Welcome to a new, semi-regular column where I analyze movies past, present and future that seem more-or-less separate at idea birth. Hollywood is a great big bubble (or womb, to keep the metaphor going) and some ideas keep repeating and cycling out. This is the Echo Chamber.
It’s not original to say “There are no original ideas in Hollywood.” But, there are intriguing cases of creative mirroring, deep reflections that perhaps speak to how stories are told in our modern era. This isn’t a new phenomenon; when stories were first orally passed down, they changed from storyteller to storyteller. Only today, these stories cost several hundred million dollars.
Our first example coincides with a certain superhero team that returns in a few weeks and their up-and-coming rivals. Granted the Avengers got the one-up on Justice League by two massive films before D.C. ever really gets out the gate, but, from what I can glean from released information, facts, rumors, and speculation, there is a shocking similarity between the development of both super-teams. WARNING: There are potential SPOILERS for current and upcoming Avengers and Justice League films.
1. The Avengers (2012) VS. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
The archenemy of one of our titular heroes (Loki / Lex Luthor) has an evil plan to take out said heroes using aliens and alien technology (The Chitauri / Doomsday). Along the way, our heroes must learn to work together to succeed and end as fully-formed team.
Now Joss Whedon has been the architect of the Avengers films, Zack Snyder has fulfilled that role for Justice League and, indeed, almost the whole D.C. shared universe. He kicked open that door with 2013’s Man of Steel. But that film, while successful, wasn’t a phenomenon in an era where Iron Man 3 made over a billion the same summer. Throwing Batman in is about as Hail Mary a move as it gets (just look at D.C. comics slap him on every cover they could for the last 20-30 years), but I have more confidence in Snyder than I do in almost any other director to pull it off. He is both a geek and auteur.
It’s interesting that no filmmaker or studio seems to think an audience wants to see a film where the team is already set. In the case of the MCU, they deliberately built it up, made it part of their fabric (something they’re echoing on Netflix with the recently-launched Daredevil). With the DCCU though, they accelerated it to get from point A to point super-team faster, making their Man of Steel sequel a Justice League prequel, more a introductory or transitional film than anything. In a similar set up, Whedon was dealt a set of cards from the beginning, from dictates that Loki be the villain to the final Battle of New York remain in place.
By Whedon’s own admission, before he even signed on for the first film, he knew the sequel should have Ultron as the villain. And in both films cases, it looks like the next films’ villains are teased at the end: Thanos is glimpsed during The Avengers credits and Brainiac, like General Zod, is drawn to Earth by Superman’s Kryptonian beacon.
2. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) VS. Justice League – Part 1 (2017)
An insane robot relative of one of our titular heroes (Ultron / Brainiac) makes Earth his personal playground. Its up to our heroes to stop him, causing fractures in the team leading to a galactic conflict . . .
So the after-effects of the last film? Both examples, not-so-good. Brainiac and Ultron are the results, both are dangerous artificial intelligence symbolic of humanity’s long-held Luddite technophobia. Humans have warred with A.I. machines a lot over the years (Terminator, The Matrix, Transcendence). Plus, like the alien Chitauri of the first Avengers, they offer a convenient mook on which the heroes can dole out brutal, guiltless punishment and exterminate or deactivate entirely come closing time.
3. Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 & 2 (2018 & 2019) VS. Justice League – Part 2 (2019)
. . . For the final round, it’s a ridiculously-overpowered space demigod (Thanos / Darkseid) vs. our super-team.
In D.C.’s corner, continuing the trend of co-opting Superman villains, there’s Darkseid, a megalomaniacal tyrant who not only rules over but enforces a dystopic worship of pain and suffering. In Marvel’s corner, there’s Thanos, the Mad Titan who is in love with the personification of Death and seeks the Infinity Gauntlet, a magical device powered by six Infinity Stones. Both would be ideally suited for jobs in the American government. What really makes this hilarious is Thanos was made specifically as a knockoff of Darkseid, as admitted by the creator.
These films are far enough way that only the vaguest of details can be surmised. It’s interesting to see Superman’s villains, who had never really been utilized in any Superman film prior (only Lex Luthor and General Zod can claim to have had true live-action representation from his albeit limited Rogues Gallery) being used as the heavys for the Justice League films, but I suppose that just speaks to the power those characters have to have to oppose the Man of Steel.
Why are pop cultures biggest super-teams so similar in storytelling and design? Perhaps its because at their core they are telling ultimately the same story and there is no getting around that. Want to raise the stakes? Make killer robots or go to space. No one expects these films’ to deal with decreasing threats or personal problems. The question then becomes where do these series go after they reach their peak? After 2019, it seems very much a free-for-all, with rampant rebooting, rejigging, and recasting to get through. We’ll most likely the creation of media multiverses, with different iterations of our favorite characters playing across platforms, much like how Ultimate Marvel spun off from original Marvel continuity to present revamped and streamlined origins and stories.
The acceleration of storytelling is ever increasing. In this decade alone, we went from sequel fever to franchise-building to shared universe creating. Now, we’re on the verge of a multiverse, with permutations of the same character taking over (The CW’s The Flash starring Grant Gustin will be in its fourth season when Warner Bros. premieres their big-screen version starring Ezra Miller in 2018, currently being written by Phil Lord & Chris Miller (Jump Street films, The LEGO Movie)). We’re racing toward a conclusion. You might even call it a singularity. What is it? Your bet is good as mine.
What do you think? Do these similarities mean anything? Will it have any effect on the films or the films’ success? Comments, people!