Every Superhero Movie Is A Policy Failure
The #SnyderCut movement and the Streaming Wars
Warner Bros. Pictures will release to HBO Max next month a film called Zack Snyder’s Justice League. This film, which cost $70 million to produce, is an extended edit of another film called Justice League, which cost $300 million and appeared in theaters less than four years ago. It comes on the heels of Wonder Woman: 1984, another Warner film that debuted on HBO Max in December to a net loss of more than $100 million.
These films are all entries in the DC Extended Universe series of superhero films, which I can almost guarantee you do not give a shit about. On the other hand, though, I can almost guarantee that you have seen at least one film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a parallel superhero series that has generated billions of dollars in profits and almost single-handedly transformed Hollywood’s economic landscape. Disney just released a new TV show in that universe, WandaVision, and in October it announced that it would bring “roughly” ten new Marvel series to its streaming service over the next few years.
Neither of these franchises is good art, but there is no denying that one has succeeded and the other has failed. The Marvel films have become a worldwide sensation while the DC movies have become an afterthought and don’t even make much money anymore. And yet it is almost a certainty that in the coming decade we will see several more films in both franchises, DC no less than Marvel: at least a half dozen titles are under development in each series as we speak. What explains the disparate outcomes for these two franchises, and why are there so many fucking superhero movies? Well, the reasons for Marvel’s superior returns are more complicated than just “the movies are better,” and the reasons for the glut of superhero content are more interesting than just “people like explosions.” This has been a favorite party conversation topic of mine for some time, so I’m going to devote an extra newsletter to teasing it out.
As of the early 2000s, the two comic book universes were in quite different situations, of which DC had the better. Warner Bros. had the sole rights to DC characters like Batman and Superman. Since there was no competition, Warner could set as high a standard as it wanted for each individual movie’s profits: for instance, it pulled the plug on the Tim Burton series of Batman films after Batman & Robin didn’t bring in enough cash, and scrapped a Burton edition of Superman for the same reason. These movies were often panned by critics, but they pretty much always made money.
The Marvel comics, meanwhile, were owned by Marvel Studios, a small company that licensed the characters to bigger studios like Sony. Some time around 2003, a man named David Maisel took over and decided that the studio should keep the character rights to itself and produce the movies on its own. In part this was so that the studio leaders could retain greater creative control over their characters, but it was mostly a money play: Marvel would have to raise production money on its own, but it would get to keep way more of the profits. Maisel flew to Mar-a-Lago to pitch studio dean Ike Perlmutter on the idea, Perlmutter agreed, and Maisel got $500 million from Merrill Lynch for the first round of movies, putting up the character rights as collateral.
The rest is history: Iron Man grossed $500 million and Disney swooped in a few months later, buying Marvel for ten times as much as the company had been worth when Maisel got there. Maisel handed the reins of the series to producer and lifelong Marvel fan Kevin Feige, who conceived an interconnected universe of movies. (The studio had to buy the rights to the Hulk character back from Universal, with the condition that Universal would get royalties from any movies where Hulk was the main character. That’s why there was never a solo Hulk movie with Mark Ruffalo.) The initial idea to do one big universe apparently came from Maisel, but the execution belonged to Feige, whose job was not only to create the overarching story but also to impose a kind of universal aesthetic to which each movie’s director had to adhere—colorful, goofy, sentimental. The appeal of that aesthetic, and the success of the unified universe idea, is obvious to anyone who has seen this video.
Warner, meanwhile, was caught flat-footed by the success of the MCU, and strained to catch up. Around the same time as the first Avengers film hit theaters, Warner was wrapping up the critically acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, which took a dark and brooding tone. The studio decided to keep that course and adopted a grim aesthetic for the extended universe, hiring nerd darling Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) to serve as a kind of anti-Feige. The returns were OK at first, but as the series continued it became clear that neither critics nor fans had any special attachment to these movies and that they would never become the sacred cows that the MCU movies were. The difference was that the MCU had been conceived before the Disney buyout by a smaller and more dedicated group of producers, ones who had a closer connection with the source material. The DC series, meanwhile, was engineered from the top down by studio executives with intellectual property that had already been through the spin cycle—Warner had already rebooted Batman and Superman so many times that viewers had very hazy ideas about who these characters were supposed to be.
Snyder had a devoted fan base, but the executives still wanted to hedge their bets, so they stopped short of giving him full creative control of the series progression, instead outsourcing each film’s aesthetic to the individual director. As the films piled up, Snyder’s apocalyptic tone in movies like Batman vs. Superman clashed with the relative brightness of separate movies like Wonder Woman and Aquaman, such that the latter films fared better as individual efforts than as part of a series. This divide-and-conquer was the right decision from a business standpoint, since movies are really expensive and you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket, but it was the wrong decision if you wanted to recreate the serialized quality that made the Marvel movies so popular.
Except this wasn’t the (ahem) endgame for either Warner or Disney. The media industry over the past decades has a tremendous amount of what’s called “vertical consolidation.” Disney owns not just the Marvel characters but also the film studio that makes the Marvel movies and the streaming service where you watch those movies; AT&T owns not only the DC characters but the studio that makes DC movies, the streaming service where you watch those movies, and, of course, the internet service you need in order to use the streaming service.
It is obvious to anyone who reads the news that streaming is where the money is and that the next ten years will represent a kind of subscriber-growth arms race. For Disney, then, the success of the MCU films matters less than having the ability to deploy these same characters ad nauseam on a streaming service it controls: the company now plans to blow up Feige’s intricately phased story architecture, saturating Disney+ with more than a dozen spin-off shows like the recent WandaVision even as it pumps out new movies like Chloe Zhao’s Eternals. The idea of a sprawling series where every film played some minor narrative role is the ultimate cash cow for the age of streaming, where success is measured not in one-time ticket sales but in continued subscription fees.
Warner, too, benefits from the streaming wars, but in a clumsier way. The Marvel movies appeal to a far broader swath of nerds than just the nerds who read actual comic books—we can call them “mainstream nerds”—but the DC movies have never generated the same grassroots support. There is one exception to this, though, and that is the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement, a social media trend that emerged after the release of the original Justice League. After Snyder left the movie in in the middle of production (his daughter committed suicide), Warner cut a lot of the side characters and arcane plot details Snyder had included in his version, and the resulting film was clearly the product of (at least) two creative visions. When the movie bombed, aggrieved Snyder fans demanded that Warner release Snyder’s version. When the hashtag first emerged, the fans who created it had no real sense of whether such a thing was even possible, but it later turned out that this hypothetical version actually already existed and that people had actually seen it.
Now, why would a studio spend $70 million (almost the cost of the movie Independence Day) to polish up an aborted version of a movie that bombed just four years ago, part of a series that no one likes? Simple: because people, both #SnyderCut fans and people who are bored during quarantine, will subscribe to HBO Max in order to watch it, and maybe they will keep their subscription afterwards. I’m sure if the Snyder Cut debuted in theaters, it would bomb, but no one cares about that anymore.
If the superhero extended universes were created for an industry where what mattered most were big tent-pole blockbusters, the studios have now repurposed them for an era where what matters most is having a never-ending stream of releases that are exclusive to their streaming services. For as long as Disney pumps out titles like WandaVision, Warner will have no choice but to keep making bullshit of its own: in the next year alone it plans to finish the roster of DC films with Aquaman 2 and The Flash and will also do a Suicide Squad spinoff show starring John Cena. That the individual films performed better than the bogged-down Justice League doesn’t matter as much when you consider that each installment now represents the expansion of a catalog rather than the continuation of a narrative.
Thus the streaming wars, which are to a great extent the consequence of corporate consolidation, have created a profound least-common-denominator effect. The question is no longer who can release the biggest summer blockbuster but who can create the biggest and most sprawling universe of intellectual property. As long as Disney or Warner owns the rights to a character that the other company does not own, they have no choice but to keep deploying that character in more and more content, ensuring that viewers cannot afford to cancel their subscription and miss out on whatever comes next.