On June 14th Zack Snyder‘s darker, moodier Superman takes to the skies. And by June 14th, we will know whether Warner Bros/DC’s $225 million reboot is made out of steel or Styrofoam. But whether Henry Cavill blasts his way through the clouds and beyond Earth’s stratosphere, or conversely, comes crashing back down in a crumpled, wounded heap, few can deny how much is riding on Man Of Steel. Not in the sense that the reputed $225 million budget is small. It isn’t. Or in the sense that DC wouldn’t at least like a trilogy out of Steel. They would. But mainly, above all else, it is in the sense that Man Of Steel might well be the pivot point that the entire Justice League movie rests upon.
2012 arguably didn’t quite work out as planned for DC. The Dark Knight rose, but The Dark Knight Rises fell some way short of Avengers Assemble‘s mammoth $1.5 billion worldwide take. You can almost picture the fallout. DC gazing vacantly out onto the skyline; eyes lost in a red mist of fury. Desperate to avenge their beloved Batman franchise. But just as the silence appears to have settled in, Red Mist’s (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) enduring final line of Kick-Ass shatters the wordless drama: “As a great man once said…wait until they get a load of me”.
It is at this point in the narrative where we find DC now. Watching their bitter rival Disney/Marvel and their Avengers Assemble crush their chief intellectual property will not have sat well with the Manhattan-based company. But much like Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) during the opening scenes of Rises, a superhero rarely stays broken for long. And now DC must find strength from within for vengeance.
The problems facing a potential Justice League movie, however, are unfortunately numerous. Whatever you might think about Avengers Assemble‘s preamble, there is little doubting that Marvel were canny; and the ‘seeding process’ for The Avengers brand, incredibly sophisticated. Over the course of five years, Marvel laid foundations – releasing films for each of their heroes in a shared “storyworld” (to quote Marvel’s Kevin Feige), allowing for seamless integration into a continued, synergistic assemble. It was a long-protracted PR exercise, but one that ultimately paid dividends. When combined with the carefully mediated drip-feed of physical merch and digital apps, the brand awareness for The Avengers peaked just in time for Marvel’s juggernaut to leave Earth-rattling shockwaves upon impact.
DC, meanwhile, find themselves slightly between a rock and a hard place. Or at least between a large slab of Kryptonite and Arkham Asylum. Justice League has already faltered once. In 2008 George Miller was onboard to direct the $300 million Justice League: Mortal, with Armie Hammer set to star as Batman. But Mortal proved all too mortal, and fell on its own sword. This time, DC will be keen to avoid history repeating itself.
Ironically, one major concern hanging over Justice League like a dark night, is Christopher Nolan‘s hermetically-sealed Batman trilogy. Marvel may have built their “storyworld” from the ground-up to allow for cross-fertilisation, but Nolan’s trilogy was never built with such provisions in mind. And this leaves enough roadblocks and potential continuity issues to “[fry] your brain like an egg” (to quote Jeff Daniels in Looper).
In opposition to the garish, neon overload of Joel Schumacher‘s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, Nolan swept the streets of Gotham – purging it of excess. Batman Begins started anew. Gotham might have become darker, meaner and more malevolent, but Nolan steeped his dissonant cityscape in a tangible realism. From Lucius Fox’s (Morgan Freeman) quasi-military Bat-Suit and tank-like Tumbler, to the physical damage and deterioration of Wayne himself – this was a superhero narrative run through a reality filter.
But with a possible Justice League character roster of Superman, Green Lantern, Lobo, The Flash, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, The Dark Knight Trilogy‘s heightened realism starts to look problematic. Other than Batman, these heroes and heroines are either alien, or humans with supernatural powers/abilities. Something that would shatter virtually all continuity with Nolan’s world. Casting raises further problems. With Nolan no longer at the helm, and Bale seemingly unwilling to return as Batman, DC would find themselves in the position of having to recast arguably their most important hero.
Such difficulties could encourage DC to look to reboot Batman sooner rather than later. While there was an audible hubbub when Marvel decided to reboot Spider-Man scarcely five years after Spider-Man 3, a new Batman more in-line with Arkham Asylum, Arkham City and forthcoming Arkham Origins videogames has already been mooted. Such a large-scale reboot could drain considerable time and resources, however. Leaving Justice League’s already tentative 2015 release date looking decidedly optimistic.
Man Of Steel arrives, then, with the weight of the world already on its shoulders. Or at least the weight of DC’s world. With The Dark Knight Trilogy sealed-off and Green Lantern having already failed to light up multiplexes, Superman needs to be more super than ever. If Man Of Steel can provide Justice League with the super-strong steel infrastructure DC craves, Justice League could still defy the odds and prosper. If it doesn’t, DC’s superhero assemble could start to look like the Don Quixote of superhero projects.