Is Marvel Studios in a rut? I know, I know this week is an absurd time to pose that question. They’ve just scored their 12th number one box-office off the movie most likely to end their reign. Ant-Man, the superhero with the hardest sell and the film plagued with behind-the-scenes drama actually did numbers and despite similar scores, has generally been more well-received than this summer’s sure thing Avengers sequel. Phase 2 (of Marvel’s overall Hollywood takeover, as contextualized in multi-film story arcs), which concludes with Ant-Man and began with Iron Man Three, contains three of, in my opinion easily the best films out of all 12 they’ve put out. (Iron Man Three, The Winter Solider, Guardians) But with twelve films in the can and a whopping nine more on the docket, it’s hard not to feel early onset fatigue. The same fatigue that beleaguered the depressingly by the numbers Thor sequel or Age of Ultron. Thor 2 is borderline trash, Age of Ultron, while enjoyable, exposed the narrative problems that arise when the next ten steps of a franchise are already meticulously planned out. (It ultimately feels like a placeholder movie until the Avengers’ big showdown with Thanos.)
The truth is, Marvel films at this point, have a factory feel that only few of their films managed to swerve. Pithy, relatable heroes crack snarky jokes while searching for a MacGuffin. Hints toward a larger story are made. A cameo or two. And 800 seconds of credits before a 25 second post-scene. Lather, rinse, repeat, infinity stone.
And then there is DC. The new kids on the block, desperately playing catch up. Up until now, they were beset by reasons to count them out, or rather choices and circumstances that easily made Marvel preferable. Marvel was (and still is) giving a fresh crop of superheroes their first real time in the spotlight. DC is reintroducing Batman on the heels of a critically acclaimed trilogy with an actor and director who have zero interest in continuing. Marvel had Joss Whedon steering its ship. DC has….Zack Snyder. The MCU’s first film is the highly enjoyable Iron Man; DC’s film universe boasts the dour Man of Steel. But now Marvel seems like they’ve shown off all of their tricks. The Avengers have been assembled, etc etc. But in the wake of Comic-Con footage, these DC films actually seem pretty...interesting? The trailer for Suicide Squad, always the most intriguing of the slate, is fantastic. Batman v Superman is still suspect as ever, but it’s also demanding of respect. With just Man of Steel to speak of, Snyder hasn’t earned my trust. But he has piqued my curiosity.
*I’m talking specifically DC films, but Snyder’s overall filmography is lacking. 300 is cool in an 'I saw it when I was 17' type of way I guess and Watchmen is a damned respectable effort, but also, Sucker Punch?????*
In the face of Marvel’s now predictable roll-outs and tie-ins, the overzealous ambitions of Batman v Superman seem attractive in their insanity. This movie has to make audiences swoon for a new Batman just four years removed from Christian Bale, and played by Ben Affleck, whose superhero credit score is currently quite low. It has to serve as a lightweight Superman sequel. It has to effectively jumpstart DC’s whole superhero universe. Introduce Lex Luthor. Introduce Wonder Woman. Introduce Aquaman and The Flash. It sounds like a failure, but a damn intriguing one. DC’s efforts to catch up have them bypassing Marvel’s slow-and-steady set-up structure. On paper, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman in one film together for the first time sounded pathetic in its bald attempt to skip a few steps. Since the film was first announced, as a Batman Stan, quite pleased with what Nolan and Bale did, I’ve been despondent. Resigned to enduring an era of TrashMan by Zack Snyder films, heavy on CGI.
But as images, and footage have been slowly revealed, a strange sensation has overtaken me. Trainwreck or not, I’m actually...excited to watch the attempt? Even in the face of, say, Ben Affleck comparing Bruce Wayne to Hamlet or pre-excusing the films for being humorless with “It’s a little more realistic. Just by their nature, these films can’t be as funny or as quick and glib as Marvel movies.” OK whatever, bro. But now, with tangible footage and the first hints of story, it’s clear that everyone involved is taking one huge, fearless swing and I’m eager to see what they do with it. The boldness is only underlined with the release strategy. A villain film (which Sony tried to unsuccessfully seed in the abominable Amazing Spider-Man 2) as the second movie overall on the slate?! And using it to re-launch the Joker, while also introducing bad guys who were too cartoonish for Nolan’s world (Whatup, Killer Croc)??? Wow. The nerve of these guys, amirite?? Not to mention, despite the advantage, DC will drop a superheroine movie before Marvel. And while Ben Affleck, superhero, is a tad suss, Ben Affleck director is now certified. The idea of a solo Batflick directed by him down the line makes it easier to move on from the Nolan days.
In the same year that the DCCU makes its grand debut, Marvel jumpstarts their Phase Three with Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange, two films with the opportunity to be fresh and exciting for two different reasons. Cap, for sheer scope, in presenting a fan-favorite comic story that will pit hero against hero while also introducing several new ones. (In introducing a new Spider-Man in Civil War before giving him his own, non-origin story solo film later, is Marvel essentially cribbing from DC’s new playbook? Insert Philosoraptor meme.) Meanwhile Strange is a deep dive into the mystical side of Marvel that the films have mostly avoided so far. DC is in show and prove mode, while Marvel has everything to lose. Both equally precarious stances.
2016. New President, new Batman, quite possibly a new superhero regime? RIP Avengers, bring on the Justice League. Either way, if DC actually poses healthy competition to Marvel, forcing them to step up and maintain, then we’ll all win. But first, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad have to actually deliver. Fingers crossed.
Frazier Tharpe is a staff writer for Complex. If DC movies suck, we'll always have the '90s cartoons. Follow him @The_SummerMan.