The Future of the DCEU and The Decline of the Shared Universe Model
Having seen Aquaman recently so soon after the trailer for Avengers: Endgame was finally released after months of anticipation, I began to do the thing that fans of DC movies hate: I began to compare the Marvel Cinematic universe with the unofficially titled DCEU (DC Extended Universe).
Despite what people might say, it is a completely fair comparison to make. Both companies produce an array of superhero movies from a catalogue of colourful characters that stretch back more than 70 years, and both have a super-powered team that saves the world from cataclysmic destruction. The origin of the DCEU cannot be taken a singular moment independent of what Marvel was doing at that time.
If we look at the first movie in the DCEU, Zack Synder’s Man of Steel in 2013, that movie came just one year after the monumental success of Marvel’s The Avengers. You cannot pretend this game-changing event didn’t resonate with the execs over at Warner Bros who announced Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice at Comic Con in the summer of 2013 with the full intention of assembling the Justice League as quickly as possible. Those who believe that Warner Bros/DC have been plotting their own course this entire time are fooling themselves. They’ve been playing catch-up since the beginning, emulating and copying at every corner, going so far as to introduce the post-credits tease due to its popularity with Marvel movies. But now it seems as though Warner Bros may be giving up on this idea all together. Let’s have a look at what Warner Bros are cooking up at the moment and see whether this slots into place like a well-oiled machine, or are they already in the position of a catch-22?
Let’s start with the most recent entry, Aquaman, and where it fits into the grand project, or lack thereof. This is technically the third appearance of Jason Mamoa’s Aquaman, after a cameo appearance in Batman V Superman and a starring role in Justice League. The movie itself is fine, if extremely derivative of a slew of other movies, not least Black Panther, of which the entire story is pretty much a snatch and grab, the only difference being Aquaman in the position of the outsider (Killmonger), while Orm/Ocean Master is the king (T’Challa). Apart from Black Panther, there’s some Avatar, some Shrek (yes, I’m serious; wait for the scene in Italy), and I know people keep saying Star Wars, but all I was thinking was the whole thing was very Jupiter Ascending.
You’d expect, coming off the heels of his life-changing experiences in Justice League, that Arthur Curry/Aquaman would reference what happened before: nope. Instead, the only reference we get to Justice League is a passing reference to Steppenwolf by Amber Heard’s Mera in a comically bad cosplay wig. It’s clear that references to Justice League were minimized in the aftermath of that movie’s colossal failure at the box-office.
It’s interesting to note though that this was not originally the case. It’s clear that in Zack Synder’s original vision for Justice League, Aquaman, and the world of Atlantis, played a more significant role, as evident by various concept art, cast interviews and deleted scenes
Next up in the DC roster of movies scheduled for release is Shazam!, arriving in April 2019. It’s clear from the trailers that this movie clearly inhabits the world of the DCEU up to this point, with notable nods to Batman and Superman. Whether that changes closer to the release date as the post-production wraps will be interesting, particularly if Warner Bros are trying to separate from the idea of a shared universe.
It’s hard to know what to make of this movie. The trailer makes it out to be a weird zany action-comedy, kind of like Kick-Ass, if he had the powers of Superman. Whether or not this sets up anything which will be explored in further movies is up in the air. My guess though, this movie won’t feature any seeds for future Justice League stories. Honestly, I think this movie might be a flop; an opinion based entirely on the extremely naff trailer.
The only project on the slate that seems to be an absolute slam dunk for Warner Bros at this point is Wonder Woman 1984, which isn’t coming until the summer of 2020. Given the massive financial and cultural success of the first Wonder Woman, it’s hard to imagine that this movie won’t similarly experience similar levels of success. However, when it comes to her (Wonder Woman’s) position in the DCEU, this movie has the convenience of setting the movie prior to the events of Justice League, allowing the film to sidestep that movie altogether, and instead focus on her journey from the first. It’s hard to imagine this having any connection to anything else, especially when the first one didn’t, and that was released mere months before Justice League.
Reprising her role as Harley Quinn from Suicide Squad we have Margot Robbie starring in Birds of Prey, recently re-titled as Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), a title practically begging to be mistranslated in other territories. This project appears to have taken shape after the positive reaction to Robbie’s portrayal of Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, although it’s extremely likely that this movie will leave out Jared Leto’s Joker; effectively ignoring the ending to Suicide Squad, which appeared to have been tacked on after the fact in any case. It’s not clear what kind of movie this will be. Will it be a semi-sequel to Suicide Squad? Will it setup the world of Batman for future films to explore? It’s hard to know. Assuming it starts filming soon, this should arrive sometime in 2020.
Possibly the strangest movie that Warner Bros/DC have in production is Todd Phillips’ Joker movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character. This one is unique in that we’re almost certain it’s operating separate to the rest of their movies; although, I theorize if the movie is a massive success then the possibility of a crossover becomes all the more likely. Warner Bros have said that they’re interested in doing standalone movies such as this with some of their most popular characters. However, having two Jokers and potentially two Batmans, three if he appears on the small screen, all operating at the same time has the potential to confuse and alienate audiences, particularly audiences who are used to the consistency present in other major franchises.
Those are the movies that are definitely going to be released. All are currently filming or in post-production, except Birds of Prey which is due to start filming any moment now. Apart from those movies, Warner Bros has a whole host of DC-related movies in various stages of production, including, but not limited to, Matt Reeves’ The Batman, a Flash solo movie, a Cyborg solo movie, Gotham City Sirens, Batgirl, Supergirl, Suicide Squad 2, Green Lantern Corps and Nightwing.
Compare that with Marvel Studios at this point. Currently, the only confirmed release dates for MCU movies are Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame and Spiderman: Far From Home. Marvel are playing their hands pretty close to their chest when it comes to announcing any information regarding Black Panther 2, Doctor Strange 2, the Black Widow solo movie, etc… They don’t need to though. They’ve built up so much audience trust over the past ten years that we, as an audience, are pretty much giving them the all clear to do whatever they want, and in whatever way they want.
All in all, it’s really hard to know where Warner Bros/DC plan to go in the future. It’s seems at the moment that the model they’re using is the old “Throw everything at the wall, and see what sticks”. Only when a succession of these solo movies succeed will any hopes of a second Justice League resurface. I can’t imagine that making a sequel is a top priority for the execs at Warner Bros, and yet, getting to a position where people want another Justice League should be an absolute priority.
Getting Cavill’s Superman and Affleck’s Batman back in the limelight along with Wonder Woman should be of paramount importance, and yet that doesn’t appear to be the case bizarrely. It must be frustrating to be an exec at Warner Bros looking across the studio lot at Marvel and how they’re crushing it time and time again with each and every movie. Look at the hype and fan fever the release of the Avengers: Endgame trailer generated independent of studio involvement. That’s publicity that Warner Bros can only dream of at this current moment.
There’s no doubt that these characters will live on. They are bigger then the actors who play them, or the screenwriters and directors who bring them to life, but perhaps the idea of the sprawling comic-book interconnected universe that Marvel have crafted is beyond the reach of Warner Bros/DC. Perhaps the standalone adventure is the format they’ll take into the future. Who knows. It’ll be interesting to see which model last longer though: Marvel’s or DC’s.