It’s November 2014. That’s six-and-a-half years since the final scene of Iron Man bravely announced Marvel‘s unprecedented plans to build a “Cinematic Universe”, and over two years since The Avengers fully delivered on that promise. Their universe is currently made up of ten films and one TV show, from seven different interconnected franchises, two of which were released earlier this year.
It’s November 2014. That’s at least five years since Warner Bros. first declared plans to build their own Cinematic Universe from their DC comic properties, and three years since Green Lantern completely failed to initiate it. Their universe is currently made up of one single film, released well over a year ago.
It’s November 2014, and both companies recently announced a slate of superhero films stretching into the foreseeable future, building up individual character franchises and clashing them together in massive team-up epics. Both companies have announced their intentions going forward – where they want their universes to go, and how they hope to get them there. All of it seems very ambitious and exciting and, most importantly, it finally seems like Warner Bros. and the DC universe are catching up with Marvel‘s long-held superhero monopoly. They’re finally implementing a long-term plan of their own.
…but I’m not buying it.
A large part of my scepticism simply comes from the fact that we’ve been here before. Warner Bros. must have announced plans to build a universe three separate times now. There was supposed to be a Justice League series running alongside the Dark Knight films (with a different Batman) that actually started casting, but that fell through. There was supposed to be a whole universe built out of Green Lantern, but that collapsed too. Warner Bros. are notoriously flaky when it comes to their DC properties.
But that’s unfair. This new announcement is different – for one thing, they’ve never announced more than one film at a time before. Now there’s a whole list of movies, stretching all the way to 2020. There’s clearly a pretty major plan in place, which is something they haven’t had before. Marvel‘s long-term plans have always been a major part of their success, so a similar plan for DC can only be a good thing, right?
But simply having a plan isn’t good enough. DC has had plans before, as we’ve seen. The difference, and the reason for Marvel‘s outrageous success, is their unwavering dedication to that plan. The most obvious example of this is The Incredible Hulk – their second film, and one which didn’t do very well for them. It would have been easy – especially in those early days, when Iron Man was their only established film character – to ignore that film and pretend it hadn’t happened. But The Incredible Hulk is still an in-continuity story which ties into The Avengers. Marvel always planned to have Hulk in their crossover film and, even when that character turned out to be unpopular on his own, they stuck to that plan and put the big green guy front and centre.
DC, meanwhile, brushed Green Lantern swiftly under the rug when it didn’t do well. They decided not to include Ryan Reynolds in their cinematic universe. And, worse, they decided to scrap the current plans for that universe and start all over again. Marvel, in the face of one unsuccessful film, trusted in their overall plan and stayed the course. DC, faced with a similar situation, flinched and second-guessed their plan – and doing so put them another two years behind.
The most telling thing about last month’s film announcements, in this respect, is the conspicuous lack of any solo Superman films from DC. The reason for this is the same as the lack of solo Hulk sequels from Marvel. Man of Steel made something in the region of seven-hundred-million dollars, which sounds like a lot but is actually much less than the last two Dark Knight films, and only about half of the one-point-four-billion that Warner predicted for it. This film made less than The Amazing Spider-Man! Man of Steel was a disappointment. An incredibly successful disappointment, but a disappointment nonetheless. Unlike Green Lantern, though, DC have at least stuck with Man of Steel as a launchpad for their universe – but the nature of that launchpad has drastically changed.
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
When they first released Man of Steel, Warner Bros. no doubt intended to make a Man of Steel 2. Indeed, they announced shortly after release that they were making a Man of Steel 2. But then the final box-office came up short and now, one year later, they’ve dropped Man of Steel from the roster. Superman’s still here, and his film’s still getting a sequel, but it no longer exists as an independent franchise – instead, his relaunch will now function as the first act of a four-part Justice League series.
They were always planning to make a Justice League film, as I mentioned above, but this particular iteration of it – the sequel to the sequel to Man of Steel – can’t possibly have existed for more than a year. The director, Zack Snyder, has said that the idea to put Batman in the Man of Steel sequel was definitely not the plan from the start – and we know that the decision to include Wonder Woman and Cyborg and seemingly every other DC hero ever came after that one. Batman v Superman (and, by extension, Man of Steel) became a Justice League prequel by accident, not by design. Regardless of whether there was a plan before Man of Steel, the current and announced plan didn’t exist until well afterwards – it’s less than a year old.
And that new plan has involved much more than just shuffling the order of the films around, though that’s the most obvious result. The entire approach to the universe has changed. From what we’ve heard, Batman v Superman seems to be about Batman wanting to bring Superman to justice for all the chaos and destruction he caused in Man of Steel. Aquaman too, and maybe the others. This is not something that’s grown organically from the writing process – this is a direct reaction to every critical complaint levelled at the first film. Batman v Superman has been designed not to continue the story of the original, but rather to address the (not inconsiderable) issues with that story.
It’s possible that this was always the plan, of course, and that those issues were intentionally set up to be dealt with later. But that seems pretty unlikely. When Man of Steel ends – with that desert scene telling us how he’s super-American and super-hot, followed by his smiling debut at the suspiciously-not-destroyed Daily Planet – the film has seemingly already forgotten about all the destruction and deaths, and it’s clearly assuming we have too. This ending has nothing on its mind except “yay, Superman!” It wasn’t until the public and critical backlash began that they changed direction and rewrote all their plans.
Meanwhile, Marvel continue to follow their original course. Their current endgame is Infinity War – a two-part Avengers story that will deal with the threat of a big purple bloke called Thanos. That threat was set up at the end of The Avengers two years ago, and it must have been planned even earlier, while the script was being developed. They’ve been planning Infinity War since at least 2011, in other words, and they haven’t budged from that plan, dropping an Infinity Stone into Thor 2 and Thanos himself into Guardians of the Galaxy. Interestingly enough, people didn’t like Thanos all that much in Guardians (he just seems like a thug in a chair) but Marvel haven’t let that affect their plans. Yet DC seem to have restructured their entire universe around the public reaction to their film.
Not that Marvel are entirely innocent of this, either. When Iron Man was a much bigger hit than expected (and The Incredible Hulk was an unexpected flop) a sequel to Iron Man was quickly rushed into production to cash in on that popularity. The resulting film is widely considered to be Marvel‘s weakest effort – a fun mess at best, a glorified advert at worst – and the company has wisely never altered their plans on the fly like this again.
And yet DC‘s entire cinematic universe seems to be based on this same short-sighted, reactionary thinking that gave us Iron Man 2. It’s not something that fills me with confidence. If Batman v Superman underperforms, or if Suicide Squad (the next film after that) is a surprise mega-hit, what’s to stop them from restructuring everything and changing all their plans? In fact Suicide Squad – a comic about a team of villains that work for the government – is such a strange choice for a film that it almost feels like it was chosen because it’s the sort of thing that could be dropped from continuity without affecting very much, and its placement immediately after Batman v Superman is a perfect buffer-zone to let the company rethink their plans. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but it feels an awful lot like Warner are hedging their bets. Again.
I know that all of this sounds a lot like a pro-Marvel, anti-DC bias. That’s because it totally is. But it’s a bias based on past experience. I’ve seen the haphazard way Warner Bros. treat their comic-book properties, and I’ve seen the single-minded focus that Marvel apply to theirs. I’ve been overjoyed by one company, and consistently let down by the other. Of course I’m biased!
It’s November 2014, and Marvel are so far ahead of DC that it’s not even funny. Marvel have had a plan since the beginning, and they’ve proven time and again that they’re willing to stick with it even when things go wrong- that’s how we got The Avengers in 2012, and it’s how we’ll get Infinity War in 2018. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. have been making this up as they go along, scrapping and rewriting their plans at the slightest hiccup. I see no reason to think that’ll change just because they’ve written down a list of titles.