Man of Steel isn’t about Superman, And It Never Was
Nearly two and a half years ago I wrote an article called “The Green Lantern Franchise Isn’t About Green Lantern.” I made several assertions in the article, and while I may have been a bit ahead of myself, I still maintain that the core idea is true. However, with the financial and critical failing of that film forced WB to try again with the plan. Since it seems like they are more organized this time around, I thought I would revisit the idea of my original article and apply it to the latest contender. You see, I don’t think that last summer’s “Man of Steel” is about Superman at all.
I’ve seen a sentiment come up quite frequently since the announcement of Ben Affleck as the new Batman. The idea is that Superman deserves a “proper” sequel, rather than a team-up film with Batman. As a Superman fan, it’s a sentiment that I can surely get behind. However, it’s also a scenario that limits the DC Universe on film in the worst possible way. Let’s talk about how 2015’s tentatively titled “Batman vs Superman” opens up a world of possibility for Warner Brothers and fans of DC heroes.
We can’t have this discussion without first examining why Marvel has been so prolific with their film universe. When Marvel began making films, they started by licensing out their properties to existing film studios. This is how Fox has the rights to Fantastic Four and X-Men, while Sony retains the rights to Spiderman. It was the success of those early licensed films that gave Marvel the leg up they needed. Marvel Studios, the division that now oversees all of Marvel’s film production, wasn’t even officially credited as a production company on a Marvel film until Sam Raimi’s third Spiderman installment. And that’s when things took off for them. By that point, Marvel had their own cash to put behind “Iron Man” development. Marvel Studios was finally at a stage where they had the two most important elements of making a film – the licenses and the money for development. In other words, they had all the power. They were in a position, as a well-funded independent entity that owned valuable intellectual property, to make decisions about their own future and take risks that most companies would never take. That open door is what gave us films like Thor, a World War II Captain America, and ultimately the Avengers. The idea of building several franchises that shared a single universe was virtually unheard of prior to Marvel’s big splash in the industry, and no cross-over has ever been done as well as Avengers.
The importance of Marvel’s early licensed films cannot be overstated. That independent success is the big advantage that Marvel has had over DC Comics in the film arena. DC Comics was purchased by Warner Brothers in 1969. For the entire modern cinematic era, the cinematic fate of DC Comics’ properties were decided by their parent company, Warner Brothers. At a glance, this looks like it should be a very welcome greasing of the wheels for DC properties on film. Shouldn’t it be incredibly beneficial to be owned by a company with a ton of experience making films? Actually, quite the opposite is true.
Warner Brothers, like any film company, has a limited amount of money with which to make films every year. They allot that money to various films in an effort to make more money by the end of the year. The way this is best achieved is by spreading the money out over a variety of film projects that appeal to many different interests. What that means is that WB has to invest in thrillers, romantic comedies, action movies, Oscar-bait dramas, and more. This leaves superhero films in a tough spot. WB cannot simply start kicking out four superhero movies per year. Even today, when Marvel has six films in production, they’re spread out across three studios – Fox, Marvel Studios, and Sony. Marvel’s own Kevin Feige has stated that they “find that that’s a nice rhythm for our two films a year.” Two films a year is not a very high number, but it’s the best option for a studio that only makes superhero films. If a dedicated studio can only manage two films per year, what chance does a diverse studio have at producing that kind of volume? Very little. And it’s with this understanding that we can gain a better picture of what Warner Brothers’ plan just might be for their DC properties. My suspicion is that WB will produce, at best, one film per year. A more likely scenario is that they’ll produce one film every two years, but they have the potential to do it in a way that features far more characters than Marvel has to date.
We’ve been taught for years to think about individual characters as individual franchises. In our heads, Superman is a franchise, Batman is a franchise, Iron Man is a franchise, and so on. DC fans have begged Warner Brothers for years to make individual films featuring the Flash, Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern, and a long list of niche favorites. And for years – decades, even – Warner has been trying to deliver on that. I think, however, that the tides have changed inside the Warner lot.
Have you been down your local toy aisle lately? I want you to go take a look at something. Find the DC toys. Any toy you find that’s recent is going to have some very interesting branding on it. What you’ll find looks a lot like the images below.
Notice something? It doesn’t matter who the hero is, the packaging is branded “Justice League.” That bottom left pic with the yellow cardboard? That’s an action figure of Black Manta, but it’s branded “Justice League.” The Superman costume in the bottom right image? Branded “Justice League.” Warner Brothers and DC licensing are doing everything they can these days to make you – and your kids – think of their heroes (and villains) not as individual entities, but as a members of a single, larger entity, the Justice League (and villains of the Justice League). There is now only one superhero brand at Warner Brothers, and that brand is Justice League. From here on out, there won’t be individual superhero film franchises at Warner, there will only be movies that happen in the “Justice League” canon, and Man of Steel was the first step in that initiative.
At a glance, it may seem like this is identical to the unified Avengers universe that Marvel Studios is producing, but there are some subtle differences. Marvel has focused on building several individual hero film franchises that share a universe, and these films occasionally cross over into one another for a triennial Avengers movie. This assures that, in between Avengers films, audiences are still going to be getting franchise films based in a single hero’s silo. That’s why after “Avengers,” we’ve gone back to Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man films. The structure of the franchises and crossovers, over time, looks like the diagram below. There are four clear silos of franchises, each sharing a fictional backdrop that allows them to cross over once in a while.
I believe that DC is taking a slightly different approach to their shared universe, and there are existing precedents in DC’s own stable that we can look to for comparison. DC has, from time to time, published a team comic book titled “The Brave and The Bold.” The series features unique stories told each month with some new pairing of heroes from the DC universe. One month, the adventure might feature Superman and Batman, the next month it might feature Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. It was a single title, a single franchise, with allowances for featuring dozens of different heroes, depending on the requirements of each month’s given storyline. Another example of this from DC’s past is the award-winning “Justice League Unlimited” animated series. In this series, there was a core group of Justice League heroes, but there was allowance for virtually anyone from the DC universe to show up. The show creators would frequently feature episodes set in the familiar Justice League backdrop but focusing only on two or three second- or third-tier characters who otherwise would never have seen the light of day in their own animated series. I think that WB is about to deliver a film universe that mimics these models, creating a single “Justice League” franchise that leaves room for any hero to show up in any film, wherever they are needed. It’s time to stop thinking of these films as franchise movies – Superman 1, Superman 2, Superman 3 – and to start thinking of them as film versions of graphic novels. Each film will tell a story set in this single universe, and each film will call upon whichever heroes the story calls for, like 150-million-dollar live-action episodes of “Justice League Unlimited.” I’ve modeled what a hypothetical DC film universe could look like below. Notice that they never have more than two films in development at a time, but are able to feature several different heroes across them.
A Hypothetical DC Cinematic Universe Franchise
In this model, “Man of Steel” isn’t Superman 1, eagerly setting up Superman 2. It’s more like a zero-issue of Justice League that sets up the rules and the foundation for a variety of multi-superhero stories yet to come. 2015’s “Batman vs Superman” will essentially be WB’s “Justice League Issue 1,” firmly establishing the two big bookend heroes of the DC Universe and leaving a space in between them for the full spectrum of heroes we know and love. We may see spin-off films with single heroes from time to time, but the core will consistently revolve around Superman, Batman, and hopefully Wonder Woman. The Trinity then have the potential to be joined by many, many heroes over the course of the years to come. Add to that the importance of legacies in the DC Comics universe, and there’s even potential built-in to handle recasting of roles without rebooting the universe. If you need a new Green Lantern, you simply recast for one of the many humans who’ve worn the ring, and you keep your continuity running full-steam ahead.
Here’s the new-new unified DC Universe film continuity as it stands today:
- Superman is in the public eye now.
- Batman has been operating in Gotham for some time, likely several years. For whatever reason, Clark has never had any interest in finding out more about this mysterious crime fighter.
- There are likely no other publicly operating superheroes on Earth at the time of “Man of Steel”
- The existence of Zod has confirmed to the people of Earth that extra-terrestrial life exists. The existence of Kryptonian colony planets suggests that there might still be other Kryptonians out in the universe, and possibly other species entirely.
- Opening up Earth to a broader universe leaves doors open for virtually anything ranging from the Green Lantern Corps to the arrival of Brainiac of Darkseid.
- The Phantom Zone exists and is full of Kryptonian criminals.
- There is Kryptonian technology littered all over Metropolis. Specifically, Zod left his Kryptonian Battle Suit on the roof of a LexCorp construction site. I believe that it’s safe to assume that Lex Luthor has his hands on a power suit.
- The US Government is very, very aware of the presence (and danger) of superheroes now.
- Nothing from any film prior to “Man of Steel” should be considered a part of the new Justice League Cinematic Universe canon.
- For some reason, Batman didn’t see fit to put his resources towards repelling Zod’s alien menace from the planet Earth. Or maybe he did, somehow, and it was just something we didn’t see in “Man of Steel.” Prepare for retcons.
And here are some of the possibilities I see for the future:
- We haven’t seen the last of extra-terrestrial threats. With the influence of the New 52 even on “Man of Steel,” I think that we could be setting up for a Darkseid run-in in the long haul, as we saw in the early relaunch of the Justice League comic two years ago.
- Wayne and Luthor will likely be competing against one another for reconstruction rights in Metropolis. We could even see Wayne trying to set up one of his infamous satellite batcaves in Metropolis to keep an eye on “the alien.”
- Wayne and Luthor both likely have their hands on Kryptonian tech.
- Lex Luthor will absolutely use the events of “Man of Steel” to catapult his own standing in the public eye, possibly even leading us to a President Lex-style storyline a few films down the road.
- Bruce Wayne will always be concerned about the threat that Kal-El represents, but ultimately these two will enter into a partnership and draw other heroes to them.
- An established Batman means we could see a fully-outfitted Batcave like we usually see in the comics.
- Guillermo Del Toro has repeatedly referenced his in-development “Justice League Dark” film, and that it will be in a shared universe. This means that while we haven’t seen it yet, magic will exist in the Justice League Cinematic Universe in some form or another.