Op/Ed - DC Could Learn Lessons From Marvel's Movie Strategy

Op/Ed - Marvel & DC - At the Movies

Who would have thought the game-changer in the comic book movie wars would not be a “Spider-Man”, a “Batman” or even a “Superman” – but an “Iron Man.”

$526 million worldwide dollars later it looks like a no-brainer, but Iron Man was far from a slam-dunk when it was announced as the initial release from the newly formed Marvel Studios back in 2006-'07. For all his importance in the current Marvel comic book universe, 'ol Shellhead had very little Main Street cred (until it hit developmental snags, Captain America was supposed to be the first self-produced Marvel movie).

But the initial chapter of Marvel Studios’ plan to be a stand-alone studio paid immediate dividends. The success of Jon Favreau’s character-rich adaptation also provided the latest evidence that Marvel has a better grasp on its moviemaking strategy than arch-rival DC.

Entertainment Weekly writer Marc Bernardin says it’s premature to give Marvel the edge. As he (correctly) points out, Marvel’s had just one certified self-financed hit. “Marvel’s just coming into their own, so I think it’s way too early to declare “Mission: Accomplished And if you look at the films they’ve done in partnerships with other studios, they’ve had as many failures as they have successes,” he says.

The huge dollars earned by the Spider-Man and X-Men franchises kind of make you forget about stinkers like Elektra and The Punisher. Plus, despite their big box office totals, is there anyone out there who really thinks the Fantastic Four, Ghost Rider and Daredevil were actually any good??

But there’s no disputing that the House of Ideas has Juggernaut-like momentum on its side right now.

Offbeat casting choices like Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton caught the attention of non-comics fans and impressed fanboys, while clever promotional ideas stoked the fires. Iron Man really broke from the pack after its electrifying Comic-Con reveal last year. And keeping the Incredible Hulk under wraps until just recently was a risky move that ultimately could prove genius.

The upcoming reboot of the Hulk sparked genuine fan-ticipation with its crowd-pleasing presentation at April’s NY Comic Con. If the film delivers on the action the trailer promises, Marvel could score back-to-back blockbusters.

The company also has a Murderer’s Row of upcoming projects: Iron Man 2 and Thor in 2010, Captain America along with the Avengers team-up film in 2011, plus Ant Man and Runaways in development.

Meanwhile, nearly all of DC’s characters seem to be languishing in a Hollywood Crisis. Hard to believe since DC’s heroes were once the cape kings of Hollywood, but Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Flash, Green Arrow and Green Lantern have all gotten snared in developmental hell at some point. While Marvel makes news with Iron Man’s $100 Million opening weekend, DC’s heroes make the trades with word that the ill-planned Justice League movie has been mercifully shelved.

To be fair, DC is at a huge disadvantage. It doesn’t have an independent studio arm making and financing its own movies based on their characters. It has little, if any say in how projects are developed. The company is part of a huge conglomerate, Time Warner. And while Warner Bros., the studio that produces and distributes films based on DC creations, is part of the same corporate family tree, it doesn’t allow for the kind of control over the material that Marvel has over theirs.

With Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige overseeing all its projects, the Marvel movies are aiming for a cohesive structure, a narrative consistency. The ‘Nick Fury’ cameo in Iron Man was Step One toward the creation of a Marvel movie universe (Step Two is coming soon), so the characters we’re used to seeing interact in the comics will soon do so in theaters.

In the meantime, DC’s heroes struggle just to get into the multiplex. Sure, Batman is doing just fine but Wonder Woman’s still waiting, six decades later, for her close up, while Superman’s film future is rather tenuous after Bryan Singer’s lackluster Superman Returns. There’s a certain irony in the fact that the company whose flagship character can see through walls has shown a glaring lack of vision when it comes to the Big Picture of two of its Holy Trinity.

So how can DC’s movie fortunes be turned around? Thankfully, a certain Caped Crusader is on his way to help.

Even though Heath Ledger’s tragic death has cast a pall over the project, The Dark Knight is all but certain to be a smash hit when it opens in July. The Batman franchise in general is in good hands with Christopher Nolan. No one grasps the concept of a superhero franchise better than Nolan, and Christian Bale just happens to be the best Batman ever.

Then there’s Watchmen.

Due in March 2009, the film based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ epic graphic novel took nearly 20 years to finally get into production. But does Watchmen have the broad appeal to be a breakout hit? Characters such as Dr. Manhattan and Nite Owl, heroes can’t even match Booster Gold’s Q rating, after all. But EW’s Bernardin says under-estimating Watchmen as just a cult book is a mistake.

“…Let’s not forget, Watchmen has sold millions of copies, and it’s widely respected as one of the 20th century’s great books. By and large, the people who’ve only ever read one graphic novel — Watchmen was the one. So there’s a pretty large installed base there.”

DC/Warner Bros. need to start giving the bench players a shot, just like Marvel is doing with its second-stringers like Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Luke Cage and Deadpool.

David Goyer’s ‘Supermax: Green Arrow’ script is gaining momentum, as is a ‘Green Lantern’ movie. Both characters have been around forever and their histories offer a wealth of storytelling options, much like Iron Man. They’re the kind of characters that could attract top-shelf acting and directing talent.

Another lesson DC/Warner Bros. could learn from Marvel is getting fresh talent involved. Joel Silver’s had the option on Wonder Woman for so long, one of the early favorites to play Princess Diana, Sandra Bullock, will soon be able to play her mother Hippolyta. Silver hasn’t piloted a good movie since V for Vendetta and he can’t get this one off the ground. Warners should try to buy out his option or convince him to bring Joss Whedon back into the fold. The greatest female comic book character deserves her own movie by now, don’t you think?

And what about the Man of Steel? In the Golden Age of comic book movies, where does Superman fit in? In a time when the United States isn’t winning any popularity contests around the world, some people don’t think it’s the best time to showcase a hero who represents Truth, Justice and the American Way.

I disagree. Superman isn’t just DC’s flagship. He’s the standard-bearer for the entire industry. If done right, people will line up just like they did to see the 1978 movie. Warner Bros. should fast-track the sequel already so we can see just what Bryan Singer means by going “Wrath of Kahn.”

And for Pete’s sake, keep the “Justice League: 90210” movie idea buried!

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