Superman vs. Batman? DC's Real Battle Is How to Create Its Superhero Universe

Illustration by: Toby Triumph

Warner Bros. is employing a different strategy than Marvel as it hires five writers for 'Wonder Woman,' has no clear leader and deals with new frustrations in its struggles to craft a compelling 10-movie world.

This story first appeared in the May 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

When Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara took the stage at the annual CinemaCon gathering of theater owners April 21, he reiterated what has become the studio's mantra for the next five to seven years: Warners will build its slate around The Lego Movie sequels and offshoots, J.K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts trilogy and no fewer than 10 movies based on DC Comics characters through 2020.

With the March opening of Zack Snyder's Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice many months off (an ominous teaser trailer debuted to a mixed response April 17 and racked up 47 million YouTube views during its first week), it's obviously too early to know whether Warners can execute a series of interlocking tentpoles based in the DC universe. But with the stakes very high, Wall Street and Hollywood are asking: Can all the cooks in the studio's kitchen create films featuring Batman, Wonder Woman and even Aquaman and the Flash to rival the nearly $7 billion in global box office Disney's Marvel Studios has generated from nine films since 2008, including Iron Man, Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy? Plus, the May 1 release of Avengers: Age of Ultron is sure to bring in another $1 billion.

"Marvel has been an unbelievable platform for Disney to build and foster franchises," says BTIG analyst Richard Greenfield. "The question for Warners is, can they replicate that strategy using DC?" No one doubts the value of the DC intellectual property, but as analyst Michael Nathanson of MoffettNathanson observes, "It's all in the execution."

In the early going, some in Hollywood are questioning whether Warners has acted too much in haste without having fleshed out the world on which so much hinges. Grumbling among talent reps came especially in response to the studio's strategy of hiring five writers to compete for a job on Wonder Woman, which has a June 2017 release date. On Aquaman, set for 2018, sources say Warners commissioned scripts from three writers, one of whom followed the studio's direction only to be told the rules governing the universe had changed and his work no longer was usable. Another writer has been on hold for the film for months as the studio works to define its vision. "They just haven't been thorough about their whole world and how each character fits and how to get the most out of each writer's time by giving them direction," says a rep with knowledge of the process. "Obviously, Marvel's very good at that."

A Warners insider acknowledges that the studio's approach on Wonder Woman, set to star Gal Gadot (who will be introduced in Batman v. Superman), has been "unorthodox," but he says Warners is developing its own "filmmaker-driven" strategy in contrast with Marvel, which generally is ruled by producer Kevin Feige and which has hired such untested directors as Joss Whedon (The Avengers), Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and two planned Avengers movies) and James Gunn (Guardians). Further, he says Warners has great confidence in its intellectual property, as do even those outsiders who have questioned the studio's actions.

In October, Warners trotted out Snyder, 49, and Batman v. Superman stars Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill at a dinner for analysts in New York before the company's investor-day conference. Snyder presented his vision for the film, and Nathanson says he found it "very impressive." The following day, Tsujihara laid out his plan that resembles the silo approach that has worked so well for Disney with its Marvel, Pixar and Disney Studios brands and with Star Wars movies to come from Lucasfilm.

But exactly who is in charge of the DC universe remains blurry. Snyder, now finishing Batman v. Superman, is a key player, along with his wife, Debbie. Also in the mix are producer Charles Roven and a team of Warners executives, including president of creative development and worldwide production Greg Silverman and executive vp Jon Berg as well as DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson and DC chief creative officer Geoff Johns. In addition, various filmmakers will over­see individual movies, with Fury director David Ayer said to be given broad creative control over next summer's hero team-up film Suicide Squad.

Without a single guiding force like the 41-year-old Feige, sources say Warners has leaned on Snyder to help play out the parameters for other DC movies. Snyder laid the groundwork for the new universe with 2013's Superman reboot Man of Steel ($668 million worldwide), produced with previous Batman director Christopher Nolan, who no longer is involved in any­thing DC-related beyond an executive producer credit on Batman v Superman. But Snyder has been busy with Batman v. Superman, which has a budget said to be well more than $200 million. "You can't just give it to a filmmaker," says a Marvel insider. "You have to give it to someone who has an institutional knowledge of these characters."

On Wonder Woman, Warners hired five writers not to work together but to compete. Each was given a treatment and asked to write a first act. Based on those efforts, the studio winnowed the number to two: Jason Fuchs (Pan) and another writer whose name the studio declines to reveal. A source not involved in the films but with close ties to the studio says the process on Wonder Woman "felt like they were throwing shit against the wall to see what stuck."

Before the five writers were brought aboard, sources say Roven asked Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey, Saving Mr. Banks) to work on the script, though a Warners insider says she was never officially hired. Sources say she decided not to proceed based on her concern about the number of players who were involved — particularly when Warners hired director Michelle MacLaren, whose vision contrasted sharply with Marcel's. MacLaren subsequently left the project and was replaced quickly by Patty Jenkins, who, ironically, had been dropped by Marvel on Thor: The Dark World after being heralded as the studio's first female director.

Warners has had several writers pen scripts for Aquaman, set to star Jason Momoa, who will feature in November 2017's Justice League movie. Those writers include Will Beall, Jeff Nichols and Kurt Johnstad, who now is on hold until the studio is ready to proceed. Warners' Silverman will say only that "we're on track to deliver a slate of films that will delight audiences everywhere thanks to the efforts of the many exceptionally talented people invested in the success of this universe." But Nathanson is prepared to wait and see how the films turn out. "Embedded in my earnings forecast [for Time Warner] is some estimate of success for DC, but I would say we're conservative in our outlook," he says. "I'm not giving anyone credit for a movie until we see the product."

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