The arrival of Steamboat Willie—and with it, the first steps of Mickey Mouse himself—into the public domain at the start of 2024 has been a milestone that, in just under three weeks, already seen a bevy of horrifying riffs and a look ahead to what other stalwarts of culture will join him next. At Warner Bros., just as it prepares to refashion a new superhero movie era, all eyes are on the near horizon.
Three of DC’s biggest and most influential characters—Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—will have their earliest appearances enter the public domain in 2034, 2035, and 2037, respectively. Each will represent a scenario akin to what Disney has currently faced with Steamboat Willie, even just weeks into its public domain debut: a world where DC still has many of the grips on the elements that make those characters the ones we know and love, while that same world rushes to put its own stamp on some of the most legendary comics characters in existence.
Over at Variety the trade has taken a look at what DC can do as the trinity prepares to enter public domain, and once again much as the case has been with Disney and Steamboat, the answer is largely both not much and quite a lot. Warner Bros., DC Comics’ owner, won’t be able to stop these characters from entering the public domain—the time for that has passed after the copyright extensions granted in the Copyright Extension Act of 1998. The fact that DC’s currently rebooting movie slate—which of course includes multiple new Batman movies and James Gunn’s Superman: Legacy as early major tentpoles—also focuses on a swath of lesser-known characters to introduce wider audiences to, including the Creature Commandos or the Authority characters being added to Legacy, shows how Warner is preparing for a future where its ownership of these characters for adaptation is no longer exclusive.
“People will make a run at these characters because there’s money to be made,” comics scribe Mark Waid told Variety. “It’s a gray area. But this town works on the speed of capitalism, right? That’s how we work.”
But just as Disney still does when it comes to Mickey Mouse, Warner Bros. and DC will still have a lot of leverage over Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman upon their public domain debuts. Those initial entries will only cover the earliest iterations of these characters—characters who have spent decades undergoing iterations and additions in their histories, powers, and public identities since those debuts that have made them the heroes most people know. Batman is arguably as defined by his supporting cast as he is himself, many of whom won’t immediately join him in the public domain (the Joker will arrive a year after him in 2036). Wonder Woman has undergone a bevy of retcons and origin stories since her debut, some more popular than others, but still to the point where some more popular elements of her story won’t fall under public domain purview when she first does. Superman will be joined in the public domain by the similarly iconic Lois Lane, but key parts of what we know of his powerset won’t—at first Clark couldn’t fly, but instead just jump real high, for example.
Beyond character traits and supporting cast members though, DC will also retain several key trademarks for each of these characters—that, unlike copyright, do not naturally expire over time—that will allow it to leverage control, and make any public domain uses of the characters have to distinguish themselves from DC’s own concurrent works, like trademarks it owns for the Bat symbol or Superman’s S, as well as ones on alternate nomenclature like the Man of Steel or the Caped Crusader. It can’t stop them being used outright, but it can effectively stop people from trying to pass off public domain material as if it were from DC and Warner.
As Hollywood continues in its cycles of trends, superheroes will not always be a dominant as they have been for the last decade plus of filmmaking—a light that is arguably already clearly beginning to fade in the wider mainstream eye. But as more and more of these legendary characters pass over into the public domain, resurgences in adaptive use, from sources beyond their original owners, will make a far more interesting, albeit murkier, world to play in.
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