After 2012, which saw Marvel seize comic book movie supremacy away from Nolan’s retiring Batman franchise with the juggernaut known as The Avengers, the summer of 2013 saw both Marvel and DC regrouping, eager to pin down the latest phases and franchises, with other studios like 20th Century Fox eager to cash in on behemoths of their own.
For Marvel Studios, now owned by Disney, that meant continuing the fan-favorite Iron Man saga early in the summer movie season to begin “Phase 2″ of its cinematic universe (which will also contain Captain America, Thor, and Avengers sequels along with the anticipated 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy movie). Iron Man 3 follows Tony Stark through the aftermath of the events in The Avengers and in a gamble that paid off, was written and directed by Shane Black, directing only his second feature film (the first being 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, also with Robert Downey Jr.). Black is probably most well known as the screenwriter responsible for 80’s and 90’s action movies like Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. Franchise tent-pole releases are not commonly known for the enlisting of dialogue-heavy auteurs, but frankly, Marvel can afford to take chances, and must in order to keep the Iron Man brand fresh. Black’s Iron Man 3 stands apart from every movie in the Marvel Studios catalog thus far in its offbeat characters and dialogue, giving audiences a glimpse of what might happen if filmmakers operating in the Marvel universe are given a little more freedom. Downey excels in delivering Black’s dialogue, which helps earn his reported $50 million salary for the film. After it’s release in May, Iron Man 3 went on to gross over $1.2 billion dollars worldwide, making it the fifth highest grossing film of all time (Avengers being the third highest). Marvel continues to dominate not only the comic book and superhero landscape, but the entire landscape of blockbuster box office dollars. Buzz surrounding the remainder of their “Phase Two” slate continues to escalate.
After the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s massive Dark Knight trilogy, the DC universe saw a large hole in their movie release slate and teamed with Warner Bros. in an effort to reboot the Superman film franchise. Enlisting Batman’s Nolan as a producer and studio darling Zack Snyder to direct, they attempted to drag the new Superman world down into the darker wheelhouse of Nolan’s Batman universe. The result, Man of Steel was successful in distancing itself from the Christopher Reeve movies of old (which appear to be increasingly forgotten) and was received by fans and critics with significantly more enthusiasm than the last attempt at a Superman film, 2006’s Superman Returns (a clean slate reboot in itself, so I don’t know where he was returning from). Man of Steel earned nearly $700 million worldwide, good for fifth highest of 2013 (to date). While unable to unseat Iron Man 3 or Marvel as the top dog in superhero film, Man of Steel doubled the box office take of Superman Returns and is poised to blossom into a legitimate franchise to be reckoned with. Like Marvel, DC and Warner Bros. seek to create a consistent film universe for its characters to inhabit, and the sequel to Man of Steel will contain Batman (to be played by Ben Affleck, much to the internet’s apparent dismay). Rumors also appear to swirl indefinitely regarding a Justice League movie.
Coming in a distant third in the superhero race this summer was 20th Century Fox’s The Wolverine. For the unaware: while the character Wolverine is a property of Marvel comics, his film rights remain tied up by Fox’s studios (along with those of the other X-Men). Thus, his movie exploits, and business decisions surrounding the franchise, remain separate from the Marvel Studios “universe” of Iron Man, The Avengers, etc. The last go-around for the character Wolverine was the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a flop among critics and fans alike. Throw in his absence from X-Men: First Class (other than a fan-service cameo), and Fox felt it was time to bring Logan back for his own feature, the feature his rabid fans had long hoped for. After several false starts with name directors (including Black Swan‘s Darren Aronofsky), Fox selected James Mangold to direct (3:10 to Yuma, Walk the Line) and The Wolverine hit theaters in July, after the Iron Man and Superman frenzies had long subsided. While substantially more successful with critics and fans than Origins, it remained an afterthought to many moviegoers after a long summer of spectacle. It more than earned back its budget by a considerable margin, but lacked the buzz of past Wolverine vehicles and was unable to outearn 2009’s Origins despite the latter’s flaws. It was successful in lessening some of the anxiety over the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past in 2014, which will also feature Wolverine in the leading role, but fans and executives alike have to wonder, with star Hugh Jackman approaching 50, when will Wolverine’s claws no longer draw blood?
With no end in sight to the parade of blockbuster superhero films, and as we come to grips with a landscape where nearly every top hit comes from a franchise machine, studios and owners of intellectual property will continue to grapple over which cash cow produces the most milk. For now, Marvel seems unbeatable as their “Phase Two” progresses into 2014 (which may contain its biggest gamble yet with the potentially bizarre Guardians of the Galaxy). DC is out of the picture until the Batman/Superman film of 2015, and Fox looks to strike again with the X-Men with Days of Future Past. Columbia will return to the fray with another The Amazing Spider-man 2 – and Spidey is always a box office foe to be reckoned with. It seems unrealistic to expect these films to routinely climb into the all-time Top 10, but until audiences say otherwise with their box office dollars, we can only expect more “phases”, more origin stories, more reboots, and more caped adventurers.