Batman Begins and The Root of The Warner Bros./DC Superhero Problem

By  · Published on May 4th, 2015

In an alternate universe, Iron Man was only a modest success, Iron Man 2 and The Incredible Hulk hobbled the franchise, and Marvel never had a chance to deliver on the promise of an Avengers movie. By the time Thor hit theaters, there was no saving the studio, and they lost the rights to the very characters they were hoping would save them.

In this parallel world, the superhero craze continues at half strength, Warner Bros. is in no real hurry to force a Justice League movie to work, and most of the best Marvel characters are owned by Merrill Lynch.

There is also no Daredevil Netflix show, there is no Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., there is no Avengers: Age of Ultron.

This version of reality is both easy and difficult to imagine. Easy because Marvel was on the verge of bankruptcy when they launched a Hail Mary pass which didn’t appear in any other studio’s playbook; difficult because it worked so well that we’re now surrounded by their successes.

We’ve all been hard on Warner Bros. because of Marvel’s successes, but the root of their DC superhero problem goes back a decade, and it’s hard to blame them for it.

There are two reasons for that, which we’ll get to in a second, but first let’s go back in time to Marvel’s Rubicon moment as it relates to Warner Bros. current discombobulation.

In 2003, Endeavor talent agent David Maisel pitched Marvel a simple, but radical idea: why continue to give away your best assets to other companies for a paltry fee? Create your own production studio, develop and produce these titles in house and retain 100% of the profits. At the time, Marvel was intrigued but hesitant to move forward. After about seven years toiling away at profitability in the wake of their bankruptcy, they were finally starting to see some returns, as small as they were. Why risk all that on a plan that leave them broke again?

That’s Mike Sampson at Screen Crush explaining Marvel’s road from destitution to dominance. It started with an idea to develop not one, but five films that would be capped off by an event movie the likes of which had never been seen before. It would involve borrowing half a billion dollars and managing a monstrous balance of planning and flexibility. In 2005, Marvel’s board approved the gamble.

That date is important because it’s the same year that Batman Begins hit theaters. By the time The Dark Knight came out in 2008, Warner Bros. was already two movies deep into a fantastically popular franchise that wouldn’t interlock with their other major superhero properties at all. The head nod at the end of the first Nolan Batman movie is to The Joker appearing in the sequel, not to Superman announcing his return to Earth by stopping a plane from crashing into a baseball stadium.

(There’s also an alternate universe where Gordon shows that headline to Batman, and we all lose our minds.)

It’s only natural that Nolan’s Batman movies didn’t tie into other movies. That wasn’t something studios did at the time. Maybe you offered an inside joke or an Easter egg, but the concept of wrangling that much creative talent and a herd of movie stars to share five-way top billing for your blockbuster must have seemed nightmarishly impossible.

Until Marvel did it.

Iron Man hit theaters two months before The Dark Knight, but Marvel’s connected universe wouldn’t prove itself as a success until years later. By then, it was too late for Warner Bros. to cobble together the road to a an ensemble superhero movie with none of the groundwork laid (and they were honestly probably waiting for Marvel to land on its face at the time).

Thus, in 2012, Warner Bros. and DC launched the thrilling finish to the Nolan Batman series two months after Marvel broke box office records with The Avengers — a movie event that simultaneously acted as the endpoint promised by Nick Fury back in 2008 and as the starting gun for, if we could believe it, an even more ambitious universe. Marvel was using a home run to signal a grand slam while Warner Bros. was holding a retirement party for Bruce Wayne.

They’d just capped one of the most successful superhero franchises of all time, and they hadn’t tied it into any of their future projects. But, again, why would they? The entire series was made using the old model, and Marvel’s Avengers model hadn’t yet been totally proven to work. Plus, Warners continued to take the #1 or #2 spot on the studio market share list from 2008–2012 (and #1 again in 2013 and 2015).

So here are those two reasons we can’t blame Warner Bros. for their timing:

  1. They were and continue to be monumentally successful with what they’ve done; and
  2. They simply weren’t in a position in 2008 (or now) to innovate like Marvel did

Marvel’s Avengers Initiative was the act of a company with its back against the wall, lashing out in the only way they could. That Kevin Feige and the team deftly navigated the gamble to reasonable critical success, profound fan loyalty and outstanding financial returns is a near-miraculous occurrence. Thus, we can’t blame Warner Bros. and DC for being late to the game when the root of their problem goes back to Batman Begins.

What we can blame them for is poorly copying Marvel’s formula, for assuming it will work twice, and for wanting to have the kind of success tomorrow that Marvel worked for four years to set up.

To be fair, the confused nature of Warner Bros.’ interlocking superhero franchise planning doesn’t guarantee that Batman v Superman or any future DC movies will be bad; they could be amazing and make all the money and force everyone to fall in love with their Justice-y universe.

But while we genuinely can’t fault Warner Bros. for what amounts to successfully bad timing, it’s just as baffling that – after Avengers busted blocks and after Warner Bros. presumably decided they wanted in on the action – they didn’t lay any ground work whatsoever in Man of Steel. Stenciling “Wayne Enterprises” on a satellite doesn’t count, Nick Fury breaking into your house does. Thus, it’s arguable that Man of Steel isn’t even the first movie in the extended Justice League universe: Batman v Superman will retroactively prove that Superman lived in a world with other superheroes. Consider it a retconning of foresight.

Back in our alternate universe it’s 2013, and Superman is settling into his new alias as Clark Kent after saving the world from one of his own kind. The credits roll on Man of Steel, but then the picture returns.

A man stands in the oval office briefing the president. Things are dire, he says. It’s going to get out of hand. The president tells him to make the call.

In a shabby office in a shabby city, a man with a shabby mustache puts down his telephone and tromps up to the roof. He shudders at the cold night air for a moment, then turns on a searchlight, and an unmistakable symbol stabs the sky.

If that had happened in our movie universe, the Man of Steel wouldn’t have been alone, but that would have required some vision.

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