This article contains spoilers for Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (well, what’s in its trailer), Iron Man 3 and Man Of Steel
Marvel Studios are doing pretty well at the minute. Their 12 films have never taken less than $130 million in worldwide box office, they’ve had at least one film in the ten highest grossing of the year since 2010, and they’ve scheduled more films to come out regularly until the end of the decade.
The challenge for Marvel is how to keep this going. After 12 films and unprecedented success, you risk growing stale, audience fatigue, and intense focus on your work. What was once the alternative becomes the mainstream, and reacting against a successful style seems fresh in comparison.
DC Comics’ extended universe has – more so than other mooted film universes – the history and back catalogue to support a similar franchise to Marvel. What’s more, the filmmakers have had a chance to look at what works and what doesn’t, to react against their competitor and make their product distinctive.
Of course, DC and Marvel comics already have different approaches in their comics, and based on what we’ve seen so far it looks like continuing to their cinematic approaches. Comparing their opening gambits, Iron Man told the story of a billionaire weapons developer realising he can do something better with his life, told with screwball wit and verve. Man Of Steel retold Superman’s origins in an unusually pessimistic take. Superman was an alien in post 9/11 America, and Pa Kent was now so wary of what the country would do to his son that he’d rather die than be saved by him.
Heck, it was depressing.
It also made double what the first Iron Man film made in the US at least (and trounces it in box office taking even when adjusted for inflation), and for all that it was divisive it succeeded in establishing a distinctive take on Superman. Considering all the previous iterations, that’s no mean feat.
Now, though, DC have got a whole load of characters to introduce to cinema audiences, and a chance to make their mark. Their big advantage is a chance to improve upon a successful formula by being different. Marvel have a problem of familiarity, whereas DC have the chance to shake things up and overtake their opponents in a now crowded market. In some ways they’ve already done this. Despite Marvel’s five year head start, DC are likely to have a female superhero movie in the cinemas two years before them, and also bringing in more black, minority and ethnic actors into title roles.
It’s also tweaked the conventional narrative with Man Of Steel. It alters the standard ‘likeable man gains powers, has hubristic failure, overcomes this and wins by punching lots of stuff’ template, and instead goes for ‘Broody McBroodalot explains that the symbol on his chest means hope before absolutely nothing hopeful happens’. In Iron Man 3 the bad guy is killed by the good guys too (albeit less viscerally), but there’s a happy ending after that. Not so in Man Of Steel, which takes this formula, stretches it, and turns the act of defeating your enemy into a decidedly un-super moment.
To actual diverge totally from the template established is unlikely. These are all stories based on comic books, after all, and comics are just one of many ways of telling versions of familiar three-act tales. As the cliché goes, ‘clichés are clichés because they work’, and once established are there to be clung to or reacted against.
Optimism is, though, a persistent pleasure. The hope comes from the initial footage of Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, where we have two different approaches on display, and the excitement of relatively unknown characters – villains at that – and a pop culture icon coming to the screen. However these are marketing, and that’s what marketing is supposed to do.
If you attempt objectivity – which is to say, you don’t achieve it but you give it a bloody good go – then the big advantage is arguably a weakness; DC are clearly behind on this and playing catch-up, and so run the risk of coming to the party as it’s winding down. For argument’s sake – and seeing as Marvel and DC have made plans, and Field Of Dreams tells us this works as a long-term strategy – let’s say that comic book films are maintaining their self-fulfilling success. The other risk is that they overcompensate, short-term, by trying to give the audience what they want.
This trailer contains spoilers. Arguably too many spoilers.
Although, counter-arguably, the information already existed, based on the announced film schedule and the line up of the Justice League. However, the central idea behind Man Of Steel is one that places Superman in a situation where he can’t fulfil his traditional heroism, so if that is the foundation for the entire cinematic universe it should be liberating. John Landis’ example of how to kill a vampire (‘You can kill a vampire any fucking way you want, because vampires don’t fucking exist’) is a case in point.
The generalisation concerning the distinction between DC and Marvel is that one is morose and brooding where the other is in the midst of a global dry wit virus. Fundamentally, though, this is an issue of tone rather than plot. As there are apparently only seven plots, we’re used to similar stories, and suggesting that comic book films attempt to move away from their source material – or their expected denouement – is met with empowered dissenting fanboys. Their wrath has helped take down Spider-man and The Fantastic Four, and that won’t be unnoticed at DC Entertainment.
Relatively speaking, Man Of Steel came out unscathed from its new takes on established characters and mythos, even if the arguments about it will rage for longer than its fight scenes. It made more money than Batman Begins and Iron Man, and did better in America than the franchise busting Amazing Spider-Man 2, but made less worldwide. Critical response was as divisive as you’d expect (Metacritic has it at 55%, Rotten Tomatoes 56%).
So, asking the creative forces behind the DC Extended Universe to take into account the available evidence, it’s probably safest to stick to the template. Yes, there is something to react against and a chance to seize the initiative, but to establish a franchise money needs to be made. Star Wars has demonstrated that a well-made, charismatic film in a legacy franchise can thrive even with familiar plot beats.
Batman V Superman might well surprise us again, but deep down we all know that it doesn’t actually have to.
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