If you didn’t think the rivalry between two of the biggest comic book publishers in the country, DC Comics and Marvel, didn’t extend to their production studios you’d be mistaken. Just as important to move copies of the latest Batman or Avengers story arc it’s equally if not more important to get those properties in live-action form and in front of mass audiences. The payoff can be huge for their respective parent companies. There’s a billion dollar prize when a movie franchise is done right. There are only so many superhero stories to tell at the movie complex and so with a huge archive of material for both companies the fight for eyeballs has led to television. Recent announcements have superhero and supernatural characters coming to fill the small screen for years to come. The competition even spurred Warner Bros to finally take advantage of their comic book catalog and answer the gauntlet thrown down by Marvel. The question is and has always been what’s taken WB so long to bring more DC properties to fruition?
In 2008, as Warner Bros. released the much-anticipated sequel to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Batman Begins’ starring an Oscar-winning performance for its ‘Joker’ in Heath Ledger was the The Dark Knight, Marvel Studios was already basking in the box office glory of its first of many hits with Iron Man. The previously unheralded comic book character of Tony Stark suddenly became a household name because of the star power and charm of former troubled movie star, Robert Downey, Jr. It sparked a new phase of movie development with the independent movie production arm of Marvel that would go on to spawn Iron Man 2 and 3, Thor 1 and 2, Captain America: First Avenger, and The Avengers. With over $5 billion in worldwide ticket sales combined there’s no stopping Marvel now. It has more movies planned in another phase and obscure characters be damned they’re making them and will probably be successful as long as their magic touch continues.
Meanwhile, Warner Bros. was quite content to focus their energies on the Batman franchise because much like their publishing counterpart, the Dark Knight, is their cash cow, a reliable source of revenue when all else fails. All Batman all the time. It currently publishes about eleven different Batman-centered comics not including the numerous Batman-related books or “Bat-family” books featuring associates like Nightwing, Batgirl, Batwoman, Batwing, etc. This helps explain why there’s been seven big screen adaptations, more than any other DC character, since Tim Burton’s hit, Batman, in 1989 and another reboot is on its way.
The studio dabbled with other comic book properties since 2008 but were not able to find much success. The ambitious but complex adaptation of the seminal graphic novel, Watchmen (2009), did not resonate with audiences, Jonah Hex (2010) was dead on arrival and Green Lantern (2011) barely scraped by to make its production money back. Luckily, in 2012 Nolan returned to cap off his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises and once again rescued the studio with a billion dollar haul. So what does a studio do about to lose its golden goose? It plans for more Batman movies of course. Except this time the comic book movie making business had changed. While WB was taking their time putting their eggs in one bat-cave Marvel was already wrapping up their first phase of movies with more on the way. They were getting lapped by the competition who seemed more spry, agile and efficient.
Marvel had twice as many hits with 4 different movies to WB’s 2 Batman movies over the same time period. This doesn’t include the properties that Marvel sold the rights to like X-Men and Spider-man who were being pumped out by other studios. It becomes crystal clear to WB that not only is Marvel a savvy, methodical, movie-making juggernaut they realize they are leaving money on the table as the appetite for superheroes by the public is growing and being fulfilled by their rival. Warner Bros. turned to another DC Comics icon in Superman.
Now Superman has had a shaky box office history. The most beloved films appeared in the late ’70s with Superman: The Movie and Superman II followed by a trail of sequel roadkill culminating in the failed reboot attempt of 2006’s Superman Returns. The studio could not afford to screw it up again so they enlisted the help of Nolan as producer and helmer of other DC movie projects, the aforementioned Watchmen and 2007’s 300, was director Zack Snyder. The result was a darker more action-packed version than ever seen on film before and in 2013 Man of Steel became a bona fide hit. Jackpot, right?! What’s next?
What came next was a hastily prepared announcement at the San Diego Comic Con. At least it seemed that way. On stage a Man of Steel actor quoted from a graphic novel unrelated to the project and a combined image of the Superman and Batman symbol on a screen and you have a sequel featuring the Dark Knight. No official title. No cast announced. An idea and an image. Snyder returns as director with the original Man of Steel cast. Great but wasn’t there more forethought than this? I think the studio was pinning their hopes that Man of Steel was a hit before moving forward. If it bombed then they could lick their wounds and rethink another approach of making their characters relevant again if at all. If one of your most iconic superheroes of all time tanks at the box office it not only looks embarrassing but questions the studio’s competency. Luckily, it was a hit but what was the plan going forward?
Would WB follow the Marvel blueprint and introduce heroes in solo movies leading to a team-up in a Justice League movie? A Justice League feature has been rumored for years and even one was in development but that awful attempt was abandoned. Warner Bros. CEO had openly stated they want to make more hero movies and should make more. Wanting and making are two different things because their plans aren’t exactly known. So since the announcement of ‘Batman vs. Superman’, tentatively titled according to screenwriter David S. Goyer, reaction from fans has been mixed with a lot of speculation as you can imagine about the ramifications of the coupling to casting to future movies with other heroes. The assumption is that after this sequel Batman will get a reboot with Ben Affleck in the batsuit again and possible directing duties for it and maybe the eventual Justice League movie. Wonder Woman and Flash are rumored to have their own movies. No word about other JL members.
No other hero has been more deprived of exposure than Wonder Woman despite fan outcry and 40 years as a feminist icon. She is considered one third of DC Comics “holy trinity” along with Batman and Superman yet not one theatrical movie has been made. The boys have had 13 films but the most popular woman in comics has had zilch. This needs to be rectified now! Not only because it’s the right thing to do but if not Marvel with their flexibility and aptitude could turn a super-female solo film around before them.
Meanwhile, on the television front DC and Warner Bros. had been more successful and interested in bringing live-action and animated features to TV. The animation division was unsurpassed in quality and success. Bruce Timm, producer/writer/animator, was involved in making a long list of Warner Bros animated projects that included Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Batman Beyond, and direct-to-DVD features. In live-action, Smallville capped a successful 10 year run chronicling the teenage angst years of Clark Kent and last year the producers and writers of the failed Green Lantern movie redeemed themselves with the dark Green Arrow hit series, Arrow, on The CW network. WB opened up the catalog and introduced another DC character and this time it resonated with the target demo. Perhaps this was an epiphany for the studio. Other characters can be hits given the right approach. This was a great opportunity to capitalize on the show’s success and use it as a springboard for other properties. Not so fast. If there’s anything that breeds complacency at WB it’s success. To be fair, they did try and development other shows that fell apart. Aquaman went nowhere and a David E. Kelley Wonder Woman pilot was atrocious and not picked up. There is another young Wonder Woman pilot in a holding pattern at the CW but there was no grand design to expanding and tying the DC universe together. Any expansion would have to wait.
Again Marvel saw an opportunity to make the most of their Disney/ABC infrastructure and decided to create a show that is part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ties in directly to theatrical releases. The much anticipated show, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, debuted this year to record ratings and despite the subsequent slide still holds on to that key demo advertisers love, men 18-49. The winning streak for Marvel continued. Everything they touched turned to gold. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World were also released this year and they were blockbuster hits. Even television production was a triumph. WB/DC no longer had a toehold on superhero-related shows. What was WB to do in light of Marvel’s infiltration of a medium they thought they had to themselves?
In a shocking turn of events, announcements soon came from Warner Bros. that they were developing more programming based on DC properties. All of a sudden the “fastest man alive” - The Flash - was spinning off Arrow into his own show. Then Gotham received a full season order without a pilot chronicling the early years of Gotham City’s Commissioner Gordon. Next came Constantine based on the supernatural detective John Constantine. What was going on? A member of the Justice League, a supporting Batman character, and the more obscure character from DC’s Vertigo imprint are being developed to be on the small screen? Is this an alternate reality? They are so brazen they’re even developing a show based on someone called Hourman. Warner Bros., unlike Marvel, owns the production rights to all of their comic book properties and could have exploited them whenever they chose over the last 40 years. Instead they concentrated on mostly Batman and Superman. Now they’ve embraced the possibilities. Sadly, it may have been the pressure placed by Marvel with their adept and strategic vision of their properties that forced their hand.
So now WB has risen to the challenge and took back the television mantle. Season two of Arrow is off to a great start and a slate of shows are on there way. All is well. Until of course Marvel not only raises the stakes but changes the game completely. Marvel announced it would produce FOUR shows in association with streaming giant Netflix over several years based on Hell’s Kitchen heroes - Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Iron Fist. And much like their movie franchise those shows would lead up to a team-up mini-series, The Defenders. Bam! Just like that Marvel had eclipsed the shine from DC and entered the emerging technology of subscription streaming that has seen a new wave of original programming taking the television industry by storm. Now viewers will be able to binge watch their favorite Marvel heroes on TV or digital device. Advantage: Marvel. For now at least.
The silver lining of course is that Warner Bros. is looking to DC for more material than just the old stand-by;Batman and Superman. Rumors are rampant for villains and additional heroes in the Man of Steel sequel. Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor, and Darkseid have been mentioned but nothing is for certain. If there is ever going to be a Justice League movie they need to hurry and get them in production now. The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, and Green Lantern need to appear somewhere somehow. They could reboot GL with the popular animated version, John Stewart, and add some racial diversity. Something Marvel is doing already with The Falcon.
One character that is ripe for audiences is Shazam. A kid who transforms into the mighty adult Shazam by way of magic is full of possibilities. Justice League Dark, the supernatural collection of heroes, is in development so says director Guillermo Del Toro. Warner Bros is taking a wider view of the DC universe for once and its rivalry with Marvel only benefits fans that have yearned for these characters to be adapted to film and TV. Marvel figured out how to bring the best of their comic books to life and are on a roll. WB has been at it longer but were hampered with tunnel vision. Now that their eyes have been opened to the possibilities it’s vital they get the next movies right and get organized to eventually get to a Justice League movie. I don’t know if they have the leadership to make it happen but it will have to be now or never.
- Tom Perez has been named chair of the Democratic National Committee. He was Obama's Labor Secretary.