The distinguished competition

At the point when I am writing this in 2015, the world is heading towards Peak Superhero. Both Marvel and DC, both owned by major media conglomerates, are developing movie universes to match the ones they have built on paper. Both plan to release many comic book films over the next few years; Marvel of course having had a considerable head start. But, considering history and the upcoming slate, is this going to work out for either of them?

(Warning: This piece is quite long, has a few minor spoilers which you probably know anyway, but does contains ranting about The Dark Knight Rises. So read it at your own risk…)


Since they started making movies by themselves with Iron Man, Marvel have been organically growing their Cinematic Universe. They are now releasing a whole lot of movies, all of which are successful: just over the last year, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man have surprised with unpromising concepts by being witty and fun (although Age of Ultron was a bit disappointing). Especially considering its troubled development, I was not expecting Ant-Man to be anywhere near as utterly enjoyable and carefree. Even the films that don’t work, like Iron Man 2, are far superior to most of the pre-Marvel Studios adaptations (the Raimi Spider-Man and Singer X-Men excepted).

Elsewhere, Fant4stic has killed Fox’s hopes of another comics franchise stone dead (and it doesn’t help that it was bitterly disappointing and, since The Incredibles exists, completely unnecessary), and so all they have on their upcoming slate is the interesting looking X-Men Apocalypse and, of all things, Deadpool. So we can consider them out of the Marvel game for the most part.

Marvel of course has only recently become part of a major movie studio and a money-making machine, but their movie style has really been iterations on the formula defined by Blade: character first, high on fun, direct editorial involvement. (It’s notable that their biggest failures on screen, such as Elektra, have had the least involvement from Marvel editorial.) DC has been owned by the same people as Warner Bros. since the late 60s, but seem still to be unsure about how to make superhero movies work. They have been going through any number of different approaches to their material, trying to make one of them stick, but it almost never does.

The screenwriter and novelist William Goldman coined one of the great Hollywood phrases in his excellent memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade: “nobody knows anything”. And they don’t: no-one in Hollywood actually knows if anything is going to succeed because public reception is so chaotic, so all they can do is try what they think might based on their own prejudices and poor historical analysis. This, of course, applies extremely well to Warner’s adaptations of DC Comics material.

When it does work, they don’t know how to cope with it. Superman and Superman II were filmed at the same time from simultaneously developed screenplays, and all the various attempts to recapture what worked in the sequels failed because no-one really knew how it worked and just cast Richard Pryor instead. And the less said about Golan/Globus and their Milton Keynes obsession, the better. Once Superman was exhausted, of course, they then swapped over to his darker, human flip side and made a staggering amount of money.

Tim Burton’s Batman, whilst lauded at the time, feels incredibly uneven now: Batman Returns is a complete mess of a film where Tim Burton’s direction and visual sense, Danny Elfman’s score, and Michelle Pfeiffer’s still definitive Catwoman fail to outweigh the fact that it is a Batman film where Batman’s role is almost totally superfluous. Oddly, Joel Schumacher’s Batman feels like a combination of an attempt to continue the Burton Batman and Schumacher wanting to ramp up the silliness to Adam West levels; while bits of Batman Forever do still work (and I emphasise bits), not even a good Eliot Goldenthal score can save Batman and Robin, which wastes far too many good villains on a confused and meaningless series of unfunny comedy sketches and badly placed ass shots.

Instead of moving onto something else, as they had done with Superman, Warner made a lot of different attempts to restart Batman after this cratering, some more interesting than others. There were a few attempts at doing Batman vs. Superman at this time, showing that when ideas get stuck in Hollywood’s brain they never really go away; originally written by Andrew Kevin Walker (Seven) and then rewritten heavily by Akiva Goldsman (Batman and Robin), the screenplay leaked to the Internet a while back and it’s not very good.

One of the weirdest of these attempts at Batman is a Frank Miller screenplay “based on” his Year One comics run that was intended for Darren Aronofsky to direct, at a point where he was hot off Requiem for a Dream. Yes, really: it has a temporarily homeless Bruce Wayne, “Little Al” as a car mechanic mentor, ultraviolence, and a black Selina Kyle (and you can tell Miller wrote it because, like the worst decision in the actual Year One, she is written as a smartass thieving prostitute). It’s not good, but it’s different; and with the always interesting Aronofsky directing it may well have been still worth a watch.

Aronofsky was the first director to try for Christian Bale, and while he left the project soon after (as seems to be the case with all his big name work: this, his RoboCop remake, The Wolverine et al) this proved to be the one thing that stuck. And Batman Begins really does work: well directed, well lit, brilliantly structured, utterly astonishing sound design, one of the better Hans Zimmer scores (Christopher Nolan seems to get Zimmer’s best work these days) and good acting almost all round. It takes the parts that work from Year One but avoids Miller’s hard-boiled vigilante fetishism. I suspect with Begins Warner just gave up and let everyone involved get on with it, and for once it worked.

The Dark Knight, when looked back at now, is where the Nolan Batman began to fall apart: the move to a more “realistic” city is a mistake, although at least here it’s still the more unusual Chicago, and the plot doesn’t quite hold out (especially towards the end). It’s held together by Heath Ledger’s still astonishing performance, which smooths out a lot of the other problems; the biggest problem with The Dark Knight Rises, excepting the plot holes the size of that pit that Bruce gets dumped in, is that Tom Hardy’s attempt to act is hidden behind his Bane costume and terrible sound mixing so the only thing in it that actually works is his final scene. And because they actually use New York as Gotham, it doesn’t even look the same as the other films – an utterly bewildering choice.

Analysing The Dark Knight Rises, you can only imagine that the Nolans had to do Batman again, had some idea of themes they wanted to do (Occupy, the law vs. vigilantism, cycles of violence) and comic book runs they were to be inspired by (No Man’s Land), but had to wing it with the plot and didn’t have full trust in their material.

Which is why Warner have had to reboot it again, rather than building from what they had like Marvel. Imagine Marvel panicking and rebooting the MCU from scratch after Iron Man 2 and Thor: films that are creative, but not financial failures a bit like DKR, but not anywhere near as bad. Would they even have tried something like Guardians after that?

Nevertheless, it’s no accident that now this has happened the creative team has tried to recapture what made Batman Begins work.

Man of Steel, meant to be the first brick in the new DC cinematic universe, is effectively the same template applied to Superman. While it doesn’t quite fit Supes, and I do wish that Zach Snyder had been allowed to do his usual visual style rather than a straight imitation of the way that Christopher Nolan does things, what does work is often quite affecting and well done – Clark Kent in general, especially the relationship with his adoptive mother in the present day timeline, and some of the iconography.

(In the what-could-have-been department, the Kevin Smith screenplay for Superman Lives could also have worked before Jon Peters started mucking about with it. Although once Superman “dies” it gets a bit dodgy and uninvolving, this is definitely the sort of thing that could have been fixed in rewrites and is still less convoluted than the actual Death and Return of Superman comics run. Late 90s Tim Burton still wouldn’t be the right director though, but at least we’d have got a good Danny Elfman score and some more Nic Cage memes.)

But Man of Steel is just the start. Upcoming, we have Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, followed by Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman, Justice League, a solo Batman film and more; which will, they hope, result in a DC Cinematic Universe in one go similar to the one that Marvel’s built step by step, character by character. Or BvS and Suicide Squad may end up damp squibbing and DC will be left at square one again.

Despite my general negativity towards the current DC movie strategy, there are some positive signs coming out of both BvS (despite its abysmal title) and Suicide Squad. Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor is a highly inspired choice if you want to do Luthor as icy corporate evil; as The Social Network shows, this is what Eisenberg does well. I have no problem with the idea of Ben Affleck doing Batman – he was by no means the biggest problem with Daredevil – and at least he’ll probably nail Bruce Wayne. Suicide Squad‘s attempt to do Dirty Dozen with Harley Quinn and company may even be appealing; David Ayer can direct action, and the only real flaw in the Jared Leto Joker plan is that way on-the-nose “Damaged” tattoo. Plus he’s really quite creepy in what little we’ve seen so far.

But Warner can’t seem to stop with making right decisions, and want to keep making wrong ones too. We know that BvS will feature appearances by Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and (seriously) Aquaman. Stuffing your movie with sudden new characters with no time to develop them has always been a way in which comic book movies fail; Marvel succeeded with this by simply introducing them slowly over time, but Warner don’t feel like they have time.

Why is this the case?

Steven Spielberg has just received a whole bunch of criticism from geek sites for comparing superhero movies to Westerns; a once popular genre fallen into ruin. He may well be right, and if he is that might explain Warner’s motives: they want to get in before the crash. They want easy money with easy effort, but at the same time they know that because Green Lantern failed there must be something special that Marvel do to make their own films succeed; and as nobody knows anything, they can’t work out why.

The thing is, however, one part of them may well know: Warner’s TV division. It has been growing various less well known DC heroes, starting with Green Arrow and then expanding into the Flash, into a working single universe of different, interlinking TV shows. In fact, they have done first what Marvel is trying for with their upcoming Netflix shows (Daredevil linking into Jessica Jones into Luke Cage into Iron Fist into The Defenders.)

But it won’t be the same as the one in the movies – in fact, they are about to cast a completely different Flash for the cinema. Warner may well be doing this because they want to try more risks on TV (or, more probably, save money), but Marvel’s universe is the same whether on TV or on the big screen and they link together constantly. After a superhero crash, people might not go and see something new because they’re burned out on new heroes, but they might well still go and see Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 because they liked the first one. That’s what Marvel are trying for, and with DC’s strategy they might well not get there.

But the thing of it is that Marvel have some of the same problems. What they do have is people who have so far been very successful, even when things look like they’re going wrong. There is some point where their luck will run out and they’ll end up making a failure; the closest so far having been the Ed Norton Hulk, now quietly retconned out of the MCU in favour of the superior Mark Ruffalo version.

The lack of reception for Agent Carter (despite its quality) is worrying. No-one knows what they’re up to with Captain America: Civil War, other than it won’t be a direct adaptation of Mark Millar’s book and it’s got an awful lot of heroes in it. Their next original film is Doctor Strange, being made by the director of Sinister, written by the guy responsible for Prometheus and starring the inevitable Benedict Cumberbatch. (Still, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One.)

Guardians 2 is 2017. So is Marvel’s production of Spider-Man, the third new version of Spidey in fifteen years – although considering how terrible Amazing Spider-Man 2 was, a highly necessary intervention if Sony want to keep making Spider-Man films that anyone wants to watch. This is followed by yet another Thor sequel. And then in 2018 Marvel split the third Avengers film into two, sandwiched around Black Panther and Captain Marvel.

And any one of these things could fail, and even if they don’t they add to the glut on the market. This is what Warner and DC are entering, a film market where there will already be a different superhero movie for almost every month of the year. They will have to be certain of what they are making, high on quality, and increase their consistency to avoid the crash.

But, of course, nobody knows anything – not even me.

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