On Wednesday, a match-up almost a century in the making will finally hit the big screen with the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
It’s a conflict that has been debated rabidly on every playground in America, famously dramatized in Frank Miller’s iconic The Dark Knight Returns comic book series and explored through surrogates in works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen, but this marks the first time that the two biggest names in superheroland have had a live-action showdown. In a Hollywood environment where comic-book titles have been raking in the money, this movie should be a slam dunk for Warner Bros., the studio that produced it.
And yet, as we near the long-awaited release date, it is hard to ignore the nagging anxiety, both from fans and executives, that the $250 million film will be a giant disappointment.
First, there is concern about fan fatigue. The current trend in superhero films has been running since 2002’s Spider-Man, and in that 15-year stretch we’ve seen numerous examples, both good and bad. And while the money train keeps on rolling, it is worth noting that the box-office results may have peaked. The second Avengers film did what would be stellar business for any other movie, but its failure to top the first film — as well as a sense from fans that it was an overstuffed mess — left an air of disappointment. Two of the biggest recent successes have been oddball variations on the superhero theme: Guardians of the Galaxy and, most recently, the exceptionally meta Deadpool.
The success of those two cheekier films has also left some concerned that the dark, ultra-serious tone adopted by director Christopher Nolan to rescue Batman from ‘90s cheese — a tone that the DC universe has strived to maintain — may have worn out its welcome. The epic failure of last summer’s similarly serious The Fantastic Four left that film as both a punchline and a cautionary tale.
This fear about the tone of the new film is further exacerbated by director Zack Snyder. Not blessed with the philosophical bent that allows Christopher Nolan to (mostly) get away with his pretentions, Snyder has championed style over substance in his oeuvre. He earned a lot of good will both in Hollywood and nerd circles with his flashy second film, 300, but has since struggled to prove that he has anything else to offer. His attempt to adapt Watchmen was visually perfect but seemed to entirely miss the point. Man of Steel (which BvS:DoJ is technically a sequel to) performed decently, but didn’t deliver the kind of box office or fan excitement that comic readers and studio execs might have expected from their single most famous property.
Snyder was hardly the first director to fail at this task. If Man of Steel succeeded at all, it was in being an improvement over the bore-fest that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. Some of the problem may lay at the feet of the Man of Steel himself. For a modern audience, he is an almost impossible character to make relatable. He’s an all-powerful extraterrestrial kept in check only by an allergy to a rare alien mineral and a hyper-exaggerated sense of Midwestern decency.
On the other hand, the problem may be bigger than Superman. With the exception of the Christopher Reeve/Richard Donner films of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and the more recent Batman movies, DC Comics has struggled to find success with its characters on the big screen. Green Lantern was an embarrassment. Multiple attempts to bring Wonder Woman to life have been stuck in development hell. Which is all the more reason to pull the Dark Knight into Superman’s orbit. But DC and Warner Brothers have a bigger game in mind: They want what Disney and Marvel have.
The rise of the superhero blockbuster has amplified the long-time comic book split between DC and Marvel into a battle between four movie studios as well. Marvel, during its turbulent ‘90s period, managed to keep itself afloat largely by selling away the movie rights to Spiderman and The X-Men to Sony and Fox respectively. It partnered with Disney for 2008’s Iron Man, a somewhat surprising hit, and was bought by Disney the following year.
Since then, Marvel has been on a tear, building its success with Iron Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a full-fledged media franchise. Iron Man led to Captain America and Thor, to The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. On the Disney-owned ABC, Agents of Shield and Agent Carter (and a new show next fall) all keep the audience’s appetite primed, while Marvel’s deal with Netflix allows it to make two very good “dark” shows, with more on the way.
For better or worse, this is how media properties have to work in the modern entertainment world. When weighing a trip to the local movie theater, which is increasingly time-consuming, exasperating and, most of all, expensive, modern movie-goers have to consider their options. The studios have responded by essentially making their movie into television writ large. We go to the theater not to see something new, but to see the latest episode in a familiar series. We go to see established favorites like Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Han Solo and Indiana Jones.
Now every studio, Warner Bros. included, wants what Marvel has: known characters that people engage with across multiple platforms, reliable customers and a never-ending font of stories from issue after issue turned out for half a decade or more.
For its part, Fox has no real need to play ball. The X-Men have a cast of thousands that can be drawn from to build out their own shared universe. Wolverine (and now Deadpool) are big enough characters that they can sustain a franchise’s popularity, even while the parent comic books (still controlled by Marvel) increasingly downplay them.
Sony is basically backed into a corner with Spider-Man. With no other real characters to branch off or build up, it can only keep making Spider-Man movies...to increasingly diminished returns. If he were not Marvel’s most iconic character, he’d probably have been written off. The decision to “lend” him to Disney/Marvel for the next Captain America movie is as much one of pragmatism as cooperation and deal-making.
DC, though, has no such wrangling to do. All of its heroes remain under one roof and while Superman t-shirts may never go out of style, there remains a question of exactly how much good the popularity of those items can do on the big screen. If the DC cinematic universe — a series of 10 planned movies due to hit theaters through 2020 — is to rival Marvel’s, Batman v Superman has to engage audiences.
DC does have some potentially bankable superheroes to round out its universe. Its television arm is actually doing decently, with Supergirl, Arrow and The Flash all performing admirably. The argument that “sillier” characters like Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and the much-maligned Aquaman would never work on the big screen are somewhat undercut by Marvel’s ability to make two successful films out of Thor, a sci-fi version of Norse mythology. Those characters might be able to stand alone, but they at least can join Batman and Superman in DC’s Justice League of America, a counterpoint (or, actually, a predecessor) to Marvel’s Avengers.
But for the plan to work, the new movie has to lay the foundation. The future of DC’s universe rests on the shoulders of Batman and Superman.