2016, it’s safe to say, is the single most important year yet for the comic book movie. Marvel starts Phase 3 of its cinematic universe with Captain America: Civil War, and the DC Extended Universe finally gets its proper start in two short months with the already-controversial Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Needless to say, it’s understandable that fans on both sides of the comic divide are getting a little jittery – should either of these moves prove to be a misstep, it could hasten the decline of a market that is already becoming saturated. This is why we’ve been tackling the proposition of whether Marvel’s next phase will be a bitter disappointment or a resounding success, ushering in the golden age of comic adaptations, generally speaking.
Now it’s time to finish exploring Warner Bros.’s position with its possibly-lucrative DC Comics brand. “Might it be a failure?” is a good question – and one we’ve already explored – but perhaps an even better one is “Could it become the dominant shared cinematic universe?” As it turns out, it just might.
Let’s dig into Why DC Extended Universe Will Reign Supreme and see what we come up with.
This is where DC Comics really shines – its absolutely huge roster of characters, a byproduct of its 78-year publishing history. From Batman to Shazam, Superman to Green Arrow, Flash to the Green Lantern Corps, there’s a diversity in backgrounds, personalities, and perspectives on the shared cinematic world that they’re all going to inhabit soon enough.
Thanks to their longevity, the vast majority of these characters are already familiar to movie-going audiences to one degree or another. The Man of Steel and the Dark Knight have been on either the big or small screen since 1941, easily making them the best known and represented superheroes in history, but animated series have been keeping the likes of the Justice League and the Teen Titans (including Robin and Cyborg, two characters who are destined to pop up in the DC Extended Universe sooner or later) firmly ensconced in children’s minds, while the current crop of one-hour dramas, ranging from Arrow to the just-premiered Legends of Tomorrow, makes sure that everyone else is aware of DC Comics’ denizens.
A more fully formed world
When the Marvel Cinematic Universe first started up with the pairing of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in the summer of 2008, the nascent studio had no idea whether it would work or just what, exactly, its ongoing narrative would be; the inclusion of SHIELD Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Iron Man’s tag was literally a last-minute decision, and the fact that he would become the thread inexorably tugging all these various superheroes together into forming the Avengers was also a mostly spur-of-the-moment decision.
Warners, on the other hand, has had the past three years since Man of Steel’s release (a movie which, itself, was clearly designed to be an entry point into a wider cinematic world) to meticulously set up the overall narrative of the DCEU. The one-two punch of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad has been very carefully constructed to establish the roster of characters, whether they be superheroes or villains, and to build the narrative path directly to next year’s Justice League: Part One, which, in turn, will be the branching-off point for several other stories, characters, and themes.
Hitting the ground running
In these still-brand-new cinematic universes, the frequency of releases is important; the storytelling model has more to do with television, which operates on an annual, seasonal basis, and less to do with films, which have lengthy absences between installments. This is precisely why Marvel Studios has moved to a three-release-a-year model (well, starting next year), and why Disney has also opted to make Star Wars an annualized franchise, switching between the main sequel chapters and one-off, “anthology” side stories.
But it took both of these properties many years to slowly scale up to this point; by the time 2017 rolls around, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be in its tenth year of existence, and there’s been, obviously, Star Wars movies for the past 39 years, albeit with decade-long absences in between certain entries. For Warner Bros., however, the heavy lifting has all been taken care of already, and the infrastructure of audience expectation (and behavioral conditioning) has been laid – which is why it can hit the ground running, releasing two movies a year for the next four years. And this is only the beginning – the studio has already hinted that more films can be inserted around the already-announced schedule (such as a standalone Batman or sequels to the other solo outings) at any point moving forward.
It’s no secret that the entirety of the DC Extended Universe has been modeled on Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and it’s also been pretty obvious that such a decision has already proven to be a controversial one, given that film series’s somber tone, dark color palette, and socio-political thematic motifs (a description which can, almost word for word, be applied to Man of Steel).
But by going down the darker, grungier route, Warners is not only distinguishing itself from the lighter-hearted, more colorful Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s also opened certain narrative possibilities, such as having its films be creepy (we’re looking at you, Suicide Squad) or exploring the consequences of its fallible protagonists actions. This can pertain to the present, such as Superman’s (Henry Cavill) destruction of Metropolis (and Gotham?) at the end of Man of Steel, or in the past, with the Joker’s (Jared Leto) murdering of Jason Todd, the second Robin. As long as the studio takes pains not to make everything monochromatic, this could prove to be one of the factors that distinguishes the DCEU not only from Marvel, but from all the other would-be cinematic universes waiting in the wings.
Marvel Studios has proven that it has something of a knack for casting its various roles – from the heroes to their villains and all the supporting casts – bringing near-perfect embodiments of its various characters from the comics while also turning a washed up Robert Downey Jr. into the highest-paid actor currently in Hollywood. That’s no small feat.
But it did so at a handicap, with a studio president who was so intent on cutting costs and keeping production budgets lean, that a huge stable of top-tier talent seemed to be forever out of Marvel’s reach. All of this has changed within the past year, with Marvel Studios having been allowed to operate out from under the shadow of Marvel Entertainment proper, and we’ve started to already see what a difference this has made, with Cate Blanchett in talks to star in Thor: Ragnorak, for instance.
The DCEU, on the other hand, gets to perform on this level pretty much from day one, landing such A-listers as Ben Affleck (Batman), Will Smith (Deadshot), Jared Leto (the Joker), and Dwayne Johnson (Shazam). This immediately puts the DC world on an entirely different playing field, and it immediately opens it up to a much bigger swath of the movie-going public.
More narrative cohesion
For all the grousing that fans do online about Marvel Studios spending way too much time setting up the next film in the one they’re currently watching, there’s actually a huge emphasis placed within the Marvel Cinematic Universe to keep the casts, story beats, and character moments specific to one particular story or another; in this way, one can watch, say, the Iron Man trilogy and get one specific throughline for Tony Stark, from beginning to end, no matter how many more times the character may appear afterwards.
With the current lineup for this year and next, Warner Bros. seems to already be taking the opposite approach: Batman v Superman is the direct continuation of Man of Steel, while Justice League, Part I will be its own sequel (and with the quick pit-stops of Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman still adding fuel to that narrative fire). While it may not be until Captain America: Civil War that we see the assembled Avengers team in any of the solo Marvel films, Warners will be showing (nearly) all of the Justice League members practically from practically the get-go. This could not only add to the sense of immersion found in the shared universe, it could also make it easier for the average moviegoer to follow along (as long as he knows what the next film in the series is called, that is).
Comic book talent
It’s one thing to incorporate the comic book source material into these big-screen adaptations, something which Marvel Studios instituted in a major way and which Warner Bros. looks like it may one-up (as the inclusion of Jason Todd’s death demonstrates); it’s quite another to actually incorporate the comic book talent responsible for these indelible storylines.
Geoff Johns, one of the principal architects of the DC Comics Universe for the past decade (not to mention its chief creative officer since 2010), serves as executive producer on Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and has already been tapped to co-write the upcoming standalone Batman film, along with its director and star, Ben Affleck. (It’s not that surprising that Johns would be playing a growing influential role in the DCEU, as he’s already worked on such TV series as Justice League Unlimited, Smallville, Arrow, and The Flash.)
Marvel, on the other hand, initially convened an oversight committee consisting of personnel from both the film and comic worlds, but this entity has been largely gutted and moved more closely under the influence the film production sphere. Starting this year, Marvel Studios’s movies will have that much less of a connection to its wellspring than it ever has.
Yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe may have come first, and, yes, the DC Extended Universe might end up living under its shadow for, at least, the rest of this year, but there’s actually a huge benefit to having things be arranged this way: Marvel spilled a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears to lay out the interconnected cinematic groundwork – which Warner Bros. can now waltz right in and capitalize upon right from day one.
And, more than that, the studio can try to build upon its rival’s successes, attempting various variations on the theme that Marvel may now feel too nervous to try. WB was the first to conceive of not only a superhero face-off, but also a supervillain team-up, and it’s putting into effect a rather ambitious slate of future releases, focusing on such out-there characters (in terms of the wider pop cultural awareness, at least) as Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Shazam, and, arguably, Aquaman (Jason Momoa).
Most of all, Warners appears to be telling its overarching story nonlinearly, introducing, say, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) in her prime, before going off and telling spinoff films that hop back several decades to tell of her origins. It’s a narrative trick that is already rumored to repeat itself – albeit to a much smaller extent – with Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, and also, just maybe, with Batman, too.
Batman is, arguably, the purest cinematic gold there is in comic book currency, a brand that has 77 years behind it and a status – thanks to the likes of Christopher Nolan and Frank Miller (for all their controversies, as well) – of being on the cutting edge of cultural, social, political, and ethical commentary.
And what Warner Bros. is doing with the character now is something that has never before happened in his filmic existence: he’s getting the full brunt of his comic book counterpart’s mythology, including a fully rounded cast of characters including, we think, Robin, Nightwing, Oracle, and, just maybe, Red Hood. He will also face off against a fully developed rogue’s gallery, including The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who will all be properly introduced in Suicide Squad, with plenty more lined up for the following installments). All of this comes courtesy of the filmmakers’ decision to have the DCEU rendition of Bruce Wayne be older, hardened, and, perhaps, more extreme than they ever have before.
With a fresh take on one of Hollywood’s oldest icons – and the fact that WB is lacing all of the Batman characters all throughout the DCEU to date – it’s hard to see how DC’s shared universe doesn’t achieve at least some modicum of success.
If there’s one giant, overhanging Achilles heel for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it would almost certainly have to be its inability to generate either compelling or long-lived antagonists for its heroes to rally against. Man of Steel might appear to similarly fit this bill, given that General Zod (Michael Shannon) is introduced with much fanfare and then is summarily killed off, but the whole rest of the DC Extended Universe looks to rectify this situation for the next few years, if not for the whole rest of its existence.
Here’s the deal: Suicide Squad’s whole premise turns around a who’s who of baddies teaming together in order to take on the dirty tasks that the government doesn’t want to do. Given that they are, technically speaking, the protagonists of this film, and given that Warner Bros. is undoubtedly banking on spinning this into a franchise, two items right off the bat come into play: (1) the villains will have just as much depth and room for development as do, say, Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman; and (2) they’ll be sticking around in the narrative picture for quite some time.
And this doesn’t even get into those figures being introduced one movie earlier, in Batman v Superman – both Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) and Doomsday look primed to return for Justice League (and this is precisely what the rumors currently hold), and both have more than enough source material to work from to make them just as dynamic or interesting as Deadshot (Will Smith) and his Suicide Squad.
Have more reasons to add to the list? Feel like this one is just too far off the mark? Sound off in the comments below.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice will be in theaters on March 25th, 2016; Suicide Squad on August 5th, 2016; Wonder Woman – June 23rd, 2017; Justice League – November 17th, 2017; The Flash – March 23rd, 2018; Aquaman – July 27th, 2018; Shazam – April 5th, 2019; Justice League 2 – June 14th, 2019; Cyborg – April 3rd, 2020; Green Lantern – June 19th, 2020.
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