With Wonder Woman‘s glorious critical and commercial run still ringing in our ears and the hints of a horror motif for the upcoming Aquaman tantalising us (not forgetting the bump-in-the-road of the ill-fated Justice League), it feels like a good time to take stock of the DCEU – and what an unfocused, throw-whatever-sticks mentality its drowning in. However, you could argue that this manner of article bears little journalistic value. An article that tears into the rambling, reactive state of the DCEU? How original! Perhaps then the true value of this article will be whether it will be published before Warner Bros announces yet another entry in the DCEU that has far more to do with reacting to the outcome of every individual film that’s been released so far.
Given that I’ve already established the trite nature of this article, we may as well bring up our MCU comparisons now, get them out of the way. You can’t blame the near-10-year head start the MCU has over the DCEU. However, it’s easier for movie-goers to react to the quality of a movie, rather than how well or poorly connected it is to a wider series of films, something that Warner Bros. themselves appear switched onto; “Good movies work better”, says Warner Bros. boss Toby Emmerich. What’s unfortunate is how these films are busily crafting more of a mystique for their behind-the-scenes drama rather than their own quality. Most people probably know of Jared Leto sending condoms to his Suicide Squad cast members, but how many people can name anything that crocodile character did? Likewise, the tragedy surrounding Zack Snyder‘s departure from Justice League made headlines, overpowering any merit the film itself carries. It’s an unfortunate reflection of this era we live in where overly-dramatic, high-flying rumours of drastic reshoots and copious tales of over-bearing fans reactions, from petitions to shut down Rotten Tomatoes due to critics having an apparent bias against DCEU films to fans demanding the rumoured Zack Snyder cut of Justice League be released.
We can, however, pin down the DCEU for not acting like a DCEU. The DC world is populated by thousands of heroes and villains alike, and yet what’s been grabbing headlines recently are no more than three characters – Batman, the Joker and Harley Quinn, three individuals from the same corner of the vast DC world. With the recent news of Joaquin Phoenix confirmed to portray the Joker in a new origin movie directed by Todd Philips, that brings the number of films confirmed for the resident DC bad boy to five – Suicide Squad, its sequel, a Jared Leto-led Joker film and a Harley Quinn and Joker duo film. That’s a lot of coverage for one character! Harley herself is getting a spin-off film, alongside Birds of Prey, Batgirl, Nightwing… hang-on, aren’t these other characters also exclusive to the Batman corner of the DCEU? This is a problem I can’t fathom – we’re rapidly being presented with a DCEU that’s trying to sneak in a BEU instead. This greatly hints at the higher powers from DC and/or Warner Bros demanding its growing cinematic franchise be supported by characters from its most bankable property. When your in the business of profit, such a motive at least makes sense, but the commercial and critical success of Wonder Woman suggests that fans and movie-goers unfamiliar with DC alike are both willing and keen to explore characters and worlds of DC hitherto untouched by cinematic hands. Even the comparatively divisive Suicide Squad, which also made use of DC characters never before seen on film, pulled in decent numbers.
Still, a slate of upcoming films as large as this, regardless of their characters, is sure to keep fans’ appetites whetted. Adding to that sense of anticipation is the fact that movers within the DCEU are proclaiming that it’s story is yet to really begin, with Emmerich saying that the upcoming Aquaman will be “… an extraordinary step in the DC Universe that sets it on the right path”. An extraordinary step, huh? One can’t help but feel we’ve already bore witness to numerous ‘extraordinary steps’ in the DCEU already that were meant to kick-start the DCEU into action – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice‘s titular pomposity has gravitas in its pairing of the Caped Crusader and the Dark Knight on the big screen for the first time. A similar sense of importance should be felt for Justice League, but the numbers would indicate audiences felt less than enthralled.
Where’s the story of the DCEU? Harking back to the MCU, that’s carried a deceptively simple story that clips its past decade’s worth of movies together. When boiled down, it’s achingly two-dimensional. Villain wants conquest – heroes stop him – jewels are found. It’s not clever, it’s not complex, it’s not even very good (what is it about modern blockbusters driven by MacGuffuin items – Infinity Stones, Motherboxes, Power Coins, AllSparks, Horcruxes, Rings…), but it works. It’s an uncomplicated method of tying together your films with grand effectiveness. Where’s the DCEU’s story? There’s consequence from film to film, with the events of Batman v Superman leading to both Suicide Squad and Justice League. However, Wonder Woman untangles itself from this unfolding narrative by being set during WWII. This, coupled with the suspected anthology-nature of The Batman and Phoenix’s currently untitled Joker movie reportedly being a standalone affair suggests the DCEU is far less concerned with an overarching story. Creatively, that’s no bad thing, as it allows any narrative constrictions established by past films to be freed up. However, it calls into question the point of having a DCEU? Why not simply avoid the hassle and stick to injecting films with a sense of originality? A common criticism of MCU is the general seen-it-all-before feeling of one origin story to the next. Doesn’t that give the DCEU a keen edge over its competitor?
Right now, we can’t say. There’s little focus in the unfolding saga of the DCEU, in story and direction. Each film appears to react to the previous film, which is a natural progression, but where is the overall plan? Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, both undeniably linked to Avengers Assemble and Guardians of the Galaxy, encapsulate the reactive attitude of the DCEU (why Amanda doesn’t just approach the superheroes who put these villains in jail in the first place is questionable…). Is there too much danger in forging its own creative path? These upcoming anthology films, out of time with the bulk of the DCEU’s output (and possibly out of continuity, given the back-and-forth rumours of The Batman), hint at that, but the cramming of numerous Batman character suggest Warner Bros are putting their money where their most bankable property is.
That attitude doesn’t dilute the respectable box office takings of Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad, two films who’s topics and characters have’t been toyed with at all in the past on the big screen. Elsewhere, the big shakers of the DCEU would have you believe that, at some point, there was indeed a path being forged. Speaking at WonderCon back in 2017, Geoff Johns, then co-director of the DCEU, was joined on stage by Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins in previewing then-upcoming DCEU films, including Wonder Woman, Justice League and Aquaman. Johns spoke of DC movies having ‘heart, humour and heroics’. Vague yet sincere comments, and yet half of what Johns said is mostly inapplicable to the DCEU thus far. Likewise, whilst humour is prevalent in the DCEU’s more recent offerings, it’s not a muscular ingredient to rely on in giving superhero film substance. Following Justice League‘s lukewarm reception at the box office, Johns was relieved of his DCEU duties.
The DCEU has been stumbling around in the dark for long enough. Batman-obsessions aside, it’s the other, upcoming properties that may prove to be the dark horses that can catapult the DCEU toward a more substantial type of success, away from the box office. Perhaps now, we can hope the DCEU is in its hangover phase and hopefully can stumble out into the open without the baggage that’s hampered it’s proceedings so far. Interestingly, Wonder Woman‘s success and the standalone nature of Pheonix’s and Philip’s Joker origin movie suggest that the success of future DC films could be determined by their lack of reliance on past story-arcs.
Phoenix’s recent interview with Collider, in which he reveals his excitement at playing the Joker seems to cement the extension of the mentality that Wonder Woman showed how it didn’t need to rest on the past few film’s worth of narrative set-up to make her own story a success. Without the weight of having to payoff past story-arcs or set up new ones for the DCEU, it’s possible that Warner Bros. and DC have found a winning formula – a DCEU that isn’t really a DCEU.