How Warner Bros. Should Develop A Justice League Film (Part 1 of 3)
Author: Mark Hughes
August 23, 2012

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PART I: "The Setup"

Thereís a lot of fan discussion and debate about what Warner Bros. should and shouldnít do, with regard to creating a universe of DC Comics characters on film and eventually possibly making a Justice League film. Iím here to tell you what I think needs to be done, and how Warners should move forward with future film adaptations of comic book superheroes and any eventual Justice League movie.

Let me start by saying something I think we all need to understand: A Justice League film is inevitable now. However they get to it, at some point there will eventually be a big team-up film featuring the superheroes from DC Comics.

THE AVENERS made it very clear that such a film pulls in fans of all the different characters, combines lots of different recognizable brands, has a huge ďeventĒ feel to it that attracts audiences who might otherwise have less interest in a superhero film, is likely to be a massive draw for children and young teens and thus pull in families for a wider viewership, provides an opportunity to spin off lesser-known characters (who benefit from being introduced alongside popular heroes) into potentially lucrative solo franchises, and allows for a wide array of source material and influences from which to draw inspiration for stories and characterizations. Thatís without mentioning the reasons that a Justice League film galvanizes the fan base in ways solo films donít accomplish, in terms of sheer combined power and buzz for all these characters at once, not to mention the implications of a whole universe of these heroes portrayed on film. Then thereís the merchandising potential for comics and trade paperbacks and shirts and posters etc, which adds up to large profit margins that fill the coffers for DC and WB, encouraging further investment in these properties and helping increase the mainstreaming of comic books and fandom, which is always a good thing.

I think there is a lot of support for WB to figure out how to do a Justice League film. I also feel that, regardless of whether one wants to see such a film, the business reasons for making it are fairly obvious, and frankly, pretty reasonable. And every possible way forward for WB, including development of several solo franchises, inevitably increases the reasons for eventually making a Justice League film and the likelihood that itíll happen.

So the real question is this: How can WB develop a Justice League film in the best possible way? Should they do it now, as quickly as possible, or should they wait and build toward it? There are a lot of options, and Iím sure Warner is considering them all. But some are better than others, and some involve way too much risk.

To get the worst options out of the way immediately, I think making a Justice League film prior to making solo franchise films would be a terrible mistake. A rush to make a team-up film puts the cart before the horse and feels like an attempt to capitalize on the success of THE AVENGERS rather than a real plan with long-term viability. The notion of using the film to later spin off solo franchises only works if the Justice League film works, and it makes any future solo franchises beholden to the success and quality of the Justice League film. If the film doesnít work, it instantly dooms the prospects for solo franchises for other characters besides Batman and Superman (who are popular and recognizable enough to remain viable as solo franchises -- IF their solo films arenít also messed up somehow). And without solo films in advance, Warner wonít be able to take the pulse of fans and audiences to tell which characters (besides the obvious big ones like Superman and Batman) have the most appeal and should be included prominently in the film.

Making a JL too soon would also be a bad financial decision, because it would obviously be a very expensive undertaking without the advantage of initial film successes to provide a cushion for the investment. And the marketing would be very different and more expensive, since it would lack lead-in solo franchises that act as opportunities to market and create inroads for the later team-up film. While lead-in solo films donít have to literally include tie-in plot points for the eventual Justice League films (the way Marvelís solo franchises all tied into one another and added story elements that would come to fruition in THE AVENGERS), those films will still introduce audiences to characters, and advertising for those films becomes de facto advertising in advance for Justice League. The ability to pump fans and audiences up, to generate anticipation and buzz, is priceless, and you lose that if you skip straight to Justice League first.

Making Justice League first, then, would put all of the eggs in one basket, would be a bigger financial risk, and would hold solo franchises hostage to the performance of Justice League.

I believe solo franchises for multiple characters is absolutely the right way forward for Warner Bros. and Iíll explain why.

Solo films spread the risk, first and foremost. Warners can make several solo films and know that if one of them flops or underperforms, it wonít sink the entire bigger plan, because other films are going to be hits. While I donít think Marvelís plan should be mimicked entirely, the simple truth is that Marvelís plan worked because it made so much sense and was a very good idea -- THE INCREDIBLE HULK didnít do very big box office, and CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER was really only modestly successful. Their combined box office was $632 million, but their combined budgets were almost $300 million, and thatís not counting marketing costs. The point is, they werenít big blockbusters at all.

But Marvel didnít worry, and in fact Marvel didnít even blink or slow down. Why? Because Thor had a more encouraging $449 million box office off its $150 million budget, and because the Iron Man films combined for a whopping $1.2 billion in box office. In other words, Marvel could accept some of the films performing only modestly or even failing, because they had other films they already knew were heavy-hitters, and so the investment wasnít just in each single film but in the collection of franchises as part of a large plan. Those five films together earned more than $2.8 billion in box office, off a combined budget of about $780 million. The company looked at this as one big investment, setting up an entire collection of franchises while leading into THE AVENGERS which they were confident would be a huge smash hit and spawn at least one other franchise. It was a bold plan, and one that Marvel pulled off brilliantly. While Iím not advocating using solo franchises just as marketing tools, and Iím not saying the solo films should inherently tie together and include built-in plot points for future films, I think the clear message is that the right approach is to see this as an opportunity to invest in a collection of franchises that support one another financially, helping provide a large platform to launch additional films and a self-supporting marketing machine that demonstrates the power of the whole is greater than the mere parts individually.

Consider an important point: Marvelís reaction to the performance of CAPTAIN AMERICA and THE INCREDIBLE HULK -- and even THOR -- is in sharp contrast to Warner Bros.í reaction to the performance of SUPERMAN RETURNS (which had box office higher than CAPTAIN AMERICA and a bit under THOR) and GREEN LANTERN (which had box office similar to THE INCREDIBLE HULK). Think about how the two Warner superhero films were met with disappointment and uncertainty about their future, compared to Marvelís consistent positive, enthused response to their own films.

The key difference? Confidence in their plan, confidence in their films, and confidence in their genre. Marvel films are superhero films that are proud to be superhero films, they wear that title with pride and they seem excited about their movies. They never showed fear, they never backed off their plan, and they never acted anything less than completely proud to be making superhero movies. Their confidence and enthusiasm was contagious, and it their supreme pride in their product gave it an air of inevitability even when one or two films didnít set the box office on fire. It was a team effort, they were in it for the long haul, and they were certain of victory.

Warner Bros. created the modern superhero film, with one of the greatest of them all: 1978ís SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE. Then, they changed the way superhero films were made with the 1989 smash BATMAN. And once again, as the current ďgolden ageĒ of superhero movies began in the 2000ís, Warners stepped in to redefine our perceptions and expectations with BATMAN BEGINS, followed of course by the film that rewrote the rules for the genre, THE DARK KNIGHT. And along the way, they made lots of other good or great superhero movies.

The point? They know how to do this, theyíve done it before and thereís every reason to be confident in the quality of their films and the source material from which they can derive new franchises. So they need to develop confidence and enthusiasm about it, and then act with courage and determination.

Besides spreading the financial risk and helping provide financial backing for all the other related and future endeavors, starting with solo franchises also gives each character the necessary time to shine on their own and establishes them in film continuity, so that itís unnecessary to address background and origins within a Justice League film later. The studio is given ďpermissionĒ by audiences to assume that viewers will do their homework to find out what came before, in order to keep up with the team-up story. This also, obviously, helps send new viewers back to see the solo films if they hadnít watched them yet, since in anticipation of a big event film there are a lot of people who might have avoided solo franchises but will eventually take time to watch those movies prior to seeing a Justice League film.

You can do a lot more experimenting and adjusting with the portrayal of a character in their solo films, to ready them for the eventual team-up. Finding out if one costume works better than another, or if one performer doesnít quite fit the character, is the sort of information thatís better to have sooner rather than later. Audiences who donít like the way you portray a character in the solo films will still come see a Justice League due to the draw of other characters; but if you get a particular character wrong in their first incarnation in an early Justice League movie, then that hurts your chances of drawing audiences to any attempted solo films afterward. - Mark Hughes

NEXT: "The Details"

Longtime BOF'er Mark Hughes is former media specialist & campaign ad writer. He now works as a screenwriter for film & TV.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkHughesFilms and read his Forbes blog, "REEL ESTATE."

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