Why DC/Warner nearly lost the superhero movie arms race and how to fix it

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. I was already well underway with this when Warner Bros./DC announced its massive slate of 10 comic book films through 2020.

This seemed a knee-jerk response to the mere rumor that almost broke the net Monday that Robert Downey Jr. is in final negotiations to appear in Captain America 3.

deluxe-kids-rocket-raccoon-costumeAnd while the DC announcement is impressive just for the sheer scope of it, to a lot of folks (myself included), this was yet another desperate attempt from WB/DC to keep their characters relevant in an age where more kids will be dressing up as Rocket Raccoon (Deluxe Kids Rocket Raccoon Costume) for Halloween than Green Lantern.

But it’s hardly the first misstep from the WB/DC camp in bungling a can’t miss cinematic universe to match their Marvel/DC rivals. Instead of a colossal clash of the titans, Marvel/Disney is just sitting back, in essence saying ‘that’s cute’ to the DC announcements and then letting a mere rumor dominate the social media landscape.

This problem didn’t start overnight though and was the result of more than a decade of negligence from the WB/DC execs. I’m going to examine the biggest mistakes that led WB/DC to this point and what they can do to finally become a legitimate competitor to Marvel Studios’ films.

Ignoring the X-Men’s success



Most folks were already well aware of Superman, Batman and Spider-Man by the time their films came to the big screen, but WB completely missed a far more important trend that began in 2000 with the arrival of the first X-Men movie. At the time of its release, X-Men’s gross of $157 million was the third highest grossing superhero film of all time trailing only Batman Forever’s $184 million and Batman Returns‘ $162 million. Like Guardians of the Galaxy this year, before 2000, only full-on comic book nerds knew about Wolverine, Mystique, Magneto and Professor X — now they’re embedded in pop culture.

While the X-Men sequel, X2: X-Men United [Blu-ray] did even better with $214 million, WB/DC was hard at work formulating its response with … Catwoman. Audiences wanted more team comic book films and of the seven released from 2000 to 2012, WB/DC only released one — Watchmen (Director’s Cut + BD-Live) [Blu-ray] which was far darker and less a franchise-starter than just about any other property WB/DC could have chosen.

samuel l jackson as nick fury in iron man

The window was wide open during those 12 years to show Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, etc. banding together and it closed the second Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury showed up in Tony Stark’s living room. WB/DC then got stuck chasing The Avengers success when they should have been more focused on catching up to the X-Men.

How to fix it:

Here’s the dirty secret non-comic book readers and apparently WB/DC execs don’t know: DC has a ton of teams ripe for the big screen. Like the outer-space nature of Guardians? Legion of Super Heroes offers more aliens, quirky personalities and dangerous villains. Into young heroes trying to find their way a la X-Men: First Class? Teen Titans takes a bunch of sidekicks who emerge from their mentors’ shadows to establish a new super team legend. Then there’s the Justice Society of America, The Doom Patrol, The Outsiders, Metal Men and dozens more.

Responding to The Avengers Initiative way too late

The Dark Knight Heath Ledger Joker holding a card

The comic book movie landscape was forever changed in 2008 with the release of two landmark films — Iron Man and The Dark Knight. They were two remarkable different approaches to comic book superheroes. One backed by a career redefining performance by Robert Downey Jr. that showed  a superhero could actually have fun and not hate every second having awesome powers.

The other was an elaborate crime drama bolstered by the late Heath Ledger’s unforgettable take on The Joker. It’s easy to see why WB/DC didn’t realize they were en route to comic book movie irrelevance. Emboldened by critical and mainstream adoration, the fascination of Ledger’s last completed role and its sheer brilliance, The Dark Knight finished its run as the second highest grossing movie of all time.


But that little post credit scene of Iron Man clued fans in that Iron Man wasn’t going to be in his own little movie bubble and he would soon be joined with some super friends. Stark’s cameo later that year in The Incredible Hulk should have been all WB/DC needed to get cracking ASAP to beat The Avengers to the big screen.

ghostfacekillah-ironmanIt seems odd to think now, but in January 2008, more people associated Wu-Tang Clan’s Ghostface Killah as Tony Stark with debut solo Ironman. WB/DC didn’t need to do some massive roll-out of introduction films for Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman and Aquaman to audiences.

Thanks to TV shows like Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and even Super Friends, the DC heroes had a much higher Q Score.

Sure, Christopher Nolan still had to finish up his Batman trilogy with 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, but WB/DC could have gotten away with a Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash and Aquaman version of the Justice League and simply tease a post-Nolan Batman for a sequel. WB/DC’s over reliance on the Batman franchise to be stronger than any other superhero contender proved to be its undoing in the superhero arms race.

How to fix it:

My pal Barry pointed this out to me as this is one case where WB/DC is on the ball. Of the 10 films announced, there’s three team films and the rest are standalones, but beyond the Justice League preview, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman and Batman don’t have solo films lined up. But don’t stop there, get to The Doom Patrol, Metal Men, the Justice Society, etc. to tap the full spectrum of the DC universe.