In this FandomWire Video Essay, we explain how to save the DC Universe franchise.
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This Is How To Fix The DC Universe
Year after year, the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are topping the box office charts and are among the films that excite audiences the most. And while DC is arguably the more established comic book brand, Marvel movies tend to fare better than DC movies with audiences. Why is that?
Many have wondered how the MCU has become so successful — it isn’t just overnight popularity. In fact, there was a time when comic books were considered something on the fringes of pop culture, and it is only recently that they have become more mainstream. The MCU was lighting in a bottle — something audiences hadn’t seen before and used good movies. But why couldn’t the DCEU mimic this success?
When it comes down to it, general audiences had far fewer expectations when it came to the Marvel Cinematic Universe than when it came to the DC Extended Universe. Everybody and their brother knows who Superman and Batman are, even if they aren’t into comics. While everybody knows who Iron Man and Thor are now, the characters that became the anchors of the MCU weren’t prevalent outside of the comic book community until they were adapted into film.
Although it was out of necessity, Marvel wisely chose to anchor their cinematic universe around characters that were effectively a blank slate for them. Would the MCU look as it does if Marvel Studios had the rights to Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four back in the earliest days of the MCU? Probably not. But we got a team of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes — not just Earth’s most recognizable heroes, and it benefitted from that.
The truth is that, for the most part, the lesser-known Marvel properties tend to be much better than the lesser-known DC properties. The MCU had characters like Iron Man and Thor to pull from, whereas DC has to fall back on a guy who talks to fish and a foster kid who turns into a lightning-wielding superhero when he says a magic word. That’s not to say that Aquaman and Shazam aren’t cool characters — they’re just a much harder sell.
However, that doesn’t mean that the DCEU is alone in its struggle to find characters to build its cinematic universe around. Sony’s division of Marvel is really struggling, having made an unsuccessful film around the character Morbius, with more movies on the way centered on characters like Kraven the Hunter and El Muerto.
However, perhaps the single biggest mistake that the DC Extended Universe made was rushing into a Justice League team-up movie. Before The Avengers, there were five full movies to establish each of the characters’ arcs before they would come together to fight a greater foe. There were only three movies before Justice League — four if you count Suicide Squad, that doesn’t have much of an impact on the plot of Justice League.
The other big flaw with the DC Extended Universe was that it gave the reins primarily to one director: Zack Snyder. Regardless of which side of the aisle you fall on Snyder’s filmmaking, giving him control of the cinematic universe was a mistake. Kevin Feige was the main force behind the MCU as the producer, but he hired several directors to do each film. Snyder directed Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League, and also produced Wonder Woman and executive produced Suicide Squad. That’s too much control for one filmmaker.
Once the DCEU abandoned the Justice League thread, it lost all semblance of stylistic vision. It went from one extreme to the other. First, it was the Snyder-verse, and then it became a series of films with very little connection. And worse yet, few of these films felt as stylistically ambitious as they could. Although the directors each brought a bit of flair — James Wan and David F. Sandberg had some horror-esque sequences in Aquaman and Shazam!, for example — they still all felt relatively safe.
The few films with a genuine stylistic vision felt like they were trying to capture the success of other, more established films. For example, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad felt like an R-rated version of the same type of humor he brought to the MCU in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. The DCEU could not find the balance of personality and cohesiveness that allowed films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Shang-Chi to thrive in the MCU.
Then, there’s the fact that the DC Extended Universe kept releasing butchered cuts of their films in theaters, only to release better cuts of their films on home media. Ask anyone, and they will tell you that the Ultimate Edition of BvS and Zack Snyder’s Justice League are much better than their respective theatrical cuts. When the theatrical cuts of these movies are as bad as they are, audiences will become disillusioned and stop turning out.
Another aspect of the MCU that allows it to work quite well is its generally family-friendly nature, which isn’t always the case with the DC Extended Universe. The DCEU has two R-rated films — Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad — but even beyond that, its PG–13 movies are generally far darker than anything done in the MCU. Although these films aren’t necessarily made for kids first, they cut out a large portion of their audience if they make films that parents won’t let their kids see.
Once Justice League failed miserably at the box office, the DCEU lost track of all cohesive threads. While we don’t need something as strong as the MCU, where every single film contributes to a larger team-up arc, there at least needs to be some sense of cohesion. Stylistically distinct films are great, but in trying to be a cinematic universe, they must feel at least like they all take place within the same world.
The other big thorn in the DCEU’s side was when they lost their anchors in Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman. Because of the length, it took between the films after the post-Justice League pivot, the DCEU lost its main heroes. At this point, audiences expect a Justice League built around Batman and Superman. It’s not like The Avengers, where audiences didn’t already expect every A-list character to be part of the team — an effective DCEU needs to have Batman and Superman at the core.
DC had hoped that The Flash would be their reset button, but due to controversies surrounding the film’s star, Ezra Miller, the chances of that happening are getting slimmer and slimmer every day. Even if the film does eventually come out, will audiences embrace it as the “new” launch pad of the DC Extended Universe?
The Flashpoint storyline, much like the Multiverse storyline introduced in the MCU in Spider-Man: No Way Home, would open the door to alternate realities that would accommodate recastings in a totally natural way. We wouldn’t have to worry about a different actor than Henry Cavill playing Superman because DC could just say it’s Superman from another universe. But with the future of The Flash in jeopardy, this reset button seems unlikely.
Indeed, at this point, the DCEU needs to return to square one. By that, I don’t mean they need to scrap everything they have already done — but rather, they should focus on building individual stories. Don’t try to rush another Justice League movie, and don’t try to force a reset with The Flash. Invest in these characters and make audiences care about them; that way, when the team-up does happen, audiences will be on-board with it.
Where should the DCEU go from here? They should invest in some of the properties with an untapped audience. The success of Shazam! has shown that audiences are eager to watch movies with a great story to them, even if they aren’t based on one of the more established properties in DC Comics.
With this, perhaps the DCEU will be able to find an anchor that isn’t Batman or Superman. Plenty of other recognizable DC characters could step in to take that spot as the center of the DC Extended Universe. For some reason, it seems like they’ve decided to go with Harley Quinn, as there have been three movies with her as the main character now, and that is honestly the wrong choice.
Why not someone like Wonder Woman? Both films were mostly well-liked, and the first film was one of the most financially successful in the franchise thus yet. The character is one of the most well-known superheroes, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to have a cinematic universe led by a female superhero. If the DCEU were to go with any of its already-established heroes to lead it, she would be the one.
Or perhaps they could go with a character that hasn’t been introduced to the DCEU yet… maybe Green Lantern? Sure, there was the 2011 Green Lantern movie that wasn’t well-received at all, but the thing about the Green Lantern Corps is that they are full of options. Not only is there Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern who was brought to the screen by Ryan Reynolds, but there are others, like John Stewart. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a person of color lead the DCEU?
Whichever way the DCEU decides to go, one thing is clear: they can’t wait around for their next Superman or Batman. Who their new anchor will be, nobody knows. Will it be Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman? Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam? Or is it going to be someone who we haven’t seen yet?
What do you think? Who should be the new anchor for the DC Extended Universe? Be sure to let us know in the comment section below, and don’t forget to like and subscribe. Until next time.
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