Superman has one hell of a battle against General Zod in Man of Steel, which makes its maudlin way into theaters Friday. The two Kryptonians wrestle while zipping through the air, glass shattering as they go. Ultimately—spoiler alert—Superman wins. But as an agent of Warner Bros. and DC Comics, he actually has a bigger army to face: Marvel.
Together, Marvel and Disney have created a superhero empire over the last four years that bred the third highest grossing movie of all time, The Avengers. That's a lot for DC and its emboldened studio partners at Warner Bros. to live up to, but now they seem prepared to go to war with their own stable of superheroes. Indeed, a lot more rides on Man of Steel than the weekend ahead. Deadline's Nikki Finke already reported that a Superman sequel is on the "fast track" with Zack Snyder returning to direct, and David S. Goyer writing another screenplay, which should eventually put DC on track for an Avengers-like Justice League film. It all makes for a backstage franchise drama that might be just as exciting as what's enfolding on screen this summer—if non-stop destruction isn't your thing, feast your eyes on the complex Hollywood comic-book partnerships setting the table for many billion-dollar summers to come.
Back in 2008, when Iron Man came out, Marvel Studios outlined a plan that would eventually lead to The Avengers. Now with Disney overseeing development, the Marvel Universe is in Phase Two. Part of the reason Iron Man 3 was such a success in May (it has passed the one billion mark worldwide), had to do with Marvel and Disney's positioning: Viewers came back for more Tony Stark—and turned into the fifth largest global audience in film history—because they saw it as a kind of Avengers sequel.
"Man of Steel is crucial because it's their version of Iron Man, of setting up this universe where they can introduce other characters like a new Batman and a new Green Lantern," said El Mayimbe, the superhero scooplet king of movie site Latino Review, in an interview with The Atlantic Wire this week. As El Mayimbe explained, DC has a game of catchup ahead: Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, while clearly having done well for Warner Bros.—The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises both made around $1 billion worldwide—were considered a standalone entity, rather than part of any DC phase to come or having already past (even if Batman may begin again). And the 2011 attempt at the Green Lantern flopped; its worldwide gross of around $219 million barely surpassed its $200 million budget.
"Marvel got a five-year head start," El Mayimbe said. "Of course DC is going to be an underdog." Batman Begins, the first and least popular in Nolan's trilogy, came out just a year before Superman Returns, the 2006 effort to revive the man of steel. Bryan Singer's film is now considered a failure with a not-so-fantastic box office and middling reception. A franchise, Superman 2.0 never was. (It's worth noting, though, that Returns has a higher fresh value than Man of Steel does on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Overall, movies based on Marvel comics have made on average more than movies based on DC comics, according to a recent study by Bloomberg, which looked at Marvel movies starting in 1998 and DC movies starting in 1978. While the study includes the non-Disney Marvel movies—including the X-Men and Spider-man films, the rights to which are retained by Fox and Sony—according to Bloomberg's Nick Turner, "success of Marvel movies has given a boost to Walt Disney Co., which acquired Marvel Entertainment Inc. at the end of 2009 for about $4 billion." Disney, mind you, now also has Star Wars under its franchise umbrella.
Warner Bros. is now looking to get that kind of a boost from DC. Time Warner restructured how it controlled DC just after Disney bought Marvel Entertainment, but they didn't embark on the sort of Marvel-style plan. Now, as El Mayimbe pointed out to us, Warner Bros. has recently lost one of their huge franchises as Harry Potter has come to an end, and The Hobbit films will soon be over as well. (Unless, this happens—heaven forbid.) At The Wrap last night, Lucas Shaw and Brent Lang wrote of Warner Bros.: "The most stable studio in town has been anything but over the past few months, as questions swirl about the future of its film chief Jeff Robinov and the studio’s relationship with a key financing partner, Legendary Entertainment." DC is WB's chance to go big. Robinov told Entertainment Weekly's Anthony Breznican back in back in April that as for Man of Steel, "anything can live in this world." In fact, there are references to other DC characters in the film. Look for "Wayne Enterprises." Breznican speculated that they would reboot Batman.
But even if Man of Steel is a huge success—managing editor of IMDb Keith Simanton, in a phone interview, predicted a $120 million weekend, though adjusted that to around $108 million after the mixed reviews—DC and Warners might need to test out other superheroes to make this whole battle plan actually works. Simanton told the Wire he believes the critical movie for Marvel's success was not just Iron Man, but also Thor. He thinks DC needs to prove themselves with another character. And who could that be, he wonders? Wonder Woman, a famously difficult property to make? Even Joss Whedon couldn't make this work, and now he's over with Marvel. Perhaps Aquaman, who borders on the ridiculous, talking to fish? Yeah, we're not counting the Entourage one. Maybe the Flash is their best option, Simanton wondered. (Flash and Wonder Woman scripts have reportedly been in the writing stage.) And a Flash movie might not even happen, at least not right away. A source told The Wrap that if Man of Steel "does well, Warner Bros. can do Justice League including Superman, Superman vs. Batman and another Superman. It opens up at least three different fronts of potential sequels with great synergy for the company in theme parks, licensing and all that." According to that story, the idea for Warner Bros. seems like more Superman, then Justice League, then other characters.
As for this weekend's test, the response to Man of Steel has been varied. Some have panned it, while others have championed it. El Mayimbe, after seeing it, tweeted: "Marvel should be absolutely terrified of David Goyer — the unsung hero of the DCU." Man of Steel is relentlessly dark, which was to be expected with Nolan guiding as a producer. For all the talk of what Superman can do for the people of Earth, the movie is ultimately pessimistic, and decidedly unhopeful. Smiles come few and far between. The question now is: Will DC and Warner Bros. and Team Superman take that tone with them as they go forward, the hopes of multiple franchises and many, many millions depending upon it? It seems that way. As IMDb's Simanton said: "They've started to establish a world. That, hey, if and when a Justice League ever comes together it's not going to be super sunny Avengers." But they'll be ready to fight those Avengers, even in their gritty universe, at the box office. That is, if Metropolis ever recovers. Snyder and his gang basically leveled it.