Marvel didn’t invent the concept of the movie crossover, but they’ve been so monumentally successful at it that they’re now immediately associated with the idea of a shared cinematic universe. And in movies, like so many other fields, success spawns imitators. There are plenty of properties trying to get in on the shared universe game at the moment, but none are more prominent of course, than Marvel’s long-time comics rivals at DC. DC wants what Marvel has. But let’s be honest, DC won’t be able to directly compete with Marvel as Marvel are already so far ahead of them. DC’s on 3 movies, Marvel’s about to reach 14. People have already commented on DC apparently trying to jump ahead by skipping straight to Batman v Superman, their proto-Avengers without bothering with any other establishing movies bar Man of Steel (which was not originally even conceived as a universe-starter). Let’s be honest here, the DCEU isn’t on the same playing field as the MCU right now, but could that change?
Well, sad as it is to admit, DC’s approach has just not been paying off so far. Man of Steel was hugely divisive, the under-performing Batman v Superman was critically mauled, and the just-released Suicide Squad doesn’t appear to be faring much better. While they haven’t exactly been copying it identically anyway, I propose that DC just abandon the notion of using Marvel’s model at all. Marvel got there first, what’s done in done, and I doubt anyone’s going to be able to replicate their formula any time soon.
I do want to remind myself of something regarding Marvel though. Marvel’s become almost a guarantee of a certain level of quality now. Their fans seem to routinely love their movies and can’t get enough of them. But it wasn’t always this way. Less than a decade ago, Marvel weren’t off to the best of beginnings. Sure, Iron Man was a critically acclaimed smash-hit, but The Incredible Hulk underperformed, and the swiftly produced Iron Man 2 wasn’t particularly good at all.
I’ve mentioned a few times before that I was never much of a Marvel reader, and back in 2010, when I was first learning about the proposed Avengers film, I found it very hard to get all that excited about it. Marvel were building a universe on the back of one decent movie and two mediocre ones, and without either of their most popular characters (Spider-Man and Wolverine). It wasn’t until the double-whammy of Thor and in particular Captain America: The First Avenger in the summer of 2011 that I got on board with the MCU, which then became truly solidified with the triumphant release of The Avengers in 2012.
And look at Marvel now? People will routinely talk about their films as a whole, and almost always in a positive manner. People have forgiven, or just look over their less than stellar offerings. As I said, no-one’s going to be the new Marvel. Marvel’s going to keep on being Marvel for the foreseeable future. Sometimes, lesser films look better in the light of better ones down the line in their own series. I wanted to draw attention to the way that fans will look past earlier missteps in big franchises like this, using Marvel as one example, but their start wasn’t as much of a large-scale upset at DC’s. Primarily, I want to look at a little series know as the Fast & Furious. You may have heard of it.
The Fast & Furious series is a movie franchise like no-other. I’ve been quite fascinated with it for a while now, and it’s not even because I especially like it, I don’t but it’s just so interesting. Seriously, I bet people are going to write thesis papers on it one day. I propose that it is this series, and not the MCU, that may be or become the DCEU’s most apt comparison, and something they could maybe learn a thing or two from, if they haven’t already, which may very well be the case.
The Fast and the Furious began way back in 2001, as little more than a shameless Point Break rip-off with surfboards exchanged for fast cars. It was a mid-budget movie with no major stars from a director who’s most famous film was DragonHeart. It’s now one of the biggest and most successful movie franchises in the world, with its most recent instalment earning both critical acclaim and upwards of $1.5 billion at the box office. How did it get there?
Be honest, The Fast and the Furious isn’t that good of a film, it was a decent hit, and soon led to a sequel idiotically called 2 Fast 2 Furious which is god-awful. Seriously, it’s a terrible film. This led the studio to re-focus, and the third entry was Tokyo Drift, a thematically similar but mostly unrelated film centring on a new bunch of characters, with only a small cameo from one of the series bigger stars.
Now let’s look at the DCEU; Man of Steel is (in my opinion anyway) an alright movie, it’s got plenty that I like but then falls apart in its final act. Batman v Superman is considerably worse, though I wouldn’t say its quite 2 Fast 2 Furious level bad, but it also caused the studio to re-focus the series. And they’ve just released Suicide Squad, which centres on a new bunch of characters with only a small cameo from one of the series main stars (Batman).
So you could call these tenuous connections, and obviously DC’s working on a much larger scale now that F&F was then, but there are definite similarities in where they are. Tokyo Drift has a dedicated fan base whose tastes don’t quite align with many of the series’ main fans, and I can easily see a similar fate befalling Suicide Squad in the future. There are even some people who’ll go to bat for 2 Fast 2 Furious, as there are for BvS. It’s no longer the punchline it once was, and if what follows improves as much as F&F did, neither will BvS be.
Now let’s look at what Fast & Furious did next; it looked at what people liked about Tokyo Drift, specifically say, the character of Sung Kang’s Han, and brought him, and the original stars people liked first time around, for an attempt to re-energise the series. The resultant Fast & Furious actually isn’t that good of a film either, though it has its fans, but it ultimately served as something of a dry run for Fast Five, the film that changed the franchise forever, and the first to become a critically lauded, global smash.
My point here is, The Fast & Furious franchise learned from its past films. It took what worked, and what didn’t quite, strove to do something better with them and succeeded. It also did not forget about or ret-con its weaker elements. Although it’s now quite different to how it began, the world of Fast & Furious still encompasses everything that’s appeared in all the previous movies, and is weirdly, all the better for it. It’s been pointed out that Fast & Furious now inadvertently possesses a kind of cinematic universe in the manner many studios are now seeking.
The series has even managed to improve specific characters. I remember finding Tyrese Gibson’s Roman tremendously annoying upon his first appearance, yet now he’s a crucial member of the team. Similarly, Paul Walker was bland as anything in his first couple of appearances yet was so beloved, both as a character and an actor by Furious 7 that his exit from the series (tragically necessitated by his real-life death 18 months prior) is an absolute tear-jerker of a scene. The series found a way to both keep people around, and find new and improved things for them to do.
Now let’s look at Batman v Superman. Now I don’t think Henry Cavill is especially bad in the film, but his character does not get the best run. The film shows little to no affection for Superman, mistreating him throughout, then (SPOILERS) killing him off by the end. I believe there could still be a great Superman story in the DCEU. It’s going to be harder now than it would have been when they were making Man of Steel but they could find a way if they look at what works about the character, and how to best utilise him in their universe. We know he’s not going to stay dead anyway.
Similarly, the way Han, the popular character of Tokyo Drift became a major player in the series may well be mimicked by Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, the likely breakout star of Suicide Squad, who looks to already be having her own movie in the works. The more people got to see of Han, the more they liked him. Even people who don’t like Suicide Squad seem to agree on Robbie, so let’s give her more to do.
Another thing the Fast & Furious movies appear to do more than any other series though, is listen to their fans. Dwayne Johnson, who’s undoubtedly been a key to their success, was only in the series in the first place because some of Vin Diesel’s fans told him they wanted him in it. Now, the series continues to add awesome actor after awesome actor with each new instalment; Helen freaking Mirren is starring in Fast 8! And why? Because she said she wanted to, people loved the idea, and the producers (of which Diesel is one) listened.
(For the record, I’m not saying that producers should be letting fans write their movies for them, just that it can have a positive effect to listen to some of their ideas for big studio products like this).
And now let’s look at what DC is doing; the opening of Batman v Superman (one of its better aspects) is a direct response to criticism Man of Steel received over its mega-destructive finale. They don’t manage to solve all the problems of course, but Batman v Superman was at least much, much lighter on the civilian death toll. More recently however, DC did something rather unprecedented.
About a month ago DC invited a number of film bloggers and journalists to visit the set of Justice League, due out next year. Critic set visits are nothing new but this one was different. This time the critics were not placed under any embargo to not release information about what they saw until the time of release, they were encouraged to publish their reports right away. Not only that, they specifically invited some writers who’ve been heavily critical of them. You can call it damage control if you like but it sends a message that they do care what the fans (and most critics are fans!) want to see in their movies. They want constructive criticism, and to seek to improve. Again, I’m not saying artists should alter their art based on critics’ opinions, but in the case of massive studio blockbusters, and in the state the DCEU is currently in, this looks like a positive step. Fan interaction has worked wonders for Fast & Furious, maybe it can for the DCEU too?
The other famed reason why Fast & Furious is both so popular and successful, is that unlike almost every other big movie franchise out there, it has been committed to more diverse representation, both on screen and off. This is undoubtedly a key reason for the series importance, and I’ve already seen numerous think pieces about this very thing. It may well be the series’ defining legacy and keave a lasting impact on the industry. Now, this is somewhere that Marvel, if I must bring them in again, has come in for some heavy criticism. Marvel has featured no female or non-white directors or lead actors. There have been numerous questions as to why Black Widow hasn’t had a solo movie for instance, which they usually dodge.
Although Marvel are making some steps in this direction now, this is somewhere DC has a real chance to get ahead and make superhero movies that will look much less like they’re attempting to follow Marvel. It looks like Marvel are going to be 21 movies in by the time they get around to their first female lead, whereas DC are going to get there with film number 4, the already in-the-can Wonder Woman, starring Fast & Furious alum Gal Gadot in the lead, one of several cross-over cast and crew members. On top of this, Wonder Woman is directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins, who was in fact hired, then fired by Marvel once), possibly the highest budget movie to be so. Further still, DC have Aquaman lined up, which will star Jason Mamoa and be directed by Furious 7’s James Wan, and they’ve also hired Dope director Rick Famuyiwa to direct The Flash. Then they’ve lined up a Cyborg film to star Ray Fisher, and have signed none other than Dwayne Johnson himself for their upcoming Shazam! movie. Both in front of and behind the camera, DC seems more interested in hiring a more diverse group of people in its most important roles. Let’s see how it’ll pay off for them.
The Fast and the Furious shows that you can turn a franchise around, and become both beloved and phenomenally successful in the process. It didn’t have the best of starts, and neither has DC. Now I know, while the F&F movies have now reached ridiculous levels of action that wouldn’t be out of place in a superhero movie, they’re not completely comparable franchises as the DCEU will have more single-character focused films than F&F ever will. This is me trying again to see some optimism in the future for DC movies. I hope, DC can make Batman v Superman their 2 Fast 2 Furious, people will forgive them if they do. In fact, I hope they can even learn from F&F’s ‘dry-run’ experience on film 4 and make Wonder Woman their Fast Five. It could happen. Then, they might well find their currently stumbling reputation rehabilitated by the time Justice League comes around, and a film later be embraced as a world-dominating, beloved franchise. We know you’re going to push on DC, but your current plan hasn’t really worked. Let’s look at how to turn this ship around for the betterment of everyone, Fast & Furious proves that it can, and has been done.