This week Warner Bros. announced to its shareholders the impending reality of the Justice League film series which will immediately follow Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. I don’t write normally about news items but this is a major step forward for the under-served DC superhero universe. We’ve been waiting years for a Justice League movie and now there is not one but two on the way.
All of this has been made possible by Marvel’s unqualified box office success. It’s no accident that Warner Bros. decided to announce this not via press release or at Comic Con but to its shareholders. Fans may feel slighted but it’s the shareholders who will fronting the costs for this huge multi-billion dollar endeavour. By proving that such a massive interconnected superhero universe can lead to great financial returns, Iron Man and his friends have opened the door to a new world for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, Shazam, Deadshot, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Thank you Kevin Feige and RDJ.
While there is already a growing chorus of voices claiming that DC is simply cashing in on the trend that Marvel started, the truth is that there is plenty of room for new (and better) takes on the superhero genre. Although Marvel has been careful to take their time getting their universe started and has developed an enormous worldwide fan base, it perhaps tempting to overlook the growing number of flaws in their execution.
Consider The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor, all middling entries that kept the franchise going without making much of an impression. While all of their latest films have been crowd-pleasing, there seems to be a growing problem with the connective tissues tying these wildly different films together. The worst example is their curious dependency on the infinity stones, a seemingly unrelated collection of MacGuffins that theoretically have some kind of payoff in Avengers 3.
Marvel is leading by example but they are also falling into classic comic book pitfalls like endlessly bringing people back from the dead (Agent Coulson, Loki, Nick Fury) and relying on cliffhanger-style teaser endings instead of a proper narrative conclusion (just go watch the last secene in Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Stringing people along like this will eventually backfire on people who want to a complete and satisfying movie experience.
But my real point is not that I don’t like Marvel. I actually really like what they’ve done, popularizing characters I’ve never cared about before and investing me in their stories. But Iron Man and Cap are no Batman and Superman. The fact is, I grew up with the World’s Finest. They are the world’s most popular, enduring, and beloved superheroes. And no matter how Feige tries, the World’s Second Best Team of Superheroes can never be first best.
And whether or not you agree with this statement, the bigger picture is that more superhero movies from different studios raises the probabilities that we will get more good films. A Marvel monopoly is not beneficial for moviegoers at large. The post-Avengers Marvel films have been critically and commerical successful, but it doesn’t take Howard the Duck to remind us that fans and critics alike will be vicious at the first sign of franchise fatigue. It’s hard to get to the top, but it’s even harder to stay there.
Being the first cinematic universe is nice, but as Marvel plows ahead into the unknown there are bound to be even more bumps ahead. The rampant speculation about Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evan’s expiring contracts give us just one glimpse of the serious limitations involved in these lengthy endeavors.
But this is perhaps where Warner Bros. has an advantage. They have seen Marvel drag their feet with repetitive and less-than-enthusiastic origin stories. They have seen how Marvel’s top stars demand more and more money. They have seen how intense studio oversight drives away directors like Edgar Wright and Jon Favreau. And most of all, they have seen how audiences respond to a semi-cohesive interconnected film universe.
Warner Bros. has the chance to do it better, do it different, and do it in such a way that proves that the Justice League really is the best superhero team in the world. They don’t need to copy Marvel’s offbeat humor, strange mix of fantasy and technology, or their one-note villains. If Warner Bros. are lucky, they might even just pull it off.
So here is the grand lineup scheduled for the next six years:
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
- Suicide Squad (2016)
- Wonder Woman (2017)
- Justice League Part One (2017)
- The Flash (2018)
- Aquaman (2018)
- Shazam (2019)
- Justice League Part Two (2019)
- Cyborg (2020)
- Green Lantern (2020)
People can claim all they want that Warner Bros. is rushing it, but some things don’t need a hundred years to brew. We are not starting from scratch with these characters. These are established, well-loved, well-versed heroes with decades of material to draw from. They also have a successful movie studio with tons of cash and talent that it can use to attract great writers, stars, and directors. Movies take a while to make, but they don’t take forever.
And despite Marvel’s unique pioneering spirit, they have yet to deliver n their first dozen movies to give us two crucial things: a superhero team up movie and a proper female superhero movie. Batman V Superman is the first superhero film to examine the relationship between two top tier heroes. If it does a good job handling that dynamic between these two very different but equally ubiquitous vigilantes, it will be a defining moment for a genre that is perhaps nearing its creative peak. The Avengers was a hallmark and truly remarkable achievement but was also hindered by its comic book roots and odd mix of second tier heroes.
The Justice League is comprised of at least three undeniable quantifiable heroes: Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. Each one has been featured in multiple movies and tv shows and are known widely across pop culture and the world. It’s totally possible that Snyder’s team could botch the whole thing up, but there is enough financial incentive for the production team to get it right, if not near perfect.
Do I have concerns?
Sure I do. I am concerned that Zack Snyder is the man carrying the primary directorial duties over the success or failure of this new universe. While his visual acumen is absolutely awe-inspiring and his action scenes are more impressive than almost any other living director, he needs major help with making his characters feel fully formed and three-dimensional emotional beings. His characters feel like representative ideas, not people. I like some of those ideas, but I think more audiences will respond to characters who are heartfelt and relatable in a way that most Snyder characters are not.
I get weary of reading complaints that Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a dumb title. We all know it’s a dumb title, but what concerns me is whether or not it’s a dumb movie. And I have faith that Warner Brothers and their team can pull it off. They don’t just have a star in Ben Affleck but an accomplished director in his own right. They don’t just have heroes, they have the Joker, Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and Darkseid. So far I just don’t see Marvel’s many forgettable antagonists able to fill those shoes.
When I think about the future of the Justice League universe, I don’t expect perfect movies, just good ones. If they can shoot for something spectacular, something bigger than a motley collection of second tier heroes, and if they can transcend the lazy narrative shortcuts that define so many comic book movies, we really could be on the edge of something wonderful.
No matter what these films are going to be divisive. They will receive a heavy dose of criticism for coming in second. Critics and fans will not hold back any of their strong opinions. People will nitpick, probably myself included.
But ultimately I think we’re in for a great ride. These are characters from which all other superheroes in part are derived. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Warner Bros. will in fact produce 10 good-to-excellent superhero movies by 2020, do so profitably, tell some amazing stories along the way, and introduce a new generation to some of the world’s most beloved characters. Let’s wait and see.