The DC Extended Universe hasn’t had an easy road thus far. This is partially due to Disney and Marvel getting to the shared universe party early and absolutely dominating the Hollywood landscape with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. 2008’s Iron Man came out a whopping five years before Man of Steel, the retrofitted start to DC’s would-be filmic empire, thereby dictating the rules for how these superhero tentpole releases are to be constructed in the public’s mind.
But the situation is also due to Warner Bros.’ apparent inability to stick the landing with each of the three DC movies that have come out thus far. Abysmal critical reviews, toxic word of mouth, or incessant studio interference – or all three – have limited the cultural reach and box-office totals of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. (Which isn’t to necessarily say that these films are outright bad, or even significantly flawed. It’s to simply point out the very real fact that they have undermined the brand and have left a mixed taste in the mouth of the average moviegoer. This is, of course, the dead-last place that any studio would want to be in when starting up a five-year, multi-billion dollar business venture.)
This is why DC’s two 2017 releases are absolutely crucial to the shared universe, to Warners, and, frankly, to comic book fans all around the world. June’s Wonder Woman and November’s Justice League are so critical, in fact, that we would argue they will literally either make or break the entire DC Extended Universe.
Here are 8 ways the former can happen, and 8 more why the latter could occur.
When director Zack Snyder and his filmmaking partners hatched the idea to make Batman the nemesis in what would ultimately be called Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. thought it was a terrific idea. It felt like a brilliant way to not only extend the Superman franchise, but to simultaneously introduce the third modern big-screen incarnation of the Dark Knight, as well. And since this was seen as, at the least, a billion dollar idea, the temptation to stuff as many other set-ups for the future DCEU franchises was too great to resist (which led to other, smaller tweaks, suggestions, and revisions). By the time the film released last March, many viewers, whether they loved or hated the final product, saw the convoluted, overstuffed story as a point of concern.
Ironically enough, this led the studio to actually increase its second-guessing of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, even (reportedly) taking the step to hire alternate editors to put together rival cuts of the movie in order to better fulfill audiences’ desires for a fun, more light-hearted romp with these iconic DC characters. The result here was an uneven tone and level of pacing, though it didn’t seem to hurt SS’s financial legs as much as its predecessor did.
One can only hope that, when it comes to Wonder Woman and, more importantly, Justice League, Warners has learned its lesson and has refrained from playing arm-chair quarterback with its next round of directors. Given that the company has long prided itself as being the most “artist friendly” of the major Hollywood players, the new approach would be an extremely fitting one, to boot.
Of course, the backfire to having such a hands-off approach on the studio level is a very real possibility that ended up spooking Warner Bros. in the first place: the “auteur” model of filmmaking backfires, turning off audiences instead of earning their respect and, more importantly, their hard-earned dollars.
The idea works a little something like this: should the instincts of Patty Jenkins (that’s the director of Wonder Woman) or Zack Snyder (Justice League) prove to be an artistic cul-de-sac instead of an expressway to the big-time, viewers won’t particularly care how true to the filmmaker’s original vision the final cut ends up being. All they’ll know is that they were turned off by the interpretation of these beloved mythological figures. Even worse, in terms of franchising, one writer/director’s take on, say, the Flash, could prove to be fundamentally incompatible with the next helmer’s, causing huge gaps in characterization and, possibly, continuity – the true nightmare scenario for a shared cinematic universe.
Some oversight is necessary, of course (that’s why DC Comics’ Geoff Johns has been named the head honcho of the DCEU) but it’s a very delicate balance, and one that’s all-too-easy to mess up. It’s just that, if it happens in 2017, there might not be a third chance to get it right.
Warners’ desire to perfect the shared universe formula last year was, of course, born out of a desire to rake in the dough. The financial success of the DCEU's opening act would, in turn, pave the way for no fewer than nine subsequent installments that were already planned out.
This really cannot be overstated: both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad’s inability to deliver a clear-cut, non-ambiguous, slam-dunk success story stands as the single biggest threat to the DC Extended Universe’s continued existence. What the studio needs now is a shining beacon in the sky; a bright and shiny signal that its films have been approved for mass consumption and that the DC brand is no longer mired in controversy, whether real or imagined.
The good news is that Wonder Woman, with its fresh take on the universe’s continuity, and Justice League, being the very first time that all of the associated superheroes team up to save the Earth on the silver screen, are probably the best possible candidates for such a makeover. With these two movies earning critical praise and massive hauls at the box office, the DCEU will be in the strongest shape it's even been in, and all those future films will look like exciting new adventures to be experienced instead of potential new landmines to be avoided.
Let’s get this out of the way upfront: Dawn of Justice, while failing to reach any of the lofty heights that executives, analysts, and fans had fully expected it to (read: a billion dollars worldwide) wasn’t a monetary failure. It still managed to turn a solid profit, even if it's a somewhat underwhelming one. And Suicide Squad more than made a return on Warners’ investment, even outperforming a number of Marvel films.
Still, with that said, the DC brand has undeniably taken a hit, leaving many potential customers hesitant to jump aboard. Should WW or JL deliver more of the same in these respects – should they have unimaginably low Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic averages, with financial performances that are respectable but not headline-worthy – the powers that be will have a much harder time justifying throwing even more money into the DC pile. Even if they don’t pull the plug entirely on the current crop of future DCEU properties and put a halt to the releases of the already-announced slate of films, Warners will likely start looking elsewhere for their next cash cow.
Let’s put it this way: the DC ship isn’t sinking, but it’s certainly starting to list. Should 2017’s movies blow up in its face, it’ll start to take on so much water, it’s hard to see a way out of an eventual shipwreck.
One of the more elaborate challenges in running a shared cinematic universe is having to worry about the next wave of releases being announced, marketed, and well-received by the diehard masses while the current crop is just coming to fruition. Should WB nail this year’s two big movies, it’ll be quite the achievement – the first out-and-out win for the DCEU, in fact – but it’ll mean very little if 2018’s wares aren’t viewed with just as much optimism and excitement.
As such, The Flash (March 16, 2018, although this one is a bit up in the air) and Aquaman (October 5, 2018) need to be introduced just as cleverly as Warners managed to do with Justice League last year (such as doing the surprise set visit and the Comic-Con footage reveal). What’s more, they’ll need to be given their own time in the marketing sun and not be completely overshadowed by Ben Affleck’s The Batman, which may end up being released next year as well.
Speaking of the next Bat-flick, there’s definitely also a silver lining to having the first in-universe Batman solo film come out next year: it could be used as a lightning rod of worldwide attention, with the resulting electricity being rerouted to its two cinematic siblings. Affleck just may turn out to be the savior of both 2017 and 2018 – a far cry from the backlash that attended his original announcement as Bruce Wayne.
The Batman or no, 2018 won’t be anywhere near as easy of a sell as this year is proving to be.
In fact, next year is when things start to get increasingly tricky for DC. Whereas Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) has the benefit of getting some level of establishment in last year’s BvS and Justice League is, c’mon, the Justice League, next year’s The Flash and Aquaman are far lesser-known properties that have barely had any level of screen time to date. Yes, the former’s unrelated television series on The CW has certainly helped to boost the Scarlet Speedster’s profile, but it’s still going to prove to be a hard sell for the non-comic-reading or non-TV-watching viewer...before Justice League arrives this November, at least.
Let’s be honest: even Marvel, that master of the box office, has had some difficulty in gaining traction for its lesser-known characters. If audiences aren’t that keen on checking out Ant-Man (the lowest-performing Marvel flick since the first Captain America flick 4 years prior), and if the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring Doctor Strange is still outperformed by Suicide Squad, then why would Aquaman have much better luck?
The ultimate success – or lack thereof – for these ’18 installments all begins with their very first introductions to audiences in the form of teasers, panel showings, and the like, which will occur this year. And if these first-looks flop, then it’s really going to be an uphill climb for Warners and DC.
Despite Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad all featuring very different premises and casts, they all brandish very similar tones, visuals, and action beats. (Hence the now-famous joke about the DC Extended Universe never seeming to have any scenes that take place during the day.)
Wonder Woman needs to break the mold just as much in this regard as it does with disrupting the male dominance of the genre. Fortunately, from all the different trailers and cast and crew interviews we've seen so far, it looks as if it’s going to hit the nail square on the head. Its bright colors, exotic locations, and period touches all make the visuals jump off the screen, as well as scream “new territory!” for the meta-franchise.
But there’s more. The more traditional, action-adventure premise and romantic lead, the action sequences, and, even, the humor (!) are also all new variations for the dark and brooding DCEU. No matter how the movie’s received either critically or commercially, it’s already proving to be a breath of fresh air, an invigorating take on what is quickly becoming stale ground. All of this adds up to a strong start for DC in 2017.
Wonder Woman will introduce many new characters across its two hours, including none other than Diana Prince’s own mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who’s already been confirmed to return for Justice League. And JL, in turn, will unleash Nuidis Vulko (Willem Dafoe), Queen Mera (Amber Heard), Commissioner James Gordon (J.K. Simmons), in addition to taking the previously-teased characters of the Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and making them into fully-realized protagonists.
That’s a lot of new heroic faces, and if they come anywhere close to being as divisive as, say, Jared Leto's Joker was, then it may very well be game over for DC. What the series needs is strong, well-defined, and well-liked protagonists, superheroes in fact as well as in name. A murderous Dark Knight isn’t that – even if he’s meant to become the more traditional and expected hero over the course of this year’s events – and a “I’ve turned my back on humanity” Wonder Woman isn’t that, either.
Judging from the first trailer, Aquaman already looks to be just as gruff and dour as the Dark Knight and Man of Steel. Hell, even Cyborg looked to be having a hard time shaking the frown off his face. Should the Flash prove to be the only member of the team who is even slightly happy or upbeat, then the overly dark nature of the DCEU will be cemented, cutting off a large number of casual moviegoers and leaving behind only the hardest of the hardcore fans.
Bear with us for a moment here.
When Iron Man 2 first opened in theaters, it was received by many as, essentially, a shameless tie-in machine, a story meant to get the ball rolling on all the other MCU characters instead of servicing the arc of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). It was only after the first Avengers arrived, paying off all those many setups, that many then went back and viewed the previous movie with a sympathetic eye. Investments are clearly deemed worthy by society – as long as they return a dividend.
There’s absolutely no reason in the world that Justice League can’t fare the same fate, taking all the many cues, cameos, and pieces of world-building from the likes of Dawn of Justice – and, to a lesser extent, Suicide Squad – and putting them to spectacular use. Once viewers get a chance to see a parademon in action or get to witness how Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) progresses as a character once he’s “cracked,” it may very well retroactively make Batman v Superman (well, the Ultimate Edition, at least) significantly more enjoyable.
If this is, indeed, the case, then the DC Extended Universe wouldn’t just have a home run, it would have a full-fledged grand slam, setting the stage for 2018 and beyond in one of the most exciting ways possible.
It’s no secret that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a villain problem, one that dates all the way back to the original Iron Man nine years ago. While disappointing, Marvel Studios has managed to make it work for itself, offering up baddies as mere tools for the protagonist – and his entourage of supporting characters – to use to continue their development.
DC, on the other hand, has always had a deeper, more complete roster of antagonists, one that has its roots in the 1930s and ‘40s. Translating these legendarily (in)famous figures onto the big screen, however, has proven to be something of a challenge thus far. While General Zod (Michael Shannon) was compelling and formidable, Lex Luthor has proven to be controversial and polarizing, Doomsday (Robin Atkin Downes) was a forgettable CG creation, the Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) was paper-thin in performance and motivation, and the Joker (Jared Leto) was even more divisive than Lex.
Should Warners continue down this trail – should, say, Darkseid not be the iconic, compelling figure that he absolutely needs to be – then not only will the meta-franchise have failed in this part of the adaptation process, it also will have missed its single biggest opportunity yet to capitalize on Marvel’s own mistakes.
Beyond the previously mentioned expansion to the superhero pantheon, there are a plethora of other new characters that will need to be added to the roster, as well. There's really no shortage of supporting players, love interests, side-nemeses that can be spun off into their own stories down the road.
While Warner Bros. and its cadre of filmmakers have really nailed this part of the process so far – Jeremy Irons’s Alfred Pennyworth is a worthy successor to Michael Caine's and Michael Gough’s, Viola Davis (Amanda Waller) is pitch-perfect in her role, and Diane Lane is easily the best-developed Martha Kent yet in the entire Superman mythos – they need to really keep this up over the course of the next several years.
And they could take everything to the next level by not only keeping the caliber of talent the same, but by also choosing which new characters, exactly, will be thrown into the mix. You've heard the (incredibly encouraging) rumors of Green Lantern and Black Canary making their way onto the Justice League roster, but the surest bet here might just be, well, practically anyone from the Bat Family. Robin, Nightwing, Red Hood, and Batgirl are all primed for adaptation. Each would provide great new narrative avenues to explore, and each would get even the more casual elements of the fanbase riled up into a tizzy.
Speaking of which…
It’s only been recently (once Marvel Studios broke away from the rest of Marvel Entertainment, actually, and moved over to Disney’s side of the playground) that Marvel has opted to spring for bigger-name actors to portray brand-new characters, or to pay the big bucks in order to have as many familiar faces from the previous movies as possible show up in the latest installments.
This is a smart move, one that is best suited to keeping as many different movie-goers interested in the MCU for as long as possible. WB would be wise to emulate this approach, to throw the fans a bone for once and a pick a spot-on actor (and for a somewhat more traditional take on a classic character, to boot). If, for example, the company opts to go in an Oscar Isaac-as-Apocalypse direction with Darkseid's casting, disappointment and, just possibly, rioting would follow – exactly what initially happened with Ben Affleck’s announcement as the Dark Knight four years ago.
(That Affleck actually turned out to be a solid Batman doesn’t at all matter, as the lasting damage will come not from the finished movie, but from all the hoopla and nerdrage that comes in response to the press release.)
Ben Affleck, who will serve as the co-writer, director, producer, and star of The Batman, has been rather coy about the status of the project. What he hasn’t been ambiguous about, however, is his relationship to the material. He has said more than once that he won’t start filming until he’s happy with the script, no matter what the studio execs have to say about timetables and release windows. It seems clear that he was so burnt by his last two turns as a superhero (let’s not forget the Daredevil movie here), he wants to make sure his next outing is golden.
Should the filmmaker step out in front of reporters’ cameras and proudly proclaim that he’s cracked the script and is eager – and, in fact, thrilled – to proceed to production, the collective sigh heard from fans all around the globe would move mountains. The Batman is, indeed, capable of saving the DCEU, no matter what kind of shape the rest of its constituent parts are in, but only if the Dark Knight is the hero we deserve.
He’s definitely the one we need right now, that’s for sure.
If, on the other hand, the new Bat-movie languishes in development hell or gets scrapped altogether (a highly-unlikely-but-still-possible outcome), the wind will most definitely be taken out of DC’s sail. And it may be impossible to get it back, no matter what Justice League manages to do.
Batman is such a popular character, his last two solo films earned $1 billion apiece – that’s more than Batman v Superman, which featured nearly all of the primary Justice Leaguers – and he promises to be the single biggest driver in many of the future properties on the current slate. Should his eighth big screen adventure be anything other than exciting or magical, Warners will have no bankable basis to build all its other franchises on.
Here’s the worst possible scenario to unfold in 2017: The Batman moves forward for its 2018 or ’19 release, but it does so with a clearly reluctant Affleck, one who’s managed to let all the pressure from the corporate overlords comprise him and his vision. Should the actor/director appear anything other than ebullient to get the ball rolling on the film, it's safe to assume that all hope is lost.
One of the key differences between the Marvel and DC shared cinematic universes has been how they have opted to treat their small screen brethren. Whereas Marvel has a healthy number of television series that tie into its overarching mythology (albeit barely), the various DC shows are all set in various parallel timelines or dimensions.
Some rumors – and a lot of fanboy hope – seem to indict this may change, however.
A year-and-a-half ago, word broke that director Zack Snyder was in talks with HBO about bringing the cult Watchmen film to the premium cable channel as some sort of TV production. While nothing has come of these conversations (not yet, at least), there’s certainly the possibility for HBO, which is also owned by Time Warner, to pull the trigger on a DC series or two, and to have them tie into the DCEU, just like Marvel does with ABC, Netflix, and, soon, Freeform.
The possibilities here are pretty endless. Lesser-known characters may get their time to shine; plot holes from the films can get addressed, rectified, and narratively expanded (much like what Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does on a regular basis for the MCU); and wholly new side-stories that nonetheless flesh out the movie universe can be given their time in the sun. And since this would be HBO, it could take the films’ now-hallmark grittiness to the nth degree. (Daredevil, eat your heart out.)
The idea of splitting films up into two parts is still a relatively new development in Hollywood (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had both of its halves released in 2010 and ’11, respectively). It’s also a practice that’s largely been consigned to literary adaptations.
Taking an original story – even one that is largely based off of comic book source material – and dividing it up is a risky move, one that can easily blow up in Zack Snyder’s and Warners’s faces. What if the first installment’s cliffhanger ending is anemic, at best? What if the 19-month wait isn’t worth it – or, conversely, is too long for audiences to receive resolution? What if the two chapters are less continuations and more kindred spirits (something that seems to be the case with The Avengers: Infinity War and its now-renamed part two)?
The toll this was would take on the DC Extended Universe could be massive, and it could be enough to stop the entire shebang dead in its tracks. For the company to squander its one big chance to gather all of its storied icons together – and all the various levels of fans in theaters – would almost certainly mean an automatic write-off for all future endeavors, whether they starred Batman or not.
Have your own thoughts as to what could either save or kill the DCEU? Think we misjudged the importance of a point (or two)? Be sure to share your take in the comments.