Recently a writer on this very site launched some big criticisms against the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Criticisms that ranged from the business end to the creative process, but adding up to some pretty damning claims against the world that moviegoers world wide have seemed to find pretty fun. Regardless of public appeal, no universe is immune from the scathing pen of analysis, and the writer should be commended for their systematic take down of the MCU.
However, fair is fair, and if you really want to talk about a Cinematic Universe that’s problematic to a fault – you have to talk about the DC Comics Universe. For a comic company that’s been around longer, both in print and on the big screen, you’d think they’d be the ones setting the pace for the rest to follow. Sadly, that’s not the case, and the reasons why seem to be glossed over the moment a crossover film everyone’s been looking forward to is announced as a sequel to a decent (but not excellent) reboot.
Here now are 10 points of order that also range from business to creative ends of the spectrum, with an overall flavor of what’s going rotten in the state of Warner Brothers and DC Comics.
When Man of Steel was taking center stage, rudimentary plans for Justice League seemed to be in the air. With that came the whispers that led to the official announcement Zack Snyder would most likely be the director of that project as well, provided the first film did well enough. Well Man of Steel performed well enough that Snyder was announced as director of… Man of Steel 2. Once again Justice League had eluded us, despite the sudden Batman vs. Superman and Friends overhaul Man of Steel 2 has undergone over a quick series of events.
The reasoning for that is simple: Zack Snyder can draw a mediocre crowd, at best. His films bring in decent amounts of people, but he’s not as big as he once was. Not to mention, when he’s given the reins to create something of his own, he ends up making something like Sucker Punch. It looks like DC is still calling the shots, and not giving Snyder the full Whedon treatment. Marvel knows that Joss Whedon is a proven talent who can bring the right level of effort to A-list material, whereas DC is latching onto the first director that isn’t named Christopher Nolan to make a movie the moviegoing public didn’t totally hate. That’s not stability, that’s desperation.
As mentioned before, it was a pretty quick decision to make Man of Steel 2 into Batman vs. Superman. It was such a quick decision that even Wikipedia still hasn’t acknowledged it in their listing of DC Comics films. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Wonder Woman is being heaped onto the pile of established characters included in the film. While it’s not forcing a Justice League film into production, it’s still rather unfair to bring Wonder Woman to the big screen for the first time as a secondary character.
Not only does Snyder have to grapple with the continuing adventures of Superman, he now has to create a new reality for Batman/Bruce Wayne, Alfred, Wonder Woman, and possibly Nightwing (provided that’s still on the table). When Marvel started their universe, they gave their major heroes standalone films to develop those characters. The Avengers only happened after all the key players had some sort of background established and an initial conflict resolved.
DC is trying to make their own Avengers happen, because they’re a good decade or so behind Marvel’s universe. They want the $1.5 billion pay day without all the groundwork that came before it, just so they can feel they’re still in the same league.
When Christopher Nolan hung up his director’s cape after The Dark Knight Rises, the world was abuzz about the possibilities of continuing the storyline laid out. While there was no more Bruce Wayne as Batman, there was still an open ending that implied Robin “John” Blake would become Nightwing and continue cleaning up the streets of Gotham. It didn’t seem that far-off of a possibility, especially with the universe already established, Joseph Gordon Levitt seemingly game to continue, and fans primed to see more of the litany of Batman villains try to take Gotham by storm.
What did we get instead? An afterthought tacked onto a Superman sequel, with an actor most people don’t see fit for the role being recast. In other words, DC is just going to leave the Nolan-verse behind and start all over again with Batman. All of the ground work and success from The Dark Knight Legend (which inspired Man of Steel’s ”grittier” tone) could have been used to further along the path to the Justice League. Not only that, but there’s been talk of a Green Lantern reboot as well. That’s not too disparaging, because Green Lantern was one of the greatest failures in DC’s modern canon. Yet even in that case, a couple of quick one-liners in Justice League could have made any awkward memories of the mediocre standalone picture disappear. After all, it worked for Thor in The Avengers.
With The Dark Knight Legend being acclaimed by an overwhelming majority of fans, DC found themselves in a bit of a situation. Not only did Marvel colonize the opposite side of the spectrum by making lighter, less reality-bound comic films; it set a precedent for DC films to live up to. DC was now the serious studio with serious heroes and dark/gritty stories to tell within the confines of fantastical comics. Christopher Nolan had officially set a trend and plotted out DC’s future in the movie business, which was pretty much confirmed when he was brought on as Executive Producer for Man of Steel.
The problem with this is that without Nolan to guide the way or even throw some suggestions into the pot, this type of universe is almost certainly destined to fall flat. There’s only one Christopher Nolan, and only he has been able to successfully marry a dark and gritty aesthetic with a superhero storyline. It’s kind of funny when you think about it – because DC loves to reboot movies so much, you think they’d just reboot the whole world from the ground up after he left. With the bar set so high, it’s hard for anyone else to live up to the standard that’s been set by even the relatively weak The Dark Knight Rises.
With their New 52 line of comics/animated films in full swing, their CW television universe opening doors for lesser-known heroes, and their live action films starting to come into focus, DC looks like it’s doing pretty well for itself. There’s just one factor that stands in the way of calling it all a complete success: none of these universes link together. The films don’t link into the TV shows, which don’t connect to the comics completely, which don’t even dream of taking into account the animated films going to DVD.
The most cohesion seen in the DC camp is the New 52 comic reboot eventually lead to the animated film series reboot, with the spectacular film The Flashpoint Paradox leading the way. While people might not be in the tank completely for Agents of SHIELD at the moment (if ever), at least they can follow the storyline in the show and not have to create a separate flow chart on the living room wall to keep track of the feature films. The films tell the bigger story, while the TV shows and comics can tell smaller stories in the same universe. (The less said about Marvel’s animated films, the better.) All of these fractured story tracks lead to a lot of confusion, and even more fan disappointment when they realize their favorite incarnation of their favorite TV hero will be recast for the big screen.
Oh, and did we mention Gotham throwing a wrench into things by being a Fox show instead of a CW universe show? Consider that your warning.
Brandon Routh. Ryan Reynolds. Gary Oldman. Michael Caine. Four names you wouldn’t expect to be mentioned in the same sentence, yet they all share something in common: they all played iconic DC heroes, and they’ve all been replaced. One thing DC has managed to have on its side since square one that Marvel didn’t was access to A-List talent all the way. Sure, Iron Man had Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and (of course) Robert Downey Jr.; but that cast doesn’t measure up to Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, etc. Christopher Nolan cast a Murderer’s Row of talent throughout his trilogy, and each member built on the work that the others had laid down before them.
That’s not the case with this new Man of Steel-centric universe, as all of the ground work that was put into the portrayals of the figures in the Batman universe is going to have to be recreated. Not to mention, Man of Steel itself was salvaging Superman from the jaws of death that were Superman Returns, and without the rather talented Brandon Routh along for the ride. Even the eventual Green Lantern reboot will be rather awkward – though Ryan Reynolds was a fitting choice to play Hal Jordan, he just landed in the wrong script and died on impact. In a world where we’re used to identifying superheroes with certain actors as their face, DC has more arguments than Marvel does. (If you don’t believe it, try to pick a fight with your friends over which Captain America was better.)
If Superman Returns had made $500 million worldwide the then-President of Warner Brothers Alan Horn would have probably green lit the already developing sequel in a heartbeat. Unfortunately for Bryan Singer, the film only made $391 million dollars, which put the film a little under the comfortable $405 million mark that 1.5 times the budget would have yielded. $14 million isn’t anything to toss under the rug, but at the same time that money could easily be made by product tie ins, TV rights, and even Home Video sales. After all, $13 million was made in the first week of rentals ALONE. If Horn wanted the film to make more money, he should have waited around a little while.
Then again, if Horn wanted a comfortable margin of profit, he shouldn’t have poured $270 million into a franchise that had been out of action for almost 20 years. Yet he did, because he expected fans to simply flock back into theaters as if a day hadn’t passed without a Superman movie in theaters. Name recognition is powerful, but it’s not a given when it comes to business. It’s especially not a given when two names are paired, and one name is more established than another. Horn may be gone from the Warner Brothers lot, but his horrible strategy when it comes to DC lives on with his successors.
As mentioned in the recent Marvel Studios special Assembling A Universe, the heroes that were drafted to start Phase I were handpicked from a field of those that weren’t being currently adapted by any other studio. Fox had the X-Men and Sony got Spider-Man, so Marvel Studios wanted to stay competitive and chose Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk to open their universe. Their plan worked with mixed results, but Marvel still had a strong enough start to get into their story’s meat and potatoes soon enough. Heroes who were once seen as “second string” turned into viable options for entertainment and storytelling.
Meanwhile, at DC Comics, Superman and Batman are the only two franchises that have succeeded enough to be considered a well to draw from. Joss Whedon almost directed Wonder Woman, Aquaman is a punchline for Entourage fans and The Flash still hasn’t escaped the small screen. Yet any one of those properties could be resurrected and used to start off a new, Marvel-esque renaissance of building a universe over time, on the backs of smaller characters. Unfortunately, DC has continually ignored opportunities like these in favor of less rewarded gambles (like Jonah Hex), which make them scramble back to The Bat Cave each time something fails miserably to catch the public eye. A vicious cycle, if there ever were one.
Let’s start this point of order off by stating that neither DC or Marvel is bomb-proof. For every Green Lantern there’s a Daredevil. For every Superman Returns there’s a Captain America 2: Death Too Soon. Both houses have children they’d rather forget, and that’s plain and simple. But when you really look into the failures that people continually harp on when it comes to comic movies, most of them come out of the house that Bruce Wayne built. A house he almost caved in with the brute force of the atomic bomb that was Batman and Robin.
To this very day, it’s one of the most infamous failures in comic movie history. Weak puns, bat nipples, George Clooney purposely bombing his performance: it was enough to make Batman a poisonous word in Hollywood. Along with its partner in crime, the box office bomb Steel, both films killed a lot of comic possibilities for several years. After Marvel revived the genre with the one-two punch of X-Men and Spider Man, DC came back into the game with their best foot forward: the 2004 Razzie-winning classic Catwoman. It would take Batman Begins to bring DC back the table, but even with Nolan helming his dark trilogy of urban crime, the parent company wouldn’t let success get in the way of unleashing Superman Returns, Watchmen, Jonah Hex, and Green Lantern on an unsuspecting public. Just when we think DC’s doing it right, they find some sort of way to tell us that we shouldn’t count them in just yet.
The biggest problem everybody seems to be forgetting about the DC Cinematic Universe is the one that should be the most obvious: there isn’t one. All we’re talking about here is one film, and a very ambitious plan that keeps growing with each press release. Everyone’s become so wrapped up in the casting and planning of this franchise that they’ve forgotten it’s all very vaporous at the moment. Maybe it’s because we’re used to talking about Marvel’s stable and developed universe, but everyone seems to treat DC as if they’re at the same point of development.
These are the same conversations we were having a couple of years back when Marvel was slowly unveiling its plans after Iron Man’s success. Even in the planning phase, Marvel knew not to tip its hand too much, focusing on stand alone films that would enrich the crossover when it eventually happened. It was always the endgame, but not always the current task at hand. DC doesn’t even have a game plan to stand on, instead just throwing together characters and elements that aren’t fully tested yet. They do this in the hopes of creating a universe without a foundation, and it’s a problem because it’s looking to be a rather desperate scenario.
DC could be telling stories that are the dark and gritty equals to Marvel’s fantastic fare. If they just gave themselves some breathing room and worked from the ground up, they could build themselves into the powerhouse that takes over when and if Marvel runs out of steam a couple phases down the line. For now though, DC will be the struggling sidekick that tries to hard, and Marvel will be the hero that knows what it’s doing and does it well.