[Analysis] - The Continuing Legacy Of The Bat-Embargo


Recently, after three years of avoiding it, I watched Arrow. I've finished it now, and my previous thoughts pretty much hold firm. And floating above them all is the notion that it is really a Batman show in Green Arrow clothing (the second best Batman show on TV right now, after Daredevil. Gotham does not rank). After the events of the season three finale, I kept half expecting Ollie to throw away his quiver and pick up a utility belt. As it turns out, this opinion is not unique to me, but shared through a large amount of the internet: fun, but obviously wanting to be Batman. This was brought to attention recently when cast-mate Willa Holland announced that the show had original planned on making more substantial use of Harley Quinn and the Suicide Squad, saying:
"We had big plans for Harley. But, I guess something came down from DC execs that told us to shut it down. I mean we had that tease with the pigtails and the ARGUS outfit but, we’ll never see it. We would love to [have] Harley in Arrow but it will never happen."
When I read that, one word flashed before my eyes in big neon letters: Bat-Embargo. For those unfamiliar with that cringe inducing concept, it was the name given to the edict that Batman related characters could not be used in Justice League Unlimited, despite having been used in past season of Batman, Batman Beyond, Superman and Justice League. And the Embargo appears to be alive and well today, interfering with the current generation of DC television properties. This made me want to dive into the history of DCTV, and see exactly how the Bat-Embargo has impacted not just the Bat-Family and they're rogues, but a whole host of DC characters, in the past, and into the future.

Hit the jump for a walk down DC memory lane, which includes spoilers for Arrow season three.


Justice League Unlimited


The Bat-Embargo began in 2004, as Warner Bros and DC were getting ready to release Batman Begins to the movie-going public, changing the cinematic mindset of what a superhero should be in terms of tone, which has continued to be flanderized and reduced to the point where it appears the forthcoming Justice League franchise will be entirely joyless. 2004 was great year if you were a fan of DC properties, as there were four series on air to cater to your needs: Teen Titans, The Batman, Justice League Unlimited and Smallville (fulfilling the lone live action quota). On the big screen, Batman Begins was near release, and Superman Returns would be out in a couple years. All superhero attention was on DC, none was on Marvel (who were still in their pre-Iron Man farmed out phase) and no one really took superheroes seriously as a money making venture.

Enter DC and Warner Bros, who has owned the comic company in it's entirety since 1989. Thus, unlike Marvel (until Disney purchased them), every DC property made was produced and distributed by Warner Bros or one of it's subsidiaries. As such, Warner Bros had a marginal interest in making certain that if they invested time and money into a cape-and-cowl product, it would return maximum investment (this was before superheroes were a billion dollar industry). It remains unclear if the decision came from Warners or DC, though the smart money is on Warners, that having too many versions of certain characters active at once would be confusing for the audience. With a new Batman movie coming to the screens, and a Bat-focused series on air, an embargo was put in place that limited the use of certain top-tier characters from the Batman catalog on the Justice League series. Included on this list were pretty much any supporting characters from the Bat-family, like Gordon, Robin or Nightwing, and most of the recognizable rogues gallery (especially those that might make appearances in future films). So, out were the likes of Ra's Al Ghul, Joker, Two-Face and Riddler. Hugo Strange, seen above, was also included on the no-no list, and had to be removed from the Cadmus storyline, and replaced with Doctor Moon.


Some characters were exempt, for various reasons. Heroines like Black Canary and Huntress were permitted so long as any connection to Batman was minimized. Thus, Canary was teamed with Green Arrow (a traditional pair anyway) and Huntress was paired with The Question. Very minor villains, like Clock King or KGBeast were permitted because they had little-to-no public recognition and were unlikely to show up in any feature films. Shortly after the embargo was put in place, it was expanded to include other, non-Bat related properties and began to have an effect on the other series. A proposed Aquaman spin-off of Smallville lead to the decree that none of Aquaman's supporting cast could be used on the show at all, despite having made previous appearances. Joss Whedon was writing and meant to direct a Wonder Woman feature film in 2005, which (paired with legal issues surrounding the character) resulted in her supporting cast being dropped from JLU and Teen Titans (this would remain in place for years and effect both Smallville and Young Justice). Bizarrely, despite a new Superman movie on the horizon, Superman's cast was never explicitly exempt from appearing the DCAU from that point, though they failed to be involved anyway, with Lois making her sole Justice League appearance in the series finale.

Smallville

Technically speaking, the Bat-Embargo goes back even further than 2004. At the turn of the millennium, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar approached DC about making a series that would follow a young Bruce Wayne as he traveled the world, gathering the skills that he would need in order to return to Gotham and become Batman. DC and Warners were at that point already interested in bringing Batman back to the big screen, likely as an origin story, and nixed the idea. Gough and Millar would adapt their basic idea to the Superman mythos, an idea which would go on to last 10 seasons. However, the shadow of the bat remained over the series for the duration of the run. In season three (2004), Ian Somerhalder joined the cast as the mysterious Adam Knight. While the producers have continuously claimed that he was never meant to be Bruce Wayne, the preposterously and meaningfully named character is early in the season alluded to having a mysterious past and skills beyond a regular person, often seen hewn in shadow and spends time watching people from on-high in alley ways, before the storyline quickly degenerated into science fiction nonsense later in the season. As if the producers had tried to back-door an introduction into the show, and got caught.

In season six, the series introduced a charismatic billionaire playboy with traumatic past, an affection towards Lois and a brother-style rivalry with Clark. His methods run counter to Superman's own, shrouds himself in darkness, urban legend, and fear-based intimidation to achieve his technologically sophisticated and marshal-arts augmented goals. Of course, by this time, the Nolan films were in full swing and the producers knew Warners would never green light the use of Batman, so in the tradition of the character, they used Green Arrow as a Bat-expy. For the final five seasons of the show, as the show increasingly became more Justice League orientated, Smallville's Oliver Queen would fill the exact role as Batman in a Brave and the Bold style team with Clark, even going so far as setting up a Watchtower inside a clock, and enabling a character to take on the mantle of Oracle. In making their version of Green Arrow Batman-in-all-but-name, the writers inadvertently changed the character direction of Oliver Queen permanently. Gone was the fun-loving liberal and voice of reason of the comics and Justice League Unlimited, replaced by yet another dark and brooding hero seeking unachievable redemption, which became the character norm during the New 52 reset.

Arrow

Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg have stated that their show was intended to chart it's own course from the version of the Green Arrow that featured on Smallville. While the characterization has been more depth on Arrow, the character is essentially the same: a Batman stand-in. To the extent that the tone of the show draws complete inspiration from Batman Begins, and the majority of the characters featured on the show are more closely associated with Wayne than with Queen. Huntress and Black Canary's origins have been folded into the Star City hero rather than Gotham's. Ra's Al Ghul ceaselessly hounded him to take over the leadership of the League of Assassins, while undergoing a power struggle with his daughter, usually a dynamic left for the Detective. Involvement in the actions of the Suicide Squad and intense distrust of Amanda Waller have been ported from the Bat to the Hood. Bludhaven, traditionally the New Jersey to Gotham's NYC, has become a distant neighbour of Starling. Katana, Firefly, Deadshot, the Royal Flush Gang, Kate Spencer, Deathstroke, Solomn Grundy, and The Dollmaker are all traditionally Batman villains that have taken on the Arrow. A pattern this obvious and this entrenched is not a continued coincidence, it is a statement of intent.

But beyond that, the ever widening Embargo lives strong, as Warner Bros continues to provide delineation between what is and isn't allowed. The news that Harley was intended for larger things but was shut down provides insight into recent developments on the show. Amanda Waller's sudden disappearance midway through season three and replacement by General Shrieve, as well as the killing of Deadshot, retroactively make sense considering both of the characters (and wildly different versions of them) will be appearing in the Suicide Squad movie. Too, the appearance and then abandonment of Captain Boomerang was likely the result of a similar edict. With the Justice League cinematic series gearing up, expect far more of the primary DC catalogue to become unavailable, even as Berlanti continues to expand his TV series universe. With Lord and Miller taking over the reins of the Flash movie, which will also feature Barry Allan, it'll be interesting to see how that effects that series in the coming seasons. Legends of Tomorrow could easily have been imagined as a series featuring more high profile characters, with the safe exception that the likes of Firestorm and Hawkgirl will never appear on the big screen. And Supergirl will likely be safe in it's use of very minor Superman characters, without infringing on the content of the Man of Steel (of note is that Jimmy Olsen, included in the series, wasn't in Zack Synder's film).

Gotham

An unusual switch from the usual way in which the embargo works, but not dissimilar upon investigation. Gotham in execution is closer to what Gough and Millar proposed fifteen years ago, with a series examining Bruce Wayne before he was Batman. Uniquely in terms of the Embargo, Batman is pretty much the only one exempt from participation here. Most of the big name characters from the Rogues gallery have shown up, with special attention on Penguin, Two-Face and Riddler. However, it is important to note that these are characters unlikely to appear in any of the announced DC films, and thus not have any conflict with a cinematic version. The only Bat-characters confirmed to appear in the Synder-back series - Batman and Joker - are only alluded to on Gotham. In fact, the protagonist of Gotham, James Gordon, is rumoured to be long dead in the new film series, thus rendering even that long standing character free and clear from conflict (it is a wonder Gotham got clearances to use Alfred). Gotham wouldn't have been permitted to exist back when Nolan's films were running, but now, with a Batman-infused-but-not-lead franchise on the horizon, his supporting cast can do what they like, but without him. It's a reversal of the original intent of the Embargo, but the effect is the same.

The Legacy

The Embargo, Bat or otherwise, will remain in place so long as Warner Bros believes (and DC cows to the notion) that audiences are stupid. That seeing one version on the big screen, and a different version on TV, and  yet another in a cartoon and still another in a comic book will cause their minds to fry. One of the rumoured reasons why George Miller's Justice League: Mortal movie got unceremoniously shut down was that Warner Bros suddenly realized that it was going to have two competing versions of Batman (one in the Nolan films, and one played by Armie Hammer) in theatres at the same time, so rather than take the chance that one would effect the other unfavourably, and not willing to drop Batman from Justice League (the thought of releasing a comic book movie without Batman was unthinkable and unprofitable), they opted to pull the plug entirely on what could have been a game and genre changing film, especially in light of what Miller did with Mad Max: Fury Road.

DC is struggling to ignite audience's enthusiasm for their characters in the same way that Marvel has for the Avengers. However, rather than flood the market with as many positive and quality depictions of the characters it wants to be successful, they restrict, they hold back and the limit them to one version. One version of characters that are meant to be open to adaption and interpretation. And the real down side of this is, if all an audience is exposed to is a single version of a character, and they don't like it, that will turn them off of that character entirely. The ignorant notion that audiences can't tell the difference between two version of a character is insulting, and illustrative of how little the studios think of us. Which leads to limited storytelling, which leads to bad stories.

Two final notes: first, hilariously, despite naming the embargo, Batman continues to be the most adapted character across DC media. This is because, to the Warner Bros bottom line, Batman is the only consistently proven viable and profitable character DC has. So, while live action movies will always supersede the intent of the animation or television divisions, Warners will go out of their way to bring to market a Batman product over another character. Take the DC Universe Animated Movies series, for instance. Originally created in the wake of the demise of the DCAU, these movies were meant to adapt characters and high value storylines from across the catalogue of DC properties. Of 23 films made to date, 10 are Batman movies, and another 6 feature the character in some way. Al but 3 of the remaining films are Superman focused. Batman also has the highest number of appearances in animated series, and is the most likely to appear in any DC property (see DC turning a Man of Steel sequel into a Batman film). However, this extends almost exclusively just to Batman. The rest of his supporting cast will be discarded without hesitation, for whatever reason Warner Bros reads on the underside of their magic eight ball.

And second, because I'd feel bad about going through all this without touching on what is happening on the other side of the mirror, Marvel has two unique versions of their own Bat-Embargo. The first is the legal one that was created by selling off their various characters to other studios in the early millennium. This has resulted in the MCU having to check with legal every time they make a movie to make sure a character they want to use isn't owned by FOX (pretty much the only major stake holder left running counter to them). The other is the movie/TV divide, which has resulted in the TV division going to the cinema side and asking permission to use a character they want, and being roundly rebuffed because the movie division "has plans" of them. This has resulted in the TV division having to make use mostly of third-stringers, like Carol Danvers being replaced in AKA Jessica Jones with Patsy Walker.

Some material gathered via the DCAU Wiki.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

3 comments :

  1. There is one major point you are forgetting about Marvel. Unlike DC, all of the live action Marvel movies and shows since Ironman ARE in the same universe. This means that if Agents Of Shields wants to have Captain America show up or even reference his story or exploits they have to use Chris Evans and/or refer to what was mention and shown in the movies and can't do anything with him that will contradict the plans the movies have for him. It also go both way though as the movies can't use anyone but Chloe Bennett if they want to have Daisy "Skye" Johnson aka "Quake" appear in the Inhuman movie for example. So it not so much an embargo but rather after all that work to figure out if a character has or is set to appear in a movie or is license to Sony or Fox, do I really want to spend even more time then I already have collaborating with Marvel Studios to figure out how I can and can't use Wasp (not to mention having to coordinating and work around not only the actor own schedule but the movie schedule as well when I have my own schedule and deadlines to make), who I probably can't afford on a TV budget for more then a cameo anyway. DC made it very clear that the TV and movies are different and seperate so there really is no reason why for instance the Suicide Squad couldn't continue to appear on the CW's Arrow-verse when they are going to starring in the upcoming movies and be part of the DC Cinematic Universe that WB is now starting. The only thing that would be slightly understandable, though no less cringe worthy, is with the TV shows if say Arrow wanted to use a character that Gothom have the exclusive rights to since they are rival TV shows.

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  3. Arrow is naive and overrated. And mostly stupid. I think I need to watch Gotham indstead. Anyway, I was just about to visit website for some college tips - feel free to join me there. Thanks for posting.

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