The Simple, Elegant Way to a DC Cinematic Universe

There’s a simple solution to DC’s motion-picture woes: stop following Marvel’s model.

Marvel’s shared cinematic universe only proceeded the way it did due to accidents of history. The company saw the success of 2005′s Fantastic Four, realized that second- and third-tier characters could be box-office bank, and created its own film studio. That studio has started from scratch, telling character’s origins while weaving them into a wider shared universe. It’s had to do so, because these characters either hadn’t been adapted to film before or had been adapted under license by other studios.

The Incredible Hulk (2008 film)But the same year that Marvel launched this universe with 2008′s Iron Man, it also released The Incredible Hulk. And because a Hulk movie had been released so recently, under a different studio, this new movie didn’t bother retelling the Hulk’s origins. It simply jumped into the action, with only brief flashbacks to indicate how, in fact, this Hulk’s origins were actually significantly different.

Obviously, Marvel’s only adapting its characters’ origin stories because it hasn’t yet released movies starring these characters. Because it wasn’t a studio before, it could only license its characters, and it doesn’t have the right to continue the stories started under those licenses.

DC doesn’t have this problem. It’s owned by Warner Bros., which also happens to own a motion picture studio. This has been a source of much frustration, as fans watched licensed Marvel properties succeed while Warner Bros. either failed to create DC super-hero movies or created lackluster ones.

Superman (1978 film)DC also has a tremendous advantage because of this: it’s already produced amazing and fondly-remembered movies based on its super-heroes. Hell, it used to rule the super-hero movie, first with the Superman films of 1978-1987 and then with the Batman films of 1989-1997. Movies the world still knows and loves.

In other words, DC doesn’t have to start from scratch. It’s already got a long history of movie adaptations that worked. Hell, more than worked — made movie history.

So why discard them to follow Marvel’s model, when Marvel only adopted that model because it didn’t have the same history?

DC’s acting like the venerable, honored star of decades past who sees himself eclipsed by the new kid — and tries do follow the new kid’s model, only to look old and stodgy in the process.

Bad idea. In business, as in life, a basic principle is to exploit your own strengths, not imitate your competitors on every level. Instead of treating DC’s cinematic history as a liability, embrace it.

It’s easy to look at The Dark Knight, which has made more money than any super-hero movie in history, and take the lesson that rebooting DC’s super-heroes is the way to go. With 2005′s Batman Begins, director Christopher Nolan chucked the previous Batman films into the dustbin, clearing the way for that film’s epic 2008 sequel. And it worked so well I wrote a book about it. But only because it was Christopher Nolan. He came up with a unique, realistic vision — one that can’t accommodate other super-heroes (at least not ones with super-powers or magic) and survive.

If Warner Bros. wants to follow the Christopher Nolan model, it should hire visionary directors to do its super-heroes, and it should keep those films segregated from one another, thus preserving their distinct vision, rather than establishing a shared universe. In other words, Nolan’s Batman films are a little like DC’s old Elseworlds comics: potentially great on their own, but not designed to play well with others.

The real model here should be Superman Returns (2006). While Christopher Nolan was rebooting the Batman movie franchise with his own aesthetic, Bryan Singer chose not to reboot the Superman one and to instead continue Richard Donner’s aesthetic. The first couple movies in the Superman film continuity begun in 1978 are classics, and Singer said he didn’t want to fix what wasn’t broken.

Singer ignored Superman III (1983) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), incorporating references only to Superman (1978) and Superman II (1980). But it’s standard practice for a series to ignore lesser episodes in favor of emphasizing the better ones. Superman Returns doesn’t contradict those films, except by implying that Lois became pregnant in Superman II and he left Earth before realizing this, which would compress the timeline of the next two films. But there are ways around this, and most see all five films as forming a single series.

Superman Returns (2006 film)

Of course, Singer’s film, while beautiful and daring and sublime, was seen as under-performing at the box office. (Despite making slightly more at the worldwide box office than Batman Begins, it cost about $59 million more to make.) Its sequel stalled, and Superman is now being rebooted, under director Zach Snyder, for The Man of Steel, scheduled for 2013 release.

Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan seems to be leaving the Batman franchise with next year’s The Dark Knight Rises. There’s open talk of rebooting the franchise under a different director, although nothing seems to have been decided. This would leave Nolan’s trilogy untainted by others’ hands, which is important if its delicate realistic worldview is to be maintained.

This means that the subsequent Batman film, if it’s a reboot, will presumably have to retell Batman’s origins all over again — for the third time in cinema since 1989. And what are the odds that such a retelling would trump Batman Begins?

But what would happen if Warner Bros. decided to follow the Superman Returns model for Batman? In other words, it could continue the Batman films, ignoring 1995′s Batman Forever and 1997′s Batman & Robin, much like Singer’s film ignored Superman III and Superman IV. Tim Burton’s first two Batman films are every bit as historic and classic as Richard Donner’s Superman work. This solution could even incorporate elements from Nolan’s vision, without contaminating that vision.

And there’s no reason why this Batman, unlike Nolan’s, can’t play with others. He can still be dark and fairly realistic — Burton’s Batman brooded too. But he’s perfectly capable of inhabiting a shared super-hero universe, unlike Nolan’s Batman.

This means that he can interact with the Green Lantern established in the 2011 movie. And that he can interact with Superman, once Snyder’s rebooted version has run its course, much as Nolan’s Batman will soon do.

DC cinematic universe logoAnd presto! Instant DC shared universe. One that, unlike Marvel’s, can boast that it goes back to 1978. One that is a direct continuation of both 1978′s Superman and 1989′s Batman, both of which made movie history. Way to make Marvel look like a latecomer, instead of DC looking like Marvel’s imitator.

It’s a shared universe that, were they simply connected, already consists of five Superman films, four Batman films, and one Green Lantern film. That’s ten films. Currently, Marvel’s cinematic universe consists of only five, with confirmed plans for three more through 2013. If Warner Bros. established this shared DC cinematic universe around 2014 or 2015, it would instantly be able to stand alongside Marvel’s.

What’s more, the DC cinematic universe would more fully echo how super-hero comic books established their own shared universes — an organic process in which largely autonomous series increasingly crossed over. So if one wants to replicate the shared continuity of super-hero comics, DC’s cinematic universe would have Marvel’s beat there too.

And it’s not like fans can really object to the recastings necessary in a shared cinematic universe that began in 1978. After all, Marvel’s cinematic universe, while comparatively a baby, has already recast the Hulk and Iron Man’s pal James Rhodes.

Of course, Warner Bros. would still be free to release movies starring DC characters that, for whatever reason, are set in their own universes, not unlike Nolan’s Batman trilogy.

But here’s the beauty of this idea: such a shared cinematic universe is already implicit in those films! In Batman Forever, Bruce Wayne mentions Metropolis. And Superman Returns mentions Gotham City. This might be simple teasing, but Warner Bros. long considered uniting the two franchises in a single movie. So why create a shared cinematic universe from scratch when you already have one?

Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent

I see... it's really quite an ingenious plan, Lois.

The fact that Superman and Batman haven’t met yet, in this shared cinematic universe, might seem like a problem. In fact, it isn’t at all. Superman Returns establishes that Superman left to see the remains of Krypton and was absent for five years, thus reflecting his absence from movie theatres. And the four 1989-1997 Batman films were released between Superman IV and Superman Returns. In other words, Superman left Earth after Superman IV, shortly before Batman debuted. And of course, Green Lantern only just debuted, after Superman Returns, so it’s not a problem that neither Superman nor Batman has met him.

This means that Warner Bros. could have Superman meet Batman — and both meet Green Lantern — in the very next DC movie without causing any continuity problems. That’s how effortless this solution is. A few years ago, fans objected to a proposed Justice League movie, based on both the liberties it took with the characters and how it felt wrong to introduce these characters in a shared movie, rather than giving those introductions the proper space. Both of those objections would be eliminated here, because Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern have already been established.

If Warner Bros. wanted to, it could even produce short films as bonus features on home video releases, much as Marvel has announced that it will be doing (beginning with the Thor Blue-ray), that help to tie this shared universe together.

For example, a short could take place between Superman IV and 1989′s Batman, showing Bruce Wayne, before he became Batman. In it, he could react to Superman’s disappearance, following the apparent discovery of Krypton. This short could even depict some of Batman’s origins, since the kind of nuts-and-bolts of his creation of the Batman persona were largely ignored by the 1989 film. And because this short would take place after Christopher Reeve’s final appearance as Superman, but before Michael Keaton’s two Batman films, recasting those roles (if stock footage of Christopher Reeve wouldn’t suffice) wouldn’t feel inappropriate.

Another short could take place following Batman and Robin, depicting the departure of Robin and Batgirl, and Bruce Wayne telling Alfred that it’s time to get “back to basics.” This could be used to explain how the Batman seen in forthcoming films, while set in the same universe, would likely discard the sillier elements of director Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films. Similarly, this short could also set up the situation at the beginning of the next Batman film, parallel to how the other short I described sets up Superman Returns — so if this Batman is semi-retired when we next meet him, that could be set up here. Along with the other short I described, these two shorts could serve as bridges, moving the DC cinematic universe from one block of films to the next.

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987 film)Okay, I hear you objecting, not all of these films are masterpieces. But even the worst of them – Superman IV and Batman & Robin — aren’t as bad as you may think. They’re still cool: I love the nuclear disarmament / super-heroes as social change aspect of Superman IV, and Batman & Robin, while campy, is still a lot of fun. And it’s not as if Marvel hasn’t had some stinkers along the way too — and will inevitably do so again, just as many of its films, while fun at the time, will be reappraised downward with time. Sure, it would be easy to simply say that the final two Christopher Reeve Superman films and Joel Schumacher’s two Batman films weren’t part of this shared universe. But refer again to the lesson above: instead of running away from your history, embrace it as one of your strengths. Having a history means having ups and downs, and it also means that episodes in that history may date poorly. Acknowledge that, making fun of it lovingly, and in this way turn a weakness into a strength: even the weakest installment of this series is part of a rich history that Marvel’s cinematic universe lacks.

If this shared universe were to be successful, Warner Bros. could even attempt to include a few other films starring DC characters:

  • 1984′s Supergirl would virtually require additional material to make sense as part of this shared universe — otherwise, the fact that Superman never notices her would seem odd. But incorporating it would acknowledge that film’s historic place as part of the 1978-1987 Superman films, which of course it is. While not a great movie, it does star Jimmy Olsen, played by the same actor (Marc McClure) who played him in the Christopher Reeve films, and it features the Phantom Zone. Perhaps an animated sequel could depict Supergirl meeting Superman, as well as explaining her absence from subsequent material.
  • There’s no point in incorporating the 1982 and 1989 Swamp Thing films, which would break up the Superman block of films and led into the 1990-1993 TV series, which would overwhelm the shared cinematic universe if incorporated.
  • 1997′s Steel, while probably not worth it, could be incorporated if desired.
  • There’s no point in incorporating 2004′s atrocious Catwoman, especially since it makes no reference to the character from 1992′s Batman Returns.
  • 2005′s Constantine is the best film, artistically, out of of all these candidates for incorporation, and doing so might well be worth it, especially if the shared universe doesn’t wish to introduce a more faithful, British version. And while giving him an English accent would feel incongruous, there’s no reason why he couldn’t be tweaked in subsequent appearances to rely less on devices, making him closer to his comics sources. Plus, he may prove useful as a vehicle for future plots, such as getting the Justice League to come together. (But his film should probably be considered to take place after Superman Returns, rather than either ending the Batman block of films or starting the current one.)
  • 2010′s poorly-reviewed Jonah Hex could even be incorporated, if desired — although, like Steel, there’s little reason to desire to do so.

While none of these films needs to be incorporated, they certainly could be, if doing so proves desirable.

And there you have it. An instant DC cinematic universe, already consisting of ten films. In its continuity, the four 1978-1987 Superman films give way to Superman leaving for Krypton and Batman’s debut — setting up the 1989-1997 Batman films. This mirrors the characters’ comics history, in which Superman debuted first. It also establishes that DC’s cinematic universe began with an unbroken string of films some two decades long, ending over a decade before Marvel’s cinematic universe even begun! This shared universe’s continuity would continue when Superman returns, Green Lantern debuts, and… Batman, Superman, and Green Lantern meet, forming the Justice League?

DC cinematic universe chart (one possible configuration)A new era of heroes has begun. The groundwork’s already been laid. It’s there, waiting to be seized.

If you want a DC cinematic universe that can compete with Marvel’s, the solution is simple, elegant, and ambitious.

To quote the most famous words spoken in Los Angeles history, said by William Mulholland as he opened the famous L.A. Aquaduct: “There it is. Take it.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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6 Comments

  1. Just read today that 11% say the 1978 Superman is their favorite super-hero movie, which ranked second after The Dark Knight. 1989′s Batman made the list with 5%. Further evidence that these movies are not only historic but still popular, and placing them in a shared cinematic universe would only further aid their visibility.

  2. Colin Smith says:

    Hello Julian:- this article of yours has been one which, quite to my surprise, has stuck in my mind since I first read it. Indeed, I hope it might make you smile to know that I was wandering around the little semi-rural town that’s closest to our house doing my shopping yesterday thinking about this, a good week after I read it. :) At first, for all that I thoroughly enjoyed the rigour and audactity of your thinking, I thought your idea was as playfully absurd as it was fun to read. I’ve changed my mind since then! The more I think about how comicbook continuity has traditionally been created, the more I think your film model is a very good idea indeed. By which I mean, modern-era comics have ALWAYS stumbled when they’ve created a universe from scratch. Even the fine start made by the Ultimate Universe stumbled within half-a-decade and followed the likes of the Ultraverse and the Valient comics-cosmos into repitition, inertia and purposelessness. It seems to me that the most interesting universes are the ones which HAVEN’T been thought through from scratch, which don’t make sense until someone struggles with all the contrary information and creates a series of solutions which are as elegant as they’re unexpected.

    And so, the very business of deciding that the Clooney Batman is the same as the Keaton one, and that Supergirl and Superman IV ought to be considered as canon, and they all ought to be fitted together, means that your film universe would from the off have something of the randomness and awkwardness of the best comics franchises.

    It’s a way of looking at these films which constantly forces the mind to stay awake, which keeps the absurdity as well as the enjoyment of the superhero narrative alive. So, against my first, second and third impressions, I concede; this is a lovely conceit. Thank you for writing it down.

  3. Colin, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your comment! That you’ve thought about my little passionate but so very pie-in-the-sky piece, let alone returned to it, means more to me than you could know.

    I do see exactly what you’re talking about. And yes, the mind does have to do these sorts of acrobatics. But there are ways of smoothing them over. And ultimately, all these continuity glitches and low points are far less, over 10 or so movies, than the main Marvel or DC universes have. So let Nolan’s films be the Ultimate Batman. That doesn’t mean you have to jettison what you’ve accomplished, warts and all, out of a desire to start fresh.

    And I am moved by how these are some historic films. The moment you start getting rid of the good because there’s some bad too, you’re on a slippery slope. And again, 10 films isn’t the kind of nightmare that 50 years of comics history is, and we’ve kept those, more or less.

    But yes, it is daft! And absurd. But I really don’t see it as that impossible. Really, all this needs is one executive at Warners to see the marketing potential here. It almost assuredly won’t happen. But at least I can appreciate the potential, and you can point out how it carries implications for comics continuity — how all that acrobatics and incongruities might not be the end of the world after all.

    Yeah, it’s the oddest kind of piece and certainly not my norm. Thanks all the more for your very kind and insightful thoughts!

  4. Colin Smith says:

    Hello Julian:- “I do see exactly what you’re talking about. And yes, the mind does have to do these sorts of acrobatics. But there are ways of smoothing them over.”

    Of course. But let’s not rationalise the oddness away, please? I actually want there to be more than one Atlantis, and for Wonder Woman’s world to be quite different from, say, Green Lanterns. When they meet, they can share a third, common world. But, for all I recognise the absolute need in commercial terms for a shared immersive universe, I hope there’s still signs that the pieces actually DON’T fit together, and that there’s something magical and imaginative going on whenever it seems that they do. That’s always present in League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, for example, and it used to present in comics too.

    Still, great stuff. Huzzah!

    Colin

  5. Hello Julian.

    Just read this interesting article of yours, and thought I’d join in. I agree that a JLA film CAN be done using the older DC films, at least for most of the time. Here’s a few suggestions:

    In the case of including the Christopher Reeve Superman films in the DC Cinematic Universe and NOT Snyder’s newest effort, I suggest an alteration to your original idea, to simply have Supergirl set AFTER Superman IV, and explain the lack of Superman to his being away, as explained in Superman Returns. The other alternative, of course, is to literally ignore Superman III and IV altogether – if nothing else, they don’t sit well with Superman Returns’ history at all, what with Ma Kent being alive in SR but being very dead in SIII and SIV (among other things).

    I understand, of course, your argument about accepting the weaker entries and all, but truth is, aside from the fact that those two Superman films, well, suck, Superman Returns simply doesn’t allow them to occur. Sad as that may be to some, as Superman leaves Earth, according to SR, just a few months after SII. Thus, it’d be best to keep Superman: The Movie, Superman II (no preference over which cut, so as to not alienate the fanbase) and Supergirl in the DC Cinematic Universe, as per Superman Returns.

    Now, Batman…. I love your idea of his films basically occuring during Superman’s absence (although what do you make of Batman’s comment in B&R?), and I could see the story continuing from there, oddly enough. A friend of mine once wrote a fan-script that continued from B&R, and the story began light, but gradually grew darker in tone (had the Scarecrow as the villain, after all), and by the end Robin leaves Batman, with Batgirl not being as active a member. Then that friend and myself co-wrote a script where Batman’s solo again, and encounters Ra’s Al Ghul, who also drops the bomb that he may have resurrected the Joker via the Lazarus Pit (and also was against Batman in the past, secretly, by giving Penguin the plans to the Batmobile, or by “ordering” Bane). At the end of the story, Robin’s Nightwing in Bludhaven, and Supergirl’s Oracle, with Tim Drake training as the new Robin.

    After that, we left it open that a JL film or a World’s Finest film to have the resurrected Joker come back, crazier because of the Pit. So I think its certainly possible to even bring back Joker with this way, seeing as how Burton’s Batman didn’t conform to realism as Nolan does.

    The simplest solution, though, could be to just ignore B&R completely and have BF as apocryphal -neither here nor there- so as to keep B89 and BR unassociated with the Schumacher entries, which would meet with immense fan approval. Just saying.

    For Green Lantern, I’d include Green Lantern: Emerald Knights anthology, as that story not only doesn’t fit with the GL portrayal as shown in First Flight, it was also promoted heavily during GL’s theatrical release as a tie-in. And I think its possible, by setting it BEFORE Sinestro’s betrayal at the post-credits scene.

    Another candidate I’d nominate for this would be the Wonder Woman animated film, although I think its unlikely they’d consider that seriously. Still, its the best film about the character, and couldn’t think of a better way to introduce that character.

    So, I’d have it like this, if I may:
    Superman: The Movie ->Superman II (both cuts) -> Supergirl -> Batman ’89 -> Batman Returns -> Batman Forever (and B&R, if chance is given to return the series to the dark roots as shown above is possible) -> Superman Returns -> Green Lantern -> Green Lantern: Emerald Knights -> JL

    So there. Of course, if Snyder’s Man of Steel is to be considered part of JL, then you’d obviously all the Christopher Reeve Supermen (which would be too bad, admittedly).

    Anyway, what do you think?

    • Good points about Superman film continuity. Quite sound. That may well be the best solution. Many thanks.

      I love your fan script plots. They’re a wonderful indication of how these films continue to live in our imagination and our memory and shouldn’t be casually ignored.

      I agree the Wonder Woman animated film was solid. Not as good as I would have liked, but solid stuff.

      Your own timeline is probably better than mine, owing to the Superman continuity issue. I’m quite cool with it, and again, many thanks for such a thoughtful post! It’s truly flattering that this little indulgence / thought exercise of mine has prompted such extended and smart thinking on your part! It’s a fun exercise, and I wish Warners would listen.

      Ultimately, I’m down with any solution that keeps these films in continuity and builds a universe out of them.

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