. If you are 1) the sort of person who only has ebooks/book streaming services and 2) are not a missionary/other kind of regular world-traveler, you are a monster and need to repent.

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