Why Is Warner Bros. Doing This?
Let's contrast the handling of Superman to Marvel. Their series started with the breakout hit Iron Man and for the ensuing decade Tony Stark has been at the forefront of the MCU. Robert Downey Jr's starred in his own trilogy, both Avengers films and lending a hand to Captain America 3 and Spider-Man 1, while he's set to be at the very center of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4, films described as the culmination of the arc begun with the initial solo flick.
Originally it looked like DC was following a similar gameplan with Superman, but they've clearly changed. Maybe it's a result of wanting to be different and diversify (Marvel is still powered by its original Phase 1 set of heroes), evidenced by just how many characters appear in the new DC Films logo.
Or it could be more reactionary. That adoration and confidence in Iron Man is the exact opposite of what we're seeing with Superman, who has been played down ever since Batman took top-billing in the second film; although the reaction to the DCEU pre-Wonder Woman was negative, a disproportionate amount of the hate fell on Superman: Henry Cavill's performance, the characterisation and overall distanced approach. Shifting away from that and embracing new or praised elements - Wonder Woman, Aquaman - is logical in that position. Indeed, while this is still firmly rumor, it's said a similar phasing out of Affleck is planned, hinting at how WB are becoming more flexible in transitioning out elements that don't work.
That brings us to an essential difference between Marvel and DC: the pre-shared universe status of its two progenitors. Superman (as already established) is the superhero. Iron Man is named after a transition metal. Prior to 2008, Tony Stark was a B-list character (events like Civil War were seemingly made with the understanding they were laying the groundwork for a movie) and was only chosen to head the MCU because Marvel didn't have the rights to any of its more noteworthy heroes. He rose to prominence entirely off the back of RDJ's performance which only strengthened the direction. Superman was an aribrtrary choice that came with a lot of baggage.
This has been a flaw in DC's approach since Superman: The Movie - they never were comfortable moving beyond Superman and Batman. The first movie totally unrelated to them that took the character somewhat seriously was Green Lantern in 2011, 33 years after Clark's big screen debut. Such obsession has been needlessly restrictive, and it may be that they're finally realizing this, wanting to usher in a new age of heroes; one that by conception needs less Superman. Something like this would definitely make sense now Geoff Johns is in charge, a comic book writer who understands the DC Universe in a way studio execs rarely do.
Is It A Marketing Ploy?
All that said, is this sidelining something a little less long term? We know Superman's back in Justice League in a pivotal moment and the new trailer definitely hyped that up. Evidenced by the cast's refusal to confirm his return, it does appear they're trying to fake a mystery (remember the dirt rises at the end of BvS - there should never have been doubt). And could this entire discussion be part of the PR?
Not announcing Man of Steel 2 is a way to maintain the question of his return and its longevity - a problem Marvel hits when multi-film actor deals give up survival - while rumors have it Shazam! will actually feature Superman, a crossover honoring the pair's eight-decade history of real-world rivalry and in-print friendship. It may be that all of this is set and just waiting for Cavill to make his return in November before the announcement. Questionable given how obvious that is, it means DC aren't actually ignoring Supes at all.
In truth, the reality is probably going to be a mix of this. Warner Bros. has clearly decided - albeit a bit too late to really play it up correctly - that Superman's return is the event of Justice League and should be as surprising as possible, likely keeping any future plans for Cavill out of public knowledge. But, given how they've likewise been so forward in naming the rest of the slate, it would be churlish to not acknowledge that they really do seem to be moving beyond Superman as the singular leader of DC. And given all the heroes that lets in, that's not a bad thing.
- Justice League (2017) release date: Nov 17, 2017
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
- Shazam! (2019) release date: Apr 05, 2019