A suggestion for the DC comics TV universe

For reasons known only to themselves, the mandarins in charge of the DC comics universe have decided that, as far as live-action performances go, there will be a split between the DC comics television universe and the DC comics cinematic universe.

A brief interlude: For those of you who don’t follow this stuff, the U.S. (and by extension, the rest of the world) has two major publishers of comic books: DC and Marvel. Together, these two publishers account for approximately 80-something percent of the world’s comic book production. (Tastes vary; manga is hugely popular in Japan, and has a niche following in the U.S.; by contrast, comics featuring Donald Duck and his pals are insanely, enormously popular in Europe, but they have virtually no following in the U.S.) In America, at least, DC — whose marquee heroes include Superman and Batman — is generally regarded as the more conservative of the two houses. Marvel — whose roster includes such “freaks” as Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men — is regarded as more adventurous. For example, Marvel is generally thought to be the first major comic publisher to introduce an openly gay superhero, back in 1992. DC partisans would quibble with this, as DC apparently had a few superheroes before then that they intended to be understood as gay, although this was never explicitly stated. Nevertheless, Marvel was the first mainstream publisher to feature an out-and-proud gay superhero. That gives you an indication of where Marvel is, culturally, vs. DC.

Anyway: Evidently, DC has made the incredibly stupid decision to keep their television and cinematic universes completely separate, meaning that any actor who appears in one cannot appear in the other — at least not as the same character. This is in contrast to Marvel, which under the aegis of Kevin Feige has elected to keep its television and cinematic universes tied together.

A second brief interlude: The concept of comic book “universes” dates back to the 1950s, and became hugely important starting in the 1970s. It all goes back to the problem of continuity: How, for example, could a still-spry Batman still be battling bad guys in the 1970s when he was seen beating up the bad guys while in his late 20s or early 30s back in World War II? In the 1970s, he’d be in, what, his late 50s, early 60s? Even if you assume he’s kept in top-notch shape, how could he still be whomping the crap out of young punks at that age? Originally, of course, the answer was: Lay off, man, it’s just a comic book. It’s for kids, so it’s not supposed to make sense or be consistent. But there were a couple of problems with this: First, comic book publishers gradually became aware that the most enthusiastic fans of their wares tended to be young boys of significantly above-average intelligence. And why not? The most successful comics have always been essentially nerd fantasies: Invariably, they’re centered around a shy, weak-looking young man who always gets picked on by the stronger, tougher boys, but secretly has the ability to kick their asses nine ways to Sunday. The questions raised by these highly-intelligent young fans couldn’t simply be handwaved away.

Secondly, starting with the Baby Boom generation, a lot of these young men continued their passions into adulthood. Some wags mock this, but I fail to see how it’s much different from the silly enthusiasms of creative souls from earlier generations — take, for example, the Midwest pharmacist’s kid Marion Morrison, who enthusiastically adopted a largely fictional image popular during his childhood. (You probably remember Marion by a different moniker: John Wayne.) Moreover, the artistic trajectory of comic books has been remarkably similar to that of Westerns, which went from silly kiddie entertainment to still-kind-of-silly but more-mature fare and then all the way to dark, gritty realism over a similar span of time. Moreover, Westerns — like comics today — were wildly popular with the fashionable intellectual “nerds” of their era. Eugene V. Debs and Jean-Paul Sartre were just a couple of the enthusiastic Western fans among the so-called smart set.

Be that as it may, some of those Boomer fans were so passionate they eventually wound up working in the comics industry. So the problem of narrative consistency eventually came to the forefront, and the solution the industry hit upon was to posit the existence of different “universes” — self-contained entities comprising all of existence — to explain major discrepancies. The Batman of the 1940s was thus a completely different person than the Batman of, say, 1990, which is why he was still able to go mano-y-mano with young hoods in their 20s. Periodically, comics publishers will introduce “reboots” — essentially, the creation of a new universe — to introduce characters to a new generation of fans. The “reboot” concept, which was first pioneered by DC back in 1985 with the Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries (although it has its roots in the 1956 introduction of Barry Allen as the “new” Flash), has been so successful it’s crossed over into cinema and television, where it’s used to refer to a “new take” on a popular character.

Anyhow, the “separate universes” concept is essential for explaining, for example, why in the 1960s Batman TV series, Batman never called up his pal Superman to help him out with a case, like he might do in the comics — or why nobody in the recent Batman movies remembers a corny Batman TV series that was popular back in the 1960s. All these characters are said to inhabit “separate universes.”

Marvel decided several years ago to tie as many of their movie and TV adaptations as possible into one consistent universe. (Because of various licensing arrangements, they haven’t yet been able to bring all their characters into this, but they’re slowly trying to do so.) DC, as I pointed out earlier, has decided that TV and movie universes will be kept separate. This has led to some weird decisions: For example, The Flash, currently featured in one of television’s hottest shows, will be played by another actor in a planned upcoming movie — even though actor Grant Gustin has already shown himself more than capable of handling the role on the TV series.

Well, if that’s the way DC wants to play it, I’ve got a suggestion: They should bring back Tom Welling to play Superman in the TV universe.

Welling played the young Clark Kent on the TV series Smallville. I’ve already explained elsewhere that I believe Welling’s performance was the second-best live-action version of Superman, after the immortal Christopher Reeve. Smallville ended in 2011, and Welling isn’t up to much these days. He is, however, in his late 30s, which is the ideal age for a seasoned Superman with a number of years of superhero work under his belt.

This proposal would present a few problems. For one, the DC television universe already features one former Superman actor — Brandon Routh, who appears on the show Arrow. Second, the current DC television universe wouldn’t mesh with the continuity of Smallville, which featured numerous appearances by very different versions of the Green Arrow and the Flash.

Even so, this could probably be creatively retconned. Or the Smallville origin could be jettisoned entirely — either way, Welling would be a terrific choice for bringing the Big Blue Boy Scout into the DC television world. It’s especially attractive as Superman is probably the most conservative of all comic book properties — audiences tend to react negatively to any “innovations” when it comes to Supes. Welling is a tried-and-true veteran who has more experience with the character than any other living actor, and he’s currently the perfect age to portray a Superman in his prime.

Bringing him back to TV to wear the blue tights has two advantages — it could be pitched as a TV “event” to attract ratings; but more importantly, it would be a risk-free proposition, talent-wise. Welling has already demonstrated he can handle the character about as well as anybody could be expected to, so there’s little chance that the audience would reject him as being unworthy of donning the red cape.

So far, the DC television universe has proven a lot more compelling than Marvel’s television shows — perhaps it’s because DC has seemingly given its TV people much greater freedom. So come on, DC: This is an idea that could work. Give it a shot. Maybe you can’t outdo Marvel on the silver screen, but on the small screen, you’ve got the edge. Here’s a way to use it.

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