The DC Universe is often called by the company themselves “Home of the World’s Greatest Heroes” and that’s not hard to see why, with characters such as Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Shazam and countless others at their beck and call.
But as of the last decade or so, the brand has gone from a respected household name to a laughing stock if it’s mentioned at all.
It’s interesting, no, necessary, to analyze why a movie about the Flash starring a legacy Batman flopped, while the guys over at Marvel just wrapped a trilogy about a spaceman and a talking racoon.
Problems With “The New 52”
In 2011, DC Publisher at the time, Dan Didio decided to retrofit the Flash-centric comic event Flashpoint into a company-wide relaunch that would be known as “the New 52”, this would merge their Vertigo and Wildstorm lines in with the mainline DC Universe.
On paper, this is a fine idea, for a lot of beginners something like this is necessary every once in a while so that new readers can follow the stories of characters they’re interested in from various cartoons and video games they’re familiar with.
The problem with the New 52 was three major things, firstly, it oversaturated its own market and didn’t give room to breathe for any title that didn’t have its flagship character, and the namesake of the company, Batman.
Secondly, it forced crossovers into every nook and cranny whether they fit or not, whether that be a Teen Titans storyline that took place in a one-shot, an issue of Superboy, and an annual issue, or multi-title spanning events less than a year into the relaunch, DC was a mess that was pushing the bottom line before the idea.
Finally, above all else, a lot of these relaunches of beloved characters betrayed what many fans believed to be central to what makes them function, whether that be Superman brooding or Wonder Woman implying she murders her villains or a teenage heartthrob they were parading around as Lobo.
So where does the story go from here?
They get the comics back on track, everything’s right in the world, boom, bang, and Bobs your uncle, right? I wish it was that simple.
Zack Snyder Joining WB’s DC Universe
At the time that this was in its developmental phase, DC and parent company Warner Bros. was hard at work bringing the big blue boy scout back to the silver screen and wanted his return to form to be grand and bold after the less-than-promising returns of 2006’s Superman Returns.
So, they hired new but promising director Zack Snyder, who got them two prior hits to that point, 300 and of course Watchmen. While Sucker Punch wasn’t a success by any means, it showed that he was willing to take big swings and big risks.
Something that WB and Legendary Pictures embraced wholeheartedly, so he was paired with Christopher Nolan (Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception, The Prestige, etc.) and David S. Goyer (Blade Trilogy, Dark Knight Trilogy, Dark City) to create a take on Superman wholly unique for the 21st Century, something that reflects the current era of comics but feels classic.
What they created was… an interesting situation, to say the least.
‘Man of Steel’ Launches
In 2013, the world was introduced to Man of Steel, a movie that angered and intrigued a number of people. A movie in which Jonathan Kent isn’t some flawless paragon of virtue, a movie where Clark Kent shows uncertainty as both Kal and Clark, and most of all, a movie where Superman in an act of desperation kills his first foe.
To say it ruffled a few feathers was an understatement, however, it also was a financial success, making back the 2.5x its own budget to be deemed a success.
As it so happened, for the last few years up to this point, DC had been trying to get a cinematic universe of their own off the ground, the first attempt was the unfinished and unreleased Justice League: Mortal to be helmed by George Miller, the second was even more outlandish as Green Lantern starring Ryan Reynolds was intended to tie into an unreleased Flash film (which was somewhat adapted into the first season of the CW series).
But Man of Steel? That was to be their Iron Man, their dawn of a new universe. So it was decided in early 2014, Zack Snyder would write the plan for the first draft of the DC Cinematic Universe with a plan that would eventually culminate in a Justice League Trilogy and rebooting the universe via an adaptation of Flashpoint, and by all accounts, things looked pretty good.
The Birth of the “DCEU”
Snyder and his collaborators including David Ayer (Training Day, Fury, End of Watch) and the aforementioned Goyer set to work bringing to life a new world that they would take to calling the “DC Extended Universe” or DCEU for short.
Four numbers make up the year it all went to hell. 2016. Most people would say that there were two reasons it went bad, but no, there’s a very clear and easy three, let’s start at the beginning.
2016 marked the year that the Man of Steel sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as well as the Ayer-helmed Suicide Squad released. Those were financial successes yes, but critical darlings they were not.
Off the top of my head and without the context of the films, Batman (a character with an iconic no-kill rule) wields a machine gun and mows down thugs, Batman is taken out of bloodlust by realizing his mom and Superman’s mom share a name, and Suicide Squad has a whole host of problems that aren’t story related so much as writing and editing.
Those two things did damage not just to the general audience’s faith in the DC brand, but also to the release of the DC Rebirth initiative on the comics front which was designed to retrofit some of the old DC continuity into the New 52 universe which showed that these characters can work in a modern setting with minimal changes, a clear departure from how the movies were headed.
Box Office Ups & Downs
From that point on DC had a rocky road of critical and financial success in the form of Wonder Woman, broke even on Justice League which was a critical failure rife with behind-the-scenes controversy due to replacing Zack Snyder with The Avengers director Joss Whedon in the wake of a personal tragedy.
Aquaman was an unprecedented success followed by Shazam! which also did well, but then the next two movies, Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 both flopped to a degree hitherto undreamt of partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and partly because of middling reception by fans and critics alike.
Snyder’s Justice League To James Gunn
Then early 2021, WB spent nearly a hundred million to bring to life the complete four-hour vision of what Zack Snyder intended with Justice League but was initially denied by studio interference and that went on to debut on HBO Max.
Whether it made back its budget is anyone’s guess, but it certainly fared better critically.
Regardless, that movie was something of a triumph for the fans that made it happen, and then still amidst the pandemic debuted a pseudo-sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad now helmed by Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, which did great critically! But died on impact financially.
Black Adam Vs. Superman Plans Sink
After The Suicide Squad, WB looked for any kind of guidance on how to restructure their cinematic universe; enter Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Around fifteen years ago, in 2007, it was announced that the Rock alongside New Line Cinema would help to bring to life the iconic anti-hero Black Adam who is notably a rival character to Shazam in the comics.
However the Rock in the 2020s is a different actor than Rock in the late ’00s, he’s developed something of an ego as he at one point was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. And so, he proposed using his Black Adam project as a springboard to a new chapter in the DCU that would feature him going toe to toe with Superman, cementing Teth Adam as an A-list character
This didn’t go over well, especially as everything surrounding Adam and the Justice Society was boring, trite, and lacked the energy that the comics are famous for leading to a failure that didn’t even break even, a trend becoming more and more common for DC.
Warner Bros. Pictures’ Potential Hero?
Here we are in the current year of 2023, desperation is afoot in the distinguished competition’s headquarters, so WB Head David Zaslav has attempted to turn to anyone they can think of to streamline the cinematic universe plans.
Whether that be Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige, Joker Series and The Hangover Trilogy director Todd Phillips, or director Matt Reeves (Planet of the Apes Prequel Trilogy, The Batman, Cloverfield) before eventually settling on James Gunn.
Gunn proved through The Suicide Squad and it’s subsequent spinoff Peacemaker, that he is more than capable of headlining a universe who promptly revealed a Superman reboot treatment he had been asked to write beforehand.
This would now build the backbone of the new universe alongside his versions of the Suicide Squad and Peacemaker, which while frustrating for the exodus is understandable.
The Death of the “DCEU”
As I’m writing this piece we’re a little over a week from the mass US release date of one of the final two movies in the DCEU after a year of two flops, Shazam: Fury of the Gods and The Flash, each performing worse than the last.
Blue Beetle as a character is an interesting one, bound to an alien device, loves his family, and doesn’t really have a secret identity, but does anybody care about all that?
The Flash is now the single biggest superhero box office bomb of all time and Shazam didn’t do too much better with star Zachary Levi retroactively justifying it in interviews.
Beyond that, later this year Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom releases after years of studio changing, reshoots, and actor drama, and that doesn’t even have so much as a teaser trailer yet.
I don’t think it’s just the audiences that don’t care about DC anymore… I think the studio itself knows it’s dead on arrival.
Blue Beetle’s Lack of Marketing
As I said, we’re a little over a week from release and still only two trailers and minimal advertising, the biggest disappointment is that the majority of the marketing has been done through third-party sources because the complete lack of marketing from DC has become something of an online punchline.
Whether that be fabricating marketing tie-ins with Burger King emulating the infamous Spider-Verse whopper, or as a made up walk around character at Disneyland, or even having a former DC director like Snyder make an innocuous tweet about being excited for it generates far more buzz and discourse.
Whether positive or negative than anything DC is doing to promote this because of the myriad of failures that have come before for them. It says so so much that the only widespread cross-promotion this movie is getting is a tie-in with the Toyota Tacoma, that’s depressing.
So where do we go from here?
DC Universe’s Hopeful Future
Well, 2024 is an off year for DC at the theatres so they can get their heads on straight and come back with a vengeance in 2025 with Superman: Legacy and studio head James Gunn says that Blue Beetle star Xolo Maridueña is more than welcome to come back as that character in the rebooted universe.
DC is home to a lot of my favourite characters but I think looking back, a lot of problems with the cinematic universe came down to a couple of factors; choices that were more akin to Elseworlds than an adaptation, going head to head with Marvel when they were at their peak, and most of all, not having a clear vision that wasn’t constantly shifting.
Here’s hoping Gunn can deliver and we can finally have that interwoven DC universe that was suggested all those years ago so that future projects can get the support they deserve so we don’t get just Batman movies for the foreseeable future.