Let's do an overview of the whole DC Universe service, shall we?
In the way that Lois Lane might write an op-ed asking, "Does the World Need a Superman?", I find myself asking "What is DC Universe for?"
I decided to take a look at the DC Universe app to see exactly what it's about. It's been less than four months since it first launched with a monthly subscription fee for $7.99 and an annual membership fee for $74.99. If you attended the panel at New York Comic Con back In October, you would have gotten a free one-year membership.
What would you be paying for? Is it for reading comics? Is it for streaming movies and old DC shows and cartoons? Is it for streaming new original DC shows? Is it a social network forum for connecting with other DC fans?
I didn't come to knock DC Universe. I was agnostic and hoping it would win me over.
I had assumed the complete archives of DC Comics would be available to read, but it turns out that it's really a rotating, curated list, usually tied to whatever characters are appearing on the Titans TV show. That's limited compared to the Marvel Unlimited app which has thousands of comics in its library and costs $9.99 a month.
DC Universe is cheaper than Marvel Unlimited and wants to claim an edge with not just archived TV shows, animated shows, and movies and live action movies but also original video content. So far, that's been the first season of Titans and as of this now, the premiere of the new season of Young Justice.
Titans is an odd duck of a show. It can't introduce a character without killing someone. Robin is a mass murderer now. He stabs a guy in the crotch and sets an entire mental asylum on fire with people seemingly still in it. Starfire is introduced by having her incinerate a roomful of German gangsters. The whole show is also under-lit and dark for reasons I can't fathom. A big fight scene in a motel parking lot with multiple people takes place in the dark and smoke so you can't see a thing.
In my experience with filmmaking, dark lighting is usually employed to hide shortcomings in the location and design because of budget limitations. The show looks like it has a smaller budget than the CW DC shows and reminds me of fan-made videos that are all over YouTube. It also reminds me of Axel Braun's superhero porn parodies, only those have better lighting. And no, there's no hardcore nudity or sex in Titans, though I suspect the makers were sorely tempted. Don't get too excited.
I came away from this with the feeling that DC Universe is not for kids but angry adult fans who want to see superheroes kill people a lot. Titans is entertaining, but not very positive. I remember a time when superheroes didn't go around killing or maiming people, but the show is fixated on killin' and the maimin' like a teenager trying to convince everyone he's all adult and stuff.
The new season of Young Justice continues the show and, without TV censorship, could go darker but stayed within a PG-13 rating. Based on the first three episodes released so far, it's the most consistently well-written show out of all the DC shows, more than Titans or the CW shows. At least the heroes aren't gratuitously homicidal like on Titans. Too bad the current house style of the DC animated shows and movies feature incredibly bland and ugly faces and the animation is rather stiff. At least the writing mostly overcomes those limitations. Of all the current new DC shows, it's the best one.
The other original content on the app is a daily half-hour talk show. Each episode consists of news about the latest releases in comics, movies and TV shows, interviews with actors, occasional interviews with comics creators but the second half is a discussion where the Hollywood-pretty hosts talk about the DC comics, movies and shows they like.
John Barrowman shows up nearly every day on the talk shows to talk about either his work on Arrow or his favourite DC comics or toys. I guess he has to do something while waiting for the next time the CW shows want to use him or for Russell T. Davies and the BBC to bring back Torchwood. Barrowman is always fun to watch. He could make cleaning the toilet, doing a tax return, or getting rid of a dead body sound like loads of fun just by talking about them. I still think the Arrow writers missed a trick when they named his character "The Dark Archer" instead of "Mean Arrow".
One thing DC Universe doesn't promote is critical thinking. Everyone is totally rah-rah about how much they love the comics and characters. They talk about how emotional the storylines made them. There's never any critical discussion at all – nobody talks about what a cynical ploy the killing of Jason Todd was when it first happened, only how much it's canon now, or the countless times the comics have been sexist or misogynist.
There's no mention of how Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were abandoned to live in poverty until Neal Adams successfully campaigned to make DC do the right thing and pay them a pension.
Nobody brings up that the concept of "fridging", a term coined by Gail Simone, originated in a Green Lantern comic when Kyle Rayner's girlfriend was murdered and stuffed in a fridge just to give him something to get angsty over.
Nobody talks about how ropey the writing and FX in the 70s TV shows were, only how great they were. There's a lot of rewriting of history going on in DC Universe. It's the DC Universe that DC and Warners want the public to see. I get that promoting positivity is the key here, but would it kill them to admit that the comics were never perfect? Sometimes it feels like I'm watching a cult meeting.
My main problem with the talk show is that it highlights the pretty hosts over comics creators – you know, the people who came up with the intellectual properties that made DC popular and a multimillion-dollar transmedia company? Whenever comics creators are featured, it feels like the show is condescending to throw them a bone. This is the Hollywood-vision of the comics industry, the logical evolution of movie studios buying up comics publishers. There's an underlying attitude now that comics or characters aren't worth any attention until they get a live action TV or movie version. This is evident in the way the talk show favours the glamourous actors from the movies and shows.
DC Universe also functions as the Home Shopping Channel for DC Comics merchandise, offering toys, figures, clothing and all kinds of giveaways and prizes. It's designed to hit at the part of the brain in collectors that craves these things to release the endorphins to make their lives feel complete.
Then it dawned on me: this is about selling DC as a LIFESTYLE. This is about identifying with a brand, which is DC. It's for people who want to live and breathe everything DC. It's not a new trend. The anime market has been sustained since the 1990s by being a lifestyle centered around how much fans watch and love anime, then read the manga, buy the merchandise, and gather at websites, online forums, and con to commiserate together.
It's not that different from people who are into Apple products – iPhones, iPads, Macbooks, Apple TV – and base their online lives in the Apple ecosystem as a lifestyle. This is worshipping at the altar of consumerism, and with DC Universe, it's the church of people in tights who punch each other, even if the talk show hosts say they learned about morality from reading DC comics.
If DC Comics, movies, and TV shows are what you like, then DC Universe is exactly what you would like. DC Universe' target audience appears to be people who live and breathe nothing but DC. Only DC. It creates an alternate universe where DC is all that is good and wonderful and will bring about world peace, partly by selling live-action versions of superheroes being all grim and killing people.
It would be a strange and narrow lifestyle.