It’s Time to End the DC Extended Universe
Two years ago, after enduring the craptastically awful Suicide Squad (#RIP Slipknot, the man who can climb anything) I wrote an article called “7 Ways to Save the DC Extended Universe.” The DCEU had barely begun in the summer of 2016, but after the back-to-back agonies of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, it already looked like it was in serious trouble. My advice to Warner Bros. included focusing on introducing one or two great characters before trying to dump 30 in our laps all at once, and to stop leaning on interconnectedness between movies in lieu of telling satisfying, self-contained stories.
Last year’s Wonder Woman was a rare bright spot; by coincidence, it took both of those suggestions to heart. But then came Justice League, with its incoherent story, jarring editing, and oddly mustache-less Henry Cavill. If the DCEU hasn’t gotten worse since I wrote that list, it certainly hasn’t gotten demonstrably better, either.
Now Cavill is reportedly done as Superman, as Warner Bros. instead pivots to starting a Supergirl franchise. And though there’s no official announcement, and some of the parties have offered conflicting statements about it, it seems like Ben Affleck has played the DC Extended Universe’s Batman for the final time as well. There are still several DCEU projects coming to theaters; this Christmas’ big blockbuster release is Aquaman, with Jason Momoa playing the underwater hero first introduced in Batman v Superman. Next spring Warners will release Shazam, a body-swapping action comedy featuring another long-running DC Comics hero. And a year from November, the DCEU’s biggest hit gets a sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, co-starring Kristen Wiig as the supervillain Cheetah.
Some of these movies could be good. (I find it hard to believe they will all be good, but I guess stranger things have happened, like the time Warner Bros. turned a joke from Entourage into a $200 million movie.) But even if all three work, the DC Extended Universe is probably not worth saving. It’s time for a change.
That doesn’t mean Warner Bros. should stop making movies based on DC Comics. They can keep cranking out just as many as always, or even more if they so desire. What they should do — immediately, if not sooner — is stop trying to make them all connect, and, more specifically, stop trying to make them all connect to this entity known as the “DCEU.” That’s the thing that needs to go.
In hindsight, the “Extended Universe” was the perfect name for this creation. Warners and DC’s desire to compete with Marvel forced them to put an overarching narrative ahead of the individual movies, and they overextended themselves far too quickly. Marvel produced five solo movies before The Avengers; DC made just four before Justice League — and one of the four was the basically unrelated Suicide Squad and another split two and a half hours between Batman and Superman (with a bunch of time devoted to introducing Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman as well).
The benefit of a shared universe like Marvel’s is the pleasure of building the characters and then watching what happens when they collide with one another in unexpected and interesting ways. DC and Warners tried to skip the first step and go directly to the second. They barely had Cavill’s Superman figured out when they introduced Batman and pitted them against one another in an irrational fight. They had just resolved their differences (where my Marthas at, y’all?) when Superman straight-up died. Then came Justice League, and half a film later, Superman was alive again. Collectively, it was like watching a DVD with the fast-forward button on your remote held down.
It’s not just Affleck and Cavill who seem to be on their way out, either. All of the DCEU films to date were directed, written, or produced by Zack Snyder. But Snyder left Justice League midway through production to spend more time with his family, leaving the film to be completed by Joss Whedon. So now we have this product of a singular creative vision whose creator is no longer involved. Love or hate Zack Snyder, his movies have a distinctive flavor and feel. Anything with the DCEU’s Superman and Batman made by someone else will almost certainly feel like half-hearted imitation.
With Snyder, Affleck, and Cavill all gone, what is even the point of continuing the DC Extended Universe further? All this shared DC universe has to offer now is lingering memories of past missteps.
Instead, Warner Bros. should seize this opportunity to make a bold break from what they’ve been doing and freshen their superhero movies up. They should stop trying to copy Marvel’s business model and create a new one of their own. No one needs a second, watered-down, mish-mosh of the Marvel Cinematic Universe starring a moody Superman and a growly Batman. But there is plenty of room for a true alternative to Marvel and its movies. And no one is better positioned to be that alternative than DC.
That’s why the most exciting DC Comics movie in a while is this Joker project from Todd Philips starring Joaquin Phoenix as the title character. It has nothing to do with Justice League or Suicide Squad, or the version of the Joker that film featured(ish). From what we know about it, it barely seems to have much to do with the classic comic-book version of Joker; it sounds more like a new interpretation of the concept. And because it doesn’t have to worry about servicing the broader DCEU, or even being faithful to the Joker most moviegoers are familiar with, it has more freedom than just about any DC or Marvel movie in a long time.
The concept of telling a Joker story that has nothing to do with continuity, or even the current Joker showing up in other movies, reminds me of a series DC Comics had back in the 1990s called “Elseworlds.” It was a label they applied to some books, mostly one-shots and annuals, where creators could reinterpret classic characters or tell stories that would be impossible within the confines of the primary DC Universe. The results were often risky and imaginative, and some of my favorite comics as a kid. There was one Elseworlds story where Batman became the Green Lantern of Earth; in another a Batman of Victorian Gotham City hunts Jack the Ripper. One of the best and most famous of these Elseworlds imagines a planet reshaped by Superman’s rocket from Krypton landing in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas.
I’m not suggesting DC actually adapt any of those specific stories to the screen. And by all means; keep Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins making Wonder Woman movies for as long as they want — minus the references to other DCEU franchises. But instead of trying to bend over backwards to awkwardly shoehorn all their upcoming superhero movies together into one continuity, they should embrace the spirit of the Elseworlds concept, and let each be its own unique thing. Marvel has done a terrific job of creating a gigantic mega-franchise, but having every single movie connect, and having all of their events build from one to the next, comes with built-in restrictions.
DC probably can’t beat Marvel by copying their model, right down to its inherent limitations. They beat them by doing what their competition can’t. The DCEU isn’t worth saving anymore. But something better can take its place.
Gallery - The History of Batman in Movies: