The DCEU: What happened and what’s next?

For Marvel fans, 2018 will pay off a comic book movie saga ten years in the making. Iron Man kicked off the MCU in 2008 and now, almost twenty movies later, we will finally get to see the Avengers face their biggest and baddest threat ever as Thanos invades earth this May.

Meanwhile…

Warner Bros is…struggling.

It’s hard to believe that a decade ago Marvel movies were basically Spider-Man and X-Men, two franchises whose best days were clearly behind them. At the same time, Warners was putting out Batman movies so critically acclaimed they were getting legit, “above the line” Oscar nominations, to say nothing of their billions of box office earnings. But in the same summer that The Dark Knight blew everyone away, the not-so-quiet other comic book movie was Iron Man, with its lighter, more playful and sardonic approach to the funny pages. Fans responded kindly, and even though The Incredible Hulk failed to match Iron Man‘s success, Kevin Feige pressed on with confidence in his big picture idea, and by 2012, The Dark Knight Rises—Nolan’s big finale to his trilogy—went up against The Avengers, and the MCU smoked it by half a billion (1.5 billion for Avengers, to 1 billion for Batman).

Warner Bros wasted little time trying to keep their success going, especially with Marvel hitting its stride. They turned to Christopher Nolan to be the “godfather” of their own cinematic universe and he basically passed the buck to a flashy, visuals-first director, Zack Snyder. Snyder released Man of Steel in 2013 to middle-of-the road reviews and tepid box office performance. Still, it was “good enough” for Warners to announce a follow-up that would continue in the same universe. A few years later, Snyder unleashed Batman v Superman, a flawed and frustrating movie that was almost good, but ultimately was a disappointment, especially in hindsight (repeat viewings have not been kind to it).

BvS was a box office disappointment for the first movie to feature DC’s big three (Wonder Woman made her big screen debut in the film), and received terrible reviews to boot. Poor word of mouth caused cratering of ticket-buying as the film lost 80% of its business from its first Friday night to the next (anything more than a 55% drop is considered poor). By then it was panic time at Warners but also by then Snyder was already in pre-production of Justice League with a release date set.

Warners had doomed themselves with their own impatience.

Comic Book writer Geoff Johns (who wrote numerous classic stories based on Batman, Green Lantern and Justice League in particular) was appointed by Warner Bros as the chief creative director for the whole DCEU. But by the time he was appointed, several films were already at various stages of production, all built on a foundation that fans and critics had largely rejected. WB also did not let Johns have control over the DC universe to the extent that Kevin Feige has with the MCU. The studio frequently interjected and forced changes on their DC movies, tweaking on the fly the films they had in the pipeline.

Suicide Squad was the first casualty: A hack editing job that was designed to make the film lighter and more fun only made what could have been an okay movie a poor one.

Wonder Woman was insulated, however. External politics probably kept WB away from it; the bad PR from messing with the first female comic book movie directed by a female director and staring the only thing everyone seemed to agree was awesome in BvS was not worth the trouble. So WB left Patty Jenkins to herself and she created one of the best popcorn films of the year.

But there was still Justice League. The late substitution of Joss Whedon (who finished directing after Snyder stepped away to deal with a family tragedy) only added a conflicting vision and tone to the movie, and another bad (studio mandated) editing job (to keep the film less weighty and under two-hours) turned what could have been a solid comic book movie into a rushed, empty and ultimately forgettable one.

As a result of four misfires out of five, Warners has now made another change in their creative direction. Walter Hamada, who headed New Line Cinema (a subsidiary of WB) and produced several successful comic book films (IT, The Conjuring, Lights Out) has been appointed the new president of the DCEU. Geoff Johns wasn’t the problem though, and while he’ll retain some input in the creative direction, it’s clear that WB made him the fall guy. Zack Snyder also appears done with the universe, and while it’s easy to blame the director for putting his very divisive visual style on the universes’ most important films to diminishing results, let’s not forget that he was given carte blanche despite little reason to do so. Snyder is not the problem. Johns is not the problem.

Kevin Tsujihara (WB president) is the problem.

But what’s done is done and now we look to the future. Warner Bros has three options on the table before them:

PRESS ON

DC can continue pumping out movies with only minor tweaks along the way. The farther they get away from Snyder and his dark and color-drained approach and the closer they get to the bright and vibrant look of Wonder Woman, the better. DC can conceivably scratch a few dead in the water movies (such as ones based on Deadshot and Cyborg) and put their marketing might behind more sure-fire hits like Wonder Woman 2, the Dwayne Johnson-led Black Adam film, Matt Reeves’ Batman movie (with or without Ben Affleck).

There’s still the matter of Aquaman, which is in post-production and will release this December. The character failed to make an impact in Justice League but director James Wan has proven himself with The Conjuring and Fast & Furious 7. Hopefully the studio leaves him alone like they did Patty Jenkins.

Pressing on might seem like a foolish idea after so many previous failures, but it would be the patient action to make. Following the Rule of Costanza, WB might do well to try the opposite of all their past instincts.

SOFT RESET

Flash can fix this.

The scarlet speedster was good enough coming out of Justice League (and Ezra Miller seems ready to explode as a movie star) that the a solo-Flash movie might not crash and burn. The comic book storyline entitled “Flashpoint” (written by Geoff Johns) featured Flash at the center of a universe-altering plot that reshaped the main comic book environment for DC.

…which is exactly what the DCEU might need.

Warners could use Flash to wipe the memory of the Snyder-guided movies away, without an actual (hard) reset of the continuity. Warners is too deep in this cinematic universe to just say “forget it Marge, it’s Chinatown” and release a new universe of movies with new actors, etc. Not unless they wanted to take ten years off (and if they were willing to be that patient they wouldn’t have rushed Justice League to release). The best of both worlds is to use Flash. After Flashpoint, you can have whichever DCEU characters (and actors) retained or reset that you want, while technically keeping the same continuity.

DO NOTHING

Just “damn the torpedoes full speed ahead” why don’t you, Warner Bros. Do your Deadshot movie, do your Justice League Dark, do your Harley Quinn standalone, do your Joker movie starring Leo DiCaprio that is separate from your Joker movie starring Jared Leto. Just do it all, milk the franchise for whatever you can without any care or love for the property. Make millions when you could make billions. They’re your toys to play with, Tsujihara: If all you care about is short term gain, do nothing.

We’ll see what they decide in the very near future.

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