It's taken DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. a few years to get a plan in place, but beginning with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice the studio will be on its way to forming a shared superhero movie universe of its own to rival that of Marvel. As if a film sporting DC's 'Big Three' wasn't enough, the signed cast for second-tier adaptation Suicide Squad is the first official shot across their competition's bow. But the two studios' plans are showing their differences already.
Some may feel that Marvel's strategy for launching superhero franchises and a shared universe at once is the only way that makes sense - but those overseeing WB's slate of DC films aren't among them. Only time will tell which route (if any) proves more successful, but a closer look shows that DC and WB's thinking isn't just different; it may succeed in avoiding the biggest problem Marvel is only now encountering.
Marvel's Plan: One Step At A Time
The sprawling Marvel universe may have begun with Iron Man (2008), but the movie's post-credits scene (now mandatory for the studio) showed the studio's hand quite clearly. With Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) publicly revealed as the armored crime-fighter known as Iron Man, he arrived home to find Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) all too eager to inform Stark that he was being recruited for the 'Avenger Initiative' (and was far from the only 'superhero' around).
Fans squealed in their seats knowing what casual movie-goers soon would: that Stark had taken his first step into a much larger world (apparently run behind the scenes by the government organization S.H.I.E.L.D.) and that Marvel intended to bring the rest of the Avengers to the big screen behind him. And when Stark made an unheard of appearance in the post-credits scene of The Incredible Hulk (2008) just months later, the notion of a 'shared universe' solidified - with Tony Stark leading the charge.
As Iron Man is still considered by many to be the best of Marvel's films, Iron Man 2 didn't go over quite as smoothly. Again, Stark was faced with his own mortality, squabbled with friends, and tackled another armor-clad enemy. But S.H.I.E.L.D. no longer operated in secret, reminding Stark (and the audience) that his problems were nowhere near as grand as he assumed. After all, he was bound for much... greater things.
With an Avengers prequel as an Iron Man sequel, the addition of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) showed how little Stark knew about the forces at work (S.H.I.E.L.D. even curing Tony's near-fatal poisoning with a shrug), and the message became clear for audiences: they were only being shown half the story.
The post-credits scene heralded the arrival of Thor (2011), which further established S.H.I.E.L.D. as the real connective tissue of Marvel's Cinematic Universe, monitoring Earth's mightiest heroes for some unknown purpose (while giving a first look at Hawkeye and a 'cosmic cube').
At the time, it seemed a brilliant strategy to make even second-tier Marvel heroes certified blockbuster names. Thor and Captain America ('The First Avenger') weren't even as well-known as the Hulk, but linking them to the wildly successful Iron Man - and S.H.I.E.L.D. claiming them to be just as important - made their films essential viewing.
When The First Avenger ended by revealing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to be alive and well in the present day - and another victim of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s deception - the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. Now, the challenge was simply to unite The Avengers for whatever threat S.H.I.E.L.D. had collected them. In other words...
The Team-Up: What It Was All Building Toward
The culmination of Marvel's plan came in The Avengers: Earth's best defenders had been brought together under S.H.I.E.L.D.'s guidance due to their skills or past experiences. Cap was all too familiar with the Cosmic Cube (a.k.a. the Tesseract) being used to threaten Earth; Thor's own brother was leading the invading forces; Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (now Mark Ruffalo) both had the makings of mighty soldiers, but were apprehensive until the fight became a personal one.
For comic book fans, the appeal of the team-up was obvious, as it finally gave a chance for each member of the classic Avengers team to show their own effectiveness alongside their super-friends. And again, placing these characters physically alongside Marvel's most bankable stars drove home the fact that they were each - in the eyes of the studio, at least - on equal footing.
For casual audiences, the draw was just as potent. Not only was there the chance to now see FOUR superheroes leave their respective franchises and join forces, but The Avengers was quite literally the final act of every hero's story (as Marvel made clear in their array of post-credits stingers). Each hero was given their moment in the spotlight - for both action and character development - facing off against stronger opposition than they tended to encounter on their own.
In the end, the Avengers saved the day, proving that Nick Fury had been right all along: these heroes really were meant for something greater than themselves. Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, and their S.H.I.E.L.D. colleagues all came to view their place in the world differently, forging friendships (and friendly rivalries) in the process. And audiences weren't disappointed.