So with hundreds of reviews for The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK) ranging from awesome to possibly the best comic book movie yet, Marvel Studios and its parent corporation, Disney, have a long, prosperous road ahead of them in terms of blockbuster franchises. That is as long as they continue to hire similarly talented and capable story tellers like Joss Whedon to take the helms.
And as The Avengers appears to solidify the characters’ continued cinematic success, the ever present elephant in the room just got a bit bigger and louder – and its name is DC/Warner Bros. Although they have been making comic book movies for decades longer than Marvel, with the exceptions of the first couple Superman movies (1978 and 1980) and Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), none of them have been much good and none made an especially positive impression of the genre.
Ever since X-Men premiered in 2000 comic book fans have been reeling from a consistent and exponentially growing surge in the popularity of comic book properties and it’s due entirely to the success of their film adaptations. However, with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s extraordinary renditions of Batman, Marvel characters have dominated this trend and DC have been unable to start their own franchise like The Avengers.
Whether or not dedicated fans and critics alike hailed these various movies as triumphs, they unfortunately are only influences, as opposed to sources, of measuring the movies’ success. No, that illustrious gauge is comprised of one loaded business term – profits. It’d be nice to live in a world in which cultural and artistic fields flourished according to the caliber of the pieces they’re comprised of, but unfortunately, at least when it comes to Hollywood, the industry operates according to that which makes the most money for the studios. So throughout this article the term “success” refers to that of the financial variety, not necessarily critical or artistic.
Therefore, I figure the best way to approach the likelihood of DC’s super team, the Justice League, making it to the silver screen is through the lens of those powerful studio executives whom call all the shots.
So let’s break it down. And again, we’ll do so neglecting for the moment these movies’ artistic and critical strengths and weaknesses, focusing entirely on their financial bottom lines. The monetary amounts will be profits, not just grosses, not including merchandising figures like home video sales, video game sales, toys, etc. On average, these movies have budgets of around $130 million and ideally studios want to see profits (not just grosses) around the same figure. Although the film rights to various Marvel characters have been aligned with 20th Century Fox, Sony, Universal, and Disney, among others, and the film appearances of DC characters are courtesy of Warner Bros., I’ll mostly discuss the various properties in terms of their respective publisher affiliations, i.e., Marvel versus DC. I also will neglect the potential influence of these characters’ various animated incarnations, whether they’re straight to video or a TV series of any kind.
First let’s examine the team that has occupied the majority of the film adaptations of the last decade or so, Marvel. The X-Men trilogy (2000, 2003, 2006) has collectively earned for Fox over $676 million. The Origins: Wolverine (2009) and First Class (2011) movies netted the same studio $223 million and $193 million, respectively. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007) collectively brought in a colossal $1.9 billion for Sony and Marc Webb’s reboot is poised to also be a decent money maker though of course it being such a recent reboot, only time will tell. Either way, the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises alone have made more than twice as much as all of the DC character based films of the last decade.
But for good measure, the Daredevil movie (2003) starring Ben Affleck made about $100 million, about $20 million more than its budget but its spin-off, Elektra (2005), made just $13 million, about $30 million less than its budget. Ang Lee’s Hulk (2003) brought in $108 million, about $30 million less than its budget for Universal and the Ed Norton driven 2008 sequel/reboot didn’t do much better as it made $113 million, almost $40 million less than its budget. The Punisher (2004) has a similar story as its less than impressive profits ($21 million) nonetheless led to a stand-alone sequel/reboot, Punisher: War Zone (2008), which actually lost $25 million. Nic Cage’s two Ghost Rider (2007, 2012) films have earned just $154 million. The two Fantastic Four (2005, 2007) movies made a combined $390 million, each making back their budgets. The combination of both Iron-Man (2008 and 2010) movies made an impressive $869 million, 2011’s Thor made $300 million, and the same year Captain America made $228 million. Although there have been disappointments from the Elektra, Punisher, and Ghost Rider movies, Marvel has a pretty impressive track record for earning studios good money through 24 films in thirteen years.
Now DC on the other hand, has a muddier, less cohesive record. Whereas the Marvel characters are generally much more recognizable to the mainstream public and have closer ties among one another’s back-stories and continuities, characters that were published by DC or one of its imprints like Vertigo which have seen major film releases have not necessarily been generally recognizable to the mainstream public and have not necessarily been linked in any canonical way. For instance, there’s Constantine (2005) which made $130 million. Another example is V For Vendetta (2005) which made just $78 million. Neither of these characters, V in particular, have close knit connections to DC’s more popular characters like Superman or Batman. Then there’s Watchmen (2009), which made only $55 million, and is a completely stand-alone story. Even the announced prequel comics won’t intersect with the fictional universe most DC characters inhabit. 2010’s Jonah Hex was a big disappointment as it lost $37 million.
As for the bigger DC names, Bryan Singer left the X-Men franchise to make the spiritual sequel to the 70s Superman movies, Superman Returns (2006), which made $182 million. Perhaps most damning was the Green Lantern movie (2011) which made a measly $20 million, barely making back its budget. The losses on Green Lantern especially hurt because after Superman and Batman, whom are so ingrained into the collective unconscious of modern western civilization that the success of their major studio films won’t have as heavy an influence on the likelihood of a Justice League movie as other lesser known characters, Green Lantern is a key character of the JL to get audiences in support of. Then there’s Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (2005, 2008) which thus far has earned Warners a combined whopping $1.3 billion and this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises is all but guaranteed to rake in tons more. DC’s only had ten films in eight years, less than half of that of Marvel characters.
As mentioned, the relatively immediate future holds the Spider-Man reboot, the First Class sequel, The Wolverine, the Iron-Man, Thor, and Captain America sequels, eventually there should be an Avengers sequel, as well as the half dozen or so other properties Marvel is considering adapting in to major motion pictures like Ant-Man, Dr. Strange, and even Daredevil and Fantastic Four reboots.
DC on the other hand, again, has only Zack Snyder’s Superman: Man of Steel (2013) to look forward to with nothing else solid in the works aside from the eventual Batman reboot that will occur hopefully no fewer than at least five years from now.
But despite DC’s clearly significant lag behind Marvel in terms of releasing profitable major studio films, the potential for a Justice League movie has got to make execs’ mouths at DC water considering the huge success The Avengers is shaping up to be. But how likely are they to genuinely attempt it? Well basically DC has a lot of work to do, but thanks to the money Warners is looking to invest in a new franchise in light of the loss of the Harry Potter movies, Justice League could have a real shot.
Assuming DC/Warners do eventually want to achieve the same kind of success Marvel Studios is enjoying then DC needs to start thinking more strategically. Releasing films based on characters with no significant connections to the core cast of Justice League characters can’t be an option. That being said, the next characters poised for film adaptations should be Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, or Cyborg. Assuming also that DC won’t want to wait for five more movies to be released before tackling a Justice League movie, seeing as how that could easily take a very long time, I would speculate that at most maybe only three more movies based on these characters would be made before Justice League becomes DC’s next cinematic project. Despite there being seemingly serious talk of a JL movie back in 2007 and ’08 with George Miller attached to direct a younger cast, the project eventually was canceled to focus on the release of Green Lantern and the Superman and Batman sequels with no talk of a Justice League project since. Granted Green Lantern was considered a failure, the Superman and Batman films should do very well and if they do I think we’ll see a Wonder Woman movie before Justice League eventually premieres.
Now, full disclosure, I was never much into DC when I read comics as a kid; I was always a bigger sucker for mutants and arachnid humanoids. So please have mercy on me when I say that Cyborg seems super generic, The Flash always seemed like a not so super Superman, I know nothing of Martian Manhunter, and Aquaman, well, you don’t have to be in the know to be aware of Aquaman’s less than respected status among comic readers; although I hear his appearances in the new DCU52 have been much more badass. Still, Vincent Chase played him in HBO’s Entourage. He was even the butt-end of a running gag in the South Park episode, “Super Best Friends”.
So considering the relative obscurity many of the DC characters are shrouded in when it comes to the mainstream public combined with DC’s less than stellar cinematic performances when compared to that of Marvel Studios, the prospect of DC releasing more films to lead up to a Justice League movie seems dubious. It may be a glib simplification, but essentially these movies would just have to be really good. If the movies are of high quality people will go out to see them. But if they continue the hit or miss trend of mediocrity many of the super hero movies of the last decade have displayed, the path toward Justice League is pretty dim.
There is the possibility that the Justice League movie would be made without having multiple other single character centered movies released first; DC may just want to skip all that work and gambling. But if so, would DC want to release it so soon after The Avengers? On the one hand they may want to capitalize on its success, but on the other they may want to distance themselves as much as possible to avoid the obvious comparisons.
The bottom line of course is that nobody knows what Hollywood will do next and projects that look dead as a doornail one moment can be the hottest new property the next. Though Marvel Studios is clearly winning the super hero film market now, this could just be paving the way for DC to take over down the line. I for one am enjoying the burgeoning superhero genre of film as some have proved capable of not only being fun, high quality action flicks with heart, but some may even stand the test of time and go down in history as not just great super hero movies but truly great works of art. If DC wants to cash in on any of this either in the short term or the long term, the answer is the same – hire the best writers and directors possible, ones with uncompromising visions and artistic integrity, and let those auteurs develop the characters with empathy and humanity because those are the most difficult elements to achieve in a good story. Action and special effects can be found anywhere, but people should pay good money to see films in theaters because those films deliver things that can’t be found in a video game or Youtube clip, those human moments of substantial meaning. If these were found in more superhero movies, not only would comic book fans be happier, but our culture would be better off for it as well.
So what do you guys think? Will the Justice League movie happen? If so, will DC/Warner Bros. release single character based films first? Which ones? How will they make it work to rival Marvel Studios? Let us know in the comments!