Simply As a result of the DCEU Failed As soon as, That Doesn’t Imply It Ought to Be Deserted
Looking back at the fall of the DCEU, the main problem was that Warner Bros. was so eager to play catchup that they rushed the execution. Instead of establishing characters individually that would stand on their own, they went from Man of Steel to Justice League in the span of basically three movies—Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and kind of Wonder Woman (Suicide Squad was kind of irrelevant to the formation of a DCEU, and probably would have been stronger as a standalone side project that could test the waters of a less-connected universe). While Justice League had its own host of problems, its failure signaled to Warner Bros. that perhaps it would be more effective to loosen the bonds of the DCEU and letting each film exist in a tenuous middle ground where they either firmly exist in the DCEU like Shazam! or try to quickly move past the events of the previous films like Aquaman and Birds of Prey.
But the fun of an overlapping universe is seeing how different characters play off each other, and as a fan of the animated series Justice League Unlimited, I’ve seen that a deep bench of characters can yield joyous results. We can also see this in The CW’s annual crossover episodes, so it stands to reason that there’s still potential on the big screen when it comes to linking these stories together. What’s more, audiences have shown that they have affinity for these characters even if the box office receipts have been mixed.
I understand that for Warner Bros., fears of being compared to Marvel loom large. Marvel has become a reliable brand that can launch new franchises to over a billion while Warner Bros. put Superman and Batman in the same movie and didn’t reach their financial expectations. But while Marvel is seemingly rolling right along with its Phase 4 plans and a string of Disney+ shows, Warner Bros. shouldn’t abandon a strategy of acknowledging that their DCEU movies share the same universe, and to their credit, they haven’t officially abandoned that idea as much as they’ve turned down the heat.
On the one hand, that leads to some exciting prospects like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad and you’ve also got Dwayne Johnson’s Black Adam that will inevitably connect to Shazam!, but doesn’t feel obligated to be a spinoff right from the start. But Warner Bros. pumping the breaks in the near future shouldn’t mean backing off their plans entirely, and my hope is that The Flash functions as a franchise reboot of sorts where Warner Bros. can get their ducks in a row without sacrificing their successes thus far.
Obviously, this has been a weird year with COVID and the only superhero movie we really got was Birds of Prey (please do not bring your Bloodshot talk in here) when we were also supposed to get Black Widow, Eternals, and Wonder Woman 1984 (Jenkins’ film is technically still scheduled for December, but all signs point to another delay). But a year without superheroes on the big screen has provided a little bit of breathing room, and hopefully for Warner Bros. a little bit of perspective on their plans. Looking at the short term, it seems like the studio wants to largely back off relying on crossovers and allow filmmakers to do their own thing to the point where Zack Snyder will get to make his own cut of Justice League, but it’s unknown whether his version or the 2017 movie (which is basically the studio cut devoid of any single director) is “canon.”
The lesson of Marvel isn’t to denigrate what DC movies can do, but rather the path has now been made by walking it, and Warner Bros. should take the opportunity that another studio shouldered the risk and showed that success was possible with the right vision. You can chalk it up to “Well, Marvel has Kevin Feige,” and while I don’t mean to diminish his accomplishments, I think even he would admit that he’s not the only person in the world who can conceive of interconnected superhero movies.
One of the benefits of the DCEU is that these characters are so different. Sure, you’ve got the Greek god level heroes of folks like Superman and Wonder Woman, but then you’ve also got crazy weirdoes like The Question and Huntress. The end of Shazam! teased the arrival of Superman, but how much fun would it be to see Billy Batson interacting with the Man of Steel on the regular?
I don’t really mind that Warner Bros. is taking a breather of sorts with their superheroes, but I truly hope that we haven’t seen the last of trying to crossover their superhero properties. Perhaps it may not always work. Maybe there’s no way to bring Robert Pattinson’s Batman into a room with Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, but these mythical worlds feel a bit deeper and encompassing when you see the characters share the same space.