Up until the late nineties, really, with Blade, Marvel had nothing. That's twenty years of DC cinematic supremacy, because the Marvel movies started off their initial run pretty well with 1998's aforementioned Blade, 2000's X-Men (another game-changer), and 2002's Spider-Man, each of which spawned a trilogy of two good films and one awful one. (Weird, right?) Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer closed out what you might consider the "first wave" of Marvel films in 2007, because 2008 saw the deployment of the superhero movie A-bomb, Iron Man. The rest is recent history, so I'm skipping it. The point is that once Iron Man dropped, the balance began to shift, and five years later the scales have all but fallen on the Marvel-weighted side.
|Only goes to 2010, but this is a good overview.|
Fast forward four more years, to 2012, and suddenly DC's at the end of their flagship Batman franchise with The Dark Knight Rises, in a summer that saw it going toe-to-toe with, as promised four years past, The Avengers. I imagine that's really when the reality of the situation sunk in for Warner Bros. They had seen the component Marvel films released to generally good reviews and returns, but with Avengers it was different because Christopher Nolan delivered a definitive end to his celebrated franchise in the final Batman film. It was done. Bruce and Selina were off in Florence while Alfred drank fancy coffee. The end. Marvel and The Avengers, on the other hand? Just getting started. Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and looking ahead, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, and God knows what other spinoffs or future films. DC, meanwhile? Man of Steel...and that's it. In a year or two comes Batman vs. Superman, and no less a source than Guillermo del Toro has confirmed that Warner Bros. has plans for the entire DC universe, from film to TV to other media—including his own Dark Universe, said to center around the more arcane heroes of the DCU.
|"What do you MEAN Keanu Reeves isn't coming back as Constantine?"|
In among Marvel's impressive slate of projects, there's an oddity: a TV project, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, set in Marvel Cinematic Universe continuity, featuring recognizable characters and cameos from the film franchises. Now, DC is no stranger to TV—I point you toward the excellent and extensive run of the DC animated universe, from Batman: The Animated Series in 1993 through to Justice League Unlimited, which ended in 2006. There was a live-action Superboy TV show in the late 80s and early 90s, Lois and Clark after that, the short-lived Birds of Prey, Smallville, and most recently, Arrow and the upcoming Flash series. (Heaven forbid we forget the camp-tastic Adam West Batman series.) They've also had a recent run of some successful video games, and adapted several of their better-known storylines into well-received animated films.
|Someone out there remembers this excellent movie.|
The newest battleground is on TV, where DC was actually ahead of the pack with Arrow. Marvel's own opening salvo came with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Again, a Flash series is expected to spin-off from Arrow in the next year, and FOX is gearing up for a series about a young Jim Gordon called Gotham. David Goyer, writer of the new Superman films, is developing a Constantine show in development at NBC. The CW's even considering adding a third DC show in Hourman. Not to be outdone, Marvel recently revealed plans for four Marvel heroes in a deal with Netflix: Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and Daredevil are all getting their own series, leading up to a miniseries event, The Defenders, a kind of street-justice Avengers, and this is where things get interesting.
It's no secret cable television has seen serious increases in quality over the last several years. It's arguably at it's peak now – Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Dexter, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, The Killing, Sherlock, Downton Abbey. Netflix joined the game this year with House of Cards, and there's clearly more to come from them. Stories are becoming more complex and intriguing, characters more compelling, and the serial format allows viewers to really explore and get in deep with a series. There's one show in particular I think could provide a fascinating template for DC to do, as I mentioned, something different: American Horror Story.
|Hopefully it'll be less scary than this superhero adaptation.|
Both Marvel and DC have multitudes of excellent character-driven storylines from which to draw. It's difficult to explore these often beloved tales in the span of a two-hour film, or indeed a six-hour trilogy. Much gets compressed or tossed in service of pacing. But these are all characters designed to thrive on long-form storytelling, and I think cable superhero series are a great idea. Were I in charge of such things, I would take that concept one step further with the American Horror Story example and create a constantly-changing superhero anthology show.
I have to think we're reaching a tipping point in the saturation of comics in the media. Fatigue will set in eventually, whether it's because of Avengers 5: You Don't Know Who Half of These Heroes Are Anymore or Justice League Detroit. Sooner or later, people will say "enough," and the studios should be prepared for that. Marvel's stuff is everywhere, and I think DC's counter and solution is an anthology show adapting their most acclaimed storylines, with a new story every season, like American Horror Story. This could be done with team storylines or with high-profile hero storylines, and the beauty of the current market saturation is exposure; these characters are now inextricably dug into popular culture, moreso than ever before. DC has an advantage in owning some of the most recognizable heroes in existence. This allows them to spend more time introducing less-familiar characters and just leaping directly into the story, without the exposition that both sets up and bogs down fledgling hero franchises. The anthology format allows for smaller, character-driven series alternated with bigger events. For example: one season could be an adaptation of a fan-favorite Batman storyline, "Hush." It features nearly every major Batman villain, most of the Robins, and even a Superman cameo, wrapped in a plot that sees both Batman and Bruce Wayne threatened by both characters' pasts. Follow that up with a Justice League origin story—probably the "Origin" storyline from DC's New 52. As the seasons build, viewers get more and more generally familiar with the characters, and thus my next suggestion:
It's something of a pipe dream, because it's not as though DC or Marvel or anyone will give up on big-budget adaptations of comic stories while they're making their current levels of money. Nor do I mean that they should give up on these films, either; I think a concurrent anthology series could keep things fresh as the films become routine. It could instead present an attractive opportunity for DC in the form of a proving ground. If a character becomes particularly well-received, a solo series or even film could be spun off from the cable series. If a concept does well—say, a season of Sandman or another Vertigo title—it, too, could get its own show after finding a place with audience. It's a flexible concept, one that I think allows DC to assert themselves and blaze a new trail. Let Marvel browbeat the masses with their flashy heroes and big films; maybe DC could take a firmer hold of the cultural imagination with committed, straightforward adaptations of stories that made them famous in the first place.
My two cents—thanks for reading. Got an opinion? Leave it below!