Who Leads DC’s and Marvel’s Cinematic Realities?
By Lawrence Napoli
Ah! What a great time to be a fan of comics and movies. The cinematic creation of characters once thought far too larger than life to portray on the silver screen due to the limitations of technology has become one of (if not the best of) the marquee staples of Americana Pop Culture in recent years. Comic book film adaptations have not only set this country on fire, but they have been fascinating the global audience as well, and it shows at the box office. Those who know DC and Marvel as comic book companies primarily know them for their characters, fewer know them by the individuals that created their respective icons and fewer still know them for the writers and artists that make their characters relevant today. Regardless of where the comic book industry has been financially from the distant past and/or recent past, there is no question that the movement of Hollywood adaptations of super-heroes continues to be a boom for everyone that owns the rights. So if these films are so popular and continue to boost the visibility of various franchises, which individual is ultimately responsible?
We know Christopher Nolan masterminded The Dark Knight Trilogy, we know Joss Whedon is behind Avenger films as well as Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., we know that Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, and we know that Bat-Fleck is happening for Batman vs. Superman or World’s Finest or [insert title here] and we know that both companies are aiming at an expanded universe where their respective characters coexist in an ever-evolving reality. But who’s really in command? Who’s bringing it all together? Sure, all the businesses involved with super-hero adaptations each have their nameless-faceless board of directors that are held responsible for decisions by their stock holders, but the choice to go in one direction or the other, veto power, day to day operations, coordination, communication and unification of this cellular network of films is being made by real individuals. These individuals bridge the gap between the corporate conglomerate and the artists of production. Without their knowledge of the material, business savvy, political skills and organizational aptitude, none of these films get made – or rather, none of these films get made well. These people are the most responsible for pleasing (or inciting) fanboys and girls around the world, and they are also the first to be fired or rewarded when the receipts are all tallied up.
Marvel’s man is Kevin Feige. He got his start as an associate producer for the first X-Men film due to his extensive knowledge of the Marvel Universe and has gone on to produce virtually every Marvel character adaptation since 2000: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, Daredevil, the X-Men trilogy, The Punisher, Blade: Trinity, Elektra, both Fantastic Four films as well as all of Marvel’s recent Avenger “Phase X” films. We could debate the merits and failings of each and every one of these films, but they all (basically) made money and were obviously successful enough for those doing the hiring to continue to involve Feige at the highest level of decision-making for film production. Simply glancing at his résumé suggests that Feige was thinking about birthing a unified cinematic reality for Marvel’s characters long ago, and he would be one of the few individuals to have enough production experience to think about its creation in practical terms. When Iron Man was released in 2008, this theory took its first steps into reality. Despite the fact that the screenplay was written by the collective of Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, it was this film’s post credit scene that paved the way for The Avengers. This must be attributed to Kevin Feige because none of Iron Man’s writers have gone on to be involved with any level of production for any subsequent Marvel film.
Of course, the eventual wunderkind that would be Marvel’s Avengers was only a glimmer in the eye of anyone who knew Nick Fury and what “The Avengers Initiative” could possibly represent. But it was also beyond a foregone conclusion for Feige himself because there was no public knowledge of contractual obligation for franchise expansion in any direction outside of Robert Downey Jr. which meant nothing more than more Iron Man films. Who knows what was really agreed to behind closed doors (and at what point in time?), but the future teasing in the post credits of The Incredible Hulk (2008), Thor (2009), Iron Man 2 (2009) and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) continued to prove in each film that audiences liked the interconnectivity of these (seemingly) unrelated plots and characters. In many ways, the teases overshadowed the fact that all of these films from different directors and writing teams were successful by themselves, but had they not been, fewer would care about any sort of unification. One of Kevin Feige’s best attributes as a leader in this industry is the respect and courtesy he shows for the writers, directors, cast and crew he works with and has done so with the “Phase 1” films. More often than not, studio execs will throw their weight around to the point that it denigrates the production, but Feige is constantly credited (most notably by Joss Whedon) for providing leadership and direction without slapping on the creative shackles.
Introducing a massive franchise like The Avengers has proven to be successful in being introduced a bit at a time to audiences in a crescendo that built towards a pretty standard-issue “alien invasion of Earth” scenario, but let’s be frank. The whole movie could have been the Avengers going out for shwarma and people would still have fan-gasmed because there they are: all together. Big name actors playing big name characters and all in the same movie is a huge deal and completely beyond the minds of studio executives of yesteryear. Feige organized this effort between multiple films as intuitively as possible and as practically as possible. Simply acknowledging their existence in the same space as in “by the way, this too is happening over here,” is much less maintenance than designing a complex plot from the very first film as the “unifying force.” This too might have worked, but would unnecessarily marry one film to the other and the problems experienced in one might be inherited by a future production.
Yes, that’s right; I’m talking about the Ed Norton recast for the Dr. Banner/Hulk character. This situation is one likely reason for the audience not having seen a second Hulk film prior to The Avengers, and recasting a major role could have been a significant monkey wrench to the gears of this unified franchise. Who knows if that problem was ultimately money, politics or ego; the man was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, and he did a great job. Had Ruffalo whiffed, we’d all be hearing no end of it from every critic working in every media outlet in the Western world. I like Ruffalo as an actor, but I didn’t really have an opinion of him replacing Norton other than I’d rather have established continuity maintained, but The Avengers film put the actor into many successful opportunities for the audience to like his Banner to the point that this recast has been practically forgotten. This is thanks to Joss Whedon, who in turn thanks Feige, who was knee-deep in the Norton situation, and their combined efforts made the necessary adjustments in the subsequent film to reconcile everything. That’s some uncharacteristically efficient leadership in Hollywood which is known for dragging its feet through the political muck of “creative differences.” Kevin Feige may be the unifying force for the Avengers Initiative, but he shows his leadership almost every day with interviews and public appearances and whenever people have questions, he has answers. I’m not sure his position as President of Marvel Studios requires him to do this, but his visibility and confidence suggests a master plan at work.
So what about DC? They have every bit the intriguing roster of characters as Marvel and (so far) have demonstrated an equally high dedication to enlist big Hollywood names and attach them to franchise pillars for multiple films. This seems to be carbon-copied right out of Marvel’s playbook, but casting news for the Man of Steel sequel and its elusive title is evidence that the strategy for introducing its characters in a unified reality to audiences will be taking a completely different approach than Marvel Studios. It remains to be seen if audiences will buy into this strategy or not because the first film hasn’t been made, but who’s there to answer that question? Who’s there to lay our insecurities to rest? This person was a tad more difficult to track down due to the fact that this DC movement is only in its infant stages and the only news out there to comment on is a growing cast for a film years from completion. At first I looked at the closest corporate counterpart to Kevin Feige. Diane Nelson is President of DC Entertainment and President & Chief Content Officer of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. According to DC’s website, “Nelson is charged with leading the efforts to fully realize the power and value of DC Entertainment’s rich portfolio of stories and characters, including such cultural icons as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, across all media and platforms.”
First, I’d like to point out the order in which “DC’s icons” are placed as per Nelson’s title description (yep, Batman is #1). Second, her title and description sounds like someone ideal in bridging the gap between the comic book people and the movie making people, right? As it turns out, someone established more firmly on the Warner Bros. side of the equation will be overseeing DC’s adaptation expansion. He is Greg Silverman the President of Creative Development and Worldwide Production for Warner Bros. and according to the WB’s website, “In this role, he has full oversight of Warner Bros. Pictures’ development activities, global production and budget.” He began in Hollywood as a lowly craft services worker for indy films but eventually became an assistant at Tri-Star and Mandeville Films and eventually a production executive at Mad Chance. He got his start at Warner Bros. in 1997 being a junior production executive for The Matrix, A Perfect Murder and Cats & Dogs. WB credits him for “shepherding” the success of 300 (2006), The Dark Knight (2008), The Hangover (2009), and Inception (2010).
Silverman’s visibility is still on the low end with only his interview with Variety being his major public comments regarding “Batman vs. Superman?” and/or the franchise moving forward in which he addresses several concerns.
Regarding Ben Affleck:
“We knew going in that we had more information than the general public had. We knew what the take of the movie was; we knew what the character was going to be. We don’t take these decisions lightly. We thought about everybody – brand new people, established people. Ben is the perfect guy to play this role.”
Regarding Batman and Superman’s interaction:
“They both will be wearing suits, there are capes involved, there will be action, there will be excitement.”
Regarding Wonder Woman:
“Wonder Woman is an amazing character. I think it’s a great opportunity both for box office success, but also to have an amazingly powerful female superhero.”
Again, I note that this is merely the beginning for DC adapted unification and based on that, Silverman seems to be saying all the right things so far. Nothing’s too committal, nothing’s specific and everything is going to turn out all right. It’s your standard politician or rather, executive response. If however, one is looking for a more personalized commentary regarding this next production, Zack Snyder is your man and has been at every stage of this production because every cast member revealed thus far has been a hot button topic. Personally, I don’t care for some of the decisions that have been made so far, but I do respect Snyder stepping up to the plate when it really isn’t, technically, his job to do so. When I first started hearing Snyder defend Affleck, I wondered if Snyder was the guy who really had all the answers or if he was just simply the only guy that had any authority in this new DC filmic reality to date. If Silverman has been in place prior to Man of Steel and Snyder’s involvement moving forward will only be related to Superman related films then the latter is true and Snyder was the only one at the time to face the firing squad of public scrutiny. If, however, Zack Snyder’s role expands to even that of a producer for any additional DC ancillary films, the significance of Greg Silverman as an individual directing this movement is greatly diminished and the true maestro will be revealed.
As a fan of movies and comics, I could care less about who’s making what call in regards to which movie, but I do care about seeing good movies, and I care even more when I see bad ones (especially when the potential was there for greatness). If things go well, the right individuals ought to be praised. If not … well you know what happens then. So far, DC’s and WB’s leadership is feeling itself out and being only so forthcoming with the details this early, and that’s as it should be. However, it still feels like this whole thing rests on Zack Snyder’s shoulders and many out there have him and Goyer fitted for pine boxes (figuratively, of course) should all of these interesting production and casting choices result in what is assumed to be a sub-standard envisioning of the Dark Knight and the Blue Boy Scout getting their hero on in the same movie. Studio exec’s (unlike Kevin Feige) that stay out of the limelight tend to reap rewards with zero risk because their association with given productions is obscured. I think Greg Silverman would be doing his own projects and people a big favor by getting out there a little more and putting on the best face he can to charm the pants off some reporters. Then, if in two years time, whether Batman vs. Superman booms or busts, no one will accuse him personally of not making a better effort to sell the film. But again, maybe this is what separates the Kevin Feiges from the Greg Silvermans? It’s not for me to tell him how to run his business, but I don’t want him to fail, I don’t want this franchise to fail, and I certainly don’t want this film to fail. The Justice League can be every bit as amazing as The Avengers.
That being said, here is where I personally stand in regards to this Batman vs. Superman film as of 2/8/2014. This is my unlucky 7:
1) I don’t like most of the cast decisions regarding the newcomers to this franchise. Everyone returning from Man of Steel is fine and Jeremy Irons couldn’t mess up Alfred even if he showed up completely drunk and high for every day of principal photography (that would sure be a different take on Mr. Pennyworth).
2) I think Henry Cavil is being done a great disservice by having to play second fiddle to a bigger actor and a better character in Bat-Fleck for the sequel that used to be his franchise.
3) I think another chapter in Superman’s tale (solo) would have done more to establish the perils of this new DC cinematic universe than teasing the rest of the Justice League sooner than later.
4) I think Warner Bros. studio executives are forcing this massive cameo extravaganza prematurely because they see the X-Men franchise doing it for 20th Century Fox and the Spider-Man franchise doing it for Sony Pictures – and they want that money ASAP!
5) If someone were to describe Jesse Eisenberg’s character based on the fact he’s playing it and how he’ll be a tattooed skinhead that will “earn” his wealth and intelligence on the mean streets of Metropolis, there’s no way I would have guessed him to play Lex Luthor. Every previous manifestation of that character is much higher status than that of a street thug – and then there’s the whole Jesse Eisenberg is playing a street thug, thing (editor's note: rumored).
6) With each new development, I lose more and more interest with this franchise because decisions are seemingly being made just for the sake of being different: different from Marvel, different from its comic book roots, different from Tim Burton, Chris Nolan and Richard Donner.
7) I would reiterate Kevin Feige’s advice to the DC/WB powers that be in regards to their adaptation movement and that is: “have confidence in the characters, believe in the source material, don’t be afraid to stay true to all of the elements of the characters no matter how seemingly silly or crazy they are.”