Marvel's universal approach makes it a world apart from DC

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As marvel embarks on transferring its universe of comics characters to the big screen, it is determined to succeed where DC Comics and its corporate sibling Warner Bros. have stumbled. But then, Marvel always has been one step ahead of DC.

Before 1961, comic books featured heroes in relatively self-contained stories. What happened in a Batman comic had no impact on what happened in a Superman book. Even the events in DC Comics' best-selling title "Justice League of America" — boasting the all-star lineup of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, the Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern — had no bearing on the individual books devoted to each superhero.

That all changed when "Fantastic Four #1" was published in 1961, launching the modern Marvel Comics age with subsequent titles featuring the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, X-Men and Daredevil. Suddenly, heroes were popping up in one another's comic books, bantering, bellyaching and battling. More importantly, what happened in one book impacted another. If Spider-Man injured his arm helping the Fantastic Four fight Paste Pot Pete in an issue of "Fantastic Four," readers found Spidey swinging with a sling in the next issue of "The Amazing Spider-Man."

The shared universe was one of the hallmarks of the Marvel universe. Dominant DC suddenly was squaresville, while Marvel was what the cool college kids kept in their dorms, and Marvel overtook DC as the No. 1 comics publisher.

Now, going on five decades later, Marvel is at it again.

At the end of the credits of the current blockbuster "Iron Man," there is a coda with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, the head of a secret organization, SHIELD, inviting Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark to be part of the Avenger Initiative. Sit past the credits with a group of geeks and you'll hear gleeful titters of recognition.

Next, Stark will pop up in June in Universal's release of "The Incredible Hulk." Marvel more than hinted that Hulk, Fury and others will surface in the 2010 and 2011 releases of "Iron Man 2," "Thor" and "Captain America," leading up to "The Avengers," which will team all these heroes — and hopefully the respective actors first creating them onscreen — in one movie.

"We are … able to have characters pop up in each other's movies and make those movies more interesting and get visibility and promote our future films," Marvel Studios chairman David Maisel says.

That's something that Warners and DC have yet to master.

Warners has successfully revived Batman with the help of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, but its Superman franchise, as if encountering Kryptonite, is struggling. Wonder Woman, under producer Joel Silver, can't get her invisible jet off the ground. And the much-ballyhooed Justice League movie has lost steam: Bale had no intention of reprising Batman in that movie, and all the actors Warners had attached skewed young, making it almost a "Teen Titans" movie.

Here is the problem: Warners lets its filmmakers dictate what happens in its superhero movies. There's not a hint of the existence of Gotham City in "Superman Returns," for example, because Warners franchises have become filmmaker fiefdoms, where no one plays with each other. Worse, the filmmakers and executives take it upon themselves to make wholesale changes to DC's mythology. Witness the fact that Superman has a kid!

Marvel's cohesion in the 1960s was largely because of one man, Stan Lee, who wrote and edited almost all the books. Today, Marvel's film fibers are held together mostly by one man, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.

Warners needs to take stock: Give DC a bigger voice in its movies, streamline the projects under fewer execs, and realize that it can get more mileage with a unified universe than by parceling out its heroes one by one.

Or else it's back to squaresville for Superman and his pals.

Borys Kit can be reached at borys.kit@THR.com.
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