Sometimes I can’t help but feel a little bad for DC.
You know, I feel the pain. You’ve got this great little frenemies thing going with Marvel. You like each other and maybe kind of don’t like each other, and you share writers and ideas, and mimic each other, and push each other to do better. They’re like a best friend that shares all the same goals, even though there’s an unspoken understanding that you might also secretly hate that best friend because of their success and the way it trumps your own because you happen to be the two biggest powerhouses in your particular marketplace.
You’ve both tried for years to cut it in the film industry. Well, you tried for years. Marvel doesn’t get the same opportunities. It doesn’t have those powerful icons like you do in Superman and Batman. The ones that defined early comic book film and television and are now so ubiquitous that everyone grows up knowing all the details. Oh, how your competitors are envious of those powerful brands.
But after years – decades even – of trying, of all the success and failures and much in between, Marvel has to go and do something terrible: it has to succeed. And not just in a minimalist way. No, in just about the biggest way you can possibly imagine. Sure, it released those early films (those “Phase One” films) banking on lesser-known characters very few in the mainstream had heard of. They did okay, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. It was solid, but it wasn’t a guarantee of anything significant more to occur.
At the time, you were still on a bit of a high yourself. Coming off The Dark Knight you could do no wrong. That film was just about the most revered and critically acclaimed back in 2008, with pop culture impression, awards, and a reputation that holds up even until today. It checked off all the boxes: the acclaim, fan adoration, enormous box office returns, and awards – the kind this genre never, ever gets. After all those years of blood, sweat, and tears, you gained something no one had ever thought possible: prestige.
But a few years later, it started to change. Because Marvel started to change things. All those one-offs, the “Phase One” films, actually culminated into something. And not just anything, but something grand – something big and huge and seemingly insurmountable. The kind of team-up superhero film that people had dreamt of accomplishing for decades with no way of knowing if it could ever be quality, successful, and sold to a mainstream audience. Because yeah – Marvel went and made an Avengers movie. And they did so with a film that was universally adored, made more money than the GDP of South America, and pretty much changed the film industry going forward.
What’s worse, they caught you with your pants down. They caught everyone with their pants down. Suddenly, every other studio is eying The Avengers and the continuous universe of intersecting films and saying “I want that, too.” A franchise that reaches its connective tentacles into a multitude of growing films and tv shows – disparate, but fundamentally centralized. The brand recognition, the pop culture impact, the guarantee of financial returns has made it the envy of every studio in the industry.
And you, DC, you have exactly what all the others want. Sure, Universal can try to band their horror movie monsters together under one roof. And Disney will be doing everything it can with Star Wars. But no one else has the same basic elements to construct this kind of universe – because no other universe has proven as ideally suited for this as a comic book universe. That makes you the best one around to compete with the Marvel machine.
But there are kinks. A lot of them, in fact. Superman Returns wasn’t the hit you were hoping for, and you had to reboot. The Dark Knight has a legacy, but it was somewhat diminished by the final film in the trilogy. The finality of its ending also left no open outlet for Batman. Green Lantern’s sole adaptation was a flop. And the only thing you had going for you was a somewhat modestly well-received re-attempt at updating Superman for the 21st century.
It puts you in a difficult position. After all, you couldn’t well reboot Superman again. That could take years – and the audience results might be too unpredictable to rely on. You had to work with what you have – make something happen now, try to catch up with the Marvel brand as it carries forward. You don’t have time to make introductions the way Marvel did in its Phase One. Avengers was a hit, and the sooner you can get to any team-up movies, the better.
And you have to work fast. Because Marvel? Well, Marvel’s already winning. Marvel’s out of the gate down the track and rounding the next lap and you’re still standing at the starting line trying to figure out how to put on your uniform. You literally can’t afford to wait because you don’t know how long the race will even last. You’re the only other player on the board with any kind of a chance to compete with the one that’s winning – but you’re still scrambling just to catch up.
And yeah, while we’ve been having this conversation, while you’ve been futzing around trying to make decisions about tone and humor and inter-connectivity of tv and film universes, Marvel just released two more movies and three more tv series. All of which were critically acclaimed.
Batman vs Superman was always going to be a gamble – you didn’t have the concept for it going in, but if you announced the title and premise, it would at least give fans something to hang on to. Assurance that you were working on it your own selves: preparing a line-up to contest with those team-up films and that interconnected universe. After all, Batman and Superman are still the two most iconic superheroes around. Who wouldn’t want to see them on-screen together?
But oh, how you lack. You miss that centralized vision, that one single person at the top running the entire show, keeping all the threads tied together. Zack Snyder was always going to be a controversial option for this; David Goyer even more so. If only there was a second Kevin Feige in the world. (We can only hope that Geoff Johns is up to the task.) You have Warner Bros and while Warner Bros has served you well in the past, they’re no Disney. Because no one can match Disney’s technique and talent for marketing and merchandising. And hype.
And it gets worse. Something happened to you on television – something you certainly weren’t anticipating (and possibly kind of resent). Because while you weren’t looking, an innocent adaptation of a lesser-known hero from the DC pantheon built a following and a fanbase on a network with a low-brow reputation, and before you knew it, that little show had spawned three more series all to exist within the same continuous universe. Without anyone anticipating it, the DC television world just created its own little micro-universe that could well compete with the MCU. The problem? It’s on tv.
Tv is wonderful platform, but it’s ultimately a smaller venue than film. It lacks the box office revenue and recognizability that film inherently affords. In a sense, it was wonderful that it happened – even as it’s also kind of terrible that it happened. Picking up characters like the Flash automatically put you in a difficult spot: as one of the headliners of the Justice League, you want him in your films. But you don’t want to tie the two separate universes together.
It’s already muddy and it’s already a mess, and you’re only a few steps down the track. While Marvel? Well, they’ve now released a film about a ragged band of aliens misfits in outer space from a young comic series almost no one has heard of and it became one of the biggest hits of the year. Yeah – that’s how much Marvel is already winning.
A lot is poured into Batman vs Superman and subsequently Suicide Squad. Both are under enormous pressure to succeed. To establish on a zeitgeist brand awareness and affection for characters that will convince audiences to come to your movies in droves the way so many continue to do so with each new Marvel outing.
But both were poorly received – and many of the figures behind them (like Zack Snyder) have become even more controversial to the fans that would otherwise potentially support them.
I wish all the best for the Wonder Woman film. I sincerely do. It would be fantastic to finally see her done proper justice in a singular film of her own. After all, you’re even beating Marvel to the punch on this one. People have been clamoring with increasing fervor for a female-led superhero film and Captain Marvel isn’t due out for years yet. At the same time, the increased pressure to get this one right could (as it did Suicide Squad) well end up shooting you in the foot.
I don’t envy the position you’re in. Marvel has accomplished previously unheard of milestones and they show no signs of slowing down. You want to compete with that, and that’s good – competition is a good thing, as it forces both sides to avoid complacency, to try to be do better. No one’s better at giving Marvel healthy competition than a solid DC universe. But are you going to catch up with Marvel? Anything’s possible at this point.
You have a long road ahead of you, DC. And I sincerely wish you well.