With the one-two punch of Shazam! and Aquaman exceeding critical and box office expectations, and a slew of eagerly anticipated films due out over the next couple of years, Warner Bros is on a roll with their DC properties. Audiences have finally begun to invest in their Extended Universe – or DCEU and given that, less than a year ago, the studio had looked set to scrap their expensive world-building efforts and start over from scratch, it has proven quite the heroic rebound.
The question is, how exactly did they manage to turn things around so quickly?
By all rights, DC should have started out on equal footing with Marvel when it came to movies. The Big Two, as they’re known in the realm of comics publishing, have sustained an equal share of popularity and relevance for over half a century.
However, DC’s wider relevance waned after the eruption of the modern cinematic superhero boom in the early 2000s. By 2013, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or MCU) had a robust five years under their belt, and had already released their first big crossover movie, Marvel’s The Avengers. Meanwhile, the only franchise Warner Bros (who owns DC) successfully launched was Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
DC’s roster of live action adaptations of their catalogue paled in comparison to Marvel – the list capped at four: 2006’s Superman Returns, 2011’s Green Lantern and a pair of Alan Moore adaptations, V for Vendetta and Watchmen. While both Superman Returns and Green Lantern proved financially successful, they failed to catch on with audiences, and neither received even one sequel. (The Moore adaptations were self-contained stories never intended to launch a franchise.)
Despite this initial disappointment, there was no reason to doubt that Warner Bros could and eventually would catch up with Marvel, and its new parent company, Disney. After all, Nolan resurrected and retooled the caped crusader less than a decade after the Joel Schumacher Bat films brought the entire subgenre of comic book movies to its cultural nadir. When Nolan completed his trilogy in 2012, Warner Bros wasted no time rebooting. With Nolan sticking around as producer, a new Superman movie was slotted for production, reflecting a darker, edgier, and more modern outlook. Director Zack Snyder, who had established himself as a comic book auteur with his adaptations of 300 and Watchmen, signed on to direct.
While it’s easy to understand the logic behind this interpretation of the preeminent comic book superhero – a more mature revamp worked for Batman, after all – it’s obvious why Man of Steel failed to alight the same kind of devotion from viewers (although it did earn a worldwide total of $668m, making it by far the highest grossing Superman movie up to that point). What worked for a brooding, noir-influenced character like Batman did not work for the noble avatar of truth, justice, and the American way.
Despite the lukewarm reaction to Man of Steel, Warner Bros doubled down. In 2016, they established DC Films, with comic book scribe and film/television producer Geoff Johns serving as chief content officer. They promoted a “director driven” mandate intended to serve as a counterbalance to Marvel Studio’s more producer-driven system. As their first such order of business, they gave Snyder the keys to the kingdom, putting him in charge of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which would not only continue Superman’s story, but simultaneously introduce a brand-new Batman, played by Ben Affleck, alongside future Justice League members – and hopeful franchise carriers – Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash and, um, Cyborg.
While the film ended being a smash at the box office, it was also an overlong, ungainly, and nigh unwatchable mess, roundly savaged by audiences and critics alike. The same was true of the subsequent DC Films release, Suicide Squad, and between the two, it’s hard to say which is worse – it’s like having to choose between Lex Luthor’s jars of urine or the Joker’s dumb face tats.
By the time DC Films was gearing up for what should have been their answer to The Avengers, Justice League, it looked as though the DCEU experiment was primed for catastrophic failure. Luckily for them, the one thing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice managed not to completely bungle was the character of Wonder Woman. People were still nervous about her stand-alone film, but ultimately those worries proved unfounded. Wonder Woman not only managed to capture the national zeitgeist, it temporarily righted the DC ship, becoming the third highest grossing movie based on a DC property and the highest of the DCEU.
Upon its release a few months later, Justice League received better critical reception than Batman V Superman, but it fell over $200m short of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in terms the box office. Had it not been so fortunate as to follow on the heels of Wonder Woman, there’s no telling how much worse it may have fared.
For a little while, it looked as though Wonder Woman would be the DCEU’s only salvageable property. Aquaman was already in production, but a scheduled Flash film buckled under a series of production delays and got pushed back indefinitely. Plans for a Cyborg movie were unceremoniously scrapped, to no one’s surprise.
The biggest blow came early this year, when Ben Affleck dropped out of the role of Batman. Although unofficial, rumors persist that Henry Cavill might follow suit.
In most cases, this long string of disappointment and behind-the-scenes turmoil would have likely consigned the entire apparatus (save Wonder Woman) to the scrap heap – such was the case with Universal’s similarly ambitious, and ultimately doomed “Dark Universe”.
Yet, as things now stand, the DCEU has seemingly steadied its course, and the future looks as bright as blasts of Superman’s heat vision. Upon its release last December, Aquaman blew past the projections, taking in over $1bn worldwide. While the newly released Shazam! won’t pull in anywhere close to that haul, it too exceeded expectations, thanks mostly to strong word of mouth leading on from critical acclaim (it was also made for a much smaller amount). The forthcoming Wonder Woman 1984 will almost certainly build on its predecessor’s success, while a soft reboot of Suicide Squad, with once-and-future Guardian of the Galaxy director James Gunn at the helm, has understandably revitalized interest.
Less certain is the Harley Quinn spinoff Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), currently in production; however, Margot Robbie’s embodiment of the character was one of the sole standouts of Suicide Squad, so it seems likely to find its audience.
Likewise, although we don’t know much about Matt Reeves’ The Batman (due in 2020), all anybody needs to know is that it’s a Batman movie. Granted, audiences may be skeptical about yet another reboot of the character following so closely behind the last couple, but a similar trajectory didn’t keep people from flocking to the most recent Spider-Man movies.
All of this brings us back to the question of how exactly Warner Bros and DC Films managed to turn things around so drastically.
One possible answer? De-emphasizing the film’s connection to one another. Wonder Woman and Aquaman make only the briefest mentions to characters and events outside of their own stories, unburdening audiences from the need to watch half a dozen movies in order to understand any one of them (a criticism often levelled against Marvel movies). While Shazam! calls more attention to the mythos of its shared universe, it never feels essential to the plot; if you excised entirely any mention of other superheroes, it would hardly change a thing.
Another component to the DC’s newfound success seems to be the move away from the influence of Johns, Nolan and Snyder. The aesthetic choices of Nolan and Snyder in particular proved to be a poor fit with any character outside of Batman. Their films went to agonizing lengths to bring their heroes down to earth and deconstruct them, while those that followed all unabashedly embraced their fantastical and idealistic origins. How does Shazam! account for its hero’s metahuman abilities? Easy: a wizard gave them to him.
Tonal recalibration only explains so much, though. Todd Phillip’s forthcoming Joker (which apparently takes place outside the continuity of the official DCEU) is probably the most highly anticipated film on their slate, even as it aims for a far darker and grittier tone than any tentpole comic book movie to date. Rumor has it that the studio is angling for an R-rating, something that the recently released teaser trailer, with its invocation of the tragicomic urban psychodramas of Martin Scorsese, would seem to further suggest. Audiences may have rejected Snyder’s singular vision, but it’s doubtful they’ll oppose darker spins on the genre by principle.
Perhaps the simplest answer as to how DC Films managed to turn things around is simply by making better movies – Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Shazam! are eminently more watchable than any of the production banner’s previous efforts.
That being said, it’s not as if they’re not noticeably better than most other superhero films. Unlike, say, The Dark Knight or Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, none particularly stand out from on any formalist, aesthetic, or thematic level. Say what you will about Snyder’s films – as dire as they are, they at least have a signature sense of style and a unique point of view.
But quality can’t really be used as a metric when it comes to the success of superhero movies, anyway. At the risk of coming off as condescending, the built-in fanbase for superhero movies have never shown themselves to be particularly discerning. This becomes especially obvious when comparing the box office numbers. The difference between those that fail – such as Fox’s ill-fated attempt to reboot the Fantastic Four in 2015 – and those that succeed – like last year’s Venom – can seem utterly random.
It’s likely that all Warner Bros and DC Films had to do to get back in audience’s good graces was stay the course. The power of brand recognition is likely as strong as marketing departments claim it is. Ultimately, the success of DC Films says more about audiences than it does the studio.
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