On Wednesday, DC Comics, by way of its parent company and Hollywood surrogate Warner Bros. (and in turn timed to an earnings announcement by Warner Bros.’ parent and Wall Street surrogate Time Warner) announced that it would make no fewer than nine new movies featuring DC characters in the coming years. All of them will be released sometime between the spring of 2016—after the in-production “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” hits theaters—and June 2020.
There are as many caveats to the announcement as there are superhero identities, not least because the announcement was aimed in part at Wall Street investors, who appreciate the phrase “branded superhero entertainment” nearly as much as they do “opening bell” or, if you're feeling snarky, “bonus check.”
Like many far-off statements made to appeal to investors, these plans are amorphous and highly nonbinding; if, say, “Batman v. Superman” doesn’t work and the studio wants to change direction sometime in 2016 or 2017, no one will hold them to an announcement made three summers before. (If anything, they’ll encourage the course-correction.)
Still, the announcement is significant, and not just because it reflects once again Hollywood’s run-it-until-it-don’t-run-no-more strategy—or, for that matter, how it signals Warner Bros.' hopes to go toe-to-toe with Disney-owned Marvel Studios. (If you’re keeping score, Marvel plans a total of 11 movies between now and 2019, while DC wants to release 10 between 2016 and 2020. The U.S. and Russia at the height of the Cold War had less of an arms race.)
From a moviegoing standpoint, the trend reflects the idea, increasingly common among studios, that any one movie should be connected to as many other movies as possible, Most of the DC films will contain at least small suggestions of, if not large amounts of overlap with, other DC films -- especially a “Justice League” movie that will include, and promote, many characters from other films.
You can debate whether this is a good or bad thing, but it’s certainly not new. Movie serials in the first part of the 20th century brought people back to theaters week after week with ongoing stories (including superhero tales, of course). Comedies often featuring the same performers in different settings, a la Abbott & Costello and many others, did the same. The saturation can seem off-putting in this world of so many entertainment choices outside a movie theater, but there’s a long tradition of trying to get people to buy new movie tickets because of characters they liked in a previous film.
One thing that is different now, of course, is that all this is done with that profit motive being, well, just a little higher than it used to be. If you’re spending hundreds of millions on assembling characters in one movie, as Warner Bros and Disney-owned Marvel now regularly do, then it makes financial sense to try to keep putting those characters in as many other movies as possible. You don't need the marketing headstart a typical remake provides if the brand names you want to drum into public consciousness werein a movie last spring. And you certainly don't want to walk out there without a net and make a standalone, not if you can help it. That's one reason this trend has seeped from the margins, as it was in those early days, into the multiplex mainstream.
Whether all of this results in better movies, or for that matter is the most moviegoer-friendly use of Hollywood’s ample resources, is an open question. Less ambiguous is that this trend will be here for awhile. Other studios are trying their own versions of this, albeit with fewer well-known properties at their disposal. (Sony, for instance, is trying multiple movies from the world of “Spider-Man," whose rights it controls.) Basically, if you own a character with any currency, you’re trying to populate it in as many movies as possible.
The entertainment industry will of course still generate plenty of interesting one-off movies, particularly (and increasingly) in the fall. And even some of these superhero films will be disconnected from other parts of the comic book universe from which they come. But generally speaking, the idea that a big-budget movie will exist in a world unto itself is about to get a whole lot rarer, as quaint as the notion that one learns about the latest superhero exploits from ink and paper.