When it comes to building cohesive “shared” comic book universes on the big screen, there can be only one. Very likely, it will always be Marvel Studios. They got there first, taking a gaggle of second-tier superhero characters whose movie rights they battled and bribed to reattain and turning them into a veritable mint that breathes, eats, and craps out lackluster imitators. Phase One had its share of troubling moments: Iron Man 2 had vast amounts of potential, but Marvel’s shaky long-term strategy and its sudden rush to get the sequel in front of the cameras — even if it meant starting without a completed script — resulted in what could have been a superior franchise installment devolving into an uninspired bit of wheel spinning.
The first Thor felt too earthbound and the side business with S.H.I.E.L.D. was obviously shoehorned into a narrative that would have worked much better without it. The studio took a major gamble with their first four movies and when The Avengers premiered in May of last year it paid off handsomely in ways few could have ever thought possible. The success of that film paved the way in grand fashion for Phase Two to take Marvel’s blockbuster bullpen of celluloid superheroes into bold and creatively rewarding territory and allow for characters like Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy to get their own big-budget movie adventures coming our way sooner than we think.
Marvel’s strategy could have failed, and it very well would have been a massive megaton bomb in the film industry had they not believed in the storytelling possibilities of their various franchises and chosen the finest directors, writers, technicians, and actors to make them work. Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America had all been in development at various studios for decades, during the time when DC Comics’ iconic heroes Superman and Batman were the big dogs on the biggest of movie screens. Times have certainly changed.
Warner Bros. pinned their every hope for keeping a boot on Marvel’s throat at the box office on the rebooted Batman with Christopher Nolan at the helm, even though the filmmaker had intended to cap his involvement in the Bat-films with The Dark Knight Rises and was adamant against the universe he established on screen being further exploited by the studio and DC once his work was finished, even with him serving as a producer on the Superman reboot Man of Steel. Though the Zack Snyder-directed action epic was a smash hit with audiences and critics, it wasn’t the great savior its parent companies have been hoping for now that Nolan’s Gotham City had been hermetically sealed for the rest of time.
A few weeks back, I had the chance to revisit Man of Steel on Blu-ray some months after a theatrical viewing left me feeling cold, and no it wasn’t because of that whole “Superman doesn’t kill!” manufactured controversy. It worked much better in my eyes on subsequent viewings as I was able to immerse myself in the story and savor the film’s better performances. By the end I was really looking forward to further adventures of this Superman since it was clear he was in good hands, if not the proper hands. Of course Warner Bros. had already thrown a ice cold bucket of water on that anticipation when it announced at this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con that the next silver screen outing for Superman would pit him in battle against a re-rebooted Batman, with Ben Affleck the latest actor to don the cape and cowl of the legendary Dark Knight Detective. The fans howled with joy, the trolls bashed each other over the heads with spiked clubs and bathed in their own blood and vomit, and the bean counters at the mighty WB rubbed their hands together in cackling mad jubilation fast enough to make hot cakes out of their palm flesh.
Batman Vs. Superman – or whatever title the movie ultimately takes, and there are many risible contenders – will likely be a success financially, but creatively its prospects look dire. As if reintroducing Batman so soon after The Dark Knight Rises (and into a Superman movie no less) wasn’t enough, this week brought the not-so-surprising confirmation of long-standing rumors that Wonder Woman would also be making an appearance in the movie. Gal Gadot of the Fast & the Furious movies has been cast as the warrior queen of the DCU though it still remains to be seen how large of a role the Amazonian will play in the battle royale between Bats and Supes. Plus, the Flash might be making a cameo if the rumblings are to be believed. It may not happen, but at this point Warner Bros. will take any road high as Everest or low as the Beltway to make their eternity-in-gestation Justice League feature a reality.
They’re not the only ones looking to ape the Marvel Studios franchise plan. On Friday, it was announced that Simon Kinberg had been hired by 20th Century Fox to expand their prized Marvel properties, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, with an eye towards uniting the classic superhero teams in a future cinematic crossover event very much styled after the success of The Avengers. Much like Kinberg, Mark Millar had been serving in a capacity similar to Joss Whedon’s majordomo status over at Marvel Studios with Fox’s Marvel movie series, but neither he nor Kinberg have attained the level of respect and trust from fans of the comics and movie adaptations that Whedon has in the past with the aforementioned Avengers and geek friendly television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse.
That could change for Kinberg in the forseeable future; in addition to being Fox’s new point man for developing their Marvel properties into one huge franchise, he’s also working on several Star Wars-related projects for Disney including a secret spin-off film and the animated series Star Wars: Rebels. Kinberg’s credits as a screenwriter – Mr. and Mrs. Smith, X-Men: The Last Stand, Jumper – don’t inspire the greatest confidence that he satisfy the expectations of both the Fox honchos bankrolling the budget-busting tentpole blockbusters and the thrill-hungry audiences who would most likely make them huge hits (or at the very least profitable when factoring in the international grosses) if the movies deliver on their promise. He has an active role in writing and producing the forthcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, which is set to kick off the summer movie season next May, and 2015′s Fantastic Four reboot, which currently has Josh Trank (Chronicle) on board as director and no cast in place outside of some tantalizing rumors.
Whereas DC and Warner’s decision to front-load the Superman/Batman team-up movie with additional cameos from the comic company’s classic crime-fighters is akin to a newborn baby girl being forced to compete in beauty pageants by her insane attention-junkie parents, there is actual potential in Fox’s wholesale pilfering of the Marvel Studios strategy. The past two X-Flicks – First Class and this summer’s The Wolverine – were pretty damn great, and the studio’s decision to summon up Trank to the big leagues for the Fantastic Four do-over was unanimously viewed as a creatively savvy move on their part and one that could be extremely beneficial to the eventual film’s success. It’s too early to tell if Days of Future Past will flop or ensure the X-Men franchise’s future at Fox, but that first trailer didn’t get my hopes up at all.
Until Bryan Singer took over the director’s chair for the departing Vaughn, who had called the shots on First Class with fantastic results, it was hoped that the rebooted series would continue along the same lines as the previous installment – injecting a nimble wit and stylistic pizazz into the most socially relevant of all of the major superhero franchises while introducing characters from the comics who had yet to be effectively employed in the movies. With Singer back at the helm, though, Days is shaping up to be an unwarranted backtracking to the look and feel of the first three X-features, right down to bringing back the same old team members who didn’t add much to the movies the first time around (as they were practically “The Wolverine Show”). The salaries for those returning actors have no doubt been a primary factor in the film’s skyrocketing budget, which is reported to be the largest ever spent on a comic book blockbuster.
That budget has a slim chance of being recouped domestically given that Days of Future Past has a lot of heavy-hitting competition in its month of release: Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens three weeks before, while the new Godzilla will already be out a week before Days gets its day. If the movie manages to open well or hopefully perform well above expectations, it will still have sure bets like Transformers: Age of Extinction, 22 Jump Street, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes ready to pounce in the weeks that follow. Plus, a few dark horse contenders could always rise above the fray. The summer movie season is a Darwinist E-ticket slaughterhouse.
Days is also poised to open between Marvel’s big 2014 releases – Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy. With movies that dominate the box office for weeks on end due to word of mouth strong enough to withstand an alien invasion in short supply these days, it’s highly doubtful that either of these films will steal any of Days‘ thunder at the ticket counter. However, in the past few months they have received infinitely more positive advance praise than the new X-Men movie and it looks unlikely that Marvel is nervous about the competition. Marvel has completely rewritten the franchise playbook and created a cinematic universe not too dissimilar from its counterpart in the comics that can sustain itself for decades and allow its creators to go completely gonzo with their material with an ironclad guarantee that the audience will follow them anywhere.
The beginning was a little rough, as most beginnings typically tend to be, but now Marvel is a major industry player in a position to enhance their bottom line by taking chances on lesser-known properties and putting the best creative teams and casts to work making them just as good (if not better) than the best movies they have produced thus far. DC/Warner Bros. and Fox once thought they had the edge; now they’re trudging through rivers of their own flop sweat trying desperately to catch up to the young upstart that has completely changed the rules of the game. The tide is rising, and it’s time to learn how to swim again or get swept out to sea where the sharks are waiting to feast on the bleeding remains.