Monday, September 08, 2008

Did The Dark Knight Really Win the Summer of '08?

Summer is officially over, and what an awesomely geeky summer it's been! Giant green men, slightly-less-giant red men, robots, rich narcissistic superheroes, rich emotionally-traumatized superheroes... something for everyone! But which geek movie came out on top?

I think it's official, right? Dark Knight has definitely won the hard fought, Geek Movie Summer cage match. Not only has it been carelessly barreling through previously untouchable records, it will go down in history as arguably the finest comic book movie yet. Even the MTV movie awards (held early in the summer) anticipated the coming cultural landmark and created a new category with which to award the summer's runner-up, Iron Man: "Best Movie of the Summer... so far". Yet despite the unstoppable juggernaut that has been the Dark Knight, it's Marvel that's going to end up on top. And DC should pay attention and take notes.

While the Dark Knight was busy smashing records (and winning hearts), Marvel was busy laying the groundwork for a future empire. This summer marked the beginning of a bold experiment for Marvel... a fully autonomous "Marvel Studios." Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk were the first films completely produced under Marvel's banner (relying on Paramount and Universal for distribution and marketing only). Marvel is treating the movie business the same way they do their comics; a unified editorial board that oversees all the projects coming and going.

This is an extremely novel approach to making movies-and one that is sure to be criticized. But in the end it's going to win the day for Marvel. The filmmakers are given the same freedoms that Marvel's comic writers and artists are used to, but they have to conform their "vision" to fit within the greater Marvel Movie Universe. And this is what your average comic geek movie viewer craves. We geeks love our continuity. But it'll have benefits the reach far beyond the geek audience.

"Clearly, we got into the business of doing these movies ourselves because we believe in our vision for these movies," says Kevin Feige, President of Marvel Studios, in an interview with Newsarama, "and we believe that the success that we’ve had over the years is based on our instinct and our abilities to translate our characters. Now to be able to do that completely unencumbered.... It’s nice to have full control to bring these characters to life the way we think they should be."

It is nice. But granted, even if none of the movies they ever produce can match the individual success of The Dark Knight, is that such a bad thing? So far, DC's film offerings are completely self contained. And The Dark Knight especially so. There is no room in the TDK universe for Superman, Robin, a Justice League-nothing that makes the DC universe the DC universe. Hell, TDK is so aggressively insular, there's hardly even room for another sequel. Even the Nolan brothers have expressed concern as to how they could follow up a film like TDK.

While DC is building fences around its intellectual properties, Marvel is openly inviting their properties to play in each other's yards. Some cynics thought the Robert Downey Jr. cameo in The Incredible Hulk was a play for more ticket sales-but we geeks knew better. It wasn't a cheap ploy-but instead a brilliant maneuvering to create the sense of a greater universe. One in which Tony Stark could wander into a bar with Bruce Banner, and take a call from Nick Shield about Hank Pym's latest discovery. To make matters more exciting, they're using this character crossover to build up to the eventual Avengers movie... which has geeks every where salivating.

Now I'm a DC guy-always have been. I enjoy a Marvel title here and there (Bendis' Daredevil is some of the best superhero writing I've ever read) But I don't care too much about the Avengers... at least, I didn't before. But after Iron Man's Sam Jackson cameo and then TIH's Robert Downey cameo-you can count me in! And they're going to introduce Ant Man, Thor, and good ol' Captain America in their own movies. All in the same universe. By that point, I'll be chomping at the bit to see the Avengers.

Now DC is planning a Justice League movie. And yes, I'm excited because I love the Justice League. But you know what? Is there any chance it'll be good? The poor writers will have the herculean task of squeezing origin stories for Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter into a story that gets them to team up with a DIFFERENT Batman and Superman... one that doesn't fit into either the Superman Returns universe or the current Batman movie universe. That's the kind of thing that'll' bug not just the stickler comic geek audience, but also confuse the hell out of the general public. Warner Bros already had a hell of a time convincing people that Batman Begins was, in fact, not the same Batman from the Burton or Schumacher films (and thankfully so).

So Marvel has established for themselves, an incredibly easy way to branch out into all of their remaining intellectual properties. Sure, today it'd be a hard sell to get people to see a Hawkeye movie... but imagine after a half dozen semi-successful/successful Marvel movies, including The Avengers-you'd just have to say "he's the next member of the avengers, kids!" On the DC side, is there anything you could tell a kid to get him into a theater for The Green Arrow?

So even though DC may pop out a genre-re-defining masterpiece like TDK... does that make it any easier for them to utilize any of their other countless properties? Whereas, the time and effort Marvel spends now creating an expanding universe, will give them the ability to easily market any of their characters or even recreate any of the existing movie properties that don't currently fit in.

"The summer of 2008 has been a huge, huge victory for us so far, and tells us that people enjoy where our instincts are leading us so far." -Kevin Feige (pres. of Marvel Studios).

I just hope DCs paying attention. I'd really like to enjoy The Justice League.

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