We’re less than two weeks away before DC finally takes their biggest (and last) shot at a Cinematic Universe with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It’s been eight years since Marvel’s Iron Man fired the first volley that changed modern day film franchises for the … good? Bad? It’s going to be years before we can fully evaluate its impact. Yet did DC really need to wait that long to get us to Justice League and its own interconnected film universe? But before we can fully understand that question, let’s take a trip down memory lane to see how Marvel got to dominate and DC became an underdog.
Although the release of X-Men in 2000 marked the start of the superhero genre (some might argue Blade in 1999, but Blade was never a household name like Team Xavier is), which will easily define the cinematic landscape for an entire generation, 2008 is arguably its most important year. That was the time Iron Man (and The Incredible Hulk) showed the cross-over megafranchise potential of comic book movies and The Dark Knight showed the critical and storytelling potential of the superhero. If it weren’t for those two movies, the entire genre might be dead by now.
Before that, most superhero franchises had flopped or were essentially destroyed by lackluster final entries. Daredevil (2003)/Elektra (2005), X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Spider-Man 3 (2007), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) were among the many series that had crashed. If you think about it, by that point only Batman Begins (2005) had positioned itself with enough critical and fan support to survive, but was far from a financial juggernaut (“only” ~$375 million worldwide).
Back then, as is still true, most of these franchises were Marvel-based. This is probably due to the fact that so many of its properties had been spread to different studios. Although this is now seen as a hindrance as studios like Fox and (formerly) Sony prevented all our favorite characters from playing together, for the nascent genre it was probably a major virtue. It allowed Sony to make Spider-Man its own thing and Fox to establish X-Men without concerning itself with other franchises or crossovers. While limited with the characters/details they could use, the studios had an uncanny ability to experiment and make mistakes and learn what works in isolation. These eight years of trying and failing (or, to spin it more positively, this eight year learning process) is probably a major reason why Marvel Studios was able to achieve massive success right out of the gate with Iron Man.
At the same time DC was entirely under the banner of Warner Brothers and thus had the better possibility to develop its own universe first, yet failed to do so. Was it lack of foresight? Was it that WB was paying more attention to already proven franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings? Was it that superheroes seemed on the verge of dying? Were they still shell shocked over Batman and Robin, Steel, and the collapse of Superman Lives? Whatever the reason(s), the most curious thing is not that they failed to recognize the possibilities in having an entire world to play around in, but in how many of their heroes from all tiers they virtually ignored during this “Phase 1” of superhero movies, which I’ll define as 2000 – 2008. (And yes, I will be purposely leaving out TV attempts like Smallville and Birds of Prey, as well as later Phase episodic programming such has Arrow and The Flash.)
Several (although not many, comparatively speaking) minor DC properties tried to get film franchises, but these all failed from the word go. These included 2004’s Catwoman, who bore zero relation to the actual character; 2005’s Constantine, who bore zero relation to the actual character, and 2008’s The Spirit, who bore zero relation to the actual character, which is particularly disappointing for reasons I discussed in an article from 2014. As far as top characters go, we got Superman in the misstep Superman Returns (2006) and Batman in Batman Begins the year before. That’s it. And while Batman came out the best he’s looked in live action since 1989, Superman Returns only further tarnished the reputation of the Man of Steel by being a half-baked, quasi-sequel to a 35 year old movie with no real canon that turned the world’s greatest hero in a deadbeat father and stalker. (Though still a more respectable guy than his Man of Steel incarnation.)
Standing back in time and looking forwards into the future, could this version of Superman have been saved? Possibly. He was disliked, but not completely reviled (as other DC icons would later be, such as Green Lantern and, well, Superman). If DC really wanted to get started on a Cinematic Universe, it is conceivable that Brandon Routh’s Superman and Christian Bale’s Batman could exist in the same world. Both films were slower, broodier pieces, and that incarnation of Superman never seemed as ridiculously powerful as his Cavill counterpart would be. Tonally, the two films were close enough that it could have conceivably worked – though obviously Bale would have obliterated Routh acting-wise.
But then came The Dark Knight, and that changed everything. It grossed over $1 billion worldwide. It won an Oscar for acting … in a superhero film. It allowed The Joker to become a lazy Halloween costume that people are still using to this day. With this sequel, writer-director Christopher Nolan received genuine commercial and critical leverage, and if he didn’t want to play into a Justice League movie, he wasn’t going to play into a Justice League movie … and he clearly didn’t want to play into a Justice League movie.
Yet can anyone really fault him? Nolan is one of the few studio-backed auteurs operating today, and this inherent quality of his enabled The Dark Knight Saga to rise above the rest of the pack…while also keeping it from being a team player. He clearly wanted to use his trilogy to tell one story – not the story of Batman, but the story of Bruce Wayne. It’s a story rarely told, even in the countless Earths that popular the DC Universe – how Bruce Wayne came to terms with his parents death and no longer felt the need to be The Batman. But in doing so, the possibility of a Justice League film was put off nearly a decade. You can’t do Justice League without Batman and after getting used to the idea of an interconnected universe through Marvel, it would be odd having DC trying to run two of them concurrently in multiplexes.
Was the sacrifice worth it? In my opinion, yes. The ability of one of the best filmmakers working today to actually have a vision and see it through to fruition is a positive thing. Sure The Dark Knight Rises had many problems, but it didn’t feel like a placeholder like the two Iron Man sequels or some of the other Marvel films (including Avengers: Age of Ultron). Several characters (not just Bruce Wayne) had genuine emotional journeys and even Gotham City had its own arc. This would all be lost if the biggest concern was how to keep everyone in practically the same place for the next set of movies. Moreover, with every big budget franchise being held hostage by the demands of never ending interconnected universes, it’s probably the last time this will ever happen. Now sure, continuous stories that run for decades kind of define the nature of comic books, but it’s nice that there will be at least one Limited Series that got to end on its own terms rather than being forced out like Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man.
Of course, DC wasn’t going to take Nolan’s (presumed) demands lying down, especially after realizing they put all their chips on one film while Marvel had diversified magnificently. It planted the first seeds for a megafranchise between the two last Dark Knight movies with Green Lantern in 2011. The Ryan Reynolds-starrer tried for Iron Man and ended up as Fantastic Four (the Alba one, not the Mara one). The film was colorful and lively (no pun intended – it co-starred Blake Lively) and actually made (clumsy) strides towards establishing a universe (even including Amanda Waller, a fair substitute for Nick Fury as the character who could thread all the heroes and villains together), but it was clearly a cynical and lazy attempt to be a megafranchise starter. Much like The Amazing Spider-Man, Green Lantern jumped into frame believing that it inherited that right without actually earning it, and audiences responded in kind.
Meanwhile, DC tried to give some of its lesser-tiered characters a shot at big screen glory – to varying degrees of failure. It completely botched Jonah Hex in 2010. Not only is he an otherwise interesting character, but the film had a cinematic dream cast which included Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Michael Fassbender, and Michael Shannon. How do you ruin that? Watchmen (2009) is still a bit of an outlier, not just because it’s rated R and lacking in franchise potential, but because I still rank it among the best comic book adaptations of all time due to it appreciating the source material and being stylistically incredible. Regardless of one’s feelings towards that movie, it was considered a disappointment due to poor box office. And again, that’s it. Still, a shocking lack of quantity, even if one includes the underrated mercenary team film The Losers, which was based on a Vertigo (DC subsidiary) title but not a superhero movie. (It also starred Idris Elba, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, and Zoe Saldana, all of whom went onto much greater success within the genre.)
So here we are in 2012, a dozen years after Bryan Singer first let the mutants take control. Marvel gives us The Avengers, whose astronomical success proves that the gambit they started 4 years ago has paid off remarkably and set that studio up for the next who knows how many years with franchises and franchises upon franchises. Meanwhile, The Dark Knight Rises has put a nail in the coffin of all of DC’s cinematic achievements.
Which brings us to 2013. While Marvel is still basking in the glow of its team up film, DC has to start completely fresh with Man of Steel and Man of Steel alone (even Tony Stark got to be paired with the Edward Norton The Incredible Hulk reboot). A still highly divisive, but necessary, last-chance film, the impact of which (as well as the arguably panicked decision to bring Batman and Wonder Woman into the sequel), I will evaluate next week.