Establish a Pattern of Success
One of the biggest takeaways from Justice League's abysmal opening at the box office is that Warner Bros. and DC don't have buy-in from mainstream audiences yet. While consumers know what to expect from some franchises like Star Wars, Marvel, or Fast and Furious, the DCEU has yet to establish itself in the same way. Partly because its initial takes on characters like Superman and Batman were darker than traditional versions and rejected by mainstream moviegoers, but also because there hasn't been enough consistency in the brand to teach audiences what to expect.
Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were both drastic departures from traditional genre conventions, then Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, while they were loosely connected to the larger universe, had little to do with the plot of the Superman trilogy, meaning there hasn't been as much focus on the main Justice League story audiences are expected to invest in. Then there's the quality divide. Wonder Woman is really the only one to stand out as a film everyone agrees is great, and while some might see that as good for the larger DCEU, others see it as the exception that proves the rule.
In order to earn a place on audience's "must see" list, DC Films needs to put together a series of wins so audiences can trust that the DC brand means an enjoyable movie. Marvel has found their secret with a winning formula. While it might mean that many MCU movies follow similar tropes, it does wonders for reviews and box office. Meanwhile, Fox has made a name for the X-Men brand by taking some riskier moves and experimenting with genre. The hard R comedy of Deadpool was followed by the gritty western of Logan, and by now many fans have long forgotten the back to back failures of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men 3.
Given its current lineup, the DC Films universe is poised to begin doing the same thing, maximizing its use of genre to give audiences a variety of experiences and hopefully raise the stock of the brand. Simply serving as a palate cleanser to separate from the more polarizing efforts will be helpful for the universe, but also providing back to back assurances that the DC logo indicates accessibility for general audiences will go a long way.
The other lesson the DCEU can take from the X-Men films is that massive budgets aren't a prerequisite for success. Logan and Deadpool are both examples of this, and Wonder Woman also stands as the DCEU's most successful movie, despite its smaller budget. Fortunately, it looks like DC might already be headed this direction, with Aquaman, Shazam, and Wonder Woman 2 likely to see lower budgets as well (although Wonder Woman 2 might see a bump after the success of its predecessor). When it comes to future projects, movies like Nightwing or Deathstroke could both easily take a cue from the John Wick movies, both of which provide some of the highest quality on-screen action for under $40 million each.
The primary benefit of reducing budgets is a major reduction in risk. It's a lot less harmful for a $150 million or less movie to perform poorly than it is for a $350 million movie to flop. On the flip side, as WB saw a number of times in 2017, it's possible for a smaller budget flick like Annabelle: Creation or especially IT to really take off to see profits difficult to realize in movies with far more inflated budgets. And most importantly, they're less likely to see studio interference like Justice League experienced on matters such as runtime.
With a plethora of characters well suited to the sub $100 million approach, the DCEU can start telling stories that fit into the shared universe of the DCEU without drastically impacting the larger stories seen by the Justice League, allowing more experimentation and creativity as it develops and introduces new characters. Think of it like Marvel's Netflix heroes, only in stand-alone movies that actually have a chance of seeing their characters show up in a team-up film. With New Mutants appearing to continue the X-Men franchise's genre experimentation by going into the low budget horror genre, it's easy to dream of the DCEU embracing such a bold take for a comic book movie with a property like Justice League Dark.
The DC Films universe is in a moment of soul searching, with an abysmally low box office haul and a 130,000 signature petition making the rounds demanding an alternate cut of the movie that should be the flagship of the franchise, there's clearly a number of strategic decisions that will need to be made as the franchise moves forward. Treating the above as guiding principles for a sort of "phase 2" of the DCEU is a great first step to bringing audiences back with a diverse selection of quality movies that can help make sure an eventual Justice League 2 sees a greater buy-in than its predecessor.
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
- Shazam! (2019) release date: Apr 05, 2019
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020