For nearly five full years, fans have picked apart DC Entertainment’s big screen plans for a Justice League shared universe – especially: should solo movies or team-ups come first? We now know the big screen world established in Man of Steel is only one piece of the cross-media DC Extended Universe but long after Warner Bros. revealed the full DC film slate through 2020, some fans remain jaded and skeptical. Pre-release marketing for Batman V Superman built on the foundation that director Zack Snyder developed in Man of Steel – leaning hard on the aftermath of Superman’s battle with Zod to introduce a full shared universe.
The marketing also drudged-up prior disagreements about the filmmaker’s handling of Superman – along with accusations that Batman V Superman‘s inclusion of Wonder Woman (along with other Justice League heroes) was proof Warner Bros. was scrambling to replicate Marvel Phase 1 and 2. We’ve argued previously that there’s no reason why superhero enthusiasts can’t enjoy both Marvel and DC movies (because of, rather than in spite of, their differences), there’s plenty of reason to be excited about each of these budding big screen universes. Yet, with the DCEU just starting out, Warner Bros. had time to analyze what worked for Marvel Studios – and learn from any MCU challenges.
Will they put that time to good use? Batman V Superman is opening to mixed response but DC already has three other films in production – The DCEU isn’t going anywhere. Can Justice League solve Marvel’s shared universe shortcomings and raise the bar for comic book movie storytelling in both camps?
DC Movies and TV Are Separate Universes
Where the MCU’s completely interconnected shared story was a revolution for big screen storytelling (one that has since turned into a Hollywood buzz phrase), after thirteen films, Marvel is now managing an increasingly complicated cross-medium universe – and, from time to time, that interconnected story results in hard-to-ignore plot holes and lingering questions. An understandable pitfall of such an ambitious cross-media experiment – but nonetheless a regular frustration among fans (at best) and a go-to point for detractors (at worst). Conversely, when it was first announced that Warner Bros. was developing a Flash TV series – at the same time the studio was also preparing the way for big screen Justice League heroes – fans were understandably confused. Add to that Arrow actor Stephen Amell suggesting he’d like his Emerald Archer to appear in the film series, and fans weren’t sure what to expect.
Several years later, Warner Bros. revealed a cure-all solution to the challenge of TV and movie crossovers, one that further differentiated their approach from the MCU, positioning the DCEU as a semi-connected “Extended” multiverse – affording them the flexibility to green light whatever cross-overs make sense (both in terms of plot, branding, and financial gain) without the baggage of fitting every character and narrative into a single Justice League-led movie story. DC producers maintain that any combination of their TV and film properties is technically possible, as certain characters have even appeared in different shows (example: a version of Constantine visited the Arrow-verse); though, for now, Flash is the only character that is actively enjoying full-on multiverse opportunities. Time will tell if a future DC TV performer is a fit for the movies but, just because Grant Gustin won’t play a big screen Scarlet Speedster doesn’t mean there’s a finite line between all DC TV and film.
There is No S.H.I.E.L.D.
At the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fictional agency of S.H.I.E.L.D. was the through line tethering all Marvel Studios’ projects together – as Avengers fanboy Agent Phil Coulson and Director Nick Fury inserted themselves into the adventures of Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America (until the heroes forged an actual superhero partnership in The Avengers). However, while the films outlived a need for S.H.I.E.L.D., the organization (and Coulson) found a second life on the small screen – where Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has come to stand on its own, while simultaneously remaining a glaring shared universe challenge. Top S.H.I.E.L.D. agents are M.I.A. during world-threatening movie events; plus, four full years after The Avengers, and Earth’s Mightiest Warriors still don’t even know Coulson is alive. The show can explain away continuity errors but, even when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. succeeds, it and its titular organization are still more vestigial piece of Phase 1 development than an equal MCU partner.
Fortunately, DC’s Justice League isn’t created by a black ops government agency – they discover one another when world-threatening villains attempt to take control of Earth. Given that most Justice League heroes are super-powered beings, that government security forces (like A.R.G.U.S.) stand little chance of controlling, DC gets to rely on internal conflicts and ideological differences within the League for shared universe team-ups and drama. As a result, when something big happens in a DCEU feature, it only impacts other movie stories in the pipeline – and isn’t limited by concern for how events might alter the format of, for example, a weekly TV show. DC might have suggested that TV and movie crossovers could, technically, happen in the future, but the studio is currently eating its cake and having it to by positioning their TV shows in different universes.
Justice League Heroes Have Long-Standing Beef
MCU heroes will come head-to-head in Captain America: Civil War, after comparatively benign disagreements in the past, but the Justice League is another story. Even though DC’s iconic do-gooders stand together against global threats, personal grudges, suspicions, and even racial tensions have threatened to tear the team apart – on and off the battlefield. The Justice League is packed with god-like beings whose opinions that are just as strong as their fists. For that reason, DC might not need to isolate the heroes from one another to explain why Aquaman doesn’t show up to help the Man of Steel – since The King of the Seven Seas could simply not care what dangers threaten the world outside the ocean (at least not at first).
Even the most noble DC heroes still have allegiances to their home country – and it is those allegiances that may help explain why the heroes remain separate. We already know that Wonder Woman’s fellow Amazonian warriors had, for years, protected humanity from otherworldly dangers, only to turn their backs on mortals. Similarly, one of the only “normal” humans on the team, Batman, answers the call to fight alongside the Justice League – but also develops contingency plans and anti-superhuman weapons should any of his colleagues become a liability. Furthermore, while Man of Steel and Batman V Superman started the DCEU off with a bang, it’s possible that future solo movies will keep a slightly tighter focus and tell more intimate stories between Justice League heroes and their respective super villains – without throwing the altercation onto the world stage every single time. Would an underwater battle between Aquaman and Black Manta really be any less exciting if the fate of the entire Earth didn’t hang in the balance?
The DC Tone Fits Its Stakes (and Will Evolve)
Ever since Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns, Warner Bros. has embraced a, comparatively, darker tone for their DC film properties – an approach that was further reinforced by the success of Christopher Nolan’s take on the Dark Knight. Conversely, the studio’s light-hearted and more colorful films, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, Catwoman, Superman Returns and Green Lantern were usually less successful (critically and commercially). For that reason, it wasn’t surprising that producers set out to paint the DCEU with a slightly darker (and “gritty”) tone – in contrast to the relatively light-hearted fun of Marvel Studios Phase 1 and 2. No doubt, The Avengers have faced dark moments and tough challenges but the films have been quick to balance out violent or emotionally charged scenes with comedic levity. As an example, audiences loved Guardians of the Galaxy, for good reason, but onscreen events didn’t always fit with the level of devastation (and outright death) that was being portrayed: despite obliteration of the Nova Corps fleet, Ronan the Accuser is stopped dead in his tracks by Peter Quill’s dance moves.
It’s a problem that is made all the more apparent by the amount of “faked” deaths in Marvel movies and while Captain America: Civil War may buck that trend, and hold The Avengers accountable, as well as potentially kill-off one or more key characters, that doesn’t necessarily mean Marvel intends to (or even should) rework their formula or tone. Yet, it is an opportunity for DC to differentiate themselves, and according to DC producers, future films (like Justice League Part 1 and The Flash) will be lighter, adjusting to fit the story and characters at hand. For all the controversy, this is why Man of Steel and Batman V Superman are dark – they are tonally in sync with the catastrophic events they depict. Fans may take issue with the amount of death that Superman (by extension) caused in Man of Steel but that collateral damage is not going unnoticed and unpunished. In fact, it is the very crux of the Dawn of Justice story – and a primary motivation for Batman within DCEU fiction.
Villains: More Than Just Super-Powered Punching Bags?
We’ve written about it on several occasions – Marvel movie villains, with a few exceptions, have left a lot to be desired. Mostly defined as power-hungry, sometimes insane, forces of nature, Marvel bad guys are often whatever the story requires, rather than nuanced characters on equal footing with their respective heroes. Malekith the Accursed, Yellowjacket, Aldrich Killian, and (as suggested) Ronan the Accuser posed challenges for Marvel good guys but, in the end, weren’t developed beyond their villainous motivations. For all the debate over how Superman handled Zod in Man of Steel, the malevolent kryptonian general was afforded enough development to ensure that his actions were relatable (he was engineered to protect his people at any cost) and those actions challenged Kal-El physically and emotionally.
There’s no way of knowing, yet, whether or not the same level of development will be present in the larger DCEU, but Warner Bros. knows that quality villains can drive interest and box office sales to movies – given that The Joker and Bane were major selling points in The Dark Knight trilogy. After all, the studio greenlit an entire film starring villains with Suicide Squad – in which the studio will also establish Jared Leto’s new take on the Clown Prince of Crime. Leto’s tattooed and silver-grilled Joker was divisive when his picture first debuted online – until fans began to realize the character design wasn’t a flippant choice, it actually hinted at a long history with Batman (in which the Dark Knight likely punched Joker’s teeth out). DC hasn’t been shy about taking risks with their villains – given that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is a young Mark Zuckerberg-like tech genius, rather than an aged business tycoon, and The Rock has been cast as Black Adam in Shazam! (rather than the titular hero role), indicating that DCEU baddies might be slightly more complex – read: people with a twisted sense of right and wrong, not all-out power-hungry alien monsters (though, there are sure to be some of those as well).
Darkseid Does Not Need Infinity Stones
At first, making Thanos the MCU puppet master, pulling the strings of solo movie villains, was an exciting choice – even if the identity of that “purple alien at the end of Avengers” was lost on casual filmgoers; however, four years (and five films later), the build-up to Thanos is in danger of diminishing returns. Understandably, Marvel wanted to position a powerful character like Thanos (who has been pivotal in the comic books) as a bigger bad than comparative standalone movie villains and, to that end, the Infinity Stones were a good tool to make MCU Phase 1 and 2 feel connected. Still, by the time The Mad Titan does show up in Infinity War: Part 1, will he live up to the hype – and will all that time spent chasing Infinity Stones payoff?
It’s unclear exactly how presumed Justice League villain Darkseid will be introduced into the DCEU, despite allusions to the character in Batman V Superman, but it’s highly unlikely that Warner Bros. will spend nearly as much time teasing the villain as Marvel spent paving the way for Thanos. Fans would be smart to expect a comparatively straightforward introduction to DC’s tyrannical despot – given that Darkseid is inherently capable of ripping objects and people out of existence (using only his Omega Beams) and does not require ancient artifacts to enhance his powers. After all, DC will unleash Justice League – Part 1 six months before Marvel delivers Infinity War – Part 1 – meaning that DC won’t want to sit on their shared universe villain, especially considering the possibility that casual filmgoers will be confused by similarities between the two blueish-skinned, mega powerful, alien warriors. Warner Bros. may save a full-on Justice League versus Darkseid fight for Part 2 but they’ll almost certainly have the malevolent “new god” front and center for Part 1 as well – even if only to set a smaller threat in motion (before returning to, as Thanos put it, “do it” himself two years later).
Origin Story Formula 2.0
As MCU Phase 2 moved forward, and new characters were introduced into the film universe, the Marvel origin story formula began to show symptoms of wear – especially when it came to the studio’s post-Age of Ultron follow-up Ant-Man. While Ant-Man was a critical and commercial success, it did little to break the origin story mold – and hinted that filmgoers aren’t going all-in on MCU films, and are becoming increasingly selective about which MCU films they check out in theaters. This might sound like hyperbole but Marvel has, in the time since, acknowledged that audiences are growing tired of traditional comic origin stories – and promised their upcoming slate, which includes Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, would break from formulaic trappings.
Time will tell if Marvel is able to change things up (Guardians of the Galaxy certainly suggests they can), but following fan debate over whether DC and Warner Bros. would roll out team-up movies before solo films, we now know the studio has been actively watching what worked and what didn’t work at Marvel and isn’t limiting DCEU installments to any one approach. Certain DC characters will be introduced in Batman V Superman, with elements of their origin dating back to the events in Man of Steel, others will have been active for decades, and past adventures, not necessarily origin stories, will be detailed in prequel films (like Wonder Woman‘s World War I setting); still, others will arrive in the DCEU later-on down the line – through more traditional origin story means. Batman V Superman puts this idea into practice as an introduction to these Batman and Wonder Woman adaptations, detailing how these versions differ from comic book counterparts, all without having to spell-out backstories that are familiar to most fans already, before each member of the DC trinity gets their own solo story.
DC Doesn’t Have a Kevin Feige
Centralized creative control by Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige helped The Avengers become one of the biggest brands on the planet but Feige has also been a source of controversy behind-the-scenes. Marvel Comics CEO Ike Perlmutter, who no longer oversees the MCU after Disney restructured the Marvel business arm, and certain directors, who were hampered by the demands of MCU filmmaking, have expressed frustration with Feige’s approach – especially his strict adherence to the long-term MCU plan. Even Avengers universe craftsman, Joss Whedon, has commented on the challenges of packing MCU characters and storylines into films that also need to stand on their own. Without question, Feige has cultivated something special at Marvel Studios, and even allowed for certain films to diverge from the MCU formula (again: Guardians of the Galaxy), but his oversight often comes at a price – and for some filmmakers, like long-time Ant-Man advocate Edgar Wright, that price was too steep.
Conversely, while Zack Snyder has helped develop the DCEU, through his efforts in Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, and now Justice League, Warner Bros. is also leaning on a wide variety of high-profile filmmakers to expand the cinematic world – including Patty Jenkins and David Ayer. While Charles Roven serves as producer on each DC film, there’s no one quite like Feige running the show at Warner Bros. Instead, the studio employs a “brain trust” of executive producers and creative consultants to develop the DCEU story while proven directors each craft their corner of the universe – so long as that corner is a narrative and tonal fit for the larger franchise. The result? DC films have a bit more room to play, allowing their directors slightly more freedom to tell a unique standalone story – which should also come as a relief to moviegoers who haven’t been taken by Snyder’s contributions so far. Of course, that’s only the situation right now. Should Warner Bros. begin to worry the DCEU isn’t living up to its box office potential, the studio could still appoint someone to oversee the whole thing.
Age Is Nothing But a Number
There are several aging actors in The Avengers roster (Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo) but nearly every new person that has been added in recent memory is a young, up-and-comer (someone that Marvel is able to sign for cheap and turn into a star). It’s been a great platform for actors like Chris Hemsworth and Chris Pratt to gain exposure but, paired with other Phase 1 hurdles, the MCU’s reliance on largely inexperienced actors (off screen) and heroes (on screen) limits how the studio can portray each character – as well as limits the range of insight and worldview these characters can bring to a shared universe. There are plenty of exceptions, Paul Rudd in Ant-Man and the addition of Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, but most of Marvel’s older actors were introduced during Phase 1. The interest in hiring affordable young talent (20 and 30-somethings), and locking them into ten-year deals (such as Tom Holland as the new Spider-Man) makes sense – given that older actors might be reluctant to sign-up for such a time-consuming multi-picture role; still, that didn’t stop DC from hiring a veteran actor to play one of the DCEU’s two biggest and most iconic characters.
It’s been over three years since the “controversial” casting of Ben Affleck as Batman and even though there were plenty of skeptics at the time (most have since abandoned their anti-Batfleck soap boxes), fans did raise a worthwhile point: isn’t Affleck too old to play Batman (given that Christian Bale was 30 at the time of his casting)? It might seem silly to think a 42 year-old actor is too old to portray Batman (who isn’t exactly young in the comics) but, right after Bale stepped away from the role, no one wanted to see the Caped Crusader rebooted again any time soon. So, many fans weren’t actually asking if Ben Affleck was too old to play Batman right now, what they were really asking is: would DC really sign an older actor to portray Batman for the next decade on film? The casting speaks for itself and, in the process, the choice to go with an aged Batman allowed Ben Affleck to bring something new to the character, and the superhero genre, as a whole: an experienced crime-fighter who has become jaded by years of hard work and personal tragedy – a smart change of pace from standard superhero origin stories.
The Justice League is Diverse
Without question, the MCU has made strides in representing diversity in their central cast of heroes (and villains); however, Phase 1 and 2 of the MCU were dominated by white men becoming superheroes and battling white male evildoers. The main four heroes who each received a Phase 1 solo movie were all white males and even with the expansion of The Avengers hero team in 2012, no actors of color were added to the main cast. Furthermore, where Scarlett Johansson was a standout in that film, Marvel still has no plan to spin her character into a solo outing (much less provide female moviegoers with enough Black Widow merchandise). Phase 2 allowed for the inclusion of more women and people of color – but mostly in supporting parts. Some of these heroes could take on bigger roles going forward but, for as progressive as the MCU has been in printing money, the studio still has a long way to go before its cast will be as diverse as its global audience.
Where Man of Steel still featured a white protagonist, the DCEU won’t take nearly as long to get women and non-white actors in starring roles (both in team-ups and solo films). After all, an Israeli woman is set to debut as Wonder Woman in the DCEU’s second film – before going on to star in her own solo project (a full year before Marvel will debut their first female-lead movie, Captain Marvel) and, included in the Justice League’s seven core members are an African American (Ray Fisher’s Cyborg) and a half-Hawaiian, half-Native American (Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman) – all before we get to Green Lantern Corps (which is likely to feature African American Green Lantern, John Stewart). So, where Marvel is making headway, WB has already assembled a more ethnically diverse group of actors. Add to that the possibility that this diverse Justice League will also be able to tackle issues of race and gender in their respective solo films (Aquaman as an outsider who becomes an Atlantean superhero and Wonder Woman as a warrior princess in WW1, for example) and there’s more to the DCEU’s diversity than looks alone.
We’ve pointed out several challenges that Marvel had to face, and some that they’re still trying to overcome, but there’s no question they’ve been financially successful and delivered great film entertainment. We’re not saying DC is or will be better than Marvel; on the contrary, while Marvel has been busy breaking blockbuster records, Warner Bros. has been afforded an opportunity to study a successful model, learn from the MCU’s struggles, and refine DCEU plans accordingly – even if it takes a few movies to get the shared universe story in place.
Hopefully that extra time empowers the DCEU and, subsequently, keeps Marvel on their toes, pushing the comic book movie genre higher and higher (in both critical and commercial success) long term – resulting in all around better films for fans of both studios.
NEXT: Batman V Superman: How the Dark Knight Wins Even if He Loses
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice opens on March 25th, 2016, followed by Suicide Squad on August 5th, 2016; Wonder Woman on June 23rd, 2017; Justice League Part One on November 17th, 2017; The Flash on March 16th, 2018; Aquaman on July 27th, 2018; Shazam on April 5th, 2019; Justice League Part Two on June 14th, 2019; Cyborg on April 3rd, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps. on June 19th, 2020.