With the recent release of Justice League, DC has proven what a lot of film fans have known for a long time… they aren’t that good at this cinematic universe thing. They’re actually pretty bad at it, they’re not quite at Dark Universe levels but they’re certainly not the gold standard that they want to be. They want to be Marvel, they want to be able to throw out Movie after Movie after Movie and get critical praise out the wazoo for every single one but they can’t, and they won’t until they learn the lessons that Marvel got right from the start. Lesson’s I’ll now just state explicitly so DC can copy my notes and pass this cinematic class.
NOTE: I’m spoiling stuff for Justice League, Batman V Superman, Civil War, The Avengers 1&2, Agents of Shield and Buffy the Vampire Slayer… it’ll make sense soon.
Also, tiny bit rusty at these so apologies if it’s not good.
LESSON 1: Comic Fans are NOT your key audience
I know that it seems like a silly idea, comic book movies are literally movies about comic book characters so of course they’re made for the fans right? Sadly, no, not even close. Comics are a niche product and sure, major releases can sell a large amount but they aren’t movie levels.
OK Maybe this one makes as much as a movie, but it’s the exception to the rule
Let’s make a comparison, the highest grossing comic book movie of this year is Wonder Woman, it made $412 million at the box office in North America. That means that, conservative estimate using $10 bucks a ticket (Which is OVER the average), about 41 million people saw that movie. Hell, let’s be super kind and assume everyone went twice, cut it down to 20 million people in the USA alone and cut out the rest of the world… the top selling comic in this same year? That’d be Marvel Legacy which shipped 300K. DC pops up on that list in second place with Dark Nights Medal at 270K and I have no idea where a Wonder Woman comic pops up on the list. Point is, that’s barely over 10% of the potential US audience who even picked up a comic book this year, let alone a Wonder Woman comic. This means that the film had to work a little harder to fill in backstory. You notice how Wonder Woman is the best reviewed of literally any DC movie and it’s also the one that was the best as exploring her backstory and explaining how she became what she is in great detail? Comic Book fans know this stuff, film fans probably didn’t know it. Or at least they didn’t know it in this much detail. This was DC finally doing what Marvel’s been doing brilliantly since the start.
From the very beginning, Iron Man was Marvel understanding that they were playing to a larger market, they had to re-introduce their characters to the world. Tony Stark first turned up in 1963 so there were roughly 5 decades of comics to act as the backstory… but Marvel knew no one is going to do the required reading which is why they did it for us. Every one of these new films is an origin story explicitly so the audience isn’t lost, it’s Marvel holding your hand and walking you through it, explaining where they’re going so you’re going to be able to enjoy it more when they get there. Meanwhile, DC just pushed everyone in and assumed we all knew about Suicide Squad and Cyborg and why Batman is fighting Superman and that we’d care enough to go along with them when they hadn’t given us any reason to. This leads to the second lesson…
Lesson 2: Slowly, Slowly, It’s Too Nice A Job To Rush
I know it might not seem like it, considering how many of them come out every year, but Marvel is really good at taking their time to get to major stories. Their 6th film was their team-up movie, their 13th one was when they finally took on the biggest story in the Marvel universe with Civil War. They made sure they earned those, they made sure that these gigantic films were going to work and would be entertaining. They made sure every major character fit into place where they needed them and when they needed them and didn’t diverge from this plan. Heck, they didn’t even go off and do something weird until their 10th film when they brought in Guardians of the Galaxy and broke their own mould.
Remember how this seemed like the weirdest movie in the franchise?
DC, meanwhile, blew their wad by making their 2nd film the “Superman Dies” storyline. That is arguably the biggest story DC has got to play with, it’s literally killing one of their most beloved and popular characters… second film in this universe. Keep in mind that these films are not related to the Dark Knight franchise or the 90’s Batman movies, it’s a different universe of films and so they had to reset (It’s why the first film in the DCEU is Superman’s origin story again, they had to do a hard reset for this new universe). This means that they have nowhere bigger to go anymore, how do you top killing Superman? You really can’t. Marvel still has a fair few major cards to play when it comes to world-changing storylines, DC really doesn’t because they played their biggest card right up the top, and it was laughable. Speaking of Batman V Superman
Lesson 3: Backstory Is Your Friend
The story that’s most comparable to Batman V Superman is easily Civil War and Marvel earned that cinematically, they had given us 5 movies with Tony Stark and 6 with Steve Rogers before they decided to pit them against each other in Civil War. That’s insane, but it means we now have had enough time with both characters where we can pick a side and we know their characters so well and what’s happened to this point where we can understand why they’re behaving the way they are. We got their backstories, we then moved on and every film adds to what we already know so when it’s time to have everyone fight, the audience has seen how they got to this point and all we have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
Admit it, by this point you’d picked a side before walking into the cinema
DC? We had 1 Superman movie in this new universe and we didn’t even meet the new Batman so they had to do so much in Batman V Superman just to make it work, which it really didn’t. Not like it should’ve. It should’ve been a powerhouse movie but it wasn’t because no one knew these versions of the characters. So they had to get us used to the new Batman, they had to explore why they’re fighting, they had to have them fight and then they had to, within the same movie, stop them fighting (Thanks O-Martha) and move them on to the big “Oh wait, Superman’s dead” moment that they would later have to undo when they wanted to team up… so much work, meanwhile Civil War had everyone kick each other in the head for 140 minutes and was so much more enjoyable.
Lesson 4: Don’t Do Something Major Right Away That You Need To Undo Later
You notice how I keep bringing up the “Superman is Dead” thing? That’s because it’s the biggest thing DC tried to do, and they had to slam the Undo button 3 films later in a way that was about as painful as the CGI they used to cover up Cavill’s moustache. It’s hard to do, they had this major event they had to handle and then they had to fix it in a way that’s satisfying… catch is, that takes time to get right. To go outside of these two franchises, let’s take a quick detour to TV and look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy died at the end of Season 5, she’s explicitly very dead there. It took them 2 episodes to explain how they got her back to life, it then took the entire goddamn season for them to get her back to what she was when she died. They took their time to make sure they earned that, DC took about half an hour in the middle of the film to revive Superman, let him return to normal offscreen, then have him back at the end for the final fight. It’s not earned, you have to earn this kind of thing and they don’t.
Now to compare this to Marvel, notice how they didn’t have any major losses until they needed them. Coulson is the first one who really shocked everyone, and they saved his end for The Avengers... then put him in Agents of Shield and explain how that works over there. They ramp up to their major deaths and character changes but not only do they stick to them, they don’t undo them unless they absolutely have too and then they make damn sure they earn it. When they killed Quicksilver in Age of Ultron, that’s a pretty major moment for the franchise… do you really think they’re going to bring him back? We’re 7 films beyond when he died, I doubt he’s in Infinity War, I think they’re just leaving him dead… DC didn’t even make it 3 films before they were screaming “UNDO IT! UNDO IT!”… Brian on Family Guy was dead for longer than Superman.
Lesson 5: When You’re Onto A Winner, DO IT AGAIN
Marvel hit it out of the park with Iron Man. They tapped into something special and blew everyone away with what they had put assembled and so, because they like money, they did it again… and again… and again. They repeated everything and just changed a few names, that’s it. I love these movies, the criticism of “They’re all the same” is accurate and that’s intentional because that storyline works. Once they knew they had the audience in the palm of their hands they could then try new things, they could do some of their weirder characters like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange, they could do a flat-out comedy, they could do a spy thriller but they had to make sure they earned the audience’s trust that they knew what they were doing.
DC doesn’t seem to want to try that, they hit it out of the park with Wonder Woman, but we’re probably not seeing another film like that until Wonder Woman 2 comes out. They added some levity to Justice League but failed in story and villain design. They clearly didn’t understand that they had a winner of an idea and to just redo that. Redo it 12 times, get it right, get the confidence back and THEN do your super out there stuff. True little personal story, my brother loves Superhero films and see’s every Marvel movie without exception… he’s been burned by DC so many times that he literally waited for the entire world to scream how amazing Wonder Woman is before buying the ticket, didn’t even bother with Justice League, probably won’t with any because DC hasn’t earned the trust that Marvel has.
FINAL LESSON: It’s A Universe… Make It All Matter!
You notice how Marvel is insanely careful not to break their continuity? Notice how they very explicitly make sure that anything in the MCU fits together, like a very elaborate puzzle. They don’t have a random film where suddenly everyone’s a Zombie, they didn’t just drop the infamous “Hail Hydra” moment where it didn’t belong, they made a movie series that works as a cohesive unit. Hell, even the TV series is impacted by this. Captain America learning about Hyrda? That’s reflected in Agents of Shield. The events of Avengers? called out as a major element of backstory for the Netflix series. They made a universe where everything is woven together and cohesive as they could make it. You could make a glorious elaborate timeline that fits in every movie and TV series in this Marvel universe and it’d all fit because they planned it that way, they made a universe and thus made us care.
DC? Well, DC has stated that they’re going to have movies that don’t fit into the universe like that weird Joker movie they’re working on. They said the Aquaman movie might not fit into every other movie, also the TV series and Movies aren’t linked in any way whatsoever. The TV DC universe seems to be a lot better at this, they actually have characters cross over and make it work but the movies do not, they’re going to screw around and not treat this like a Universe.
Do NOT let yourself become this DC. DO NOT LET IT HAPPEN!
Treating your audience like they don’t matter is not the best thing to do, and DC is doing exactly that. They don’t care if you’re having fun, they just want you to come and see their movies and so they do big things with no planning behind them, no intent and no thought about where this is going to go. DC didn’t plan ahead for this test, Marvel did. DC could still save this if they just retool what’s coming up so it’ll fit with what came before, if they learn to wait a little bit before getting to big events… mostly? DC will do better if they remember that these are freaking comic book movies, they don’t have to be so dark and shocking all the time. Sometimes, you can just make Wonder Woman and make everyone very happy.
How do you think DC could learn from Marvel in order to be better at this?
What lesson of mine do you think I got wrong?