[Analysis] - DC Comics Movies, And What Will Come Of All This

As requested by a faithful reader, here is my take on the recent announcement by Warner Bros concerning their upcoming slew of DC property films: I'll believe it when I see it.

You want more? Considering that I gave the other guys 10,000 words, in the interest of being fair and balanced, I suppose I should give the guys across the street (and 3000 miles down the road) the same treatment. Though, I have to warn you, it won't be as much fun. Why not? Well, rather than having a rabid and willing fan base they can tease for the next half decade, WB and DC want to make money, and want to took like they aren't playing the chump. So, rather than shroud the next seven years in mystery like the House of Ideas, the House of... er, Reboots (I suppose) put all their cards on the table. So, we know exactly what they plan to do, and exactly when they plan to do it. So, in place of speculation and data analysis, DC gets... something else entirely.

Hit the jump for the meat and potatoes of The Plan.

As with the Marvel films, we'll begin with the raw data. Here is what DC and Warner Bros have planned for the movie-going public:
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – 25 March 2016
Suicide Squad – 5 August 2016
Wonder Woman – 23 June 2017
Justice League: Part One – 17 November 2017
The Flash – 23 March 2018
Aquaman – 27 July 2018
Shazam – 5 April 2019
Justice League: Part Two – 14 June 2019
Cyborg – 3 April 2020
Green Lantern – 19 June 2020
This list was provided by Warner Bros studio head Kevin Tsujihara via a share holder's conference call, rather than at a Con or via some massive audience-driven event, and that in itself is telling. This is all about the money for Warner Bros, and they've been looking at a way to break into the billion dollar section of the industry that only this past weekend pushed Guardians of the Galaxy up over the $400 million dollar mark (which makes it the most successful movie of it's narrowly attributed field this year).

That's not to say that the Marvel movies aren't about making money. Disney is, at this point, very happy about the $4.5 billion dollars it paid for the comic giant in 2009. It has made it's money back on that. The difference is, well, Guardians. If it were all about making money for the House of Mouse, Guardians never would have happened. It's too much risk for an untested, completely unknown and way too weird a concept. No other studio would have green-lit a film about space pirates that included a talking raccoon and a tree, written and directed by the guy who did PG Porn and Lollipop Chainsaw. What gets that movie made is the very small management team at Marvel Studios, an independent studio under the Disney umbrella.

That team is Kevin Feige and Alan Fine, with some input from the publishing arm of the company. Feige and Fine are passionate and only have to think and worry and be creative about one thing: Marvel movies. DC doesn't have that. Not in Geoff Johns, not in Jim Lee, not in Diane Nelson and certainly not in WB head Kevin Tsujihara. DC is a wholly owned subsidiary of Warner Bros, which in turn is owned by Time Warner. Johns and Lee look after the very very small fraction of the Time Warner family that put out funny pages every month, and Tsujihara manages a studio responsible for about 20 films a year. And risks that the complete financial failure of just one of them could result in his getting fired.

My point is, DC movies don't have any one person acting solely in their interest. They don't even have one division acting solely in their interest. And the only reason that DC are "behind" Marvel (though, they aren't, and we'll get to that) is that any DC movie that wanted to get put out had to vie for one of those 20 spots on the schedule. To get there, they had to prove a certain degree of financial success, because each one was a danger to Warner Bros' bottom line. Thus, a history of critical and financial disappointments resulted in a reasonable disdain for DC properties that didn't focus on a bat-shaped cowl.

With that in mind, DC's announced line-up is insane. Specifically, it's insane considering that everything it's based on is fundamentally untested. An announcement like this is akin to Marvel announcing everything they've done up to now, back after the release of the original Iron Man. Make no mistake, Kevin Feige likely had a lineup exactly like this in his back pocket in June of 2007, but he kept that list to himself. Why? In case something went horribly wrong, they could change their plans and not have to suffer the indignity of looking too arrogant or having to admit they made a mistake. Sony currently knows exactly what that feels like, with all the back-peddling they've had to do over their plans for the Spider-man license. DC's announcement stinks of both arrogance and desperation. Because it's not that they've fallen behind Marvel in any appreciable way, it's that they are behind in a trend.

The notion that DC is somehow playing catch-up to Marvel is preposterous. Since 2000, DC has released 17 movies based on their properties, 13 of which were through either Warner Bros or it's subsidiary New Line Cinema. Compare this to 32 films based on Marvel properties. The only thing that this proves is that for the first decade of the 21st Century, Marvel was able to license their properties to other companies, and was very prolific at it. DC was restricted to releasing films through Warner Bros, or extremely rare examples where Warners allowed another company to license a work (remember, if Warners didn't release a film and it was a success, that was lost money, and they weren't keen on that prospect). So, limiting the list to just DC films released by Warner Bros (13) and just films released by Marvel Studios (10), DC is still out ahead. DC's films have also been more profitable on average, thanks to the huge amounts of money brought in by the second and third Batman films by Christopher Nolan.

What DC is chaffed about is what everyone and their cat now thinks is the golden ticket to billion dollar box office returns: the shared universe. The prospect of creating a franchise of films, all interconnected and drawing in an audience desperate not to miss something that might be important later on. How many Thor fans might have went to see The Winter Soldier despite hating Captain America, just in case they missed something that might be really important in Avengers 2? Shared universes offer almost guaranteed ticket sales, or at least that's the theory based on the Marvel experiment, considering they haven't had a flat out financial failure yet (I stress yet). So fans of DC properties complain about DC not stepping up to match Marvel despite the fact that while Iron Man and Thor were jut starting out, DC was producing the most critically successful comic book movies ever with the Dark Knight series. But because Batman didn't sucker punch Superman at the end of Rises, it somehow doesn't count.

Putting all your eggs in a shared universe basket is just as risky, if not more so, than stand alone films. 2011's Green Lantern was meant to be a test of shared universe potential. Ryan Reynolds was a (presumably) bankable star that could anchor the casts of future films, and Green Lantern was an untested property that could have served as the connective tissue between celestial characters (Superman) and Earth (Batman). The film sucked hard, both at the box office and critically, so as has been Warner Bros' tendency, they nuked their long term plans and tried to bury the body where no one would remember they had left it (it is not random chance that a rebooted Green Lantern solo film is at the furthest end of DC's announced line-up). Then, like a spooked squirrel, they ran hard the other way and it's taken time for them to inch back up to the superhero genre. In the mean time, they've supped at the pile of salted almonds that is the Hobbit films.

The only reason that Man of Steel was made in the way it was, with as much studio confidence as it was, was because Christopher Nolan agreed to put his name to it. The film was marketed like a Nolan film, and Nolan's name was given a place of greater importance than the film's director Zack Snyder. Even so, the film made less than the studio was expecting, wasn't given the unanimous critical reception Warners thought it would, and had a sharp drop in box office returns in it's second week, the surest signs of bad word of mouth. But they had backed themselves into a corner, having already announced a sequel a week before release (Sony also got burned with this tactic with Spider-man). How to salvage what at that point I suspect Warner's considered a lost cause? Add in Batman, the only way Warners is able to conceive of guaranteed profit.

Zack Synder and David S. Goyer (whom, I personally believe, is poisonous) have opted to throw everything against the wall with Dawn of Justice. Whether it was them who convinced Warner Bros that this was the best way of "playing catch-up," or if it was a demand made to them by Warners will likely never be known. What is know is that, in principle, Warners is running with it. They are banking their entire production schedule on the an entirely hypothetical notion: that these movies will be successful. And on the surface, that seems likely. Certainly, pre-2007, any random on the street would have been far more likely to name any two members of the Justice League than any two members of the Avengers. But success, especially billion dollar success, is predicated on exactly one thing: quality. And I'm not convinced that they're capable of that yet.

DC and Warners really needs to be paying more attention to Sony right now than Marvel proper. Sony's Spider-man plans were less ambitious than DC's, but comparable. And the sub-par quality of the product that they expected the audience to swallow without complaint came back to get sick all over them. They've had to massively scale back their plans, with rumours of rebooting the entire franchise again within the framework of their previous reboot. If Warners is looking at the Marvel results as the best of all possible worlds, then they need to look to Sony as one of several worst case scenarios (the worst of course is complete, Lone Ranger-level failure).

I think that what is most important to take away from this announcement is how much of this announcement is, as of today, real. And how much doesn't have to happen. Batman v Superman is currently in production, with a majority of filming complete. This film will be released. Justice League is expected to begin filming immediately following the completion of the prelude, with the same cast and crew. It is likely to be released (remember though, the previous attempt at a Justice League film crashed only a few weeks before it was meant to go into production). Suicide Squad has an announced director (David Ayer) and is near signing a cast, and I rate as a probable eventuality. Everything after that is, at this point, entirely theoretical. Actors in the League film have all signed contracts that lock them in for solo films, but that is no guarantee that they will get them. The likelihood of characters like Flash, Aquaman or Cyborg actually getting their own films released to theatres will largely depend on how those characters are received in the group films. And if audiences react negatively, Warners has plenty of time to back down, and fill those spots with something they buy for cheap at Cannes.

Then there is another odd issue. Not mentioned in this announcement are other films that have been announced based on DC properties, like Sandman or Justice League Dark. Additionally, despite Shazam being announced as part of the Warner's plan, it has already been confirmed as being produced by New Line, and not part of the Justice League shared universe. I would guess that Suicide Squad will likely also fall under the New Line banner, and be similarly disconnected. And likely both will have lower budgets, to reduce risk to the parent company. This announcement also fails to mention the Batman solo film and official Man of Steel sequel, both of which have been promised by various persons. These films, while potentially coming after the 2020 cut-off, could also be "guaranteed" hits that could be slotted in to replace cancelled pictures along the way.

The biggest take away is that, 2020 is a long way away, especially in the movie business. Hell, 2017 is a long way off. Age of Ultron could tank, and poison the well in the eyes of other studios. Batman vs Superman could prove to be as critically split and financially fragile as it's precursor, forcing Warners into another bout of customary skittishness, resulting in a dramatic scaling back of plans to essentially another Batman trilogy. As much as Warners wants to get into something long term and profitable, at the first sign of trouble they will drop everything in favour of a new flavour of the month (or more Harry Potter spinoffs). They want to get Wonder Woman into theatres, in part to get a piece of the Hunger Games female audience, but also to beat Marvel to the punch of having a female lead superhero film (same goes with Cyborg and a hero of colour). But, movie studios remain frustratingly sexist, and Wonder Woman is a property they've been committed to, only to back down on before. So, while I remain hopeful that DC actually manages to accomplish something worth while with this endeavor, I'll believe it when I see it.

An editorial PS:

Personally, I love DC comics characters. I much prefer them to Marvel characters. Until the New 52 happened, my pull list was largely DC, and very few Marvel books. So I would love nothing more than to leave a theatre having just watched a perfect and timeless big screen translation of Wonder Woman, or the Flash (but not Aquaman: that is just a terrible idea). Nothing would make me happier. But Marvel has, to this point, simply made better movies (Batman Begins and Dark Knight exempt). And I'm sorry if you disagree, but Man of Steel is a fundamentally bad film. Not a bad superhero film, or a bad Superman film (though, yes, both of those). But from a storytelling point of view, it is at every level not good. If that is the starting point for a shared universe, one whose overall vision and tone is being shaped by Snyder and Goyer, than that is a worrisome place to start.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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