How Warner Is Rebranding 'Batman Vs. Superman'

Feb 1 2014, 3:42pm CST | by

How Warner Is Rebranding 'Batman Vs. Superman'

With Friday’s announcement by Warner Bros. that Jesse Eisenberg will play Lex Luthor in the upcoming sequel to 2013′s Superman reboot blockbuster Man of Steel, with Jeremy Irons announced as Batman’s faithful butler Alfred, the Internet was abuzz with fan and media reaction. However, mostly overlooked in the studio’s official statement were a few interesting details that speak volumes about how the superhero sequel is evolving and what it could mean for the future of DC comic book adaptations in the future.

Warner’s statement quotes director Zack Snyder at length, and refers to the movie as “Snyder’s film.” It notes Henry Cavill reprises his role as Superman; Ben Affleck stars as Batman (so you can ignore online rumors about Affleck departing); Gal Gadot will be the first big-screen Wonder Woman; and Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne and Diane Lane will return in their supporting roles from Man of Steel. But then things get more interesting.

The official announcement includes this paragraph (italics added for emphasis):

The new film is currently being written by Chris Terrio, from a screenplay by David S. Goyer. Charles Roven and Deborah Snyder are producing, with Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Wesley Coller, David S. Goyer and Geoff Johns serving as executive producers.

It’s surprising that there’s been no significant reaction to these statements. First of all, notice that the names Christopher Nolan and Emma Thomas are absent from the list of executive producers. Second, screenwriter David Goyer’s name appears twice, the first time being at the end of a sentence referring to the project as “the new film” that is “being written by Chris Terrio.” Goyer’s name is also listed among the executive producers of the project.

Leaving off the names of Nolan and Thomas (who produced the last two Batman film and Man of Steel, and had previously been named as executive producers on the super-sequel) wasn’t just a casual omission — they could be staying on as executive producers and their names might appear on future press releases, but even if they’re going to be aboard down the line the decision was clearly made to keep their names off yesterday’s announcement. I’m sure Nolan is ready to end his direct involvement with superhero films and has plenty of other projects to pursue that interest him. And I’ve no doubt they felt their names would naturally pull some spotlight away from other folks working hands-on with the film. But the studio would’ve frankly requested they keep their names attached for appearances anyway, if the studio’s plans didn’t involve explicitly leaving their names out of things at this juncture.

What we have here is a stark contrast from the way Man of Steel was promoted and talked about. That film was presented with Goyer’s and Nolan’s names prominent throughout the creation of the project and the marketing. There was a tendency of people to refer to it — rightly or wrongly — as being “Nolan’s Superman” because of the production’s attempts to link it to the Dark Knight trilogy’s pedigree, which of course was a smart move in light of that series’ phenomenal success to the tune of about $2.5 billion box office worldwide and another half-billion or more in DVD/Blu-ray sales and rentals. The feel of the movie, it’s tone, and it’s attempts at illusionary realism reflected a lot of the sensibilities of Nolan’s Batman films. And of course, Goyer’s involvement in the Batman movies — as writer of Batman Begins and one of the story writers for the two sequels — is why there is so much similarity in the approaches between those films and the Superman reboot.

It’s no secret that Man of Steel‘s box office numbers, while strong and among the year’s highest grossing films (it was number five on domestic charts for 2013, and in ninth place worldwide), ended up being lower than Warner had hoped it might soar. When adjusted for inflation and accounting for 3D ticket pricing, it didn’t open that much higher than 2006′s Superman Returns and finished with a total increase over that previous film’s global receipts of only in the neighborhood of 35% or a bit higher.

One thing these numbers demonstrate is that Superman Returns actually performed better than people seem to remember or even realized at the time, especially since it had a much harder prior cinematic history to overcome for the character. But it’s hard to deny that, with the superhero genre so much stronger today than it was seven years ago and with the names Nolan and Goyer attacked to remind audiences of the creative links to the Dark Knight series, there was an obvious expectation that Man of Steel would put up higher numbers more in the $700+ million range.

The best symbol of the whole situation can perhaps be found in the fact Marvel‘s superhero sequel featuring Thor — with a November release date — will have nearly matched Superman’s summer numbers at the box office in 2013. If two years prior you’d asked whether that would be possible, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t have laughed at the suggestion, even in light of the perception Superman Returns had underperformed. If on top of that you’d asked the question while noting Thor’s film would compete against a Superman movie that had the names “Nolan” and “Goyer” attached to it and that would release in the summer while Thor got a November release, what do you imagine the reaction would’ve been?

I have to note again that in truth, $668 million for Superman is a healthy and respectable total, and should be plenty to give the studio confidence and make them eager to greenlight a sequel. Yet, I also have to note that I understand why any previous plans to perhaps give Superman a second outing on his own might’ve been scrapped in favor of making a few changes to try and help boost the next film’s box office performance in light of the remarkable success Marvel is enjoying and the fact that Warner is trying to build the beginnings of their own broader unified superhero universe. A second solo Superman movie might indeed put up numbers more in the $700-800 million range, but meanwhile Marvel will have enjoyed another Captain America film likely to perform at least close to the same range as Thor: The Dark World, a Guardians of the Galaxy movie that I suspect is going to shock everyone with how well it performs, and an Avengers sequel that should top the previous Marvel team-up’s staggering $1.5 billion total. How will it look it it’s taking Superman two films to hit $800 million while Marvel’s repeatedly topping $1 billion and matching Superman with far less well-known characters?

The point is this:  While many people, me included, reacted with some concern about Warner’s choice to put Batman into the next film instead of letting Superman have another solo adventure, and while I still technically wish they’d roll out rebooted solo Batman and solo Wonder Woman franchises before trying to do team-ups, I cannot deny that the above evidence doesn’t make a very strong case for Warner’s choice of how to get their DC characters onto the screen and into a unified world sooner. Because whatever else anyone might think of it, there should be no mistake about how much this Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman team-up film is going to make at the box office, especially by opening the summer box office season and having no huge Marvel film to compete against for the superhero-loving audiences.

But getting to that likely blockbuster status, while much easier now that it’s a team effort, requires making some moves in the branding of the DC superhero universe on the big screen. So Warner Bros. is obviously making a bold choice to begin the rebranding by focusing attention on a different set of names this time around.

Zack Snyder, who did a tremendous job on Man of Steel, wasn’t really involved in the story process and decisions for the script from the start on the first film. The tone and approach were already decided before he sat in the director’s chair, and Warner was surely not going to give him the freedom to rework or rewrite a story and script from the creative team coming off the Dark Knight trilogy’s success. That’s no slight on Snyder, it’s just a simple recognition of the reality of the situation at that time. Warner has continued to show confidence in Snyder and kept backing his projects (including risky ones) despite the fact he hadn’t had a really solid box office success since 300. After several movies that performed weakly — Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (all good films) — the studio still gave him the job directing the big-budget reboot of Superman on which all of their future superhero adaption plans seemed to hinge. They probably felt (as I do) that his lack of box office success in recent years didn’t reflect his actual talent and potential.

It seems Warner recognizes the slight underperformance of Man of Steel can’t be blamed on Snyder, who probably elevated the material and helped it perform better. The problems were structural and in the approach, and I think this became even more clear to them after Ben Affleck came aboard the project. Affleck was clearly impressed with the general road map for how to proceed and with Snyder’s plans, but there are signs — and much buzz from some sources — suggesting Affleck was concerned about some of the particulars of how the sequel was taking shape. The clearest sign was the arrival of screenwriter Chris Terrio on the scene, originally said to be coming in to do some rewrites and a polish but now officially named as the main writer on the project.

Terrio’s and Affleck’s working relationship from Argo no doubt played a big role in the selection of the writer to step in and take over scripting the film. And Affleck’s own work as a filmmaker means he’s bringing a lot of creative input to the proceedings — but this is still Snyder’s film, as the press release pointedly says. So we have the names Snyder, Terrio, and Affleck now front and center in the public presentation of this project, after the prior film’s focus on Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder.

It appears Goyer could be moving into a producing role where he is more involved in helping create broader plans for approaching the DC universe on film, while finding projects and creative talents to bring together for the future plans. If Goyer is indeed going to focus more on being part of a team overseeing the development of projects, that means we’ll probably see other writers joining the Warner Bros. efforts to develop more DC superhero adaptations. That’s a good thing, since for four films now over the course of eight years, most all of the writing on the main DC adaptations has been done by the same few of people (Goyer, Nolan, and Jonathan Nolan). It’s no offense to them, they did a great job obviously, but I think the projects will benefit from getting more different creative perspectives, ideas, and styles into the mix as this superhero universe grows.

While I don’t expect Affleck to become “godfather” for DC projects or think he’ll take on a continuous role shepherding the DC universe, I do believe he is already taking an active role in the creative side and will continue to do so in the future. He’s an Oscar-winning screenwriter and producer, award-nominated director and actor, and there’s no doubt that the more input he has in these films the better they will be. That’s of course why Warner sought Affleck out to direct their previous attempt at bringing Justice League to the screen, and why they came back to him to convince him to participate in this newest superhero endeavor.

Chris Terrio won the Oscar for his script for Argo, and that plus the fact Affleck thinks so well of him means we should all be very happy to hear he’s involved in the project. I don’t know if Terrio will be tapped to write future DC movies, but at the moment I strongly suspect he will be — in particular, perhaps Justice League when the time comes for it to move into the story and scripting stages (either on his own, or maybe after Goyer develops a story). If Affleck also makes one or more solo Batman movies, then I’d not be surprised if Affleck works with Terrio on the screenplay for that project. This is speculation, but based on what we’ve heard officially and what I’ve heard behind the scenes, there’s a good chance Terrio will be involved in one or more of those projects when they take shape.

What we have here is a Batman vs. Superman movie written by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, starring an Oscar-winning filmmaker and screenwriter, with a growing cast of other Oscar-nominated and winning performers, from a visionary director. Snyder has had more control from the start, including development of the story and characters (something I’ve advocated since he was first announced as director of Man of Steel). Affleck will bring his enormous filmmaking talents to bear on shaping characters and probably story as well (something I’ve wanted for Batman, since I began endorsing Affleck last year to take over the Batman franchise). And Terrio will use Goyer’s original script as a template on which to write his own screenplay. Warner will want to keep most of the focus on this group on creative talents, to help give the film its own new identity and send the clear message that they’re very serious about doing whatever is necessary for this to project work and to be it as good as it can be.

Even the casting, and Snyder’s remarks about the performers and their roles, contained some hints (for fans familiar with certain key sources) about how much the vision for this film has solidified and will represent some bold choices giving us brand new versions of well-known characters. Is Eisenberg’s Luthor inspired by two particular Superman stories — Birthright and Lex Luthor: Man of Steel? Will Irons’ Alfred take inspiration from the comic Batman: Earth One and the animated Beware the Batman? Those possibilities add to the impression of a production confident enough to take risks with casting and characterization.

With potentially billions of box office dollars on the line here, and with a budget surely in excess of $200 million, Warner looked at what worked and didn’t work with Man of Steel, and decided that some rebranding was in order, including a need to send a message that the future of DC movies wasn’t going to be rooted to the past, and was instead restructuring and moving ahead with a new public image. Friday’s statement sends that message, signaling the “changing of the guard” and getting ahead of previous weeks of rumors and negative stories arising after the announcement that the release date had been pushed back from summer 2015 to summer 2016. If the delay and subsequent silence gave the impression of a troubled production, the newest announcement sent the message loud and clear of a production with a firm sense of direction. The delay no longer suggests problems, but rather competence — regardless of whether in fact things were previously off track or suffering from friction or problems.

We saw the first stages of rebranding with Friday’s announcement. No doubt, we’ll see more in the months to come as production gets underway in Detroit and as the details of future projects take shape.

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Source: Forbes Business

 
 

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