How to Build a Cinematic Universe without Really Trying

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There’s no denying it—when it comes to comic book films, Marvel characters reign supreme. Not only did franchises like X-Men and Spider-Man kick off the superhero film trend a decade or so ago, but Marvel has become a significant player itself, bypassing the traditional licensing process entirely. Beginning with 2008’s Iron Man, Marvel Studios has built an entire world—a cinematic universe, in geek terms—from the ground up, hitting its high point with 2012’s The Avengers and recently expanding into the field of television with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., a new weekly series on ABC.

Add to that the various merchandising, animated series, video games, and other products in the Marvel brand, and the famous House of Ideas is easily worth tens of billions of dollars, and the comics that started it all fifty years ago may be the smallest part of that equation. Needless to say, Marvel’s chief competitors in the superhero comic book business, the Warner Bros.-owned DC Comics, can’t be happy about this. Though they’ve had their successes beyond the printed page here and there—Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, last year’s Man of Steel, and a well-received series of cartoons and direct-to-video animated films based on their characters—they remain decidedly behind Marvel in terms of establishing their brand as a force to be reckoned with in the entertainment world.

cin1bWhich is quite strange, if you think about it. After all, characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and even the occasional laughingstock Aquaman have a quarter-century or more of history on their just-as-well-known Marvel counterparts. Superman, who made his debut in 1938, attained his status as a cultural touchstone decades before anyone had heard of Spider-Man, the X-Men, or the Hulk. A TV show starring George Reeves, a popular radio program, and comics whose circulation, believe it or not, once numbered in the millions, installed the Man of Steel as not only the leading exemplar of comic book superheroes, but an icon of American pop culture par excellence. The later impact of Adam West’s Batman, Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, and the Saturday morning adventures of the Super Friends go without saying.

So why, after so many years of DC characters defining the public conception of the superhero, was Marvel able to conquer the realm of media adaptations? It’s easy to chalk it up to Disney. And there’s some truth to that: When the House of Mouse purchased Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for about $4 billion, it certainly did change the game. Disney brought with them a massive distribution capacity, the production capital that made big-screen epics like The Avengers and the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy possible, as well as the potential for cross-media marketing through the ABC network.

That idea makes sense at first glance: Marvel had an edge over DC when it came to film because they had the backing of a major media empire. The only problem with this idea is that it’s wrong, for two big reasons.

First, any imagined edge that Disney’s purchase of Marvel could have given needs to be looked at in the context of one very important fact: DC Comics is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Time Warner, Inc. They have been for decades, in fact. Marvel became a publisher owned by a film studio in 2009. DC Comics, on the other hand, has been owned by a media corporation from the beginning.

Second, Marvel had already broken into the film business before Disney came along. Iron Man saw the recruitment of two major Hollywood stars (Robert Downey, Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson) by what was, for all intents and purposes, a start-up film studio. That in itself would be an impressive achievement, but that film studio’s debut film grossed well over $500 million and received nearly universal critical acclaim. To boot, by 2007, two years before the release of Iron Man, Marvel had already secured a $575 million revolving credit arrangement with Merrill Lynch. All before Disney showed the slightest interest in snatching up Marvel Entertainment. Whatever advantage Marvel has over DC in the arena of film, the support of corporate money is an incidental part of it, not the driving factor.

In fact, the case can be made that the secret of Marvel’s success lay not in the fact that Disney’s ownership provides a direct outlet for in-house adaptations, but that, for the majority of Marvel’s existence, that outlet did not exist.

Marvel Studios has existed as a business entity since 1993, managing licensed adaptations of Marvel properties for much of that time. The concept itself, though, is merely an extension of the multimedia outings Stan Lee himself had spearheaded, having stepped down as Editor in Chief in 1972 for the express purpose of helping bring more Marvel cartoons into existence. Under executive Avi Arad and his cohorts, Marvel Studios began working with film studios in earnest during the late 1990s, when franchises like Blade and X-Men began development. For much of this time, though, Marvel Studios was relegated to an advisory capacity, primarily handling financial arrangements with studios rather than taking an active role in producing films or television series.

The importance of this point cannot be overstated: Whatever aspirations Marvel may have had, they had next to no control over adaptations of their characters for forty years. While this may seem like a detriment, for Marvel it was a blessing in disguise, as the same arrangement that deprived the publisher of creative control also largely freed them of the responsibility of fronting production costs. Licensing is a double-edged sword, but for Marvel it allowed them to enter essentially no-risk arrangements that reaped them tremendous rewards, not only in hard cash, but also by turning formerly obscure characters like Green Goblin and Wolverine into household names.

cin1cThe Incredible Hulk is known by the general public today largely because of the 1980s television series starring Bill Bixby. Spider-Man cartoons in the ‘80s and ‘90s brought their titular character to many children who never picked up a Spider-Man comic. DC characters had their fair share of successes, to be certain. Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of Superman is deservedly legendary even today, the debatable merits of his last two films notwithstanding. Michael Keaton’s portrayal of Batman garnered praise from fans and critics alike, and that franchise remained profitable even after director Joel Schumacher managed to alienate a good portion of those who had lauded the two Burton films.

But for all the success DC characters have had outside comics, it’s important to remember that every adaptation, with very few exceptions, has been a Warner Bros. production. As much as Marvel Studios’ films, every movie and nearly every TV show you have ever seen based on a DC character is an in-house work, funded and controlled by rights holders (if not by comic book creators themselves) from beginning to end.

What this means in practice is that Warner has traditionally been loath to take chances on uncertain prospects. After the Batman franchise petered out in the late ‘90s, and after an aborted Nicolas Cage film had left the future of Superman in film up in the air, comics adaptations at Warner took on quite a different feel. Live-action versions of Vertigo graphic novels like A History of Violence and the Wachowski brothers’ politically charged V for Vendetta gave DC adaptations a darker, even timelier mood. When Bryan Singer’s failed revival of the Reeve-era Superman flopped in 2006, Warner placed further plans for the character on hold indefinitely. The only real success to come out of Warner’s DC properties in the 2000s was Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, beginning in 2005 with Batman Begins, and even here the mood is dark, in every respect closer to that of a crime drama than to either of the films that had concluded the series under Schumacher.

cin1dMarvel, on the other hand, could afford to take risks for the simple reason that they weren’t the ones taking the risks. The very first Marvel character to be adapted for the big screen was Howard the Duck in 1986. Howard. The. Duck. That turned out to be exactly as bad an idea as it sounds, but Marvel was none the worse for wear. Producer George Lucas and Universal Pictures may have lost face, but the world kept spinning just as it ever had for Marvel. This scenario would repeat itself in 1989, when Dolph Lundgren portrayed Frank Castle, ironically at a time when The Punisher War Journal was one of Marvel’s most popular titles.

So when Marvel Studios began work on Iron Man, it was a decision that came out of left field. Where there had previously been no risk, Marvel now took on a whole lot of risk. But with the comic business having seen better days, they had little to lose, and with films based on their characters bringing in billions, they had everything to gain. They made a gamble, and it paid off in a spectacular way.

Where Nolan and Warner Bros. had gone dark and gritty, Marvel chose the middle path, eschewing both brooding antiheroes and strict realism in favor of the lighthearted, adventurous feel that had once made comics so popular among kids. That approach to heroes became popular once again, this time among moviegoers, and the rest of the story need not be rehashed here.

cin1eSo, where does this all leave Warner Bros? While a Man of Steel sequel bringing Superman and Batman together, along with an uncertain amount of involvement from Wonder Woman, is in the works, along with first-time cinematic outings for Sandman and The Flash, Warner is still playing most of their cards close to the chest. Even a Justice League movie, one of the long-anticipated holy grails of geekdom, has yet to be officially announced.

In fact, Warner has done something quite unexpected in the past few months; something that few people have noticed is a major departure from their long-established model. Starting this year, a grand total of four TV shows based on DC characters are in the works: Constantine at NBC, Gotham at FOX, and iZombie and Flash at the Warner-owned CW network.

In the big picture, though, it’s those first two that really stand out. iZombie and Flash will be joining Arrow as part of the slate of DC characters now televised at the CW. Their addition only makes more concrete the transition of Warner’s attention away from the big-screen adventures of the sort championed by Marvel and toward smaller-scale TV projects. Constantine and Flash, on the other hand, echo Marvel’s past approach of licensing their properties out to other companies. Without bearing the burden of footing the production bill, Warner will benefit from the NBC and FOX shows not only monetarily, but also by expanding their universe in the minds of audiences. Constantine will introduce viewers to a supernatural side of DC Comics rarely seen in either film or TV, and Gotham will serve to deepen overall awareness of the rich Batman mythos.

cin1fMuch has been made in recent years of the idea of Warner emulating the “Marvel model” of building a cinematic universe from the ground up, but that discussion misses the fundamental point that Marvel had a tremendous foundation to build upon. Iron Man did not enter the world in a vacuum, and neither will any of Warner’s future productions. As much as Marvel had an established tradition of licensed adaptations before it launched its cinematic universe, DC Comics has cultural penetration of the sort that Marvel is only now beginning to enjoy. Superman and Batman are known and recognized the world over, and what DC lacks in successful (and integrated) adaptations to date, they more than make up for in their leading characters’ status as global entertainment brands. But that advantage, one of few they now have over their major competitor, may be slipping, and will surely fade away if Marvel continues to dominate superhero films.

Whether Constantine or Gotham, or even Arrow and its cousins will one day be integrated into a larger cinematic universe, this new batch of TV shows will surely go a long way toward making up for the gap between Marvel and DC. By effectively contracting out the job of worldbuilding to outside networks, Warner has discovered the secret Marvel has long known: the key to building a cinematic universe is to not try to build a cinematic universe. By licensing their characters and bearing little risk themselves, DC may just be able to do what really counts—keeping their characters in the public eye as vital, thoroughly unique icons of modern entertainment.

About Evan Henry (257 Articles)
Evan Henry is a graduate student in English at the University of Virginia, where he works on the legacy of eugenics and scientific racism in American pop culture. As Head of Publishing for Black Ship Books he seeks to further social analysis of popular culture and develop new and unique voices in both creative and critical writing. His credits include Broken Frontier, the Virginia Literary Review, and numerous small publishers of fantasy and science fiction. His short story collection The Great City will be released this summer.
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