Auteurism vs. Superhero Synergy

April 14, 2010
By | 5 Comments

Last month the L.A. Times announced that Christopher Nolan would produce yet another reboot of the Superman series, as well as direct a third Batman film.  By hitching their wagon to Nolan, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment extend their association with one of the most acclaimed and successful filmmakers in mainstream cinema.  But there is a trade-off, as Nolan’s involvement with both Superman and Batman places important restrictions on those franchises.

First, Nolan declares that the third Batman film will “finish the story.”  A strong sense of narrative closure would preclude the possibility of additional sequels – a dangerous thought for a series that has already grossed $1.37 billion in theaters alone.  Of course, Warners could simply reboot (Batman Begins Again?) after Nolan leaves; Marvel is currently taking this route with their Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Daredevil franchises, after having already rebooted the Hulk and the Punisher.  But will this practice of rebooting whenever a film underperforms (or, in the case of Spider-Man, when cast and crew salaries become prohibitively high) begin to wear on audiences?

Another issue unique to Nolan is his approach to superheroes – specifically, his efforts to situate them within a “realistic” dramatic environment.  To this end, Batman is the only superhero in his narrative world, and Nolan says he will take the same approach with Superman.  This inhibits Warners from pursuing projects that involve both characters (i.e. “World’s Finest” or “Justice League of America”).  Although DC (as All-American Publications) may have created the concept of the shared superhero universe in 1940 with All-Star Comics, seventy years later they have chosen the auteur over the potential for franchise synergy.  Marvel Studios, in contrast, is aggressively situating each of their upcoming superhero films in “the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”  This strategy will culminate in 2012’s The Avengers, which will feature Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Nick Fury, and Captain America.  Likewise, while Nolan’s Superman film and Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern will likely be quite different stylistically, Marvel seems to be utilizing a generic cinematic “house style”, based on Favreau’s Iron Man (2008), to provide continuity.

Of course, Warner Bros. and DC might get the last laugh.  It is still unclear that the synergy among Marvel’s superhero films actually leads to additional revenue.  Did more people see The Incredible Hulk (2008) because it contained a cameo from Robert Downey, Jr.?  Will the “all-star” roster of The Avengers still have value if Thor (2011) is a box office disappointment?  Do people really care if Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner in The Avengers?  And most importantly, will an Avengers film really make more money than plain old Iron Man 3 would have?  In order to keep Avengers reasonably affordable Marvel has kept cast salaries low, either by casting unknowns or low-wattage stars, or according to Variety (4/4/10), apparently by simply finding stars who are willing to take a pay cut for the career benefit of starring in a summer tentpole (or, more likely, for back-end money).  But we will have to wait another two years to see whether or not “more is more.”


Tags: , , ,

5 Responses to “ Auteurism vs. Superhero Synergy ”

  1. Jennifer Smith on April 14, 2010 at 2:44 PM

    You mention Marvel’s “house style” as the driving force of the continuity between their upcoming films, but I have to wonder if those films won’t wind up being more auteurish and as wildly different in tone and style as DC’s output. It’s hard to imagine Kenneth Branagh directing a Thor film that will resemble Iron Man tonally, and the rumors that Joss Whedon, whose style has always been very distinct, will be helming (and possibly script-doctoring) the Avengers movie indicate that Marvel may be looking more for different voices within their shared universe rather than a restrictive overarching style.

    I agree, however, that the concept of the shared movie universe may not ultimately benefit Marvel. The diehard fans of the comics (myself included) will delight in the synergy, but I can’t imagine the ties will matter much to the average moviegoer. The Avengers movie will be the true test — it’s always possible that, say, the newly-converted hypothetical Thor fan will see that movie despite a disinterest (or lack of knowledge) of Iron Man or Captain America. And in that case, the differences between the films will ultimately be a boon for attracting diverse audiences. I assume that’s what the studio is hoping for, at any rate!

  2. Derek Kompare on April 15, 2010 at 9:32 AM

    We can only armchair speculate at this point, but we’ll know for sure how this panned out within 3-4 years. I’m leaning towards the DC approach, because it allows them to more easily maintain simultaneous versions of the characters and universes across different media properties. This way, each feature film can be seen as a singular event, rather than a continuation. Moreover, they can still attempt team-based films; it’s just that the teams will be from lesser-known properties (e.g., I’d love to see a weird Doom Patrol film, or even a version of Teen Titans).

    I’m also certain that Batman will of course be rebooted again down the line. It just may be a while, and depends on all sorts of things.

  3. Josh David Jackson on April 15, 2010 at 3:56 PM

    I remember hearing two years (or so) ago that DC was considering taking a Marvel-like approach with some of its less iconic heroes (After solo outings, The Flash and Green Lantern form a Batman- and Superman-free Justice League–or something like that). Though I think the idea’s now dead in the water, it does suggest that a studio’s approach (auteurist, house-style, or otherwise) may depend on a hero’s franchise power and name recognition with the general public.

  4. Jonathan Gray on April 17, 2010 at 1:19 PM

    The rebooting sounds okay in and of itself for the same reason that it’s worked with Bond. But, learning from Bond, I hope they don’t foolishly believe that they can tell the story of becoming every 4 years; getting on and doing it will become important at some point (after all, how many times do we really want to see Peter Parker bitten by a spider?)

  5. Superhero Legacy on August 9, 2010 at 3:44 PM

    The synergy that will be created with The Avengers appears to have needed several variables to go right in order to be produced. That’s easy to see now that it’s actually going to hit theaters, but that seems to have been a huge risk. Iron Man and Iron Man 2 could have been flops, and so could Thor and Captain America. Any type of writer/actor’s strike, or financial struggles by Warner Brothers could have jeopardized actors’ willingness to be part of projects spanning several years. That being said, being a huge superhero fan myself, I’m pumped to see The Avengers finally come together.

    Re-booting movies may get old after a while, but it has obviously been successful with the Nolan Batman series, and it appeared to work with the second Hulk movie. It’s just too bad that not all superhero franchises can be branched off into several characters’ stories like X-Men (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class). This would prevent the need for re-boots.

    I would also be happy with a movie about a lesser-known team. I believe that a Teen Titans movie is actually in the works.