A couple weeks ago, Warner Bros. announced it was claiming release dates for nine unspecified DC Comics films, between now and 2020. This signaled that Warners is serious about building on the success of Man of Steel, and challenging Marvel's comic-book movie ascendancy. And here's why that's a good thing.
There's been a lot of skepticism about DC's shared movie universe, for some understandable reasons. Like Catwoman and Green Lantern. And Man of Steel has proved pretty divisive — even though I personally liked it a lot. The sequel, Batman v. Superman, seems to be trying to introduce movie versions of a ton of characters all in one go. Zack "Sucker Punch" Snyder is getting to create the big-screen Wonder Woman.
But it's still pretty awesome that Warner Bros. is apparently committing to spend roughly $2 billion over the next six years to put your childhood heroes on the big screen. We might get to see the Spectre and the Question and the Metal Men in IMAX at some point. Plus Jason Momoa starring in an Aquaman film, and a Shazam movie with The Rock! Obviously a lot depends on whether these movies do well enough to justify the full roll-out — but as box office analyst David Mumpower told io9 recently, there are probably 75 superhero movies coming out by 2024, and 80 percent of those films will make money.
Anyway, here are some reasons to be excited about this flood of DC movies:
Man of Steel is an interesting foundation for a universe.
The thing I liked about Man of Steel is that it had a strong focus on Story. I'll forgive a lot from a movie if there's a solid core of storytelling, and MoS had a pretty well-sketched arc.
Superman is raised by Pa Kent to fear that people will never accept him if they know he's an alien from outer space, and then Clark's worst fears are realized when other aliens arrive on Earth. Except that it turns out people can tell that Clark isn't like the other Kryptonians because he (mostly) values human life. It's not the Superman you grew up with, but it's a strong story with an optimistic end.
But the core of that story is the notion that Superman is something new and shocking in a world that's never seen aliens, or any other kind of superhumans. The story of MoS only works, in fact, if this is "our" world, not some kind of comic-book world where there are different people in fancy costumes zooming through the sky everyday.
So it'll be interesting to see how DC builds a shared universe, with enough characters to justify 10 or 11 movies, on that foundation.
The other thing that makes Man of Steel an interesting cornerstone for a shared universe is the ambivalent relationship it sets up between heroes and the Establishment. Instead of Samuel L. Jackson showing up at the end to recruit Superman into a cool superteam, we see the U.S. military using satellites to spy on Superman, whom they want to use but don't trust. (And the hints that Batman v. Superman is based on The Dark Knight Returns comic seem to suggest that Ben Affleck's Batman will see Superman as a Tool of the Man.)
All of this makes me think that Watchmen will be a formative text for the Snyder/Goyer DCU — with Watchmen's theme of costumed heroes being used by a government that then outlaws them and throws them away. (And maybe several movies from now, we'll see a moment where Superman fears that Pa Kent was right, after all.) Not everything has to be like Watchmen, but I have zero problem with some things trying to be.
Marvel had a steep learning curve
At this point, after five superb movies in a row, it's hard to remember how muddled the beginnings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe were.
Sure, Marvel never had a stumble as bad as DC's Green Lantern — but two out of the first three MCU films were disappointing, to say the least. Iron Man 2 is a movie about a guy trying to put on a trade show. Incredible Hulk is a plodding film about Bruce Banner trying not to turn into the Hulk, until he finally does. Iron Man 2 made money, and Incredible Hulk did okay, but that doesn't make either of them great.
The point is, if you'd been assessing the state of the MCU in 2010, you might not have been that blown away. But then, in the run-up to Avengers, the storytelling seemed to get a bit more confident, and Marvel seemed to regain the focus on character and storytelling that had made Iron Man work. And the MCU seemed to get better at embracing a range of tones, including "war movie" and "light-hearted epic fantasy."
Maybe some of the improvement is the fact that Marvel hired Joss Whedon, who did a polish on the Captain America script before doing Avengers and has been a consultant on every film since. But it also feels as though the studio has gotten better at giving individual directors and writers creative freedom inside of a linked set of stories.
So it seems likely that DC will have a similar learning curve, when it comes to figuring out how to build out its universe while telling unique stories — you can't just tell the same story of disillusioned heroes in a dark world over and over a dozen times, even if it is a neat foundation.
The big test will come when DC starts hiring people other than Snyder and Goyer to make movies. Warner Bros. already proved it can throw the dice successfully when it hired Christopher Nolan (and before him, Tim Burton) to make Batman films. So let's hope they show the same amount of daring and hire a few more oddball creators to make the Wonder Woman or Flash movies. (And let's hope Guillermo del Toro really does make Justice League Dark, or whatever they call it.)
What Marvel learned, in its steep learning curve, is that character matters, and a slew of samey action movies isn't going to build anything lasting. (Guy has identity crisis, guy meets another guy who's also wearing armor or a Gamma monster, they fight. Guy feels better.)
If Warners is really serious about putting out 20-plus hours of widescreen superhero storytelling in the next half-dozen years, then it'll almost certainly learn the same lesson — and maybe they can hire Frozen's Jennifer Lee to direct Wonder Woman, when she's done with Wrinkle in Time. (Seriously, let's start a campaign.)
If the VFX industry doesn't die, this will be the heyday of superhero films
It's been 14 years since Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi ushered in the domination of superhero movies, and it's easy to believe that the trend is about to start running out of steam. But no — let's just repeat that notion that 75 new superhero movies, give or take, are coming soon.
It's only really the past few years, with Avengers and Man of Steel and a few other films, that the VFX industry has managed to give us something resembling the no-holds-barred slugfests we've been enjoying on the page for decades. Technologies like motion-capture and IMAX cameras are massively increasing the level spectacle — and the ability of film-makers to capture the kind of visuals that people like George Perez and Jack Kirby were drawing back in the day.
And the notion that DC and Marvel will each be releasing two or three movies per year, in addition to Fox, Sony and other studios, is kind of insane. Sure, this can't last forever, and moviegoers may start getting a cape allergy. (Already, the disappointing lack of "legs" for the latest X-Men and Spider-Man films is a danger sign.) But it's still going to be hella fun while it lasts.
And look at it this way: the average moviegoer, who hasn't read every classic comic book, is getting a crash course in superheroes. Including the sheer range of types of stories that can be told in that lumpy and ill-defined genre.
Already, we're moving past the notion that every superhero film needs to be an origin story. And the idea that we're meeting the new Batman for the first time as an older veteran is another sign that superhero movies are starting to defy expectations. Casting Ben Affleck as Batman may have upset some fans, but it's also a sign that Warner Bros. isn't going to play it safe, and they're expecting the casual moviegoer to be comfortable with getting something different.
And I sort of expect that the rivalry between DC and Marvel will result in some more interesting movies, as they try to one-up each other. Plus running through that many films in such a short time should result in a kind of acclerated evolution, because DC will have a strong incentive to try new things and push the genre forward in order to stand out. (As Marvel has already done lately.)
Will there be some terrible movies? Sure. Sturgeon's Law and the Law of Averages both apply, as always. DC will release some duds, and so will Marvel at some point. But there will also be some surprising new gems — and the "capes and fights" movie will be forced to leap over its limitations in a single bound. (And let's hope those limitations include the focus on white male heroes, while we're at it.)
So yeah, I'm unreservedly kind of jazzed about DC challenging Marvel to a game of super-chicken. If nothing else, this is going to be a really interesting five or six years.