Crisis In A DC Expanded Universe: Heading For Another New Direction – Why?

I’m a big fan of DC Comics. I’m not just saying that to get the heat off of me for writing a somewhat negative article. I mean it. Where Marvel has more grounded, relatable characters, DC has legends and icons. People who have never read a comic book in their life know who Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are. There wouldn’t even be a comic industry today if it wasn’t for the success of Superman. And their catalog of characters in the DC Expanded Universe comic book edition is unparalleled.

I’m also a big fan of Warner Brothers. If a person could have a favorite movie studio, that would be mine. Just the fact that it put out Casablanca seals it for me, but if you have a favorite genre, they probably made a classic film in it. The Public Enemy. The Maltese Falcon. Mildred Pierce. My Fair Lady. Bonnie & Clyde. What Happened to Baby Jane? Unforgiven. The Departed. Not to mention, they had a hand in adapting two of the most famous fantasy novel series–Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings–to big screen.

Warner Brothers has owned DC Comics, now DC Entertainment, since 1970. One of the greatest film studios in the world has had one of the biggest stockpiles of quality intellectual properties in the world. It should be a no-brainer to see a whole lot of quality DC Comics films by now and a never ending stream of them into the future. However, the studio that did well bring boy wizards and brave hobbits to life has consistently struggled bring it intercompany superheroes to the big screen. And a recent Vulture article on the studios’ future plans shows that even after a film where it looked like they had figured everything out, they are going back to the same traits that failed them before.

Meet the new bosses….

The article confirms pretty much what we already knew–that the problems with Warner’s DC films had much to do with studio meddling. Not just that, but Warner’s film side shutting out its comic book side, even after Warners executive Diane Nelson, the woman who chaperoned the Harry Potter franchise, was installed as the head of DC Entertainment in 2009.

It wasn’t until 2016, when Geoff Johns, comic writer and Nelson’s COO, was paired with Jon Berg to take over Warners’ DC Films, that someone who knew something about comics was involved with bringing them to the big screen. He was too late to affect Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad, but his influence was felt on their next film.

Wonder Woman was everything a DC fan like me hoped a DC film could be. It was true to the character, brilliantly cast and superbly directed. More than just being a great comic book film, it was a great film, period. It had a coherent plot and a logical story, which might seem like damning with faint praise, but considering the other films in the DC Expanded Universe, it is the highest of compliments.

I finally felt excited about the future of the DCEU. It felt like Warners had at long last righted the ship and would be well on their way to a successful line of films. All Warners had to do was keep doing whatever they did that made Wonder Woman great. Don’t change a thing. So what did they do?

They started talking about a new direction. Of course.

…Same as the old boss.

The “new direction” involves two main components:

  • Take a step back from the tightly interconnected continuity
  • Start a side label outside of DCEU continuity so “big name filmmakers” can leave their mark on DC characters.

At first blush, this doesn’t seem like all that bad of an idea. Some of you might actually think this is a smart way to go. I have concerns.

Following Marvel…again.

From the sound of it, Warners’ plan to free itself from the bounds of tight continuity is a lot like Marvel Studios approach to continuity. Every Marvel film is in the same universe, most have elements that carry over, but you don’t really have to see all their films to enjoy their current offering.

While this does offer more creative room for filmmakers to focus on story for the film instead of devoting time on touching bases with the rest of the DC Extended Universe, I think the promised tighter continuity of the DC Extended Universe gave Warners an opportunity to separate itself from Marvel. One of my pet peeves about the Marvel films is that they are shared yet a little too separate. The nature of the business is that every blockbuster superhero movie has to have the hero face off against the bad guy with the safety of the world or known universe at sake. But once you let us know that Iron Man, Thor and Captain America all live on the same earth, when terrorists blow up Hollywood Boulevard, or dark elves open wormholes above a British college campus, or Hydra starts up helicarriers that will kill innocent people, you expect all the heroes to take an interest in these earth-shaking events.

Not that I expected every DCEU film to be a Justice League film, nor did I think shoehorning in the other heroes the way they were in BvS worked, but I was looking forward to a shared universe that remembers that there are other heroes in it. Warners should be going towards that, not away from it.

The article states that Wonder Woman was the first film of this new philosophy. But it’s easy to dial back continuity when a film is set decades before the other characters are born. We’ll have to see how the relaxed continuity works in a film set in the present.

Warners’ idea of a “big-time filmmaker” may differ from yours.

One of the reasons Warners stated that they are moving away from strict continuity is to make films that come from “heart of the filmmaker who’s creating them.” It’s not easy for an established creator to limit his creative vision to fit in with the constraints of a shared universe. The directorial upheaval that Marvel has gone through on a number of their films is an example of that. Which is also why Warners is thinking of creating that side label for takes on DC characters by “big-time” filmmakers not beholden to a shared continuity.

Big-time filmmakers. That phrase comes with a great deal of promise. I mean, imagine the possibilities! Quentin Tarantino taking on the Suicide Squad or Jonah Hex. Judd Apatow directing a Blue Beetle/Booster Gold buddy comedy. A Wes Anderson Doom Patrol film. Steven Spielberg doing, well, any character.

However, the biggest name they got so far for this one is Martin Scorsese on the planned Joker origin story. Only Marty won’t be directing it only producing it. Todd Phillips is the “big-time filmmaker” who is directing the project. No offense to Mr. Phillips, but he doesn’t rank in the pantheon of Hollywood legends with me. His films have made a lot of money, for sure, but they’ve also earned a lot of bad reviews. Phillips isn’t a filmmaker with a long and varied track record of successful and well-made films behind him.

Who knows? Maybe Phillips take on the Joker is a revolutionary change from his past work and adds a breathtaking new viewpoint on the character. But creating a boutique label to showcase big-time filmmakers, and then choose a guy who had a franchise that made the studio a lot of money but got horrible reviews as it went on as an example of the big-time filmmaker in question does make the label worth it, considering the confusion it will cause.

The Confusing Conundrum of the Caped Crusader, or Death by Oversaturation.

Comic books in general and DC Comics in particular have been very good at presenting different versions of the same character to their audiences. Whether it be alternate Earth verisons, legacy characters taking over for their mentors, clones or doppelgangers, the comics have been able to have many characters with the same name running around their books at the same time.

However, comics have twelve issues a year to sell an audience with decades of experience in the subject on the duplicates. For films, you only get one shot to explain it to a larger audience, many of which the idea of having two character with the same name at the same time is a foreign concept. To try and go down this road will only lead to confusion.

For example, let’s take a look at The Batman. Back in July, the film’s director Matt Reeves spoke in an interview and said that Warners approached him and offer to him a Batman that would be “a standalone” and “not part of the extended universe.”

In retrospect, it seems that Reeves’ Batman was originally intended to be part of the side label. Unfortunately, at that time the general public had no knowledge of any side label, and that comment along with rumors of Ben Affleck being eased out of the role started a whole big controversy about the film being rebooted once again and what it meant for the DCEU. It got to be much so that Reeves had to go to Twitter and clarify that his Batman WOULD be part of the DCEU, just not laden with cameos, which then makes it sound like part of Warners’ other future plans for the franchise.

Sounds confusing, right? Same kind of confusion happened with the Joker films. A day after Phillips’ film was announced, another Joker centric film from Glenn Ficarra and John Requa was announced. One day later! And while the bodies of the articles announcing each film specified that they would be a different version of the Joker in each film, if you only saw the headline you’d think that the Joker had become the Poochie of the DCEU.

This also brings up another problem with the side label–oversaturation. There are a lot of comic book films released each year. Each film has to compete with every other comic book film out there. With the Joker, you have the added complexity of already having two iconic film performances of the character to compete with. So Phillips’ Joker has to not only compete with all the other comic book films out there, but also offer something different than Jared Leto’s and Jack Nicholson’s and Heath Ledger’s had to offer.

And even though both Joker films were announced a day apart, it doesn’t mean that they will hit theaters a day apart, if at all. But if they are released close to one another, it will just serve to dilute the brand. Warners might be thinking that Joker fans will go see both films, and I’m sure that there many out there that will, but many will choose one over the other. Instead of having one Joker film everyone will want to see, you’ll have two films that will perform at a lower amount. And I’m sure we’d then have Warners executives giving interviews on how comic book films aren’t performing as well as they used to.

As a fan, I sincerely hope these changes don’t backfire on Warners and actually make the DCEU more competitive. But Warners has a long track history of screwing up things when they were going well. I hope that this is not another one of those times.

About William Gatevackes 1664 Articles

William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.

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