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What DC Can Learn From Marvel

After watching the Marvel special Assembling a Universe, I got to thinking about all of the different things Marvel has done over the last few years to get us to this point — where we expect the superhero movies to be connected, to be of a piece. Even to the point where, despite the rights issues, people expect characters like Spider-Man to show up with the Avengers. Because the audience has been taught it all goes together.

And then I look at the DC universe — or universes, maybe — because we really don’t know what they have planned yet. Is Man of Steel part of the same universe as Arrow and Flash? What about Gotham and Constantine? How about iZombie? Or the rumored Young Justice?

It’s easy to say that DC and Warner Bros. look to be playing catch-up, because from the outside looking in, they are. They had Joss Whedon and a Wonder Woman script, and passed. They had a Justice League project with a cast and a director, and it got cancelled (maybe due to the writers strike? Among other things…) They had a pretty good success with Superman Returns, and then Batman Begins happened and it all went back to square one — a very dark and gritty square one.

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As a fan of DC, I’ve always wanted to see what could be done with a shared universe, and while so many people see May 6, 2016 as a showdown date, I like to think it’s going to be a blockbuster weekend that bolsters superhero movies in general. Because the fans who watch Captain America 3 will also be the fans who watch Batman vs. Superman. It’s a win-win for the entire genre.

But there’s still lingering doubt over whether the Man of Steel sequel has the moxie to advance the DC Cinematic Universe to Justice League and beyond. Mixed reactions to the tone of the first movie, combined with dissatisfaction at the ending — not to mention the fact that while it did really well at the box office, it was beaten by The Hunger Games — has many wondering if the addition of Batman to the sequel is the only way Warners knows how to make the picture attractive enough to fill seats. Especially since Man of Steel was DC/WB’s second attempt at a movie universe after Green Lantern.


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Personally, I would love to see a well-executed, well-told series of stories set in the DC Cinematic Universe — a cohesive narrative that ties in Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Huntress, Green Arrow, Black Canary, Constantine, the Teen Titans, and maybe even the New Gods all together. So with that in mind, I thought I’d share a few suggestions on how DC can take a page from Marvel’s playbook and actually work with a model that’s been proven to succeed.

1. Get your own studio

Probably the smartest thing Marvel has done — get the financing and make the movies. It’s straight up George Lucas School of Filmmaking. When you control the money, you control the project. Having the productions in-house means the integrity of the characters has a better chance of surviving the transition to celluloid. Fans need only look at Spider-Man 3 to see what happens when the wrong people are making the decisions.

With Marvel controlling their own Cinematic Universe, not only do they have the ability to tell the stories they want to tell, but they also have the pressure to succeed and tell stories that resonate with audiences. The buck stops with them, not with another studio. And even with Disney ownership, Marvel Studios seems to be operating as its own thing, with little (if any) creative interference from the Mouse House.

DC Entertainment could do this very thing — create DC Studios to crank out the movies and television shows, folding in the various divisions of Warner Bros. that already do this. Putting it all in one place and making it a DC Comics responsibility will serve to remind people that these are comic book movies, not high art. And for the moment, we’ll forgo any discussion about the New 52 or the quality concerns…

Note that when you look at all the merchandising around DC Comics characters, you still see the classic designs as much or more than the New 52 set. That may change over time, but it seems to indicate that someone over at DC recognizes there’s still value to the Silver Age and Post-Crisis universes. And one could hope that someone — maybe Geoff Johns, maybe Paul Levitz — would speak up and say “Hey, we need to make this kind of superhero movie.”

2. Get your own Kevin Feige

And his name is Bruce Timm. Paul Levitz would be another possibility, but Timm has a proven track record, as does Paul Dini. Any or all of them would be good candidates to head the studio. I lean towards Timm first because he gave us so many quality stories with the animated adventures of Batman, Superman, and the Justice League for so many years. From the very beginning, Batman: The Animated Series was the show that gave us a Batman to satisfy everyone’s sensibilities. It was noir, camp, drama, high-concept, all mixed together in one high-quality motion picture every episode. And with Superman, Timm demonstrated an understanding of the difference in tone that exists between the Big Blue Boy Scout and the Caped Crusader. Especially when they team up, you can always see the differences. And that made them better characters.

As we’ve discussed on H2O, there must be a reason why Bruce Timm is no longer working on DC animated projects, even though we’re told he’s working on a new animated Justice League project, although that project seems to be very ethereal at the moment (and has been for quite some time). James Tucker is the new guy, and it’s clear from his projects, that the animated adventures are  going “dark and gritty” and lining up with New 52 continuity, much to the detriment of the stories. Was Timm pushed out because he didn’t want to play in the New 52 sandbox? Or did he leave on his own?

Many fans have said, for a number of years, that the animated guys — Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Andrea Romano — should be given a shot running the live-action projects, because they get it. They understand these characters, and that’s who you need in charge. Someone who embraces these characters and understands them down to the core.

3. Embrace the comic book

In every conversation we’ve had here at SciFi4Me, it’s come up. Marvel makes comic book movies, while WB makes movies based on comic books. Christopher Nolan made a great trilogy with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises, but they weren’t comic book movies. Batman Begins could very easily have been a Charles Bronson movie from the 1970s, with a ski mask in place of the bat ears.

Marvel, on the other hand, is about to deliver a talking raccoon. And a talking tree. In the same movie with blue aliens. This, after we’ve seen Norse gods, Jekyll & Hyde, and a guy wearing a mechanical suit. They’ve fully accepted — even played up — the notion that this is all make-believe, fairy tales for the grown-ups, and it doesn’t all have to be dark and gritty and grim and realistic. It just has to be believable. It has to work within the confines of its own story universe logic. And people are responding to that worldwide. Not only at the box office, but with merchandising sales as well. Where WB seems to be making everything with the goal of selling an action figure, Marvel is taking the (correct) path of telling a good story first and letting the sales aspect and “product” mentality come in somewhere afterwards.

4. Share the universe

Was it a big risk to put Nick Fury in Iron Man? Tony Stark in The Incredible Hulk? Maybe. But Marvel could afford to roll the dice at that point, and it’s paid off quite handsomely for them. And it’s also proven that a shared universe is not a risk. It’s a lesson both Sony and Fox are taking to heart, which only makes it seem more confusing that WB/DC would refuse to operate this way. Now, they could spin it out as wanting to offer multiple story universes like we have with 52 and the existence of more than one universe in the comics, but they’re not playing it that way. They’re not even (to my knowledge) acknowledging one way or the other whether or not their shows and movies co-exist. And that’s the new gamble now, because the success of the shared Marvel universes demonstrate that fans are willing (some would say demanding) to have movies and television programs that all tie together, because Marvel just proved it can be done. And it opens up so many more story possibilities.

We even see this with franchises like Star Wars, which is also getting some canon review in the wake of Disney’s announcement of the Story Group going through all the material to see what stays and what goes. Meaning there are likely elements of the Extended Universe that could become official, making the books and other media part of the “shared universe” perspective of doing business at the box office.

DC needs to decide to fish or cut bait. Either all of these shows are connected, or they’re not. But someone needs to make up his mind and tell the rest of us.

5. Have a plan

Yes, Marvel says the idea of putting Nick Fury in Iron Man was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but I’m not buying that one hundred percent. And now there’s no question that Feige and Whedon have got a strategy that takes the MCU well past the year 2020.

DC? “Let’s see how Man of Steel does first…” is not the best marketing move you can make. Announcing that your entire strategy is on hold pending the success (or failure) of the movie starring the company’s most visible character doesn’t leave you a whole lot of room to maneuver later. And if Man of Steel had gone badly (some say it did, but we’re talking box office numbers here), it wouldn’t have mattered what anyone thought, we would be getting Batman. Forever.

Of course, this is the same company that took a year and a half to plan the New 52 reboot, when the last one took four years to plan (Crisis on Infinite Earths), twelve months to execute, and over a decade to correct (every other Crisis after that), so it’s no surprise that they would be “plan challenged”.

6. Take chances with casting

Stan Lee thought Robert Downey, Jr. might not have been the best choice to play Tony Stark, but now can’t see anyone else in the role. Chris Evans? Didn’t he just play Johnny Storm, and you want him to play the down home “aw, shucks” Steve Rogers? Chris Pratt? Paul Rudd? Oh, wait. You got Anthony Hopkins? Glenn Close? Michael Douglas? (who doesn’t want to see those two in a scene somehow?) Robert Redford opposite Captain America? Have we dropped into The Twilight Zone?

No. Not only does Marvel obviously have fun making these movies, but they’re doing it in a way that attracts top-shelf talent. Gwyneth Paltrow signed on as Pepper because it was a chance to work with Downey and director Jon Favreau.

Speaking of the directors — Kenneth Branagh. Favreau. Alan Taylor. James Gunn. Not your regular list of Roger Corman Stable Staff that were doing it before it was cool.  These movies have legitimized the genre movie — at least as far as superhero movies go. The Academy still thumbs their collective noses at these pictures, but Marvel movies have proven you can put good actors in front of a good director with a good script and you have an excellent movie with rip-roaring box office numbers. Not just once. Once would have been a fluke, and if The Avengers hadn’t been as successful as it was, we’d all be doing a post-mortem on what went wrong with the plan. But they haven’t missed a step yet.

Johnny Depp as Doctor Strange? Personally, I don’t see it. But the fact that it’s even a serious possibility at this point shows how far the superhero movie has come since Tim Burton’s Batman. Katee Sackhoff as Linda Danvers? Terry Crews as Luke Cage?

Yes, Man of Steel 2 is giving us Jeremy Irons and Ben Affleck, and that could turn out really well. And Man of Steel had Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, along with Russel Crowe playing Exposition-El. But Man of Steel also had Laurence Fishburne and didn’t give him anything to do, so don’t count your chickens just yet, DC.

7. Have a deep bench

In the wake of Marvel’s financial collapse in the late 1990s, the movie rights to many of the prominent characters were sold off. Spider-Man and his gallery went to Sony, while the X-Men and the Fantastic Four landed at 20th Century Fox. Daredevil, Blade, the Silver Surfer, Elektra, Namor — all part of this same deal. Which meant that Marvel had to dig into their other existing characters for movie material.

So we get Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Falcon, Black Widow, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man. Because the “A-list” was taken. And that’s probably a good thing, despite the frustration over the fact that Spider-Man will never be an Avenger (at least for now…). Because Marvel had to find characters that would translate to film, be interesting, be successful, and be part of something that could be bigger if all the pieces fell into place. Just because they say Nick Fury’s appearance in Iron Man was an off-the-cuff idea doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t completely unplanned.

Now that Marvel has proven it can be done, all of the studios with superhero properties are going to do it — the shared universe is a thing now. Fox may cross over the X-Men and the Fantastic Four. Sony is going to make a Spider-Man (or related) movie just about every year for the foreseeable future. Leaving the question hanging out there…

Where’s DC?

They keep going to the well with Superman and Batman. And Batman. And Batman. It seems the formula these days is to add Batman to anything in order to make it sell better. New 52 crossover event? Batman. Year Zero story event? Batman. A new weekly comic book title? Batman.

Need the next Superman movie to get people excited? Add Batman.

In the wake of Green Lantern‘s power outage, it’s no wonder the suits at WB are skittish about any other character. Wonder Woman? She’s tricky, according to Diane Nelson, who’s the VP in charge of everything. (Personally, I think WB is living in the shadow of Christopher Reeve and Lynda Carter, but what do I know?) But maybe — just maybe — now that Kevin Tsujihara is in charge, things might go in a different direction. After his arrival as head of the studio, things started to move in a big way. Wonder Woman is finally getting a solo film. Gotham and Constantine were announced within a week of each other. Maybe we’ll get a new Green Lantern in the form of John Stewart. Maybe the movies will connect with the television shows.

But at this point, it’s a lot of maybes, and WB/DC has yet to prove they can consistently deliver a solid bona-fide hit in the superhero category.

There are a lot of us that are waiting for WB/DC to knock it out of the park like Marvel’s been doing. Because it’s good for all of the comic book movies for all of them to succeed. Fans of the Avengers will line up to see the Justice League. Fans of Wolverine want to see more Batman. Fans of Ant-Man may be ready for the Atom. I’d hate to think DC refuses to do things the Marvel way solely because “it’s the Marvel way” and WB/DC wants to set themselves apart. That would be petty and a poor business move.

I want to see the JLA. I can’t wait to see the Flash. And it would thrill me no end to have it all connected. And the uncertainty a lot of fans feel right now could be dispelled (or at least curtailed) by a simple announcement that it’s all part of the same universe, and we’re going to start seeing the DC Cinematic Universe unfold.

But somehow, I doubt DC is going to step up.


Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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