You don’t need to be a nerd to see how badly Warner Bros. has squandered its DC Comics superheroes in this golden age of superhero movies. Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, and especially Justice League all failed to please fans, critics, and mass audiences or meet Warner Bros.’ financial projections. Last week, Warner Bros. unceremoniously dumped Superman and Henry Cavill to recalibrate the DC movie universe around Supergirl, while Ben Affleck, a superhero so depressed that he generated his own meme, finally escaped the solo Batman film back in June when the studio decided to focus on a younger Dark Knight.
In short: Warner Bros. has sidelined its star superheroes—two of the most recognizable, most beloved, and most lucrative characters in the world. It’s a massive problem, but one Warner Bros. already has the solution to. It just doesn’t know it yet.
For Warner Bros. getting the hell out of the DC Extended Universe is the right move.
Listing off all the mistakes Warner Bros. has made trying to replicate Marvel’s success in creating a superhero mega-franchise — a shared cinematic universe that keeps generating blockbusters, as they’re all part of one larger story — is unnecessary (although it continues to be hugely funny). Marvel blazed the trail. All Warner Bros. had to do was follow it, with the added benefit of anchoring the franchise around top-tier heroes like Batman and Superman, instead of lesser-known characters like Iron Man and Thor. But Warner Bros. has followed each mistake with a massive overcorrection (such as the forced humor shoved into Justice League after complaints that the previous films were too grim). Now the studio is so panicked about how to make future films a success that it’s having a hard time committing to directors, scripts, or even its own plans.
The list of DC movies the studio has announced since 2012 is preposterously huge, but please bear with me. Besides the recently announced Supergirl, there’s Batgirl, The Flash, and Cyborg solo films; movies about the villains Deathstroke and Black Adam (played by Dwayne Johnson); plus Green Lantern Corps., Booster Gold, and The New Gods. More shockingly, there are four movies in development starring Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn: a Suicide Squad sequel, a Joker and Harley Quinn movie, Birds of Prey, and Gotham City Sirens. There are also four movies with the Joker: Suicide Squad 2, that Harley/Joker film, and a solo Joker movie, all starring Jared Leto. But then there’s another solo Joker movie, this one an origin story starring Joaquin Phoenix, that’s not only currently being made but also isn’t part of the DC Extended Universe at all.
The baffling existence of a Joker origin-story movie gets one thing right: For Warner Bros., getting the hell out of the DC Extended Universe is the right move. It’s busted, and the shocking failure of Justice League is proof enough. It’s no coincidence that the studio’s biggest success, Wonder Woman, spent 99 percent of its time ignoring the rest of DC’s bigger world.
DC’s heroes are so iconic, so mythic, that they allow themselves to be altered and bent in any form.
Even if Warner Bros. isn’t giving up on its troubled cinematic universe anytime soon, the next best thing the studio could do is not feel beholden to it, to force itself to connect everything, as Marvel is doing. Warner Bros. should be making movies outside its current cinematic universe, even if its current cinematic universe wasn’t stinking up the place. Because this is a power that belongs specifically to DC, not Marvel, and is one of its comics’ biggest strengths.
DC has never shied away from telling stories outside of its comics’ continuity. They’re called “Elseworlds” tales, and some of the finest stories are told there: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Gotham by Gaslight (where Batman hunts Jack the Ripper in 1800s England), Superman: Red Son (where baby Supes’ rocket lands in 1950s USSR), Alex Ross’ apocalyptic look at the DC universe’s future Kingdom Come, and so many more. Are comics fans confused when there’s a commie Superman running around in a stand-alone graphic novel but the Superman of the monthly self-titled comic is business as usual? No, because they’re clearly separate stories.
Marvel doesn’t really do this with its comics. Even if its entire reality is reset to a completely new status quo, these stories are still technically part of the main continuity, even if they get rewritten out of existence or every Marvel character forgets what happened. Part of the draw of Marvel’s comics is that they’re all connected — the heroes live in real cities, and Spider-Man can drop by and see the Fantastic Four at any time, and events in one comic can have ramifications in another. Marvel’s movies have this same strength, but it’s also a weakness — all of its movies need to show connections to the others, because that’s what people want from them.
But DC’s heroes are so iconic, so mythic, that they allow themselves to be altered and bent in any form and placed in any setting, better than any Marvel hero could be. Batman can be a man on a mission to destroy crime and avenge his parents, but he can also be a tragic figure, driven to near madness by his loss. He can be a brilliant strategist who can outthink any foe; the suave, cheesy do-gooder of the 1960s TV show; a paranoid who knows how to take out every other superhero just in case he needs to. He can be a teacher, a leader, a recluse, a father figure, an actual father, a badass, a detective, a vampire, or he can even be a very depressed Ben Affleck. He can be practically anything — why limit him or your opportunity to make many, potentially very lucrative Batman movies?
This can work, and proof is in the office right down the metaphorical hall.
WB Animation has already been doing this very thing with its direct-to-video DC animated movies. After many years of churning out stand-alone films, it created its own new continuity in 2013, in which most of its films were set — the key word here being “most.” Alongside this universe, WB Animation also made stand-alone movies starring the same heroes, often adaptations of very famous series like All-Star Superman or The Dark Knight Returns.
Obviously, Warner Bros. thinks audiences can handle the idea of two actors playing two different versions of the same character in its live-action movies, because it’s doing so with two Jokers. Where Warner Bros. is so astoundingly wrong is in believing that people want multiple Jokers instead of alternate versions of the biggest, most beloved heroes. People did not care for the Superman depicted in the movies starring Henry Cavill, and Affleck’s Batman is no more. But audiences haven’t suddenly stopped wanting Batman or Superman movies. You’d have to be as crazy as the Joker to believe that.