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Digging the Claws In: The Wolverine, Superman/Batman, World Building and the Future of Blockbusters…

When you produce one of the most successful movies of all time, you change the rules of the game. The Avengers was the biggest box office hit of 2012, narrowly edging out The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall for the privilege. That means that all the other major film studies were taking note of what Disney and Marvel had done. So it’s no surprise that the majority of announcements trickling out of this year’s Comic Con feel heavily influenced by the success of that blockbuster.

Most notably, it seems like DC and Warners will be fully investing in their superhero world-building, with the sequel to Man of Steel broadening its focus from the Man of Tomorrow, announced as a Superman/Batman team-up feature that will build towards the inevitable Justice League film. It seems like The Wolverine might just be the most major stand-alone superhero feature film we’ll be seeing for quite some time.

The future is now...

The future is now…

Comic Con is always an interesting time. In recent years, the major studios have turned the festival into a way of generating hype and publicity for their upcoming genre films, affording geeks an insight into the treats scattered in the years ahead. There’s always a flurry of activity around the time of Comic Con, as the various studios try to put their best foot forward. Fox assembled almost every live-action X-Man ever. Sony had Spider-Man complementing Jamie Foxx. Marvel debuted a teaser for Guardians of the Galazy and revealed that the Avengers sequel would share a name with Brian Michael Bendis’ recent comic book arc Age of Ultron.

However, it was clear that the studios had been paying attention as The Avengers smashed box office records. Many of the announcements seemed to suggest that the studios were embarking on their own world-building designed to mimick or mirror that of Marvel and Disney. This isn’t a big surprise. After all, blockbuster cinema is pretty much a game of “follow the leader”, with particular trends obvious over time.

A driving force...

A driving force…

For example, one can still feel the influence of Christopher Nolan’s superb The Dark Knight on modern superhero films. The Amazing Spider-Man often felt like it was leaning a bit too heavily on the iconography and characterisation of Batman, position Spider-Man as an orphan fixated on the loss of his parents and inheriting the means to fight crime from his deceased mother and father. It’s one of the very rare Spider-Man stories that focuses on the disappearance of Peter’s parents as a guiding influence on the boy.

Even Shane Black’s much lighter-hearted Iron Man 3 explored many of the same themes as Nolan’s follow-up, The Dark Knight Rises, as Tony Stark struggled to assert his own identity above that of Iron Man. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was shot and produced in a manner that seemed to evoke Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The film demonstrated the same verisimiltude and focus on character and back story as Nolan’s work on Bruce Wayne, although it may have got the mixture of action and character development slightly wrong. Skyfall took several of its cues from Nolan’s Batman, giving Bond a mansion and some caves and a fiesty British manservent.

Falling to Earth...

Falling to Earth…

However, things have changed dramatically. The times, they are a-changing. The shift is less obvious in the properties owned by Sony and Fox. Fox recently allowed the Daredevil rights revert back to Marvel. Although they retain the rights to the Fantastic Four, news has been developing on that property rather slowly. Fox seem to be banking the X-Men. The only major comic book franchise Sony hold on to is Spider-Man. However, there are obvious signs of world-building and idea-seeding in the planned sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man, releasing next year.

Not only has Sony announced the release dates of The Amazing Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 4, it has also dropped hints at the possibility of a spin-off starring the anti-hero Venom. More than that, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will apparently focus on Jamie Foxx’s Electro as the villain, but it features an expansive supporting cast, including a very enthusiastic Paul Giamatti as The Rhino, Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn and Chris Cooper as Norman Osborn.

Money to burn...

Money to burn…

Actors and characters seem to be constantly joining the film, and there’s every indication that the series is being plotted in advance, as part of one long-form story. Indeed, many are speculating that the film series might be trying build its own “Avengers of Evil” by casting a bunch of recognisable A-list talent as villains that might be recruited into the iconic supervillain team-up “the Sinister Six.” There’s also the suggestion that the character of Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone) was included specifically so the series could build up to (and around) the celebrated comic book story The Night Gwen Stacy Died.

Fox is doing something similar with its X-Men brand. Rather than producing a direct stand-alone sequel to the wonderful (and underrated) X-Men: First Class, the studio seems to be building its own “Avengers of Actors.” With only one real property cultivated over the past decade, the studio can’t really reel in too many supporting characters (although the studio is branching out into an X-Force film). Instead, next year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past will recruit virtually every major actor who has been involved in the franchise, pooling all these recognisable faces into a single story.

Cutting it all together...

Cutting it all together…

Patrick Stewart will star alongside James McAvoy. Ian McKellen will headline with Michael Fassbender. Halle Berry will appear with Nicholas Hoult. Ellen Page, who was in the franchise for like ten minutes, will be involved. Hugh Jackman will serve as the tether connecting the two ensembles to one another. Given how overcrowded X-Men III felt, stacking the film with so many competing characters seems like a risky move. However, the talent involved is absolutely incredible, and it’s a deft piece of world-building with the single franchise Fox controls.

However, the most obvious influence of The Avengers was felt with DC’s announcement that it would be producing a Superman/Batman film. Being honest, those two characters are probably bigger and even more popular than the rest of the Justice League combined. (And I say that as somebody with a fondness for DC’s characters.) Suddenly it wasn’t enough for the studio to produce a stand-alone Superman film. In order to compete in the market place, Warner Brothers felt that they had to introduce another iconic concept into the film, and incorporate the notion of world-building into the movie so completely that it’s in the name.

"I'm still on contract for six more films!"

“I’m still on contract for six more films!”

Marvel revolutionised comic book films by daring to build a single shared universe on-screen. Iron Man promised The Avengers, with films like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger teasing the possibility of a gigantic superhero team-up. The end-of-film teasers have become so ubiquitous that people were surprised when Man of Steel didn’t include a scene in the middle of its credits sequence. The other studios have copped on. The Amazing Spider-Man featured the sultry tones of Michael Massee teasing some sinister supervillain conspiracy. The Wolverine ends with some triumphant returns from some familiar faces.

There’s a clear shift here in blockbuster storytelling, and it’s absolutely fascinating. There’s a sense that these blockbusters are becoming heavily serialised. In a way, they are drawing from the comics that inspired them, with a sense that it’s no longer enough for a narrative to exist entirely in a vacuum. Events bleed into one another. Ideas and characters develop across multiple films, to the point where the notion of an entirely “stand-alone” superhero film seems to be a thing of the past.

Electro-fying...

Electro-fying…

Marvel have produced a shared universe on screen which is absolutely remarkable. They’ve created a rich fantasy universe that is vast and deep enough to support overlapping concepts like a S.H.I.E.L.D. television show and Edgar Wright’s Antman and even Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s an incredibly broad spectrum of storytelling model to include under one umbrella. It’s hard to describe Marvel’s approach to cinema as anything but a massive success.

To be fair, critics might decry the domination of the superhero blockbuster. Every summer, it’s become tradition to hear people complain about the over-saturation of the market. That said, any approach to cinema which involves giving Edgar Wright the ability and budget to tell his own story on an epic scale (or finds room for a talking raccoon in a space opera) is worth my time. This strategy allows for more diversity than simply “another Batman film” or “another Iron Man film.”

"Co-starring with Batman! Fist pump!"

“Co-starring with Batman! Fist pump!”

That said, I’ll admit that I am skeptical of the death of the stand-alone superhero film. As a fan who was far from satisfied with Man of Steel, I was looking forward to the sequel – the chance to tell a large-scale Superman story unburdened by the origin or the weight of Richard Donner’s legacy. I was hoping the sequel would be something similar to The Dark Knight, pretty much a stand-alone encapsulation of everything that makes the character so iconic and relevant.

Cramming the massively successful and iconic Batman into the Superman narrative undermines the notion of the “definitive Superman movie.” Instead, it becomes a film trying to be “the definitive Superman/Batman movie.” Snyder introduced the announcement by having Harry Lennix quote from The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s iconic conflict between Batman and Superman. That implies that the emphasis will be on the conflict (or even on Batman) rathern than on Superman.

"Hm. Should have read the small print."

“Hm. Should have read the small print.”

Interestingly, this summer’s The Wolverine is arguably something of a half-way point between where comic book blockbusters are now, and where the studios seem to hope that they’ll be in the next couple of years. One of the refreshing things about James Mangold’s superhero throwback is the fact that it isn’t bristling with cameos or overcrowded by super-people and mutants. Instead, it’s a nice little character piece that comes off the rails when the script remembers that it needs a climactic third-act fight.

However, despite this sense of focus and isolation, the narrative is very much a serialised story. It works as a direct continuation of the character’s arc from the previous couple of films. The movie consciously mirrors the disappointing X-Men Origins: Wolverine and picks up on Logan’s arc from the end of X-Men III. It can be watched as its own thing, but it really works best as a book-end to this much broader story arc.

Remember when we could just hang-out with solo heroes?

Remember when we could just hang-out with solo heroes?

It’s a sign of how these blockbuster narratives are changing. It’s no longer about the next film. It’s about the next four or five films. It’s about wieveing a larger narrative between the frames of the films. It seems like it’s not quite enough to offer a “simple” superhero story any longer, it has to be the piece of a much larger puzzle.

While I am a bit disappointed at some of the implications of this (I’m still waiting for the definitive Superman movie, and I may have to wait half-a-decade for Marc Webb’s Spider-Man to pay off), but it is a very interesting shift in the way that studios make (and we watch) blockbusters. What do you think?

7 Responses

  1. I love the idea of a Superman/Batman movie, as long the story of the movie stand by itself.

    My problem with this “continuity” building, is that major decisions made in a single movie, will have to backtrack or ignored in the following team-up. Case in point, Iron Man 3, where Tony Stark decides to stop donning the armor in the end so he can spend time with Potts. The impact of this decision is made irrelevant because we know there will be an Avengers 2 with Iron Man.

    Other problems I see, is the creative team behind each movie will be hampered by the continuity not allowing to tell their story. Would you think there would be a The Dark Knight in this context of continuity. Personally, I don’t think so.

    Maybe the future will prove me wrong, but for now I’m skeptical.

    • That’s it. I think that a lot of studios took the wrong message from from The Dark Knight. The universally-applicable message should have been: centre the story around the character and treat the material as worthy of thought and analysis. Instead, it seems the studios picked up the more Batman-specific aspects: make everything dark and brooding, and heavy.

      I would rather have a nice stand-alone Superman sequel that pretty much nails down the core of the character in a way that Man of Steel flirted with than a Superman/Batman team-up. I can understand what the appeal of it is – after all, the studios have been suggesting it since the 1990s – but I just feel that anything short of the climax The Dark Knight Returns is going to be disappointing. And it feels like it somehow shortchanges the concept of a Superman sequel if one of you major inspirations is his guest appearance in a Batman book.

      That said, I’m cautiously curious about Days of Future Past, and more than actively interested in the Spider-Man sequels. Which is ironic – X-Men: First Class was amazing, and The Amazing Spider-Man was all over the place. However, the prospect of serialisation seems more appealing when applied to a character like Spider-Man, whose main selling point is that he’s a teenager who is growing up with this weight of responsibility. Plus “an a-list avengers of evil with Chris Cooper, Paul Giamatti, Rhys Ifans, Jamie Foxx and others” is a slightly more intriguing take on “let’s do the Avengers” schtick than “here’s Ellen Page and that bloke who was Colussus that one time!”

      • That said, I’m going to be very disappointed if Chris Cooper doesn’t rap while flying the goblin glider. “… people call me “Rich” cause I got mo’ money!”

  2. “Cramming the massively successful and iconic Batman into the Superman narrative undermines the notion of the “definitive Superman movie.” Instead, it becomes a film trying to be “the definitive Superman/Batman movie.” Snyder introduced the announcement by having Harry Lennix quote from The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller’s iconic conflict between Batman and Superman. That implies that the emphasis will be on the conflict (or even on Batman) rathern than on Superman.”

    My own theory about what it means is that, as many people have speculated, Lex Luthor will be the main villain in the next movie. He’s the only villain they really have in common, being Superman’s arch-enemy but also Bruce Wayne’s biggest business competitor – and also, however brilliant, still a human in Batman’s league, which means Batman would still actually have something to bring to the table.

    But yes, put me down as another one who isn’t a big fan of bringing Batman into the sequel. I liked Man Of Steel and think the franchise needs to grow without other superheroes cluttering up his movies, at least for now.

    • I really think there’s a wonderful Luthor-vs-Superman movie to be made. Something that does for Luthor what The Dark Knight did for The Joker – recontextualises him in the light of the modern world. Something that essentially treats the ideological conflict between the two protagonists as every bit as fascinating as the stuff exploding around them. If The Dark Knight was the Joker and Batman lock in “the battle for Gotham’s soul”, and I was hoping Man of Steel 2 would be Luthor and Superman locked in a battle for Metropolis’ soul.

      Have Lex championing conservative “look after your own, don’t challenge the system, everything has its use” values while Superman would be more of a radical champion of social justice (or even basic decency). Make Luthor charming and seductive and his position logical and consistent.

      I worry that throwing Batman in will just off-set the potential to contrast Luthor and Superman. Being honest, I suspect it’ll be easier for the movie to treat Batman as the crux (contrasting Superman and Luthor) than Superman. I love Batman, and I don’t mind the idea of a solo movie, a team-up or even a Justice League film with the character. It just feels like Man of Steel was a more fitting launch pad for something like Superman’s Dark Knight than a Batman/Superman team-up.

      • Yes, I agree completely on Superman’s Dark Knight. The character was just created in Man Of Steel. He should’ve had at least another movie to really establish himself (a la Dark Knight) before anyone else was brought into the franchise.

  3. Well everything following Amazing Spider-Man 2 is off now. It appears that Spider-Man will next appear in Captain America: Civil War. That makes me mad enough, but the fact people are HAPPY he’s in the Marvel Cinematic Universe now infuriates me. I can think about 10 reasons Spider-Man shouldn’t join the Avengers. This isn’t Justice League where you need every A-lister. I want my Amazing Spider-Man 3 to wrap up everything. I don’t want him to be a supporting character to another superhero who is inferior in terms of writing, development, character etc. Not to mention this is the second reboot in 15 years. I hope they do well not to recap the origin…AGAIN.

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