DC is officially embarking on an exciting new direction when it comes to its film universe: less focus on one overarching narrative, more attention to individual characters and storylines.
As much as it pains me to say it, I have to admit that the DCEU has an image problem.
And while I think it’s actually more of a problem with PR than an actual problem with quality (I still consider — and will forever consider — Batman vs. Superman to be one of the all-time best comic book movies, feel free to @ me on twitter about this), the truth is that DC’s shared film universe is often regarded as a far distant second — in a variety of ways — to the financially successful and audience friendly MCU.
Despite their consistently successful box office numbers, the popular narrative surrounding DCEU’s attempt to build a shared universe similar to the MCU with Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have centered mainly around the critical reaction, which ranges anywhere from mild dislike to derision to outright loathing.
This summer’s Wonder Woman, as we all saw, was the major outlier in this narrative — a box office hit that was likewise critically well-received.
And it looks like DC/Warner Bros. have taken that financial and critical success to heart when planning out their next move.
DC’s new direction will take its cues from ‘Wonder Woman’s’ success — not the MCU’s
A new interview with DC Entertainment’s top brass — chief creative officer Geoff Johns, studio executive Jon Berg and president Diana Nelson — officially confirmed that DC’s new direction for its film universe will take Wonder Woman as a template rather than the MCU.
Diane Nelson explained their intention as, “using the continuity to help make sure nothing is diverging in a way that doesn’t make sense, but there’s no insistence upon an overall story line or interconnectivity in that universe.”
Indeed, a large part of what I loved about Wonder Woman was the way in which it was allowed to stand on the merits of its own storytelling. It wasn’t beholden to the studio’s broader conception of what the story should be about — or as Johns explained it, it wasn’t “a movie about another movie” — but instead focused solely on the character’s journey without worrying about servicing some future movie or nebulous shared storyline.
In fact, this new model is a lot like the way in which superhero comics as a medium tend to function. Each character gets his or her monthly outing (or if you’re Batman, you get about half a dozen monthlies) that largely functions on its own, with characters coming together in full force for comic book crossover events once in a while.
And it’s not that I don’t enjoy the comic book crossover events (although a little goes a long way, in my opinion), it’s just that I don’t feel like we need to be building towards them all the time.
Which is the conclusion DC Entertainment has come to as well.
“Some of the movies do connect the characters together, like Justice League,” Johns explains. “But, like with Aquaman — our goal is not to connect Aquaman to every movie.”
I really enjoy this storytelling direction for a few reasons. One being the aforementioned value of letting movies stand on the merits of their storytelling and two because it cuts down on the amount of shoehorned in cameos, plot points and storylines that are often times as distracting as they are wholly unnecessary.
The DCEU finally nails down their brand: director-led and focused on hope.
Mostly, I’m glad for this new direction because it shows that the DCEU is doing what I’ve been wanting for quite some time: Building up their brand.
As I’ve mentioned before DC seems intent on branding itself as a director-first movie studio, and it seems that this messaging has officially been confirmed with this newest interview.
As we move ahead with the DCEU, Diane Nelson tells us that “you’ll see the DC movie universe being a universe, but one that comes from the heart of the filmmaker who’s creating them.”
In many ways, this is what the DCEU was already doing with regards to its films. Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman and I’m sure Justice League to a somewhat lesser extent are all trademark Zack Snyder films. Suicide Squad had all the markings of of a David Ayer movie and Wonder Woman had Patty Jenkins heart and soul written into it.
Likewise, Johns is intent in highlighting what he frequently discusses as the touchstone of the DC mythology — the sense of hope and optimism tied to the universe.
In fact, it seems as though DC is taking what was unique about each of the three first films — the individual director’s style and vision — and combining it with what was so successful from Wonder Woman — what Jon Berg dubs “heart, heroics, humanity, and humor.”
Everyone benefits when comic book movies studies compete with each rather than copy what’s been done
In a movie industry that’s increasingly dominated by tentpole films and legacy franchises, the director-as-storyteller model has become a less and less sought after commodity.
To see an example of this, look no further than the hirings and firings of Disney, under which both the MCU and Star Wars universe are housed. Both companies have a laundry list of auteur directors — from Edgar Wright to Ava DuVernay to Patty Jenkins — who have left major projects when their individual vision clashed with the studio’s desired plan.
Instead of relying on the vision of an individual director, movies within the franchise model are more influenced by the producer and created basically by committee.
Whether or not you think this is a great or terrible thing for genre of film, it’s an undeniable fact that as a strategy, it’s certainly an exceptionally profitable one. While it might mean a string of films with uniform style and indistinguishable storytelling elements, it has also led to the MCU grossing nearly $12 billion worldwide, with four different individual films grossing $1 billion each.
Yet it would be wrong to assume that the MCU’s route is the only successful one — though we’ve obviously seen attempts to replicate it with diminishing returns.
Instead, what’s proved to be both more financially successful and interesting for fans to watch have been studio’s attempts to diverge from the MCU formula.
Fox found its greatest success in giving us more adult comic book fare that leaned into its hard-R rating with Logan and Deadpool, while Sony’s plan to give us more unique genre fare with Venom and Silver and Black set them apart from the MCU’s more standard offerings.
A DC film universe which can be seen as the storytelling-director’s haven, one in which directors aren’t constrained by a rigidly defined story arc or prescribed narrative, but instead are given the freedom to pursue their own stories with their own unique style and vision will hopefully likewise yield financially and critically successful films that are all the more interesting for all the ways in which they don’t follow the MCU formula.
This new direction isn’t just exciting for us DC fans, but for all fans of comic book films. This means that we’ll have four different movie studios — perhaps five, should Lionsgate’s Hellboy kickstart another comic book universe — competing with one another to put out high-quality films that are likewise distinct from one another. That’s a win for anyone who’s a fan of film, storytelling or comic books.