Uh oh, the DC Films series is in peril. It must be another day ending with a “y.” That’s the general gist when you look at a DC Comics cinematic universe that has apparently lost its Superman (Henry Cavill) and its Batman (Ben Affleck). If you picture a scenario where The Avengers was disappointing enough, critically and commercially, that Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans both jumped ship, that’s pretty much where Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc. finds themselves just 3.25 away from the release of James Wan’s Aquaman. So, is the DC Films franchises as we know it on the cusp of death? Well, yes, but that may not be a bad thing.
Henry Cavill didn’t sign up to be a supporting character in WB’s DC Comics cinematic universe. But thanks to mixed reactions to Man of Steel, Man of Steel 2 turned into Batman v Superman. Not only did Ben Affleck’s Batman overshadow Cavill’s Superman, but the theatrical cut ended up losing much of the Clark Kent scenes to emphasize the new Dark Knight. Oh, and then the Last Son of Krypton croaked at the end of that one, with little more than a glorified cameo in last year’s Justice League. Eight years after signing on, Cavill had one starring vehicle, one supporting role and an extended cameo. I can’t imagine he was happy about that.
When Ben Affleck signed up in 2013, the idea was that he would play Batman as a “come to the set and hit your marks” actor. The payoff would be A) Warner Bros. grooming him as their next Clint Eastwood and B) eventually directing his own Batman movie. But after Dawn of Justice was poorly received, the narrative became essentially that it was up to Affleck to take over and save the entire DC Films. Couple that with Live by Night being poorly received (and overshadowed by questions about that Batman movie) along with Affleck’s otherwise unrelated personal issues, and you can see why he’s not so keen to play the Caped Crusader in a stand-alone movie.
This presumably means that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman is the only one left in the Trinity. In a saner time, when every studio wasn’t (understandably) clamoring for multiple superhero franchises, Warner Bros. could take their successful and promising Wonder Woman franchise and essentially discard the rest. The good news is, as discussed a few times here and there, the apparent death of the so-called DC Films cinematic universe could be a blessing in disguise. With the Zack Snyder trilogy having set up the core universe, WB now has the freedom to just make DC Comics movies with a lot less concern for how they all connect and how well each of them play compared to The Avengers.
This seems to be Warner Bros.’ strategy. Wonder Woman was an almost entirely stand-alone World War I action drama, with only present-tense bookends offering any connective tissue with the events of Batman v Superman. Suicide Squad had only a brief Batman cameo and an explicit reference to Superman’s death in an otherwise stand-alone story. The likes of Aquaman and Shazam will be at least as stand-alone as Iron Man or Spider-Man: Homecoming. Even much of the changes to Justice League were about removing world building for the sake of a more standalone movie. Again, we should remember that the MCU didn’t get hardcore into interconnectivity until after Walt Disney and Paramount/Viacom Inc.’s The Avengers made $1.5 billion worldwide.
Like a lot of long-running TV shows eventually defined by their mythology (X-Files, Lost, etc.), the Marvel Cinematic Universe didn’t get aggressively continuity-driven until they had established their core cast of crowd-pleasing superheroes. Even up to the end, they’ve offered a mix of stand-alone superhero stories (Black Panther) and must-see mythology episodes (Avengers: Infinity War). If the MCU is The X-Files, then we may want to look at DC Films as, optimistically speaking, Fringe. That J.J. Abrams-produced show went, like a lot of post-Lost fantasy shows, hard into the mythology right from the get-go, realized it was a mistake and pulled back to become a more character-focused sci-fi show that ran for five seasons.
With less concern about the overall cinematic universe, Walter Hamada can help turn the DC Films franchise into what WB always claimed it to be: a filmmaker-driven superhero franchise with films that stood apart from each other and from the MCU. These stand-alone movies can fly or fall without affecting an entire interconnected universe. Heck, Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad show that the DC Films flicks that are more outside-the-box are as successful, if not more so, than the more conventional superhero fare. Freed from the limitations of challenging MCU’s dominance, they can (if they choose) play around in different genres, offer Elseworlds and go a little off script to at least differentiate themselves from the competition.
Whether it’s a valid excuse, one of the reasons it took so long for Marvel to offer up a solo superhero movie starring a racial minority or a woman is that they played it safe until Marvel was itself a strong enough of a brand to challenge conventional wisdom. Once Guardians of the Galaxy showed that the MCU could sell almost anything, then we got official announcements for Black Panther and Captain Marvel. Absent the pressure of maintaining a connected continuity, WB can experiment in terms of characters being adapted (Detective Chimp!) and in terms of who gets to play what superheroes (Lewis Tan as Nightwing would be a bigger event than Sam Claflin as Nightwing).
If I seem overly optimistic (for all we know, James Wan’s Aquaman is a train wreck), it’s because A) Warner Bros. is doing well enough without the DC Films franchise so as to not necessarily need to micromanage it to death, B) Walter Hamada turned The Conjuring into a five-films-and-counting $1.3 billion+ cinematic universe on a combined budget of $105 million and C) there are signs that Warner Bros. got the message after Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad both overperformed. Shazam and Aquaman seem to be stand-alone, that Joker origin flick seems to be an Elseworld and Cathy Yan’s Margot Robbie-starring Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of “do what your competition won’t” offering that may help DC Films stand out from the crowd.
We’ll find out over the next year whether any of this will pay off. WB has four (!) DC Films flicks launching between this December and next November, specifically Aquaman (Dec. 21, 2018), Shazam (April 5, 2019), Joker (Oct. 4, 2019) and Wonder Woman 1984 (Nov. 1, 2019). But the best thing for the franchise is for DC Films to be just one cog in a relatively well-oiled Warner Media machine. Absent the pressure of a cinematic universe continuity, the films can live and die on their own merits while (hopefully) the likes of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, LEGO Movie 2 and It: Chapter 2 will keep things on the up and up.
The goal should be taking B or C-level characters and turning them into crowd-pleasing favorites. If the MCU could do it without relying on Spider-Man and Wolverine, then DC Films can survive without Superman and/or Batman. Heck, the CW built a successful DCTV universe on Green Arrow! If WB wants to eventually offer a big mythology episode/cross-over in a few years, they can sell manufactured nostalgia for Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel and Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader and do what they should have done in the first place: Justice League Vs. The Legion of Doom. After all, if WB doesn’t give us such a thing, I’m reasonably sure that Universal/Comcast Corp.’s Fast and Furious 10 will.