Warner Brothers Doesn’t Seem To Have a Clue

Now that 2009 has begun we can look back at 2008 and The Year of the Comic Book Movie and declare it a rousing success. The financial and creative home runs that were The Dark Knight and Iron Man led the way, of course, but even with a few duds along the way for the most part 2008 was a great year for comic book movies. 

The question is, was 2008 a fluke or the beginning of something truly remarkable?

Well, I’ll tell you my friends, don’t look to Warner Brothers to lead the way.

With The Dark Knight, Warner Brothers not only has the highest grossing super hero movie of all time, but the second highest grossing film of all time (before adjusting for inflation, after which it falls to 27th place). And if that wasn’t enough, The Dark Knight stands a very good chance of being the first superhero movie to be nominated for and win non-technical Academy Awards. This is a pretty major seismic shift. You would think that after all of this success, Time Warner – the owners of DC Comics – would mine the rich vein of superhero properties at their disposal and make Warner Brothers the go-to company for quality super hero films.

You would think. But you would probably be wrong.

Warner Brothers has a history of moving at a glacial pace with their super hero movies. They are a ginormous company and ginormous companies tend to move slowly, what with all the Vice Presidents and lawyers, and other assorted non-creative types who have to approve everything. A normal person might think that one giant company owning a comic book character, a movie studio, and a television station would mean greater opportunities for corporate synergy that would benefit not only the properties themselves but the fans. On the contrary, it seems to lead to fierce territoriality that gums up the works and slows everything down. Any fan of Smallville can tell you of all the characters that the producers have been told they were not allowed to use because of the objections from the people in the movie division (and movies always outrank television).

I am not trying to make the case that Warner Brothers is that much worse than other movie studios, but because they pretty much have exclusive access to the DC Comics stable of characters and because they have a long history of disastrous comic book films, they are a special case. And yet with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight they somehow managed to release to of the best and most successful comic book films ever made.

And now they seem at a loss for what to do next. How do we know this? Well, writer David S. Goyer went on IESB and said:

A lot of the DC movies at Warner Brothers are all on hold while they figure out… they are going to come up with a new plan, methodology, things like that, so everything has just been pressed pause at the moment.

It would seem that the dual success of The Dark Knight and Iron Man has, instead of emboldening Warner Brothers, paralyzed it.

I only worked in Hollywood for a very short time but I have a keen interest in it and have read a lot about it, and know people who have worked there far longer than I ever did and some who continue to do so. And I know one thing can be true: oftentimes success can almost be as bad as failure. Success must be replicated, again and again. And where do you go from The Dark Knight? The truth is, there’s really no where to go but down (which is one reason why I really don’t want to see a third Nolanverse Batman film). But Hollywood is a business so matching the critical acclaim not as important as matching financial success. I imagine that one of the reasons for the delays that Goyer was talking about was that there are a whole slew of development executives trying to figure out how to make all the superhero films in their slate more like The Dark Knight. I can almost guarantee this is happening.

Fans like to grumble about those damn executive in Hollywood who always wreck the things they love and they are usually completely justified in their bitching. The thing is, though, executive meddling is rarely done out of some malicious intent (although sometimes it is) but usually out of self-preservation. Those executives get paid a lot of money and there is a low tolerance for failure. That’s why there is an aversion to experimentation and to risk taking and why trends are chased and successes copied. If you go out on a limb and fail, well you might have to sell your BMW. It’s much safer to emulate past successes, drive those successes into the ground, and then blame shafting audience tastes for why your movies failed. It’s safer to try to make all of your comic book films like the big, successful one than it is to really look at each property individually and ascertain how to best serve the story and the characters.

Take the story of Shazam!. In his blog, writer John August details the rise and fall of the Captain Marvel film he was developing and how the success of The Dark Knight completely changed the project until it was ultimately killed by Warner Brothers. It’s a fascinating story and one I suspect is probably common to most of the DC films that were in development prior to this past July.

If I had to guess I would say that you should get ready for a passel of serious, dark films featuring DC characters in the near future. This will especially be true if Watchmen ever comes out and is a success, which I think is probably a good bet at this point. The dark, serious tone will work for some characters and not for others and they will get writers and directors and actors who are not as talented as those who worked on The Dark Knight and there will be a couple of high profile bombs and then Warner Brothers will put all of their DC films in turnaround and talk about super hero fatigue and the audience having had their fill of capes and tights and we’ll have to wait another few years for those executives to get fired and new ones to come in and try their hand at mining all of the “great, underused” DC Comics properties that Warner Brothers has at their disposal.

But then, I’m a pessimist.

It’s probably because I’m a Batman fan.



  1. So you think instead of a Shazam! movie they will make a Black Adam movie? 

    Cool article Conor.  I used to think that everyone in Hollywood made movies because they loved them.  And that they made comic book movies because someone in corporate really really wanted to do it.  Well this was high school; needless to say I don’t think that way anymore.  Its painfully obvious that you’re correct; Hollywood sticks to what works and keeps doing it until it fails.  I want to be really pissed of at that, and part of me is, but they are a business.  And as a business they have to make money.  That includes playing it safe.  I doubt that will ever change.  But hey, if every few years we get a gem like The Dark Knight, Iron Man, X-2, etc.  Well, I guess I can live with it.

  2. DC/Warner Brothers’ record up to now, with the exception of Catwoman, i guess, has been way better than Marvel’s.  The Batman films of this decade were both strong, and I thought Superman Returns was excellent.  Fanboys seem to hate it now, and I don’t really get why, unless you are looking at it solely in "franchise" terms, which may be an ok way to think about comics (though i’m more interested in good, provocative storytelling than unblemished future continuity) but doesn’t work for film.  So i guess i share your qualms about serialization and demands for repitition.  It was certainly way, way better than Smallville.

    That said, I think Watchmen is going to be a complete and utter disaster of Catwoman proportions, except worse, because this is one of the most important and best works of sequential art ever being adapted by a slick corporate director into a slick corporate superhero film against the wishes of the man who wrote and concieved it, who knows what he’s talking about when he says the book is inherently unfilmable.  There is simply no reason to make a Watchmen film other than as a cycnical cash in on the superhero movie boom.  The point of Watchmen wasn’t that it was dark and gritty, it’s that it was a complex, metatextual comment on the superhero comic as a politicized form of popular culture.  I haven’t seen any recognition of that in the press that’s come out about the film and i don’t expect to see it in the film itself.  The Dark Knight worked because it wasn’t grim and gritty for the sake of affect – see Deathblow, Youngbloodstryke, etc – but because it asked some probing questions about crime, the hero figure, warantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, etc etc.  (And Maggie Gyllenhaal was way better than Katie Holmes.)  I share your concerns with where things are heading.  

  3. Too bad those executives can’t recognize the lack of financial value attempting to re-create your successes actually has in the long run.

  4. I don’t know Biftec, from what I read about Zach Snyder, "Watchmen" seems to be more of a passion project for the guy rather than a slick piece of corporate product. Now, it may turn out that way, but the vibe I get right now is that if there are any problems with the film is that it may go in the exact opposite direction from slick corporate product to a film way too reverential to the source novel & arrive DOA. Right now, any adaptation of Alan Moore’s work is against his wishes (can’t say I blame him).

    You are dead on right about "The Dark Knight" (& the wrong-headed, unnecessary darkness where a lot of these adaptations may be headed). The movies are 20 years behind comics in that respect & both movements were fueled by a new look Batman & "Watchmen". 

  5. And something just occurred to me. Isn’t there two types of movies for executives to try and copy now? The Iron Man style and the Dark Knight style? Both were successes. Could this be part of the reason for their paralysis? "Oh my god! People like more than one kind of movie!? What do we do?!"

  6. @JumpingJupiter

    I think that your comment rings true. Recall the episode of The Simpsons in which children were used as a focus group to improve Itchy and Scratchy. I paraphrase:

    How many of you kids want to see Itchy & Scratchy in real world situations like yours?

    "Me! Me!"

    And how many of you kids want to see Itchy & Scratchy in far out situations like space?

    "Me! Me!"

    So you want to see Itchy & Scratchy in real world, far out situations…etc.

    This is today’s focus group experiment called Hollywood.


  7. Warner Brothers are just fools for not only getting the Watchmen rights taken away from them; but also halting other DC comic related films to a halt.

    Why the hell would you stop making comic book films? They are ‘hot’ right now and stuff like Watchmen will just make even more studios try and get their hand on the prize. If the WB could constantly released DC related property year after year; they could be one of the most popular film studios right now.

    Why they have their head up their asses is anyone’s guess. Maybe they are going bankrupt and yet to tell anyone.

  8. Warners has basically ignored Iron Man in favor of The Dark Knight as the model for their movies.  They think dark = good instead of "the right top-notch director for the project = good."  This second formula works for both Iron Man and the Dark Knight, and the first two X-Men movies and 2/3 of the Spider-man movies, so it has a good track record.

    As to Warners totally screwing up their perfect set up for corporate synergies, it has to do with the way the movie division is set up.  The movie division isn’t as corporate as the others and is more like a loose collection of city-states.  Because of this, there is infighting, bickering and no sharing within the family.  Bruce Wayne can’t show up in Smallville, Clark Kent, Lois Lane, or even Perry White can’t appear in a Nolanverse Batman movie, not even as a cameo.  The various personas and producers that live under the film division’s banner aren’t really team players.

  9. The triple hyperlink at the end killed me.

    Great piece Conor.  I think the studios need to realize that certain tones fit certain characters, and that’s what makes them great.  Having a "grim and gritty" plastic man would be awful (although… that could be really funny in it’s own way)

  10. That one dude gots a point, Superman Returns is WAY BETTER then Smallville, but that’s not saying too much.

  11. The more I hear about the way movie studios approach properties like these, I’m almost relieved by how rarely they’re able to get it together. The behavior we’re bemoaning here, keep in mind, prevented Nicolas Cage’s Superman, Nicolas Cage’s Iron Man, and probably Nicolas Cage’s Power Man.

  12. @JumpingJupiter: That’s exactly the point that John August made in his blog that I linked to (if you haven’t read it, you should, it’s really interesting), that the executives at Warners are focused on emulating THE DARK KNIGHT and seem to be forgetting about IRON MAN.

  13. Good and profitable are not interchangeable, unfortunately, and a studio will very rarely produce a film that’s really good, but loses them money.  Not on purpose anyway.

  14. @Jimski-Yet they were able to sneek Nicolas Cage’s Ghost Rider.  The bastards!

  15. I followed the bouncing ball and almost stroked out when I hit that triple link! Careful Conor you might lose readers doing that kind of stuff! Ha!

  16. Studios are obviously more likely to take a risk on an low-budget movie rather than a big-budget super hero movie, movie studios are a business, they have stockholders to answer to.  I think as comic fans we feel a certain entitlement to our characters because we feel that we know them better than the general public.  What made Iron Man so great over was that it held true to the character’s essence. 

     I do think that we’re missing out on a DC’s inability to capitalize on their success, but how much of this is because its the part of  an enormous media conglomorate that appears to be floundering at every chance it gets (Time a print magazine-who reads news magazines any more?, AOL – Does anybody pay for their 100 hours per month of internet any more?, and Warner Bros).  Large bodies take time to set in motion.  Another reason for their inability to strike while the iron is hot could be because of the kilmer/clooney era of the Batman.

     PS Warner has totally missed the bus with introducing a young Bruce Wayne to Smallville (sub in Oliver North), something that might actually capitalize on the success of Batman Returns or The Dark Knight.  /End Rant

  17. @ato220: I have a subscription to TIME.

  18. Oliver North????

  19. What are the chances that a DC sub-studio could be spun off from the parent, kind of like an indy brand?  Of course, Warner closed their indy brand, thus orphaning Slumdog Millionaire- what a smart decision that was in hindsight…

    But seriously, and I realize this goes against all corporate thinking, wouldn’t this make sense?  You put all DC-branded multimedia material under this roof (DVD’s, films, TV) and have everyone work with everyone else for true synergy.  But again, that makes sense…

    And by ignoring Iron Man, they lose sight of the fact that more of their characters would work in that kind of movie than not (Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Flash come to mind).   Come on, Ollie Queen a la Tony Stark?  Does no one over there think it would work?  Not a rip off, but a similar tone.  I’d much rather see that than the Supermax concept they were floating before as a Green Arrow vehicle.  I just can’t think of a good blonde-haired actor that could match Robert Downey Jr. (or one that could be made blonde and pull it off).

  20. I thought the "Green Arrow Year One" mini was very similar in tone to the "Iron Man" movie — straight up action/adventure with some society intrigue. 

  21. BC1:

    How about ROBERT DOWNEY JR. plays Oliver Queen.  

  22. Green Arrow isn’t supposed to be grim n gritty, I mean it can be, but there should be an element of humour running through it


  23. i just want watchmen thats all…

  24. Ollie’s a pinko luddite archer robin hood figure.  Tony Stark’s a libertine corporate robber baron alcoholic cap-killer.  Other than that, they TOTALLY the same.

    Although after Iron Man I think Downey could probably make me watch a freaking Youngblood movie if he were in it.

    Well, maybe not.

  25. @greendart32: Not necessarily.  Mike Grell’s classic run on GREEN ARROW was very, very grim and very, very gritty.

  26. because you guys are talking about movies and green arrow, does any one know if Green Arrow: Escape From Super Max is still in production? or have they trashed the idea for that movie yet?

  27. I think Josh nailed it when he mentioned quality vs. profit.  A movie is an ENORMOUS investment with a relatively high risk level (box office revenues are very hard to predict), so they need a relatively large expected return to offset that risk.  However, The sequel formula greatly reduces that risk level, so more movies should be getting green lit.  You know another batman movie would make money.  Just like another Harry Potter or another Twilight (I have neither seen nor read either series, but I know they are both very profitable.)  I don’t understand how Warner Bros. could be slow even if they wanted to.  They literally have a GIANT pile of pre-written/pre-storyboarded movies waiting to be made. 

    I think if Warner Bros. would make a film based on the recent Green Lantern: Secret Origin arc, they could get a solid actor for Hal Jordan and put out a movie with Iron Man level success.  The stories share a number of themes (military, man coming to grips with his life, a "buddy" [Sinestro], etc.)

    Y: The Last Man, Fables (if done right), the new John’s Flash (you know that shit is going to be good), All Star Superman (how incredible would it be to see Lex shooting green laser beams out of his eyes), etc.

    The comic writers have done most of the work.  JUST FILM THAT SHIT.

  28. @ Connor: I’m not saying that TIME in its print format is dead, I’m saying that it is dying.  I’m sure the subscription numbers aren’t even remotely the same as they were 20 years ago.  I think that new media is clearly outpacing old print medium.  There MAY always be a need for print media to exist, but while I may not travel the most well heeled social I cannot think of anybody mentioning TIME with the exception of their man of the year list.  The point I was trying to make is this: AOL TIME Warner represents an entire media conglomorate whose decision making can seem  slow and cumbersome to say the least.  It is in my humble opinion that they are not capable of making the quick reactionary decision making needed to spread tie-ins etc. across brands and divisions.  I apologize if my rationale before was laid out as clearly as I would have liked.

    @ohcaroline: A Freudian slip to say the least.

  29. I agree with stuclach, and believe Zach Snyder was succesful with 300 and potentially Watchmen because he seems to JUST FILM THAT SHIT.

  30. @ato220: I understood your meaning, you just asked who even reads news magazines anymore as if no one around here could possibly be reading them.  As someone who does I felt the need to identify myself.

  31. @stuclach: Fables is headed to ABC, either this season or next- at least that was the plan.  I’ve not read it, so I don’t know if that’s the best format, but it is being done.

    And you’d think that they could turn around a movie based on a book in no time, but as Connor pointed out, working the concept through all the corporate hoops takes a long time.  Who knows what ideas have even been started.  Is Marvel able to move ideas faster because they have their own film imprint now, or did they have a bunch of starts before Iron Man and just had to wait and see if they’d be viable? 

    Also, over on Newsarama, Marc Guggenheim did an interview and claims that he’s been told nothing about putting a halt to his Green Lantern picture.  Huh.

  32. I find if funny that DC/WB is frozen solid while Marvel is preparing several awsome movies for the next few years by their own studio

  33. @TonyStark4prez: It’s not so much funny as it shows the upside to being your own boss.  The downside is, if any of those movies fail big time Marvel will take the hit directly. 

  34. Re:  Adjusting box office receipts for inflation.

    What do you think about adjusting today’s box office for inflation?  Sure, more people went to the movies back in the day, but when you consider the competition from television and DVD and videogames, I think it all pretty much evens out.  Back when The Empire Strikes Back came out the only other things competing for a person’s attention was the big 3 networks, Atari  2600, and screwing. 

  35. @horation: If you want a true understanding of how popular a film was in theaters you HAVE to adjust for inflation.  Especially since all of these top-grossing lists span all eras.  Without adjusting for inflation, the lists are meaningless.

  36. To me it’s like comparing Emmitt Smith and Jim Brown. Different factors at work. All that matters to me is that someday Titanic gets knocked off the top spot. In my dreams that film would be Serenity II.

  37. @horatio: Eh, you can’t compare sports performance to film performance.  Films generate a very quantifiable number that can be compared to measure one film against another.  It’s very cut and dry.

    And when you adjust for inflation, TITANIC (which, honestly, is not a bad movie) gets knocked off its perch.

  38. Sports is all about numbers.  Atheletes from different eras are compared all the time.  Stats (or numbers) don’t begin to tell the whole story, though.  I just think if you’re going to adjust for one factor other factors should be taken into account.   

    Titanic is actually pretty good.  I still can’t believe that there wasn’t enough room for both of them on that door though.

  39. The thing is, though, stats have different value in different eras of sport so it’s not really possible to make a straight-up comparison.  But money is money. 

  40. Bingo.  Money is money, and people in the seats are people in the seats.

  41. Art is art, and water is water.

  42. I’ve always found it amusing that box office receipts are almost never adjusted for inflation when they report new records.  What would be really interesting is to compare the receipts to population inflation, then we could really tell how well a movie has done. 

    A question for those who were reading comics much longer than I:  When the Keaton/ Nicholson Batman was released, did DC come up with a book tie-in?  I can only remember them printing a billion t-shirts with the bat logo and other promotional items (action figures, toys, the half-way decent NES Game). 

  43. This is totally what Nate Silver and the guys at 538 dot com should be doing now that the election is over.

  44. If the Marvel movies fail, you can very well see the company in bankruptcy again. The company’s shelling out a lot of cash – however it came up with the capital – for these flicks, and if Thor or Captain America sucks, Marvel could be in big trouble financially.

    I’d rather have another "Dark Knight" in terms of quality than another "Superman Returns" (I have a ton of problems with this flick when it should have been an amazing movie). I’d rather they shelve everything until they get a decent idea and script than just throwing up junk to make money.

    "Titanic" sucked – trite story wrapped around so-so effects. Winslet boobies, though, so that’s a plus.


  45. DC did not do anything major with the Keaton Batman movie other than a movie adaptation.  That was one of the criticisms that came up from comic book fans and continues to come up, and something that Marvel took to heart (finally) starting with Spider-Man (the movie released around the time of the first FCBD and their book was a Spidey book.  In fact, I think FCBD was in part a way to play into Spider Man or one of the movies).

  46. I’m really hoping they make a good Green Lantern movie. All they need to do is make it a mixture of Ironman/Training Day/Star Trek and you got yourself a good starting point for a GL franchise. but with this new direction who knows. 

  47. It’s pretty interesting to see the out come of one of the better summers for superhero movies.  Who knows what will happen?  It’s almost a shame that some truly great projects may get changed/canned because of the success, but hopefully, we’ll see some fine products from WB. 

    On a personal note, I think all movie money should be siphoned into horatio’s proposed Serenity II.  I’m so there.

  48. I can’t wait for the "dark" version of the JSA. Should be great.

  49. Since Obama is doing such a great job at appointing his cabinet and what not, can he just appoint someone better to head all of the DC movies at Warner Bros., or does that cross the line of a free market economy?

  50. I really dont mind that DC is reevuating the new films as i would rather wait for a quality film instead of them rushing to put out a bomb. Also, a while back when they mentinoed this they said that they would go dark to the extent of the characters. To be honest I actually dont want a Green Lantern film to be just a fun film like Iron Man and would probably benefit from being a little darker(just look at how dark the current comics are) BUT "dark" and "superman" should never be in the same sentence.

  51. @Ben It isn’t a free market economy anymore since free market can get 700 billion dollars if they screw up, and if Bush could do what he did, so can Obama.