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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Film Land - The Future of the DCEU

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Let’s talk about the DC Entertainment Universe or DCEU as it’s known for short.  The last time I ventured into these uncharted waters I emerged with a general sense of optimism that the people being entrusted with DC projects were all good choices who could lead to a good future.  However, in the time since then, 2016 has thoroughly drained away any and all optimism I might’ve had so if you’re expecting a kind summation of how the DCEU might correct itself in days to come you’ve arrived at the wrong article. 

No, we’re going to be looking at the DCEU as it is and was it’s been promised, and that means accepting that forward is not where we’re going, and the future most certainly isn’t bright.  In fact, I’d dare hazard the guess that barring some kind of surprise mega-hit, like Avengers/Dark Knight level hit, I don’t think the DCEU will be following us all into the 2020s- here’s why. 

So let’s get the big, unfortunate, hard to swallow news out of the way at the start: the DCEU has not gotten better.  For 3 straight years in the wake of Man of Steel that had pretty much been the rallying cry of DC fans and Marvel haters everywhere.  Even in the wake of Batman v. Superman’s abysmal failure, the cry was still that the DCEU would get better, that the next movie would turn it all around.  

After three straight failures, it’s time to admit that particular claim probably isn’t true anymore.  Sure, I want Wonder Woman to be good just as much as you, and believe me we’ll get back to her as we go on, but for the moment accepting that she’s the exception, not the rule is key. 

In addition to things not getting better it’s also probably time to accepting that things aren’t going to get made either.  Firstly- the Shazam movie is most likely not happening, no matter what Dwayne Johnson says, it’s just been too long with too little action.  What’s more, WB is doubling down on Superman with a Man of Steel sequel, so there’d be no point in making a competing Superman-type movie with Shazam, especially with Captain Marvel poised to just wipe out the whole question. 

The Flash is also probably not happening, given that it’s now lost 2 major directors and its release date while the TV version is continually making a big, successful splash with high ratings and popularity.  I also wouldn’t expect to see much movement on outliers like Justice League 2, Dark Universe, Cyborg, or Green Lantern; those projects just got shunted off to limbo until WB finds a way to make these things more consistently profitable in a headline sense. 

All of that is pretty much a given at this point, the big question about DC’s future slate of films lies, instead, with Ben Affleck’s Batman movie.  Just this week Affleck began to actively distance himself from the upcoming film, most likely in response to the fact it’s the 1st week of January and everybody is joining up to anoint Suicide Squad and Dawn of Justice the worst films of 2016.  Affleck already spent a decade or so living under the shadow of visible flops like Gili and Daredevil, so I doubt he’s eager to return to that particular well. 

While he is under contract for more appearances as Batman in the DCEU I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to distance himself from writing/directing duties on the film, or even leverage his participation for a better deal or to produce more stuff he cares about like Argo and The Town. Obviously, it’s not surprising that Affleck would want to avoid embarrassment it is pretty telling that he thinks the DCEU movie he would be directing would end up a big flop, especially so for a Batman movie no less.  This has been an unfortunate truism for WB for a while now, the fact that Batman just isn’t the same kind of box office draw that he was from 2008-2011. 

The first indicator of Batman’s slipping audience credibility was the mediocre reaction to Arkham Origins followed by the muted response to Dark Knight Rises and the quick cancellation of the Beware the Batman show.  Combine that with the mixed to bad reactions to this year’s trilogy of Bat-films (Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, Killing Joke) and the fact Gotham has been so thoroughly overshadowed by CW’s stable and it seems people’s Bat-exhaustion has absolutely stuck. 

So where does that leave things going forward, with half a slate’s worth of projects WB is even more skittish about than before and their big gun firing blanks?  Well, there are 2 names WB is still clinging to in hopes, of course, correcting their way out of this: Wonder Woman and Aquaman.  Here’s the thing about those two, though, even if they’re both big hits they still have to co-exist and interact with the trilogy of suck that is Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice, and Justice League.  That means easter eggs, set-ups, and overall just drawing attention to all the stuff nobody liked from those films. 

What’s more, the fact that superhero movies now run off of continuity means it’d be near impossible for WB to do a new Batman or Superman movie and just ignore how psychotic and violent the two were in their last outing.  Sure, reboots could happen, but that would both alienate any chance Wonder Woman or Aquaman had, and I don’t think they’d be met with much appreciation.  Marvel waited at least 3 years to reboot Spider-Man from his terrible film series and even then Homecoming is looking to avoid all of the origin story baggage that WB loves to slather on, especially with Batman. 

With all of that in mind, I at least know where I’d like to see the DCEU go, which would be to embrace Fox’s attitude towards the recent X-Men trilogy.  Rather than heavily pursuing a new Batman film and hoping for it to just print them enough money to make this boondoggle worthwhile, I’d be looking into a way to capitalize on Wonder Woman’s impending success.  The best way to do that while also breaking ranks with the bad stuff that’s already come would be to just stick with the period setting, especially because it would allow for a whole crop of DC’s own WW2 era superhero stories. 

They’ve got plenty of immortal heroes and WW2 specific super people to support a crop of features based around this and making Wonder Woman the core foundation of their universe would probably force them into a much stronger creative position.  After all, the whole reason Marvel got so good at making superhero movies is that they didn’t have access to their guaranteed moneymakers like Wolverine or Spider-Man. 

That’s what I’d like to see happen, but I really don’t think it will.  No, the Fox offering I think WB will look to mimic is, more likely, Deadpool.  That’s a phrase you’re probably going to be hearing A LOT in the years to follow, but it just makes sense when you’ve got such a little blockbuster that could type story.  That idea of big returns on a small budget with little to no continuity is exactly what DC/WB are hoping to emulate with their replacement crop of features, by the way.   

The only newly announced upcoming DC/WB film that would require a substantial budget is Man of Steel 2, and even then, judging by the stuff we’ve seen of Justice League, I wouldn’t be surprised if it came out looking small scale and drab in the vein of Divergent.  The other stuff like Gotham Sirens, Suicide Squad 2, The Batman, and the recently proposed Deadshot spin-off could all be accomplished on a small budget with little-to-no continuity. 

Basically the DCEU was previously run by no one, just executives shoving properties at hot directors or people they knew and hoping the rest would take care of itself.  WB has now flushed enough money on that plan that they’ve clearly put someone in charge of this whole thing; it’s just that someone is probably the accountancy department.  This means expect smaller budgets, smaller scales, and smaller characters, probably much more adjacent to the Batman mythos. 

What we’re talking about here is a numbers game, keeping costs low and timing releases for minimal competition, with cultural impact taking a back seat to monetary gain.  To be clear, I don’t really want this approach, but I can’t say it doesn’t make financial sense given the size of WB’s recent problems.  That's why despite taking place in a universe that includes Atlantis and a mystic island of Amazons, Justice League seems to take place entirely in a series of generic warehouses.  

If this is all sounding a very negative, well, what can I say; I did warn you at the start this wasn’t going to be an optimistic look forward.  WB’s always been in possession of one of the most vibrant, diverse, and engaging fictional universes out there and they’ve consistently squandered it decade after decade- there’s no reason to think they’re going to stop now.  What’s more, with Fantastic Beasts landing soft, WB isn’t really in a position for any more big, risky ventures where they pump tons of money into potential failures.  

It’s possible that maybe next decade they might try for a reboot series, especially if their low budget, small scope approach doesn’t yield greater returns, but I wouldn’t hold my breath, not without a change of ethos at the executive level.  Maybe somewhere in the future, DC heroes will be adapted well on the big screen again but at this point even genuinely good DCEU movies aren’t going to turn this experiment around.  

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