DC’s cinematic universe has had difficulty in establishing itself creatively, tonally, and critically. The handful of films they have released were met with either controversy or outright rejection, until the touchstone Wonder Woman movie. However, with the troubled birth of the Justice League movie creating greater doubts about the DCEU than before, Warner Bros. has been scrambling to find a way to grow their brand while mitigating the potential disaster of their shared universe. The answer may lie in DC’s multiverse.
Over the years, DC grew their brand by releasing audacious alternate universe stories. Publishing under the Elseworlds banner, these stories further mythologized their characters in the way of oral tradition: stripping characters down to their core values and reimagining them in a different setting and in different circumstances. The mitochondrial connections are all there but focus on new perspectives. Of late, Warner Bros. has expressed interest in expanding their scope of films into multiple continuities active outside of the DCEU, such as with the upcoming Joker origin movie. There is also the possibility of a major continuity revision in-universe with 2018’s Flash movie, which now features the subtitle of Flashpoint, an infamous continuity-altering event from the comics. Thanks to the DCEU’s liminal status, and the recent interest in a standalone structure, we might be able to see the more bizarre stories come to life. If so, we have some ideas where to start.
Superman has had a rough go of it in the DCEU. Fans have been clamoring for a more traditionally optimistic Man of Steel, but also for something bold and new. The mixed signals are understandably confusing, but the Elseworlds approach may allow fans to have their cake and eat it too. Strangely, Superman: Red Son looks to be the most likely option for a standalone feature and was recently name-checked by Geoff Johns, the co-chairman of DC Films. Mark Millar’s epic retells the story of Superman with one important change: he lands in the Soviet Union instead of the United States. Poor Supes becomes a tool for communism and sees its autocracy and sphere of influence expand. He’s still a decent man, but by the time he escapes the echo chamber, it’s too late for millions of people who have starved, been sent to gulags, or otherwise killed. Sideways versions of Batman, Wonder Woman and other familiar Justice Leaguers appear to add to the bizarre nature of the tale whose ending is as vivid and heartbreaking as it is fitting. Given its longstanding popularity, it wouldn’t be a surprise for this comic to be adapted by Warner Bros.
If you’ve had enough of the dark riffs, there’s a healthier option: the lyrical Superman: Secret Identity. It takes place in “our” world where Superman and Batman are just comic book characters. However, a young boy named Clark Kent (boy, did he resent his parents for that one) develops the powers of the Man of Steel. It’s never explained why, but that’s not the point. We follow Clark Kent through his entire life as he navigates the real world while dealing with his powers. At its core, it’s about the way superheroes—particularly Superman—can inspire us to do good things while also adding further dimensions to what Superman would deal with in his everyday life. For those who claim that Superman is too distant from humanity, this is the story that would change their minds.
The Justice League
Outside of the established icons, Warner Bros. could use their multiverse to do something even greater: build a proper legacy. For its many flaws, DC Comics has always maintained the greatest pool of legacy characters in comics—former sidekicks always on the verge of taking over. Dick Grayson, Wally West, Donna Troy, Dinah Lance and Roy Harper have even gone on to replace their mentors for a time - West and Lance have become the definitive Flash and Black Canary for entire generations of fans.
These youthful characters in a permanent state of arrested development allow for the reader to grow up alongside them; tackling similar problems, they can identify with the Teen Titans better than the Justice League. However, to the casual fan, these are just disposable characters—shadows of the true icons. While the live-action Teen Titans series may remedy that, a film—or even series of films—could raise the profile of the legacy characters and make the rest of the world see that they are as worthy of being called icons as their mentors.
Two stories chart the end of one saga and the beginning of the next: Kingdom Come and Superman & Batman: Generations. Kingdom Come is Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s seminal miniseries that sees a world of unchecked superheroes and villains becoming a threat to humanity. It requires the classic Justice League heroes to come out of retirement, now much older and equally altered by the rapidly changing world. Kingdom Come asked the question of government and superheroes long before Marvel’s Civil War did, while also providing a fittingly open yet satisfying ending to the story of DC’s Trinity.
Superheroes are the American mythology, a fact that is never clearer than in John Byrne's overlooked masterpiece, Generations. It is a complete history of DC Comics spanning the Golden, Silver and Bronze ages before striking out into the far future. Our heroes meet, they face threats together, they take on sidekicks, they grow old, the sidekicks take over. It’s a generational story that allows for characters to age and die while also keeping the never-ending aspect of comic book literature alive. Each passing of the baton is treated naturally, and the Justice League is treated as a larger, expanding family as time draws on. Non-fans would get an idea of legacy characters being a tradition, a natural extension of the story, since, after all, the story never ends.