For decades, Marvel and DC have battled it out in comic book stores across the world for supremacy. Though some fans favor one over the other, many comic readers are more than happy to have the two titans turn out multiple books every month featuring a wide variety of heroes, villains, and team-ups. Since nearly the beginning of comics, there’s been an attempt to translate these characters onto screens both big and small. While the results have varied over the years, most would agree we’re now living in a golden age of superhero films and TV series.
While DC has continued to use TV and animation to bring a variety of different projects and characters to life, from Green Arrow to Teen Titans, their film side has had a rockier road. For the DCEU, it’s still early days, but one path forward may be a separate line of spinoffs that exist outside of their shared continuity. Like with the comics before them, we think DC should look to Elseworlds for the future of their films.
The Burden of Continuity
Both Marvel and DC have had their share of successes and failures at the cinema, but the MCU has helped the Disney-owned company release hit after hit. Not only have their films done exceedingly well at the box office, but critics and fans have lauded them with praise. DC and Warner Bros., meanwhile have struggled to tie their DCEU ticket sales to critical acclaim, or even an audience consensus. Meanwhile, their diverse television line-up continues to be the company’s best asset.
When Marvel began constructing their shared universe, they did so by putting characters and individual films first. Though they received some pushback for movies like Iron Man 2, where the idea of the Avengers was being slowly set up, they still managed to buoy their output with strong performances. Meanwhile, many fans appreciated the build-up to future events, something that’s been done for decades in the comics.
By the time the Avengers assembled, it wasn’t just the audacity of making a film full of superheroes. The awe of the movie came from a series of stars each reprising their roles from successful solo films in one massive spectacle. The result was a huge success for Marvel, both with audience and critics. Since then, they’ve continued the same tactic while announcing future films that will continue the story of the MCU. They only do so, however, once they have a firm idea of what movie they’ll be making. The result has seen them announce eight films over the next three years, and all but one has a director, with each having release dates, stars, and writers.
DC, meanwhile, has never really had a concrete plan for the DCEU. Following the massive success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, they scrambled with where to go next. Their first post-Nolan film was Man of Steel, which saw the director serve as a producer and help Zack Snyder craft a dark and human portrayal of Superman. Fans were mixed, but it proved financially successful. From there, however, DC watched as Marvel rocketed into the stratosphere and the WB executives began meddling. Since that time, DC and WB have thrown everything at the wall to see what sticks. They currently have eighteen films announced, with only three of them anywhere near becoming actual movies. The rest have been fraught with multiple creative changes at best, and uncertainty whether they’re anything more than a pipe dream at worst.
Three years after the DCEU began, it finally continued with Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad in 2016. Both films were part of the DCEU, but the former attempted to carry the weight of the entire shared universe on its shoulders. The result was a bloated film with many solid parts that didn’t add up to a satisfying whole. Rather than continue Superman’s personal journey or introduce Batman, or set up Justice League, or adapt a classic comic event, DC and WB attempted to cram everything into one film in order to lay all the groundwork for their version of The Avengers without having the patience to actually allow audiences to invest in their characters first.
Suicide Squad, meanwhile, suffered from problems of its own. Still, it was a financial hit and won over a dedicated fan base thanks to its unique tone and focus on atypical protagonists. And though it offered several connections to the DCEU, they were throwaway moments that didn’t bog down the movie. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the closest thing to a standalone movie in the DCEU, and therein lies its success.
Looking To Elseworlds
Marvel has had the luxury of distancing themselves from past movies based on their characters thanks to the strong performance of the MCU brand and the characters that populate it. They may not have Wolverine and only recently acquired Spider-Man, but Iron Man, Black Widow, and the Guardians of the Galaxy have all become household names. The DCEU, meanwhile, is continually hamstrung by their abandonment of Nolan’s films. By far the most popular cinematic product they’ve ever produced, they even have the luxury of the films being made by Warner Bros. While there’s nothing wrong with DC crafting a shared universe to reflect their comics, they need to bring all of their films under one roof.
The way to do this also has precedence in the comics. Not only do publishers often create stories that exist outside of the main continuity, but many times they create entire new lines of comics to tell these stories. In 1989, DC did just that when they published Gotham By Gaslight and created the Elseworlds imprint to tell fantastical tales. Like Marvel’s What If…? Line, Elseworlds sought to free itself from the constraints of canon and continuity and tell alternate takes on its biggest heroes.
Gotham By Gaslight, for example, imagined a world where Bruce Wayne lived in the Europe of the late 1800s. There, he became a sort of steampunk version of Batman to take down Jack the Ripper. Mixing alternate history with a classic spin on a popular character would be a recipe for success if DC attempted it. Audiences will already eat up anything related to Batman (even when it’s a LEGO version of the character), and a Gotham By Gaslight movie would allow them to tell a story with a different actor wearing the cowl.
For Superman, Red Son plays like a version of The Man in the High Castle by imaging what would have happened if Kal-El landed in the USSR rather than Kansas. It’s a simple enough premise to sell, and is one of the most lauded Superman stories of all time. Like Gotham By Gaslight, it trades in the always popular world of alternate histories, both in terms of the real world and comics.
While there are many Elseworlds titles DC and WB could look towards, Kingdom Come is another strong contender. The story, by venerable writer Mark Waid, envisions a future where DC’s biggest heroes have grown old and out of touch while a new crop of superheroes who use extreme methods to execute justice. Not only does it allow for the type of philosophical arguments that Nolan’s films excelled at, but it would let DC throw all of their biggest characters into one film without spending years establishing them. Audiences are more than familiar with the likes of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and The Flash, and don’t need their hand held as they join forces to create a team. Moviegoers are primed for what comic readers have taken at face value for years, so now is the time for a movie like Kingdom Come. By skipping the setup, DC could get straight into telling a complex and entertaining story, with plenty of opportunity for big action and lots of name recognition.
General moviegoers already have a hard time distinguishing between Marvel and DC, let alone the myriad continuities that exist within them. What they do like, however, is Batman and Superman and other big heroes, and out-of-continuity spinoffs would allow DC to cash in on their most successful characters without being beholden to a vast, overarching narrative. If DC and WB were to create a separate studio that could not only handle these Elseworlds titles, but some of the multitude of other films they’ve announced, they’d be able to finally make movies as good as the characters upon which they’re based.