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?

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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.

Can DC catch up with Marvel's Cinematic Universe?

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.

Can DC catch up with Marvel's Cinematic Universe?

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).

Can DC catch up with Marvel's Cinematic Universe?

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?

Can DC catch up with Marvel's Cinematic Universe?

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.

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  • edharris1178

    I find it interesting that the studio’s animation division has been churning out good to great superhero movies for about eight years now and yet, the live action unit can’t get anything close to momentum.

    • Gallen Dugall

      great point – meanwhile the Marvel animated features are almost unwatchable

      • edharris1178

        Kind of ironic.

        • Gallen Dugall

          shows how important the desire to tell a good story is opposed to Marvel’s obvious cash in on their films efforts

    • Alexa

      Well that was the thing til recently with the absolutely horrible Justice League: War. But of course it was horrible, since it was based in the completely unnecessary new 52 universe.

      • New 52, where DC comics trys to be more like Marvel, completely forgetting that Marvel is already being Marvel. Successfully losing their position of offering a product with a different tone to feed a particular segment of the market.

    • Toby Clark

      In my opinion, Superman Doomsday and All-Star Superman are better than any of the live-action efforts. Yes, even the first Christopher Reeve movie.

  • Gallen Dugall

    DC doesn’t need to “catch up” so much as they need to be successful on their own terms – hopefully without imitating Marvel. We’ve got Marvel already. DC needs to do its own thing. Markets aren’t entirely about “competition” they’re about matching consumer demand with products. I think there is plenty of demand to support two big franchises if DC can bring a product out that is worth paying for, and that means interesting characters not just dark and gritty.
    The nu-Star Wars schedule was insanely aggressive at first too – then reality stepped in. I think those initial schedules in both cases were mainly about advertising – getting people to think about the product now. If they had been realistic people would have dismissed them.

  • Dex_Meridian

    I agree with Gallen. The problem is that they feel the need to ‘catch up,’ and at this point DC is just getting out of the starting blocks while Marvel has lapped them. They need to find their own approach to this puzzle of a shared movie universe.
    Of course, someone could argue that they are doing just that, since their approach seems to be “let’s just put every single character we can think of into ‘Superman V. Batman’ and then we can worry about quality later.”
    The reason Marvel’s team-up movie worked was because the four main characters had their own stories beforehand, so we went in already invested in them. “Dawn of Justice” is going to end up a fight for screentime between New Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Lex Luthor, and now Aquaman. All of which we’ve never seen before. It’s already starting to sound like the worst kind of superhjero movie (looking at you Spider-Man 3, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Green Lantern, Batman and Robin), where there are too many characters that all require their own plot thread.

    • Gallen Dugall

      you raise a good point – Lex Luthor should be a shared villain. Foil his plans but don’t stick him in jail at the end of every film like the old Superman movies did. Should be primarily a Superman foe but everyone should have to deal with him – the old “World’s Finest” S:tAS did this perfectly.

      • Thomas Stockel

        Much like Loki in the Avengers universe, Lex is one of those villains I think everyone can believe can realistically give the Justice League a run for it’s money.

        • Gallen Dugall

          Unlike Loki he’s smart enough that he won’t go far enough to be credibly charged with anything. His plausible deniablity and even probable good intentions present the dramatic tension of the rule of law getting in the way of “the greater good” that makes for some of the best DC stories.

  • I personally don’t think that DC know what they’re doing in the slightest. Batman v Superman: Edge of Tomorrow (as I actually called it once, it sounds like it was translated literally from Japanese or something) shows that they have no faith in anything not starring Batman or Superman (given everyone else is apparently appearing in cameos in it) and this entire schedule is an act of desperation.

    Their desire to catch up to a company already five years ahead of them and their chronic problem with wanting to be taken seriously (which really started after the success of Watchmen and DKR and was exacerbated by Nolan’s success) is really going to hurt them, particularly as dark and gritty seems to be starting to go away in blockbusters. Or at least, that’s my opinion.

    I really don’t see how any of this is going to work story-wise either. Man of Steel (or Stalin as I like to call it) was entirely based around the concept of how a superpowered being would affect the world and was aiming to ground itself as much as possible. Now we have Aquaman (and the entirety of fucking Atlantis), Shazam (who I believe is magical), Wonder Woman (Greek gods), Green Lantern (slightly more manageable) and the Flash, all of whom have to be introduced and made plausible in one film focused on other people. There’s a reason why each major Avenger got their own two hours of backstory.

    • Gallen Dugall

      I thought they were going to make the Amazons a lost Kryptonian colony?

      • That rumor was debunked.

        • Gallen Dugall

          I refuse not to continue being outraged over the decision even if it’s not real.
          they should stop worrying about if things sound goofy – if you’re actors take them serious then the audience will take them serious… hire good actors

  • Cameron Vale

    My own recollection is that the Avengers movie was a laughingstock during its production. I think it was greenlit right after Disney bought Marvel Studios, which was right after Iron Man. It seemed quixotic at the time, and the subsequent releases of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Captain America didn’t change much. (Even though Thor managed to turn a few heads, I leave it out because it was easily the one least expected to do so.)

  • Nessus

    The thing I love about those Nick Cage Superman costume pics (aside from the abs being displaced half a foot up from where his real abs would be) is that that isn’t actually the full costume. That’s just the undersuit layer. The complete suit had a layer of clear iridescent panels on top of that, with glowing fiber optic veins sandwiched in between.

    It was one of those things where you could kinda see what they were trying to do, and if they had pulled it off it would’ve probably looked pretty cool on a different character than Superman (would’ve made a good Brainiac, maybe), but in the early test versions it just wasn’t really coming together. To say nothing of looking absolutely nothing like Superman, of course.

    • Nessus

      Actually now, that I’ve gone and re-googled the pics I was remembering, the final concept and costume has a very similar look to the suits worn by Zod & Co in MoS, only pale blue and shiny/glowey instead of grey-brown.

      Sorry for replying to my own post. I don’t have a Disqus account (and don’t really want one), so I don’t have the ability to edit posts.

  • Jim

    Perhaps someone out there who knows more about the licensing can help me understand how DC/Warner failed to make their Justice League film at least 2 years ago. Warner had a property on the air: Smallville, which gave a 10 year backstory about young Superman. They had a popular actor for the role of Clark/Superman. The series had included cameos by past Superman greats like Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder.
    The TV show had cast that introduced us to Green Arrow, The Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman and had included the idea of a centralized Watchtower as the formation of what would become the Justice League. The series ran between 2001-2011 long before the Marvel machine got the ball rolling with Iron Man in 2008. All they needed to do was to lock down Christian Bale as Batman from his role in the Dark Knight films. The audience could be introduced to a Batman/ Superman team-up film almost immediately and the contrast between the very dark nature of the Nolan Batman series and the more optimistic portrayal of Superman would have worked nicely.
    All you would need to do is introduce Wonder Woman and you have an instant Justice League.
    Instead what you have is a completed Dark Knight trilogy which has nothing to do with the new Ben Affleck version of Batman. You have a Nolan/Goyer Man of Steel who has nothing to do with Superman; now DC is scrambling to cram three, (perhaps more) characters into a movie hoping that the audience will sign on for character name-recognition alone.
    You have Ben Affleck as Batman (and we all know how he took the Daredevil franchise to 5 films). You have Henry Cavil as “Man of Steel” the Kryptonian kid who messes up trying to be Superman. You have Gal Gadot as some sort of Kryptonian-hybrid Wonder Woman. You have a new squeezed in addition of Jason Mamoa as Aquaman. By the time you cram all of these guys and the returning cast of Man of Steel into the movie, everybody will get one line of dialogue before the credits roll. Sorry for the long post, but I’m trying to figure out DC/Warner’s logic and it is beyond my abilities. Perhaps someone else could take a shot at it and help me understand what they are trying to accomplish.

    • Cause Smallville really sucked. Comicsalliance had an entire year of blogs where two people just watch and point out all the things wrong with individual episodes. It wasn’t as bad as “Birds of Prey” for instance, but it was still a stagnant mess.

      • CaptainCalvinCat

        Smallville really sucked? Yeah, during the first 2 1/2 years it really sucked. It was boring.
        But then – at least I came to like it. Which does not say that much, because I like Birds of Prey, no matter what Solkir says. ^^

        On the other hand – at least Smallville and Birds of Prey had comedic moments – which is nothing, you could dare to say about the Nolan-movies.

        • Toby Clark

          All of the Dark Knight movies had their moments, courtesy of the Joker, Jonathan Crane, Alfred, Lucius, etc. Even Man of Steel has some amusing interaction between Clark and the military, or the gag where Zod knocks him into an “X days since last accident” sign and knocks just the right numbers off.

        • KLLRFRST

          I thought Smallville was fine during it’s first few seasons. Then it started to suck when Lana became possessed by a dead French witch, got a Kryptonian tramp stamp and started fucking her gym teacher, and progressively got worse when Lana started banging Lex and was going to have his non-existent baby. The show got much better when they put her ass on a bus and shifted focus on Lois Lane as Clark’s love interest, as well as making Doomsday, Zod, and Darkseid the villains of seasons 8. 9. and 10, respectively.

  • Muthsarah

    Superman Returns came out only eight years ago? Eight?!

    ….Feels more like fifteen. And Iron Man, which came out six years ago, feels…well…maybe like five. But that would be enough to be of wholly different generations film-franchise-wise. That just blows my mind (not literally, obviously, but not exactly hyperbolically either – wow, four adverbs in six words!). SR feels like some fuzzy recollection from my childhood, whereas Iron Man feels like it coulda come out yesterday. I don’t know how much of that is due to the…qualities…of the film, and how much may have to do with just how much “older” Superman feels as a character, when compared with Tony Stark.

    Can Superman even be updated to the current comic-book-movie age and still feel like Superman? MoS seems to have failed in that. Maybe DC would be better off not even thinking about what Marvel’s been doing (or possibly just zeroing in on what worked with Captain America) and make a movie that feels conspicuously old-fashioned yet timeless, optimistic, kinda gee-whiz and kid-friendly, even Spielbergian. Tone-wise, less Avengers and more Indiana Jones. Something with the feel of a 1980s-style blockbuster, but supplemented with modern special effects, avoiding the snarky, meta-, ironic 21st-century sensibilities altogether. EDIT: And, hopefully, much of the annoying and disorientating “camera” tricks so common to all recent action movies.

  • Man one: “How about we not try to catch up?”
    Man two: “What?”
    Man one: “How about we just make good movies about popular characters in a market that loves their core concepts?”

    Man two: “We aren’t artists, we are tiny dicked hacks. It’s not enough to make money, we have to make all the money that other people could have earned too.”
    Man one: “That is not a healthy way to sustain a market.”
    Man two: “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you, my ears and face are numb from all the cocaine I have been dipping my face into like a trough.”

  • Ian B

    Whatever they do, it’ll look like they’re copying Marvel. Simple fact is that Marvel have done something which is currently unique; a linked set of “universe” movies. DC shouldn’t try to copy that. Besides all else, it is worth observing that any phenomenon has a certain shelf life and nobody knows how long even the currently successful Marvel universe can run before it starts to feel past its best. It may have already peaked with Avengers.

    I’d like to see a good, standalone Wonder Woman with particularly the right casting for the lead. I’m currently 48, so I suspect I won’t live long enough to see that.

  • Sean

    In all honesty, DC just doesn’t do anything for me. Except for the occasional Batman outing like The Dark Knight, the 90s cartoon, or the Arkham series of games, DC is just dull. Dull as dishwater. Marvel makes movies that are fun and upbeat. Even Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a really fun show, despite the lack of superheroes. DC movies lately tend to be overly somber and brooding. Which gets kind of dull after awhile. While I do love brooding, it gets old when it’s the main thrust of the character development of a superhero. Superheroes are inherently silly things that really don’t need to be taken seriously. That’s something Marvel understands in its movies. They bring out the fun, exciting things that we want to see when going to a superhero movie. Hell, they’re making a movie with a genetically engineered raccoon. They’re not taking themselves seriously either.

  • Ben Erlich

    I’m sorry, but when you remove the pink glasses, it’s Marvel who has lost, the films don’t build up their respective character not even one bit, every single one of them is completely flat and one-dimensional.
    Man of Steel had ten times the character development for Superman compared to Steve Rogers/Tony Stark/Bruce Banner/blah blah blah.

    • T. Morrissey

      I doubt anyone at Marvel cares that their movies are flat, one-dimensional and kinda stupid, when they’ve all made a shitzillion dollars. Marvel may have lost in terms of quality and art, but now it appears DC is trying to scrambling to catch up money-wise, which will probably hurt the quality.

  • Jim

    I don’t understand what your point is Ben. Marvel has made enjoyable comic book movies that have grossed billions of dollars. In what way is that a loss?
    DC is in a desperate scramble to keep re-booting its comic book universe. After the horrors of Batman and Robin, we had the Dark Knight trilogy which has nothing to do with the current trajectory of a Justice League movie.
    We had a Man of Steel who isn’t Superman and now we are going to try to cram 4 superheroes into the Batman v Superman movie to set up for a rush job at a Justice League film.
    I completely disagree with your assessment that “Man of Steel had ten times the character development.” He started the movie as a confused whiner and he ended the movie as a confused whiner; not much change in the character. If you would enjoy a much better dissection of Man of Steel, you should watch Il Neige’s review of Man of Steel available here at Agony Booth:

  • David F White

    The Dark Knight Made over one billion dollars!! Iron man Couldn’t crack 600 Million!! The Dark Knight Rises Made 100 million more than The Dark Knight!!! Only Iron Man 3 Broke I billion!!

    • Muthsarah

      Pretty sure Avengers out-grossed them all.

      • David White

        If so, Not by much!!!

    • Cameron Vale

      When a movie is attempting something new, word of mouth will usually take longer to work, both positive (ie. Iron Man) and negative (ie. The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 2), and most Hollywood blockbusters only play in theatres for a few weeks. I’m sure that most people saw Iron Man eventually, one way or another.