In 2005, Batman Begins was released into theaters and changed how many fans today view Batman and DC Comics properties. Christopher Nolan took the character through a setting grounded by realism instead of the blatant fantastical. This was further augmented by the critical and commercial success of the 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight. For general audiences, this “dark and gritty” interpretation of characters like Batman, Scarecrow, Two-Face, and The Joker became the new norm and expectation. This created an identity that Warner Bros. embraced and let influence their future DC Comics properties. However, since then Warner Bros. has backtracked on this “style,” creating a confusion state for their cinematic universe.
Nolan-Esque Adaptations & Snyder’s Direction
For television properties, the most obvious example of a new property reflecting Nolan’s style was Arrow. Members of the creative team for Arrow were public in comments relating the delivery of Oliver Queen’s origins to how Nolan adapted Batman. Overtime Arrow created its own identity and style along with expanding into its own shared universe which includes The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Constantine, and Batwoman. The big screen property and spiritual successor to the Nolanverse was Zach Snyder’s Man of Steel. With Christopher Nolan producing and writer David S. Goyer helping with the story, it felt like a spiritual sequel to The Dark Knight Trilogy. It’s important to note neither Nolan or Goyer ever claimed Man of Steel would be connected to their previous work on The Dark Knight Trilogy.
When Man of Steel was released it met mixed reviews from critics although a solid group of fans clung to the film. This generated much excitement for the sequel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which introduced a new take on Batman and Wonder Woman as well. This movie proved the first fundamental shift in the identity of the DC Extended Universe. Under Nolan and Goyer’s creative direction, Superman was likely going to be the only superhero in his world. This thought-process changed with executives at Warner Bros. desiring to compete against the Marvel Cinematic Universe and join the cinematic universe trend. The direction at this point for the movies transitioned from a Nolan-esque Universe towards a Snyder-esque Universe. Zack Snyder was going to introduce the shared universe concept with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice along with casting and constructing the general direction for characters. This direction under Snyder would have built towards a 5-part storyline until the reception of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice led Warner Bros. to reconsider.
Multiple Creative Changes
With audiences not enjoying the “dark and gritty” versions of characters under Zack Snyder, Warner Bros. decided to make controversial changes to movies like Suicide Squad. This led to an identity crisis as Warner Bros. was promoting their universe as “fun and colorful” while removing more mature and controversial elements. These were involved largely with The Joker and Harley Quinn’s arc, which had entire scenes removed or reworked from the original story.
Reshoots for the movie were also organized by executives in order to present the Suicide Squad in a “lighter mood” accompanied by a marketing campaign very different from how the movie was presented early in development. Director David Ayer confirmed via tweets that Harley Quinn’s arc was “vastly simplified” between his original version and the released version of the film. Regardless, Warner Bros. was dedicated to licking their wounds with the following releases of Wonder Woman and Justice League.
While Wonder Woman was a great success for Warner Bros., Justice League was a bust. Like Suicide Squad, Warner Bros. extensively interfered with the original version of the movie based on the reception of Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. This action and the aftermath spawned the infamous social media trend #ReleaseTheSnyderCut along with an entire shift in Warner Bros. release slate. Movies such as Aquaman and Shazam were too far into production to cancel and luckily were both positively received by critics and the general audience. Aquaman even crossed $1 billion at the box office, grossing more than any previous DCEU film worldwide.
For The Flash, it was first reported that Ezra Miller’s take of the character would receive a movie in 2016. The announced slate from Warner Bros. in 2014 had the movie scheduled for March 23, 2018. Unfortunately, The Flash hasn’t been able to maintain a director which has delayed the movie several times. The first creative team Warner Bros. tasked with bringing the character to the big screen was Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The Lego Movie). Unfortunately, they had to drop out due to scheduling issues which brought Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) to the project. He dropped out due to creative differences. After some more creative team changes, it appeared the film stabilized with Rick Famuyiwa (Dope) joining the project in June 2016. Kiersey Clemons joined the project as Barry Allen’s love interest Iris West with an appearance in Justice League which was cut prior to theatrical release.
After Famuyiwa left the film over creative differences and a few more creative teams came and went, Warner Bros. found brief stability again with directing duo John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (Spider-Man: Homecoming). They departed the project and were replaced by director Andy Muschietti (IT) with help from writer Christina Hodson (Bumblebee) in July 2019. The story for this film has changed multiple times from adapting the Flashpoint story-line to exploring the Speed Force multiverse to being an original story utilizing time travel to being a pseudo-origin film. Simply put, the development of The Flash has been a hot mess.
Behind the scenes at Warner Bros., the executive leadership behind the movies has changed multiple times as well. Originally, previous WB CEO Kevin Tsujihara announced multiple movies with a “director-driven” mantra which they felt made them different than the commercial machine that is Marvel Studios. Creative direction for the overall franchise was still in Snyder’s hands but that boiled down to structuring a story cohesive with the rest of the DCEU as it led to Justice League Pt. 1 and Justice League Pt. 2. Upon the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros. created a new film division called DC Films which was led by Jon Berg and Geoff Johns.
This seemingly corresponded with Snyder’s influence on the overall franchise diminishing as previous writers and creative partners weren’t involved with future films. For many fans, the creative influence of Geoff Johns seemed like the answer to Marvel’s Kevin Feige. When Justice League underperformed, Warner Bros. changed the strategy for DC Films again by replacing Berg and Johns with Walter Hamada and Chantal Nong. This has been the current leadership team for DC Films since February 2018.
With the success of movies such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam contrasted by the poor reception for Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, Warner Bros. drastically altered their release schedule. Previously planned movies for The Flash, Cyborg, and Superman following the events of Justice League essentially descended into production hell. Suicide Squad survived based upon the box office success and unorthodox commercial popularity of Harley Quinn. With the revolving door of leadership at Warner Bros. and DC Films, there are currently over 20 films in development. This includes:
- The Batman*
- The Suicide Squad*
- Wonder Woman 1984*
- Birds of Prey*
- Aquaman 2
- Black Adam
- The Trench
- The Flash
- Black Adam
- Justice Society
- Justice League Dark
- Blue Beetle
- Green Lantern Corps
- Man of Steel 2 or Superman Reboot
- Gotham City Sirens
- Justice League 2 or Reboot
- The Joker (Jared Leto version)
- Joker and Harley Quinn
- Plastic Man
- Shazam! 2
*Means it’s at least in active pre-production or filming
For the Batman franchise, Ben Affleck went through a complicated up-and-down sequence of events resulting in him not directing, then not producing, and finally not even starring in a standalone Batman film. This resulted in Matt Reeves joining the project in 2017 and casting Robert Pattinson to portray Bruce Wayne/Batman, with a release date of June 25, 2021. The film will also reportedly retell the origin of Batman differently than how Zack Snyder presented it along with recasting several roles such as Alfred and Commissioner Gordon. DC Films will also be releasing entirely unconnected films such as The Joker, which stars Joaquin Phoenix and releases on October 4, 2019. Future movies such as Wonder Woman 1984 are rumored to retcon the previous history involving the character shown in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. With all of these movies set to release in the next 3-5 years, the shared universe of DC Films is in a confusing state with 4 consecutive timelines.
- Snyder Timeline (Shazam!, Aquaman 2, Birds of Prey, The Suicide Squad)
- Snyder Timeline with New Retcons (Wonder Woman 1984)
- Separate Timeline #1 (The Batman)
- Separate Timeline #2 (The Joker)
How To Repair A Fractured Franchise
With confronting the state of DC Films, Warner Bros. should consider a plan such as this:
- Executive & Creative Team Long-Term Plans
- Address The Past
- Rebrand DC Films For The Future
I think the first step would be to get executive and creative leadership on the same page for a long-term strategy. It appears that step is currently completed with the stability shown by Hamada and Nong. The second step would focus on providing clarity to the audience. With over 20 movies announced over the years to be in development, Warner Bros. needs to publicly address which films will actually contribute towards their slate of films. Along with this clarity, address your previous failures. Admit to creative meddling during reshoots and editing. We all know you did it, so attempt to at least control that narrative. Show the audience you’re willing to grow from instances like Justice League and Suicide Squad. Then, rebrand the entire movie slate which includes recasting roles if need be.
Since the majority of movies still have influence from the Snyder era, my recommendation would be to just use that timeline as the canon and build from there. In a perfect world, Warner Bros. could utilize Flashpoint to introduce continuity retcons/reboots. I think a direct way to address this would be a marketing campaign from Warner Bros. This would include a new website dedicated for the movies that would have mini wiki pages for each character, a canon timeline marking important events, and some tie-in comics or short animated films that could clear up discrepancies. The goal should be to help the audience understand the film universe so they aren’t confused about different franchises and storylines going forward.
With things organized and cleared up in the past, give this specific film timeline a proper name and mark the new origin point that future films will build from as the Justice League defeating the invasion of Steppenwolf and Apokolips. From that moment you should never look back and just push forward. As a matter of fact, I would ban movies from retelling or showing events from Man of Steel, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, or Justice League. I call it the Incredible Hulk treatment in the sense that it happened but you’ll never see or blatantly mention it again. This universe will have its foundation and a new unified identity from which the focus can be put on telling good stories. For movies such as The Joker, just make an Elseworlds brand of movies which is very in-brand for a DC Comics property.
With all of this said and done, just focus on making good movies that don’t have to build towards a greater threat outside of that specific franchise. Cameo appearances across franchises are great but a character’s narrative transitioning to a crossover event should feel organic and complimentary instead of forced. The DC Comics superheroes are already well-known around the world, they just need one good movie after another.
How would you move forward with the DC Films universe? Let us know your thoughts and if you’d make a sequel to Man of Steel in the comments!