The Geek Beat: What the DC Superhero Movies Can Learn About Expanded Universes from 'Star Wars' and Marvel

The Geek Beat: What the DC Superhero Movies Can Learn About Expanded Universes from 'Star Wars' and Marvel

Jan 28, 2014

I'm not entirely certain how I should feel about the Man of Steel sequel being pushed back to 2016.

On one hand, it gives Warner Bros. and director Zack Snyder more time to get all the pieces in place and take their time with what may be the studio's highest profile project in many, many years. On the other hand, the delay means that we'll have to endure another full year of speculation, rumors and headlines that may or may not prove true when the film finally arrives May 6, 2016.

Oh, and the new release date throws a pretty big wrench into my “2015 Will Be the Greatest Year Ever for Geek Movies” prediction, too.

Still, I should probably admit that long before the delay I was already a bit skeptical of Warner Bros. and DC Comics' plans for their cinematic universe.

It's not that I don't want the DC movie-verse to succeed. Far from it, in fact. Some of my favorite comic book stories of all time involve the holy trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman doing what they do best, and I'd love to feel that same sense of comic-reading joy amplified by the spectacle that only a great theater experience can provide. Unfortunately, the way Warner Bros. has handled the stable of DC characters so far hasn't given me much to be joyful about lately.

Between the disastrous handling of Green Lantern, the lack of universe-building in the otherwise fantastic Dark Knight trilogy, and the various other movie and television projects that seem to exist independently of each other, the lack of a unified world for DC's characters at this point – especially in contrast to Marvel's cross-media success – is more than a little disappointing.

And even though I know this is the last thing hard-core DC fans want to hear, there's a lot that Superman's caretakers can learn from both the Marvel movie-verse and its Disney neighbor Star Wars. In the interest of seeing Superman, Batman and the rest of DC's heroes and villains get the on-screen treatment they deserve, here are a few lessons Warner Bros. might want to take under advisement moving forward.

 

Let Batman Be Wolverine (or Nick Fury)

Back in the '90s, Marvel had one solution for any problem it encountered (or anticipated) with a book: put Wolverine in it. Sales declining? Time for a team-up with Wolverine! Launching a new series? Kick things off with a Wolverine cameo!

Not only did the move usually achieve the desired – though often temporary – results, it also served to make Wolverine one of the Marvel universe's most prolific ambassadors to new books, teams and characters. Fans of Wolverine were likely to pick up books they might otherwise not have read in an effort to keep up with his series-hopping adventures, while readers of the series he jumped into could very well follow him to the next book if they enjoyed his cameo.

While 20th Century Fox is doing something similar with Wolverine in its X-Men movie franchise, it's Marvel that's made the most impressive use of series-spanning cameos. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) have all made cameos in films outside of those that introduced them, and always with a wink and a nod toward the next story they'll jump into. Heck, even S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) – a relatively minor supporting character when he was first introduced – was cleverly utilized as a hub between several films in Marvel's movie-verse, and eventually served as the foundation for the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series, which now unfolds in a shared universe with the films.

It doesn't have to be Batman who fulfills that role in Warner Bros.' version of the DC movie-verse, but he's the most obvious choice to kick things off. Batman's natural suspicion regarding anything that could pose a threat to Gotham is all the narrative context necessary to get him in the vicinity of DC's other superpowered heroes and villains, and from that point on, the torch can be passed to Superman or a supporting character (as Marvel did with Agent Coulson). There's still no word on what role Batman will play in the Man of Steel sequel, but if Warner Bros. is smart, it will use the Dark Knight's massive popularity to draw attention to how big its universe is instead of keeping him confined to Gotham.

 

If You Love It, Let It Go (but Keep an Eye on It)

There are some good reasons the Star Wars franchise has managed to not only remain active but growing in the absence of any new movies in nearly a decade (and 16 years between trilogies). One big reason is its caretakers' willingness to let the universe expand outside of the films.

Ever since the first film's debut in 1977, the histories of those original characters and countless others have been explored in books, comics, video games and both live-action and animated television series, with every new story built on the foundation of those that came before it – no matter which format they were told in. In contrast, most Hollywood franchises tend to be fiercely territorial with their narratives, and usually ignore any continuity that wasn't established in the big-screen universe. (Basically, if it didn't happen in Man of Steel, it simply didn't happen in Warner Bros.' universe.)

This is the sort of traditional thinking that Warner Bros. will need to reconsider if it truly wants the DC universe to expand into something greater than an occasional three-film franchise or various one-off projects. It takes a hefty amount of trust – and communication – to let the universe you've cultivated grow under someone else's direction (and your watchful eye, of course), but that's what allowed Star Wars to grow as it has. That's also what is happening right now with Marvel and the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, the movie-verse comics, various licensed games, and the Marvel-produced short films all shaping the same version of the Marvel universe.

To Warner Bros.' credit, it already has a hit television series in Arrow, so the forum is ready and waiting to be utilized. All it needs to do is connect Man of Steel with the CW Network series. It could be as simple as having Queen Industries (the company owned by Oliver Queen's family in the series) get involved in the Metropolis reconstruction effort post-Man of Steel or as ambitious as an episode explaining what Oliver Queen and his team were up to during the world-shaking events of Superman's brawl with Zod. Either way, the over-arching narrative would get another chapter, and DC's cinematic universe would get a little bigger.

 

Learn to Love the B-list (and C-list)

This piece of advice is simple: Take a deep dive into the DC stable of characters and be willing to take some risks with the heroes – and villains – you find there.

Iron Man was far from an A-list superhero when Marvel made the armored Avenger take point position in its grand experiment with the 2008 solo film, but the gamble paid off. And when the studio repeated the wager with Thor and Captain America, it ended up going three for three with lesser known heroes. Over the next few years, Marvel is expected to roll out projects featuring the Guardians of the Galaxy – a team no one outside of comics has ever heard of – as well as Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Daredevil and the Defenders. It's all pretty amazing – especially if you consider that Warner Bros. is still working out how to get Superman and Batman on the same screen.

Sure, Warner Bros. is reeling a bit from the debacle with Green Lantern, which was intended to be the studio's answer to Iron Man and the first piece in a larger universe, but it shouldn't let that stop it from going back to the character pool – after all, Marvel didn't hit a home run with the first two Hulk movies, either.

With several years between now and whatever comes after the sequel to Man of Steel, there's no shortage of time to lay the groundwork (literally) for more of the live-action DC universe. Classic, street-level DC characters like the Question or even certain members of the Gotham City Police Department would be well utilized as ambassadors to the human side of DC's cinematic universe (much as Arrow is already doing). Similarly, groups like the Teen Titans could bring in the young-adult element, and the long-rumored Justice League Dark movie (or solo projects featuring any of its members) could serve as an introduction to the magical side of this new continuity in much the same way Thor did for Marvel. (Yes, I know the Asgardians are technically aliens in the Marvel movie-verse, but you get the idea.)

Basically, what it boils down to is this: not every project has to be on the level of Superman vs. Batman.

In the end, it's no secret that the team charged with giving Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the DC universe the treatment they deserve has a tough task ahead of them. But if they can pull it off and give audiences a unified DC movie-verse that spills over into television, games and other media, we all win.

 


Rick Marshall is an award-winning writer and editor whose work can be found at Movies.com, as well as MTV News, Fandango, Digital Trends, IFC.com, Newsarama, and various other online, print, and on-air news outlets. He's been called a “Professional Geek” by ABC News and Spike TV, and his personal blog can be found at  MindPollution.org. You can find him on Twitter as @RickMarshall.


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