LOS ANGELES — Walter Hamada isn’t your typical pop media mastermind. His original career choice was mechanical engineer, not president of a production company. He is, however, at age 52, the president of DC Films, and manages the movie careers of Wonder Woman, Batman, Cyborg, the Flash, Superman and every other DC Comics superhero – and he has plans for them. Big, big plans.
DC Films is going to start releasing the high budget DC Comics comicbook movies at the a rate of up to four a year, starting in 2022. They’re destined for the big screens, while additional titles featuring riskier characters (think Batgirl and Static Shock) will go straight to HBO Max, the WarnerMedia entry in the Streaming Wars. There will also be spinoff titles, TV series that will air on HBO Max and interconnect with their big-screen endeavors.
The timing couldn’t be better. Marvel has been kicking DC’s bahookey for years. While Warner has made roughly $8 billion over the past ten years in worldwide superhero ticket sales (including $36 million from the surprisingly successful Wonder Woman 1984 just over the past weekend), Marvel has brought in a whopping $20.6 billion over the same period. Considering that Warner invented the big budget superhero movie with 1978’s Superman the Movie, they shouldn’t be doing this badly, and they’re about to do something about it.
A Multiverse of Productions
To make all the story lines work, DC Films will introduce movie audiences to a comics concept known as the multiverse: parallel worlds where different versions of the same character exist simultaneously. Coming up, for instance, Warner Bros. will have two different film sagas involving Batman — played by two different actors — running at the same time.
The whole thing is starting to look like Warner has finally figured out that the reason Marvel Studios is doing so well is that they have some kind of overarching master plan. They needed their own Kevin Feige, and Hamada is it. He’s been in the chair since 2018, and since then, DC Films’ fortunes are starting to look up.
Part of the problem at Warner Media was that information didn’t flow well between the different parts of the company. Nobody was sharing information with anybody. “In the past, we were so secretive,” Mr. Hamada has said. “It was shocking to me, for example, how few people at the company were actually allowed to read scripts for the movies we are making.”
It all plays heavily into the Streaming Wars; to get subscribers, studios are luring them in with brands and characters they don’t have to build from the ground up. Superheroes are one of the biggest forces to leverage to close the gap between, for example, HBO Max’s 12.6 million subscriber activations versus Netflix’s subscribership of 195 million.
This month, Disney announced 100 new movies and shows, a bit over 10% of which are superhero or fantasy films, most headed directly to its Disney+ streaming service, which has 87 million subscribers. Marvel is chipping in 11 films and 11 television shows, including WandaVision, which stars Elizabeth Olsen and arrives on January 15.
Warner Bros. is compensating with a Suicide Squad sequel, The Batman starring Robert Pattinson, and Black Adam starring Wayne Johnson as the titular anti-hero. WarnerMedia has roughly 25 extra live-action and animated superhero shows, including Superman and Lois, which makes its debut on broadcast television on The CW in February.
Sony Pictures Entertainment has its own superhero slate, with at least two more Spider-Man movies in the works; Morbius, starring Jared Leto as a pseudo-vampire; and a sequel to the surprise hit Venom, which cost $100 million to make in 2018 and collected $856 million worldwide. Sony also has a suite of superhero TV shows headed for Amazon Prime Video.
The Rise of Hamada
Walter Hamada rose to power through New Line Cinema, a division of Warner Bros. that handles mostly films the studio considers outlier or alternative content, like medium budget horror movies and romantic comedies.
When Hamada first came to DC Films in 2018, they were in dire need of a steady hand on the tiller. They had just done two horrifically expensive films, both directed by Zack Snyder (2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film apparently titled by people who spent much more time talking to lawyers than reading comicbooks, and 2017’s Justice League – both were panned by fans and critics alike). The rest of the production slate was a disorganized mess, with films being made that ran storylines in random directions, with nothing gluing them together the way the MCU had been doing for years.
Marvel essentially had a ten to twelve year head start on them, and DC Films realized that if they were going to be competitive, they needed to start telling a compelling story with each new film playing a part. The two options on the table were either to start over, or figure out some way to stitch this big tangled ball of yarn into something that actually looked like they planned it that way. They chose the bandaid approach.
Now all the DC films are going to participate in a multiverse, with certain films stitching everything together so that it gives some semblance of a grand panorama of films instead of being a bunch of separate uncoordinated projects (which they were). The various characters will be sprinkled across different alternate versions of Earth, with occasional crossover events, like the new Flash movie, set for release in 2022, which will feature the return of both Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck as different versions of Batman.
While the multiverse concept has worked on television – look no further than the Arrowverse for evidence of that – it’s a ballsy move for theatrical projects. Are movie-goers going to have the focus and persistance needed to make this work? Will their attention span still hold through a years long pastiche of fragmented story arcs pretending to be a master plan?
“I don’t think anyone else has ever attempted this,” Mr. Hamada said. “But audiences are sophisticated enough to understand it. If we make good movies, they will go with it.”
The difference, though, is that Marvel Studios went into this with Kevin Feige orchestrating a master plan. It’s a reactive approach, as contrasted to the proactive path taken by Marvel.
An Original Approach – Except Marvel Did It First
The viewing public has already witnessed a multiverse approach to superhero movies, the difference being that in the case of the Marvel Comics movies, they were produced by competing studios. Sony Pictures has the Spider-Man franchise, and X-Men, and they have been producing various disconnected superhero movie concepts for decades now, with the two separate cinematic universes occasionally touching, as they did when Tom Hoilland reprised his role as the wisecracking webhead in Captain America: Civil War (2016), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Avengers: Endgame (2019), and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). Hamada claiming that the multiverse idea for stitching previously unrelated cinematic adventures together is, well, a bit thin on fact.
The deluge of superhero movies is creating a potentially dangerous box office tempest. There is only so much room in the marketplace for this many of them, and people only have so many discretionary dollars to spend. The well they are all trying to draw from is not bottomless.
Competition has never been more fierce, and DC finds itself in a gladiator’s arena of its own making. While we should see some good films come out of the new push from DC Films, in the end Hamada’s only option is to patch a master plan together out of pieces he found on the figurative cutting room floor.