Comics to Screen is a recurring feature in which Ben Kaye analyzes the constantly evolving leap from comic books to screens of all sizes. This time, he speculates on how Fox and DC could catch up to Marvel’s universe.
Marvel started something unheard of in cinema when it launched Phase I of its film slate in 2008. Iron Man beget Incredible Hulk beget Thor beget Captain America: The First Avenger beget Marvel’s The Avengers — cohesive, progressive stories in which different characters are interconnected into one universe. Sequels are one thing, but the closest thing to what Kevin Feige and his team had pulled off is maybe Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse.
However, the massive success of this template put a hitch in other companies’ plans. Modern superhero movies had already been around for a decade (here’s looking at you, Blade). Fox’s X-Men series, Sony’s Spider-Man franchise, and Warner Bros./DC’s Batman films each had established well-run series, but if they wanted to compete in Marvel’s league, they’d have to change their game plans. And it hasn’t always been easy.
Comics have had decades of practice maintaining intricate continuities. We’re talking 70-plus years of events affecting storylines not even conceived until decades later, characters that have grown alongside and interacted with each other for thousands of issues. As messy as the books can be, two-hour films open the door for even more convolution, and Marvel isn’t immune. Where the hell were the Avengers when the freakin’ President of the United States got kidnapped by Aldrich Killian? If Mystique and Charles Xavier have this deep, complicated relationship throughout the 1960s and 1970s, why do they act like total strangers when they meet in the 2000s?
Even with those flaws, it’s been fairly well established that continuity works and that it’s something audiences crave. We love that Ant-Man battles the Falcon and that the MacGuffins in so many of those Marvel films all turned out to be Infinity Stones. As a result, anyone who isn’t Marvel has been attempting to create something similar, with various degrees of success.
The Amazing Spider-Man worked for a second, until the sequel tried to create a massive universe in one fell swoop. Jamming the Sinister Six in there, announcing plans for Venom and Black Cat movies before working out how to seamlessly insert any of them into that world ended up with a bloated, funless film and the death of a franchise. What’s interesting is that both Amazing and X-Men: First Class came five years after a trilogy ended on a sour note (Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand, respectively), but one has clearly been more successful than the other. Besides the quality of filmmaking, this may be credited to the fact that one was a complete reboot while the other remained loyal to the continuity established in the first three films. Audiences had already invested a damn good amount of time in these stories, and they just weren’t ready to give up on that so soon.
Which is actually the genius of what happened with Days of Future Past. Producer Simon Kinberg confirmed recently that Days of Future Past has essentially pressed the reset button on the X-Men franchise. With DoFP set in 1972, the timeline of X-Men, X2: X-Men United, The Last Stand, and even X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine never happened. Sure, this isn’t the cleanest break (is time travel ever?), and there are flaws: Why aren’t there Sentinels in the first three X-Men or either Wolverine film? What does this mean for Wolverine’s memory loss, anyway? (Though, frankly, it might be best if we all imagined ourselves being shot by an adamantium bullet and forgetting the mess that was Origins anyway.) And yes, those questions will always eat at fans and never be rightly answered. But it’s still a neat trick by Fox, essentially creating a reboot without rebooting anything.
Moviegoers still know these characters, and they haven’t really changed at their core. Only now Fox is free to reimagine things and introduce new relationships. It’s how Storm can be a Horseman of Apocalypse and Nightcrawler can interact with young Cyclops and Jean Grey in the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s how Ryan Reynolds can be Deadpool again and not have to explain what happened to the Baraka knockoff from X-Men Origins. On the same note, it’s how Channing Tatum can star in a Gambit film and not have to pay service to Taylor Kitsch’s version. Instead of having Gambit be a victim of Stryker’s island and battling Wolverine and Sabretooth, he can be completely reinvented with a fresh background. Continuity intact, Fox can now recreate their entire X-universe.
The one hiccup in Fox’s execution has been, of course, Fantastic Four. For a while leading up to Josh Trank’s film, the talk was that FF and X-Men absolutely existed in the same world, implying that one day Beast and Mr. Fantastic would be able to nerd out over unstable molecules together. When the movie tanked, the studio immediately backed off that idea, saying instead that Fantastic Four operated in a “parallel universe.” We all know the truth is that FF was awful and is being swept under the rug, but parallel universes might not be such a terrible continuity plan.
In fact, it may be the only move DC and WB have. There are a lot of giant question marks surrounding the DC Extended Universe, and nothing will really become clear until we get both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad next year. The way BvS is shaping up, there’s absolutely the risk of it having some Amazing flaws, but so far it’s appears to be establishing the connected universe fairly well. Having Bruce Wayne present in Metropolis for Man of Steel‘s final battle and Gotham being the city over the river are quick and smart ways to bring the characters’ worlds together. The problem that DC/WB doesn’t seem to want to address, however, is television.
DC has always had the more complicated universe in the comics, what with all the Infinite Crises and Flashpoints and Conversions reshuffling continuity. While that may work for comic readers, these non-connected tales run the risk of confusing the heck out of your average consumer. DC’s problem in this case is their fairly vast TV schedule. Marvel has managed to tie in a number of TV shows into their larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and all those upcoming Netflix series operate in the same exact world as Avengers. It’s all one big, happy universe. DC, on the other hand, has created one big, uncomfortable mess.
From the beginning, DC’s TV excursions have been separate entities. Gotham is not in the same world as The Flash, which is not in the same world as Supergirl. Nor are these properties connected to their cinematic counterparts. The company line is that by keeping all these properties separate, DC doesn’t “end up handcuffing our creators into trying to work with the same storyline or force them to hold back characters or introduce certain characters,” as DC Entertainment chief Diane Nelson explained it. Now, that’s fine in theory, and you can actually see her point when looking at certain aspects of the MCU (Thor’s bath, for example). However, as a well-known nerd, I’ve been asked countless times to explain how Supergirl exists without Henry Cavill or whether Gotham is an origin story for Christopher Nolan’s films or Bat-Affleck. And if rumors concerning the Joker on Gotham pan out, it’s only going to complicate things further.
Of the series currently running, only The Flash and Arrow exist together, and they’ve thus far proven the most beloved of the bunch. So much so that Matt Ryan’s title character from the failed Constantine show is actually making an appearance on Arrow in the next season, linking the one-season NBC series to the CW’s universe. A third series, Legends of Tomorrow, is set to expand that universe even further next year. Whatever DC’s intentions in keeping things separate, continuity between series has largely been welcomed by fans.
So what happens when we have two very different Scarlet Speedsters zipping around two very different sized screens? How do we cope with Supergirl‘s Superman not having snapped Zod’s neck? How can we explain three distinctly varied Jokers in a seven-year span, with two existing at the same time? Different actors have played the same hero and villain roles over the years, sure, but never simultaneously in such high-profile ways. There’s also the trouble of having only four years between Christian Bale and Ben Affleck donning the cowl, something we learned from the Spider-Man movies may not be enough.
How do we reconcile all these different iterations of characters in different mediums played by different actors when we’ve grown accustomed to live-action universes where it’s all supposed to be one big story? There may be an unexpected answer: Booster Gold.
Rumors appeared back in September that DC/Warner Bros. were considering a Booster Gold/Blue Beetle team-up movie. Blue Beetle’s a fun character, but the key here is Booster. Michael Jon Carter is a disgraced football star from the 25th century who steals a time travel device to travel back to the 20th. Using more future tech and his knowledge of future events, Carter fashions himself into the showboating hero Booster Gold.
In a column for ComicBook.com, Russ Burlingame makes a strong case for how Booster could actually unite all of DC’s live-action properties. Greg Berlanti, producer/writer on every DC TV show except Gotham, is reportedly connected with Blue and Gold (I’m with ya, Russ). Though CBS has been reluctant, Berlanti has been pushing for Supergirl to occupy the same universe as The Flash/Arrow/Legends, so he clearly has an appreciation for shared continuity. This season of The Flash will introduce the concept of a multiverse by including Jay Garrick, the Flash of Earth 2. The linchpin of Legends of Tomorrow is going to be Rip Hunter, a time traveler and member of the Time Masters — who also happens to be Booster Gold’s future son (time travel, right?).
Movie audiences have already accepted the tangled idea of time travel in comic films thanks to DoFP. Comic-like multiverses have worked before with Smallville and look to be on the right track with The Flash and Legends. It doesn’t take a huge leap to see how DC could use characters like Booster Gold and Rip Hunter to establish a wider net for their complex of universes in a way that allows all of their properties to exist in the same field, if not the same timeline. They’ve even put the same guy, Berlanti, in charge of it all.
Besides tying up all the various incarnations of its characters, a shared multiverse could also allow the shows more range in the characters they use. Nightwing could appear in Arrow without messing up the perception of Batman on Gotham or in the movie universe. Suddenly having the Suicide Squad on Arrow doesn’t convolute the Suicide Squad film.
It’s entirely feasible that DC could continue to find success without uniting its properties in the ways Fox has done with X-Men or Marvel has done with… Marvel. For sure, they have enough on their plate just getting the Justice League films to work on their own. Still, continuity has become an expected, appreciated concept in live-action superhero fare. Once they get their own cinematic universe up and running, it could be beneficial — and exciting — for them to tie it all together in a way that no other company has done before, a chance to be original in an already crowded genre. Continuity matters, and even if it’s as comic booky as a multiverse, DC might do well to recognize that.