Since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has succeeded in transforming little-known comic book characters into billion-dollar franchise tentpoles, Iron Man being the single clearest example of this. This success has prompted Marvel’s chief publishing rival, DC Comics, to capitalize on its corporate relationship with Warner Brothers to produce a film using two of DC’s much better-known properties, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which they hope will anchor a shared universe of super-heroes drawn from DC Comics titles.
Even the Star Wars franchise, now owned (like Marvel) by Disney, has been reformulated along Marvel lines: a central “spine” of Star Wars movies will run concurrently with “anthology” films spotlighting the secondary characters of the franchise. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is changing how films are conceived and marketed across the board.
Explaining how Marvel was able to arrive at this position essentially means explaining how it was able to jump the gun on DC, a better-established and seemingly more media-friendly company, in establishing a mega-franchise connecting virtually all of its film output. And this means examining the things that DC/Warner failed to do when they had the opportunity.
In 1993, following the success of the first two Batman movies, and amid the media coverage of the “Death of Superman” storyline then running throughout DC’s monthly Superman comics, Warner Brothers reacquired the rights to make new Superman films from Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who had produced the Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve between 1978 and 1987. Warner Brothers then began to develop a movie that would adapt the “Death of Superman” comic books. By 1997, this had coalesced into Superman Lives. Kevin Smith wrote the initial script, Tim Burton was hired to direct, and Nicolas Cage was cast as Superman. Sets were built. Costumes were made. Everything was ready to go.
What happened next has been chronicled in fascinating detail in the recent documentary The Death of “Superman Lives”. To sum up, budget concerns caused Warner to put the film on hiatus just as the cameras were ready to roll. When Burton and Cage moved on to other projects, Superman Lives essentially evaporated. By the turn of the millennium, no Superman movie had appeared since 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The last of the film series starring Christopher Reeve, Superman IV was considered a critical and commercial failure, squandering the goodwill of audiences who had once believed a man could fly.
Meanwhile, the Batman film franchise had collapsed as well. 1997’s Batman & Robin was so critically derided that it frequently places on lists of the worst films ever made. One critic who disagreed with this consensus, Mike Nelson of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fame, refused to consider Batman & Robin as the the worst film ever. Instead, he described it as “the worst thing ever.” When a beloved figure of film fandom considers your movie to be the single most despicable artifact ever brought into being by human civilization, you might have veered off onto the wrong track at some point.
With Warner’s backing, Superman and Batman had provided DC Comics with a two-decade-long monopoly on getting their super-hero characters successfully adapted from the comic book page to the silver screen. By 1998, though, both of DC’s flagship characters had fallen into a cinematic deep-freeze, a glacial process of pitches, treatments, and re-writes that would take them years to crawl out of.
In other words, Development Hell.
Although Superman Lives had fallen apart, it did so after a year of pre-production, only weeks before filming was scheduled to begin. Warner Brothers had invested tens of millions of dollars in it. The fact that Warner had tapped Kevin Smith, Tim Burton, and Nicolas Cage to resurrect Superman is significant, and indicative of a paradoxical desire that often guides DC’s handling of their characters: a desire to place a well-known, decades-old property into the hands of an auteur with a singular artistic vision.
These three men were all seemingly counter-intuitive choices for the movie they had been asked to helm. Cage had made a career of playing disheveled outcasts, having only recently started a foray into action movies. Burton had a particular vision of cinema that he refined in Batman Returns, transforming what was ostensibly an action movie about an urban vigilante into a Gothic fairy tale. Smith was a low-budget independent filmmaker, chafing against Warner’s demands to insert action-figure-ready characters into the script.
Far more than Cage or Smith, Burton was a known quantity within the super-hero movie genre, but Batman Returns showed that Burton preferred to use this genre to suit his own tastes. The Warner Brothers executives surely recognized this, and no doubt wanted Burton’s eccentricities to be part of the final product. This would not be your father’s Superman. Warner, in handing the movie over to these talents, seems to have had a plan that went something like this:
“We, the corporate overlords, will entrust you, our visionary, with this immensely important project. You can put your unique imprint on this film, which we expect will generate hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue for our vast multinational corporation. As you shape this work of art according to your dreams and desires, bear in mind that we have a licensing arrangement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals based on this movie.”
There are always tensions inherent in making art for corporate backers, but Superman Lives was especially susceptible to such tensions because the studio not only demanded a unique vision of their most iconic character, but also insisted that this unique vision should be marketable to the widest possible audience.
Talk about having your cake and eating it too.
Though it may seem paradoxical to have made such demands on the creators, Warner was simply adapting the DC Comics approach to super-hero storytelling for the big screen. As I will begin to explore next time, DC Comics had long relied on corporate-backed high-concept auteur projects to drive their super-hero line. Superman Lives was just another one of these.
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