Whenever a big superhero movie comes out nowadays, there's always some level of discussion about the "Marvel formula." How well does the movie work within it? Subvert it? Improve on it?
The merits of the Marvel formula are for another time, but the gist of it is, Marvel Studios looked on the history of superhero films put together by Fox, Sony, and Warner Bros., and successfully found a number of elements that work to make an entertaining and engaging superhero action epic.
The downside (again, largely an argument for another time but go with the premise here) is that most of the Marvel Studios superhero movies (and those that try to ape their successful formula) are pretty similar. Exactly how much that bothers you depends on a number of factors, including how much you enjoy the movies and the degree of stock you put in that argument, but if there's one thing that Marvel -- who have raked in billions in box office receipts while basking in the warm love of most fans and critics -- have had to face down, it's the criticism that the movies are "all the same."
That's where Warner Bros.' DC films come in: they're more or less the opposite of Marvel. They're dark instead of light, stoic rather than funny, and filmmaker driven rather than developed from the top down. Inspired by the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder's 300 adaptation, the DC movies have taken their lumps from critics, divided fans, but generally not been accused of being unoriginal.
These, of course, are all broad generalizations; the degree to which the "filmmaker-first" philosophy at Warner Bros. is actually a reality in execution is up for debate, especially after rumors of massive reshoots on Suicide Squad and...whatever is going on at this point...with The Batman. But the idea itself is that Warner wants to give filmmakers more freedom, work with a real-world aesthetic, and eschew many of the superhero tropes that have served Marvel for years.
The success of DC's anti-formula formula is is debatable, too. The films are divisive, but they make money. Vocal groups of the audience are wildly upset about the movies, but they continue to perform well among fans more generally. A recent poll indicated that fans are open to dark, R-rated superhero movies, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice may have been demolished by critics but ComicBook.com's audience rankings place it as #5 all-time.
Both companies, of course, want the sweet spot. Marvel has found it, and while there may be long-term "Marvel formula fatigue," it seems likely that won't set in until after Avengers: Infinity War -- and of course there's the possibility that the massive, game-changing nature of that two-part epic will ultimately set up an entirely new Marvel formula anyway.
For DC, it's likely they need to start winning over some of their "haters" in order to have long-term success. Critics and hardcore fans, both of whom are divided on DC's movies, are some of the most vocal audience members, and the result of having so many of those people actively railing against DC's movies is that however massive an opening a film like Batman v Superman has, toxic word-of-mouth is going to cut off some of its longevity at the box office and hurt the long-term esteem the film is held in among audiences, damaging the brand.
After years of being the ugly stepchild with movies like Daredevil and Fantastic Four, Fox has nailed three out of its last four projects -- and all by utilizing a filmmaker-first approach that's creating wildly different movies and TV that wouldn't feel at home in the supremely curated Marvel Cinematic Universe. Logan and Deadpool are dark, violent, R-rated films that share a universe but essentially exist in their own worlds. Legion, meanwhile, truly exists in its own world, and the stylized approach to superhero storytelling makes it neck and neck with Riverdale for the best-looking comic book adaptation on the airwaves.
What does all this mean? Well, ever since Man of Steel, audiences and critics have been writing thinkpieces about what Warner Bros. and DC can learn from Marvel's string of successes. Fans of the DC movies have argued that they don't need to learn anything from Marvel -- that if they can unambiguously stick the landing, their approach is likely to make for massive successes that feel less like an assembly-line monthly comic and more like an ambitious, creator-driven miniseries.
...And that's the recipe that Logan, Deadpool, and Legion have managed to string together. Even accounting for the misfire of X-Men: Apocalypse -- which is arguably no worse than Thor: The Dark World or The Incredible Hulk anyway -- Fox has seemingly discovered the formula that DC is looking for. Whether they can sustain it -- it is, after all, arguably a more difficult thing to replicate than Marvel's formula, as Christopher Nolan will tell you -- or whether there's much that Warner Bros. can learn from it is up for debate, but the X-Men family of media seem, at the moment, to be proving that as a high concept, Warner's approach to superhero movies can please everybody, given the right conditions.
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