“The series should just leave the comics storylines to the comics and do their own thing.”
“Arrow could change canon! Why doesn’t The Flash?”
“Superman should show up more often on Supergirl!”
Spend any time around the fandom and you’ll see these kinds of arguments. So why don’t these things happen more often on DCTV shows? It likely comes down to licensing. Given the importance and long-range impact of licensing, I want to talk a little bit about what it is, why it’s important, and how it’s probably influenced – and influencing – the shows we love.
Now, before we begin, I want to make it clear that I have not worked on any DCTV show. And while I have a little practical knowledge of licensing, I will not divulge information about specific negotiations. However, I want to give an overview of the types of concerns an IP owner like Warner Bros. might have and why those concerns might exist. So let’s get started, shall we?
What is Licensing?
Say you’re a plucky filmmaker who wants to make your first movie. You’ve always loved Batman, so you want to bring to life a great idea you’ve always had for a movie about the Dark Knight. You work for two years on a script. You’ve got friends willing to act the parts. Sets have been constructed. Costumes have been made. You have a friend who’s a whiz at special effects on the computer and will do them for cheap! You even miraculously have a major distributor ready to make sure your film will be available for the masses and you can start raking in some sweet, sweet movie money. Can you jump in and get started?
No. You absolutely cannot. If you try, you’re probably going to be hit with a lawsuit so fast, it’ll make your head spin. Nothing destroys pluck faster than an army of high-priced attorneys with a valid legal claim. This will not end well for you.
So what did you forget? Before you start your undoubtedly awesome Batman movie, you need to get license to use the character (or characters). Currently, WB owns the rights, so you need to get permission from them. And, believe me, it’s not going to be as easy as showing up on their doorstep with a piece of paper that says, “Can I use Batman for my totally awesome movie idea? Check Yes or No!”
“Okay,” you may be thinking. “But that’s a movie. Surely those are bigger deals than TV shows. Bigger than DCTV shows on a niche channel like the CW, at least. Right?” Well….
Why is DCTV Licensing Such a Big Deal?
Of course a show on the CW is going to be something of a different beast than the next Justice League film. Certainly when it comes to money put into production and marketing. That’s obvious. However, that doesn’t mean that you should discount DCTV shows as irrelevant to WB or assume that means the parent company isn’t paying attention. According to a 2016 Screenrant article, DCTV shows make WB over a billion dollars a year. Even if you think they may be less profitable today than they were two years ago, it’s not likely by much. It’s not for nothing that Deadline recently reported Berlanti has been given a $300 million deal to stay with WBTV for another six years. This obviously isn’t restricted to just DCTV, but they aren’t going to give multi-million dollar deals to producers who don’t make them at least multi millions of dollars.
Of course, DCTV characters don’t just exist on DCTV. They exist in movies, comics, cartoons, and the ubiquitous video games and toys. WB wants to keep making money off these properties. And that means protecting who’s using them, what they’re doing with them, and how they’re being used.
If you had a car few thousand dollars and someone asked to borrow it, you might have a few questions and conditions before you said yes. Who’s borrowing it? What do they want to use it for? What condition will they return it in?
If your car was worth a few billion dollars, you’re going to require a lot more answers. And proof they can cover any damages. You might even demand a background check, full medical history, and possibly a DNA screening. Point is, you’re going to want a lot of information and a lot of assurances before you hand over the keys.
A company like Warner Bros. is going to want to do the same thing.
They’re going to want to know who you are and why you’re asking to use the property. What you’re planning on doing with it. How long you intend to use it. Which characters you want to use and a general idea of what you want to do with them. What message you intend to send with them. And whether or not you respect the vision WB has for who these characters are and what they represent. (Note: WB’s vision may not be your vision or the vision of other fans like you. However, they actually own the rights, so they get to win this one.)
What Can Licensing Cover?
Not to sound flippant, but just about everything. WB can say you can use this character but not that one. Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl but not Stephanie Brown’s. Catwoman’s purple leotard but not her black leather jumpsuit. Batman’s logo from 2008’s The Dark Knight but not the one from 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. If you’re producing a printed product, they can require approval of the colors or fonts used. Or even the title of your project.
They’re going to care about the themes surrounding the characters and the backgrounds used. They might be willing to let you make your “what if” movie about Batman set in the 1860s, but pitching an idea where Bruce and the Joker switch places would likely be a harder sell.
Obviously, licensing on a dynamic medium like a television show is going to be a bit different than if you were asking to borrow the characters to write a novel. That said, I seriously doubt Berlanti even now could walk into WB offices with a list of characters he wants to use and they just nod their heads and sign at the dotted line. They undoubtedly will ask even him what he wants to use the characters for and how he intends for them to be depicted. The better known the character, the more money they stand to make for WB. The more questions WB is going to ask before signing the contract.
Consider that just recently, Hellbing revealed in an interview that WB execs started asking him about Barry and Iris’s future children when he talked to them about a Westallen wedding. Why is that? Well, remember that their children aren’t just random characters that are obliquely referenced on occasion in the comics as potentially existing in future. They aren’t even just vaguely identifiable characters in the comics. They are money making properties owned by the WB in their own right.
There are things about each character that may be fluid and changeable. Does it matter to WB what specific profession Thomas Wayne had? Or what Martha Wayne did with her spare time? What street they lived on? What their parents did for a living? To varying degrees, maybe but maybe not.
Is it going to matter to WB that Bruce Wayne is the son of Tom and Martha? That witnessing their murder in a random act of crime set him on the path of justice? That he’s a billionaire who moonlights as a vigilante? Or that he has a butler named Alfred and a secret cave where he builds high tech Batgear? All those things are likely much more important to WB, and it’s going to be a harder sell to get to change them.
If WB is willing to consider changing them at all. Some things are so vital to the hero’s story or background that they are absolutely resolute.
But If Another Show Could Do It, Why Can’t Mine?
I see this one a LOT. They’ve allowed certain changes to Oliver Queen’s story, so why couldn’t they change those same things for Barry Allen? If Smallville did it, why can’t Supergirl?
This is perhaps the most fundamental misunderstanding fans seem to have of licensing. The considerations that WB is going to have are going to change depending on the character.
Say you want to make two different shows. One is about Superman; the other is about Green Arrow. Each of these characters have things that are so vital to their stories that WB is likely going to demand they be respected. That they not be changed. Certainly not for a (hopefully) long-running TV show. And the things they might protect for Superman are going to be different than what they want to protect for Green Arrow.
What are these key things for Superman? Obviously, I can’t speak for WB. However, if I were going to guess, I’d say: That he’s the Last Son of Krypton. That he was sent to Earth to save him from Krypton’s anticipated final destruction. That he arrived as a baby and was found and raised by Martha and Jonathan Kent. He has certain abilities, such as invulnerability, strength, flight, and heat vision. That he grew up on a farm in a small town and one day moved to Metropolis. That he works as a reporter at the Daily Planet – and perhaps that he works there with Lois Lane, Perry White, and Jimmy Olsen. That his costume is red, blue, and yellow. That the S on his chest has a connection of some kind to Krypton and doesn’t just stand for Superman. And, while his actual romance with Lois Lane may not need to be explored, Smallville and the New 52 both gave reason to believe that the idea of it as a possibility in his future is something they very much intend to protect.
What would those things be for Green Arrow? I imagine the fact that he grew up a rich playboy. That he was irresponsible and reckless until whatever conspired to put him on an island. That whatever happened on that island taught him to fight with a bow and arrow and gave him the resolve to moonlight as a vigilante. The ideals he strives to fight for. That there remains a certain arrogance to his character.
But what about romance? Let’s be honest. Most of the cries we see in DCTV fandoms that the story should change seem to have a strong shipping bent to them.
Again, the willingness WB is going to have for the canon romances to change is likely going to depend on the character. The more a character is known for a certain aspect of their story, even by those who don’t read the comics, the more likely it is WB would want to protect that aspect of their story. The more important an aspect of a hero’s story, the more WB will fight to protect it.
Some heroes are known as much for their romantic stories as for their powers. Some are known for not having romantic stories at all – at least not ones that end happily or that last long. And some aren’t known for their love stories at all.
Ask a random person on the street, even someone who’s never read a comic book, and they could probably tell you that Superman’s love interest is Lois Lane. When Smallville obtained rights to use Lois Lane leading into season 4, they rather notoriously had some restrictions. (This is likely due to the release of Superman Returns.) She couldn’t be a journalist. Her scenes with Lex were limited, if they were allowed at all. And she initially couldn’t have a romance with Clark Kent – even in a dream sequence. Those restrictions were eventually loosened, but they give an indication of how WB might put restrictions on the use of characters in a TV show.
Even before the lifting of those restrictions, Smallville still made it clear Lois Lane was his future. Show execs made it clear that, as much as they loved the story of Lana and Clark, they were always going to end their story at the beginning of the story we know. That story very much included the romance with Lois Lane.
And while the New 52 put Superman and Wonder Woman together, they also hinted at his feelings for Lois. And, like with the hints that Iris West was going to be Barry Allen’s romantic future in the New 52, there were hints that Lois Lane would be in Clark Kent’s. Maybe not this decade, given how comics work. But that door was cracked, and their other romances weren’t so much replacing their future loves as forestalling them.
So say you were going to make a television show about the private and public lives of various members of the Justice League. As we’ve seen with Smallville, Superman’s love story might well be a point of concern for WB. It’s not implausible that, like with that show, they would dictate that the potential for him to wind up with Lois Lane exist at series’ end, if not the reality.
Would they be as invested in preserving a love story for a character like Batman? It’s improbable that they would demand he end up happily married with a particular woman. It’s far more likely that they would dictate that he couldn’t end up happily married at all. Even in the most recent comic engagement event with Catwoman, they didn’t pull the trigger. I suspect they are more determined that he always remain alone than that he end up romantically paired with someone.
So what about Oliver Queen or Barry Allen? Oliver Queen is better known as a playboy than a family man. While Green Arrow and Black Canary have had an on-again, off-again relationship in comics, the “off-again” cannot be understated. Simply put, that he and Dinah Laurel Lance have been involved in a relationship is far more important to his story than that they end up getting their Happily Ever After. The fact that Arrow’s licensing might allow his character to marry a different woman therefore isn’t that big of a surprise to me.
As for Barry Allen, his relationship with Iris West is a fundamental part of his story in the comics. Even if you don’t think the romance on its own is that pivotal, the characters that exist due to that relationship very much are. The Tornado Twins are the children of Barry Allen and Iris West. Bart Allen is their grandson. Just as it’s important that Clark was the son of Jor-El and Lara-El and raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, it’s important that Bart Allen is grandson to Barry Allen and Iris West-Allen. So, like they seemingly did with their Smallville restrictions, it’s extremely likely that WB would dictate that Barry Allen can only marry Iris West.
WB is going to protect not just currently-used characters like Barry Allen. They’re going to protect potential characters like the Tornado Twins and Impulse. They’re going to learn from every mistake they (or, if they’re smart, Marvel) has made in the past and anticipate the legacy of these characters going into the future.
Why So Serious, WB?
Why all the fuss? The characters of the DCTV shows are like that billion dollar car sitting in your driveway. It’s all well and good that we love these characters today. WB wants them to be preserved and beloved by our children and our children’s children. If a movie falters, they want to still preserve the character for their television and comic book audience. They aren’t just worried about this DCTV show on air today. They’re worried about the comics and the movies and the television shows that might exist next year or next decade. They want Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Arrow, and all the others to mean the same thing to children in another eighty years as they do today.
And as fans of these characters, don’t we ultimately want that, as well?