I don’t like Man of Steel. I may have mentioned this before. This wouldn’t matter too much, except a lot of other people don’t like Man of Steel either. A lot of people still paid to see it, that has been enough to get a sequel off the ground, but the vultures are circling DC’s hopeful new universe already. DC have canned sequels before, of course. Superman Returns did well with critics, and did enough at the box office to justify a follow up, but by the time it came to greenlight it public opinion had turned on the Richard Donner nostalgia piece. Man of Steel arrived in a different climate. The attitude of studios these days is to take a lesson from Disney, sell your movie like it’s Citizen Kane, even when everybody hates it.
Of course, Warner Bros. faces a bigger problem these days. The Avengers franchise has been a winner since Iron Man hit in 2008. Between then and 2012, Marvel delivered six high profile films based on their properties, culminating in one of the best (and most successful) superhero pictures ever released. DC was slow to respond, because they had another hit on their hands.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy looked set to define the comic book movie in 2009. Batman Begins was a reasonable success, and a hit with critics. The Dark Knight, landing at the same time as Iron Man, was an enormous success. Fuelled in part by Heath Ledger’s tragic death, it was a dark and brooding picture that propelled Batman to a level success he hadn’t enjoyed since Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. In 2012, both publishers saw massive successes for their properties when The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers arrived. However while Marvel’s future looked brighter than ever, DC was left on shaky ground. While Marvel borrowed heavily from television writing to weave a continuing, collaborative story arc, Warner’s approach was a self contained, director driven franchise. When Nolan brought his trilogy to an end, he sent DC movie adaptations back to square one. This left Warner without a competitor to The Avengers until 2013, by which point Marvel had already released Iron Man 3. Now we come to Man of Steel.
I’m not going to talk a lot about why I don’t like Man of Steel. I’ve done that already. I’ve done that a lot. I know it’s divisive and that a lot of people out there do like it. If that’s the case, great. I’m genuinely happy for you. What I am going to talk about is the future, how Man of Steel fits into a shared universe, and why I don’t think Batman vs. Superman will be the start of something great for DC and Warner Bros.
Man of Steel sounds like a great idea. After the success of The Dark Knight, adapting a big budget Superman origin with Nolan’s input seems like a great idea. In execution, I think it turned out to be a big mistake. The problem was Warner’s inability to commit. They know that they need a property out there, Batman is the hot thing but they’ve just finished with an incarnation of Batman. Superman is well rested after his last disappointment and so he’s brought out of retirement. But something’s new this time, Marvel has this shared universe building and Warner would be crazy not to want in. What is needed is a clean cut, heartfelt Superman adaptation. A Superman: The Movie for the new millennium, that builds a foundation for DC’s own shared universe while establishing the tone. DC’s Iron Man.
The result is a much more timid venture. A movie that feels like it belongs to The Dark Knight universe without any connections established, another auteur driven piece that clings to strong themes and psychoanalytical interpretations of its characters. A film about destiny and drive and alienation. In much the same way that The Dark Knight was a Batman movie and a gritty movie about corruption and organise crime, Man of Steel is a Superman movie and a story of isolation and immortality. Like a boring version of Highlander. The Marvel Cinematic Universe works because each film explores the strengths of its characters, while keeping a consistent underlying tone the audience accepts as, for lack of a better word, “reality.” Man of Steel, as the bedrock for a new franchise, is too idiosyncratic in tone and in look to serve. It would be as inappropriate as building a shared universe on Batman Returns.
The cause of this is, as far as I can see, quite obvious. Man of Steel was not intended as the first step towards a shared universe, but a Batman Begins. It fails, of course, because it attempts to be both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight at the same time. An origin story that reintroduces a beloved character and a heavily thematic mood piece that brings out the deepest in the audience. There are no hints to the wider world in Man of Steel, it is entirely self contained and explores a world without superheroes. And a lot of people hated it. When Warner chooses to follow this with Batman vs. Superman, they know something is wrong with their latest attempt.
Movie studios aren’t stupid. I know it seems like they are. They don’t commission films that sound great, they commission films that sound terrible and they make some very odd choices when it comes to adaptations. But they do make a lot of money. A hell of a lot of money. More than they would ever really admit. And one of the things they know is that reboots sell really well. I have always maintained that this is because origin stories bring in the widest audience. You don’t need any prior knowledge, you’re usually dealing with a story people are familiar with and new actors, new visual styles, new takes capture people’s interest. The problem is that this spike comes with a drop off in both audience and critical reception. (See The Amazing Spider-Man, Casino Royale, Iron Man, The Fantastic Four etc. etc. etc.) Often, looking back, the rebooted film isn’t even as good as the franchise it replace. (God I hate you, Amazing Spider-Man.) People just like the fresh perspective.
So, what do you do when that formula stops working? Man of Steel sold a lot of tickets, but the critical reception that comes with a franchise reboot just wasn’t there this time. The audience seemed divided and even though it had its defenders, it stood to reason that the drop off for the sequel was going to be enormous. They doubled down. Well, actually the double-doubled down. Their strategy had been two-fold. Reboot Superman and get some of that awesome Reboot money; Replicate The Dark Knight trilogy and get some of that awesome Batman money. Batman vs. Superman is basically: Reboot Batman; Bring Back Batman. People like Batman. Of course, they can’t bring back the Batman everyone loves. Nolan’s done, Bale’s done (Adam West is too old) so rather than suggesting Man of Steel exists in Nolan’s Batman universe, we’re getting a new Batman, created in Man of Steel’s world. This leaves Batman vs. Superman with an awkward choice; forge its own style and sit awkwardly next to its predecessor, or try to be a true sequel to Man of Steel, and undoubtably suffer the same lousy critical reception. (Ticket sales aren’t an issue this time. C’mon, it’s Batman vs. Superman! I’m 99% certain it will be shit, and I’m still going to see it.)
This is a problem that will only multiply as this franchise continues. Where Marvel worked to establish a consistent tone, a blank canvas universe in which all our heroes exist and compete on their merits, DC is hoping to build form what it has already. This can not work. As we go forward, Man of Steel isn’t just going to be a crummy superhero movie, but an anchor weighing the hole franchise down. Already we are going to see Batman in Man of Steel’s grey, lifeless, walk into a hurricane to save a dog world. He might just work, but Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Lantern? Or will they all be relegated to second players in Superman’s dull destiny?
The way I see it, (and I know I’m biased) is to minimise Man of Steel’s contribution to this universe with each release. Tone it down, soften its edges until it feels a like a world in which DC’s other, more lively characters can inhabit. But if their only strategy is to double down, more Batman, More Destiny, More Grey, this franchise not only can’t fly. It doesn’t even have legs.