Probably kind of strangely, at least compared to most people I suppose, I’ve never been strictly a Marvel or DC person, to the point that I prefer one to the other. Growing up, I’d go through phases: there were certainly times in which I preferred Marvel over DC, and vise versa, but I never lived in a totalitarian comic book regime … I liked both.
On the Marvel side, I drifted toward Iron Man and Spider-Man (and I went through a Nova period); on the DC side, I read The Flash and Green Lantern (and I went through a Firestorm period). Marvel always had the reputation for having the more “down to Earth, realistic” stories, and that, to a certain degree, is true. But I wasn’t reading much Batman or Superman, and, to me, Barry Allen seemed fairly down to Earth — to the point that the last few issues of the original run of Flash comic books were about The Flash being on trial for the murder of his arch enemy, Reverse Flash. What could be more down to Earth than a superhero facing the consequences of the United States legal system? And I’ll never understand this new attitude that the DC properties aren’t allowed to have jokes, because I found a lot of humor in DC comic books. it’s all very confusing.
This is why I have such a hard time wrapping my head around Warner Bros. struggle with bringing the DC cinematic universe to life – presented so jarringly in The Hollywood Reporter’s breakdown of the almost paint-by-committee nature of how they’re trying to pull the whole thing off. There’s no vision, but they have hired a lot of people to try and find a vision. This just fundamentally seems like a bad way to create a multi-movie story.
Marvel certainly isn’t without fault. The Edgar Wright situation with Ant-Man is a rare black eye for a studio that has taken few punches since the release of 2008’s Iron Man. Wright’s plight with Marvel became exemplified because Wright is a well-liked director that is popular within online film writing circles. But, with Marvel, you can’t have it both ways: There is a clear-cut vision (driven mostly by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige), and if you alter at all from that vision, you’re going to be on the outside looking in. Marvel movies have been criticized for having the same feel (which isn’t really true, though they all do have a similar “look”), but this is all in support of the greater vision. It’s difficult to argue that it doesn’t work, even if there is a casualty here and there.
I always thought the DC cinematic universe should have taken a cue from the MCU and start with a slightly lesser known character, then build from there. (A couple of years ago, I thought it might be good to let The Flash have the next movie and let him become the kind of fast talking, charming, Iron Man-type of the series. I suggested that Jesse Eisenberg play The Flash; then Jesse Eisenberg was cast as Lex Luthor. What do I know?)
It’s weird to think just how unknown Iron Man was to most people back in 2008 – to the point that the film was a huge risk in every way. A risk because superhero movies that weren’t Batman or Spider-Man or Superman or X-Men really had little track record for success, and Marvel was taking a huge risk on its star, Robert Downey Jr. — who, at the time, wasn’t that far removed from the darkest period of his life. A kind of parallel that suited the also maligned Tony Stark, but was still a huge risk banking so much on Downey. (Spoiler alert: it paid off.)
But the reason that Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark today is that no one in 2008 really knew who Tony Stark was in the first place. Downey was allowed to define that role and, even today, he’s the cog that holds this whole thing together. These actors have been allowed to define their characters, as opposed to something like Batman, where the character defines the actor.
The thing is, Marvel’s success might have as much to do with Feige’s vision as much as it does with good old-fashioned dumb luck. Marvel had sold off so many of its characters to other studios, it was left with what, at the time, looked a lot like a roster of b-team characters. If it had been an option, yeah, Marvel probably would have led off with Spider-Man, but they were forced to make do with characters that, on paper, weren’t as popular. But there were also no expectations, and Marvel built an entire universe built on low expectations. And that first Iron Man movie legitimately feels like the beginning of something. And now, here we are with Avengers: Age of Ultron, a huge spectacle of a movie that feels normal because we’ve waited so long to get here.
The problem with Man of Steel is that when it was first released, no one knew if it took place in the same universe of Christian Bale’s Batman, or was this a new story altogether? To be fair, Warner Bros. didn’t quite know either, as reports indicate that WB went back to Bale as a sort of Hail Mary to try to get him on board for this new universe. When that failed, Man of Steel became DC’s Iron Man — which, despite its obvious problems, can still work as a first chapter. The problem seems to be that no one knows what the next chapters should be.
Imagine if Iron Man was followed immediately by The Avengers — that’s kind of what DC is doing with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The reason The Avengers worked so well is that we had seen all these characters in their own adventures. They were ALL the heroes of their own stories, and now here they all are, working together. The Avengers was the orgasm after four years of foreplay. It was all very satisfying. Putting so many DC characters into the second chapter of a cinematic story – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman are all supposed to appear — just feels rushed. And that Hollywood Reporter piece sure isn’t dispelling those feelings for anyone.
That piece paints a picture that Zack Snyder has kind of been thrust into a leadership role over the entire project, which is fine, in the sense that Joss Whedon has had the same kind of input at Marvel. But the problem is DC doesn’t have a Kevin Feige – a studio head that also has a deep personal knowledge of these characters. I’ve interviewed Feige four times over the last couple of years — the man knows his sh*t. That’s not a ruse, he’s legitimately a fan of these characters. He never speaks like someone coming from the business side of this operation, he talks to you like he’s got the best toy collection on the block and knows exactly how to display them. But the funny this is, DC legitimately has the best toy collection – they have access to every DC character, as opposed to Marvel, who doesn’t. The problem is, they just don’t know how to display or position that collection.
Right now, DC is the kid on the block whose parents bought them everything, but all the toys are just scattered on the floor with no rhyme or reason – the kid who desperately needs someone who can come in and put all of those pieces up on the shelf in the right order.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York Magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.