I write this as Avengers: Age of Ultron is opening, and I just can’t help but imagine the somber lighting and sober faces in the WB executive boardroom as they prepare for another sound spanking by the folks at Disney/Marvel.
It’s hard to believe that the studio that seemed to have such a handle on their franchises during the Harry Potter and Chris Nolan Golden Age are now scrambling to build a viable comic book movie franchise in a spastic game of catch-up with Marvel. It begs the question: were they not prepared for this?
Even if all of the critical reviews for Age of Ultron are true (a bit convoluted, spectacle driven, not quite the same impact as its predecessor), those reviews still concede just how much fun a ride it is, and it is tracking to make some serious summer blockbuster money. Having just seen it myself, my review is simply: Marvel does it again.
It’s also hard not to imagine the folks at WB are feeling outstripped, and in the cyclone of Marvel’s dust, it becomes apparent that WB is as baffled at how to proceed with their iconic properties as I am at their bafflement.
Case in point: this article from Forbes, and this article from The Hollywood Reporter both seem to indicate a rising level of anxiety amongst WB insiders as to the monumental dice-roll that is DC’s foray into the shared cinematic universe game. To enumerate the concerns here in no particular order they are as follows:
1. The “throwing shit at a wall to see what stuck” approach — The scripts for both Wonder Woman and Aquaman are being written by several competing writers. At last count, that’s five different writers working on five different Wonder Woman scripts, and at least three different writers working on at least three different Aquaman scripts. Needless to say this is offputting enough to screenwriters that some who’ve been approached by WB are turning the offer down, and WB seems to be taking some hits in their industry cred for it.
2. The lack of cohesion — One major contributing factor to Marvel’s success in building a shared universe onscreen is that it has been masterminded and orchestrated by Kevin Feige. As Marvel’s eye atop the pyramid, he has the perspective to see how all the pieces fit together, and where storylines will weave in and out of each other in Marvel’s cinematic future. DC has no such guiding hand, but you’ve got to give credit to their marketing department for spinning the lack of focus in their shared universe as nothing more than their effort to give auteur filmmakers more creative control. I’m not buying it, but its a really top notch spin job on the story. While they are relying on Snyder to introduce the tone and visual palette for the DC universe, WB is exponentially increasing the risk factor involved in making these films by forgoing any real and focused accountability amongst the other filmmakers involved.
3. The front-loaded risk — Scott Mendelson in his Forbes article points out that the first real installments in DC’s shared cinematic universe — Batman v. Superman, and Suicide Squad aim to introduce nearly all the major players of the DC cinematic universe in what amounts to a double barrel shot in 2016. Mendelson likens it to spilling the toybox on the floor, which is in stark contrast to Marvel’s very metered approach. This is not to say DC should be following Marvel’s road map; I think they are right to make a concerted effort to make their own mark. It is both good for the genre to have some differentiation, and good for them to pursue a distinctively different branding. But, in an industry and age where much of the marketing strategy revolves around the calculated release of what is essentially spoiler information, if the hopes of an entire brand is riding on the success of two movies that are getting tepid and critical responses with every new reveal, then that is cause for alarm. One strength of the Marvel films that Mendelson notes is that the weaker links in Marvel’s ouvre are carried by the stronger ones. Being conspicuously interconnected, a weaker link in Marvel’s franchise is still a segue that can yet build momentum for the brand. And while I’m sure BvS and Suicide Squad will do fine at the box office, if they aren’t serving the fans or the source material very well, people may not respond with the gusto that WB hopes to achieve among moviegoers. WB seems to be putting a whole lot of faith in Snyder’s vision after what could be at best called a problematic first spin with Superman…and their strategy has neither the momentum nor the crutches.
To be dangerously obvious, DC is not Marvel. But it’s a significant statement in light of the longstanding rivalry between The Big Two. When it comes to comics history, the chorus that sings their achievements often sounds like this: DC did it first, but Marvel did it better. DC has some of the best characters in the business, and (at one point) the more recognizable, but where they have traditionally fallen short is where Marvel succeeded and continues to succeed to this day. DC created gods, but Marvel incarnated them, made them relatable, brought them down to an Earth which we (albeit with a healthy dose of suspended disbelief) recognize as our own. In short, Marvel delivered something to fans that the fans didn’t even yet know they wanted. It’s a major shift in the comics landscape that, despite their Scarlet Speedsters and Faster-Than-A-Speeding-Bullet farmboys, DC has been trying to catch up to ever since. (If you want to read up on the history of DC and Marvel’s “rivalry”, go to this article at ComicsAlliance for an excellent overview.)
In many ways what we’re seeing now in the “comic book film industry” is an extension, even a recycling, of the traditional DC-Marvel relationship. DC did it first, with Donner’s Superman movies and two Batman movie franchises, only to let Marvel slip in and once again shuffle the deck. The “shared universe” concept that Marvel Studios took a bet on with the first Iron Man movie changed the question of the superhero film genre for DC. While the Nolan Bat-films were both wildly popular and successful, it’s clear they were always intended to exist as not just an open and closed story, but as a closed universe. WB/DC committed so hard to Nolan’s vision that by the time Marvel put the concept of a shared cinematic universe on the table, there was no way for WB/DC to answer it. What they eventually came up with was Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, which is intended to set the stage for the future of the DC cinematic universe. While WB/DC has a lot of ground to cover to catch up to Marvel’s freight train, what they have made evident in this first installment and in the press is that they do not intend to mimic Marvel’s method in either strategy or tone. It makes a certain amount of sense that they’d want to take their own route in creating a shared universe. Yet considering the the complications on both the business as well as creative ends, and the ill-fitting, off-putting tone of Man of Steel and the teaser for its follow up, WB/DC is already on shaky ground even before they’ve begun.
Marvel has created a brand that has endless possibilities of permutations; a franchise of franchises. That’s a bandwagon any studio would naturally want to jump on, and WB/DC is in a better position to recreate that phenomenon better than anyone else at the moment. While we aren’t privy enough to assign motive to WB/DC’s decision not to follow a road map that has so clearly been successful for Marvel, the perception is that they are refusing both the strategy and the tone of the Marvel films in order to avoid the accusation of copycatting. Sure, they may not want their brand confused with Marvel’s, and the grittier approach worked well with Nolan’s Batman trilogy, but considering what we know about WB’s current convoluted and not-entirely-palatable approach to putting its heroes on screen, it makes them look stubborn, and, perhaps worst of all, even less creative than if they’d just decided to directly copy Marvel’s blueprint. Additionally, and if I had the ear of an exec, I wouldn’t be able to stress this enough, “gritty” and “dark” superhero movies aren’t edgy anymore. “Yes, you messed up the first Bat-franchise,” I’d tell them. “It’s time to get over it.” To keep using Batman as your template for every comic book movie is a disservice to the genre you’re trying to compete in. As a stylistic choice, it has it’s place, but to overuse it displays a sensibility that is becoming outdated, and indicates fearful restraint, a lack of interest in taking a creative chance.
Creative chances from a business standpoint are always viewed as a gamble, but its just this lack of risk that makes it a risky chance to take. Yet, of the two big bets WB/DC is making in 2016, Suicide Squad has the most potential to be an original, interesting, momentum building installment — one piece of the puzzle they seem to be lacking.
Let me help you, Warner Brothers.
Aside from finding your own Kevin Feige (get on this already), stop looking at creative risks as business risks. Get weird. You want Marvel level-success but you don’t want to break any new ground? Good luck. Here’s my suggestion: forget about trying to crack the shared universe game with Batman v. Superman, for a moment. Just leave it be for a little while longer; we’ll all go see it, we promise. But start with David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.
For those not familiar, Suicide Squad’s premise revolves around a team composed of villains forced into government service as special operatives tasked with a mission, which, if they succeed in completing, will give them clemency. The catch, of course, is that they have to survive what is essentially a suicide mission. A Dirty Dozen, but with super-villains. The concept is simple, intriguing, and weird enough that it just might work. Considering that most of the villains we expect to see in the movie are some of the best and brightest in Batman’s infamous Rogues Gallery (and that WB seems to hate making superhero movies that don’t have Batman in them), Suicide Squad would serve as a better back-door introduction to this universe’s version of Batman than Batman v Superman. Consider also that Lex Luthor is rumored to make an appearance and that right there is a built in opportunity to draw in Superman, as well as set up a first contact scene between the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight. The Suicide Squad‘s plot is said to be a heist film, and who doesn’t love a movie about shady characters sneaking around and stealing stuff? If the movie takes advantage of the tropes of the genre and fully utilizes the characters involved, there’s sure to be more than a few double crosses, more than enough witty banter, and what better way to introduce an entire cast of villains to a shared universe than letting them get away with it in the end, and literally unleashing them on the world? If WB/DC wants an answer to the Avengers that is distinctly their own, Suicide Squad’s premise is “same-but-different” enough to fit the bill. If they insist on chasing a darker tone, villains make great subject matter to do that with, and yet there is a lot of room for the same kind of Avengers-type fun in watching misfits interact onscreen. A movie like this could seed alliances and rivalries amongst villains that could play out on-screen for years to come, and villainous collaborations are a great way to justify the formation of the Justice League. If WB/DC wants to dump their toys on the floor, then here are the toys. A team of assassins, psychopaths, and freaks double crossing their way to freedom, burning bridges and rubbing up against superheroes, setting up the next ten years of solo and team flicks for WB.
In fact, a villain-driven franchise like Suicide Squad gives DC an edge that Marvel, with its current line up, may never get around to formulating. Marvel’s heroes may be down to earth, but in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, its villains have all been bent on world, galactic, and universal domination or destruction, which makes it hard to root for them. Twisted as they may be, DC’s rogues are a lot more charming. Marvel’s been showing DC how to succeed for years – by cribbing and improving upon their material. It’s time for DC to pay attention and flip the script.
DC has always had the best villains…if you’re going to build a franchise, why not start with your best feature?
While I wait for that to happen I’m going to go see Avenger’s: Age of Ultron a few more times.