What Should We Expect From The DCEU?
The Lego Batman Movie is the first DC film in years to debut with positive reviews. Critics and audience members have similar problems with all the other DC films: poor storytelling, a jumbled plot, and a weak understanding of the main characters. While all three DCEU films have their fans, it is undeniable that many admirers of DC left these films disappointed. As of now, the highest IMDb score any of these films have received is a 7.1/10, and while this doesn’t account for the opinions of everyone who saw the film, it shows an obvious problem. At the same time, all three films were commercial successes. This places Warner Bros. in an interesting situation, they can either change what doesn’t work about the franchise in the hopes of higher box office revenue, or keep the films as they are and be satisfied with moderate success. Or, in the worst-case scenario, they can completely reboot the DCEU and start from scratch. The overall fate of the DCEU will depend on the critical success of Wonder Woman and Justice League Part One.
Many do not remember Green Lantern, starring Ryan Reynolds, which premiered in 2011, but it was supposed to be the beginning of the DC cinematic universe. The film was a critical and commercial disaster, and so the franchise was put on hold until later notice. Besides, Warner Bros. still had The Dark Knight Rises premiering in 2012, so the DC cinematic universe had time to come into fruition.
But then The Avengers became the third highest grossing film of all time when it debuted in 2012, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a phenomenon. Marvel’s culmination of Phase One grossed 1.5 billion dollars, compared to The Dark Knight Rises’s 1 billion gross. After this, Warner Bros. scrambled to set up a Justice League film as quickly as possible. Their second DCEU film, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was far more heavily focused on setting up the Justice League than it was on showing Batman fighting Superman, with the fight between the two titular characters only lasted around ten minutes.
Because of Marvel’s fantastic business strategy, and DC’s struggle to keep up, we live in a world where Iron Man fighting Captain America out-grossed Batman fighting Superman. Had you told someone that ten years ago, even if it was Kevin Feige, they probably would have laughed at you.
Marvel is partly responsible for the position that the DCEU currently finds itself in. Warner Bros. has been chasing the first Avengers film since 2012, and have yet to match its success financially or critically. Suicide Squad is a good example of this: it was a team film, like The Avengers, but was quickly scrapped together and edited by a trailer company.
Even though many people did not like Suicide Squad, we have seen that it is possible to introduce an entire team in one film while telling a cohesive story, as Guardians of the Galaxy did just that perfectly. So if success is possible, why else is DC missing the mark?
The other reason why the DCEU is on such shaky ground is simple: no one is driving the bus. The MCU has Kevin Feige, the Star Wars universe has Kathleen Kennedy, but who does DC have?
At first, many people assumed that Christopher Nolan, who had stayed on to produce Man of Steel after The Dark Knight Rises, might be the one steering the bus. After Nolan departed the DC universe, many assumed the Snyder would eventually take over the reins. But Snyder now seems to have settled into a solely directorial role, and he might not have long to enjoy that either. Batman v. Superman made many decisions that will likely harm the DCEU in the long haul, such as killing off Superman and introducing Batman as a murderer. It is unknown if he will continue to direct after the Justice League films, but whether or not he does, he clearly is not in complete control.
The DCEU currently finds itself in a dangerous position. Marvel is leagues ahead of them, as the studio is able to release films like Doctor Strange with exceptional results (over 650 million dollars grossed for a film starring an obscure character), while DC finds itself disappointed with Batman v. Superman, which failed to gross a billion dollars.
At the same time, the studio is being pulled in several different directions from various studio executives and producers, while also being stretched apart by several different directors. Although directors often conflict with Kevin Feige, the internal chaos at Marvel is nothing compared to that of DC. Edgar Wright did leave Ant-Man, but he was easily replaced, whereas The Flash film currently has no director and is slated to come out in March of next year.
Taking all of this into account, it is no surprise that The Lego Batman Movie, which has been made entirely separate from the DCEU, is the first DC film in years to garner positive reviews.
Under different circumstances, Warner Bros. likely would have already scrapped this cinematic universe and started from scratch, but here is where the situation becomes even more fascinating: these films make money.
Yes, Marvel is consistently out-grossing their rival, but the DCEU is still profitable. Although Batman v. Superman did not gross a billion dollars, it did gross 873 million dollars, which is by no means a financial disaster.
DC’s films do suffer a large second-weekend drop, but that does not stop them from being in the same league as Marvel’s stand-alone films. This poses a few interesting questions: will these films continue to gross as much as they do now, and if they do, but continue to trail Marvel’s earnings, what will DC do?
Let’s answer the first question. Even though I do not like these films, I do believe that they will continue to gross large amounts of money. Unless the DCEU produces another Green Lantern, I cannot see a situation in which any of DC’s films are financial bombs.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that one of them goes belly up. Perhaps Justice League Part One only grosses 500 million dollars, which is barely enough for the studio recover their investment. What happens then? 500 million dollars is not a complete disaster, but in a world where Doctor Strange grosses 150 million more, and Captain America: Civil War grosses twice as much, it is embarrassing.
If Justice League Part One grosses this kind of money, which is not impossible considering that it will compete with Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, Thor: Ragnarok, and Coco, a Pixar film, then the DCEU will be dead in the water, unless something else happens.
If Warner Bros. can produce at least one financially and critically successful DCEU film, then the franchise will be safe for a couple years. This puts immense pressure on DC’s next film: Wonder Woman. If we assume that Justice League Part One will not be superior in quality to Batman v. Superman (click here to read my thoughts on that), and humor the possibility that it may gross a very disappointing figure, Wonder Woman must perform exceptionally to make up for that.
If DC can make a hit with Wonder Woman, which is certainly possible, then audiences may be more willing to see a DCEU movie. Again, while these films have their fans, the large second-weekend drops prove that their fan-base has room to grow.
But in the most likely scenario, the DCEU will not die because of Justice League Part One or because of Wonder Woman, as I expect those films to perform well. Instead, the DCEU will likely die because of one thing: it finally developed on the late end of the superhero revolution.
Although The Dark Knight is responsible for where the comic-book film genre is today, it wasn’t until The Avengers that the genre exploded. In a post-Avengers landscape, every studio is pushing out superhero films. In 2012 (when The Avengers premiered) there were three major releases, but in 2016 there were six, and in 2017 there are seven.
Even though the genre has become a phenomenon since The Avengers, box office results show that that craze may be dying down. The Avengers grossed 1.5 billion, Avengers: Age of Ultron grossed 1.4 billion, and Captain America: Civil War, which is practically an Avengers film, grossed 1.1 billion.
The very fact that comic-book films are a phenomenon has led to their own decline: there are so many of them that very few come close to The Avenger’s box office haul. And that is the haul that studios have been chasing for five years now.
If DC can produce a hit, then they will be sustained, but if they continue to disappoint critics and long-time fans, and if they continue to trail Marvel, the franchise will slowly crumble until it is either rebooted or scrapped and put aside until later. A mediocre comic-book franchise cannot profit for long in 2017, and I doubt it will be any easier in 2020.