In the upcoming 2016 Warner Brothers release Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ben Affleck will become the latest actor to play the role of Batman on the big screen. This comes not quite four years after The Dark Knight Rises, in which Christian Bale wrapped up his three-film portrayal of Gotham City’s resident vigilante.
What distinguishes Batman v Superman from prior Batman films is that it is both a reboot of the Batman film franchise, as well as a sequel to 2013’s Man of Steel, which was itself a reboot of the Superman franchise. Thus Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be the first time that Batman and Superman, without a doubt two of the most venerable and recognizable characters in popular fiction, have met on the big screen.
Warner Brothers has announced that nine more feature films adapting other DC Comics characters will follow Batman v Superman, all set in the same cohesive universe. If you’ve been watching movies and/or reading comic books at any point during the past seven years, then what DC and Warner plan to do over this eleven-film cycle might sound familiar to you. If you are reading this post, odds are pretty good that some tiny percentage of the $3.5 billion made by movies set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe came out of your wallet.
During the summer of 2008, Marvel Studios released Iron Man and Incredible Hulk, both based on characters from Marvel Comics, DC’s chief publishing rival. These were the first two installments in a series of films leading up to 2012’s The Avengers. With the release of Ant-Man in 2015, there are now 12 films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with ten more scheduled through 2019.
Ponder that last sentence for a moment: “With the release of Ant-Man in 2015….”
The fact that a C-list comic book character like Ant-Man can headline a $130-million-dollar movie which easily recoups its budget at the box office is a testament to Marvel Studios’ success at marketing previously obscure properties from a niche medium to a mass audience. It is a testament to the strength that the Marvel brand has built up in less than a decade. Before 2008, Iron Man was a character with virtually no name recognition outside of comic book fans. Now, as played by Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man has appeared in no less than six of the twelve films set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To put it another way, since 2008, Iron Man has appeared in twice as many movies as Batman and Superman combined. Those appearances have made Robert Downey Jr. the highest paid actor in Hollywood three years in a row. Playing Batman did not do that for Christian Bale. In the span of a few short years, Iron Man has become one of the most lucrative fictional characters on the planet, generating real-world revenue far outstripping characters who have been more deeply embedded in the popular consciousness for decades.
Funny thing is, none of this should have happened the way it did. Logically, DC should have gotten the jump on Marvel in creating a cross-media mega-franchise encompassing multiple characters. DC Comics became part of Warner Communications (now Time Warner) in 1971, linking up the comic book publisher with a major Hollywood film studio. At that time, Marvel Comics’ parent company, the Perfect Film and Chemical Corporation, was better equipped to produce Spider-Man Chewable Multiple Vitamins than a Spider-Man motion picture.
By the time Marvel Studios was formed in 1993, Warner Brothers had already released Batman Returns and was working on a third installment in the franchise. Warner also had the rights to produce any follow-ups to the 1978-1987 Superman films. Superman’s profile in the public eye was higher than ever before thanks to the heavily promoted “Death of Superman” storyline (he soon got better) that briefly pushed Superman comic book sales into the millions.
The deck of mid-1990s media was stacked in DC’s favor. DC Comics was part of Time Warner. The Batman film franchise was going strong, proving that DC’s super-heroes could make hundreds of millions of dollars for the parent conglomerate. Public interest in Superman was greater than at any point since the 1978 premiere of Superman: The Movie, priming audiences for a revival of the franchise. The synergy between DC the publisher and Warner Bros the film studio was perfect.
What I’ll be focusing on next time is what kept DC from launching the first cross-media super-hero mega-franchise when the time was so obviously ripe.
It can be summed up in two words:
I’m kidding, of course. Well, only partially. But there are two other words that would probably actually do a better job of summing up why DC was unable to put that Batman+Superman+comic+film synergy to good use:
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