It's Simple: Use Your Stars To Expose Supporting Heroes
Warner Bros. wasn't selling the audience on some government program to recruit Earth's heroes, but selling the audience on the characters in their stable. It seemed at the time that DC was doing for film what had always worked for the comics: use the company's biggest, most popular stars to launch supporting character titles, or introduce readers to characters and worlds they may be less likely to seek out on their own. Rather than telling comic readers to make sure to buy Cyborg #1 or Aquaman #1 because they tell you it's good, use a comic like Justice League - with Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman on the cover - to introduce them. It's not a groundbreaking solution or strategy, since it's part of the reason for team titles, and back-up features to showcase potential leads.
In a more social sense, it also offered DC a chance to overcome negativity, prejudice, and sexism. It began with Batman V Superman, released at a time when Hollywood studio executives and entertainment pundits doubted - we're not kidding - doubted that a female-led superhero movie could be profitable. Following the same rationale we applied to the merits of a Justice League film, Zack Snyder set to delivering a version of Wonder Woman in a supporting role that would be so well-executed, audiences would instantly demand that she get her own film. And perhaps convince the executives that a woman could stand next to Batman and Superman without seeming out of place.
Just like comic readers putting down their books, moviegoers left the theater with mixed reviews of Dawn of Justice... but nearly all of them agreed that Wonder Woman had proven she deserved her own movie. It was the first case of DC's comic-esque strategy of world-building working as planned... but far from the last.
The DCEU is Taking Shape in Response To What Works
Fast forward to today and few will ever remember that a Wonder Woman movie franchise was ever in doubt, let alone in need of a proof of concept. But the overwhelming excitement of the fan base created by Batman V Superman made Wonder Woman a box office hit, proving all audiences needed was an appetizer in an ensemble to be convinced. In fact, audiences and critics alike completely defied the assumption that an origin story given after a character's introduction was flawed thinking, with Wonder Woman among the best-reviewed superhero movies yet released.
The thinking can even be seen with Suicide Squad, using Ben Affleck's Batman and Joker in marketing to cast a wide net of potential moviegoers. Throw a variety of characters at them and see which sticks - and next thing you know, you've got a potential Deadshot spinoff movie, and a budding Gotham City Sirens series led by Harley Quinn. Where other studios may seemingly ignore fan outcry for ensemble characters to be given solo movies, spinoffs, or simply for greater representation, DC is moving fast to double down on the successful parts of even critical failures.
So far Justice League looks to be the same: the idea that Aquaman is a "silly" superhero will be addressed when Jason Momoa debuts as (what looks to be) the fun-loving, badass bruiser of the team. Not long after, fans intrigued by the glimpses of Atlantis and longing for a bigger story will have the Aquaman movie continuing Arthur's story to look forward to. No concerns about Ezra Miller's version of The Flash feuding with The CW's, since Justice League marketing shows a completely different, visually compelling approach. An approach that, if fans only had the unmade Flash movie to consider, would be shrouded in uncertainty.
Then there's the chance that Justice League will reveal the new Green Lantern and blow fans out of their seats in the process... making it harder than ever to claim DC's strategy differing from Marvel's is still a flawed, doomed decision.
For all the skepticism, excitement, concerns, and confidence back before the DCEU was actually taking shape, the landscape has changed - as has the audience's understanding of it. The next few years of DC films are still taking the idea of audiences 'needing to meet heroes before caring about them' to heart - they're just making an introduction, before seeing which ones fans would like to get to know better.
- Justice League (2017) release date: Nov 17, 2017
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
- The Flash Movie release date: Oct 15, 2018
- The Batman release date: Oct 15, 2018