Warner Bros. started a chain reaction a quarter century ago when they released Tim Burton’s Batman. The monstrous success of the film provoked studios all over Hollywood to buy up comic book properties and produce the film versions as soon as possible. Some of the immediate successors like Dick Tracy and The Phantom failed to resonate with the culture. The 1989 version of The Punisher starring Dolph Lundgren saw little life beyond the VHS shelf. Other titles languished in development hell. Fox hired B-movie king Roger Corman to produce a version of Fantastic 4 in the mid 90s just so they could secure the rights for another ten years. The film can only be seen in grainy YouTube clips and on bootleg discs available and comic book and sci-fi conventions. By 1997, WB had virtually destroyed what they started with the release of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, a film star George Clooney has been apologizing for ever since. The various Marvel properties brought the genre back to life with the patiently developed X-Men and Spider-man franchises from Bryan Singer (Fox) and Sam Raimi (Sony) respectively.
From the beginning, Warner Bros. has had an advantage that they have failed to exploit. They have had sole possession of the entire DC (Detective Comics) Universe. Batman, Superman, and everyone else in the Justice League, Justice Society, and Legion of Doom have been in the hands of one studio since before Christopher Reeve put on the cape and tights. Unlike the Marvel properties, however, Warner Bros. has put most of their energy into Superman and Batman, giving little to no attention to the other characters in their vault.
Since 2008, Marvel’s own studio has made a strong effort to build a cohesive universe out of the characters that are not owned by Fox or Sony. That became easier in 2009 when Disney bought Marvel and brought everything into one house. Since then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe surrounding The Avengers has become one of the most successful franchises in American cinema.
So what is Warner Bros/DC doing wrong?
Their first “mistake” was not even trying. This isn’t really a mistake, since it resulted in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Standing separate from any other series, the films function well in their own self contained universe. Nolan gave us a Batman living in a Gotham that was credible and realistic. This reality cannot support the existence of aliens from Mars or Krypton, Amazon warrior women who have never seen men, nor power rings that manipulate imagination. Nolan’s award winning series was a stand-alone work and not a part of a Justice League universe.
Ignoring this, WB released a version of Green Lantern in 2011. Without the name recognition of Batman or Superman, Green Lantern is a tough sell. The same could be said about Marvel’s Iron Man or Thor. Where did the latter succeed where the former failed? The Marvel films had decent stories. They also had a long-term goal of The Avengers standing before them. There had been feeble plans for Justice League at the time, but Green Lantern’s disappointing run at the box office scuttled whatever was there.
So what now? Dark Knight is done, Green Lantern was a disaster, and Mickey Mouse is kicking Bugs Bunny’s butt with the Armor Guy, the Flag Guy, the Green Giant, and the Norse God. At this point, WB is surely desperate to have a Justice League that is comparable to The Avengers.
That brings us to mistake number two. Now they’re trying too hard. I’ll come back to that.
Let’s stop for a moment and talk about what they’re doing right. Television. I’m of course speaking specifically of Arrow and the upcoming spin-off, The Flash. In the previous decade, WB had technical success with the Superman prequel Smallville and an embarrassing failure with the Batman “sequel” Birds of Prey. The quality of either program is debatable; but with Batman and Superman getting more than enough screen time in the cinema, the small screen had room for a few of the lesser known characters.
Arrow, based on the Kevin Smith resurrected Batman rip-off Green Arrow, could have fallen hard on it’s face from the beginning. Somehow, it managed to work in spite of itself. Removing the expectations of the all too familiar Batman and Superman mythos, the creators of Arrow had the freedom to explore and develop the world without trapping themselves in fan servicing. Yes, there is heavy use of DC’s source material, but they are not slavish to it, and that’s okay. The TV series format has allowed the characters to develop at a comfortable pace and has given the audience permission to become invested in individuals and relationships. In season two, the audience was introduced to Barry Allen, who comic fans already knew would become The Flash. Again, like the other characters, Barry was given an opportunity to develop and win over the audience. At the seminal moment when he is struck by lightening while inside STAR Labs, it’s an important moment because the audience can care about him and not because we see it coming. While The Flash will expand even more in his own series, Arrow will also become home to The Atom, played by former Superman Brandon Routh. We can expect a patient introduction to the character, and it’s equally likely that we’ll have cross-overs between both series.
Arrow has also utilized female characters from the DC universe such as Black Canary and The Huntress. This is important to note considering Warner Bros. long hesitation in developing a Wonder Woman movie.
Five characters, all members of The Justice League in DC comics, and all have been given time to develop and solidify in their live-action roles.
So why won’t WB’s Justice League be anything like Disney’s Avengers? The simple answer is they haven’t earned it. Disney/Marvel gave the world two Iron Man films (with a little help from Paramount), Thor, Incredible Hulk (with the help of Universal), and Captain America before Joss Whedon brought them all together in their big team-up film. The majority of The Avengers got to establish a relationship with the audience before becoming The Avengers. Even Agent Coulson of SHIELD got a healthy dose of face time before getting killed in Avengers and resurrected in his own TV series. What is WB’s plan? Make one film about Superman (done) and then introduce everyone else in the sequel. We’ve all heard about the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. While the title suggests Batman and Superman are the main focus, we also know Wonder Woman will be a part of this, as well as other members of the future Justice League (stories have suggested appearances by Cyborg, Green Lantern, and Aquaman). While these may be cameos similar to Black Widow in Iron Man 2 or Hawkeye in Thor, it really sounds like too much.
Here’s what Warner Bros. would do if they were smart (and they won’t do this). In the cinematic universe, focus on the trinity: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Then they should stop. No Cyborg. No Aquaman. No Green Lantern. No Wonder Twins, and no Gleek! Since Green Arrow, Flash, and The Atom seem comfortable on the small screen, then why can’t we see Martian Manhunter or Elongated Man there as well? Marvel is developing a Netflix series for Daredevil. Netflix would be the perfect home for Green Lantern.
What about a connected TV/Cinema universe, like Marvel has with Agents of SHIELD. Sadly, it’s too late for that, at least with the existing properties. Zach Snyder and David S. Goyer gave us a moody, grey Man of Steel that resembled a Terrance Malick film. Since their cinematic universe is going to continue from there, then merging it with Arrow/Flash won’t work. The tone and look of the two worlds are nothing alike. To see Stephen Amell’s Oliver Queen show up next to Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent would be jarring to the viewer.
Like anything of this nature, I’m eager to be proven wrong. I was wrong about Arrow; but I was right about Green Lantern.
Final thought: *Fox's Gotham = Batman Babies. Nobody asked for that.
EDIT - (*Gotham Warner Bros. property broadcast on Fox TV network.)