It is no secret that in the post-Christopher Nolan era, DC films as a whole have struggled to find their footing. Repeated critical drubbings, box office disappointments and one particularly infamous mustache have humbled the Warner Bros. franchise that once had grand ambitions of hitting the ground running with a cinematic universe akin to Disney’s MCU. Yet recently, the tide has begun to turn for DC.
Wonder Woman was a success across the board. Aquaman netted $1.1 billion at the box office. Shazam! was a delight and this fall, Todd Phillips’ Joker, a $55 million film that ostensibly had no bearing on DC’s cinematic future, became the most profitable comic book movie of all time. In The Dark Knight, Harvey Dent said that “The night is darkest just before the dawn,” and based on these recent successes, the dawn is coming for DC. So, what will that dawn bring and where will it lead?
In the past, DC’s cinematic strategy has been at times transparent and at others so perplexing that it made you wonder if there even was a strategy being implemented. Well, there is seemingly one now because a recent report by Variety elucidated a lot about how DC is allegedly plotting it future. It involves leaning into what works, getting dangerous and righting past wrongs.
With this newfound clarity about where DC is headed, it’s time to examine the finer points of DC’s plans to weigh their pros and cons to try to predict if they portend a bright future. Is DC’s new movie strategy the right one? Let’s discuss.
DC Making More R-Rated Movies
According to the report, DC will be making more R-rated movies. This should come as no surprise given the success of Joker, but what is something of a surprise is that two already announced movies, with one nearing release, might sport that restricted rating. Those two films would be the upcoming Cathy Yan Harley Quinn film Birds of Prey and James Gunn’s sequel/soft reboot The Suicide Squad.
This is interesting because the first Suicide Squad was made with PG-13 in mind in an effort for tonal consistency across the DCEU. Despite Margot Robbie pitching an R-rated girl gang film, signs pointed to a possible PG-13 for Birds of Prey as well. It seems the success of Joker has given Warner Bros. the confidence to hopefully allow for R ratings in both these films and presumably others in the future, like the inevitable Joker 2. It’s a decision that can be a real opportunity for DC, just so long as it doesn’t overplay its hand.
The advantage of DC being open to R-rated superhero movies is that Disney’s MCU is most certainly not, although what happens with Deadpool remains to be seen. DC can do something different. That isn’t to say that there are only so many PG-13 dollars to go around, just that there is an obvious appetite for content like Joker (also proven by Amazon’s The Boys) and that represents an opportunity in the marketplace for DC to make movies Marvel won’t.
The concern that comes hand in hand with Joker’s success is that Warner Bros. will learn the wrong lesson from it. Joker was an incredibly dark film and one that demanded an R rating, but Joker didn’t succeed because it was R-rated. Audiences were drawn in by the character and Joaquin Phoenix’s performance and the promise of something different from the genre. Some of that was possible because of the R rating, but you can’t just slap an R rating on another comic book movie and achieve the same result with no thought about what the overall tone of upcoming movie properties should be.
A black label of sorts of R-rated DC films meant for adults is a compelling proposition, and maybe we could finally get something like Lobo or Justice League Dark, but in general R ratings should be an option not a mandate, as it doesn’t fit every character or every story. The story should justify the rating, not the other way around. If Birds of Prey demands an R rating, that’s awesome and maybe we’ll get something truly different with that film that has a lot more fun than the also R-rated Joker.
The same goes for James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. The director won’t get to play with an R when he heads back to the MCU for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but if his story calls for it here, his background shows that he can really have some fun with that extra leeway. All that said, there is also a question of: How will DC will mix PG-13 and R-rated properties if it does eventually return to a more connected universe?
So all in all, DC’s strategy to do more R-rated, adult comic book movies is a sound one, just so long as DC doesn’t force it. Although, it must be said, it’s kind of funny that after the knee-jerk reaction to lighten things up after the dark Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we’ve swung all the way back around to DC adopting the dark.
Could We Get A Gotham Cinematic Universe?
Speaking of the dark, The Batman is coming. Matt Reeves’ take on the Dark Knight is arriving in 2021 with an all-star cast surrounding Robert Pattinson’s Caped Crusader. Obviously the expectation is that if The Batman is a hit and audiences embrace it, Matt Reeves will make a sequel and perhaps a full trilogy. What the report on DC’s future plans revealed is that there is a belief that the film’s villains could also all headline their own spinoff films.
Truthfully, there is no way to answer that until we see The Batman in 2021 and know whether we like the film, the villains and the actors’ performances. That’s the good thing about DC’s strategy because, based on the report, Warner Bros. may be waiting to see if Matt Reeves’ film works before greenlighting any particular spinoffs. It’s a measured approach that shows Warner Bros. is no longer putting the cart before the horse.
Should The Batman deliver, villain-centric spinoffs would be an exciting prospect, not just because of what we saw with Joker, but because of the implications. While not explicitly stated as such, spinoffs for The Batman’s villains would create a de facto Gotham cinematic universe at DC. Even if the DCEU is gone, which TBD, Batman has enough rogues to support his own film universe.
We have yet to see a DC spinoff yet, so we’ll have to wait for Birds of Prey to see what the company does with a character that popped in one movie leading another. But from our current vantage, leaning in to what works in The Batman seems like a sound strategy that no one could fault DC for. The only reservation I would have is if DC is going to do The Batman spinoffs, it should fully go for a Batman Cinematic Universe and give us Bat Family movies like Nightwing and Batgirl that fit into that.
Green Lantern’s Light Will Shine Again
While Batman and his rogues gallery could be getting some real shine in DC’s future, the new strategy also reportedly calls for giving some shine to a character whose light was severely diminished by his last cinematic outing. Apparently, the long discussed Green Lantern Corps is still a priority for DC, with Green Lantern: Rebirth scribe Geoff Johns expected to deliver a script at the end of the year.
A good Green Lantern movie is something all comic book movie fans should want and while I do have some concerns that DC will go for a jokey, Guardians of the Galaxy-esque tone, I don’t think anyone could fault the company for making the Lanterns a priority. There are a lot of advantages to bringing the Green Lanterns in, including righting a past wrong. The 2011 movie was not well-received, but good on DC for recognizing that that was an indictment of that film, not the property or the source material.
Green Lantern is still deserving of a proper adaptation and if he gets one, DC will be able to open up the cosmic side of its film universe in a way it thus far hasn’t. If you look at a lot of the DC films in the works, there are a ton of more grounded movies, particularly with the Batman characters. Wonder Woman has real superpowers but her first film was very Earth-based. Aquaman opened up the underwater realm and Shazam! the magic one, but space remains untapped.
Green Lantern Corps can remedy that, opening up the cosmic realm of DC and offering something different for audiences than DC’s other properties. Should DC eventually move back toward a Justice League style team-up, there will be a full roster with the addition of GL.
Superman’s Cinematic Future Is TBD
While DC’s new strategy is strong and intriguing in some regards, there’s also a major hole in it. I’m talking of course about Superman, because apparently DC still doesn’t know what to do with the character and has been having discussions with high-profile talent to figure out how to make him relevant to modern audiences. This more than any other aspect of DC’s strategy has elicited the most reactions from people online.
Many have cited how the story of Superman has many obvious parallels to modern events, making him quite relevant. In addition, that old excuse that Superman is too much of a boy scout and a goody two shoes for modern audiences who like an edge to their heroes, doesn’t really hold water when you consider Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman or especially Chris Evans’ Captain America, who was a beloved and popular figure in the MCU.
DC has apparently met with Michael B. Jordan who pitched a new vision for the character (Calvin Ellis?), but as we’ve recently heard, Henry Cavill isn’t ready to give up the role just yet. What’s fascinating about this is that Man of Steel wasn’t a financial failure. It wasn’t a massive hit but rather than build on it, Warners would seemingly rather throw the baby out with the bathwater after the shortcomings of BvS and Justice League, neither of which were Superman’s fault.
I imagine there are behind-the-scenes things we don’t know, but whether Henry Cavill returns or Michael B. Jordan or someone else takes on the role, or more than one person does as different Supermen, DC needs a Superman. If there is a weakness in the studio’s new movie strategy, this is it. The face of DC as a brand and of superheroes in general is adrift, without a clear cinematic future.
Aquaman And The Flash
Aquaman was a huge success and as we already know Aquaman 2 is on the way. When a superhero movie is a hit, you make another one, there’s no mystery to that strategy and DC would be foolish not to do a sequel. Less certain is the Aquaman spinoff, The Trench, which is currently looking for a director. The Trench sequence was one of the more fascinating ones in Aquaman but this could be a case of DC squeezing the sponge of Aquaman too dry just because that movie was such a hit. Still, looking to capitalize and expand on Aquaman’s success is understandable.
Then there’s The Flash. The Scarlet Speedster has pulled up lame multiple times on the road to his own feature film with the standalone feature going through all kinds of difficulties on the race to the big screen. But Warner Bros. is forging ahead with Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen in a film from IT director Andy Muschietti, although it probably won’t start shooting until 2021 at the earliest.
Ezra Miller’s Flash was an entertaining highlight of Justice League and it would seem that DC still has faith in that interpretation, so while some might like a fresh start for Flash like Batman is getting, Aquaman managed to come out of the disappointment of Justice League to deliver his own hit film and perhaps the same will be true for Flash.
So those are the broad strokes of DC’s new movie strategy. Overall Warner Bros. seems to be plotting things out a few movies at a time but with an eye towards keeping its options open should a film either not work or become a hit with the potential to expand on it.
This conservative approach makes sense for a studio that has had some pretty major blunders with its comic book films. But there is still some daring with this strategy, as DC looks to make darker, R-rated films that give audiences greater variety in the marketplace, meeting a currently unsatisfied need.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions though, like if the Cyborg solo movie is cancelled or what the future is for the Shazam side of things other than the Black Adam movie. We also don’t know if there is any sort of long-term overarching plan or any desire to return to a greater connected universe down the line, but for now we at least have an idea of what DC is looking to do in the years ahead.
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