It turns out that all of the hullabaloo about Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man 4 wasn’t quite as simple as we thought. As of last night, Variety broke the story that Robert Downey Jr. would be signed for another major Marvel picture. It’s not Iron Man 4. It is in-fact Captain America 3, but that’s not the real kicker. The word around the campfire is that the third Captain America film, due to be released on May 6th, 2016 by Walt Disney DIS +0.23% and Marvel, will be a loose adaptation of the ”Civil War” comic book arc that pitted masked hero against masked hero after the government demanded that all superheroes register their identities. If you read said story from 2006-2007, you’ll know that the “ evil” government anti-mask forces are led by Tony Stark while Steve Rogers leads the would-be resistance. Assuming the third Captain America film follows the story, the villain of Captain America 3 will be Tony Stark. So while DC and Warner Bros.’ (Time Warner TWX -1.39% Inc.) is dropping Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Gah… that title!) on March 25th, 2016, Walt Disney just raised them what amounts to “Captain America vs. Iron Man.” We now have a very real scenario where Captain America 3 might actually out-gross Batman v Superman domestically and worldwide.
There is lot of other information and speculation to be found in Devin Faraci’s more detailed write-up (including the possibility that the Russo Brothers may end up directing future Avengers installments), but please read only if you want speculative and very-real spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron and every Marvel movie after that. Regardless of what film will be better or even whether either film will be any good (I’m not a huge fan of the “Civil War” arc, although it has a core post-9/11 idea that could certainly work with better execution), Marvel has shelled out the money (at least $40m but back-end treats to get Downey Jr. back) for arguably the one “versus” that could in-fact trump the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader. The reason is familiarity. This isn’t just a Superman we saw once and frankly weren’t all that thrilled with pitted against a Batman who we are being introduced to along with a brand new Wonder Woman and brand-new Lex Luthor on the sidelines. This is Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man that we (by 2016) will have spent eight years with pitted against Chris Evans’s Captain America whom we have been following for five years in a film that turns Marvel’s flagship hero into a villain. You don’t get more “added value element” than that, folks.
That by itself, not just the return of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man but a new status as a potential “big bad” makes Captain America: Civil War (or whatever they end up calling it) an event in a way that a theoretical Captain America 3: The Search For Bucky would not have been. As I noted back in May of 2013, Iron Man 3 was able to basically double the gross of Iron Man 2 ($1.2 billion versus $623m) partially (along with the 3D bump) by being the first major Marvel film to piggy-back off of The Avengers and thus act as a de-facto Avengers 1.5. More importantly, the fact that Iron Man 3 made nearly double the amounts of Thor: The Dark World ($644m), Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714m), and Guardians of the Galaxy ($687m and counting now that it has debuted China) shows that there is simply a larger contingent of would-be audience members for the Tony Stark adventures than the other related stand-alone hero pics.
By putting Robert Downey Jr. in a key starring role in Captain America 3, Marvel has made the third Steve Rogers adventure a de-facto Iron Man 4 and a de-facto Avengers 3. So Marvel is basically getting the best of both worlds along with the obviously large number of fans who showed up purely out of their love for the Chris Evans-as-Steve Rogers adventures. The $1.2 billion earned by Iron Man 3 seems like an almost reasonable expectation going into this. So the question is, how much can we honestly expect Batman v. Superman to gross in what amounts to a maiden voyage for most of the DC Universe? This shows the sheer value of Marvel’s patience in terms of building a shared universe, as their successes have allowed them to basically create a mega-event for any big franchise sequel by dropping other already established characters into them in some capacity. Everyone is attempting to copy Marvel’s shared universe, but frankly no one else has (or will have for quite a while) the deep bench of popular branded characters played by actors whom we like seeing in said roles and the ability to screw with said characters like Marvel has right now.
I talk a lot about “added value elements” and Batman v Superman is basically “Added Value Elements: The Movie!” as its primary trump cards are seeing Ben Affleck as Batman (that’s a big deal, especially for general audiences) and seeing the first live-action big-screen appearance of Wonder Woman (that’s a big deal even if it basically means that much of the film’s reception will depend on said element). An added value element in a sequel usually involves adding a popular movie star (The Rock in Fast Five), a popular established character (the Chipettes in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel) or both (Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight is arguably the mother-of-all added value elements). Marvel’s big added-value element is a big movie star (Robert Downey Jr.) as an iconic and already established character (Iron Man) as the villain no-less.
I’m not going to play box office predictor two years out. Warner Bros. may-well throw out (and I’m completely making this up) Brad Pitt as The Joker or audiences may hate Avengers 2 for reasons unknown. And for the record, if Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Gah… that title!) ends up being a really good film (and nothing would make me happier, especially as it will probably be my daughter’s first PG-13 superhero film in a theater) that gets fans and general audiences excited about whatever comes next in the DC Cinematic Universe, Warner Bros. won’t care as much if their respective “heroes in conflict!” tent pole grosses more or less than Marvel’s respective “heroes in conflict!” tent pole. But the conventional wisdom up until yesterday was that the slotting of Captain America 3 against Batman v Superman back in March was not about “winning” but rather about merely hurting DC’s must-succeed team-up picture even if Captain America took a hit in the process. Whether by design or an on-the-fly decision (and I don’t pretend to know which this was), Marvel has arguably trumped DC with their own arguably bigger “versus” superhero sequel event.
Yes Batman and Superman are, barring variables, arguably bigger characters than Iron Man and Captain America. But in terms of cinematic relevance and pre-affirmed audience interest (both notable variables), it is a much closer contest. If I may digress, the fact that Marvel is going ahead with the popular “hero vs. hero” arc points to something I’ve felt for some time, which is that as the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole body of work will end up being a defining examination of post-9/11 America with different characters dealing with different facets of our reaction and our new post-9/11 normal. The Iron Man trilogy dealt with war profiteering and perpetual conflict, the Thor films deal with war mongering and disproportionate responses, the Captain America films deals with security vs. liberty, while The Incredible Hulk dealt with the notion of a solution being worse than the problem.
Anyway, what this all means is that Marvel is apparently willing to do some major rejiggering of its flagship franchises in order to keep the Marvel Cinematic Universe alive past the eventual expiration point of the initial slate of heroes. Although I’d be more confident of their ability to stick to major outcomes if they were able to keep major characters dead for more than two acts at a time. Anyway, Marvel has again raised the stakes in terms of world-building, and the ability to play said cards is the reward for both success and patience in terms of establishing said characters over the last several years.
Obviously there is room for both Captain America 3 and Batman v Superman to succeed even in a relatively close proximity to each other. Obviously the best-case scenario is for both films to be high-quality superhero productions. Obviously in the end the “Which film is biggest?” contest is mostly about bragging rights and that each film will succeed or fail based on its own respective goals and expectations. My hope for 2016 is that both films are as much fun to watch as they have been to write about. But for the moment, I would argue that Captain America 3 is now a “bigger” film than Batman v Superman and shows that Marvel’s triumph isn’t just about known characters but about audiences wanting to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe version of those characters.