A little over a week ago, Warner Bros managed to upstage Marvel — and, some hardcore fans would argue, every other superhero movie ever made — by revealing that the follow-up to this summer's Man of Steel would bring Batman into the franchise, uniting the two most famous superheroes in history on the big screen for the first time. It was an announcement designed for maximum impact, and it succeeded by every possible measure. Grantland's Todd VanDerWerff, who witnessed the announcement live, wrote that being present for the big Batman vs. Superman reveal was like being "on a rocket ship made of cheers."
I wasn't at Comic-Con, but I was following the big announcement on Twitter, and my barely suppressed inner geek did a few cartwheels. Batman and Superman in the same movie? With a story inspired by Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns, which many hold up as one of the greatest comic stories of all time? What's not to love?
But as exciting as it might be to imagine the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel squaring off, it's also worth considering all the paths Warner Bros and DC Comics aren't taking. The Man of Steel sequel is a once-in-a-franchise opportunity to launch a whole line of franchises — and by falling back on Batman yet again, DC is squandering it.
Look, I get it: There are few superheroes with the cultural cachet of Batman and Superman, and there's no surer way to capitalize on Man of Steel's box-office success than by bringing the Caped Crusader into the fold. It's also the easiest way to distance the lucrative Batman brand from Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, which came to a definitive end just last year. By bringing Batman into the Superman universe, the film will dodge many of the blow-by-blow comparisons that would have dogged an attempt to reboot Batman for another solo outing.
But if Batman vs. Superman can give a boost to a franchise that's already a hit with audiences, imagine what it could do to a superhero that hasn't already broken into the mainstream. Let's put this into context: Of the 10 all-time highest-grossing movies based on a DC Comics character, six star Batman and three star Superman. (The sole exception? Green Lantern, which sneaks onto the list at number 10 despite being a flop by any rational measure.) While Marvel used the Iron Man franchise to expand the breadth and depth of its superheroic universe with movies like Thor, Captain America, and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy, DC is doubling down on the only two characters in its stable that don't need the help.
And within the wide, wide pool of underutilized DC superheroes ready for the big screen, there's no character that would benefit more than Wonder Woman.
DC's ongoing struggle to revive Wonder Woman for modern audiences has been well-documented. Lynda Carter played the superhero successfully in a TV series that ran from 1975 to 1979, but despite the character's continued popularity, several standalone attempts to launch her into the 21st century have sputtered. NBC turned down a dismally received pilot starring Adrianne Palicki in 2011, and The CW's Smallville-esque take on the character, Amazon, has gone through several stages of development, with writer Aron Eli Coleite describing Wonder Woman as "the trickiest of all the DC characters to get done."
For the past decade or so, that's been the conventional wisdom about Wonder Woman: That her Amazonian origins and grab-bag of throwback superpowers — an invisible jet, bracelets that can deflect bullets, the "Lasso of Truth" — make her a tricky sell to modern audiences. But you know what else is a tricky sell, on paper? An alien who can fly and fire lasers from his eyes. That didn't stop Warner Bros from launching Man of Steel — despite the (relative) failure of Superman Returns — and it didn't stop the studio from releasing 2011's Green Lantern, a movie about a ragtag bunch of space cops that's at least five times as ridiculous as Wonder Woman's origin story. Wonder Woman is like any other superhero; if you craft a compelling story for her, and find the right actress to bring her to life, audiences will turn out in droves.
Furthermore, Wonder Woman has as much to offer the Man of Steel franchise as Man of Steel has to offer Wonder Woman. When asked about Superman's relationship with Lois Lane in a recent interview with io9, Man of Steel star Henry Cavill replied, "Can you be equal in power to Superman? I don't know." Well, you know who's equal in power to Superman? Wonder Woman, who shares his super-strength, his ability to fly, and his sense of alienation from the very people he's trying to protect. Their intriguing kinship has fueled countless Justice League stories over the years (and was recently made explicit when Superman and Wonder Woman began dating in the rebooted Justice League comic series last August).
As far as the Man of Steel sequel goes, it's easy to imagine how Superman and Wonder Woman could first encounter one another with mutual mistrust, which might, in time, evolve into an alliance — one that could even set the stage for a Justice League movie further down the road, when the Dark Knight trilogy is far enough back in our collective cultural memory to make Batman feel fresh again.
Cinematically, DC's constellation of heroes is still playing catch-up to Marvel. By planting its flag in the first contemporary blockbuster centered on a female superhero — and no, I'm not counting Catwoman — it has the rare opportunity to actually surpass Marvel, which greenlit sequels to Thor and Captain America while relegating Scarlett Johansson's promising Black Widow character to a supporting role. There's no question that Batman vs. Superman has a pre-sold audience, but it's the same audience that's been pre-sold from the beginning. If Warner Bros and DC want their superhero films to reach new heights, they're going to have to break from what's worked in the past and forge a new trail.