A Mixed Bag, with Dark Tidings Ahead

A Post-Mortem for the DCEU, Part 2

With Zack SnyderOften reviled for the bombastic and idiotic content of his films, there is no question that what Snyder's movies lack in substance they (at least try to) balance out with flash and style, making him one of Hollywood's top directors... sadly. moving on from the DCEU (whether he was forced out by the higher ups or not is a matter of opinion at this point), it meant that the one true vision for where the series was going was gone. In its place, DC could try to insert a new vision. Something different, brighter, cleaner. Something that, just maybe, would appeal to fans. And, for their first two movies released after Justice League, DC got what they wanted: bright, shiny films with a new vision for the DCEU that, also, happened to be financially successful.

Beyond Snyder

The first of these films was 2018’s Aquaman. Directed by James Wan, Aquaman was seen as something of a swerve for the director as much of what he’d overseen (Saw, The Conjuring, Insidious) were horror films. With that said, his biggest movie, and the film that likely drew the attention of DC, was Furious 7, the biggest and most successful film in the Fast & Furious franchise in its entire run (the series has yet to reach the Box Office heights of that seven-quel since). What Wan brought to Aquaman was that same big, bold, bright energy from Furious 7 where it didn’t really matter how realistic anything was so long as you were having fun.

Like Furious 7, Aquaman is kind of a puppy dog, happy to hang out, to do tricks, to just be loved. It features Jason Mamoa as the superhero of the seas (first introduced in Justice League) who has to go to the hidden kingdom of Atlantis to fight his brother to prevent a war between Atlantis and the surface world. It both is and isn’t an origin story (since Mamoa’s fish king was working for years as a superhero of the seas even before he went to Atlantis officially), and it has a messy plot that doesn’t entirely make sense in the context of the film (if he could go to Atlantis at any time, being a fish person, why didn’t he, and if his brother knew of his existence and knew he could come to fight him at any time, why didn’t Orm take the fight to Aquaman first?), but that doesn’t really matter. Not really.

What Aquaman provided was big, dumb, goofy fun. It’s a superhero hangout film, where Mamoa cracks jokes and is a charismatic lead (a stark difference to the more brooding version of the character he was forced to play in Snyder’s flick) while the strangeness of the ocean world washes over him. Oh, and then he hangs around without his shirt on for much of the film, and this was a big draw (allegedly) for a certain segment of the viewing audience. It had the right mix of humor and beefcake, putting butts in seats. To this day it’s still the top earner for the DCEU, netting a cool $1.152 Bil (which, in the superhero industry, is known as “Marvel Money”).

Following the success of Aquaman a few projects were immediately put into production. A sequel was the first obvious project, although that would take five years to come out (and would be released to a much different viewing audience, as we’ll get to soon), but there was also an animated mini-series greenlit as well, Aquaman: King of Atlantis. This would also be overseen by Wan but it eventually would become its own thing, not directly tied to the first film (even if it referenced its events throughout). And finally, it was also announced that some of the horrible creepy crawlies featured in a menacing scene in Aquaman would get their own film titled The Trench… although this was eventually scrapped.

If it’s not clear, DC was overjoyed to finally have an unqualified hit on their hands and they were throwing everything against the way to see what stuck. This idea, going in without a plan and trying to do everything, is really the whole operating philosophy for DC for the next few years of the DCEU.

The next film in the franchise, though, would be Shazam!. Based on the character of Captain Marvel (but not Marvel's Captain Marvel... it's a whole thing), Shazam! was and wasn’t part of the DCEU. At the time it wasn’t advertised as a DCEU film. Yes, it had a DC superhero (although not one that was well known to larger audiences), and it was developed by DC and Warner Bros, but it was produced by Warner’s in-house studio, New Line Cinema, and acted as a stand-alone story not tied to the greater universe or world. And it, too, was a success.

Part of the reason for this was, again, it featured a lighter tone for its story. It features a kid, Billy Batson, getting the powers of the gods who, by saying a single word (“Shazam!”) could become a superhero. The movie played into the wish fulfillment desires of children, while also providing plenty of laughs and action for general audiences. It was about as far removed from the hard PG-13 (verging on R) action of Synder’s heroes, almost playing as a parody of those super-serious, brooding action flicks (the scene where Mark Strong’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana gives a super-villain speech while floating in the sky, only for Zachary Levi's Shazam to go, “are you monologuing? Because you’re too far away and I can’t hear you,” is a solid joke at the expense of all superhero tales).

While not a massive, billion-dollar earner like Aquaman, Shazam! did manage to pull in a respectable $367.8 Mil against a budget of only $100 Mil, making it a solid success. It proved that superhero films could be smaller, with less out-of-control budgets, and still be successful at the Box Office. Small-scale tales could lead to respectable Box Office. Clearly more street-level stories could be greenlit. This was not a lesson DC (or, in fairness, Marvel) learned at the time, which is weird considering that the next film to come from DC should have been a clear indication of what audiences were actually wanting. That film was Joker and, on an even smaller budget (only $70 Mil), that movie brought DC over a billion dollars at the Box Office.

Joker is an oddity in the era of massive, sprawling, interconnected superhero franchises. While Shazam! was positioned as a film that could (but didn’t have to) be part of the DCEU (with only a half-winking SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. cameo at the end of the film), Joker was explicitly set far outside the DCEU continuity. It featured a failed comedian who wasn’t the same JokerOne of Batman's first villains, and certainly his more famous (and most popular), the Joker is the mirror of the Bat, all the insanity and darkness unleashed that the hero keeps bottled up and controlled. we’d already seen in Suicide Squad, in a film so tonally dark and bleak that you can barely even call it a “superhero” film at all. I don’t even think it’s fair to say it’s a “supervillain” film. It has more in common with the likes of Taxi Driver than anything else DC was releasing at the time. It was different.

Now, your feelings on the film may vary (I hated it, personally), but there’s no denying it was a massive success. It became the darling of the internet, and many, many people came out to see it (some of them more than once). It immediately illustrated to DC that films not tied to their larger franchise could be successful, which did lead DC to greenlit The Batman (which is also not in the DCEU). At the same time, though, the company saw dollar signs and tried to figure out how else to tap into that same pot. So they greenlit a bunch of sequels and spin-offs in the hopes that named characters people would know (like The Joker) would bring people in.

Now it’s fair to point out that a couple of factors affected the next few films for release. The big one is COVID-19, the pandemic that swept the world in 2019 and 2020. By the time the next film in the franchise, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) came out lockdowns were already starting. People didn’t want to go to theaters, films were taking noticeable hits, and before too long everything would be shut down and the Box Office numbers for films would be nonexistent. But there was also a second contributing factor: superhero fatigue.

By 2020 Marvel had been cranking out their superhero hits for eleven years. Because of their success every other studio wanted in on the superhero bank, and most of those films were not as good (and not as well received) as the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. films. Over time this led to burnout among viewers, and if it wasn’t an MCU film, audiences didn’t really care. This seemed to hit DC especially hard as, despite a strong stable of characters, some of whom had been enjoyed by audiences in their DCEU debuts, their films couldn’t catch eyes from the viewing public.

Of course, when you factor in that Marvel had just reached the natural conclusion of their big arc, “The Infinity War”, with Avengers: Endgame the year before, and audiences felt like they could be “done” with big superhero stories, that also ended up hurting everyone. Hell, some could argue that blockbuster fatigue in general has beset Hollywood, with films like Fast X and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny also failing to garner the eyes of the public. The era of the big, billion-dollar blockbuster may be ending, and you can see the first hints about that all thanks to the pandemic.

Not that Birds of Prey deserves to be a failure. It’s actually a pretty fun movie. DC probably needed to rethink some aspects of the production, most specifically the name, which, while cute, probably should have just been Harley Quinn (because most viewers didn’t have a clue who the Birds of Prey were). Overall, though, it’s a fun and enjoyable film that certainly holds up on rewatch. It’s a darn sight better than anything Snyder made in the franchise, and it is a great showcase for Margot Robbie’s Harley QuinnCreated to serve as "Joker's Girlfriend" as well as his primary minion for Batman: The Animated Series, Harley Quinn quickly grew to be one of the most popular characters of that show, eventually finding a solid life beyond the cartoon in comics, movies, and media.. Released a year earlier it might even have been a hit (instead of making just $205.4 Mil right before lockdown went into effect).

The same probably couldn’t be said for Wonder Woman 1984. The much-anticipated follow-up to Wonder Woman, this film is an absolute disaster. Its story is garbage, its conflict doesn’t work, and as much fun as it is to have Pine’s Steve Trevor back for a sequel, the film contorts itself in the worst ways to make this happen. Plus, it forces a weird continuity issue in the film, specifically that Wonder WomanLong considered the third pillar of the DC Comics "Trinity", Wonder Woman was one of the first female superheroes ever created. Running for as long as Batman or Superman (and without breaks despite a comic downturn in the 60s that killed superhero comics for about a decade), Wondie has the honor to be one of the longest serving, and most prolific, superheroes ever. was supposedly in hiding, not acting as a superhero since the Great War (as per everything we’re told in both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the first Wonder Woman), but then this movie said, “no, actually she was being a superhero she just, like, destroyed security cameras so no one knew. Even though there were tons of witnesses who could report on her existence. Just ignore that.”

The sad thing is that the trailers for this film made it look like it could be amazing. The trailers had fun playing up the 1980s setting, both for style and mood as well as the jokes that could be made about the 1980s. It had a solid, throwback feel and if the film could have found a way to marry a good story to that setting and era it might have actually worked. The film tries to do too much without ever finding a solid storytelling hook for all its plot machinations, and in the end the whole thing falls flat on its face. It was a bad follow-up for the heroine. Had it been released in theaters it likely would have flopped. Instead, though, it was released on MaxThe oldest and longer-running cable subscription service, HBO provides entertainment in the force of licensed movies along with a huge slate of original programming, giving it the luster of the premiere cable service. Now known primarily for its streaming service, Max. where it was a big viewership hit for Christmas weekend… before getting completely ignored by everyone soon after.

Behind the Gunn

After that, DC scored a big coup when they snatched up James Gunn to create The Suicide Squad. This was during the time where (for a few months) Gunn was fired from Disney over posts he made many, many years ago on Twitter that he has since deleted, and apologized for, of his own volition even before he worked for Disney. It was a whole internet mess. Regardless, as soon as he was done at Disney (at the time), DC swooped in and said, “hey, we saw what you did with Guardians of the Galaxy. Would you be interested in doing that for us?” Gunn said yes, signed on the dotted line, and the Suicide Squad was put into his hands to do with as he saw fit.

The resulting movie is great, but it’s also a hard sell for many audiences. Coming out at the tail-end of lockdown, when audiences were just trying to decide if they wanted to go back into theaters or not. A “not a sequel” to a film that hadn’t be well received (even if it was financially successful), Suicide Squad, that’s also a Hard-R movie (so the kiddies couldn’t see it) meant the film was handicapped from the outset. With that said, The Suicid Squad did find its audience at home, on streaming, and unlike most films in the DCEU, the film has built up a cult status as a quality watch. Plus it got a spin-off, Peacemaker, that helped to continue Gunn’s relationship with DC. A relationship, it should be noted, that helped secure the writer / director as the co-head of the next phase of the universe, the DC Universe.

But there were still a few steps to get to that position. Noticing that Joker had been a huge success gave DC the desire to see other BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen.-related works come out on their own, free of the ties to the DCEU. A Batman had been in some phase of pre-production ever since Ben Affleck signed on to play the Caped Crusader for the DCEU. His film never came around, but DC really wanted Batman on the big screen. They eventually tapped Matt Reeves (who made the great Planet of the Apes sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes) to create his own Batman film, and the result stand-alone, “Elseworlds” movie, The Batman, became a solid success (earning $722 Mil at the Box Office).

Like with Joker, opinion is mixed on how good the film actually is (once again, I didn’t like it). It was a huge, successful movie that shows that DC could put out superhero films and have them make big bank. It does help that it was a Batman film, and Batman was always a bankable star. Even at his worst he could still bring in a few hundred million to help line the pockets of the studio execs. The Batman wasn’t really a risky move, but it did clearly indicate that perhaps tying their films to the DCEU wasn’t the path to success. Perhaps, just maybe, the DCEU was already a dying brand, with audiences displeased with the universe DC had wrought. If a film with a DC superhero could do well despite not being part of the cinematic universe, then the cinematic universe might have been a detriment in the first place.

In essence, this era for the DCEU was marked by confusion over where the franchise wanted to go. Did it want to be brighter, cheerier, a more family-friendly version of the DC stable of heroes to compete directly with Marvel? If that was the case then films like Aquaman and Shazam! certainly showed the way forward (and proved it was a profitable path). Did the franchise want to be dark and edgy, with maybe a bit of comedy mixed in among the violence? Then Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad showed how that would work (and it wasn’t always successful). Should the suits ignore the franchise they’d built and make stand-alone adventures like Joker and The Batman? Perhaps, since those made money, too. Or did the producers want to double down and focus on hero sequels that, apparently, no one wanted?

Well, I think we know the answer to that and, for some reason, DC picked the worst option to pursue for the last era of their cinematic franchise.