Warner Bros. would love to have its own Avengers film in the form of Justice League, but for all the stop-start production on the project, it doesn’t seem like it will ever happen (though our own Chris Clow offers some suggestions on how to make it happen). Recent news is that the studio took a pass on the latest script, and will be looking at Man of Steel’s box office numbers very carefully before it puts the League together. Many see Warner’s plans as reactionary, just trying to exploit its properties in the same way that Marvel has, but the studio has been flirting with Justice League since before Marvel started building up to Avengers.
Marvel had the advantage of creating the films to overlap and feed into each other in a unified cinematic Marvel Universe, and while Warner Bros. has had some success with Batman, there’s been no hints that the Nolan films exist, for example, in the same world as the Green Lantern film. Warner has got the properties, but no shepherd like Marvel has with Kevin Feige; no figurehead with a unified vision of just what DC and Warner Bros. have to offer. Feige can talk the talk, even if he doesn’t read the comics (I have no idea if he does or doesn’t), and displays a passion for the material that is sorely lacking on the Warner Bros./DC side. It looked as if Geoff Johns was being groomed for that role, but the failure of Green Lantern -- Johns’ pet project -- may have held him back.
If Warner Bros. really wants to follow in Marvel’s footsteps, there are a few things it could do...
1. Get a Kevin Feige.
Warner needs a cheerleader who’s knowledgable and passionate enough to field questions from both the hard-core fans and the general press with the same aplomb as Marvel Studios head Kevin Fiege. Fiege has been able to get people excited about characters and concepts that aren’t immediately recognizable, through hiring the right creatives and using long-term planning to sustain a buzz for the studio. You get the distinct feeling he is making these films, because he wants to see these films -- not out of a financial obligation.
Now, these films are made to make huge bundles of cash, but perception is everything. When Fiege makes an announcement, it feels like a fan making some other fans wishes come true. When Warner makes an announcement, it feels like it is looking for something that will stick. There are too many fans within the film industry for Warner to still be so wishy-washy with DC Comics properties. If it wants the goodwill Marvel has fostered, it needs a face who can get people excited. Even Fox learned this lesson, and hired Mark Millar to be its guy for its existing Marvel properties (X-Men, Fantastic Four). Over at Sony, Mark Webb and the “original” Marvel movie cheerleader Avi Arad, are trying their best to be that face for the Spider-Man franchise. You have to have a singular voice, from project to project, saying, “Hey! We’ve got exciting things in store!”
2. Establish What It Means to Be a DC Comics Movie.
It’s not that Warner doesn’t take chances with DC properties. It has made films based on Catwoman, Jonah Hex and Constantine, while more recognizable characters like the Flash or Wonder Woman sat on the sidelines. What Marvel gets right is that it has a clarity of vision as to what it means for a film to have the Marvel Studios banner. It crafts broad, appealing entertainment starring interesting characters, with a dash of menace and romance. This is its formula and it’s working for Marvel.
Warner Bros., with help from Christopher Nolan, has shown that clarity of vision on the Batman franchise. It treats Batman with great care because it learned that an exceptionally well-crafted Batman film will appeal to a wide audience. The lesson here shouldn’t be that audiences want “dark” superhero films; it’s that they want to see blockbusters with high values across the board -- from script to screen. Right now, there’s simply no such thing as a DC Comics movie, not in the same way there are Marvel movies. Someone needs to say, “this is what we have to offer, and this is why these characters are important,” (kinda goes back to point number one) then start bringing that mandate to life on the screen.
3. Value the Characters.
The downside to DC’s exploration of properties like Jonah Hex and Green Lantern is that it feels less like a vision and more like throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. DC would like to have another Batman-sized franchise, but it doesn't even seem to understand who its characters are or why people find them appealing. That’s a huge part of the problem.
Marvel Studios, stripped of its best-selling characters Spider-Man and X-Men (who are at other studios), was forced to elevate its B-list” characters, like Iron Man, into “A-list” positions. To do so, it had to look at ways to make the characters it had on hand appealing to folks who may have never heard of the Avengers. Marvel found a hook for every property, and all of the films are on an equal playing field in regards to craftsmanship. Marvel cares about the individual films because it wants the audience to care. Its focus is not strictly limited to the opening weekend box office, but on building an overall legacy with their brand.
DC’s characters are already appealing, and the box office will come if the care is there. Fans recoil at Justice League, not because they don’t like the team, but because it sounds like more of the same from Warner Bros. - not a sudden respect for the DC brand, but a means to an end to grab that opening weekend dollar. It’s a nakedly cynical approach, especially when compared to Marvel’s long-term planning and focus.