It has not been a great couple of weeks (years?) on the DC Films front.
After Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad failed to live up to most people’s expectations last summer, Warner Brothers looked like it was starting to right the DCEU ship. Triumphant teasers for Wonder Woman and Justice League made DC the talk of San Diego, and fans were stoked for directors like James Wan, Rick Famuyiwa, and Ben Affleck to lend their visions to DC supeheroes. Well, less than a year later, 60% of those directors have been dropped and now, Ben (maybe?) doesn’t even want to be Batman anymore. And in the most WTF move yet, Warner has approached an actual misogynst, anti-semitic racist to helm a movie with the initials S.S.!
But, taking a page from Vulture’s always awesome
While we still have Wonder Woman and Justice League to come this year, I think it’s safe to say that DC’s answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t worked like they wanted it to. So maybe it’s time they abandon the “shared cinematic universe” approach altogether? Sure, this might sound like hypocrisy coming from me since I have written full-throated endorsements of the shared universes concept, but what I’m proposing isn’t that far off actually.
Instead of modeling their cinematic universe after Marvel’s — in which multiple movie franchises must hew to a single, overarching vision — Warner Bros. should go back to allowing directors autonomy to make their own superhero properties independent of one another. And maybe one day, we could have a movie mashing up all these different incarnations into a single film. Basically, the DCEU should be a shared Cinematic Multiverse. Let me explain why.
First of all, Warner already has a long history of live action DC superhero properties, and each of these properties’ successes or failures have hinged on the unique visions of their directors. Think Richard Donner’s Superman, Tim Burton’s Batman, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, and yes, even Zack Snyder’s DCEU.
A return to an auteur-driven take on superheroes would not only free up filmmakers to make the types of movies they want — and prevent the “creative differences” that have denied us Famuyiwa’s Flash, Affleck’s Batman, Michelle MacLaren’s Wonder Woman, and David Ayer’s original Suicide Squad, to name a few — but would fundamentally set DC apart from Marvel, beyond the tired grimdark vs. “fun” dichotomy.
If anything, a Multiverse approach fits better into DC iconography anyway. We DC fans have been used to multiple versions of our heroes existing simultaneously. Smallville and Superman Returns coexisted, after all. Even today, the DCEU’s biggest contrast isn’t the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s the televised Berlanti-verse on The CW.
This makes sense because television has supplanted the movies as the best format for filmmakers to tell long-form stories. The CW’s take on the DC Universe is arguably more popular because the focus is on the characters, and the audience is able to invest in their relationships. For instance, Barry Allen’s love for his surrogate father Joe West is a thousand times more engaging than either hero’s devotion to #MARTHA in BvS because it’s something we’ve actually seen develop over the course of 50+ hours of television. Thus far in the life of the DCEU, we have no real connection to any of these characters or their relationships.
Similarly, Marvel’s movies have been financially successful because, let’s face it, they aren’t really movies. Since 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has basically been the world’s most expensive television series that just happens to air in multiplexes every few months. But are entirely bingeable once they hit Netflix. Hell, the MCU even has seasons — excuse me Phases — to differentiate its story arcs!
But we love these movies precisely because we love the characters. Iron Man and Captain America are not interesting by themselves. They are interesting because they are Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans, and we don’t want to see them fight because we are invested in their relationship! If they had suddenly recast Tony Stark prior to Avengers in 2012, I don’t think the MCU would be regarded the way it is currently.
But cinematically? Nah. The MCU looks like TV. This is not an insult. Like I said before, television is no longer the ugly stepchild in Hollywood. Shows like The Wire or Breaking Bad or Stranger Things have proven that the idea of prestige has migrated to the small screen. I mean, Captain America: Winter Soldier is still one of my favorite comic book movies, hands down.
The one thing cinema has over television, though, is the composition of the frame. It’s no coincidence that we use the word “cinematic” to describe the most beautifully shot TV show. And if I’m being honest, there is no single shot throughout any of the Marvel films that resonates as much as, say, Heath Ledger’s Joker in the police car from Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
The other difference between TV and movies is that one is the domain of the writer; the other belongs to the director. Again, Marvel succeeds because their movies express the vision of their showrunner — in this case, Kevin Feige. Like TV, Feige leads a “writer’s room” and brings directors on board to execute the story the writing team develops. In cinema, it’s the opposite: everyone works together to realize the director’s vision. I think part of the reason the DCEU hasn’t worked out is because, until recently, the driving force behind the universe wasn’t a writer or producer (like Feige) but a director. And not just any director, but one who has a very signature style.
Imagine once again giving directors the freedom to create a movie that doesn’t have to fall in line with Zack Snyder’s very particular take on the DC Universe. Imagine not having to be locked in to using Jared Leto’s Joker or Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor in your movie. Imagine wanting to make a DC superhero movie that didn’t have to be grimdark. Hell, Greg Berlanti and his Flash co-producer Zack Stentz are already hard at work on a Booster Gold flick that isn’t tied in to the DCEU. So it can be done!
Opening up the Multiverse means we can have as many takes on these characters as possible. And if The Lego Batman Movie’s success is any indication, audiences are starved for different takes than what we’ve been getting. But the beauty of the Multiverse is that fans who actually enjoy the DCEU (they exist!) can still get Snyder-directed DC movies, but we also get to have other variations, too! And if finances are a problem, these movies don’t have to cost $250 million to make. If WB wants to see better profits, make these movies smaller and cheaper!
Imagine a $45 million Batman movie that’s basically a detective story in the vein of Zodiac or Seven. Imagine what Berlanti and co. could do with Grant Gustin and a $75 million budget. Imagine getting Tom Welling, Erica Durance, and Michael Rosenbaum back for a one-off Smallville movie, or Michael Keaton playing an older Bruce Wayne in Batman Beyond (with Steven Yeun as Terry McGinnis, natch).
And if some brave soul wants to take on a movie five-to-ten years from now that brings all of these disparate incarnations together in some sort of, I dunno, Crisis?
That’ll work, too.