In late 2014, Warner Bros. proudly announced a slate of upcoming movies all set in the freshly minted DC Extended Universe. The shared universe line-up was conspicuously modeled after the franchise structure that had already brought Disney so much success in the form of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: a collection of solo movies about DC’s most famous superheroes, periodically culminating in an all-star Justice League team-up. Also thrown in there, somewhat incongruously, was this year’s Suicide Squad – a supervillain caper that would, at most, only feature superheroes in brief cameo roles.
That Warner Bros. was confident enough to lay down plans for the next six years with only one modestly-received Superman movie under the DCEU’s belt is a testament to how superhero movies were (and, to some extent still are) perceived: the goose that never stops laying golden eggs. With powerhouse names like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman in the mix, it seemed impossible that the DCEU could fail… and it hasn’t. Not exactly. But things certainly haven’t gone as well as Warner Bros. might have hoped.
Three movies in, the DCEU has consistently turned a profit with each new release, pulling big numbers at the box office even when those numbers don’t quite meet expectations. The franchise’s biggest issue, however, has been its image: Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad have been met with increasing derision from critics, and while the divide between general audience and critic opinion of those movies has also grown wider, it’s hard to deny that the DCEU has a poor reputation – particularly in comparison to Warner Bros.’ previous DC superhero project, the Dark Knight trilogy.
The recent news that Suicide Squad star Margot Robbie is set to reprise her role as Harley Quinn in Gotham City Sirens – a movie based on the comic series about DC’s most famous female supervillains, set to be directed by Suicide Squad‘s David Ayer – is the latest evidence that Warner Bros. may be rethinking its priorities when it comes to the DCEU. The report also notes that Suicide Squad 2 and a Deadshot spinoff starring Will Smith are potentially on the way, and follows just a few months after the news that Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) is set to direct Dark Universe, a movie based on the Justice League Dark comics, which feature the likes of John Constantine, Zatanna, Deadman, and Shade, the Changing Man.
John Constantine, of course, is one of the most famous bad boys of DC’s Vertigo imprint: a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, magic-wielding con man with a serious mean streak and a past that could politely be described as “checkered.” Constantine is more on the light side than the villains depicted in Suicide Squad, but not by a whole lot, and Dark Universe (scripted by Guillermo Del Toro) seems like the perfect place to expand on the magic and mysticism that was introduced in Suicide Squad with Cara Delevingne’s character, the Enchantress.
The points in favor of Warner Bros. leaning on the darker and more villainous side of DC Comics are numerous and compelling. While Marvel Studios has yet to turn out a single film that has been critically lambasted, a consistent weak spot in that superhero franchise – observed by fans and critics alike – is its lack of interesting villains. That leaves a big itch still to be scratched, and villains have always been an area where DC has excelled, both on the page and on the screen. The Joker is as famous as Batman himself, and storylines that focus on that character – from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s iconic graphic novel The Killing Joke to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – are among the most celebrated works in the history of the genre.
If recent trends in superhero cinema have shown us anything, it’s that the way to stake a claim is to do something that isn’t already being done. Marvel Studios cornered the market on the shared cinematic universe that other studios immediately began racing to copy; meanwhile, 20th Century Fox (reluctantly) took the risk of making a gleefully R-rated superhero movie with Deadpool, and it was a risk that paid off in spades. Warner Bros. jumped into the DCEU with the assumption that DC’s most famous superheroes would naturally be the biggest draw, but now the studio may be recognizing DC’s villains – famous and obscure alike – as the true gold mine.
Of course, it’s important not to overstate the success of Suicide Squad. While it performed well at the box office, it did so in spite of scathing reviews and in the opinion of many fans it is the worst entry in the DCEU so far. But while the film itself was messy and heavily flawed (largely due to a lack of proper development), the individual characters – Harley Quinn and Deadshot in particular – won a lot of fans, and Warner Bros. spun a profoundly effective marketing campaign out of the concept of bad guys teaming up and having fun.
The fact is that the superhero genre is a little oversubscribed when it comes to good guys, so while the Justice League crew could still become a successful part of the pile, there’s a gap in the market when it comes to villains and anti-heroes. If Warner Bros. can take something that DC comics and movies have already been heavily praised for and run wild with it, we could all stand to benefit.