Between the announcement of a Birds of Prey movie and Steven Spielberg at the helm of Blackhawk, it’s been a week of good news for DC fans. So what do these movie choices mean for the future of the DCEU?
After the tepid reception to Justice League, one of the questions that fans, critics and bloggers debated with varying levels of seriousness was whether the DCEU should do a hard reboot of the franchise or simply focus on rebuilding with what it had.
Back in December, I wrote about what each option would look like, and came down very firmly on the side of wanting to rebuild rather than reboot.
Since then, WB has made a few big changes within its organization, most notably having Jon Berg step down as co-chairman of DC Films and hiring Walter Hamada as president of DC Films — who, fortunately, seems to share my opinion that the best option for the DCEU going forward is to rebuild.
And so far, I have to say that the rebuilding efforts have been pretty impressive. While we don’t have an official statement or any confirmation of what WB/DC is planning for the future, the recent announcements seem to indicate an interesting and exciting new direction for the DCEU.
A focus on lesser known properties
Other than Wonder Woman 2, the next few movies coming out of WB are lesser known comic book heroes with far less pop culture capital.
The only DC movie coming out this year is James Wan’s Aquaman, a character who is basically the mascot for tier three superheroes. I mean, we might argue that he’s well-known, but he’s pretty much known for being — as Bruce Wayne liked to point out in Justice League — the guy who talks to fish.
After that, the next movie in production with a set release date — and the first movie that Hamada had responsibility for as executive producer — is David Sandberg’s Shazam, featuring Zachary Levi as Captain Marvel. Of course, fans of Young Justice or Justice League Unlimited will recognize the character, but the majority of the general public are more likely than not to be relatively unfamiliar with him.
After those three, you have the recent announcements of Birds of Prey, New Gods, and Blackhawk, each one slightly more obscure and unfamiliar to the general public.
Which I think is a really smart move on WB’s part.
Because while Batman and Superman are pop culture icons, there’s a lot of expectation and history tied up with those two characters — two things that can turn into baggage when not managed appropriately. General audiences and fans alike are so tied up in their version of their favorite heroes that it can be hard for directors to take the characters in new or different directions.
And while I hate to make a comparison to the MCU, I do think the lesson that WB has taken away from the success of the MCU is that it’s easier to use properties that the general public is less familiar with. In this way, you don’t have audiences chanting “this isn’t my superhero” or digging their heels in because the director has attempted a different perspective.
It’s hard to even imagine it now, but prior to the MCU, arguably the best known Marvel superhero was Thor. At least, he was the character that had been adapted for audiences before. But rather than starting with him or building the universe around that character, the MCU instead wisely built around three characters who were lesser known to the general public — Iron Man, Thor and Captain America.
Starting in this way allowed the MCU to shape the characters, the world and the public’s perception about both these things rather than having to worry about general audiences bringing in their own biases, perspectives and characterizations.
Focusing on lesser-known properties allows WB and the directors tied to these projects more breathing room. It allows them to tell the stories that they want to tell with these characters, rather than being forced to bend itself to what popular culture envisions these superheroes to be.
It also allows audiences to experience the films with fewer hang-ups, biases, or preconceptions; it allows them to take the film as it is, rather than what they think it ought to be.
Finally, a string of well-received films centered around less-popular niche characters would allow DC to rebuild its brand, which has taken a beaten these past few years. People need to feel confident in the DCEU again, they need to believe that WB can handle these big stories and big budgets. And I think focusing on these lesser-known, niche projects is exactly the way to do it.
A focus on being a director-first franchise
After all the meddling that occurred with both the theatrical release of Batman vs. Superman and Justice League, it’s fair to be skeptical of DC’s claim that it would like to be a director-led universe.
Still, I’ve been optimistic with what we’ve seen so far since Hamada has stepped into the role of president at DC Films. While the production of Batman vs. Superman, Justice League and even Wonder Woman were plagued by rumors of behind-the-scenes mishaps and disasters, Aquaman and Shazam have been relatively quiet — at least in comparison.
In fact, both James Wan and David Sandberg have done a great job shutting down any rumors that have cropped up around production, getting ahead of any story before it spins out of hand and managing the narrative around their respective movies.
Again, this is where focusing on lesser-known properties comes in handy. Rather than a studio that’s nervous over the expectations of the audience, you have a studio that is willing to give over more control and creative freedom to its directors because the audience is coming in with very little — if any — context for what they’re seeing on screen.
Likewise, the recent hires at DC seem to speak to WB once again committing to being a director-led franchise. You don’t woo Ava DuVernay, who has left other big budget projects over lack of creative control, or Steven Spielberg, one of the greatest living American filmmakers, without a committing to their creative visions. In fact, that’s why you hire directors of this caliber in the first place — because you want their specific creative vision and visual storytelling.
A focus on diversity behind and in front of the camera
Yes, I realize that only one of these directors — James Wan — is attached to a movie that’s actually in production. And I understand that New Gods and Birds of Prey have just been announced, which means there’s a chance that Ava DuVernay and Cathy Yan will end up parting ways with DC somewhere down the line.
Still, as of right now, of the seven films that have been announced with a director attached to them (Wonder Woman 2, Aquaman, Shazam, New Gods, Birds of Prey, The Batman, Blackhawk), three are helmed by women — including a Black woman and an Asian-American woman — and one is helmed by an Asian-American man.
This diversity isn’t just behind the camera, but is likewise in front of it.
Aquaman boasts native Hawaiian Jason Momoa as Arthur Curry, who is traditionally depicted as blond and blue-eyed in the comics, and includes Randall Park, Ldi Lin, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Michael Beach in the cast.
Shazam features a diverse group of kids as friends (and rumored fellow superheroes) to Billy Batson, including Ian Chen and Faithe Herman, with their adult counterparts being played by Ross Butler and (rumored) Meagan Good.
And even though we’re quite a ways away from any casting news regarding New Gods or Birds of Prey, but given Ava DuVernay’s casting choices in past films and the fact that Cathy Yan’s first film starred Zazie Beetz, Mason lee and Meng Li, I’d say the chances are good that we’ll see some great diverse choices in front of the camera as well as behind it.
It’s been a rough road for fans of the DCEU these past few years, but I’m hopeful at the choices that we’ve seen being made and the steps that have been taken in the last few months. I can’t wait to see what else Walter Hamada and the rest of the DCEU have in store for the future.