This was not how things were supposed to turn out for Warner Bros. and DC. Justice League, the culmination of the studio’s version of their own shared cinematic universe, is not getting the reception they were expecting. The film’s main selling point was the fact that it featured the long-awaited teamup of DC Comics’ greatest superheroes, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg. However, its opening weekend take was only $94 million, the lowest for any film in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU). It’s being ravaged by critics and it’s not drawing in the numbers it should be. Now, Justice League’s weak performance brings up a very important question, where does the DCEU go from here?
DCEU’s Uncertain Status
It is foolish to think plans for the DCEU will continue as if anything is wrong. Something has to change. Surely, Warner Bros. executives are taking a long, hard look at their superhero franchise and determining how viable it is. Expect announced films to be canceled, new personnel, and other radical changes to the DCEU, including a reboot.
The DCEU will not suddenly go away. Right now, Aquaman has finished filming and is slated for next year. Then a sequel for the successful Wonder Woman will certainly be made given Wonder Woman is the DCEU’s biggest hit. A Shazam film is also slated to begin filming next year to join the Wonder Woman sequel for release in 2019.
After that things get murky. There will be a Batman solo film directed by Matt Reeves, but that has been mired in controversy. Originally, Ben Affleck was to direct and star in The Batman, but the actor/director has had a falling out with Warner Bros. and first it was announced that he would only star in The Batman. That began the Internet rumblings that he would vacate the role, which is too bad since he is quite good as Batman. Adding fuel to the fire are Affleck’s recent statements suggesting that he is ready to move on from the role. At this point, it may be easier for DC and Warner Bros. to set the film apart from the DCEU.
To date, there aren’t any solid plans to give Superman a sequel to Man of Steel and it’s unknown if it will ever happen. Henry Cavill, who portrays Superman, is contracted for one more film and it is possible that Warner Bros. and DC may just have him appear in someone else’s film before recasting the role. It is a shame because Cavill, like Affleck, has done an excellent job in portraying the superhero, but it is not the end of the world. As we saw with Spider-Man it is fairly easy to replace actors, though overall, it is regrettable that we may never see a full evolution of Superman into a beacon of hope as shown in the end of Justice League.
Other projects with uncertain fates include Batgirl, Gotham City Sirens, Green Lantern Corps, Cyborg and a Suicide Squad sequel. Given the problems Warner Bros. has had with its core superheroes it may be best to put those projects on hold so they can right their cinematic ship.
A Flashpoint To The Future
On a related note, a Flash solo film has been stuck in development hell for years as writers and directors join then leave the project. Most recently, the film is supposed to be an adaptation of the Flashpoint mini-series where the Flash time travels and resets the DC Universe. Using this storyline would give Warner Bros. a convenient way of rebooting the DCEU, but the story, with its alternate takes on characters and situations, sounds expensive and may go over the heads of casual viewers. It would be easier for the film studio to just do a hard reboot without any explanation. This has worked in the past for other franchises, and the one instance where time travel was used to reboot a franchise was Star Trek and it left fans with a bad taste.
One option for the studio is to repeat what happened with Wonder Woman. The solo film was set in the past and largely apart from the DCEU. Reportedly, the sequel will also take place in the past and this example could be a way to ease out of the DCEU. The same thing can be done with Aquaman and Shazam; remove references to the DCEU and focus on the characters. That is why Wonder Woman succeeded. Concentrate on solo films with little to no references to a larger universe and let the shared universe grow organically.
Unfortunately, the perceived failure of Justice League means that someone is to blame. Of course, the people running Warner Bros. are guilty, but the execs in charge are looking for anyone other than themselves to serve as a scapegoat. One of those includes Zack Snyder, who set the tone for the DCEU with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Ever since the death of his daughter earlier this year, Snyder has taken a back seat to the running of the DCEU and directing Justice League and Joss Whedon took over to complete the film. Many were hoping that the director of the Avengers films would be able to inject some energy and lighten the dire tone of the DCEU. Sadly, that has not happened as the film is a tonal mess and now he is taking the blame as well for the state of the DCEU.
This isn’t fair for both directors because they were following directions from Warner Bros. Time and time again, the film studio has interfered with the filming of its DCEU films to their detriment. They insisted on a dark and brooding tone for Man of Steel, which goes against the hopeful nature of Superman; they insisted that Batman be a main character in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice instead of doing a proper Man of Steel sequel that fully explored Superman’s role in the world; now they insisted that Justice League be only two hours long. This led to a common complaint that the film is choppy and does not give any of its characters significant screen time–a detriment to not-well-known heroes like Cyborg and Aquaman.
Both directors are talented filmmakers and while they are the casualties of this debacle, it is time to bring in new talent who can introduce new ideas for the cinematic universe.
Another culprit that should be mentioned is the marketing behind the film. Why didn’t the marketing department use Superman at all before the release of the film? He is a core member of the team and the lineup felt incomplete without him. Instead the marketing showcased lesser heroes like Aquaman who don’t have the same amount of popularity that Superman has. The recent release of poster art featuring the Man of Steel felt too little, too late.
Universal Growing Pains
Looking back at the troubled production of Justice League, it is easy to point out how the studio went wrong. Envious of the success of Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), DC and Warner Bros. wanted to emulate that success. After all, they have the most popular superheroes all in one roof, unlike Marvel Studios. It should have been simple to create their own shared universe. But Warner Bros. has painfully learned that it is not so easy. Just ask Universal Pictures who failed at the starting gate with their own shared Dark Universe, which looks stillborn with the failure of The Mummy.
In hindsight, Warner Bros. should have pushed back the release of Justice League to 2018 to allow Whedon more time to fine tune it. Finding a proper release date may have been challenging but not impossible. However, one of the main problems with the film was that there was not enough time and films to properly set up what was supposed to be the climax of the DCEU’s opening salvo. Marvel took its time to set up The Avengers by introducing its superheroes in their own solo films so that way when they finally met in The Avengers it felt like an epic event.
Man of Steel should have been followed up with a proper sequel that could have introduced other DC Comics superheroes at the end when Superman fought Doomsday. The sequel should also have come out in 2015 since that would have meant that there would be only a one-year absence of a DCEU film from 2013 to 2015. Then 2016 should have been the year for Wonder Woman, while a Flash solo film could have easily replaced Suicide Squad in the same year. Or even The Batman could have been produced instead. This year could have seen the release of either Aquaman or Cyborg with the Justice League film coming afterwards in 2018. This approach may have taken the film studio more time but in the end the anticipation and hype for Justice League would have been through the roof and the film could conceivably compete with the new Avengers film. Instead, the film studio dragged its feet and tried to play catch-up with poor results. Of course, none of this may have been possible for too many reasons to list here, but the studio saw what Marvel and Disney were doing early in this decade. They should have kicked into high gear a proper development of its own shared universe early on. At this point, it is silly to think they can compete with the MCU, instead the survival of the DCEU is at stake and it does not look good for the shared universe.
All of this is just pure speculation, we will never know how well the DCEU would have performed if the film studio made different decisions. This is disheartening to DC fans who want and deserve their own cinematic universe to enjoy. What is most frustrating is that there are many great elements in the DCEU such as the casting choices and the films include classic moments like Batman rescuing Martha Wayne, the epic and controversial throwdown between Superman and Zod, or when Wonder Woman fought the German Soldiers in the trenches. Man of Steel, Wonder Woman and to a lesser extent Justice League have shown the potential of the DCEU. Hopefully the suits at Warner Bros. and DC can figure out a way of salvaging it.
Lewis T. Grove