David Zaslav insists there won’t be Batman overload going forward. “There’s not going to be four Batmans,” he said in an interview hosted by RBC. Zaslav was exaggerating, but it sure has felt like we’ve been overwhelmed by Batmen in recent years.
The amount of time separating each Batman era has grown shorter over the decades, and depending on how 2023 shakes out, we could see Ben Affleck, Michael Keaton, and Robert Pattinson all play their versions of the Caped Crusader within the span of 12 months. And while Zaslav seems intent on streamlining the operation, he’s also a cold-hearted executive who knows the shortest route to a quick buck is more Batman movies.
But the Warner Discovery CEO may face some opposition from within his own ranks. Roughly the same day that Zaslav delivered his comments, DC Studios’ new boss James Gunn shared on Instagram a portrait (drawn by Alex Ross) of the obscure DC superhero Mr. Terrific. Gunn did not include a caption. But it’s true what they say: a picture is worth a thousand words.
Between David Zaslav’s comments and James Gunn’s cryptic social media posts, The DC Universe appears to be at a crossroads — or possibly a collision course. And depending on who wins, it could change the course of superhero history.
It’s difficult to imagine now, but Gunn’s first movie for Marvel Studios was a huge gamble. It was a cosmic action-comedy revolving around a team of B-list anti-heroes, including a trigger-happy raccoon and a walking tree who could only say his own name. But Guardians of the Galaxy became one of Marvel’s biggest hits — and echoed Marvel’s own unlikely strategy for theatrical domination.
It was a strategy that came out of necessity. Back in 1996, Marvel was bankrupt, and, in a desperate bid to stay afloat, the comics publisher held the equivalent of a garage sale. The film and TV rights to its biggest characters were sold off at bargain prices to whatever studio would take them. (Sony almost bought the whole lot for $25 million, but wound up with only Spider-Man and his associates.)
As a result, the upstart Marvel Studios would have to rely on lesser known B- or C-list comic book characters for its foray into making its own independent features. Thus, 2008’s Iron Man was born.
Boosted by the comeback of Robert Downey Jr. in a role tailor made for him, the MCU kicked off in grand fashion. While Spider-Man and the X-Men (and more) had their own movies by other studios throughout the 2000s, the Marvel Cinematic Universe had an appeal — these semi-unknown characters actually coexist somehow — that was catnip to fans and a prime opportunity to cultivate new ones. Every movie, from 2008’s Iron Man to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger was a hit, and 2012’s The Avengers was one of the biggest hits of all time. Marvel has ridden its success upward and onward ever since.
On the other hand, Warner Bros. spent most of the past three decades relying solely on Batman under the abstract fear that nothing else could work on the big screen. Attempts of non-Batman movies were made, from a Superman with Nicolas Cage to a Wonder Woman movie that would’ve starred Mariah Carey, Sandra Bullock, or Kate Beckinsale. In the late 2000s, Mad Max Fury Road auteur George Miller was cooking a whole Justice League ensemble movie until he was derailed by the 2007-2008 WGA strike.
This string of bad luck and false starts only reinforced Warner Bros. that just Batman can work. It helped and hurt that Christopher Nolan’s seismic 2008 film The Dark Knight became one of the first superhero movies to cross a billion dollar threshold. It’s a success that DC has rarely seen even with its own major shared universe franchise, the DCEU.
The dynamic between DC and upstart rival Marvel is oddly consistent, whether it’s about their comics or their movies. In comics, DC is foundational to the genre with its iconic history. But Marvel, with its more radical characters like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men and artistically experimental titles found a way to take a bite of DC’s lunch for longer than DC is comfortable with.
The same has rung true in Hollywood. While DC’s movies like Donner’s Superman and Burton’s Batman are foundational, it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its lesser-known, seemingly “fresher” characters inhabiting an interwoven sandbox has made the MCU the epic, billon-dollar grosser it is now.
This brings us back to DC Studios and Zaslav’s comments in which he intends to “drive the hell out of DC” with Gunn and Safran. The playful teasing by Gunn with his Instagram post of Mr. Terrific suggests DC Studios will do what Marvel did years ago to build its MCU: take obscure characters and produce solid movies to enforce the bigger brand. While Mr. Terrific isn’t a prominent leader of the Justice League in the way Captain America and Iron Man were with the Avengers, the principle can still work to DC’s advantage. You don’t need to know a thing about Mr. Terrific, because in a few years, you’re going to know everything.
While the Batman movie machine shows no signs of slowing down — what with Matt Reeves’ standalone reboot The Batman grossing a hefty $770 million worldwide, Henry Cavill back as Superman, and a third Wonder Woman film in development — Gunn and Safran are already teasing how DC can finally step out of the shadow of its longtime rival. DC created superheroes. Now, it might finally show off how superheroes are done.