Since Zack Snyder‘s Man of Steel debuted back in 2013, Warner Bros.’ vision for a DC version of Marvel’s densely inter-connected, massively profitable MCU has been… haphazard to say the least. But now James Gunn and Peter Safran have been hired to shepherd an entirely (well, mostly) new DC cinematic universe, and they promise they have a plan—a plan that will tell one interconnected story through multiple movies and TV series, set in vastly different times, and told over years. But… does this new DC Universe need such a plan?
For those fans who have been waiting for someone to be put in charge of live-action DC entertainment that has some kind of cohesive vision, I don’t want to knock Gunn’s plan, which currently involves a Superman movie, a Batman film starring Bruce Wayne’s biological son Damian as Robin, a Swamp Thing movie, a Green Lantern show, and more. Do I personally have any idea how the hell Gunn could have any kind of continuous narrative thread with a franchise that will chronologically begin with a history of Wonder Woman’s home island of Themiscyra, yet somehow get kicked off in the real world by a 1940s-set , Frankenstein-led cartoon called Creature Commandos? I absolutely do not. But just because I can’t fathom it doesn’t mean Gunn can’t.
Here’s what I will say, however: there has been one thing that has consistently worked for DC superhero movies over the past several decades, and one thing alone: not connecting them. DC’s stand-alone movies, or mini-franchises like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, have done much, much better than Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon’s attempt to redo the MCU with the Justice League. If you check out the lifetime domestic gross of DC’s top 10 movies, only one tried to combine superheroes to start building a universe: 2016’s Batman v Supermanand that was #7 on the list, making less than The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Risesthe solo Aquaman and Wonder Woman movies, Jokerand most recently The Batman. Hell, the 1989 Batman movie made more than Justice Leagueand that’s without adjusting for inflation.
The problem with this proven track record of solo films is that it doesn’t invite/entice/require viewers to watch the next movie in the overarching narrative to keep following the story like Marvel Studios does. It means that even if Warner Bros. had gotten its act together and was able to release four DC movies a year, like Marvel has, audiences would be able to pick and choose which ones they wanted to see. Which, honestly, sounds wonderful to me. But of course, to WB executives, it’s a horrendous screech of money being left on the table.
Or so they believe, at least. What I suspect they haven’t reckoned with is the idea that mass audiences can only support one superhero cinematic universe at a time. Industry folk talk about superhero movie fatigue more and more, yet the MCU seems determined to push it to the absolute limit with its relentless barrage of releases. But the difference between the MCU and the DCU is that audiences are already hooked on the former. They’ve invested time and money into following the story that is the MCU for a decade and a half. While there are surely some people who want twice the amount of densely plotted superhero movies in their lives, there are surely many who don’t.
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Which is to say, I think Warner Bros. might end up leaving more money on the table by not giving audiences an alternative to the MCU—a universe of superhero films that viewers can dip into and out of any point without fear of missing something. This likely means these DC movies won’t reach the box office heights of Marvel’s Avengers films, but again, neither did Batman v Superman or Justice League.
What’s weird is that it feels like Gunn’s initial line-up for his DCU practically begs to be stand-alone projects. How do you start an organic, connected DC cinematic universe where Batman has already moved on to his fourth Robin? Or effectively debut the Authority, a pastiche of the Justice League in general and Batman and Superman in specific, when the Justice League doesn’t exist yet? If these movies weren’t connected, this would all be fine. If these movies aren’t set in some kind of chronological order, that would free them up to be whatever Gunn et al. want them to be—except for whatever he’s thought up to bind them all together.
It’s not a problem with the projects themselves! I love Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin run, as well as All-Star Superman. I’m incredibly excited at the idea of getting to see both stories inspire Brave and the Bold and Superman: Legacy films. I liked The Authority back in the day, and a Game of Thrones-meets-Greek mythology Paradise Lost could be very cool. Honestly, the only DC project that leaves me completely cold is the Waller TV series; despite being played by the amazing Viola Davis, Amanda Waller hasn’t traditionally had enough depth of character in any incarnation to lead a solo series.
I’m not saying a Waller show can’t be done, or that it can’t be done well. The same is certainly true of figuring out a narrative that somehow fits in this widely eclectic, disparate group of films and movies. It’s just that certain DC movies have had success before, and it’s when Warner Bros. stopped trying to emulate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What if it ends up they were accidentally onto something?
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