The current state of the big comic book movie universes

Marvel, DC, Spider-Man and X-Men are each having their own cinematic universes - but how are they all doing?

Star Wars is the latest. With two films confirmed, and the plan being for a movie every year from 2015 onwards, Lucasfilm is set to follow the Marvel model and build a sprawling cinematic universe. But then, in the land of comic book movies specifically, there are four competing cinematic universes already in place, each of which is having successes and the odd problem or two.

So let’s have a look at the current state of them all, and their plans for the future…

The Marvel Cinematic Universe

2014 has seen the Marvel movie universe in rude health, and also a potential crack or two beginning to show around the edges. That said, there’s little doubt that Marvel is the template that everyone else – including Star Wars – is aiming to replicate.

The studio is halfway through its two summer 2014 releases, with Captain America: The Winter Soldier garnering strong reviews, and box office that significantly improved on its predecessor. Furthermore, there’s growing enthusiasm for James Gunn’s upcoming Guardians Of The Galaxy, which starts its global roll-out at the end of next month.

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Were it not for issues surrounding July 2015’s proposed Ant-Man movie, Marvel would look pretty much bulletproof right about now. After all, Avengers: Age Of Ultron is already the blockbuster to beat next year, with Joss Whedon reassembling the bulk of the original’s cast, with some tactical new additions.

Ant-Man, though, has highlighted a problem in the Marvel world. You probably know the story on this: that Edgar Wright had been developing the film for seven or eight years, that he’d penned the script with Joe Cornish, and that he’d assembled a cast that includes Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas.

However, mere weeks away from when production would presumably need to start, Wright walked away from the project. Furthermore, it’s since been suggested that he departed Ant-Man because he was unhappy with a revised script that he neither ordered nor liked. Marvel, on the verge of making a passion project film with a very individual director, blinked.

It drew attention to the fact that it has some form for this. There have been murmurings that neither Kenneth Branagh nor Joe Johnston (Thor and Captain America‘s directors) wanted to come back for the respective sequels. Furthermore, on Thor: The Dark World, Marvel removed Patty Jenkins from the director’s chair weeks after giving her the job. Her replacement, Alan Taylor, didn’t seem to have too happy a time either, and he’s gone off to make the new Terminator film, with no obvious sign of a return to the Marvel fold.

Now, directors and studios disagree and fall out all the time. What’s surprising about the Ant-Man parting is how close to production Wright walked, having invested several years and no small amount of creative energy.

It’s shone a light on Marvel’s Kevin Feige, one of the few studio heads within Hollywood with the power to get nine-figure movies made with a minimum amount of obvious parent company interference.

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Feige is no passive collaborator in Marvel’s films, and inevitably, some have suggested that in the ‘showrunner’ role he seems to have adopted over the Marvel movie universe, he’s not afraid to pull things back if he’s not happy with them. On the flip side of that, this is the man who hired James Gunn, Shane Black, Scott Derrickson, the Russo brothers and Joss Whedon to direct huge movies. But still: will Marvel be the place where interesting directors are welcome in the future, provided they’re not too individual in their approach?

The biggest threats

The Captain America and Thor movies are both expected to stop at three, so Marvel needs at least one of Guardians Of The Galaxy, Doctor Strange or Ant-Man to generate enough interest for a sequel. If it does that, then it can move onto phase four of its films with a continual mix of reliably performing sequels and new properties.

Further, it ideally needs to quell the perception that it’s not the most director friendly place to work (although it should be said that the likes of the Russo brothers and Joss Whedon have been firm in their praise for Marvel and Kevin Feige).

So, in good health?

Notwithstanding the current Ant-Man saga, it’s still in incredibly good health. Marvel Studios is perhaps the healthiest major movie studio on the planet at the moment, in fact, with a run of hits and sequels that have, without exception, outperformed their predecessors.

Confirmed future projects

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015), Ant-Man (2015), Captain America 3 (2016), Thor 3 (tbc), Doctor Strange (tbc), The Avengers 3 (2018).

Fox’s Marvel Movie Universe

To give Fox credit, it’s been quite clever about the way that it’s continually reinvented the X-Men series of movies without ever having to reboot them. Of the seven movies to date, it’s effectively painted over the continuity of two of them where it needs to (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), and even when it’s done something approaching a reboot with X-Men: First Class, it’s then tied it all back to the start with this summer’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past.

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After learning key lessons from its pair of Wolverine spin-off movies, there’s also a fresh appetite at Fox for more films outside the main X-Men line of features. A third Wolverine film, with Hugh Jackman and director James Mangold returning, is already confirmed. Gambit is getting a film to himself, with Channing Tatum taking the role. And it seems as though that long-mooted Deadpool feature, starring Ryan Reynolds, may be quietly gathering momentum.

Fox doesn’t just have the Marvel movie rights to X-Men though; it  also has Fantastic Four. It’s got its reboot in the works, with Chronicle director Josh Trank calling the shots, and it’s already announced a sequel (which Trank is unlikely to direct, given that he’s now contracted to do a Star Wars spin-off movie). Simon Kinberg and Mark Millar have both been appointed to consulting roles to oversee all of this.

Mind you, until recently, the X-Men series lived in the shadow of many of its comic book contemporaries at the box office. The top grossing X-Men film, until this summer at least, was X-Men: The Last Stand. Arguably the least liked of the series, Brett Ratner’s sequel took $459m, and only now has a film in the series broken the $500m barrier.

X-Men: Days Of Future Past, an ambitious blending of the films before it, certainly has problems, but it’s also got plenty to like. Crucially for Fox, it’s heightened interest in the cinematic X-Men saga, which it intends to capitalise on with at least three more films.

Fantastic Four is a less sure beast, but enough time has passed since Rise Of The Silver Surfer to let it have another try. The film has already generated plenty of debate over its casting, but the involvement of Simon Kinberg – whose presence hardly hurt Days Of Future Past – is surely a helpful one.

There’s plenty of room across Fantastic Four and particular X-Men to keep Fox filling this particular movie universe for some time to come. It just needs to make sure it builds on the momentum it’s finally found.

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The biggest threats

Plenty still hinges on the Fantastic Four reboot, due in cinemas next year. For Fox to put its plans fully into place, it would want the core X-Men and Fantastic Four movies both performing well at the box office.

In terms of X-Men, even though X-Men: Apocalypse has been confirmed for 2016, the involvement of Days Of Future Past director Bryan Singer is less clear. He’s been cited in a legal matter that’s likely to take up his immediate attention, and may leave Fox needing a new director for Apocalypse, a film that Singer had seemingly been keen to direct himself.

Also, at some point, Fox will need to find out whether Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is the glue that holds its X-Men films together. Jackman had talked about walking away from the role, but he seems re-enthused by it, and is set to make at least one more film, and probably more. Beyond that? Fox will want strength in depth where its X-Men films are concerned.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the faster turnaround between movies. The two year gap works in some distances, but not in others. Can the studio build in sufficient breathing room to correct things between films if it needs to? Without that, it risks repeating mistakes that many before it have made.

So, in good health?

Yes. The X-Men franchise is at the peak of its box office powers, and there’s little reason why it can’t keep growing if Fox continues to be bold with the films. Furthermore, rebooting Fantastic Four makes sense, and Josh Trank, on paper, is a fine choice. There’s still a long way to go, but Fox has made significant strides in the last few years.

Confirmed future projects

Fantastic Four (2015), X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), Fantastic Four 2 (2017), The Wolverine 3 (2017), Gambit (tbc)

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DC Movie Universe

Of all the movie universes in this piece, it seems bizarre that the DC one is the least mature. After all, it was Superman in the 1970s and Batman in the 1980s that effectively kickstarted the superhero movie genre in the first place. And yet, with two runs at the Batman franchise having run their course, and with Superman one film into a reboot cycle, Warner Bros’ DC movie universe is still in its infancy.

The one film we’ve seen under the current generation – it seems remiss to include Christopher Nolan’s firmly completed Dark Knight trilogy – is Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel. This didn’t do badly at the box office, even though it split audiences. It most certainly rebooted the Superman character on the big screen, grossing just over $650m. Interestingly, it was the non-US take that held this one back a bit, and that’s where Warner Bros will want to see real growth with its next projects.

As such, it’s done two things. Firstly, it’s gambled hard on Zack Snyder in the same way it gambled hard on Christopher Nolan. Appreciating that not even the most ardent Snyder supporter would call him a match for Nolan, it’s hard not to respect Warner Bros backing a filmmaker so clearly. Even if he’s a divisive choice.

The second thing is it’s basically throwing everything at its next two DC universe movies. Instead of giving us another standalone Superman film – and who knows now when we’ll get another one of those – the studio has Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice lined up for May 2016. As you probably know, this one will have at least Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in it, and more DC characters besides, in all likelihood.

This, then, is set to lead into 2018’s Justice League film, where DC borrows The Avengers’ approach and mashes in lots of superheroes into one film. It’s effectively doing Marvel in reverse: whereas Marvel built individual film series for its characters and then brought them together, Warner Bros will start by bringing them all together, and then launching individual series off the back of the Justice League film.

It’s a front-loaded strategy, and one that depends heavily on Zack Snyder winning people over with his next two DC films. If he doesn’t do that, then Warner Bros may find itself back where it was with Green Lantern – a movie that took nine figures at the box office, but had very few people thirsting for more.

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The biggest threats

The all or nothing approach that Warner Bros has taken is perhaps the biggest cloud on the horizon. If the gamble works, it will make up the many years of head start that Marvel has enjoyed. If it doesn’t, it puts the DC universe even further behind, at a point where other movie universes – off the back of several previous films – are finding their feet.

Furthermore, there’s the Snyder factor. We maintain that moments in Watchmen are outright brilliant, but there’s no getting away from the division over his Superman film. There’s genuine hostility from those who don’t like Man Of Steel, and that’s not a small number of people. That said, it sold lots of tickets, and earned Superman lots of fans as well.

To hand one man the keys to DC’s two biggest characters, however, is a massive risk. And, in truth, how many would have chosen Zack Snyder as the man to reboot Batman? It’s a tough challenge he faces. But you can’t accuse him, or Warner Bros, of shirking it.

So, in good health?

Hard to tell. There’s a lot of interest in the DC movie universe, and you only have to check out the internet meltdown that follows anything to do with Ben Affleck’s casting as Batman for proof of that. In fact, there’s arguably as much interest in DC movies as there is in Marvel, certainly where Batman and Superman are concerned.

Man Of Steel, on paper, was a successful reboot too, although far from a perfect one. But it worked a lot better than Warner Bros’ expensive attempt to get Green Lantern moving. So, at the very least, the potential is in place for the DC movie universe, and with a reported 11 films in development (although only five have effectively been confirmed), Warner Bros is heavily pushing this particular movie universe.

Confirmed future projects

Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016), Justice League (2018), Sandman (tbc), Fables (tbc), Justice League Dark (tbc)

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Spider-Man Movie Universe

Considering that The Amazing Spider-Man took $750m at the global box office, and that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 stands at $690m and counting, you could be forgiven for thinking that Sony is attracting no end of criticisms in spite of its movies being successful. Especially in the light of Fox celebrating X-Men: Days Of Future Past being the first in that series to pass $500m, it seems odd to bash Sony when its Spider-Man films have effortlessly passed that number each time.

What’s more, Sony has ambitious plans, and has been recruiting successful filmmakers to help fuel them. At least one more Amazing Spider-Man movie is on the cards, and it’s also recruited Alex Kurtzman to write and direct the Venom spin-off, and Cabin In The Woods’ Drew Goddard to perform a similar job on Sinister Six. If all goes to plan, Sony will be releasing a Spider-Man universe film every year.

But all isn’t going to plan. Irrespective of your views of the Spider-Man films, the harsh numbers tell that Sony is still being punished for its decision to reboot the series back in 2012. It could have had Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 4 ready for the summer of 2011, but instead went back to basics with a new team, and the box office has fallen off since. It’s not that there’s no interest in the Marc Webb/Andrew Garfield reboot. It’s just that there’s less enthusiasm than there was in the Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire run of films. The lowest grossing of Raimi’s Spider-Man films, without any 3D revenue bump, was Spider-Man 2, which grossed $783m worldwide.

Yet look deeper into the numbers, and Sony is getting half the battle right. The non-US grosses for the two Amazing Spider-Man films have been $495m and $497m respectively, with the second still bringing in money. Sony is seeing growth there. Spider-Man 3 was the peak of the series’ international box office to date, but the trend just about remains upwards.

Where it’s gone wrong, commercially, is that Spider-Man has lost its footing on home soil, but then this is a problem Sony has faced since the first movie. Whilst the non-US gross has increased, every Spider-Man film since the first has taken less money at the US box office. That’s where Sony has its shortfall. It needs to win back America.

There’s a broader problem too, in that the last two films have been less well received that Sam Raimi’s first two movies. Sony would also have wanted the Marvel trend to kick in, and for the second film to make substantially more than the first. That’s not happened though. But a $700m global take is still comfortably enough to springboard a few more movies.

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The biggest threats

That Sony isn’t winning over fans with what it’s doing. And in particular, it’s not winning over American fans. The US audience for Spider-Man movies is less than half what it was when the first film was released, and – crucially – there’s little sign of that decline being arrested. Appreciating that major comic book movies need to be aimed at a broader audience than the core fans, there’s still a lot of value in keeping the fanbase onside.

Andrew Garfield has also suggested – although crucially not confirmed – that The Amazing Spider-Man 3 is likely to be his last turn as the webslinger. That leaves Sony with a huge headache if true. It needs core Spider-Man films to keep this movie universe going, in the way that Fox has effectively built its X-Men universe around Wolverine. With Garfield gone, would the studio have to reboot again? Could it even get away with rebooting again? That’s a question that it may just have two years to come up with an answer to – and the health of the planned spin-offs may just depend on it.

One more big challenge: its most intriguing spin-off movie, The Sinister Six, will be a big Hollywood blockbuster with, presumably, villains as protagonists. That’s a huge gamble. We’d wager that Sony had an office trip out to see Maleficent, to see just how Disney managed to make that work.

So, in good health?

Stable, but with no dramatic signs of growth.

Confirmed future projects

The Amazing Spider-Man 3 (2016), Venom (tbc), The Sinister Six (tbc).

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