How Marvel Unified Its Movie Universe (And Why That Won’t Be Easy for DC)

In the midst of the massive geek Mecca that is San Diego Comic-Con, the big Marvel Studios movie panel had all the theater of a presidential campaign rally. Tom Hiddleston appeared in costume as Loki, the bad guy from Thor, and rallied the crowd in character. Then: so many movie stars, including the full casts of the upcoming Captain America sequel and Guardians of the Galaxy. And just when it seemed like it was over, Joss Whedon, patron saint of nerds, walked out for a Steve Jobsian one-more-thing and introduced the first teaser for The Avengers sequel. Eight thousand fans, some of whom had been waiting in line since the night before, shrieked like their souls were being ripped from their bodies.

Back in 2006, the very first Marvel Studios panel didn’t have quite the same swagger. Iron Man director Jon Favreau was there, and it was like, the Swingers guy? Louis Letterier was insisting his version of the Hulk would wash away the arty taste of Ang Lee’s earlier version, while Edgar Wright promised Ant-Man, like he always does. In the middle of it all was the stalwart, relaxed studio president Kevin Feige, the man with a production credit on just about every movie and TV show with a Marvel character for the last 13 years.

Inevitably, a fan stood up and asked whether any of the Marvel characters might cross over into each others’ movies, the way they often do in the comic books. “Who knows?” Feige answered. “This is a big new experiment for Marvel. But it’s no coincidence that we have the rights to Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Cap—” and the crowd started to cheer that soul-tearing cheer. That moment, Feige later recalls, was when he started thinking that he could build a series of interrelated movies, the cinematic equivalent of what comics nerds call “continuity.” He wanted do something that only comic book villains ever think they can get away with: build a universe.

Feige’s—and Marvel’s—subsequent success is about more than fanboy and fangirl dreams, however. Comic book superheroes are intellectual property, and the Walt Disney Company, Marvel’s corporate parent, takes the profit potential of this universe very seriously. And just as Disney owns Marvel, Time Warner owns Marvel’s chief competitor DC, home of a whole other roster of heroes like Superman, Batman, and the Flash. Movies based on DC comics have a spotty record; there’s The Dark Knight, sure, but you also have Superman ReturnsGreen LanternWatchmen, and a litany of failures-to-launch with Wonder Woman.

Which brings us back to this year’s Comic-Con, where director Zack Snyder orchestrated his own bit of theater at the Warner Bros. panel by announcing his follow-up to Man of Steel: a crossover between Superman and Batman that will be the first step to creating a shared DC film universe culminating in an epic team-up, Justice League. So now the question isn’t “How does Kevin Feige ride herd over a collection of interrelated comic-book movies?” The better question is, “Can anyone else?”

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