Respect the Canon? Warner Brothers Might. But Mike Hammer Respects No One!

The Warner Bros./Discovery merger is finally complete, and that means more creative synergy in corporate boardrooms and in eager fan brainstems.

Specifically, the newly glommed conglomerate promises to finally, finally, get its long johns and tights and capes together into a single long john /tights/capes lump, just like Marvel has done.

After more than a decade, DC will build up its own universe — a super-hyper-connected super-stable of super-properties. Batman! Wonder Woman! Aquaman! Superman! Suicide Squad! Not Batgirl! But other heroes! They will all exist in a single interconnected world, teaming up in various films, so everything is one thing. Great, right? Well… maybe.

Big, intricate fantasy worlds with lots of backstory and ongoing plots can be fun … sometimes. Fans like to follow along, speculate about what might happen next, cheer on clever plot twists, and argue over perceived inconsistencies.

Creating big canons and forcing everything into the one endlessly-sprawling box also has downsides, though. Individual creative concepts can get squashed. And good ideas can get vetoed just because they don’t quite fit someone’s idea of an IP mission. Or someone else’s idea of what should and shouldn’t be canon.

The cancellation of the Batgirl film is one painful example. Warner Bros Discovery CEO David Zaslav said that he’d canceled the film starring Leslie Grace in part because it was his job to “protect” DC characters. It’s hard to know what that means exactly. But it sounds like the film didn’t fit with his idea of Batgirl or of DC heroism.

Sure, Consistency…

The idea that there needs to be one vision of these characters can lead to fairly arbitrary decisions about what’s in line with that vision and what isn’t. The need for someone’s idea of “consistency” can cancel projects that might be fun, weird, or which might use a slightly different approach.

You can see the deadening effects of canon in fan casting backlash, too. Properties that date back 50 or 80 years tend to be dominated by white male characters — because racism and sexism meant that white male creators got all the jobs and white men were presumed to be the only or the preferred audience.

Fantastic Four
Image credit: Twentieth Century Fox.

Adaptations often try to include people who are not white men — which upsets some defenders of canon. When the 2015 Fantastic Four filmmakers cast Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, there was a good deal of fan backlash against the idea that the character could be Black.

Even worse, director Josh Trank wanted Sue Storm to be Black as well … but the studio balked. Fidelity to canon, in this case, prevented the director from realizing his vision. It also prevented Black actors from getting work because 60 years ago, in a racist society and a racist industry, Black comic book characters were thin on the ground.

So what’s the alternative if you’re not going to be faithful to WB Discovery? Well, one possibility is to follow the example of that slouching respecter of no norms or canons, Mike Hammer.

“Mike who?” you may say. Hammer hasn’t had much of a public profile for a while. But he was a big deal in his day. Mickey Spillane created the harder-than-hard-boiled private eye in 1947 in I, The Jury, and he’s appeared in 25 novels since, some by Spillane alone and some in collaboration with Max Allan Collins.

Hammer also appeared in a number of films. Many of these are distinguished by being utterly unconcerned with being true to the books or to each other.

The most famous Hammer film, 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, was written by A. I. Bezzerides. Bezzerides boasted about how much he disliked the character and how much Spillane disliked the film.

The Mike Hammer in the original novels is a brutal man, but he’s guided by a strong sense of rough justice. In the Kiss Me Deadly film directed by Robert Aldrich, Hammer (Ralph Meeker) mostly makes a living by encouraging his secretary to seduce men, take pictures, and subsequently get paid to provide evidence in the ensuing messy divorce cases.

The plot of the movie diverges from the novel in fairly spectacular fashion as well. Both start with Hammer picking up a desperate woman on the highway in the middle of the night. The book revolves around a gangster plot; the movie, though, turns into a bizarre Cold War espionage romp, centering on a glowing radioactive suitcase — one of the most famously silly MacGuffins in film history.

I the Jury
Image credit: American Cinema Productions.

Some 30 years later, another Hammer film took similar liberties. I, The Jury (1982) gave Hammer (a sultry Armand Assante) back his morals, such as they were. But the plot again takes a left turn from mobsters into spy-movie James Bond territory, complete with car chases, automatic weapons fire, secret lairs, homicidal villains, and an impressively gratuitous sex therapy clinic.

The movies don’t abandon every aspect of canon; I, The Jury still concludes with Hammer coldly shooting ‘a broad,' who asks, “How could you?” He watches her die and says, “It was easy.” I guess they figured that couldn’t be better (or worse).

But while Hammer is still somewhat recognizably Hammer, his adapters didn’t feel any need to be respectful either of the books or of other movie adaptations (or the various TV versions for that matter). Creators take a few bits of inspiration and then skulk with it towards wherever they want to go … radioactive briefcases, sex clinics, and all.

Kiss Me Deadly is close to a masterpiece; I, The Jury is an entertaining bit of sleaze. But they both are true to themselves, rather than true to some executive’s ideal of brand management.

Hammering It Home

If Mickey Spillane seems too paleolithic a prototype, a more recent example is close enough at hand. Warner’s own DC League of Super Pets plays fast and loose with DC mythology, giving Ace the Bat-Hound super-strength here and gifting Wonder Woman a pet pig there.

The film cost about $90 million and is on its way to making that back. It’s also garnered reasonable critical goodwill with a 72% on Rotten Tomatoes. Krypto the Super Dog hasn’t precisely taken over the world. But as a standalone pup, unleashed from canon, he didn’t do so badly.

There’s also this year’s The Batman film, which broke with the DC Extended Universe and ended up being a massive critical and commercial success. For a second there, that seemed to give Warner Bros the impetus it needed to stop trying to slavishly imitate the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That lasted less than half a year, though.

You can see why everyone wants to imitate the MCU. The MCU makes a lot of money! And it’s understandable that studios want to cater to fans who often drive enthusiasm and buy lots of tickets.

But abandoning canon, in big ways and small can have advantages — be those commercial, ethical, or aesthetic. Studios could stand to take a hint from Mike Hammer when he stands over canon, gun smoking, and sneers: “It was easy.”

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Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.