Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
Last week, I asked a simple question: Is the DC Cinematic Universe–the Warner Bros. back-of-the-napkin plan to launch an all-out assault on Marvel Studios by unleashing a double-digit boatload of superhero movies between now and 2020–actually a thing? Will the Man of Steel-verse actually transform into a cape-ier alternative to the Avengers-verse? Or is this a Valiant-Comics-in-1992 thing–a situation where all the elaborate and ambitious universe-building plans will ultimately dead-end against the cruel capitalist realities of people just not being interested?
In the week since, the DC question has become only more complicated. Rumors point to the studio working on an Aquaman movie, a development I wholeheartedly support because Aquaman is awesome and you are terrible if you don’t realize that, but also maybe an Icarus-level act of supreme overconfidence. (An Aquaman movie would break three rules of Hollywood: Never make a movie on water, never work with animals, and never make a movie about Aquaman.)
Meanwhile, Marvel Studios just topped the charts again. Specifically, the Billboard charts: Guardians of the Galaxy is the No. 1 soundtrack in the country. If Marvel can ever get its act together with its television division—and all signs point to Marvel TV having several chances to get its act together—then there could come a time when Marvel Studios is No. 1 at the box office, No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and No. 1 on, like, iTunes or Netflix or whatever people under the age of 40 watch television on.
With that in mind, I looked through the comment boards to scan for the most thoughtful takes on the DC Universe conundrum. They are below, with my thoughts appended just to muddy the waters a bit.
Caiti: One thing to note: In the MCU, if an actor wants out, its easy to replace him. Chris Evans wants out? Fine, we’ll just make Winter Soldier movies instead, like in the comics. RDJ wants out? Ok, Iron Patriot gets a go. No more Thor/Loki? That’s fine, we have an entire Universe to draw from. In DC, if an actor wants out, that’s about it. You could do Nightwing (etc.) for Batman, but no Superman means no more Justice League in theory. So at best, when these actors get too old to pull off the characters, they’re done. They’ve already limited themselves. Besides, at this point, they’re always going to be the imitators. The Pepsi of the Superhero genre.
A lot to take in here, so let’s handle these questions one by one. Has Marvel actually carefully planned a succession plan by stuffing each sub-franchise with their own replacement hero? I would carefully say no: I don’t think anyone is hankering for an Iron Patriot/War Machine movie or a Winter Soldier movie; conversely, Marvel values Loki so much that they brought Hiddleston onstage at Comic-Con 2013 in full Asgardian dress.
I do absolutely think they would feel no compunction about recasting their lead characters–note how effortlessly they wiped The Incredible Hulk out of existence. A few commenters brought up the James Bond example, and you could also point out that although the Amazing Spider-Man movies have made less money than the original Spider-Man trilogy, you don’t exactly hear a lot of people rabidly insisting that Tobey Maguire was the only man who could/should ever play Spider-Man.
Really, this point comes down to the big unspoken question about the future of Marvel Studios: What happens when Robert Downey Jr. decides to move on and/or prices himself out? Marvel’s two highest-grossing movies both had Downey-as-Iron-Man front and center. Sure, Thor 2 and Cap 2 made a lot of money, but Iron Man 3 made half a billion dollars more than Cap 2. Downey is the Jack Sparrow of the franchise, the biggest draw and the best advertisement. Without him, is Marvel as big? In that sense, you could argue that the DC Universe is actually playing it smart, casting mostly unknowns in their big parts. (The exception to that “mostly unknowns” part is Affleck-as-Batman, but since his Batman is supposed to be “older,” that might be less of a problem than it seems.)
But are the DC movies always going to be the Pepsi? Or is their long game more sustainable?
Andre Betita: DC has this little thing from their comics called a “Crisis” event, which is basically their in-universe way of ending the universe and setting up the story so that a “reboot” of their franchise — new actors and new backstories and all — still follows narratively from the previous incarnation of the franchise. It’s inevitable that BOTH studios will eventually reboot their franchises in the future, but DC is already ahead in having the storytelling tool to do it in an organic way.
A good point, although it doesn’t get into the larger problem about how once you’ve Crisis‘d once, you inevitable Crisis again and again, until your universe is basically just a series of stories leading into and out of one Crisis or another.
PatMorais: I think one of the first mistakes that DC made was not linking their TV and cinematic universes. It’s the same old stodgy thinking that is second tier entertainment. I mean how much would you rather see Stephen Amell’s Green Arrow and Grant Gustin’s Flash appear in the Justice League movie over Kellan Lutz or whatever WB sensation is hot these days that they’ll get to play them in the all-new movie version of those same characters? The thing they don’t seem realize is that by not sharing the universe they’re bastardizing these already successful television shows.
Several commenters voiced loud praise for the DC TV universe, and it’s worth pointing out that DC has a good-to-great track record on the small screen. You can hate on the intrinsic cheesiness of the old-school black-and-white Superman, the Pop-Art goofery of Adam West’s Batman, and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, but those shows helped to define the Big Three for whole generations of non-comic book readers. (Remember: People Who Don’t Read Comics are now the key demographic for Things About Superheroes.) And I maintain that Batman: The Animated Series paved the way for the Dark Knight trilogy’s cultural takeover. Hell, for quality superhero television, you could just point to the whole Bruce Timm animated universe.
Now Arrow is going full Dark Knight and its Flash spinoff is buzzing like crazy. Marvel has big plans, but Agents of SHIELD had a rough first year, and Agent Carter is an exciting but also weird decision for a follow-up. Exciting, because: Hayley Atwell. Weird, because: more SHIELD, really? Meanwhile, DC is about to launch Gotham, a Batman-without-Batman show that could actually establish an effective method for smallscreening superheroes. (Remember: Smallville ran for ten years as a Superman-without-Superman show.)
I’m not sure that DC necessarily needs to link universes; Arrow and Flash are both on the CW, which means their typical audience is a drop in the bucket compared to what DC wants Batman v Superman to make on its opening weekend. But PatMorais does bring up a good point. Why is Warner Bros. so openly aping the Marvel method—individual superhero movie leading to superteam movie leading to a spinoff—without tapping into the devoted, hyper-engaged fanbase circling their TV shows? It feels like a missed opportunity, if not necessarily a complete mistake.
TheRealEverton: I think the key distinction here is that whilst people like to go Marvel Vs. Dc, it is Marvel Studios vs. WB. Marvel may now get their cash from owners Disney, instead of borrowing $525m against the rights of their characters, but they are still making their films and making their plans. WB are using a resource they own–DC comics–to make films and finally making a more concerted, targeted, long game plan for characters who are not Batman, Superman or part of their worlds.
But DC still seem to be the smaller, weaker partner here, whilst Marvel Studios are in the driving seat, mostly being left to their own devices. Hence when WB tried to bully Marvel off their release date and Disney’s accountants were balking, Kevin Fiege was able to say: “It’s our date, we’re keeping it,” and Disney left them to it, to their benefit in the end.
We probably won’t know for some time to what extent Disney “leaves Marvel to it.” My personal theory is that there’s a subtle but potent Disney influence on all films made after the company purchased Marvel. (See: Nominal fun-times beer-brawl odyssey Guardians of the Galaxy awkwardly wedging in a Bambi’s-Mother origin story.) But it’s absolutely true that Feige exudes a Putin-level vibe of Total Control. (How many people are still talking about the Edgar Wright thing?) From this perspective, Warner Bros. could be in a similar position to Sony, which announced an aggressive Spidey spinoff slate that it’s now hastily rewriting. Also, great use of “whilst!”
Matt: It’s far too early to tell. WB is being forced to play catch up to the intricate design of the MCU. With only one movie in their DCCU, it’s hard to tell if they will stand a chance against Marvel. Blinking against the May 2016 release date was not a good sign. Marvel was the one who challenged them to that spot and they showed their lack of confidence in their brand by backing down.
The most logical response and therefore the most disappointing response. And although I tend to agree about the release-date blink, but my colleague Jeff Labrecque has a compelling counter-theory.
J. Long: I REFUSE to have high hopes for Batman vs. Superman: DoJ. I am fearful that their “projected slate of movies” will soon disappear. Marvel kept it simple, building slowly up to The Avengers. WB is making a “sequel” to Man of Steel and throwing in every superhero they can think of (with some serious lame stunt casting) into it hoping it will successfully parlay into a Justice League franchise. It is rushed and not well thought out. They are trying to play catch up. I think Marvel has the potential to continue as long as they continue to put out QUALITY and not scrap that for quantity (dollars OR movies).
My fear is that DoJ will be such a big flop that it will cause John Q. Public to definitively say NO MORE SUPERHEROES. Thus causing a screeching halt to what fans are enjoying. No doubt DoJ will open well but only time will tell if it has the staying power and will be quality enough to make fans AND John Q. Public want more. I hope so but I seriously doubt it. For those that want to hate on this… I am a DC fanboy through and through. I have only recently become a Marvel fan because of the movies.
A common complaint, well-voiced. In hindsight, Marvel Studios was blessed with a curse. Back in 2006, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even the whole Avengers concept was considered second-tier–certainly compared to Spider-Man and the X-Men, whose rights belonged to other studios. The natural instinct would’ve been to bring every B-level hero together right away under the principle of making an A-level project. Marvel did the exact opposite, turning their first set of movies into arguments for Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
And that’s given the studio the confidence to do it over and over again. (See: Guardians of the Galaxy, heretofore a fringe superteam, now cusping on “this generation’s Star Wars“-level cultural smash.) In that sense, DC’s hurry-up smashing-together of all its heroes vibes a little bit like desperation. But it’s worth pointing out that X-Men: Days of Future Past was a craven Avengers-ification of that franchise–which also became that franchise’s biggest hit globally.
As for whether DoJ will mark the end of the superhero era, my feelings on this are basically the same as they were last year. An entire generation of moviegoers has grown up on this stuff, and Guardians of the Galaxy is an example of how the genre might actually be setting off in weird/exciting new directions (or at least dressing up the old tropes in exciting new clothes.) I don’t think superheroes are going anywhere–though I do think we’re approaching a weird future where Marvel Studios regains control of Spider-Man and X-Men, and Warner Bros. just tries to make a new Batman movie ever six months.
EJ: There’s your mega franchise! Pinky and the Brain: The Movie, Mindy and Buttons: the Movie, the Warner Bros and Warner Sister Dot: The Movie, The Goodfeathers Movie. Then you Avengers them all together in the Animaniacs Movie. Then on to the Tiny Toons and Road Rovers movies.
First, I love that Avengers is a verb now. Second, don’t give Hollywood any ideas.