Perhaps the greatest proof of director Zack Snyder’s belief that the world must no longer count on superheroes can be seen in the DC Extended Universe that he helped build. When the franchise was at its lowest – ravaged critically and commercially – it needed the Justice League to save it, but was monumentally let down by its biggest stars, the Trinity; Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.
Instead, the burden of regaining some of the series’ lost sheen was put on the chiselled shoulders of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, and he came through. Directed by James Wan, the film became the most successful DC movie of all time, swimming past the likes of Christopher Nolan’s beloved Batman films. Aquaman’s $1.1 billion gross was perhaps what was expected from Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – it was intended to be DC’s answer to Marvel’s Avengers – but the film couldn’t even crack $900 million world-wide, despite posting an astounding three-day opening of $420 million.
It was followed by the famously compromised Justice League, on which Warner Bros spent upwards of $300 million, after removing Snyder midway through production and replacing him, in an almost comically villainous move, with Avengers director Joss Whedon. The final film couldn’t hide that it was a clash of two violently different tones. But Justice League was the tipping point for the DCEU. Its visible struggles with light and dark were also a litmus test for the audience, which by that time was vocally protesting the predicament their favourite characters had been put in.
In the end, it was decided that the future of the DCEU would focus more on the secondary characters (which is what Marvel has been doing all along, mind you). There could be several reasons for this. The most obvious is the box office. Fans clearly weren’t on board with the series’ take on the beloved characters, and by the time the ship had been course-corrected, it was already too late. Another could be that stars Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill were being openly opaque about reprising their roles as Batman and Superman. While Affleck couldn’t be bothered hiding his contempt for what the films had done to his reputation, Cavill reportedly wanted an A-list salary for future movies, failing to realise that he isn’t the star. Superman is.
Late last year, it was reported that Warner Bros wasn’t actively planning any new films with either Affleck or Cavill, which was in stark contrast to the public knowledge that director Matt Reeves was writing the first of an intended new trilogy of Batman films. Affleck’s resignation was announced a few weeks later. Reeves’ Batman will bow out in 2021, and will likely feature a much younger Bruce Wayne. Cavill, meanwhile, insists that he is still Superman.
With only a Wonder Woman sequel on the slate, in classic superhero fashion, the DCEU once again has to rely on the underdogs to pull it ashore. And Warner Bros, for the first time, is employing a smart tactic to make this happen.
Instead of shelling out $250-$300 million on projects, the studio is focussing on smaller films, taking baby steps to recovery. This week’s Shazam is reportedly budgeted at $100 million, and its break-even point, according to Forbes, will be at around $350 million worldwide. This is a far cry from Justice League, whose $660 million world-wide gross wasn’t enough to put it in the black.
Warner Bros’ only other DC offering of the year is the Joker standalone movie, budgeted at a reported $55 million, and slotted for release in prime awards season. It has been rumoured that the film will launch a new subsidiary of the DCEU, called DC Dark or DC Black – it isn’t clear yet – which will consist of unconnected films, directed by filmmakers who have a unique take on the popular characters.
In true TV production fashion – keep in mind, both the DCEU and the MCU are run like TV shows – Warner Bros has listened to what fans have liked, and what they haven’t. So gone are the multiple Joker movies that were supposed to star Jared Leto, who has been sidelined in favour of the universally acclaimed Margot Robbie. The future star (and now producer) will reprise her role as Harley Quinn in the upcoming Suicide Squad spin-off Birds of Prey, which will almost certainly be yet another smaller film in DC’s roster. It seems like even DC’s A-list villains can’t catch a break.
While the DCEU’s commercial problems and quality are being addressed, it remains to be seen how the future films reconcile with their troubled past, narratively. How, for instance, will Batfleck’s absence in Birds of Prey be addressed? Will it be confusing for audiences if Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker runs into a young Bruce Wayne in the upcoming Joker movie? Where’s Superman when Aquaman needs his help in the sequel, confirmed for a 2022 release? And why must Wonder Woman remain in the past?
As the old Hollywood adage goes, ‘You’re only as good as your last picture’. And in that regard, the series seems to be heading along just fine. Shazam is getting good reviews and is expected to be another box office win for the studio. But unfortunately, the newfound success of the DCEU is also a sign that serviceable mediocrity will always be favoured over pure ambition.