Comics Watch: How DC Could Have Its Own 'Westworld'

The new 'Metal Men' series introduces an updated concept on the company's group of robotic heroes.
'Metal Men'   |   DC Comics/Shane Davis
The new 'Metal Men' series introduces an updated concept on the company's group of robotic heroes.

Welcome back to The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Comics Watch, a dive into how the latest books from Marvel, DC and beyond could provide fodder for the big screen. This week tackles DC's Metal Men No. 1, so be warned, there are spoilers for the issue ahead.

DC returns to its vault of wonderfully strange, unlikely and infrequently utilized characters for the latest maxi-series, Metal Men. Written by DC exec Dan Didio, with art by Shane Davis and Michelle Delecki, Metal Men is a canonical story about Will Magnus and his Metal Men, Gold, Iron, Lead, Mercury, Tin and Platinum, in the aftermath of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s event series Dark Knights Metal (2017). Though the Metal Men are lesser-known DC characters, Didio, who previously wrote the characters in the 12-issue Wednesday Comics (2009), and writer-producer Geoff Johns are well-known Metal Men fans. Given that Warner Bros. is in the process of exploring some of its lesser-known characters and out-of-the-box ideas, Metal Men feels like the kind of high-concept property that could bring something new to superhero cinema.

Created by Robert Kanigher and Ross Andru, the Metal Men first appeared in Showcase No. 37 (1962). Unlike most of DC’s heroes, Will Magnus and his robots existed in a separate universe in which they were the only heroes until the merged with the central DC Universe in 1966’s issue No. 21. Like so many DC characters, the Metal Men have had their origins retconned many times and have gone from being AI, to human souls trapped in robot bodies after an accident, and back to beings of artificial intelligence again. Throughout this time, the Metal Men have been largely defined by distinct personalities relating to their metallic properties. Gold is the confident leader, Iron the strong man, Lead the dumb but trustworthy follower, Mercury the quick-tempered and angry, Tin the self-doubting and apprehensive, and Platinum, the sole female member in love with her creator Will Magnus. Didio’s latest series adds another wrinkle to their backstory.

Previously it was believed that Will Magnus was one of the great minds in the DC Universe and one of the foremost authorities on artificial intelligence, thanks to his creation of the Responsometer that animated non-living material and allowed it to develop a brain capable of independent thought. But in today’s Metal Men No. 1, it’s revealed that the Responsometer’s allowed Magnus’ robots to take action and react based on his own brain patterns, but were not true A.I, were not living beings. The Metal Men were limited in their thoughts and actions by Magnus’ own brain patterns from which they were based off of — his own complex human multitudes of confidence, questionable intelligence, anger, unease, and love for himself.  And furthermore, the Metal Men had been led to believe that their structures granted them immortality and an ability to self-repair. But Magnus had simply discarded their old bodies, erased their memories of dying, along with their suspicions that they were not truly alive, and put the Responsometers in new robots. The series recasts Magnus as not a villain but a deeply dishonest man playing at creating life with little consideration of the consequences. The shift is akin to Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol revelation in 1992 in which it was revealed that the Chief caused the team’s “accidents” in order to further his own experiments.

Where a superhero team of robots with fixed personalities may not be novel enough for an adaptation in a film culture where robots and androids are common explorations, the latest revelation in Metal Men presents the opportunity for a new exploration of artificial intelligence. Buried under this utopian idea of robots with humanity is the buried secret of one man’s perversion of science in an effort to work out his own self-importance and self-loathing. For years, comics fans have thought of the Metal Men as a family, one in which the human Will Magnus was able to fall in love with the robot Platinum. But the truth is something darker, and creepier in terms of Magnus’ relationship with his creations. While Barry Sonnenfeld was reportedly set to direct what would have presumably been a more lighthearted and comedic adaptation of Metal Men in 2012, that project seems to have died. And in its death comes the chance to do something other than a conventional superhero film. Metal Men could be something akin to HBO’s Westworld, or the science-fiction films of the 1970s like Soylent Green (1973) or Logan’s Run (1976).

As interesting as a potential cinematic concept as Metal Men has evolved into within this first issue, would it be enough to entice audiences? Where Warner Bros. seems focused on A-list heroes, its production studio New Line, which released Shazam! earlier this year and is working on a sequel along with Black Adam, seems like a place where B- and C-list heroes could thrive on $100 million budgets or less. Even so, the Metal Men are far more obscure than Shazam or Black Adam. But perhaps there’s another way to raise their profile. Victor Stone aka Cyborg, who was once set to lead his own film after co-starring in Rick Famuyiwa’s The Flash, has a history with the Metal Men and led them against tech-based alien invaders. While Ray Fisher’s future in the DC film universe remains uncertain following the disappointment of Justice League (2017), there’s still a chance for his return. Should Ezra Miller’s Flash with Andy Muschietti finally pan out, Cyborg would then be the only member of the Justice League without a solo film.

There are a number of interesting avenues to explore with Cyborg alongside the Metal Men, especially if Magnus were a colleague of Victor Stone’s father, who welcomed him into his robot family with the ulterior motive of studying his AI operating system. And Cyborg contemplating his own identity alongside the Metal Men, both before and after they know the truth about their origins, could provide the kind of concentrated character study that has made Joker such a hit recently. DC’s character-driven and potentially out-of-continuity films don’t have to rely on R-ratings, or even villains. A focused and emotionally grounded investigation into Will Magnus and Victor Stone is the kind of bold new ideas that deserve to be explored by Warner Bros./New Line going forward. While comic book characters and concepts are often taken individually to form feature films, the DC film universe stands to gain a lot by pairing characters with similar thematic ties together. Cyborg and the Metal Men feels like just the film that could win over longtime comic readers and audiences still waiting for Cyborg to get the spotlight the he deserves.

  • Richard Newby