We’re almost five years into Warner Bros’ fledgling cinematic comic-book franchise, the DC Extended Universe, and there isn’t an awful lot to show for it; A half-decent Superman film that fundamentally misses the point of its titular character, two unpleasant dumpster fires in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, a Justice League film so messy its second director doesn’t even have his name in the credits, and a single, shining beacon of hope in 2017’s Wonder Woman. With many, many more films still slated by WB to come out over the next few years, the DCEU doesn’t look to be going anywhere soon. And by all accounts, this is actually a good thing.
The superhero comic book industry thrives on the friendly rivalry between the so-called ‘Big Two’. Think Marvel Studios are at the top of their game now? Imagine what they’d create if WB were in true competition. And at the end of the day, audiences simply love great films, and the superhero genre has been the hottest ticket in Hollywood for going on two decades. With that said, here’s four ways that Warner Bros. could fix the DCEU, and two that could finally, tragically kill it.
DO Focus on Characters
This sounds almost too simplistic, but considering the garbled attempts so far, it’s clear it needs saying; comic book superheroes aren’t beloved because of what they can do, or the spandex they wear, but for the characters they are underneath. The DCEU absolutely shouldn’t copy the Marvel Cinematic Universe beat-for-beat, and oftentimes any mention of any kind of aping or homage does sound to the DCEU faithful like Batman’s about to start dropping one-liners like it’s open-mic night at Gotham City’s comedy club, but the one thing Marvel has consistently nailed in building its box-office mega titan is the golden rule of storytelling; characters come first. The DCEU gave us Man of Steel as its opening remark, and not only did it present us with a drab, over-designed, washed out world, but it never allowed us to get to know this version of Clark Kent. Man of Steel’s Clark Kent is defined by what he isn’t; he isn’t the comic book Superman, he isn’t like Christopher Reeve, and he absolutely isn’t the boy scout you think he is. But we learn very little about him aside from that. Wonder Woman succeeded by making Diana a character, giving her flaws and wants, giving her quirks of personality and giving her agency within her own narrative. For comparison, everything we know of Clark we’re told by other characters, ignoring that old cinematic adage ‘show, don’t tell’. The reason audiences queue in line to see the latest Avengers film isn’t because they can’t wait to see Iron Man’s new suit, or to see what particular flavour of smashing the Hulk will contribute to the inevitable third-act brawl – no, audiences queue in line to see the next chapter in the story of characters that they’ve grown to love.
DO Use The Flash: Flashpoint to Soft-Reboot
This one is almost already confirmed, but it’s a damn fine idea nonetheless. The standalone Flash film, starring Ezra Miller, has been overhauled into an adaptation of the 2011 comic book event series ‘Flashpoint’. For the uninitiated, this event saw The Flash time-travelling back to the night of his mother’s death, led to a series of fun alternate universe hijinks, and finally culminated in DC Comics pushing the reset button on their universe and starting everything back from the beginning, only keeping a select handful of the stuff people really loved. In short, this is absolutely the direction the DCEU needs to take. The focus of any Flashpoint movie should, of course, be on the Back to the Future-esque shenanigans that come with time-meddling. The focus should absolutely be on crafting an enjoyable superhero adventure movie. But if a side-effect of this is a ‘soft-reboot’ (i.e: jettison everything but Wonder Woman, and perhaps Ezra Miller’s Flash himself), and a chance to start anew in a way that satisfies both current fans of the DCEU, and those who mostly haven’t found WB’s franchise to their liking yet, then this would be the perfect opportunity to do so
DO Stop Focusing on Batman
To be blunt, Batman has appeared in twelve films in thirty years. Every single DCEU film has either had Batman as an Easter egg (Man of Steel), a prologue (Wonder Woman), a cameo (Suicide Squad), or a full-fledged character (Batman v Superman,and debatably Justice League). Now, I love Batman as much as the next mid-twenties white male nerd, but to say the character is over-exposed would be to stretch the limits of that phrase so far as to render them moot. Batman should be the rock star of the DCEU. He should show up sparingly, and when he does it should be exciting. The rustle of a cape, a whip-pan to the shadows, and there he is; white eyes glaring, the crowd going wild. The DC Universe is full of interesting characters, many of which still yet to break into live-action. It’s time they got their chance to shine. Batman’s origin story also needs a rest too; theatre, alley, gunshot, pearls, blood, crying – We’ve got it. We’re good. Take the Spider-Man: Homecoming approach on that one.
DO Capitalise on a Diverse Back Catalogue
To anyone paying attention, it should be obvious by now that audiences are desperate to see representation and heroes for those who aren’t a white man named Chris. The staggering box-office successes of Wonder Woman and Black Panther have proved that audiences are begging for heroes that look like them, and DC has an incredibly rich and diverse back catalogue of heroes from which their cinematic universe could draw from. Static Shock could get a streetwise, contemporary adaptation that truly dealt with the reality of being a smart, brilliant young black man in a world that rejects the notion of those concepts being together. The Birds of Prey could be the all-female superhero team-up movie that young girls have been waiting for. Katana? After short-changing her in Suicide Squad, she’s practically owed her own epic tale as she tries to avenge the soul of her husband, trapped in the sword she carries with her at all times. There are an exorbitant amount of options to choose from, and making the smart play to push hard for this before Marvel does, to really build a brand around having this diverse cast of characters, would be a game-changer for the DCEU.
DON’T Prioritise World-building Over Narrative
It killed Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man franchise, it killed Universal’s Dark Universe, and it’s already scuppered WB’s plans from the time between Batman v Superman and Justice League (those multiple dream sequences, anyone?). World-building, and the storytelling opportunities presented from interconnectedness, are incredibly exciting. They’re organic hype machines, perfectly tailored to generate excitement and a sense of obligation to a brand in a modern world of binge-watching and disposable media. The path started by home media has led to this; a world where three ostensibly separate franchises can culminate in a single film. And for comic books fans, for whom this has been an integral part of the reading experience for over 70 years, it’s practically a dream come true. But the danger comes when this world-building, this constant setting-up for the next movie and the movie after that, can overwhelm the narrative in play, and often lead to a messy, jumbled slop of Easter-eggs and references that half the audience won’t understand or care about. It’s about finding that balance. The MCU does this by slotting in the odd mention here and there, whilst sticking all the really juicy stuff in the credits where people who care about that sort of thing can find them. Copying this method would feel tacky, and it felt as such when Justice League had two post-credit scenes. There are more organic ways of going about it, it simply takes some planning and forethought on the part of the creatives at the head of the disparate franchises involved. Audiences would prefer a good movie with no Easter eggs, than a movie that’s ruined by them.
DON’T Homogenise Characters and Stories To Fit a Single Tone
Perhaps the greatest crime of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is what it did to Superman. The trace of humour and good-natured duty was gone, replaced by a solemn, put-upon attitude, a view of the world as a burden, and the shame cast upon him by those in power for failing to do what they couldn’t. It was a doubling-down of everything critics of Man of Steel had complained about, and its clear that this was to fit Zack Snyder’s vision of what a Batman movie should be, as opposed to working the narrative to better diametrically oppose the two. The result is a samey slog, a choking miasma of misery that culminates in a senseless death for the world’s first superhero. All because Superman, and every other character in the film, was poured into the Batman mould, and whatever came out the other end was what ended up in the film. A common misconception of the DC Universe is that it’s darker (and, in some eyes, more mature because of this), but that simply isn’t the case. The DC Universe is a glorious cacophony of genres, tones, characters and stories to fit all tastes, and the beauty in crossovers is seeing these seemingly jarring elements interact with each other. To homogenise the universe into a grey, angry mass goes against the very spirit of the work that the DCEU is supposedly adapting.