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Saving the DC Universe

Batman V Superman / DC

A few years ago, the future of DC Entertainment seemed so bright. At successive San Diego Comic-Con panels, the brass at Warner Bros. announced what so many DC fans had been waiting years for a shared cinematic universe, the DC Extended Universe (or DCEU, which remains a really stupid-sounding name).

They showcased Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, they teased pictures of The Flash and Cyborg and Aquaman, exciting nerds everywhere and finally showing they could maybe compete with the long-established Marvel Cinematic Universe.

And then it all went so, so wrong.

If we ignore Man of Steel (2013), which polarized critics, the first moment of real panic came after Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered in March 2016. This movie, still regarded as one of the worst of the decade by most people, was an overstuffed, overly gritty joke of a movie that showed a lot of style with very little substance.

It enjoyed an excellent opening weekend…and then a historic drop from which it never recovered. I mean, the first time that the two most well-known superheroes meet on the big screen, and it didn’t even gross a billion?

Then came Suicide Squad a few months later, which couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a movie about supervillains carrying out suicide missions for the government or a popcorn blockbuster scored to the music library of a teenager. You could actually see all of the forced jokes that were inserted following the lukewarm reception of its predecessor.

Wonder Woman was a breath of fresh air the following June, but come November 2017 it was all over. Warner Bros. dropped Justice League, theoretically its answer to The Avengers, its big-ticket blockbuster event that would even the score. The movie bombed at the box office, not even making what Suicide Squad had made, and the studio completely lost its mind.

A little over a year later, Aquaman did surprisingly well, grossing over a billion and becoming DC’s biggest movie hit ever, but it was too late. The studio had given up on building the shared universe that was envisioned by Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns in the mid-2010s. Case in point, 2019’s Shazam!, which was a wildly fun movie, had basically no connection to the main DC universe of films.

Which brings us to now. Marvel is coming off the high successes of last year’s Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing movie of all time, and is preparing to launch Phase Four, which will integrate the solo movie releases with brand-new team films and television shows premiering exclusively for Disney+ subscribers.

Meanwhile, DC has not had a single movie released in 2020 except for the god-awful Birds of Prey released in February (which due to the ongoing pandemic feels like no less than thirty years ago).

The next film planned is Wonder Woman 1984 in June 2021. Any plans for a potential sequel to Justice League – might I remind you, the flagship title of DC Comics – are murky at best, and no one, not even Superman, seems to know if the cast will reunite at any point.

It’s not what any fan expected or wanted, but it’s clear now that Warner Bros. has seen their adventures in building the DCEU as financially risky with little pay-off. The studio wanted Avengers-type money from the get-go but didn’t bother investing the multiple years of world-building necessary beforehand. After all, Iron Man debuted in 2008, yet the first Avengers movie only came out in 2012, following solo movies for Thor and Captain America.

So what should Warner Bros. do going forward? It’s clear that the James Wan-helmed Aquaman series is a hit, as is the Wonder Woman saga under Patty Jenkins. But what of everyone else?

Well, in this fan’s humble opinion, it’s time to stop trying to emulate Marvel and just go all-in on whatever fills seats. I’m talking balls-to-the-wall filmmaking here.

It’s clear that the Marvel strategy of introducing characters in small solo films before bringing them into the big blockbuster team movies isn’t working in the WB Burbank lot. So a strategy change is necessary. Why not one of artistic liberty?

Warner Bros. should stop trying to build a DC Universe to rival its competitor. I mean, Justice League didn’t even break even, while Avengers: Endgame made over two billion at the box office in a single week. Clearly, the game’s over.

Instead, the studio heads over at WB should focus on making singular, small-scope solo films, and pepper them throughout the year. The ones that work get a sequel, the ones that flop don’t.

Aquaman and Shazam! did well, so bring back those directors, give them a slightly bigger budget, and let them work their magic again. Wonder Woman will fill seats no matter what, so throw your money at Patty Jenkins and watch her deliver every time.

I mean, just last year DC had a surprise smash hit, and what was it? Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the Clown Prince of Crime, who just three years earlier was a Jared Leto abomination.

That’s right, the highest-grossing rated-R film ever is a one-off character piece that recast its lead character. Clearly, DC does better in the weird movie area, since the movie didn’t even feature Batman.

Speaking of the Dark Knight, clearly, Warner Bros. is starting to see the light, since they’ve more or less jumped into the Robert Pattinson boat. The British actor will be starring in Matt Reeves’s The Batman in late 2021. Gone now are the Batfleck dreams of the 2010s, as Pattinson is supposed to show up in a whole trilogy of planned movies starring the Caped Crusader.

This all makes total sense. DC never experienced such critical and commercial success as they did in the era of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, from 2005-2012. Those movies, starring Christian Bale facing off a smattering of memorable and well-written villains, remain in the upper echelon of comic book movies even today.

If Warner Bros. wants to return to that era of being a serious movie studio in the superhero genre, they should abandon their old pipe dream of making their own Avengers movies. Let every director take a crack at the Joker if they want, let Tom King and Ava DuVernay pen a New Gods film. Hell, if James Franco and Seth Rogen want to play Booster Gold and Blue Beetle in a buddy-cop comedy movie, go for it.

After all, Marvel is limited by its expansive continuity, for better or worse, while DC’s free to go as crazy as they want. The only character who’ll be hurt is Superman, because let’s be honest – nobody wants to see a solo Superman movie.

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