Wonder Woman and the Justice League have an enormous task ahead of them this year – it’s up to them to save the entire DC Films Universe.
There is no denying that DC Films – also known as the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) – has had a rocky start. Man of Steel, with its 55% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, grossed $291 million in North America and $668 million worldwide by the time it left theaters in 2013. Though it made almost $450 million dollars in profit, this wasn’t enough for Warner Bros. who – allegedly – were hoping the Last Son of Krypton would provide them with numbers more akin to those of The Dark Knight Trilogy that had come to its conclusion in 2012. Because of this, they scrapped the plans they had for a solo Superman sequel, and hastily began to assemble an interconnected universe of DC comics’ superheroes in the hopes of rivaling Marvel’s critical, commercial, and financial successes.
Thus, the DCEU as we know it now was born. In July of 2013, it was announced that a Man of Steel follow up was being fast-tracked and would feature the hero who has made Warner Bros. the most money to date – Batman. It wasn’t until May of 2014, however, that the official title – Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice – was released, and wasn’t until October of the same year that the studio announced the rest of their planned slate on a call with shareholders. At the time, they planned to release the following films after their Batman-Superman team-up debut:
- Suicide Squad in 2016
- Wonder Woman in 2017
- Justice League Part One in 2017
- The Flash in 2018
- Aquaman in 2018
- Shazam in 2019
- Justice League Part Two in 2019
- Cyborg in 2020
- Green Lantern in 2020
- In addition, both Batman and Superman would receive their own standalone films, though no dates were given for either.
There was no better time to be a DC fan than immediately following the announcement, because Warner Bros. was finally going to bring all of their most iconic heroes to the big screen in an interconnected universe – something that fans of the brand have been dreaming of since Marvel released Iron Man in 2008. But then Dawn of Justice was released in March of 2016, after nearly a year’s delay, and everything changed.
The movie turned out to be far from the critical or commercial darling that Warner Bros. was hoping for. The film was universally panned, receiving a mere 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, and made a scant $873.3 million worldwide. While this is no small amount – that more than made back the movie’s budget – it was seen as a disappointing haul by just about everyone. Batman alone has shown the ability to rake in over a billion dollars; putting him in a live-action movie with Superman for the first time – a movie which also included Wonder Woman’s first appearance on the big screen – should have been enough to put the film over a billion dollars easily. There was, frankly, no excuse in the eyes of many as to why a film that included three of the oldest, well-known, and – arguably – most popular superheroes of all time was such a colossal disappointment.
At this point, however, Warner Bros. had already put the cart before the horse. Suicide Squad had already wrapped production at that point, and was racing toward its release date scheduled five months later; Wonder Woman was already halfway through production; and Justice League was scheduled to begin shooting a few weeks later. They did, however, do what they could to minimize damage to their floundering cinematic universe. Not only did they begin to interfere in the editing process of Suicide Squad, but they also announced a new DC Films unit within their studio to be overseen by prolific comic book writer, Geoff Johns, in addition to movie producer, Jon Berg. Everyone involved with the DCEU also began to stress how the subsequent films would be lighter and more fun in tone, as opposed to overly dark and serious like Batman v. Superman. (One of the biggest complaints about said film.)
Unfortunately for the WB, Suicide Squad fared similar to Dawn of Justice critically, earning a 26% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Slightly more promising, however, was the fact that audiences seemed to love the film, and it raked in a massive $745.6 million worldwide, which is impressive for a little-known comic property. Alas, this was overshadowed by the critical response which plunged the future of the DCEU into further uncertainty.
The announced slate of films from two-and-a-half years ago doesn’t look likely to unfold as indicated. Justice League, which was initially announced as a two-part film, has been turned into two, separate, standalone movies. The Flash lost multiple directors and is currently in the process of being re-written from scratch, making it unlikely that it will meet a 2018 release. Aquaman is in pre-production as I write this, though its release date was just pushed back to December 2018. The standalone Batman film has lost Ben Affleck as a director and there are rumors it may be losing him as a star as well, although Warner Bros. did pull off a huge coup by signing Matt Reeves to direct the movie. (Though they, along with fans, were dismayed to hear it’s unlikely to meet a release date in 2018.) In addition, a solo Nightwing film, a Gotham City Sirens movie, a Justice League Dark picture, a Black Adam focused prequel to Shazam, and a sequel to Suicide Squad have been added to the slate, although no release or production dates have been announced for any of them. (Though directors are attached to the first three, and multiple directors are currently in consideration for Suicide Squad 2.)
Despite continued development on the part of Warner Bros., there is no guarantee that any of the announced movies – minus Aquaman, which begins filming soon – will ever be made. I don’t believe it’s hyperbole to say that the fate of the DCEU’s future will be determined by the releases of Wonder Woman and Justice League this year. If they do as bad critically and commercially as the previously announced films in this shared universe, and if Justice League fails to gross a minimum of $1 billion, I see four different paths Warner Bros. could likely take moving forward.
1. Proceed as Planned
This is the most obvious path forward, but the one I also believe is least likely. Why? Because frankly, I don’t believe the WB ever had a coherent plan in place when they started this venture. Obviously, Zack Snyder – when hired to oversee this universe – had an idea for an overarching story he wanted to tell. But I don’t believe that he or Warner Bros. ever had any idea how each film would intricately connect to one another. Nor do I believe that they knew how to make each individual superhero feel tonally different from one another and reflective of the source material they hail from, while at the same time maintaining visual continuity between each film.
What I mean is darkness works for Batman because that’s who the character is. It doesn’t work for Superman though, who is about lightness, hope, and optimism. Just like Superman’s tone wouldn’t work for Wonder Woman, and so-on and so-forth. Snyder and Warner Bros. needed to work out how to combine these disparate, very different characters and worlds in a coherent movie without compromising the essence of who each of them are. In Batman v. Superman, I believe they failed. I think they have a winning formula for how to make the character of Batman work, but are still trying to figure out how to successfully bring to life the other members of the Justice League.
I don’t think they figured it out prior to Batman v. Superman, but wanting to jump start the universe as quickly as possible, they went into production anyway and began trying to figure it all out as they went along. I truly believe they only started to plan the future of the DCEU, and think long term, after the bad reception that Dawn of Justice received. That’s why in the aftermath, two months later, they created a DC Films unit at the studio and placed Geoff Johns and Jon Berg in charge of it. The appointment of Johns alone is cause for celebration, because as one of DC comics’ best writers, he truly understands these characters.
Unfortunately, however, the appointment of Johns and Berg came a little too late. It didn’t happen until two films had already been released to the public, Suicide Squad had finished production, Wonder Woman was about to finish shooting, and Justice League was about to go in front of the cameras. So while these two men have been hard at work behind the cameras trying to correct course for the DCEU, it’s unlikely that audiences will see any significant changes to the universe until any of the films scheduled for release post Justice League.
If Wonder Woman and Justice League are released this year to similar reception that the previous three installments of the DCEU faced, Warner Bros. could very well hold their ground. All they need to say is “Trust us. Aquaman is going to shift this entire universe in a different, better direction. It’s the first film to be one-hundred percent handled under the purview of our DC Films unit.”
As I said above, I think this is unlikely. If these two movies fail to be the saviors the WB is hoping for, I think the DCEU is going to radically change.
2. Recast and Reboot the Entire Universe
This is another scenario that, while possible, I believe is highly unlikely. The idea of starting from scratch and taking the same approach the Marvel Cinematic Universe has used for years – giving each member of the Justice League their own standalone film in order to get the audience to care about them before throwing them together in a team up movie – is a good one in theory. After all, if it’s not broken, you shouldn’t fix it, and Marvel has developed a winning formula. But were Warner Bros. to take this route, think of the amount of talent they’d be losing – Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Margot Robbie, Jason Momoa, Jeremy Irons, Jared Leto, Diane Keaton, etc. Because of all of the A-list talent involved, I think it’s far more likely the WB will try to refrain from rebooting and do everything in their power to continue making these films with the cast they already have in place.
3. Scrap the Interconnected Universe and Go Back to Making Standalone Trilogies
One of the key differences between seeing Marvel and DC Comics is the fact that the Marvel universe was created around the idea of its heroes inhabiting the same world and crossing over with one another all of the time. DC heroes were all created individually, and it wasn’t until after witnessing the success Marvel was having with their team up stories that DC decided to retcon their stories so that all of their heroes inhabited the same Earth as well. They were shoehorned into the same universe for profit, and while it may have worked in the comics, it may not adapt well in live-action movies. (It’s clearly not working as of yet!)
Warner Bros. could very well go back to the model of doing standalone superhero trilogies with the cast that they already have in place, disregarding the interconnected events of the DCEU. It’s a formula that worked well for them in the past with both the Superman and Batman franchises, so it could very well work for them again. They can remove any references to the wider DC Films universe from Aquaman and make it a completely standalone picture to launch an Aquaman trilogy. They could then proceed with standalone trilogies for all of their heroes, allowing filmmakers the freedom of not having to adhere to the continuity of any wider universe. In regards to Superman, Man of Steel is an independent enough film that Batman v. Superman could be disregarded entirely, allowing for a new director to come in and make a direct follow up to Henry Cavill’s first outing as the Man of Tomorrow.
This is the second most likely course of action I see the WB taking if Wonder Woman and Justice League fail.
4. Turn the DC Extended Universe into the Batman Extended Universe
This is the most likely scenario I see occurring in the event that Wonder Woman and Justice League don’t perform to the WB’s high expectations.
The character of Batman has been raking in money for Warner Bros. since Tim Burton’s Batman was released in 1989. He is, without a doubt, one of the most popular comic book characters in the world; he might even be the most popular. (Though an argument could be made for Spider-Man.) Putting Batman in a film, characters related to Batman in a movie, or setting stories in Gotham City are sure ways to increase audience interest in a product. It’s for this very reason that the character was introduced in Dawn of Justice, and why he was featured so heavily in the marketing for Suicide Squad despite the fact that he only appeared in the film for about three minutes. It’s also because of the love that people have for his Rogues’ Gallery that Suicide Squad featured four villains traditionally associated with the Batman mythos.
The WB already seems pretty keen to pad out the Gotham City corner of the DCEU as it stands. Because Margot Robbie’s and Will Smith’s portrayals of Harley Quinn and Deadshot respectively were universally praised in Suicide Squad, Gotham City Sirens and Suicide Squad 2 are reportedly being fast tracked. In addition, a Nightwing movie has been announced, to be directed by Chris McKay who recently directed The Lego Batman Movie. And despite all the negativity hurled at Batman v. Superman, most people agree that Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne/Batman was one of the only highlights of that film – even if people were upset with the amount of people he killed over the course of the movie.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the WB decides to focus on Batman-related characters if the DC Films Universe isn’t course corrected in the mind of the public this year, thus turning the DCEU into the BEU. Besides a new Batman film trilogy and the Batman-related films already in development mentioned above, I can see Warner Bros. cancelling the rest of their previously announced projects and expanding upon the world of Gotham City by announcing movies for characters such as Batgirl and Batwoman. I could even see them doing a Gotham Central movie!
Batman is one of those characters with a big enough mythology, and a high popularity, to actually sustain his own universe. And as a trusted money maker, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if Warner Bros. decides to prioritize the world of the Dark Knight on film over all of the other DC properties.
As for what I hope happens? I personally hope that Wonder Woman and Justice League do well enough this year for the WB to stay the course they’re currently on. (Personally, the chances are good that I’ll like them – I enjoyed the rest of the DCEU up until this point, even though the films have been massively flawed and I understand all of the criticism lobbied their way.) I just really want other DC heroes besides Batman and Superman to get their chance to shine on the big screen, and I’m truly afraid that if this endeavor fails, it will be a long time before any of them are given another shot.
What do you think though? Have you enjoyed the DC Films product that Warner Bros. have been putting out so far? What are your hopes for Wonder Woman and Justice League? How do you think the WB should course correct and make the DCEU appeal more to critics and audiences? Hit the comments and let me know!