Comics to Screen is a recurring feature in which Ben Kaye analyzes the constantly evolving leap from comic books to screens of all sizes.
For the last decade, comic book movie fans have been living in Marvel’s world. Captain America and Iron Man have dominated headlines — at least the positive ones — while DC Comics aficionados have had to watch beloved characters like Superman and Batman flop about in the darkness. Backed by Warner Bros., DC has consistently been five years behind Disney and Marvel; Man of Steel, retroactively the first entry in the DC Extended Universe, came five years after Iron Man broke ground on the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008. Now, five years after Avengers, we’re getting Justice League. Following the unimpeachable success of Wonder Woman, it finally seems like the Distinguished Competition is catching up with its film franchises.
And it’s all about to come crashing to an end.
While the MCU’s forward trajectory seems ever secure in the wake of this year’s trifecta of blockbusters — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok — the DCEU is about to be completely shaken up. To be sure, moviegoers have been screaming for a redrawing of DC Films’ blueprint since Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice proved it was hastily sketched in a lightless room by studio brass trying to compete with the popular kids. Credit due, those bigwigs actually listened, as evidenced by the much lighter and tighter Wonder Woman. The expensive yet gloomy bombast of MoS and BvS would no longer sustain box office draw (nor would the incoherence of Suicide Squad, for that matter), and they acknowledged that.
A change was bound to come, and DC/WB made their moves as quickly as possible. They had (perhaps foolishly) already locked Zack Snyder into Justice League, ensuring that his particularly desaturated palette would still color the endeavor. But look again at the first teaser for the film, released way back in the summer of 2016. Just under three minutes long and soundtracked by a peppy rock song (The White Stripes’ “Icky Thump”), the preview is short on action but heavy on humor. There’s a quip practically every 10 seconds, as if the characters of Flash (Ezra Miller) and Aquaman (Jason Momoa) were written in specific response to grim criticism. Remember, this teaser was shared during San Diego Comic-Con; it was like DC Films was shouting directly at the fans, “Hey everyone, look! We can have fun, too!”
Highlighting the tonal shift became a paramount aspect of the film’s advertising. Just as trailers did it with one-liners and soundtrack choices, posters did it with color. The first series of images using the “Unite” tagline all feature dramatic lens flare, heavy shadows, and somber tones. As newer, “You Can’t Save the World Alone”, posters rolled out, you could almost see the marketing team dial up the saturation. In the end, Batman’s (Ben Affleck) costume turned from grey to blue, Aquaman’s went from forest green to bright algae, and Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) metallic armor was covered with a fresh and patriotic gloss.
DC Films’ reluctant but necessary replication of the brighter, snappier Marvel model was solidified when they brought Joss Whedon in to rewrite what producer Charles Roven has called “15, 20 percent of” Justice League for reshoots. Much respect to Whedon for stepping in to direct those scenes when Snyder departed to deal with family matters, but the fact that one of the primary architects of the MCU was brought onto the quintessential DCEU film at all is indicative of the studio’s desire for change.
Not that change is a bad thing. The Thor franchise just did it to massive success. Abandoning the drab stories of the first two entries in the series, Thor: Ragnarok took the playful God of Thunder from the Avengers movies and blended him with the quirkiness that worked so charmingly in GotG. It was a sizable shift for the character, but one that worked spectacularly, covering up faults with pure entertainment. The major difference is that Marvel had four years and an Avengers movie between the dismal Thor: The Dark World and the rollicking Ragnarok; DC had just one year to get from BvS to JL. Too many gears were already in motion to possibly reconfigure the whole machine, so tweaks had to be made on the fly. While reviews hint it’s worked at least marginally well, it’s still a stopgap for an operation that launched from shaky ground.
Which is why before they even get to the next phase, DC Films has apparently chosen to implode the DCEU as we know it. Altering the direction of Justice League was the bargaining stage, and now they’re set to skip depression altogether and go right to acceptance: The singular connective universe of the DCEU isn’t working, and it’s time to try something else.
That’s why they suddenly have two Joker films in development, a gritty Todd Phillips-helmed prequel and a Jared Leto-starring team-up with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn. It’s why they’re trying to do a Nightwing movie without introducing a Robin first. It’s why Affleck’s Batman film has been in such disarray, with the most recent reports suggesting the star is out entirely and director Matt Reeves’ take will relaunch the character outside of the DCEU. Most importantly, it’s why the Flash solo film is being subtitled Flashpoint.
If Flashpoint follows the comic storyline it’s named after more than Avengers: Age of Ultron did, it may essentially reset the DCEU. Not to bog this down in comic nonsense, but Flashpoint saw Barry Allen changing an event in the past that sent rebooting ripples through the entire history of DC Comics. Assuming the film follows an even remotely similar path — and there’s every indication that it will — we cannot guarantee what we know of the DCEU films so far, everything that’s been so hastily established these past four years, will continue to be canon.
Of course, Aquaman is due before there’s even the chance to reset, but it’s clear from Momoa’s JL portrayal that his film will be markedly different from what’s come before. And who knows, maybe these adjustments all work out for DC Films. Perhaps both the Joker/Harley movie and the Joker origin film are stellar popcorn flicks, proving that DCEU Prime and DCEU Secunde can coexist successfully. Even if that turns out to be true, however, it’s safe to say neither film will take on the tone of Suicide Squad. No, the dark days of superhero films are over. DC has admitted defeat, embraced tactics they so desperately tried to differentiate themselves from, and rewritten their entire game plan — in a Flash. What comes next will be something entirely different.
The DCEU is dead; long live the DCEU.