It’s hard to remember that in 2008, Iron Man was a risky venture. While it might be fun to imagine Marvel had all three phases of its cinematic universe perfectly planned from the beginning, the truth is that if Iron Man had failed, we probably wouldn’t have seen anything else. The idea of a shared universe seems like a foregone conclusion to us in 2015, but less than a decade ago it was seen as almost impossible. People wondered if Avengers could succeed with so many Hollywood egos sharing screen time and so much homework necessary before hand – seeds for Avengers were planted in Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. There was no guarantee that mashing all of these disparate concepts together would work well on screen. Of course now we know better.
DC and Warner Bros. were enjoying so much success from their Dark Knight franchise that they didn’t feel the need to throw in with the shared universe stuff as strongly as Marvel had. Since the Silver Age, DC’s M.O. has been to watch what Marvel does, see if it works, and then imitate it. Ironic, of course, since so much of Marvel’s heroes are thinly veiled reactions to DC characters, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, DC waited until 2011 with Green Lantern to start planting sloppy seeds of a shared universe. After that film tanked, they decided to go back to making Batman movies, specifically Man of Steel, which tries its hardest to make Superman into The Dark Knight. And when fans (and Mark Waid!) criticized that movie, they decided to stop pretending and just make another Batman movie, only this time it would be “Batman & Friends” and this time would plant the seeds for a shared universe by shoehorning in Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and possibly other Justice League members.
Marvel’s cinematic approach seems to be focused on letting individual filmmakers to share their voice (or at least it used to – talk to Edgar Wright) and letting connections occur almost organically, aside from some guidance from higher-ups like Kevin Feige. The Marvel cinematic universe has grown slowly and though it seems sprawling now, it all started with a little film about an obscure character the general public wasn’t very invested in. Nobody was writing articles about how Marvel had totally botched Tony Stark’s character (which at the time, was nothing – I repeat: NOTHING like Robert Downey Jr.’s approach, see: Civil War and its aftermath) because nobody really cared that much. Ironically, losing its major properties like X-Men and Spider-Man freed Marvel from the cultural expectations that go along with adapting cherished stories. There are a lot of people who have an opinion on how Superman should be portrayed. Prior to 2011, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who was as passionate about someone like Thor or Cap. That freedom allowed them to take risks and expand the universe as they have.
DC, frankly, is playing catch up. They feel so far behind that they basically want to accomplish everything Marvel has in the past seven years with one over-bloated movie. It really feels like there’s a lot working against that movie again, so when DC decides to reboot everything again after Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice underperforms, there are some ideas DC could use to avoid playing catch up once again…
1. No Shared Universe
Like it or not, the DCU does not lend itself as well to a shared universe as Marvel’s does. Pretty much every major Marvel superhero is active in New York City and many of them never achieved enough popularity to sustain their own books, so the only place you could read about them was in team books like Avengers. (This is true of characters like Hawkeye and Ant-Man.) DC heroes, however, usually have their own city which operates with its own set of rules. To have two Marvel heroes team up, you just have to make them bump into each other on 5th Avenue. If you want to team two DC heroes up, you usually have to insert one character into another’s setting, which can cause problems. Since Marvel is making so much money from its shared universe, this might be a tough sell, but it’s very possible that Marvel’s Phase 3 will wind up throwing in too many new elements and characters, requiring knowledge of the Netflix shows along with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and ultimately causing people to feel exhausted. DC can avoid all that. It may even benefit them.
2. Distinct Tones for Each Movie
Since DC feels Batman functions best in a dark, grim setting, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman – some of the most colorful characters in comics, have been reduced to brooding, monochrome versions of their usual selves. If DC avoids the need to have everything connected, they can make a Batman movie that is dark and grim and let Batman be Batman while they can make an entirely different Wonder Woman movie that is uplifting and hopeful where Wonder Woman can be Wonder Woman. The audiences for Batman and Wonder Woman are probably going to be very different. DC can construct a movie targeted at (gasp!) women and young girls that feels different than Batman. They won’t have to be criticized for making Superman so dark that he loses everything that makes him worth rooting for. Yes, a Justice League movie could make a ton of money – but couldn’t three successful Wonder Woman movies, three successful Superman movies, and three successful Batman movies make more?
3. Focus on Storytelling, Not World Building
The Marvel films often suffer when they are devoting too much energy to laying the groundwork for upcoming movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron was rightly criticized for this, and Ant-Man was weighed down by a hardly necessary cameo from the New Avengers. Whole stretches of Iron Man 2 felt like a trailer for Avengers. And why, exactly, did Hawkeye really need to be in Thor other than to make his appearance in Avengers less jarring? Since DC is trying to fast track its Justice League franchise, BvS is going to have to do a lot of narrative work – and it’s going to distract from the plot of the film itself. Instead of concentrating on making this movie good, they’re worrying about setting up a future film. That’s never a recipe for compelling stories. Just put all of your energy into making one. good. movie. Then branch out from there.
4. Avoid Competition
One of the easiest ways to beat someone in a game is by changing the way the game itself is played. Apple was very much the underdog to Windows for quite a while until they released blockbuster personal devices like the iPod and the iPhone. Apple succeeded not by trying to be Windows, but by getting really good at being Apple. DC needs this mentality. They’ve already taken a step in the right direction by declaring their television and film universes officially separate. Does that mean there might be confusion as to why the Flash on TV doesn’t look like the one from the movies? Sure. But it also means the brilliant Flash show can keep doing its thing without worrying about accommodating elements from the movies. Right now, Hollywood is obsessed with creating franchises and interconnectedness. DC can go in the opposite direction and focus on making amazing single films. It’s much easier to tell one good story than to tell a good story that also has to mesh with nine other stories with an eye toward the nine other stories to be told later. Trying to beat Marvel at its own game is a losing battle. Marvel has had too much of a head start. If DC really wants to succeed, they need to be different, new. Not an inferior version of an existing thing.
What do you think? Any more thoughts on what DC should do? Let us know in the comments!