Feb 6, 2020
Can DC catch up with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe?
This past week, tenuous plans for DC’s cinematic universe were finally revealed to the world… via a blog post on Nikki Finke’s new website. Personally, I’d advise taking anything Finke posts with a grain of salt, especially given the rather unrealistic timetable at play here (Warner Brothers is going to make/market seven major superhero films in the span of two years?), but according to the announcement, here’s the plan:
May 2016: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
July 2016: Shazam!
December 2016: Sandman
May 2017: The Justice League
July 2017: Wonder Woman
December 2017: Flash/Green Lantern team-up
May 2018: Man of Steel 2
As of now, nothing has been officially confirmed, so this could easily turn out to be completely bogus information, or (more likely) a tentative schedule to be revised later with more realistic dates. Only time—and an afternoon in Hall H—will tell.
DC is obviously trying their best to play catch up with Marvel, who now preside over a large, interconnected series of films that stands to generate billions of dollars for the foreseeable future. But can DC do the same? Are they up to the task of creating a shared universe that even comes close to competing with Marvel’s offerings?
If for some reason you need more proof that DC lags far behind Marvel in the movies, look no further than the box office take for Man of Steel. While its worldwide gross of $668 million certainly makes it a success by any definition of the word, the fact is that Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World, buoyed by being one of the first follow-ups to The Avengers, took in $644 million worldwide.
Just let that sink in for a moment. If I had told you in say, 2005, that a movie starring Thor would one day earn almost the same amount of money as a movie starring Superman, you would have laughed your fool head off.
It’s even more astonishing when you realize DC had a thirty-year head start in getting its superheroes to the big screen, starting with Richard Donner’s Superman. And their characters are far more recognizable and have been around decades longer than Marvel’s current top headliners. So how did DC end up lagging so far behind?
A big part of it is that Marvel was its own entity (up until its acquisition by Disney, anyway), while DC Comics has always operated as a Warner Brothers company. And Warners has plenty of other lucrative properties that have nothing to do with superheroes. In the last few years, they’ve had great success with Harry Potter, the Hobbit movies, the Terminator franchise, the Hangover movies, and high prestige Oscar bait like Gravity and Argo. Without DC, the studio is clearly able to put together a slate of films that appeal to a wide audience. Compared to Disney, which needs Marvel to provide the young male demographic who stayed away from The Lone Ranger and Prince of Persia and John Carter in droves, Warners has been perfectly content to take a lifetime to develop a DC movie.
And a lifetime is what they essentially spent on Superman. Specifically, I’m referring to the tortured, twenty-year saga to revive Superman following the Christopher Reeve movies. There were an absurd number of fits and starts over the years, including a script called Superman Lives by Kevin Smith, inspired by the ‘90s Death of Superman storyline and notoriously memorialized on his An Evening with Kevin Smith DVD.
At the behest of producer Jon Peters, Smith’s script included a giant spider, Braniac fighting polar bears, and a Superman who couldn’t fly. Tim Burton signed on to direct and tossed out Smith’s script. He then cast Nicolas Cage to play Superman, and the movie was well into pre-production (Cage even did a costume test) before Warners pulled the plug.
Burton later said in an interview that when it came to Warner Brothers, “all of the decisions are basically fear-based.” In particular, the studio got spooked by the angry reaction to Batman & Robin, and were terrified that screwing around with Superman could generate another huge backlash.
There were other aborted attempts; JJ Abrams wrote a script called Superman: Flyby where Lex Luthor was a Fox Mulder-style UFO nut (and also secretly Kryptonian) and Superman dies and meets Jor-El in Kryptonian heaven. That script had various directors attached, including McG, Brett Ratner, and Michael Bay—a virtual who’s-who of filmmakers completely wrong for a Superman project (which goes to show how little WB understands the character).
And when the studio finally got its act together enough to actually release a Superman movie, made by a director with a proven track record with superhero films, the buyer’s remorse was almost immediate. No one in their right mind would call Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns a creative failure on the level of Batman & Robin, and the movie went on to gross $391 million, which is more than what Batman Begins made. But apparently all of the previous failed attempts to make a Superman movie were absorbed into the budget for Returns, which means that, ludicrously, the movie barely broke even.
In some ways, I can sympathize with the suits disowning the film and Singer’s plans for a sequel. Instead of a superhero action movie, Singer essentially made a love letter to Richard Donner, alienating anyone too young to have grown up with the Christopher Reeve movies. And can you imagine an entire franchise built around a subplot where Lois Lane is married to some other guy who’s raising Superman’s son for him?
Having said all that, they really should have let Singer take another crack at Superman—he could have easily made up for all the flaws in his initial attempt, and they would have already been on their way to a Justice League film. But once again, Warner Brothers’ risk-averse strategy ruled the day.
And that’s ultimately why Marvel is so far ahead in the game: when they first formed their own studio to capitalize on the properties they didn’t sign away in their ‘90s bankruptcy fire sale, they had nothing to lose, so they were able to take more risks. Screw up an Iron Man movie, no one really cares. Screw up a Superman movie, and you’re fucking with modern-day mythology. Everyone has their own opinion of what a Superman movie should be, whereas no one prior to a few years ago had any preconceived notions about a motion picture starring a Norse thunder god.
In all fairness to Warners, they had no idea that their failure to follow up on Superman Returns would cost them so dearly. In 2006, no one had even suggested the possibility of a shared movie universe for superheroes. And by the time it became clear that Marvel was actually going to pull it off, Superman was in development hell and WB was already married to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (Iron Man came out the same year as The Dark Knight).
And while Thor and Iron Man 2 were easily tweaked to jam in cameos from Hawkeye and Black Widow and the whole gang down at SHIELD, there was zero chance that Nolan’s movies could be adjusted to accommodate appearances by an Amazonian warrior or a guy with a green power ring. Batman had to sit things out until Nolan’s trilogy was over. And without Batman or Superman, a Justice League movie would have resulted in endless jokes about a superhero team led by Aquaman.
Though, that didn’t stop WB from trying to get a Justice League movie off the ground around the same time Marvel announced their plans for an Avengers movie. Back in 2007, Mad Max and Happy Feet director George Miller was hired to make a Justice League film, set to star Armie Hammer (Armie Hammer!) as Batman and D.J. Cotrona as Superman. Things fell apart when the WGA went on strike, and the idea of having two other guys besides Christian Bale and Brandon Routh taking on those roles at the time is still bizarre. But in retrospect, it’s easy to see why the project got as far along as it did. The Avengers was going to be a megahit and Warners knew they had to get their own superhero team movie going; they just had no clue how to do it.
And now, here we are seven years later, and Warner Brothers is again making plans for a Justice League film. But this time, it’s for real. Maybe.
While it wouldn’t be that surprising for Warners to once again snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, there are several signs that it’s really going to happen this time. The Nolan movies are over, which makes the use of Batman a lot less complicated. And they now have the momentum of a reasonably successful Superman movie to push things forward. A lot of people seem to detest Man of Steel and Zack Snyder’s direction, but it seems he gave the general public all the “Superman punching stuff” action they craved, and he at least stayed mostly faithful to the character (which is a lot more than we would have gotten back in the ‘90s).
Still, DC’s schedule is insanely aggressive. Only one of their planned films has even begun pre-production. It’s doubtful they’ll really be able to stick to this plan, but simply having a plan puts them leaps and bounds ahead of where they were five years ago.
Even prior to this rumor, Snyder was already in place as director of Batman v. Superman, as well as the Justice League movie. And while I feel reasonably sure that a DC Cinematic Universe will actually happen, my confidence in the quality of those films is another story. Much like Man of Steel, I presume DC’s big superhero crossover event will be a mostly empty experience that hits all the required plot points that people expect from a Justice League film, with enough big, dumb action to make them feel their ticket dollars weren’t wasted.
And yet, I’m still hoping that a Justice League movie happens, because another ten years of hearing about cancelled DC movie projects would be too depressing to bear.