How Marvel gets its shared movie universe right ... and what others could learn

Marvel vs. DC

Let's get one thing clear right from the start: When it comes to movies based on superhero comic books, Marvel Studios is miles ahead of, well, just about everyone else.

If you had told me in 2006 -- when Marvel Studios became a freestanding studio -- that we'd see the likes of Captain America, Thor and the Avengers in major motion pictures, let alone movies that linked to each other and overlapped just like the comics themselves, I or any other self-respecting comic-book fan would have looked at you like you just turned into a giant walking tree. But now Marvel has shown a deft touch with creating a crossover universe that its competitors haven't been able to match.

On the other hand, look at the "DC Cinematic Universe." Aside from Batman and Superman, no other major DC heroes have successfully transferred to the big screen. Even those two cornerstones have had their rough patches and reboots. The sole Green Lantern movie was a major disaster. Films based around the Flash and Wonder Woman remain in development limbo (although the recent casting of Gal Gadot as Diana Prince in the Batman/Superman film could change that), and the latest sputtering attempt to bring the Justice League to the screen is beset with problems even as the studio rushes it forward.

The difference is that Marvel is a one-of-a-kind business: A movie studio devoted solely to producing films (and now TV and Netflix shows) adapted from a single, albeit vast, trove of storylines and characters. To do that successfully, the studio -- under the leadership of a visionary named Kevin Feige -- has embraced that universe in its totality. 

Marvel Studios has not shied away from the many weird and surreal aspects of the sandbox it plays in, but is instead putting them front and center. That's why we've visited the Nine Realms with Thor, and we're going to see a movie called Guardians of the Galaxy -- featuring that walking tree as well as a raccoon that can fire automatic weapons -- this August and a film titled Ant-Man next year. 

Warner Bros., meanwhile, aside from being a larger film studio with many more projects and genres to cover -- and many admirable and/or classic films in its library, including Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy -- has never accepted the unified DC Universe in the same way. This is, after all, a studio that once came very close to launching a Justice League film, with an entirely different Batman (played by Armie Hammer), at the same time that Nolan was making The Dark Knight

This is also a company that believes all its heroes have to be brooding and "realistic" in order to be successful -- and to be fair, that worked like gangbusters with the appropriate character, Batman. It doesn't quite sit as well with Superman or Hal Jordan, who are bigger than life and far more fantastical. That is why, as someone said famously on the Web, WB/DC can't get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground, and yet Marvel is about to make us believe a raccoon can talk.

DC has been proactive in other areas, like its animated films (although the introduction of The New 52 into the animated line has been a source of anguish for a lot of fans) and, most notably, on the live-action TV front. Arrow is perhaps DC's biggest success story right now, and the show's creators have taken pains to bring in a number of characters and villains from the comics to the delight of fans. The next challenge is whether they can replicate that success with The Flash and even build a little shared world between those two shows.

Yet they're also introducing outlier series like Constantine and Gotham that seem to have no connection to the existing universe either on the small or big screen (Gotham, in fact, looks like it's going to break continuity completely with the existing Batman movies). And will The CW's Arrow and Flash be the same ones we eventually meet in a big-screen Justice League film? Even if the TV versions of those heroes don't get promoted to feature films, there doesn't seem to be a viable reason why DC can't take the same approach to its movies that it has to its TV ventures.

Marvel is already mapping out Phase Three of its cinematic adventures, which is almost certain to include even more far-out characters like the Inhumans and Doctor Strange; Warner Bros./DC doesn't even quite have Phase One down yet. But now Warner Bros. is desperate to create that same "shared universe" -- as are two studios that still own the rights to Marvel properties, Fox (X-Men, Fantastic Four) and Sony (Spider-Man). But like DC. they're working at a disadvantage because they haven't bothered laying the groundwork.

Look, Marvel hasn't had a perfect record. Iron Man 2 wasn't the win its predecessor was, the first Thor was just OK, and its initial TV foray, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is mediocre, at best. But the studio is not doubling back, retconning or rebooting, nor insisting that all its movies follow the same tone or template. That's why it will continue to lead the field in superhero and shared-universe movies -- because it's not afraid of what that means. The other studios may surprise us, but for now, saying "Make mine Marvel" when you buy a movie ticket is as close to a sure thing as a fan can get.

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