The meeting room is a classic high-level business executive meeting room type room, a room at the top of a skyscraper with a high ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows, and deep pile carpet which makes dragging office chairs around on it impractical, and a long hardwood table. Alan Webb arrives last of everybody, finding a collection of marketing and business executives already waiting for him. He circles to the head of the table. "Let's get started," he says, subtly implying that it isn't his lateness which is delaying the start of the meeting.
Webb is a descendant of one of the original Warner Brothers, and has been CEO of the media and entertainment conglomerate for nearly ten years.
Denise Sullivan, seated at his right hand, stands up and clears her throat. "This is a bigger meeting than we usually have and we have some new faces. So, I'm going to start by rewinding us a few years, giving everybody the necessary context. Except where explicitly noted, everything shared in this meeting is strictly W.B. confidential and doesn't go beyond this room. Everybody on board? Good.
"W.B. produces an immense variety of entertainment products including films, videogames, toys and merchandising. Attached to the toy and merchandising divisions are chemical and industrial operations, and attached to the videogames divisions are a few research offices. Everything you know about modern videogames? All the psychology research which goes into hooks, engagement triggers, reward cycles, payment obfuscation... all of that comes out of offices like that. Or is... ah, bought from our distinguished competition. Or just cribbed from their published games.
"As a result of the unprecedented scale on which modern videogames are played, we've been able to perform more detailed psychological analysis and experimentation than ever before. Human brain behaviour is far more diverse than we can easily quantify — especially because despite our best efforts, the majority of humans do not, in fact, regularly play videogames, and so can't be studied in this way. Everybody in this room included, I hope!" She laughs, calculatedly. "Even among the gaming public, there is far too much variety to produce a perfect unified model of human behaviour. However... while perfection is the ideal, we can do great things with an imperfect, roughly accurate model of some percentage of humans. In fact, our state of the art is, for somewhere between twenty and twenty-five percent of all living humans, close enough to 'the metal' that, through the medium of our entertainment, we have almost direct access to, and control over, those people's thoughts. Taking a broader perspective, we have limited blanket control over what somewhere around ninety percent of people think. Not direct, fine-grained control, but enough control that that can have value.
"This collection of discoveries, and iterated research process, came to its logical conclusion in 2024. That year, we developed and deployed a multimedia advertising campaign which, while appearing at surface level to be a conventional campaign for the launch of a new streaming media service (and being intentionally somewhat ineffective on that basis), was in fact a complex psychological trigger intended to make those viewing the advertisements totally forget about the existence of Batman."
Sullivan pauses for a significant moment. People around the table show signs of mild confusion. A few of them trade a few quiet words with their neighbours, not fully able to deduce what Sullivan means. Someone puts a hand up. "You mean the Batman we put out last year? The flagship movie which—"
"Yes," Sullivan says. "Those of you here who didn't receive the suitable inoculation before the campaign began will be unaware of this, but Batman has existed for more than ninety years." She takes a sip of water.
"Batman is real?" someone else asks.
"What?" Sullivan chokes. "No. Of course not. How could Batman actually exist? He would have fallen off a building or been shot dead within a week. Batman is and has always been a fictional character. What I'm telling you is that Batman has existed since the late Thirties. The nineteen-thirties. Not only that, but Batman was arguably the most enduring and popular of all superheroes, D.C., Marvel or otherwise. The character was titanically significant. Oceans of comic books, dozens of different animated series, dozens of insanely popular movies, legions of side characters, Libraries of Congress' worth of merchandise. As a property, he was worth tens of billions of dollars. More popular even than Spider-Man."
Someone frowns. "What?"
Someone else says, "More popular than Iron Man?"
"Yes," Sullivan says. There seems to be some scepticism around the table at this. "Yes, more popular than Iron Man. By a street. He was... at one point... the most valuable comic book property, bar none."
"...Was?" someone says.
"And we threw that away?" someone else says.
"Because we what, wanted to start over?" a third person says. "We just felt the natural appeal of the character would shine through on its own merits, is that what you're telling us?"
Webb finally speaks. "Because we were blowing it!" he says. "Because the world was saturated with Batman, sick of him! We'd made too many Batman movies, too many different Batman interpretations. The general public was sick to the back teeth of seeing him on the big screen, sick of being fed the same origin stories and villains. We needed to invent a fresh approach, a fresh take, a fresh way to look at him. So we took away the world's cultural memory of Batman."
"And then... made... that?"
"Yes," Sullivan says. "We produced an entirely new Batman movie. Batman (2029) was a synthesis of all of the best previously existing Batman movies. It was produced, written and directed by the inoculated. All the major high-level creators were aware of Batman's previously existing cultural significance, and drew freely from all of the best and most popular previously existing movies and comics to produce a totally new, and yet timelessly relevant, origin story take.
"Let me briefly synopsise the movie... eight-year-old trust fund billionaire Bruce Wayne has his wealthy parents gunned down by a crook in a back alley. He spends the rest of his childhood and young adulthood training and refining his skills to become the worlds most adept and effective crimefighter. With the aid of his immense wealth, advanced technology, his butler Alfred and his unique fear-themed bat persona, he launches a one-man war on crime in Gotham City, culminating in a showdown with flamboyant circus-themed professional criminal the Joker."
"We all saw the movie, Denise!" someone says.
"I didn't," someone says. "Someone told me the synopsis and it sounded dreadful."
"I saw the first fifteen minutes and turned it off," someone else says. "It was just ridiculous."
"The film was broadly reflective of previously existing, extremely popular Batman movies," Sullivan says.
"Let's not mince words," Webb adds. "It was a Greatest Hits. There wasn't a single fresh element to it. It was knit together from things which had previously been proven to work."
Sullivan takes a deep breath. "However, the movie flopped."
Someone at the far end of the table stands up. His name is Ellis. "Denise, Alan. Everyone. My department crunches analytics data. We know precisely why the movie flopped. Nobody in my department was inoculated. We were all screaming at you that the movie would flop and you were investing a mind-boggling, dangerous amount of money into it, all the way through production. We couldn't figure out why you were so hell-bent on this ridiculous concept. We knew it was someone's pet project, there was a reason for it, and now we know.
"This character is ludicrous. He's tone-deaf. He's the textbook male 'clean up the rotten streets' revenge fantasy that's been made over and over and over again, which peaked with Death Wish. A concept like this should have one tenth of this budget, one twentieth. It's a stalwart, and it's still popular among a certain kind of market, but that market isn't broad. The guy is totally indifferent to the problems of inner-city poverty right up until the instant they personally affect him, and then he launches a brutally expensive operation to deliver violence to the symptoms, and does nothing to address the underlying structural issues. They aren't even mentioned. It's like the whole movie thinks 'crime' is a random, natural occurrence. It doesn't have causes. Look at this guy! He dresses all in black body armour. He's laden with expensive gadgets. He's got a heavily-armoured vehicle. Have you been paying any attention to the past fifteen years? Batman is a cop. A cop who the other cops allow to skirt the law and due process, because he's always right.
"And then! On top of that! You add this ludicrous bat persona? Which, fine. There are Marvel characters who do that. Falcon became Captain America, and I love that. Ant-Man... sure."
Sullivan says, "Also, Spider-Man." She says it in a condescending tone, hitting out at Ellis's obvious omission as a way to score points.
Ellis shrugs, puzzled at the obscure reference. "Sure? If you say so? And then you have the gall to try to present this laughable fuzzy alter-ego as extra-scary? This may have been the most popular character in some era, in some context, where he wasn't just an idiot cop in an idiot costume, where 'crime' was a thing. Right here and now, I think the ninety years of cultural momentum could have been useful too? Or... hear me out here. An original idea?"
"Spiders," someone says. "Like Denise said. Spiders are more scary than bats. That's just objectively true."
Sullivan turns a scornful look on this other person. "Spider-Man? Are you serious?"
This other person shrugs. "Well, what's this meeting about? Disaster analysis of what went wrong with Batman, or what we want to do next? I like this Spider-Man idea."
Webb says, "Spider-Man is a Disney/Marvel property. He's existed for almost as long as Batman has. He is, right now, the most popular and lucrative comic book property. He was second to Batman."
Sullivan explains, "He's a New York kid who gains spider-based powers from being bitten by a mutated spider. He's a street-level hero who looks after his neighbours and can tangle things up in webs. Very vertiginous. All quips and nerdery."
"See, that's a great idea," folks at the table say. "Sounds good. Kids would love that kind of thing. Someone should make that guy into a movie."
Sullivan glares at everybody. Then she looks at Webb, and the other inoculated executives. "Uh-oh."
Webb goes to the window. Down in the street, there's a billboard visible, advertising the new Spider-Man movie. Or, as far as the billboard suggests, the very first Spider-Man movie. Webb has a brief, agonising, largely accurate vision of the future, a future which Spider-Man (2030) is the first movie to make ten billion dollars.