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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Building A Better Superhero Universe: Marvel vs. Warner Bros. vs. Fox

It all started with X-Men.

Sure, you could make the case that the superhero movie craze really started with Blade, but the truth is, it was X-Men where a recognizable comic property became a fairly large hit at the Box Office after the crash and burn of the original Batman franchise. X-Men grossed a little under 300 million dollars worldwide. Such a total would be a disappointment by today's standards. This is a testament to just how big superhero movie franchises have become since.

But now, beyond incredibly large box-office expectations ("1 Billion Dollars or it's a failure!!") and massive scale budgets that usually range from 150-250 million dollars a film, the end all dream of fans has been the idea of translating the interconnected world of superhero comics on the silver screen. As we obviously all know, that changed in 2008 when Jon Favreau, really just as a winking joke, inserted a Samuel L. Jackson cameo into the end of Iron Man. Since then, every major studio that has their hands on a comic property or three is attempting to replicate Marvel Studios' incredible success. From a film obsessive and comic book lovers perspective, What are they doing right? Where are they stumbling? What would I personally wish they'd do differently? I'm going to take a look at the key three examples and give my (hopefully coherent) thoughts on the respective "universe building" plans as they currently stand and have been rumored to expand out further.

Disney/Marvel Studios: The King of the Hill
There's a myth out there that Marvel Studios had a massive plan from its inception to build a huge cinematic universe that fans of the genre could get behind. Sure, SHIELD was always a part of the first Iron Man insofar as Agent Coulson was going to be a recurring character if sequels were warranted, but as noted above, the Nick Fury cameo appearance post-credits was literally a last minute addition by Favreau. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige recognized just how much buzz this created amongst the film's fans that they quickly went and added a Tony Stark cameo and some SHIELD references to The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man was a big hit (grossing 585 million), The Incredible Hulk was not (263 million), but the buzz on fans' lips were "is there going to be an Avengers movie?". From there, an actual plan began to form with Feige rolling out their self-entitled "Phase One" line of films, which included Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all leading up to an Avengers team-up film. It was ambitious, it was exciting, and it was the first of its kind. 

It also stumbled out of the gate a tad. 

Iron Man 2, while not a disaster for the studio, was certainly a messy proposition critically and still arguably their biggest misfire to date. It was a film that couldn't decide what it wanted to be, a lead-in to the Avengers or a proper sequel to Iron Man, amongst other tonal problems. While it made a little more money than its predecessor due to overseas excitement for an Iron Man sequel, word of mouth was tepid, and another mid-stream adjustment was going to be required. Enter Joss Whedon.

Whedon had been a long time "geek favorite" due to his work on television series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He had also flirted with superhero cinema in the past, having written scripts for potential Wonder Woman and Batman films in the early 2000's. In mid 2010, Feige brought Whedon on-board to not only direct the eventual Avengers film, but to also guide their remaining two films (Thor and Captain America) into a smooth transition over to the big team-up film. It was also at this time that they cast the remaining Avengers in Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, and Jeremy Renner, and they introduced this crew along with their other already cast members of the team (Downey, etc al..) to one of the most explosive debuts ever at a San Diego Comic-Con. It was a fast and intensive process, it also worked like gang-busters, wiping away some of the trepidation caused by Iron Man 2. Whedon's presence could be felt in both of the films, to a lesser extent in Thor where he simply laid groundwork for the Avengers in a post-credit scene he directed himself, and outright in Captain America where he did an uncredited polish on the script. Both films were fairly well received, with Thor particularly doing well at the Box Office for lesser-known property (grossing 449 million). This put The Avengers in a perfect position to become the "zeitgeist hit" of 2012, grossing 1.5 Billion. Even if you hadn't seen the movies preceding, you still needed to see the movie everyone else was catching. Marvel then continued to move quickly by rolling out its Phase 2 (Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy ramping into the Avengers sequel). The first of which, picking up Tony Stark's threads from Avengers put in a position to itself gross over a Billion dollars. (Interesting to note, it's also the only set of sequels in Marvel's lineup to use numbering, probably due to the position that the directionless Iron Man 2 placed them in).

In all, Marvel Studios looks to be sitting pretty, particularly now that they're the standard-bearer for how a comic book film universe should crop out (note that I said the standard-bearer, not the blue print). So if they're getting so much right now, what are they doing wrong? The biggest issue is the lack of personality of in their films. Marvel has been known to be notoriously penny-conscious when it comes to their productions, and while this hasn't trickled down to their casting (other than the woefully miscast Don Cheadle taking over for Terrance Howard when Marvel wouldn't meet his demands), it certainly shows in their behind the camera options. Whedon, for all of his cult following, was not exactly an in-demand director. The biggest thing he had picked up post-television products was directing an episode of The Office for NBC. And while his scripting for Avengers is incredibly crisp, his behind the camera work is a bit on the pedestrian side. It's pretty telling then, that pre-Iron Man 3 that Whedon was the most interesting director of the bunch, as prior to, Marvel had chosen an assortment of journeymen to take on their properties. Capable enough in all, but all very safe, making Marvel's output feel a bit more like product than quality filmmaking. Iron Man 3 and Phase 2 is a mixture of both the good and the bad. Shane Black was an inspired choice for the third part of Stark's adventures, bringing a sense of style that hasn't really been a part of the Marvel oeuvre so far. For their Thor and Captain America sequels, the studio went with more of an unknown set of directors in Alan Taylor (known mostly for his work in Game of Thrones) and the Russo Brothers (veterans of the cult hit series Community). The unknown quantity of their work in the feature film space leads an element of intrigue to both productions that could easily go either way.

What's more interesting are their prospects for 2014 and beyond. Guardians of the Galaxy, directed by James Gunn (a bit more of a Shane Black-esque choice), is a big risk for the studio. It's the first of these superhero properties that doesn't draw from an iconic character set. Even some hardcore comics fans know very little about the more space-opera based Guardians. Will audiences be willing to accept a talking space raccoon? The other big issue is, Robert Downey Jr., while returning for two forthcoming Avengers sequels, will not be coming back for any further Iron Man films, Marvel's big money making solo hero to this point. The question becomes, what do they make of Phase 3? There are three unannounced films at this point, with only Edgar Wright's Ant-Man (maybe the first bit of auteur/unique lensing they'll have produced) as a 2015 release following the just announced title of The Avengers: The Age of Ultron releasing earlier that year. There are rumors of Doctor Strange and Black Panther films, but at this point, it's all up in the air. Here's hoping we see a little more risky film-making coming by this November. Now that Marvel also has the rights back for Daredevil, The Punisher and Blade, I would also like to see them dig a little deeper into their "urban/street level" heroes. Daredevil has the possibility to be their version of Spider-Man as they don't have the ability to make that movie under their own banner currently. A little more variety could go a very long way, perhaps they'll appear in this SHIELD television series in some capacity, if it lasts. Another issue for Marvel is that they're missing an entire half of their rich universe in the lack of being able to use anything related to "mutants" and the X-Men, other than two shared characters in Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, who are slated to appear in The Avengers: Age of Ultron and the former will be appearing in Fox's latest offering detailed below.

Warner Bros/DC Entertainment: Trying to Catch Up
Interestingly, Marvel wasn't the first to try their hand at putting together at a kind of super-hero team based film. Warner Bros was reeling after 1997's massive critical and commercial flop Batman and Robin. After numerous attempts to get the franchise revived (Batman Triumphant, Batman Beyond, Batman: Year One). They eventually settled on a Wolfgang Petersen helmed Batman vs. Superman film, as a way to jumpstart both moribund and consistently stuck in development franchises in 2002. The film had even been cast, according to rumors, with Jude Law coming in as Superman and Colin Farrell playing Batman. Whether this would have combined the Burton and Donner versions of the characters specifically is up for debate. Regardless, this film would not come to pass, as just as soon as Warner Bros. greenlit the film, Petersen left to film Troy. Warner Bros. was back to the drawing board and resumed their plans to relaunch both characters. They'd find their muse in Christopher Nolan.

After accepting the job in 2003 to relaunch the Batman franchise, Christopher Nolan was the first auteur to develop a superhero film since Tim Burton and Ang Lee took their shots in the genre. His Batman Begins performed well-enough for a franchise on the mend (374 million), and was a critical success, so Warner Bros. decided to move forward with not only a sequel with Nolan attached but also a Superman film that had been long gestating and finally entered production in July 2004, having lured away Bryan Singer from the X-Men franchise to give Superman a new start. While his "Superman Returns" was well received by critics, audiences were a bit of another matter. The post-screening line being "it was okay, but when Superman going to punch something?", it also didn't help that Singer's slavish attempt at pulling from the Donner continuity created a sense of confusion amongst some audience members who had never seen those films before. While there were some rumors about possibly putting together a "World's Finest" film between the two takes, Nolan's resistance to such an idea and Warner's lack of confidence in Singer's take ended any possibility of cross-over therein. Warner Bros. would press forward with a Batman sequel and retool around what to do with Superman, with their eyes on possibly adapting another superhero from their pantheon, if not an entire team of them.

In 2007, while Nolan and his team were in the midst of filming "The Dark Knight", Warner Bros. hired director George Miller to adapt the superhero team (which includes Batman) Justice League for the big screen. They even got far enough in the process that they begun to cast the League members and put them through training. The young, unknown choices were generally received fairly negatively, these included Armie Hammer as Batman/Bruce Wayne. Fans and potentially some Studio Execs began to get concerned that having two different Batmen in unrelated franchises would cause of confusion amongst audience goers. Despite the extensive amount of progress made, Justice League: Mortal (yes, that was its title) was eventually scrapped due to filming location tax issues. It was a horrible idea in the first place, despite a couple of nifty casting decisions, I found Common as Green Lantern to be particularly inspired.
 After The Dark Knight's massive billion dollar success (zeitgeist!), Warner Bros. decided that they would attempt to conglomerate their DC properties into a full fledged entertainment division known as DC Entertainment, giving the nod to Diane Nelson as President. While prior to this, Jeff Robinov, who was at the time was the head of the film division of the company, had announced that Warner would produce four solo superhero films that would eventually lead to a Justice League team up film much like Marvel Studios plan. This idea was squashed by the new direction of the company, which dictated that they would be concentrating on solo films of their respective characters. Much of this turn-about was likely necessitated by Christopher Nolan's insistence that his Dark Knight series of films was a one-superhero world. Warner/DCE didn't want to create a Justice League property that wouldn't include Batman, so their plans for such an effort never quite took shape. That is, until they attempted it with Green Lantern in 2011.

In the Martin Campbell directed Green Lantern, Warner Bros. took their major shot (not counting aborted attempts at Catwoman, Constantine and Steel films) at producing one of their superheros on screen that wasn't Batman or Superman. The film introduced Amanda Waller, as a pseudo Nick Fury style stand-in, and some of the high concepts that were appearing during Geoff Johns successful revitalization of the comic ongoing at the same time. The movie was also terrible, an outright failure from start to finish and it completely excised any ongoing plans that Warner might have had to use Green Lantern as the launching pad for a shared DC Universe on film. Weeks after it crashed and burned, Geoff Johns, now Chief Creative Officer of DCE, and its producers flirted with the idea that a sequel was still possible. Who were they kidding really? And so, Warners once again resumed their concentration on Batman in Christopher Nolan's final iteration of his trilogy and were resolved that their next Superman film would be the place to begin their shared universe.

As it so happened, Nolan himself would provide that impetus for the relaunched of Superman. David Goyer, in the midst of cracking the story of The Dark Knight Rises with Nolan, relayed his idea for what a new take on Superman should. Nolan, so taken with it, decided to pitch the idea to Warner brass and they immediately green-lighted. One gets the feeling Nolan could have provided anything for them at that point and they would have given him the go-ahead, having also green-lighted one of his original projects (Inception) to what would also be a huge gross (around 850 million). While Nolan was not going to direct the film, he would help "godfather it" into production and select the person who would direct it. WB/DCE had approached Nolan to act as the "Kevin Feige" of a shared DC universe, but as a fairly serious filmmaker, his interests lied elsewhere. Warner Bros. once again hired a scriptwriter (Gangster Squad's Will Beall) to pen a Justice League attempt, which was negatively received and never got further than passing around at meetings with a few director possibilities.

What eventually would become the Zack Snyder directed Man of Steel, released just a few months ago, one year after Nolan's second billion dollar Dark Knight film, would have no connection to Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy. Despite some rumored negotiations that such a thing might occur and some shared team members (Nolan and his wife Emma Thomas in a producer role, Goyer scripting, Hans Zimmer composing), Man of Steel was clearly defined as its own universe from the "Nolanverse" by Snyder and Goyer. It also did quite well at the box office, earning nearly 700 million worldwide, though it ascertained a bit of a mixed response from critics. That mixed response led some to wonder, would there be a sequel? Man of Steel contained little Easter Egg-style references to a wider DC universe, including a Wayne Enterprises Satellite and LexCorp vehicles, and a special prequel comic written by Goyer detailed out a mythology for Kara Zor-El (aka Supergirl) that even had a reference to Thanagarians. Despite the fact that it didn't have any kind of post credits "stinger" that's become the norm, Goyer's world-building efforts utilized a good-deal of DC mythology. Would it be taken advantage of was the question. Finally this past weekend at SDCC, Zack Snyder officially announced a sequel to Man of Steel for Summer 2015 that would incorporate Batman to rapturous audience approval and quite a bit of excitement from the general public, with a Warner Bros/DCE press release quickly following. It has been made clear that there will be a new Batman cast for the sequel, and as far as rebooting Batman goes, this is a much cleaner way to do it than having some kind of "Amazing Spider-Man style reboot" retreading the same origin grounds that Batman Begins displayed quite capably. It had been reported by The Hollywood Reporter that an announcement for a Flash film in 2016 and a Justice League film in 2017 were to come that same day, but those have yet to officially come to pass. At this point, the torch has more or less passed from Nolan to Snyder.

My advice to DC and Warner at this point? Have a plan and stick with it, as you can tell, they've never really had a concrete idea of what they've wanted to do. Instead of committing to one course of action as Marvel eventually did, WB has been much more reactionary. One thing they're doing quite well is getting directors that have been able to put their personalized stamp on the characters, at least so far in the case of Nolan and Snyder. This should continue, but a gameplan needs to be mapped out. Perhaps it already is, and they're simply playing coy now. No one predicted that a Batman/Superman film was going to be announced at SDCC until an hour before the announcement was supposed to come. Perhaps they're keeping everything close to their vest, but at some point, they need to relax the nerves of fans and let them in on what's going on. Just this week, Goyer has been quoted as saying the title will likely be "Batman vs. Superman or (vice-versa)", all things are circular aren't they? I particularly like Collider's theory that if Batman is their Iron Man (Billion dollar franchise), Man of Steel was their Thor (great but slightly less return), Flash could be their Captain America, and Green Lantern as the failed character that needs reclamation ala The Hulk in Avengers. Hopefully they're rethinking the lack of a Wonder Woman film, or making her the focal point of Justice League, it would be refreshing to see a major tentpole action film with a female lead amongst all the boys. They still also lack a unifying head like Kevin Feige or Joss Whedon, which has led to alot of the mixed messaging that's plagued them over the years, though Goyer could get that nod as the most likely candidate having had experience as a producer for television. I will make one prediction though, I think Batman/Superman, whatever it ends up being called, is going to be a very BIG movie.


20th Century Fox: Making the Best (and Worst) of What They Have
Long before Marvel had its own film studio, they were a bankrupt comic book company. After the big collectors' bubble of the early to mid 90's burst, Marvel Comics needed funds. They found them in film studios looking for properties to develop. Marvel sold off a number of the film rights to their main line of characters including Spider-Man to Sony, The Punisher to Lion's Gate, and X-Men, Daredevil, and The Fantastic Four to 20th Century Fox. Fox got out the gate the earliest in the 2000's by producing the aforementioned X-Men film that started off the entire rush to get to filming properties like Spider-Man and the like. As stated before, Bryan Singer's X-Men was very well received, and led to two sequels, the first of which is still hailed by some as one of the best superhero based films of the entire genre. It also, funny enough, was the first actual team-based film based on a mainstream comic book property to hit the big screen. X-Men was a trail-blazer in many ways.

Fox also had their hand in developing some less than successful films in the early to mid 2000's utilizing the Marvel properties they had under their belt. In 2003, they developed Daredevil as their answer to Sony's Spider-Man films of the time that were smash-successes. It made 179 million. Enough to convince Fox to go for a sequel in Elektra, which was a pretty bone-headed decision. Elektra tanked and basically ended their progress on an actual Daredevil sequel, of which they would eventually lose the rights to. That same year, they produced the Fantastic Four, which was a critical flop but made around 330 million, two years later they produced a sequel that was only slightly better received (a case of "there's nowhere to go but up") but ended up making less money worldwide. Finally, Fox decided to return to the X-Men well by creating the dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the less said about it, the better.

With the Fox films (the first two X-men excepted), you can see a genuine lack of care regarding the source material, or even simple things like capable direction or a solid script. Up to that point, their films had been produced as an attempt to hang onto the rights for as long as possible (much like the current Spider-Man series), and they hired on basically whoever was willing to take it on. Comic Book films were mindless entertainment for Fox, nothing more.

By 2009, and the failure of Wolverine, Fox started to rethink their strategy a bit. Firstly, they semi-rebooted X-Men via X-Men: First Class and picked out a director worth his salt to helm it in in Matthew Vaughn (the first time they've done that since Bryan Singer, who incidentally produced and penned the story for First Class). The movie opened to quite good reviews, and while it opened to smaller numbers than its previous films, its positive reputation began to grow, particularly once it hit home media (not unlike Batman Begins, the film that started the whole reboot trend). In late 2012, Fox then hired comics writer Mark Millar, whose Kick Ass had recently been adapted by Vaughn just a year before, to become the "Joss Whedon" of their properties in an attempt to line up X-Men and any future Fantastic Four or related films. The exact specifics of his role are still a little unclear, as well as his involvement with any upcoming films in Fox's slate, but something is clearly happening there as Fox is beginning to finally develop its own sense of internal continuity between its films.

This seeding will actually begin this weekend with The Wolverine, a pseudo-sequel to the first Wolverine movie, but more of a standalone film that details Logan's sojourn to Japan and will provide some seeding between X-Men: The Last Stand and 2014's X-Men: Days of Future Past. The latter being crossover film that will bring together the original X-Men cast and the younger cast from First Class in what looks to be a very interesting time travel story, of which I'm always a sucker for, if told well. They hired James Mangold for this forthcoming Wolverine movie (originally they had Darren Aronofksy on board before he dropped out), which is getting okay notices so far, and Fox has also brought back Bryan Singer for Days of Future Past. There's quite a bit to be excited for, if you're an admirer of solid film-making, coming from this lineup. Josh Trank has also been lined up to reboot The Fantastic Four, and Jeff Wadlow has been hired on to craft (and maybe direct) an X-Force film. 

For a time, the question was more, what can Fox get right in relation to its Marvel properties? But it's possible the ship may be righting itself and if its all building to a big "Age of Apocalypse" style event-film, fans' derision of Fox's efforts may quickly turn around....maybe. Until we know more, and get eyes on Days of Future Past, it just makes for a nice teaser poster. For Fox, it all comes back to the X-Men, there are worse things.

In Conclusion...
Marvel continues to chug along as the head of the class, Warner Bros. MAY have found a plan finally but have made arguably the best of the superhero films along the way, and Fox is heading in the right direction hopefully. I never in my life thought that my childhood action figure fodder would find its way on-screen in such an immense way. It's unrealistic to assume that this bubble is never going to burst, and at some point, something else will grab the fascinations of fanboys and girls all over. Yet, we've had more than a decade of these films providing entertainment for everyone no matter which superhero group you may have a preference for. I guess in other words, I just want to say....thank you Hugh Jackman!   

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