At Marvel Studios’ annual state-of-the-studio presentation in Comic-Con’s Hall H, the superhero production company looked like it was doing great. Really great. Hilariously great. Iron Man 3 has grossed over a billion dollars — which means that, for right now, Marvel can brag that it is in the business of annually releasing billion-dollar movies. The panel took a long look at three projects the studio will release in the next year: A Thor sequel, a Captain America sequel, and the space adventure Guardians of the Galaxy. Your opinions may vary: I thought Thor 2 looked potentially terrible, Cap 2 looked potentially great, and Guardians of the Galaxy looked like a hilariously eccentric spaced-out mash-up of Spaceball and The Dirty Dozen. One of those movies could flop, and it wouldn’t matter. Marvel has four franchises, at least.
And one of those franchises is an ace-in-the-hole. At the end of the panel, Marvel head honcho Kevin Feige brought Avengers director and geek living legend Joss Whedon onstage. Whedon barely even said anything. He waved to the crowd; the lights went down; a quick cinematic played, with dialogue from Avengers playing over some strange metallic thing…which turned out to be the head of the robotic villain Ultron. A title flashed onscreen: Avengers: Age of Ultron. If you were in the Hall, you knew who the hell Ultron was. If you were in the Hall, you were probably cheering.
The Marvel Studios plan wasn’t supposed to work, and it certainly wasn’t supposed to work this well. A linked series of movies, set in radically different genres? One of them stars a character you’ve never heard of, who carries a big hammer and lives in Space Middle-Earth? Theoretically, it couldn’t work. Theoretically, at least one of the movies had to fail. But Marvel’s doing their victory lap now. Somewhere in Marvel Studios HQ, they are currently planning the two movies they will release a decade from now. Or maybe three movies. Or maybe a new movie every month. Who knows? Marvel is blazing their own trail.
Of course, the problem with blazing a trail is that other people can follow along behind you. Warner Bros. hasn’t been shy about talking about their Marvel-style plans to build the DC comic-book universe into a film series. And they undeniably stole some of Marvel’s Hall H thunder with their announcement, early in the afternoon, that they would follow up Man of Steel with another Superman movie…which will also, apparently, be a Batman movie. Thunderous applause is pretty much the norm in Hall H — attendees have waited hours, even a whole day, to get in, and they are in the mood to cheer. But the Batman/Superman thunderous applause seemed particularly thunderous. Marvel might have four successful franchises. But DC has Superman and Batman: Two characters who have been famous around the world since before World War II. The idea of bringing them together, onscreen, had always seemed a little bit crazy: They were too very different characters, representing two very different genres. But The Avengers seemed crazy, too.
Can Warner Bros. create a DC universe to compete with Marvel? You could argue that Batman/Superman is a desperation move. The studio has found success with a Superman film that felt an awful lot like a Batman film, and was made by many of the same people who made The Dark Knight; now they’re bringing Batman into the mix, putting him back on the big screen a mere three years after The Dark Knight Rises ended the most critically successful franchise in superhero history. (It’s a bit like when DC Comics relaunched their entire line, and half the monthly books seemed to star Batman.)
On the other hand: It’s Batman and Superman, in a movie together! This is one of those can’t-miss geek-culture projects that seems guaranteed to take over the internet at least once a month until the movie comes out: Casting rumors, script leaks, paparazzi photos of the eventual Batman in his redesigned outfit. Guardians of the Galaxy looks like a good movie, but Batman/Superman is already a fully-engaged mega-experience. Everyone already has an opinion. Everyone will need to see the movie, if only to have their opinion validated. You have to figure that Warner Bros. is confidently predicting, internally, that Batman/Superman will make a billion dollars. Hell, Iron Man did it all by himself.