Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises will open next Friday and is causing all sorts of anticipation. Box office tracking suggests that it will soar past its predecessor, which is no mean feat. It’s almost matching tracking for The Avengers, despite being significantly longer and being unable to count on a 3D surcharge to bulk up its profit. All in all, that look pretty impressive. It suggests that Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises will do remarkably well by any standard.
However, there’s a cloud to that silver lining. It seems like Batman is really the only DC superhero that Warner Brothers know how to work with.
Barring next year’s Man of Steel, there will apparently be no new DC comics characters appearing on the big screen until 2015. In contrast, Marvel hopes to bring the sequel to The Avengers to the big screen at the same time, but building off the success of Captain America 2, Thor 2, Iron Man 3, along with possible Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. Even Big Hero 6 are getting an animated adaptation from Disney, capitalising on the relationship between Marvel and their parent company.
It seems that DC have always been reactive when dealing with Marvel’s success, despite grandiose claims that they were going to use DC’s comic book properties as a substitute for the Harry Potter series, building their future tentpole releases around them. At one point, Alan Horn boasted, “As we ease out of Harry Potter, we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [Comics] Library.” That was two years ago, and it seems like a bit of an idle boast.
The problem, of course, is that Warners has been burnt by the DC characters. Despite turning a profit, Superman Returns was a critical and commercial disappointment, eclipsed by Nolan’s Batman Begins. Other efforts like The Losers and Jonah Hex proved to be misfires for the company as well. At best, Watchmen was a mixed success – and I say that as somebody who respect the fact that the movie got made, even if I’ll concede it was overly reverential towards the source material.
Perhaps the biggest sting came last year with the flop of Green Lantern. Earning only $116m on a $200m budget, which was apparently a conservative estimate of the budget, the film tanked financially – and critically. But, hey, at least it wasn’t John Carter. I think it’s safe to assume that the massive burn (and the ridiculing received from the press) have done a good job staying Warners’ hand and dampening any enthusiasm for their movie project.
And yet, with the massive success of The Avengers, it seemed like life was breathed back into Warners’ DC properties. We were told the Flash, Wonder Woman and Justice League movies were all on the way. With Flash and Wonder Woman movies apparently being written by the guys who wrote Green Lantern.
Just let that one digest for a moment. These guys wrote one of the biggest and most embarrassing flops in recent memory… and the studio’s response is to give them even more work. With Wonder Woman it’s certainly with a high-profile character. It’s just enforcing the idea that Warner Brothers really have very little idea what to do outside of Batman. (And to be fair, with Batman, the winning strategy seems to be to allow Bruce Timm and Christopher Nolan do pretty much whatever they want, which is a good strategy.)
However, there have been a flood of announcements recently about various multimedia projects that seem to exist to build brand awareness of DC’s library of characters. What is fascinating, however, is that they all seem to centre on Batman. Lego Batman 2 comes with the subtitle DC Universe, and heavily features Superman among others. Rocksteady’s next Batman game will not be the sequel to Arkham City, but will be built around Batman’s early interactions with the Justice League.
Although a big PR push is expected for Batman with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, it’s interesting that a significant portion of the tangentially-related Bat-properties seem to be intended to promote DC’s other heroes. It does seem like a shrewd bit of cross-promotion, but it also seems to send a worrying signal.
This isn’t anything new, of course. Batman: The Brave and the Bold adopted the same strategy for its run. Even earlier, the Justice League cartoon show only developed as an off-shoot of Batman: The Animated Series. (Although Bruce Timm was careful to ensure that Batman didn’t steal the focus in the spin-off.) This has even been an issue in the comics, as the Justice League comic would heavily feature Batman during the sixties “Bat-mania” to capitalise on the character’s success.
However, things have changed. Warners claim to be dedicated to broadening their platform and expanding their pool of franchise properties. So it is certainly more than a little interesting that the Justice League characters seem to be shoehorned into any number of upcoming Batman-related projects.
It suggests that DC believes that these characters can’t really match Batman’s popular appeal without a helping hand from the Caped Crusader. It suggests a lack of faith in the characters’ abilities to sell themselves, relying on the most popular member of the stable to bolster his fellow characters.
In short, it’s almost the opposite of what Marvel managed to do to great success. Admittedly, the company’s most iconic and recognisable heroes had been taken off them by rights issues, with the X-Men and Fantastic Four sold to Fox and Spider-Man to Sony. So you could argue that – with the possible exception of Captain America and the Hulk – none of Marvel’s remaining heroes were quite “a-list.”
After all, I think it’s tough to argue that Iron Man was a more recognisable comic book character than the Flash or Green Lantern before Robert Downey Jr. stepped into the role and made it his own. Similarly, Thor probably seemed like a camp disaster waiting to happen, before Kenneth Branagh showed up and taught us that it could actually be really awesome. Even Captain America, due to his name, comes with a wealth of potential marketing issues.
In short, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with DC’s comic book characters – just like there was nothing wrong with Marvel’s. There is, of course, an issue with branding and making the public aware of the characters, but simply teaming them with Batman suggests a fundamental misconception as to how to deal with that problem.
You don’t convince people to see a Flash movie by teaming the Flash up with Batman. You convince people to go and see a Flash movie by making a really good Flash movie. The problem with Superman isn’t that nobody recognises him – he’s one of the most iconic pop culture characters on the planet, possibly even more iconic with Batman. The problem is that audiences need to be convinced that Warners can make a great Superman movie again, after a thirty-year dearth of good Superman movies.
Because it’s not about the branding, ultimately – though it does help. Even Batman, the truly successful DC character knows that. The reason that The Dark Knight Rises is tracking so highly isn’t solely due to the character’s recognisability. If that were the case, the studio would not have needed to reboot following the disaster that was Batman & Robin. People are rushing to see it because it’s from a director with a clear vision, who produced two of the best-loved superhero movies ever made.
There’s a lesson to be learned there, but DC seem to be learning the wrong one. “Batman sells” is probably a part of it, but it’s not the essential element. After all, the most financially successful superhero movie of all-time is Batman-less. The more important lesson is “if you build it good, they will come.” I know it’s possible to combine both ideas, but if Warners could learn just one…
Well, I know which one I’d rather they learn.