DC’s Movie Future

The big news for comic book geeks right now are the DC changes. The company is dissolving Wildstorm and presumably every other imprint besides Vertigo. All non-publishing operations are moving from New York to SoCal. There are a number of questions up in the air, but for the most part, that’s just a bunch of businessy things to think about.

The reasons for these changes make a lot of sense. DC’s had a problem for a while, lagging behind Marvel for a number of years and often playing copycat to try and catch up. The company has had a broader scope of comics printed, under a number of different imprints, but nothing’s seemed to catch on.

Step one, it seems, is to remove a lot of dead weight. I imagine that in the next few months, they’ll announce how they’ll handle the various creator-owned properties, whether it’s by moving them under the Vertigo banner or something else will remain to be seen.

What’s considerably more fascinating, to me, is a quote by DC head honcho Diane Nelson where she says that they aren’t Marvel. Obvious, of course, but upon consideration, it’s a very smart move.

Marvel’s approach to movies is well understood to be building a universe that will culminate, of sorts, with the Joss Whedon Avengers film in a couple years. I imagine that, if it’s a successful experiment, it won’t stop there, but I don’t get the sense that they’ve got a plan that extends much further until they see how it goes. This eggs in a basket strategy is probably driven by necessity. Due to a number of financial issues Marvel had over a decade ago, the company sold off the rights to a number of characters. They can’t do anything, film-wise, with the two biggest characters under the company’s publishing banner: Spider-Man and Wolverine. (Held by Sony and Fox, respectively.)

In fact, given the attempts under Avi Arad to license out the over 6000 characters in the Marvel universe, many of the more well-known characters are effectively gone for good. (It’s entirely possible that the rights could lapse, but I believe that’s only happened with Hulk. All other major properties have some sort of film in production.) This is a big issue because the money is made on the big screen (and subsequent DVD sales) rather than in the monthly issues. Marvel does the latter very well, and the former was elsewhere. (This last point is what makes the Disney purchase seem so odd.)

Enter the Avengers. Take the remaining characters, most of them second-tier, and hand them off to good directors and such to create a movie universe unlike anything that’s been done before. It’s great branding and gets the word out that this is the Next Big Thing. So long as the films are good, then everything will be hunky-dory. Luckily for Marvel, Iron Man was very good, so things are getting rolling. The Avengers seems like a dream come true: a real superhero team-up film on the big screen. Awesome, right? And not a little bit lucky that they still had Cap, Thor, and ol’ Shellhead in-house.

DC doesn’t have that problem. For the most part, any character under the DC banner has the film rights in-house under Warner Bros. While Marvel’s been all over the place, the dream of a JLA movie has been kicking around at least since the late ’90s. Nothing came of any of those, partially because DC never seemed to be able to do anything besides Batman or Superman, and partially because getting a large cast of superheroes together gets unwieldy. Seriously, when you have too many characters, it’s not good cinema. Just one of the many problems that plagued X-Men 3.

So Marvel may have found the magic formula, however: individual films for a series of characters, then bring them together for the team-up. You don’t need to worry about backstory. And DC’s got a couple of Bat-films in the current series, a Green Lantern film out next year. Just need something new for Supes, work out The Flash and Wonder Woman, and you’re there, right? Easy enough to copy Marvel’s playbook… again.

However, Nelson’s quote indicates that (as of right now) they have no plans to do that. For a couple of reasons, this is probably the best decision. First, there’s the creative side. DC doesn’t have the same necessity. The movie studio isn’t force to use the second tier characters because their big guns are right there, and (at least in Batman’s case), extremely profitable and visible. When the third Batman film comes out, it’s going to do just fine. And Christopher Nolan’s also at work on a Superman film, which has a lot of justifiably high expectations.

However, Nolan’s indicated that he doesn’t really want to push Batman into a bigger group. The stories he’s filming work well on a closed level and I’m going to guess that Superman is going to get a similar treatment. Given that those two are likely tied up and unavailable because of that, it would leave any potential JLA movie in one of two problematic situations: either you film it without Superman and Batman, which doesn’t really scream JLA anymore. Ever since Grant Morrison started on the title back in the mid-90s, it’s been a team that’s the biggest heroes in the DCU, as it was when the team started. Ironically, Marvel’s gone with a similar strategy of late, by pulling Spiderman and Wolverine into the Avengers. However, they can’t match the lineup in the films.

To remove Batman & Superman leaves the league feeling a bit… Justice League International in feel, which is dating back 20+ years.  And unlike the Avengers, there’s a very important tone that needs to be set here. I really doubt any casual viewer is going to know that Wolverine and Spiderman are Avengers. In fact, I’d guess that seeing them in the line-up on the screen would be very jarring. But JLA has had a few seasons of cartoons in the past decade that were very well received and built naturally from the Batman and Superman animated series. Casual audiences, even if they weren’t regular viewers, are likely to assume any similar line-up.

The other option would be to make a JLA film without any connection to the series for the single characters. WB did try this, actually, even getting to the point where they had a cast including Common as Green Lantern and they had George Miller signed onto direct. For a number of reasons, that fell through. If nothing else, it would have been confusing to any audiences. Why wasn’t Christian Bale Batman there?

Well, that brings up the business reasons for avoiding a build-up to the JLA. Ultimately, any film is all about the money. The studio wants to get the best return for the smallest outlay. When you’ve got a multi-franchise series, those costs can build up. Marvel is famous for playing hardball with actors to keep those costs down. Terrence Howard was ousted for Don Cheadle apparently over a contract dispute between the two Iron Man films. The vast majority of the other actors have signed onto multiple picture deals at a relatively low cost, in order to make sure the later films in the Avengers franchise won’t see things spike. Samuel L. Jackson signed a nine film deal after Iron Man.

However, in order to do these things, there needs to be a clear plan ahead of time. WB had no such plan for Batman when they brought Christopher Nolan on board to revamp the character. While trying to do the team thing would have caused some creative issues, it would have also meant needing to negotiate with Bale and the other actors involved after they’d already been in one or two very successful films. This raises the costs considerably. Moreso if you consider that they’d likely have to placate Nolan in some way. (Note that WB seems very strongly inclined to placate him. Even his odd, experimental fare like Inception does very well for them.)

The flipside of the business is even more important. While JLA would be a fan dream film (my friends and I had a game of dream casting it over a decade ago), much as the Avengers film is, what’s the payoff overall. Batman by himself can do half a billion in the US. Superman in a good film can probably clear the triple century mark easily. Other DC heroes are likely at a lower tier. Sure, Green Lantern might have about the same public appeal as pre-Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed for $300m US.

DC is already able to look at Marvel for a template on what may happen. As I noted in my last post, the prognosis for the Avengers is… mixed. If it looked like the Marvel properties were building interest, then I think Diane Nelson would be less inclined to defiantly say they aren’t Marvel. But that hasn’t happened with Iron Man, and while we’re a Thor and a Captain America away from getting the Avengers trifecta, what’s the real expectation for those films, regardless of quality? $200m? $250m if they take off? Superheroes aren’t a guaranteed sale anymore. Iron Man was a right-place, right-time, lighting-in-a-bottle moment of everything coming together and hitting perfectly.

Maybe Green Lantern can do that, too. Martin Campbell is a very accomplished director, and has set the tone for the James Bond series twice, now. Ryan Reynolds has a ton of talent and charisma. And even so, that can’t guarantee it’s going to be huge. Big, sure, but not huge.

If the payoff isn’t a guarantee, why would DC even want to try and pull off a JLA film? It’s going to be more difficult, more expensive, and probably more uncertain than Marvel’s current effort. More than that, it’s going to feel like a bit of a copycat. Given that the DC publishing has been playing that game for most of the past decade and losing, why would they want to do the same for the films, when the stakes are so much higher.

No, carving out their own path is much smarter. While at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be anything really innovative at play than a typical franchise, that could change.

Consider the Green Lanterns. They’re already a super team of sorts built into the mythology. More than that, there’s a chance that they could go for something really unique and have a space-faring superhero adventure. Imagine some world building on the level of Avatar as a backdrop of warring Lanterns? Not saying it will happen, but it’s something that Marvel couldn’t easily replicate unless they decide to try and film the Annihilation saga.

And there’s no way they’re going to try and introduce the characters to do that. In that area, at least, DC’s got a head start. Go cosmic. But don’t go superteam. It’s not the smart play.

The Future of Marvel Moviedom

It was supposed to be better than this.

The promise that we were shown in 2008, which saw the rise of a new movie superstar (after a long and troubled career) and the beginning of the first major comic book universe was supposed to skip merrily along.

Marvel had given into that promise, with a series of films that created a franchise without quite being a series. We’d gotten Iron Man and it was brilliant (not perfect, no, but few films are, especially at this level). The sequence of films through 2012 was announced, and it read like a hit list of all the major players of the Marvel U remaining big guns that Marvel hadn’t signed off to Fox or Sony. We’d get Thor and Cap and then the whole Avengers team.

Awesome, right?

They’d lined up some great talent in there, starting with Kenneth Branagh directing Thor (really! Not a joke!) and culminating in the nerdgasm decision to let Joss Whedon helm The Avengers.

All they needed to do was get through the Iron Man sequel. All the same major talent is back, so they just needed to let Downey do his thing and set a few seeds for the future.

Well, now we’ve gotten the better part of two months to look at Iron Man 2. And I’m left to wonder what the hell happened.

Iron Man was a big surprise. It came out of nowhere, turned into a $300m film, and showed that superhero films could work without a top tier character. (True, it got blown out of the water by The Dark Knight, but take away Heath Ledger’s death and the distance between the two films would probably have been cut in half.)

Clearly, if Marvel wanted to get the ball rolling on their own movie production studio, they couldn’t have done it any better way. Following up the film should have been a breeze. Improving on it, business-wise, should have been the simplest thing in the world.

The number of sequels that outperform the well-received originals is immense. In fact, if you’ve got a film that audiences like, you can chuck out a sequel that is regarded as CRAP by everyone and still do better. Look at Transformers 2, which was made WITHOUT A SCRIPT and managed to earn $80m more than the first.

Iron Man 2 isn’t a bad film. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say it’s as good as the first, but it’s entertaining and has some great action sequences along with good funny bits. Downey is again perfectly spot-on for the role, and I don’t think anyone can legitimately complain about him as Tony Stark.

It opened very well, a good 30% more than the first. That’s the (current) fifth largest opening in history. It’s a nice improvement on the already strong opening for the original and while it did have some degree of audience rush (sequels tend to get that more than first films), it should have been an indication that it would outearn the original, and probably was expected to hit somewhere between Spidermans 2 and 3.

The weak slate of films that followed it up in May should have encouraged that. Just about every film released between Iron Man and The Karate Kid underperformed to massive degree. Robin Hood might be the quietest $100m earning film in history. Shrek 4 earned $50m LESS than its predecessor in the opening, and will end up as the lowest grossing film of the entire series by a wide margin. Prince of Persia and Sex and the City were both disappointments. And the best thing that can be said about the five films released post-Memorial Day is that Get Him to the Greek is going to do about as well as expected.

Against such a weak line-up, where should Iron Man 2 ended up? $350m? $400m?

After seven weekends in release, it’s crossed the triple century mark, but just barely. It’s going to pass $305m today. The good news is that Iron Man 1 didn’t get to $300m as quickly. In fact, it didn’t get there until its 48th day in release. (That would be this Friday, had it been released on the same date as IM2.)

The bad news is that at this point in its run, IM1 was earning twice as much per day as IM2.

In its 7th weekend, IM2 earned just shy of $2.9m. IM1 earned over $5.6m. IM1 didn’t drop below $3m a weekend until its 9th.

IM2 fell below half a million in daily takes for the first time last Thursday, its 42nd day in release. IM1 didn’t have that happen until its 60th day.

If you look at the day to day matchups between the two films, there’s a clear pattern. IM2 is ahead, thanks to the extra $30m it got for its opening, but the gap between the two is closing rapidly. The numbers it pulls in are about two weeks behind those for IM1.

Two months ago, the future of IM2 was very bright. It was going to be big, but nobody knew how big. Now, that future has dimmed a little. It’s still a big film (because any film that crosses $300m is big), but it has a best case scenario of matching the total of the first film. That’s BEST case. The easy path it had in May is gone. Now it’s almost two months into a box office run with a number of films that are going to take away business.

Now, I doubt anyone at Marvel, Paramount, or Disney is complaining. The international receipts are up from the first film, albeit not by a great amount (superheroes don’t tend to play nearly as well overseas), so they are looking at an overall improvement.

Next year they’ve got Thor hitting in early May and Captain America in July. The Avengers hits in May of 2012. And all of these are ushered in by a pair of $300m earners that have gotten high marks from audiences and critics.

But mightn’t they be a little worried? Thor and Cap don’t have the exceptionally high profile figure of Robert Downey Jr. to lead the film. So what sort of numbers are they looking at? They can’t bank on a break-out like IM1, so are they thinking that these are $250m films? $200m?

And what about The Avengers? That’s a huge wild card. On one hand, it’s going to play like a second sequel to Iron Man. But second sequels don’t tend to do as well as the first. This is especially the case if the first sequel is seen as a step down from the original. Look at the Matrix, Pirates, or Shrek films. All had a very well received original, huge explosion of business for the sequel, and then rather large drop-off for the third. Iron Man might be in the same boat, except it hasn’t seen the explosion of business.

That could be another point of concern: Perhaps the first film saturated the market. Anyone who was interested in any superhero besides Batman or Spider-Man saw it so there’s no room to grow. There’s only room to shrink.

There’s another possible problem. One criticism levied against IM2 is that it spent too much time building the universe at the expense of the story of the film itself. There were seeds planted for Thor and the Avengers that didn’t feel quite necessary to tell the story at hand. What if non-comic fan audiences don’t care about that stuff? What if it’s actually a detriment?

Next year the two films released are sure to play into those Marvel Universe elements. Hell, Captain America even has the Avengers connection right in the title. If those elements aren’t going to play well, this could be a well-intentioned but unfortunately doomed experiment.

And Joss Whedon’s Avengers film will probably be yet another in his long string of disappointments.

You can be sure that on the other side of the business, DC/WB is keeping a close eye to see what happens while they’re gearing up to produce Flash, Wonder Woman, and new Superman films. If the universe element doesn’t play, you won’t be seeing a JLA movie any time soon, no matter how well Green Lantern does.

And if The Avengers bombs, no worries. Batman 3 is going to hit a couple months later.