Where now for the DCEU?

The DC Extended Universe is now 6 years old, having been born with 2013’s Man of Steel and it’s fair to say it’s been a bumpy road.

Hot off the heels of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, written by David S. Goyer and executive produced by Nolan had everything going for it. After all, with how they turned the Batman franchise around after 1997’s Batman & Robin, they had a far easier job with the Superman series, which had last graced our screens with the under-performing, underwhelming but not outright terrible Superman Returns (2006).

With Man of Steel, gone was the positive American Boy Scout, saving people, planes and pet cats, and in his place was a brooding, troubled man, struggling with his identity, and who he needed to be. It was clearly the first part in the Superman story, where having killed General Zod (not for the first time, despite what people say – in Superman II he threw him to an icy grave in the Fortress of Solitude), Kal-El is in the desert, having an exchange with General Swanwick about the government tracking him, and what side he’s on. It’s at the end of the film, that he’s finally become Superman.

Now for some old-school Superman heroics in Man of Steel 2 yes?

No. Man of Steel didn’t do as well at the box office as Warner Bros had hoped. It seems that Warner and DC panicked, and rather than having faith in the character and their planned story arc, they jumped the gun and in place of Man of Steel 2, in 2016 we had Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Controversy dogged this film, from the casting of Ben Affleck as an older, battle-weary Batman, to the even more dour Superman, and the rush to force the Justice League in to the public consciousness.

Personally I liked Affleck in the role, and also understood his motivation for being against Superman. Sadly, the now often ridiculed (and rightly so) forced way by which Batman and Superman resolved their issues gets no better on repeat viewings and sticks out like a sore thumb. By the end of the film we were expected to mourn Superman alongside the world. The problem was, as an audience we hadn’t really seen him BE Superman. The one shining light in the whole mediocre mess was Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman.

By this time, via the clumsily shoe-horned introductions in BvS, we knew that the Justice League was coming.

Now here at Film ‘89 Towers we don’t go in for any of this Marvel Vs DC nonsense. As comic book movie fans we want both franchises to be great. But there’s no getting away from the fact that Marvel have set the bar and the template for such franchises. Marvel took the time and had patience enough to introduce their characters, taking 4 years and 5 films (including one sequel) to establish the characters and their story, by which time as fans we were salivating with anticipation for the eventual team-up.

There is no doubt that DC were rushing it, and in doing so it cost them. With 2016’s Suicide Squad, while the initial trailers showed great promise, it was a multicoloured mess that had more in common with the Schumacher Batman films of the ‘90s than anything else in the DCEU. The only stand-out being Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

And then in 2017 came Wonder Woman. For the first time that this character had graced the silver screen in a solo outing, director Patty Jenkins showed that Wonder Woman could more than carry her own movie, and deserved to. In Gal Gadot they had found a modern take and look for the character, and despite the now standard CGI villain finale, in Wonder Woman we finally saw that a DC film could balance character, story and humour – a formula that must be applied to future films. It was a massive success both critically and commercially for Warners and deservedly so.

With Justice League later that year came more behind the scenes issues. A terrible family tragedy saw director Zack Snyder leave the project quite late on, to be replaced by Joss Whedon. Whedon, who had so successfully brought 2012’s The Avengers to the screen sought to ‘lighten’ the tone somewhat, after the critical success of Wonder Woman which had been released during the production of Justice League.

There was a clear change in Warner’s approach and signs of a course correction. Ezra Miller’s Flash was funny and showed promise, Ray Fisher’s Cyborg was far better than expected, Affleck’s Batman was again fine, embracing a lighter approach to the character, but the stand-outs were Wonder Woman again alongside Jason Momoa as Aquaman, who showed promise in a modern re-invention of a much maligned DC stable character. 

Superman, who had been the focus of much of the re-shoots was certainly lighter in demeanour and more like the Superman we know and love, however due to a ridiculous clause in his contract which saw him doing the re-shoots whilst working on Mission: Impossible – Fallout, where his character has a moustache, he was not allowed to shave said moustache off, and despite their best intentions, Superman is most memorable for the poor CGI facial hair removal job which proved to be distracting to an almost ridiculous degree.

Again, Justice League showed promise, however as a villain, Steppenwolf fell into the now standard DC CGI big bad, and whereas I don’t like to draw comparisons, just 5 months later Marvel produced their own little title about a CG character travelling to Earth to collect precious items that would give him insurmountable power and demonstrated exactly how it should be done, creating in Thanos a villain of such layered depth and nuance as to put DC’s efforts very much to shame.

Justice League again wasn’t the success DC had hoped for and Aquaman was all but finished with a locked-in December 2018 release date.

Rumours of Suicide Squad 2, a Harley Quinn movie and then the announcement of a standalone Joker movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips came, throwing into question what exactly the intention of the DCEU is. We were told that the DCEU would continue what was started with Man of Steel – a series of interconnected films, but that there would also be standalone films, unconnected from the others in terms of continuity. Therefore, the Joker film would be free from the shackles of the DCEU, and Jared Leto would be free to continue his interpretation of the Crown Prince of Crime.

And what of Shazam? Dwayne Johnson had been teasing for years that he had signed on to play Black Adam, foe to Shazam, but with filming rolling, he was nowhere to be seen. Conflicting reports suggested a Henry Cavill Superman cameo, seemingly confirming that Shazam was in fact part of the DCEU, only for counter rumours suggesting that this too will be a standalone film. The tone of the trailer certainly suggests that Shazam will be a comedy, yet still we do not know which camp it will be in, DCEU or not.

In September 2018 reports suggested that Cavill would not be making the mooted Shazam cameo and that he and Warner Bros had parted ways. This was refuted by Warners and addressed kryptically (see what I did there?) by Cavill in an Instagram post. Stories behind the scenes suggested that Cavill’s management wanted more money for the star, and an official creative input going forward, including the as yet unconfirmed Man of Steel 2. As it stands Cavill still has one more appearance in his contract.

Aquaman was released in December 2018, and despite not being a particularly big hit with critics, director James Wan and star Jason Momoa brought us a fun film with a fine cast which continued AquaMan’s story from Justice League and explained his origin. Replete with the expected CGI for a film set primarily under water, and whilst not to everybody’s taste, Aquaman has become the highest grossing DC film to date, proving that there is clearly an audience out there for DC standalone films. The odd line of dialogue here and there confirmed the film’s setting post Justice League, but worked as a solo film set in the larger universe, while establishing itself on its own merits, much like Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman.

Fresh from the success of the latter two entries to the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy, Matt Reeves was given the job of writing and directing a new Batman film. Taking over from Affleck who it appeared took on the Batman role with the caveat that he would get to write and direct his own Batman trilogy, following the initial criticism of BvS, and then JL, Affleck and Warner’s  were very quiet on whether the future of the DCEU would include him. Then in late January 2019, it was official. Affleck was out, and the search was on for a new, younger Batman to take on the story, slated to take place earlier in Batman’s continuity. Part of the DCEU? We assume so, but the truth is we don’t know.

So what does the future hold?

The Harley Quinn centric and absurdly titled Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) has started filming. As easily the standout performance from Suicide Squad, a Harley Quinn follow-up was an inevitability, and this anti-hero film is set to focus on the female rogues gallery including The Black Canary and Huntress collectively known as the aforementioned Birds of Prey.

James Gunn has very recently been announced as director of Suicide Squad 2. After his high profile parting of ways with Marvel and Disney, after the magic that he worked with the two Guardians of the Galaxy filmshe seems the perfect fit to make a success of the sequel, which it has been announced as a fresh start for the team. Not a reboot, but a new start – a soft reboot if you will, something which is becoming par for the course for the DCEU. The Wonder Woman sequel, Wonder Woman 1984 is all but finished and slated to be released in June 2020. A sequel to Aquaman has also been announced this week.

But still no Man of Steel 2. Maybe that announcement is coming soon. Henry Cavill posted his latest kryptic Instagram shot – posing in the gym, sans vest, arms crossed next to a Superman cutout.

Henry Cavill clearly loves playing the character and wants to continue to do so. The huge successes of Wonder Woman and, more surprisingly, Aquaman proves that there is a huge audience for these solo DCEU outings, and while Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa have made their roles their own, so too has Cavill. Unfortunately it’s the material that has let his interpretation of the Man of Steel down. With the right film, Henry Cavill should solidify himself as the Superman for this generation.

With Ben Affleck on the other hand, whilst I enjoyed what he did, it never felt like he owned the role. In a part that has been played to varying successes on the big screen by 6 actors in the last 30 years, of the main 4 Justice League members, in an unexpected turn out, it’s Batman who is the one most likely to be replaced at this point. Find the right actor to don the cowl, and it’ll be far less jarring than if someone took over as Superman.

Updates have been quiet of late on the initially announced 2020 release for Flashpoint, the solo outing for Ezra Miller’s Flash. There have been a number of behind the scenes changes in the management at the DC division at Warner Bros over the last few years, all in a bid to make their movie universe a success. 

And where the subject of soft reboots comes up, Flashpoint could be the answer that DC and Warner’s are looking for. For those unfamiliar with the story, Flashpoint is the story of Barry Allen AKA The Flash, travelling back in time to prevent the murder of his mother (for which his father was wrongfully imprisoned). As with any time travelling in film, the ripples from changes made in the past travel far and wide. Herein lies the key. Such a story gives DC the opportunity to legitimately ret-con story points and character beats that they missed the mark with originally. So where Justice League didn’t quite manage to re-launch the characters, bring in a new Batman, shave Henry Cavill’s top lip, and Flashpoint could be the start of a more coherent character and story based DCEU and could be all the better for it.

But is that what an audience wants? I believe it is. As previously stated, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best example of a shared universe which is so clearly and meticulously planned out, with real focus placed on continuity and character building. And it works like gangbusters. Star Wars has the potential to be equally as great, with such a rich tapestry of characters and story opportunities, but less care seems to have been given to these elements of late, and in my opinion, the overall quality of this most beloved of franchises has suffered greatly. 

Comic book fans want a wider universe. We don’t necessarily want countless cameos, Easter eggs and crossovers, but just to know that the other characters, cities and events exist in the same universe, such as the blink and you’ll miss it line of dialogue referencing Steppenwolf in Aquaman. Add to this an event movie or story bringing characters together every few years, and you add value to the individual characters and their co-characters, enemies and stories, allowing the audience to invest in them, and want to follow their journeys with even more vigour.

Quite where Todd Phillips’ Joker fits in at this moment is unknown. Perhaps Flashpoint will ret-con The Joker and Jared Leto’s version will be banished to a forgotten timeline. Or maybe it will be a film which sits firmly outside of the DCEU. Personally I find that to be a strange and wholly unnecessary move. Such an iconic character, so intrinsically tied to Batman, do audiences really want yet ANOTHER interpretation?

DC seem to have managed to get their TV series’ right, particularly CW’s Arrowverse and Fox’s Gotham. Aside from the Arrowverse, the rest of the DC TV output aren’t connected. This works for TV series’ which are often 24 episodes long and require great time investment, but with movies, audiences, particularly comic book and sci-fi audiences, expect an attention to detail and a level of continuity in reward for their dedication to the output. But so far with the DCEU, there have been far more missteps than successes, something which we very much hope will be rectified going forward.

Editor’s note – Earlier today it was announced that an Aquaman horror spin-off is in the works called The Trench, focussing on the creatures that attack Aquaman, and set to feature none of the original cast. With this latest bafflingly odd decision, who knows what’s going on at Warner Bros/DC?! Is it all some big joke and we’ve yet to be told the punchline? Hopefully time will tell.