Here's a game for you superhero fans: Go to Wikipedia, find the page for the DC Extended Universe, and look at the list of upcoming films. It's a pretty sturdy schedule, much in the same way its competition Marvel organizes its slate for the coming years. The usual suspects are there, like the sequel to Wonder Woman, a solo film for Cyborg (to make his debut appearance in this Winter’s Justice League), and Shazam. What makes DC's list different is its brevity - it's far shorter than the Marvel Cinematic Universe's current schedule - and the notably missing elements. Further down the page, there is a more comprehensive list of upcoming films that do not have a date, and it is in this mish-mash of uncertainty that we find the biggest problem with the DCEU in its current state.
There are films like The Flash, which after two director drop-outs and a total script rewrite, has now changed its title to Flashpoint but has yet to announce new directors or a release date. The solo film for Ben Affleck's The Batman has also gone back to square one, with Matt Reeves (War For the Planet of the Apes) replacing star Affleck as director and completely scrapping his script, which led to rumours that the actor no longer wished to be part of the DC universe. This month, even more projects were announced, including a movie for Harley Quinn and The Joker, and a solo Joker film with a gritty and grounded tone produced by none other than Martin Scorsese. The latter Joker project will be separate from the DCU, with Warner Bros. planning a "yet-to-be announced banner separate from the continuity of the mainstream DC Extended Universe... The new banner is intended to bring unique story angles to the studio's iconic heroes and villains." This news inspired a mixed reception, with fans questioning the need for an origin story of one of comic book history’s most explicitly enigmatic creations. Whether it even makes it into production is another matter, as DC have so many projects floating in the ether with little forward traction right now. However, assuming that this does happen, and it would be foolish to bet against Scorsese, it could be the kick in the right direction the DCEU needs. After struggling to assert a unique identity and build strong foundations since its origins, a more character focused route could give them the direction they crave.
Warner Bros. has always had lofty plans for its work with DC Comics. Its origins with the studio have been in place since the early 2000s, after Batman and Robin had unceremoniously flopped and the superhero genre was waning in popularity. Originally, Wolfgang Petersen was attached to direct a Batman v. Superman film, with a script by Akiva Goldsman, but that fell through and the studio focused more on solo films for their titular heroes. Eventually, Batman Begins brought legitimacy and audiences back to the genre, and plans were revived to make a Justice League movie, with George Miller of Mad Max fame in the director's chair, but neither Christian Bale or Brandon Routh of Superman Returns were approached to reprise their roles. A combination of funding problems and the writers strike put that project on indefinite hold, which is bad news for anyone who wished to see Armie Hammer play Batman, but it did signal a potentially interesting direction for Warner Bros. to take with the DC properties: Various narratives that didn't overlap or interconnect, thus ensuring creative freedom and the chance for more stories.
This is hardly revolutionary, of course. It's just the way things were always done up until Marvel established a new normal, but it's interesting that Warner Bros. were ready to take that direction at one point. Imagine a world where both Christian Bale and Armie Hammer are Batman, each distinct in their depictions and offering a chance to see different facets of the character as written over several decades. Bale and Nolan's universe could be the gritty neo-realism of the Frank Miller stories, and perhaps George Miller and Hammer's Bruce could be a more classical hero mould with a more vibrant scope.
That take would be scrapped upon the announcement of the reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel, which was to lay the groundwork for all future DC films. Its explicit intention was to get the ball rolling on a future expanded universe, which had proven to be a stratospheric success following Marvel's The Avengers. Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, was a success, taking in $668m on a $225m budget, making it the 9th highest grossing film of 2013, above Thor: The Dark World but way below Iron Man 3, which took in over $1.2bn. By this point, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was eight films in, and onto the second phase of its sprawling but tightly controlled narrative. The pressure was on for DC to keep up, and they immediately jumped into Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is where things began to unravel.
Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice has its defenders, but the critics were savage in their reviews, and audiences were not enthused by what they saw, causing the film’s box office to miss that crucial $1bn intake that Warner Bros. was so sure of. It took five films of build-up before The Avengers came to cinemas; DC killed off Superman in their second film. The stakes didn’t feel real, the payoff wasn’t worth it, and audiences didn’t buy it because everyone knew Justice League was on the way and they wouldn’t bother doing that film without its most iconic hero. DC wanted their own expanded universe so badly that they didn’t consider the work required or why a proper build-up and structure mattered. It’s a problem they’ve struggled to deal with in their following films, most evidently Suicide Squad, but it seemed as though they had turned a corner with Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins's film does connect to the wider established universe but only in its introduction and ending. For the vast majority of the film, Jenkins and her team have the freedom to tell a strong story, independent from the requirement to fit it into an expanded universe. You could remove the beginning and ending and the film would remain strong, able to stand on its own two feet. First and foremost, Wonder Woman is a story about Diana, and even with the required action set-pieces and trappings of the genre, it’s a stellar character piece.
Plans to create a separate non-canon slate of DC films could create fascinating storytelling opportunities. As The Joker himself said in The Killing Joke, regarding his own lack of a backstory, "If I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!" There are countless versions of The Joker, along with every major DC character, and each are as valid and worth exploring as the ones before them. Batman can be a bleak nihilist as well as a jive-dancing 1960s cartoon as well as a sardonic detective. We’ve seen versions of Bruce on screen through various films, TV shows and cartoons, so why not give that range a big-screen option for a whole range of writers, directors and actors? Not only would it be the ultimate goldmine for a studio that could use it, it would give them something to really stand out amidst increasingly heavy competition. If some viewers don’t like one film, there’s something else for them and they won’t have to dismiss an entire franchise as a result.
DC has some of the most iconic and fascinating characters in modern fiction, many of whom have stood the test of time for decades and continue to inspire fans the world over. By trying to construct a unique world-building identity that prized gritty nihilism as its primary feature, the DCEU doomed itself to a bleakness that smothered many of its characters. Combine that with the constant need to force everything into an overlapping continuity and audiences and critics alike were quickly exhausted by Warner Bros. offerings. By trying to replicate the Marvel mould in a tighter time-frame and with a deliberately darker tone, DC found itself without an identity. Now, they can change that.