Warner Bros. is building on the success of Man of Steel by making a Batman/Superman movie. But how will Warners build the rest of its cinematic Justice League? One possible approach is to incorporate the successful universe that DC has already been building on the small(er) screen, with Arrow.
Whatever DC does after the Superman/Batman film, they're going to have to move beyond their two "sure thing" characters and take some chances. One rumor suggests DC will release a standalone Flash movie in 2016 followed by Justice League in 2017. Some people cling to the hope that DC will come to its senses and put out a Wonder Woman movie. Over the weekend, investment site Motley Fool suggested that Time Warner's stock would go up if the company signaled that it was serious about building out these characters — by rebooting the failed Green Lantern film in a few years.
But the more I think about it, the more I think that DC should capitalize on its success with Arrow, and its soon-to-be-introduced spinoff about the superhero who runs really fast, the Flash. With Marvel crossing its cinematic universe over to television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is there any good reason for DC not to go the other direction and have Arrow cross over to the Snyderverse?
Arrow star Stephen Amell reportedly expressed strong interest in appearing in Justice League a month or so ago — saying he would "sweep the floors" just to be included in the film. His statements were met with shrugs, and there's been nothing more about this since then. But Amell is right, including his notion that Oliver Queen, as portrayed in Arrow, could be the relatable human character in Justice League.
And assuming that you're going to include some version of Green Arrow in Justice League, how else are you going to do it? It's unlikely that they'll make a Green Arrow solo film before they make a League film, which means the alternative is introducing a brand new Oliver Queen in the middle of an ensemble film that's already crammed with other heroes. Why not feature the Oliver we already know?
And unlike Smallville, which was also successful in its day, Arrow doesn't step on the Superman story, or do anything to contract the big-screen Superman/Batman mythos. Arrow also doesn't feature late Smallville's occasional emphasis on campy costumes and over-the-top superheroics. In fact, Arrow is very much modeled on the same Christopher Nolan aesthetic as Man of Steel, and would be fairly easy to integrate into the universe that director Zack Snyder's building.
Arrow is doing universe-building right
Some of the creators of Arrow actually worked on the failed Green Lantern movie, and with this show, they've clearly put in a lot of thought about how to build a universe from the ground up. Unlike with Green Lantern, they've started with a grounded approach, focusing on a character who's connected to the real world even though he's constantly fighting assassins and super-drug-makers and so on.
The notion of Arrow launching a Flash spinoff already, when Arrow is only in its second season, could be cause for massive trepidation. You could easily see this as Arrow building up its universe too fast, and adding too many blocks to its Jenga game without creating a stable base. But Arrow has done a decent enough job of introducing DC Universe characters thus far, and of keeping the story fairly grounded despite having Deadshot and Huntress running around, that it's earned some trust.
So let's stipulate for a moment that the Justice League movie is unlikely to find a better Oliver Queen than Amell. And that the movie is unlikely to create a more compelling version of Ollie by introducing a brand new version in a few minutes of screentime. So what about the Flash? If Arrow goes ahead and launches a TV show about the Flash, should that be the version of the Scarlet Speedster who appears in Justice League?
Obviously a lot depends on how good the Flash TV show is on its own, and how well it actually succeeds. (There's a non-trivial chance that the Flash spinoff will die before it ever gets on the air as an independent show, after all.) But I can see a few possibilities:
1) If the TV version of the Flash is actually good and successful, go ahead and put him in the movies, alongside Amell. He could even have his own solo film, alongside his TV show. Why not?
2) If the TV version is basically okay but the actor isn't movie material, then just recast him in the movies. You can have Amell alongside a different actor playing the Flash, the same way Avengers features Robert Downey Jr. but not Edward Norton as Bruce Banner.
3) If the TV version just completely botches his origin in some egregious manner, then you could still have Amell in the Justice League movie, alongside a new Flash with a completely different origin that contradicts the TV version. Not ideal, but definitely no worse than the mess that Fox has made of X-Men movie continuity.
4) Say the TV Flash is kind of okay, but nobody wants him in the Justice League movie. There's an easy fix: the television version is Barry Allen, but the movie version is his successor/protégé, Wally West. Everybody likes Wally better than Barry anyway, right?
In any case, Arrow and its putative spin-off are building out a huge corner of the DC Universe, and doing it well enough that they could be taking a lot of the weight off Snyder and whoever else is directing the DC movies. Given that DC has an incredibly hard time introducing any hero who's not Batman or Superman on the big screen, they should play to their strengths.
Speaking of which...
The best superhero universes are going to be multimedia
When Matthew Vaughn took on the gig directing X-Men: First Class, he made a big deal of saying that he wanted to do this now, because the era of superhero movies was almost over. So he might not get another chance. Clearly, he was a bit premature — 2015 is looking like the biggest year ever for superhero films, and there is no end in sight.
But at the same time, the superhero movie genre is clearly maturing, as we see the same characters getting rebooted for the second or third time on screen. (When Zack Snyder introduces a new Batman in 2015, he'll be the third or fourth big-screen version since the 1980s, depending on whether you consider the Schumacher films as the same universe as the Burton films.)
And the smart response to a maturing genre is to start to broaden out. There's only so many origin-story films you can make, and only so many times you can feature the same dozen marquee characters. Broadening the genre on the big screen is a risky proposition, especially if you insist on spending $200 million to launch a character who might fall flat.
So really, it just makes sense that the best superhero universes will be multimedia. Until recently, entertainment companies took for granted that you'd have separate versions of characters like Clark Kent on TV and in movies — but especially as movies and TV converge, this seems like less of a foregone conclusion.
One reason we're excited for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is the notion that it can deepen Marvel's cinematic universe, fleshing out aspects that only get a brief mention in the films. Marvel's already created a broader and more varied universe than we've ever seen before, just through sheer volume and number of films, and we're hopeful that S.H.I.E.L.D. can take that great world-building and run with it.
But DC may not have the luxury of unspooling its universe over the course of half a dozen films before doing Justice League. And there's no reason they should have to — the kind of foundation-building that Marvel did in films like Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger is actually better done on television, anyway. Television can afford to spend an hour fleshing out a single supporting character — or can build a five-episode arc around a plot point that would have to be dealt with in 10 minutes in a movie.
Everybody says lately that television is where really great characters get developed, and where stories can acquire some depth. And fully developed characters and deeper storytelling are two commodities that live-action superhero storytelling are in desperate need of.
And the other reason why a multimedia approach to superhero storytelling would be beneficial is, it brings superheroes back to their comic-book roots. Superheroes really belong in soap-operatic serialized narratives where their romantic problems and life issues can spool out week after week. And then they can also star in big "event" storylines, which are basically like tentpole movies. Comics readers already know that big storylines like Civil War or Trinity War carry more weight when you've been following their heroes week after week, through other adventures.
So even though we're probably never going to see Batman or Superman starring in a weekly TV show that crosses over with their movies, it makes perfect sense to have Arrow cross over with the Justice League movie. With the TV show building its own universe, the movies' work could be half done already.