Learn From Marvel
It may seem a bit harsh to describe Marvel’s ‘Phase One’ films as essentially a lead-up to The Avengers, but given the use of ‘Phase One’ internally at the company, it seems an accurate categorization – and it showed. Both Thor (2011) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) followed similar structures, and formed a common idea of what ‘a Marvel movie’ meant. With similar tone, similar humor, and even shared characters, the studio knew that audiences needed more than just origin stories to keep them interested – they needed to know they were building to something.
Iron Man 2 (2010) acted most heavily as a prologue to The Avengers (to the chagrin of many fans and critics), Captain America ended with Steve Rogers answering S.H.I.E.L.D.’s call to leadership, and Thor’s main antagonist soon returned as the villain of ‘Phase One.’ Once the studio had explained to the world why they should care about these heroes – since most didn’t know about their powers or morality – they could get to the heroes actually being the heroes they’re famous for – and audiences arrived in droves.
That’s the biggest benefit of moving forward with Justice League, either following on the heels of Man of Steel or after a sequel: audiences want their heroes to be heroes, and who can blame them? But if Justice League gives audiences what they desire – Batman, Flash, Wonder Woman and Superman as the superheroes they know them to be – can they really understand why they should care for them without formal introductions?
There’s no question that audiences would make a Justice League film a billion-dollar proposition, and we’d argue that the League members embodying archetypes – and sporting powers that embody each of their personalities – wouldn’t be hampered with the same challenges Marvel faced. In fact, people have proven that they’re somewhat fond of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman already.
With the origin stories out of the way, The Avengers allowed writer/director Joss Whedon to throw the heroes together, bringing out each other’s weaknesses and proving their strength through teamwork. Now that the origin stories are out of the way, and audiences understand what makes these characters differ from one another in a fight, ‘Phase Two’ is taking them in completely different directions. Thor: The Dark World (2013) looks to be a Viking adventure with gritty violence and magical themes. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) claims to be a “political thriller.” Iron Man 3 explored the ways that Tony Stark was forever changed by facing a threat he couldn’t defeat alone (*cough*Superman*cough), and fans are already crying for a standalone Hulk franchise, despite his role in the film being rather limited.
The Avengers was built on the foundations of the origin stories, yet with higher review scores and box office numbers, more audiences came to see the teamup than the lead-ins, and left happier. Now that Man of Steel got the reboot right – and massively changed the fiction movie fans were familiar with – why ignore the message sent loud and clear? The simple truth: The Avengers was the payoff people were hoping for, and (Marvel hopes) convinced more fans to follow the heroes down different paths, telling unique stories based on their own qualities.
With that in mind, it seems foolish to claim that either a) audiences wouldn’t happily see Justice League without origin stories for heroes they either already know, or haven’t sought out thus far, or b) that their interest in the characters post-team-up would depend on individual origin stories, not the promise they showed along one another.
If comic book fans are already crying for Mark Ruffalo to be given a new Hulk series – a character already played by two different actors, at least one of which was a complete failure – then we’d put our money on a well-executed Flash or Wonder Woman in Justice League garnering the same support. Expose the characters to more audiences than would ever be interested in a single origin story – as evidenced by Marvel’s ‘Phase One’ box office numbers – and take each in their own direction with fans in tow, not demanding they buy in with every new solo film.
Again, we think of Aquaman most of all in this regard. Although there is reason to believe that Aquaman could work as DC’s next epic event film, featuring a well-written, well-cast Arthur Curry fighting alongside Superman would attract more viewers to a grossly under-appreciated hero. Once he’s shown who he is to the larger world, let the writer/director of the Aquaman movie explore his origins in greater detail. Besides offering a plot that isn’t simply ‘another origin story, this method of exploring a character is also much closer to the way people familiarize themselves with anything, or anyone in the real world.
The same logic applies for Flash, Wonder Woman, and a possibly re-cast Green Lantern. The mere fact that the story and approach to Marvel’s post-Avengers films is generating more interest than those that preceded it proves the point: thus far, origin stories simply aren’t as bankable from a studio perspective, and from a comic standpoint, aren’t the most interesting.