It’s no secret that DC’s cinematic universe efforts have experienced some difficulties winning the hearts of both fans and critics. The exception has been the most recent entry in the franchise: the largely standalone Wonder Woman, released earlier this year.
Now it seems that DC is learning from its past mistakes and successes. According to an extensive report by Abraham Riesman over at Vulture, Warner Bros. and DC will be deemphasizing the interconnected DC Extended Universe for future films, following a template set by Patty Jenkins’ blockbuster hit. It’s something that’s been hinted at before, with reports of the standalone Joker prequel and director Matt Reeve’s conflicting statements on whether The Batman would be part of the official connected universe of films, but now DC Entertainment has made the change official.
Moving forward, DC’s superhero films will be divided up into what are ostensibly two separate categories. Some will be films that are technically still set in the same DCEU continuity as Batman v. Superman and Justice League, but instead of cramming everything into one strict ongoing narrative, the films will be allowed to breathe, focusing on individual characters and the specific vision of their respective directors.
The other half will be totally unrelated films, like the upcoming Martin Scorsese Joker origin story, that will be totally outside even that continuity. Those films, which will be released under a new, as-of-yet unnamed side label, sound like a bizarro-world opportunity for filmmakers to play with DC characters no matter how they’re being portrayed in the other set of films. (For example, Jared Leto won’t star as The Joker in the origin film, which is set to be directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips.)
As DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson puts it, going forward “there’s no insistence upon an overall story line or interconnectivity in that universe.” Instead, Nelson says that audiences will “see the DC movie universe being a universe, but one that comes from the heart of the filmmaker who’s creating them,” rather than the more intertwined storytelling we’ve seen so far with Zack Snyder’s films.
It’s not the most clearly-articulated strategy, but moving away from the interconnected DCEU makes sense for the studio. It plays off the strengths of their biggest success, Wonder Woman, which largely ignored DC’s universe and instead let director Patty Jenkins create a unique movie that was wholly devoted to its central character. It’s the same thing that worked for DC in the past, too. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, while wildly different from Wonder Woman on a thematic level, saw tremendous success with the same playbook: let Nolan play to his strengths and just tell a great Batman story.
As I argued in a piece earlier this year, it would also give DC a way to differentiate itself from Marvel, who’s notably terrible at keeping filmmakers that don’t fit into its narrow box of expectations. Look at Edgar Wright leaving Ant-Man, or Ava DuVernay passing on Black Panther for proof — or better yet, Patty Jenkins and Joss Whedon, both of whom are now in charge of DC’s biggest sequels after disagreements with Marvel.
Looking at DC’s newly announced strategy, the biggest question is actually why even bother with drawing a distinction between the two types of future films in the first place? If the goal is to largely ignore the interconnected universe, why keep the DCEU around at all?
The answer is probably two-fold. DC still has hundreds of millions of dollars sunk into the upcoming Justice League, in what is supposed to be its long-awaited answer to The Avengers. Joss Whedon is extensively reworking the film that Snyder originally started, but Warner Bros. is too far into this particular phase of the DCEU to turn back now. (It’s worth noting, however, that a once-planned Justice League sequel is never mentioned by Nelson or DC Entertainment chief creative officer Geoff Johns in the Vulture piece.)
The other is that there is still some good in the DCEU, even if it’s just in the form of actors like Gal Gadot, who has already become the canonical Wonder Woman in the eyes of fans everywhere. Keeping the DCEU around, even if in name only, lets DC continue to build off the work it’s already done. And the studio appears to be planning to do just that: next year’s Aquaman will feature Jason Momoa in the title role, building off his appearance in Justice League, even though the studio is considering Aquaman one of the first new movies that won’t be part of an overarching storyline.
Of course, DC still has to make good films for this to work. Wonder Woman is certainly an amazing proof of concept, but it remains to be seen whether or not DC and Warner Bros. can continue to build off that success going forward.
There will certainly be plenty of opportunity for DC to correct its mistakes. Along with Aquaman and Justice League, Warner Bros. has announced a growing slate that includes Shazam, Wonder Woman 2, Cyborg, Green Lantern Corps, Suicide Squad 2, Justice League Dark, Flashpoint, The Batman, Batgirl, Gotham City Sirens… and that’s just getting started. According to Nelson and Johns, DC Entertainment seems to have a strong sense about what has been going wrong with its movie universe. Now it is time for the studio to show it knows how to do things right.