The DC Extended Universe has stumbled since its inception and the mixed reception of Wonder Woman 1984 is a sign that Warner Bros. needs to define a better plan going forward before it’s too late. Aside from the MCU, different attempts at shared cinematic universes have met varied results. For every MonsterVerse that has succeeded, there have been handfuls of Dark Universes that failed to launch. While the DCEU has had its fair share of success, it still doesn’t have a bulletproof future.
Superman and Batman have been met with mixed reactions in the DCEU, while characters like Shazam and Aquaman have earned a good reputation despite the initial doubts audiences had about their potential success. But well-established characters aren’t guaranteed permanent success, either, as Wonder Woman seemed to be the face of the franchise until Wonder Woman 1984′s divisive release undermined that faith. Now, the DCEU is at a fork in the road. Robert Pattinson won’t play the same Batman that Ben Affleck portrayed in previous movies, and James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad promises to be a soft reboot of the team David Ayer introduced in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Furthermore, these two new titles are also opposite to each other in tone and, quite possibly, their place in DCEU canon.
In short, the future of the DCEU is as uncertain as they come. Its sense of continuity is growing thinner, and that may continue if each new title tells a disconnected story. It’s time for the DCEU to tweak some key aspects in order to do justice to its name. Here’s what it can do to improve in the next few years.
The DC movies don’t need to follow in Marvel’s footsteps, but they can learn from the rival company’s most fruitful decisions. The MCU’s greatest weapon has been its talent to plan ahead years if not decades in advance. While the DCEU had a similar foundation in Zack Snyder’s original five-movie plan, it still lacked fail-safes and a greater degree of flexibility in case of unfortunate eventualities. A multiple-movie layout is useful for two purposes: first, it builds a consistent and compelling overarching narrative. Second, it helps build anticipation for future releases, thus attracting all kinds of audiences to corners of the extended universe they wouldn’t have met otherwise.
So far, each DCEU title has built up to something different. For instance, Man of Steel only established Superman’s basic lore (and didn’t spawn a single Superman sequel after that) as if the DCEU was planning to introduce individual characters before their eventual crossovers. Then Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice rushed toward the introduction of the Justice League, only to go back to individual movies that don’t set up future ensemble movies. Although each change was a valid one on paper, the constant changes felt extremely inconsistent in practice.
Whether the DCEU aims for a strong sense of interconnectivity or it chooses to stray apart from the MCU’s established model of shared universes, it still needs to feel like each movie builds up to something. Almost none of these movies are ever meant to be one-offs; they have to feel like they’re going somewhere. The possibilities are not as limited as they may seem. Besides the obvious choice of universe-wide crossover events, the DCEU can take advantage of the multiverse that The Flash will introduce, as well as unexpected crossovers involving obscure characters and one-off team-ups focusing on different groups like the Justice Society, the Teen Titans, and the Legion of Doom.
One of the biggest flaws DC movies, in general, have repeated is that they have adapted very few popular comic book storylines. Fans haven’t had the chance to enjoy stories like The Killing Joke or All-Star Superman on the big screen, and the DCEU hasn’t even featured a single sidekick yet. So far, there have been more setups than payoffs. Robin’s death and Lex Luthor’s reign of evil are examples of interesting plots that were set up but haven’t gone anywhere. The DCEU should draw more inspiration from the comic books and narrate some of the stories fans are already attached to.
The DCEU doesn’t necessarily have to adapt one comic book storyline per movie, but each movie should at least explore a key aspect of the characters that made them popular in the first place. The movies have to stay true to what each hero represents, be it justice in Batman’s case or hope in Superman’s. In fact, the DCEU has already shown how straying away from these crucial themes can represent a significant detriment to its stories. The prime example of this was Cyborg, whose backstory was largely cut from the theatrical cut of Justice League, turning him into a cardboard cutout of the character he was supposed to become. By respecting each hero’s principles, the DCEU can get as creative as it wants while still honoring the characters’ origins, thus meeting the expectations of hardcore DC fans and casual viewers alike.
It’s safe to say the DCEU missed its chance to have an airtight continuity the first time around. It’s a harsh truth, but the terrific casting of the main DCEU characters was, for the most part, wasted. However, Joker was the first sign of a new way to make DC movies. It was self-contained, detached from the established continuity, and true to the director’s vision. The same is expected to happen with The Batman, which will redefine Gotham and the Caped Crusader from scratch. Upcoming movies like The Suicide Squad and The Flash will also take advantage of bold concepts, and perhaps confirm that the key to revolutionizing the DCEU lies in taking risks.
The DCEU can still break new ground just as the MCU’s showed it could with crazy meta-comedy WandaVision. DC movies and shows can go one step beyond and produce titles with very different tones, more cerebral stories, and more ambitious premises. This way, the DCEU could strike gold with a superhero story that has never been attempted before. How about a Deadpool-like Plastic Man movie or a Superman movie set in the 1930s told from the point of view of a comic book-accurate Jimmy Olsen? DC shows like Crisis on Infinite Earths, Doom Patrol, and Titans have already proven that crazy concepts like these are not so farfetched as they once were thought to be.
Style is an aspect DC properties already have in their favor. While the MCU has been criticized for maintaining a mostly uniform tone for most of its movies, DC titles — both inside and outside the DCEU — have gravitated toward darkness and grittiness. Future DCEU movies could embrace these dark tones or flip them around to tell more lighthearted stories like Shazam! and Wonder Woman 1984. Another option could be to break the dichotomy and go satiric, suspenseful, or unapologetically action-packed. The possibilities are truly endless, so far as the style is consistent. Say what one will about Marvel, but their movies have all felt like they come from the same universe, their characters, that they can exist in the same world. That hasn’t always been the case with the DCEU so far.
This is not to say the DCEU must limit itself to only one way of making movies. Having a wildly different style for each movie could also be a style in and of itself. Different characters don’t have to follow directing styles that don’t fit with their characteristic traits. Batman can be as cynical and gloomy as he can be without impeding Superman or Shazam from saving kittens stuck on trees or dancing for social media. This also lets directors make the movies they want to make. Some stories really don’t need the typical final battle a climactic moment, just as many others may not need high-octane action at all. Opposite styles that intentionally clash in ensemble movies could be an ingenious narrative tool, as well.
All the previous tweaks would help directors stay true to their creative visions. They could balance out their distinctive style with a certain degree of comic book accuracy, the planned future of the franchise, and a generous dose of experimentation. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee success at the box office or positive reviews, but it does make every DCEU movie a more genuine attempt to improve the franchise without the sometimes disastrous studio meddling that has plagued earlier films in the DCEU.
“Key players” doesn’t just mean the artists behind the camera. They also include the franchise’s flagship characters and the actors who play them. The stars and the heroes also need to receive the importance they deserve in each movie and within the overarching story, even more so if the DCEU plans to continue with a long-form narrative. These figures also connect with the viewers, as they’re the ones the audience pays the tickets to see kicking all kinds of alien butt. Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Henry Cavill’s Superman have always had the potential to match the popularity of Chris Evans’ Captain America and Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark — the DCEU only needs to point them in the right direction.
The DCEU has all the correct elements to craft a groundbreaking shared universe, despite the current competition. Right now, what it needs the most is to craft a plan and stick to it. It’s not too late to turn former weaknesses into future strengths and keep evolving the superhero genre.