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Marvel vs. D.C.

Marvel vs. D.C.

[Posted by David S. Cohen]

In a front page story in this Sunday’s Weekly Variety, Marc Graser explores Warner Bros.’ plans to get its classic DC characters onto the bigscreen. Or rather, its plans to make plans.

Batman is soaring, but the future of Superman on film is uncertain. The Justice League movie has been pushed back and it’s hard to imagine this Batman team being too enthusiastic about seeing their gritty, realistic take on the character alongside Superman and Wonder Woman. Greg Berlanti’s Green Lantern script has been well-received at the studio, but not yet greenlit.

Meanwhile, rival Marvel has launched its own studio, had a smash with Iron Man and a successful reboot of The Incredible Hulk, and announced four more pictures, introducing film versions of at least two more of their star characters, Thor and Captain America.

This begs the question: Why has Marvel been able to move so decisively to put its properties on film while Warner Bros seems to be stuck in a perpetual ponder? The answers are sometimes paradoxical.

Paradox #1) Marvel is better off without a studio cousin. DC seems to have a natural advantage, given its corporate relationship with Warner Bros. That was one reason Warner invented the modern comicbook movie in the 70s, with Superman, and re-established in the 80s with the Batman franchise.

But Warner has to pass on any DC character before it can go to another studio, and since no Warner exec wants to be the one who passed on a property that becomes a blockbuster for another studio, they almost never pass.

Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman have all been successful in primetime TV, but only Superman has been a perennial on TV.

Marvel, on the other hand, had only one TV hit, Bill Bixby in The Incredible Hulk. And for film, it could only license its characters, getting poor results at first with cheapie Captain America and Fantastic Four films.

But as visual effects improved and it became possible to make these films look great, better filmmakers came to the material: Sam Raimi to Spider-Man at Sony; Bryan Singer to X-Men at Fox. Those films, along with Fantastic Four and even Hulk at Universal, revealed a trend.

“I was an investor in Marvel,” Marvel chairman David Maisel told Variety, “and realized that with the films that had been released through 2003, there were nine PG-13 movies that had averaged $200 million in domestic box office.”

By licensing the characters, Marvel was able to prove the worth of its intellectual property and act on that information.

Now, says Maisel, “We don’t need anything from a third, outside party. We get to just focus on making the best movies possible.”

Which brings us to the next paradox:

2) As the smaller company, Marvel has the size advantage. Getting Warner Bros. going is like turning an oil tanker. Marvel is much more nimble. Also, as a smaller company, it has more to gain from hit films. Maisel says that with a loyal fan base and a rich trove of characters and stories, “I realized that if Marvel was able to get the financial upside, the company could double or more its market value just through that move and good execution.”

He was right. At the beginning of August 2006, Marvel stock was at 17.54. That month Maisel presented his plan to launch a studio. Two years later, the stock had more than doubled, though it has fallen back slightly since. Its market cap is now around $2.7 billion.

By contrast, Time Warner’s market cap is more than $52 billion — so huge it’s hard for any movie, or even a franchise, to move its stock.

Paradox #3) Being young and inexperienced as a movie company, Marvel has no fear. Or less fear, anyway, than the studio that gave the world Catwoman and Batman & Robin.

They were aware that an Iron Man movie and a Hulk film were not sure things, so they hedged their bets with conservative “no-recourse” financing. It’s a structure usually used for projects like real-estate development, where the property being developed also serves as collateral for the loan, but the lender can’t come after any other assets if the project fails.

Even if its own Iron Man and Hulk pics had failed, they’d still have franchses licensed to Sony and Fox. But when Iron Man opened strong, they announced their own four-picture slate, with each film tied to the next, climaxing in the July 2011 bow of The Avengers.

They’ve never experienced the humiliation – not to mention the recriminations and career consequences – of a high-profile flop. Warner has, and so is more careful.

Paradox #4) Marvel is in a better position to make good comicbook movies because they’re a comicbook company first, a movie studio second.

Until The Dark Knight, Warner showed all the signs of old-fashioned thinking about comicbook pictures. Comicbooks started as kid stuff. Batman began on film as a cheap serial. Superman began as cartoons. They were not the stuff of A-pictures. Nor did Warner think in terms of building a universe in which the characters could cross over.

Mavel, though, owned these characters, loved them, and had a creative vision for them.

“I think the huge advantage,” says Maisel, “is that this is our complete focus. We’re people who love our jobs and plan to be in the jobs for many many years, if not decades. And our characters come from a universe that’s so connected, and now that we have control of actually creatively making the films and greenlighting the movies.

“We’re able to plan out the future in that way. It’s was an idea that Kevin and I came up with a couple of years ago, let’s try and make all the movies not stand alone but connect in the same continuity and the same universe, which was a new idea for superhero films. That wouldn’t have been able to accomplish that if we didn’t have the studio created the way it has been.”

That also means they get to function like an old-fashioned studio, putting the company’s agenda ahead of any star or filmmaker. So though Jon Favreau might like to direct both 2010’s “Iron Man 2” and 2011’s “The Avengers,” Marvel won’t spread the films out to accommodate him.

A.O. Scott in the NYT has wondered if the superhero film may have peaked this summer. Perhaps. But if we have learned one thing from the growth of Comic Con, it’s that there are vast numbers of fans of these properties who have so far only been able to see them in their minds’ eye. When a first-rate filmmaker puts a superhero in a movie, they will show up to watch.

Oh, and by the way, there is one other, oft-neglected “universe” of characters under a single studio’s auspices: The Universal horror characters.

The problematic Van Helsing left Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man needing a reboot and now the Mummy franchise seems to be sputtering. But a new Wolf Man is on the way, with Benicio del Toro in the title role.

As for any corporate strategy for the characters, a U spokesman could only say “I don’t think we’re at a place where we can confidently articulate that.”

[Originally appeared on]

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