Since The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, DC Comics movies have had extremely mixed fortunes. 2013’s The Man of Steel was roughly built around the template of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and imitated its tone – then, haphazardly, a whole universe was built off the back of it, despite this almost certainly never being the intent when Nolan and writer David S Goyer pitched the movie.
What came next was a roughshod attempt to create a universe. Zack Snyder introduced the complete Justice League in his next movie, Batman Vs Superman, instead of taking the Marvel approach of debuting each member in a solo movie first so you’re actually invested in them.
That movie met a mixed critical reception (I hated it at the time but have now brute-forced my way into liking it), and since then, results have continued to fluctuate. 2016’s Suicide Squad was the worst DC movie to date. In 2017, Wonder Woman was a critical and box office smash, while the same year’s Justice League was a commercial failure.
Then, in 2018, a movie about Aquaman somehow made more money than every single Spider-Man film to date, probably because it stars the world’s most handsome man in Jason Momoa. Aquaman isn’t an amazing film, but it’s certainly not worse than middling Marvel movies like Ant-Man and the Wasp or Doctor Strange. I found 2019’s Shazam! utterly joyless (why didn’t it have any good jokes?), but that too was a success. This year’s Birds of Prey didn’t set the box office on fire, but it was far better than Suicide Squad.
Last weekend’s DC FanDome livestream of movie reveals was a massive flex by Warner Bros – and an awkwardly-timed one, since DC Comics recently made a load of layoffs in the middle of a pandemic, not long before the event. The event showed off the broad array of DC Comics movies in the works: Man of Steel-connected DC Extended Universe films like Wonder Woman 1984 and The Suicide Squad, but also The Batman, which is set off in its own universe. We even learned more about far-off movies like The Flash, and Black Adam with Dwayne Johnson.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League cut, meanwhile, made a pretty good fist with its first trailer – even if I thought Snyder soured the whole thing with this embarrassing tweet directed towards a journalist.
Collectively, it was an amazing line-up, and it came off the back of a week that confirmed Ben Affleck’s Batman would return for The Flash movie in 2022. It was a carefully-constructed virtual comic con designed to win fans’ approval – and unlike real comic cons, it had no financial barriers like hotel or travel costs.
The Batman looked terrific, considering the trailer was made from just 25% completed footage – it looked quite a lot like Batman Begins tonally, if you ask me, but then that film is now 15 years old. Today’s kids deserve their own Batman, and not just one who turns up in the middle of a Superman film and starts killing people.
DC is riding high, then. Is this the moment where it overtakes Marvel? Not exactly. But these films do demonstrate the key differences between the two approaches to characters and world building – and there’s definitely room for both.
Why now is a good time for DC to dominate
It’s been a long time since we all saw a new Marvel movie – more than a year, actually. Spider-Man: Far From Home was released back in July 2019. You might feel differently about this, but I think a respite is not necessarily the worst thing after the packed ‘season finale’ that was Avengers: Endgame (Spidey, meanwhile, made a nice coda to that film).
Marvel’s schedule is pretty full over the coming few years, with Black Widow coming first in November, then Eternals follows in February – assuming no more delays are on the horizon. Every movie currently on the schedules beyond that is a solo movie, with no Avengers-style team-ups on the horizon. Though Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness surely has the potential for wild cameos and crossovers.
DC’s line-up actually compares fairly well to Marvel’s coming attractions. Wonder Woman 1984, The Batman, The Flash and The Suicide Squad are big hitters with real directing talent in the mix – though I thought IT Chapter 2 was an atrocious film, which gives me some pause about Andy Muschietti’s take on Flash, no matter how many Batmen are involved.
Marvel’s challenge is making its next few movies feel like they have real stakes again, which will be hard in a post-Thanos MCU. DC, meanwhile, faces a different challenge: putting out more consistent movies, instead of an even mix of highlights and duds.
Embracing the Multiverse
I was sceptical of Warner’s decision to make DC movies off in different parts of the ‘Multiverse’ – but now I see the advantages in the potential of these films. They’re not bound by a specific take on a character, and can do some quite wild stuff, like having James Gunn come in and create a Suicide Squad movie with a ton of fun, disposable-looking characters.
It also means you can have Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker off in his Taxi Driver-esque nightmare world, while Robert Pattinson is free to encounter his own Clown Prince of Crime in his version of Gotham City.
In 2022, three Batmen will be on the big screen in one form or another. And why not? It’s something Marvel can’t replicate as it stands – though I wouldn’t rule out seeing some live-action version of Spider-Verse hit the MCU someday.
My personal feeling is that DC messed up so many of its movies early on that it had no choice but to take this approach – yet the projects shown off last weekend actually illustrate the advantages of this flexibility, versus having a more linear universe like Marvel does.
Ultimately, Marvel’s dominance will continue. But DC doesn’t need to live in its shadow – that’s what the variety of these projects on the horizon demonstrate. During a quieter time for the MCU, it made the most of the spotlight last weekend, and gave the audience a few things to get excited about as the normality of going to the theater still feels some months away.