A couple days ago, I was driving home from work and participating in my normal routine of contemplating my favorite superheroes and their films. I can’t be the only one that does this, right? Please say no, so I don’t feel as weird. Anyway, I was thinking about this rapidly growing cast for the MAN OF STEEL sequel, aka BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN, or aka JUSTICE LEAGUE, when I had what can be only described as an epiphany. I *think* I’ve figured out the “why” behind DC and Warner Brothers’ current course of action related to their superhero TV and cinematic properties.
There’s a semi-famous saying of “What’s in a name? Everything!” There’s no doubt that the folks over at DC/WB know this all too well. It’s barely arguable that Batman and Superman have two of if not THE most recognizable names in our pop culture dominated world. It’s extremely difficult to find people in the world who have never heard of either of the world’s greatest superheroes. From a business perspective it makes sense that these two characters would eventually appear together in this current golden age of superhero cinema.
The folks over at Marvel have done a phenomenal job establishing their characters and shared universe. There’s no doubt that they are the current kings of the superhero film genre. Other studios are slowly making their attempts at building their own brands, but it’s mostly a slow moving process. Fans of the genre that still hold to the belief that there’s an actual competition between the studios and their films are just simply out of touch. These films do not release on the same day, and frankly there’s enough money to go around. Great superhero films, regardless of what studio they come from, only benefit the long-term strength of the genre. Marvel should also be commended for accomplishing what they have with the characters they’ve had to work with.
Just a decade ago, you’d have a difficult time trying to find average mainstream moviegoers (who always account for the vast majority of box office totals regardless of genre) who had heard of Iron Man, Hawkeye, or Black Widow. You’d find more that had heard of Thor thanks to his Norse mythology roots and Captain America thanks to his long-standing history in the comics. But even those who were familiar with the shield and hammer were few and far between. X-Men and Spider-Man were significantly more popular at the time thanks to recent films and impressive comic book sales. Basically, THE AVENGERS, the film that broke countless box office records and changed the status quo of the superhero film genre forever, was made up of mostly second- and third-tier characters. That is impressive.
The “Marvel Method” of building up a shared cinematic universe with one film at a time for each of its main characters and culminating with the team-up film was proven to be extremely successful to the tune of $1.5 billion. However, I don’t believe they had any other choice. When you’re dealing with characters that the majority of audiences probably haven’t heard of, you need to be patient, you need to cast extremely well, and you need to be confident. The greatest casting Marvel studios will probably ever have will be Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. He and Jon Favreau took the character of Iron Man, who was lucky to be third-tier at the time in terms of comic book sales, and firmly cemented him among mainstream audiences. Robert Downey Jr. WAS Iron Man, and the world knew it.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER and THOR didn’t benefit from leading men as recognizable or as beloved as RDJ, but the films held their own and continued to push the shared universe forward. Thanks to a cameo in THOR and a substantial supporting role in IRON MAN 2, Hawkeye and Black Widow’s presence was made aware to audiences. The table was finally set, and characters that weren’t well-known among mainstream audiences became a little more familiar. The anticipation grew at a frenzied rate as Marvel was attempting to do something that had never been done before. May 4, 2012 finally arrived, and the rest, as they say… was history. Not only did Marvel need to make those individual films first for financial reasons, but they needed to do it to introduce mainstream audiences to their cinematic brand. Marvel Studios was and is only in the superhero film business, and business is good.
Warner Brothers has always had a different approach to their superhero film properties. They are a movie studio first. They make films throughout the year that fall into every possible genre. Aside from the occasional superhero film such as THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY, SUPERMAN RETURNS, GREEN LANTERN, or WATCHMEN, there hasn’t been much superhero live-action coming out of the WB lot. Throughout the production of MAN OF STEEL, the film was referred to as the first piece of a new shared DC Comics cinematic universe. Back in August 2012, my friend Bill Ramey published an article that stated WB wanted a JUSTICE LEAGUE film with their newly rebooted Superman in the lead for the 2015 summer blockbuster season. For those keeping score at home, that was at least ten months before MAN OF STEEL debuted in theaters. A few months later, another rumor surfaced that WB was offering Chris Nolan and Christian Bale a pile of gold that would make Scrooge McDuck blush, to team-up their Batman with Henry Cavill’s Superman. I think we all know how that rumor turned out, but one thing was consistent — Warner Brothers wanted a JUSTICE LEAGUE film in the summer of 2015.
Now, let’s fast forward (by way of rewinding) to July 2013 at San Diego Comic-Con and the announcement heard ’round the world. Coming in July 2015, Batman and Superman would be teaming up for the first time in a live-action film. In an announcement that spanned barely three minutes, Warner Brothers and DC Comics reached out and put the world on notice that their first team-up film was coming. It was barely a month later when it was officially announced that the next actor to be the Caped Crusader was Ben Affleck. Within 90 days of that announcement, rumors surfaced that a short-list of actresses were auditioning for the role of Wonder Woman. Early in December, it was confirmed that Gal Gadot had been cast as Diana of Themyscira aka Wonder Woman. Other rumors have hung around (thanks mainly to bloggers keeping them alive) that The Flash and even Martian Manhunter could possibly appear in the tentatively titled BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN in July 2015. While I don’t believe the rumors about The Flash or Martian Manhunter until actors for those roles are confirmed and cast, it’s fairly obvious, at least to me, what Warner Brothers is doing.
There has been no shortage of criticism from fans and bloggers alike when it comes to the DC Cinematic Universe. I fully admit that I’ve been very critical at times at the lack of movement when it comes to developing superhero films despite the mountain of intellectual property they are sitting on. The official announcement of the follow-up film to MAN OF STEEL, which seems more and more like a JUSTICE LEAGUE origin film, has not earned the studio any reprieve from criticism. Despite the studio having tentative plans since at least the late summer of 2012 of putting out a JUSTICE LEAGUE film in 2015, most criticism have focused on the appearance of rushing the film into production and not following the “Marvel Method” for establishing their shared cinematic universe. When it comes down to it, 99.9% of those who criticize WB’s current plan don’t actually know the full extent or true history of the development for this follow-up to MAN OF STEEL. All we can do is look at how WB’s method compares to Marvel’s. Let’s face it –they are the two most popular studios when it comes to the superhero film genre. Sony and Fox have had notable successes but not at the level of the “big two.”
As I stated previously, Marvel Studios is in the business of only making superhero films. It is their entire business model. The characters that they chose to use in their shared universe were relatively unknown among the general public. They needed to make individual origin stories not only to help build their universe but introduce/re-introduce those characters to mainstream movie-going audiences. Could anyone imagine if THE AVENGERS would have been the first film after IRON MAN? Mainstream audiences had basically just found out who Iron Man was. I don’t think $1.5 billion at the global box office would have been achievable.
There’s no doubt that Batman and Superman are near the top of the most popular fictional characters in the world list and have been for some time. There’s also no doubt that Wonder Woman is the most popular female superhero ever to grace the four color inks of comic book pages. While her comic book sales never really reach the top of the monthly charts, she’s always remained part of the public consciousness. It is the opinion of this writer that WB and DC have decided to let the names of their most popular characters do the initial legwork of building their new shared cinematic universe. Currently, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are all cast and guaranteed to appear in the follow-up to MAN OF STEEL. Other characters are rumored to appear as well, but nothing outside of WB/DC’s most popular three characters, aka The Trinity, has been confirmed.
If you have been paying attention at all to the press coverage surrounding BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN or whatever it will finally be called, you already know that it’s been quite extensive and speculative. People all around the world are anxiously awaiting every single piece of news that trickles out of the proverbial Fort Knox of the publicity department at WB. There is an enormous amount of hype around this film despite principal photography yet to officially begin. Granted, not every official piece of news that has come out has been met with open arms. We all know the ridiculous knee-jerk reaction to Ben Affleck’s casting as well as the less vocal but equally ridiculous reaction to Gal Gadot’s body image once she was announced as Wonder Woman. The bottom line is that all fans, passionate, hardcore, mainstream, and casual alike seem to be already invested in what’s going on with this movie. If Zack Snyder would have just announced a standalone sequel to MAN OF STEEL back in July at San Diego Comic-Con, it would have been welcomed but not necessarily earth-shattering news. Most fans and bloggers expected a sequel was in the works, and all signs at the time already pointed to that being a fact. Very few people, if anyone, were expecting the announcement we received.
At first, I was someone who admittedly was uneasy with how I felt about the thought of a MAN OF STEEL sequel being “hijacked” in favor of a team-up film. I felt that Snyder, Goyer, and Cavill deserved another chance to further this new Superman’s cinematic career. Part of me was hoping that in addition to a sequel to MAN OF STEEL being in the works that a Wonder Woman film and a Batman film would be put into production as well. After all, how else could they build their shared universe for the eventual JUSTICE LEAGUE films? Without realizing it, I basically wanted WB to copy what Marvel was doing. As a lifelong fan of these characters, is it really fair that I demand or even expect a studio to bow to my whims or ideas for how they should build their shared cinematic universe? Not really. At the end of the day, every single fan just wants to see quality movies. However, my uneasy feelings were predicated on the assumption that the studio, and not Snyder and Goyer, had no initial intention of putting Batman and Wonder Woman in their next film. However, there’s evidence to suggest that expanding the superhero roster in the next film was in the works before MAN OF STEEL even hit theaters. I don’t know about you guys, but doesn’t that sound exactly like what WB had been planning on all along? While the follow-up to MAN OF STEEL seems like it will have the majority of the focus on the initial meeting and relationship between Batman and Superman, Wonder Woman will also play a significant part. My guess to the size her part will be mostly in the third act resolution. From what I can tell about this film, I’m getting a significant IRON MAN 2 vibe. Let’s just hope this film is considerably better.
I do believe that WB has a plan for their superhero cinematic properties. Obviously, their plan is significantly different from Marvel’s. WB has always been slow to announce plans beyond the very next film. They take these properties one step at a time. Now, because they are not using the “Marvel Method,” does that mean they are doomed to fail with building their universe via BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN? No, it doesn’t. Does not using individual franchise films to build your shared cinematic universe put more pressure on this film? Absolutely, it does. It’s clear (to me, at least) that WB and DC are going to play their best hand with this film. While there will always be Batman and Superman films that can be made, they want to make this new shared universe work. They’re going all-in with BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN. They’re attempting to give fans something they’ve been demanding for years. They are taking the two most popular superheroes of all time and the most popular female superhero in history and finally putting them in a movie together. At this point in the superhero film genre, it doesn’t get bigger than that.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to see the future and find out if this enormous gamble will finally pay off for WB. I’m not sure how you can consider yourself a fan of the genre if you hope this film becomes a failure. While the fan in me is excited at the potential for this film, my concerns and worries won’t be completely answered until July 17, 2015. The film has the potential to further galvanize the superhero genre’s permanent presence in the cinematic landscape for decades to come. THE AVENGERS changed the landscape of the genre in 2012. BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN has the potential to do it again. While the “WB Method” has yet to be proven successful, I do wish them the most sincere luck. If Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman can’t do it, I’m not sure a shared cinematic universe will ever happen for fans of DC.
Good luck, Warner Brothers. The world will be watching.