I won’t regurgitate the whole Hollywood Reporter piece that dropped yesterday morning that discussed some behind-the-scenes gossip about the overall state of the DC Comics franchise, but the crux of it is that the DC Comics ship isn’t exactly sailing smoothly. The films on the horizon aren’t as explicitly unified as the Marvel films have been up to this point, with no singular voice (such as Marvel’s Kevin Feige) guiding the ship and thus a lot of initial chaos with screenplays being tossed on a whim and competing writers for the same movie. The alleged good news is that the films being planned are allegedly (accidentally?) more filmmaker-controlled as opposed to producer-controlled. With the caveat that we haven’t seen any of these DC films outside of Man Of Steel and I have no idea if the likes of Suicide Squad or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice will be any good (and the stuff we’re hearing about Wonder Woman is head-smashingly depressing), it is not necessarily a bad thing that Warner Bros./Time Warner Entertainment is going about their superhero universe at least a little bit differently than the Walt Disney/Marvel one. But it should also be noted that their strategy carries a higher degree of immediate risk as well as immediate reward. The choices they have made with the next two movies basically puts the entire fate of the DC Comics Cinematic Universe (DCCU) in the hands of its next two films.
It’s not just the relative order that differs the DC Comics films from the Marvel game plan, although that bears noting. Instead of doing a handful of stand-alone films and then topping it off with a super-team up spectacular, they are basically treating the ensemble adventures as periodic bumps in the ongoing road, less season finale blow-outs than mid-season mythology episodes. We got Man of Steel, followed by Batman v Superman (a two-hander with high profile cameos), a Suicide Squad movie (which may or may not be stand-alone even with copious Batman-related cameos), and a Wonder Woman movie. This all leads into a Justice League two-parter with three stand-alone films (The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam) in between them and a Cyborg and Green Lantern movie coming after the second Justice League film. It’s a less conventional way to go, to the extent that there was anything conventional about what Marvel pulled off, but if anything it’s closer to comic book mythology with stand-alone heroic tales occasionally bleeding over into cross-over events. Again, it’s not better than what Marvel has done, but it is different.
But for me the most interesting and frankly riskiest thing about these films is how they choose to introduce the heroes and villains that will define it. To wit, instead of slowly introducing the universe via stand-alone pictures that could live or die on their own merits, Warner Bros. is basically introducing the entire comic book world in its first two films right out of the gate. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t just a Man of Steel sequel that happens to co-star Batman. Heck, Henry Cavill has gone on record stating that it’s not a Man of Steel sequel at all, which ought to thrill those who liked and supported Man of Steel two years ago. But anyway, it’s basically a “spill the whole toy box onto the floor” approach. The Zack Snyder film will introduce Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, possibly Cyborg, probably not Green Lantern, and the likes of Lex Luthor, Alfred Pennyworth, a couple other characters who I am not spoiling, and now probably Jared Leto’s Joker who was initially being saved for Suicide Squad.
Speaking of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, that film will introduce Deadshot, Harley Quinn, Amanda Waller, Killer Croc, Captain Boomerang, Enchantress, Plastique, Rick Flagg, Slipknot, and possibly Deathstroke. That’s not including whomever else they toss into the pile in what is rapidly going from a mostly stand-alone “super villains get recruited by shady government operatives to do black-ops wet work assignments” to something that darn-well feels like an introduction to an eventual Injustice League type super-villain society. But alleged or confirmed appearances by the likes of Batman, Harley, Lex Luthor, and The Joker, not only is Suicide Squad starting to feel like a backdoor pilot for both a theoretical stand-alone Batman movie and an Injustice Gang-centric Justice League movie, it basically introduces a big portion of the DC super-villain universe right off the bat. The end result is that audiences will get a general look at a huge chunk of the DCCU almost immediately in two massive chunks.
We will get most of the big and important heroic characters in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice while we’ll get a number of prominent super-villains in Suicide Squad. If they don’t like what they see, this experiment may be over before it begins. Again, without claiming that Marvel did it better or that DC should be doing it exactly like Marvel (I am genuinely concerned that Captain America: The War of Heroic Aggression will be as much of a claustrophobic madhouse as Dawn of Justice), but there is a real and different risk involved with throwing everything at us at one time. Comparatively, once Iron Man was a hit back in May 2008, the other stand-alone movies didn’t really have to connect beyond not belly-flopping. No one much liked The Incredible Hulk or Iron Man 2, and yet the Marvel plan progressed. Moreover, the very idea of a bunch of stand-alone superhero franchises uniting for one blow-out was unique enough to inspire curiosity even if the individual films didn’t blow our minds, which is an advantage that DC doesn’t have by virtue of being second.
I used to joke back in 2010/2011 that if Thor and/or Captain America didn’t work that we’d end up with Iron Man and the Avengers in May of 2012. But they did so we didn’t, but the individual films could more-or-less sink or swim without capsizing the whole project. DC Comics and Warner Bros. is taking more an “all or nothing” approach. If audiences don’t like the versions of Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman, Joker, Lex Luthor, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Boomerang, etc., etc. that they get in the next two DC Comics movies, will there really be enough of an audience for whatever comes next, especially in terms of stand-alone films? Obviously there is a lot we don’t know, and perhaps audiences enjoying Ben Affleck’s Batman and Gal Godot’s Wonder Woman is arguably more important than whether or not Ray Fisher makes an engaging Cyborg or if Jai Courtney captures the imagination of audiences worldwide as Captain Boomerang, but you get the idea. Now of course the good news is if the characterizations found in the next two films resonate with audiences, well, then they’ve pretty much got it in the bag going forward.
I’m not saying the current “everyone into the boat” strategy is wrong or that it’s inherently wrong because it differs from Marvel. If they copy Marvel, they are just copying Marvel, but if they fail on their own terms they get accused of not doing it like Marvel. But it carries with it a very specific risk that offers at least the potential of immediate reward or immediate (relative) failure. That either shows confidence in the DCCU or utter confidence in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the next few LEGO movies. Or it shows, as I’ve long theorized, that Warner Bros. didn’t really have their heart in the DC Comics franchise but felt compelled to do it after The Avengers went nuts because it’s what their stockholders expected. I can’t imagine Warner Bros. is thrilled that their financial future is being staked on a multi-part comic book universe when they would arguably be just as happy just making Harry Potter prequels, LEGO movies, and an occasional Batman picture along with the copious other movies they distribute in a given calendar year. But that’s a conversation for another day.
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