If you’re a friend or coworker or someone I met on the street, I have talked to you about what I think about Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and Warner Bros. “DC Extended Universe” (a name I learned quite recently isn’t an official brand). I love comic books, and as much criticism is leveled at the corporate giants peddling men and women in tights fighting amid CG-fueled explosions and sets, I love comic book movies. The promise of the unbridled creativity that floods comic books brought to big screens is something comic nerds have wanted for decades. And now, the movies’ shared universes offer much of what makes the comic book worlds of both Marvel and DC so attractive. It’s just fun to see Spider-Man interact with Thor, or Martian Manhunter and Batman exchanging taciturn replies. If you care about such things, of course.
Clearly the Marvel movies, dominated and formulated by Disney, have got this down pat. Their release schedule and marketing were created by a mathematical and social engineering formula, and it’s worked. The movies are fun, quality action films and they weave their characters to remarkable effect. Warner Bros’ DC movies have not achieved this.
While both Marvel and DC somewhat stumbled onto the concept of a cinematic universe after testing the waters with a first installment (Marvel with IRON MAN , DC with MAN OF STEEL ), DC’s stumbling has continued into the actual execution of its shared movie universe, and years removed from the success the MCU had already achieved. That makes DC’s failure all the more frustrating. I’d argue there is only one good movie in the bunch, Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN (2017), and the future doesn’t look too much brighter.
In fact, my enjoyment of Marvel’s movies have put the company’s properties over the top for me; DC used to be my preferred comics giant, but I think I’m now a Marvel guy. The recent news of a Joaquin Phoenix-starring Joker prequel only solidifies that feeling.
To be clear, the DC Extended Universe currently encompasses MAN OF STEEL, BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016), SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), WONDER WOMAN (2017), and JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017). The most immediate upcoming films are AQUAMAN (2018) and WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2019), with SHAZAM! (2019), CYBORG (2020), and GREEN LANTERN CORPS (2020) the other official movies on the slate. You might notice the absence of some notable characters there. But let’s talk about Joker.
This cinematic universe’s Joker was introduced in SUICIDE SQUAD, portrayed by Jared Leto. The performance and character did not have a ton of screen time, and he was whatever in a movie with much more glaring issues. Apparently, a SUICIDE SQUAD sequel starring Leto is in development, as well as a stand-alone Joker movie starring the, uh, controversial actor. These films will be set in the DCEU. But now, we have the promise of a Joaquin Phoenix Joker, in his own film directed and co-written by Todd Phillips of THE HANGOVER “trilogy” fame. OK, that disturbing fact aside, this film is apparently going to be part of a new brand of DC film that is separate from the DCEU, somewhat of an Elseworlds-style imprint that indicates these films will operate in their own worlds.
I’m not opposed to the idea. But I’m opposed to the fact that there are three separate films starring the Joker, two of which star the same actor and one operating outside of an already struggling venture. It’s just confusing. Explaining the situation to people in the know is difficult, let alone general moviegoers. And I understand that the majority of the audience wouldn’t care and would bring in the money regardless…except that many people have been “trained” by Marvel movies. I know many who wouldn’t necessarily go see ANT-MAN AND THE WASP (2018), but the promise of a connection to other films like the upcoming AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) sequel gets them to the theater. The messaging with these new DC films just isn’t clear.
Part of the problem, for me and other nerds at least, is that so many DC films have been reported to be “in development” that haven’t been slated for release or even received a significant update. The DCEU’s Wikipedia page lists just 17 films in development in some way, and only five upcoming films are on the slate. That slate has seen films removed and added numerous times just over the past couple years. It seems Warner Bros. is scrambling to make their DC film universe successful, and they’re willing to branch out to do it. I like the idea of standalone films that deviate from an established canon and allow filmmakers the wiggle room to interpret popular and intriguing characters in their own way. But I think they will serve to undermine an already weak project that I would love to see going strong. I love DC characters and I wish Warner Bros. had just copied Marvel’s formula.
There were three years between MAN OF STEEL and the next DCEU film. There were two MCU films in 2008 (although THE INCREDIBLE HULK was kind of a retroactive installment in the canon), and an IRON MAN sequel in 2010. Granted, it was rushed into production and pretty disappointing, but Marvel followed up success quickly and established its universe. DC just took too long to get its own universe spun up, mostly because of the success of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, which were admittedly redefining superhero films, and other movies like GREEN LANTERN (2010) that had been in development. It takes years of planning to get a project like the MCU into theaters. Still, I think Warner Bros. didn’t recognize the potential of their competitor’s idea sooner, and when they did, they took the weirdest route.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN introduced this new universe’s Bruce Wayne, played by Ben Affleck in what was essentially a MAN OF STEEL sequel. That’s a bizarre move for the most popular character the DC brand has. It did the same with Wonder Woman, and essentially Aquaman, Cyborg, and the Flash, acting as a strange kind of proto-Justice League. These introductions came too soon; audiences, even those in the know, didn’t necessarily feel the intended impact. Warner Bros. should have simply followed the Marvel formula of single character films leading to one big team up. Instead, two strange group films, including the B-tier Suicide Squad, followed the Superman film that retroactively kicked off the DCEU. There were really only two stand alone films before JUSTICE LEAGUE, one each for Superman and Wonder Woman. But where was Batman’s, and at least Flash’s?
The initial DC line up should have simply been a movie for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Flash. Then Justice League. A second phase could introduce Aquaman and Green Lantern, as well as sequels for the big characters and weirder choices like Suicide Squad. Marvel did this, setting the stage for why you should care for their characters in a group setting. Instead, Warner Bros./DC tried to fast track this effect, and it was confusing and unsatisfying. Of course, it doesn’t help that the quality of the films is subpar, and that should be the priority regardless. It doesn’t matter how “connected” your films are if they’re not good in the first place. The DC movie’s gritty tone, informed by Nolan’s films, could have been an alright counterpoint to Marvel’s and Disney’s cheery comic book fun. But the entire universe’s dedication to the Zack Snyder school of filmmaking was a mistake. The movies are cheesy and hard to take seriously, which they desperately want you to do. The Marvel movies succeed, in part, because their makers understand we’re dealing with comic books. They can tell significant stories, but leaning entirely into grittiness is hard to translate into film, even when done well. And it’s hard to sustain that energy across multiple movies.
I hope DC is learning from their mistakes, but I have a feeling we’ll see the dissolution of the DCEU before we’ll see it take off at any level of success like the MCU. It’s too bad, not because a soulless company and millionaires won’t get their money, but because I think the DC universe can offer fun and important film experiences in the right hands. Emotional investment in the characters and properties that are dictated by corporate interests is a tricky thing and a large part of the problems we’re seeing with toxic fandom. But I don’t want to see anyone fail for making movies that don’t really appeal to me; I just feel a little disappointed. I’ll just hope the DCEU finds its identity and gives its characters greater opportunities to shine, and continue enjoying the excitement of the MCU in the meantime.