Everyone else is just playing Marvel's game at this point.
I have no doubt some of the DC/Warner movies will be good, and some will likely be bad, and there will be people who prefer them because there is a strong chance they are going to be radically different in tone than anything Marvel's making, and fandom will continue to rage and debate even as Fox struggles to manage their own unconnected corner of the Marvel Universe. But make no mistake… Marvel is driving the entire conversation right now. Everyone else is reacting to them, or being forced to try to emulate them, or making a conscious decision not to react to them, which is still a reaction, and through it all, Marvel is making the choices they're making based on a long-range story-driven game plan that takes business considerations into account but that also seems designed to ever keep anyone from being in the position of being able to ruin their plans over money.
Over the weekend, Devin Faraci ran a piece about the possible shape of “Avengers 3” over at Badass Digest, and like Devin, there are things I've been hearing for a while now that have me wondering what the Marvel Universe looks like in five years. It won't be the Marvel Universe we know right now, but it will be richer and weirder and much much larger. I think many fans assumed that we'd get to the James Bond moment at some point soon where they have to just start recasting the key roles like Tony Stark or Captain America or Thor, but I think Marvel is reluctant to start down that road.
Instead, it seems like they're focused on cultivating new members of the Marvel family while figuring out the best way to deploy those contractual obligations they've still got pending. It's like an elaborate narrative chess game, and the advantage Marvel has is that they know where all these things are heading. They have long-range plans for the world that have been building now for ten movies and that are nowhere near their final pay-off yet. That's sort of remarkable and unprecedented. That's what I mean when I say everyone else is going to have to play Marvel's game. They've got to start thinking bigger.
There's a fairly pronounced antagonism between Fox and Marvel these days, and it's just going to get stranger as the publishing version of Marvel seems to be making some very strategic decisions about the characters that Fox owns. Deadpool's movie may have finally been announced, but it looks like Marvel's planning to kill Deadpool in the very near future. The rumors about the end of publication for “Fantastic Four” were denied for months, but now look to be true. And the status quo in the world of the “X-Men” is in ruins in a way that looks nothing like the movies currently being made. Whatever Marvel's future is, the Fox deal remains a thorn in their side, a sequester of some of their biggest characters that looks unlikely to ever change.
Sony, on the other hand, may be doing things the opposite way. While I can't get the confirmations I need to verify the story, I'm hearing that there are some very cool “Spider-Man” plans being discussed that would help Sony refocus their enormously important franchise while also opening up some connections in the onscreen Marvel movie universe that would blow fandom's minds. Will it work out? I don't know. I would love to be able to state for sure that it's happening. What seems clear from what I've heard is that Marvel wants to be able to play with all of their characters, and if they can make that work creatively and on a corporate level, they will, and that means the world gets bigger again.
Someone asked me this weekend when this bubble bursts, and for Marvel, I don't see anything that can stop them at this point besides them. For almost two years, I had conversations with people in which I talked about how important “Guardians Of The Galaxy” would be to the studio, and I was told endlessly that it was going to be the point where they bit off more than they could chew. Now that the film is a legitimate phenomenon, it looks like Marvel really can successfully introduce new and unknown characters to the mainstream and they can take chances with tone or with casting as long as they deliver something that works. They have two more giant challenges coming with “Doctor Strange” and “Ant-Man,” but they've got all of their energy focused on making those movies not only fit into what's come before, but expand what can come afterwards.
For everyone else, I think the bubble bursts sooner rather than later. You cannot pound the audience into submission. Fox is taking some big chances with “Fantastic Four,” and even if the film is really good, it may simply be too big a set of choices that they've made, too radical an interpretation for some fans to get their head around. The “X-Men” movies are going to continue to be what they've always been… some better than others, lots of spin-offs, and way too dependent on Wolverine. We'll see what happens with “Deadpool,” but I think they've got a real uphill battle on that one. If you can make a genuine comedy that also works as a superhero adventure movie, that's a sweet spot, and it's what helped “Guardians” enormously, but it's also really hard to pull off. And if they're going to actually try to do their own in-house mash-ups, they need to make all of the individual pieces work first. I don't know if I want a “Fantastic Four/X-Men” movie, because I don't know what I think of the “Fantastic Four” yet, and I have no idea what line-up of X-Men they're even talking about by that point.
And with DC, so much is riding on “Batman Vs. Superman: Please God Let This Franchise Work.” Best case scenario, it's the launching ground for the Justice League and a slew of other individual character movies. Worst case scenario, they have to salt the earth, step back, and set aside the ambitious plans they have for the DC universe. There's no guarantee yet, and it can smack of hubris to tell the audience you have ten movies waiting for them if they aren't sure they even like one film yet. When Marvel starts making choices about how to parcel out characters and narrative points, they're doing it from a position of strength right now, and that can't be over-estimated. They are doing it because they are having fun playing with all these various threads they have going, and they know they have great payoffs ahead. It is a singular moment they're having, and every other studio who is in this big-canvass franchise business right now is looking at the end results and not the process.
It only works because they're doing it as one giant story that is all building to something. It's the same game-plan I hear Disney is implementing for the “Star Wars” universe. As 21st century mega-studios go, no one's playing the game the way the various Disney families are, and whatever the plans are for “Avengers 3” or “Infinity War” or “Secret Wars” or whatever big event is coming, I have a feeling by the time we get there, it will be both inevitable narratively, and welcomed by the fans, and in the end, if the audience doesn't want what you're making, all the game plans in the world don't matter.
“Avengers: Age of Ultron” arrives in theaters May 1, 2015.