The comic book movie industry is still going strong with its multiple projects across the board ranging from familiar faces to the fairly obscure ones that eventually become familiar. It’s become such a staple of pop culture that it’s strange to think that there was a time when they were considered a hit or miss niche market for the media.
For example, from game-changers like the Blade, X-men, Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight movies to the decade-spanning phenomenon of the MCU films the genre is clearly not going anywhere anytime soon. The formula for a successful franchise hasn’t fared well for certain companies especially when it comes to chasing trends on what makes the latest summer blockbuster. The most notable sufferer of this MO is sadly DC Comics which houses some if not the most popular and well-known characters in the world.
Recently, they have found a ton of recent success in Joker, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, and HBO Max’s Peacemaker series as well as the much-lauded Matt Reeves The Batman. After a decent amount of cinematic mistakes were made before DC found a potentially unique winning formula; but first a little history on the Coke and Pepsi of the CBM world and how DC got to this point.
How DC Started Vs Where Marvel Was Headed
Back in 2012, two major events occurred that shifted the next ten years of the two companies: The Dark Knight Trilogy wrapped up and Marvel’s The Avengers debuted making big waves in the idea of a cinematic universe. Since then DC was trying just about everything to ride the tsunami-like wave of Marvel and sadly wound up in a drought by the decade’s end. It started fairly strong with 2013’s Man of Steel which on its own accord had its issues but was nothing that couldn’t be reworked into something more refined with subsequent films. Sadly, as usual, studio interference muddied everything in an attempt to get that sweet Marvel money. Warner Bros was so preoccupied with tweaking their elements effectively shoehorning a cinematic universe into the next film; that by the time said film dropped Marvel was trying and succeeding at creating something new.
For instance, the Guardians of the Galaxy was setting the trend for quirky characters and far-out action comedies in the genre while retaining the box office earnings. DC would later try to replicate this style two years later with 2016s Suicide Squad. Needless to say, adding bright colors and “quirky” elements did absolutely nothing to save an otherwise abysmal film that everyone quickly forgot.
There are other examples of this wave chasing but ultimately it failed in some regard each time. Whether it was at the box office or critic scores or simple word of mouth DC eventually cut their losses by the time their tragic attempt at a Justice League movie came about. The idea of the shared universe of these characters coming together to fight the big bad of the day was always marred by consistent trend-chasing. Rush job productions coupled with a fixation on trying to form a continuity by feebly playing it by ear with no real endgame in mind ultimately ended the DCEU. Thankfully these failures didn’t spell the end of all DC projects nor did they discontinue the stream of content coming through to the 2020s.
DC Films and Their New Formula
Recently, and by that I mean 2019, DC decided to allow for more of an auteur approach to their upcoming films. They allowed the creative people behind their projects to run wild with whatever ideas they thought reel in moviegoers while withholding narrative connections to previous films. David F. Sandberg, Todd Phillips, James Gunn, and recently Matt Reeves were essentially allowed free rein over Shazam, Joker, The Suicide Squad, and The Batman to shape them how they see fit.
Studio notes were kept to a minimum so more risks could be taken and the quality skyrocketed. These films were instant hits marking a new era of DC films that aren’t just palatable but each has a distinctly unique identity that makes them more than entertaining for different reasons. The movies couldn’t be more different in tone, setting, and intention yet it functions perfectly because these films weren’t bogged by what held the others back.
Shazam on its own is a quirky superhero comedy with a nice merry message in which family can be found in unlikely places. Imagine trying to go from that lighthearted tone and trying to connect it with Todd Phillips’ Joker movie where the world is grim and the kills are nothing but horrific. To even attempt at connecting the two in any way would result in changing the scripts until the films are unrecognizable to what people loved in the first place.
DC has always had the luxury of being able to harbor many different tones and genres while managing to produce compelling stories within all of them, sometimes redefining the medium in the process. Adding any semblance of cohesion to the many established formulas results in the quality being dulled in the name of stitching these IPs together. The MCU is too well planned not to have that cohesion but it’s not required to have a successful franchise it just so happens to work for them. Judging from how these 2010’s failures turned out and these recent successes prove one thing: DC needs to give their projects the Covid treatment and make them separated if they want to do more than stay afloat and their creators agree.
In an interview with Digital Spy, Matt Reeves stated he doesn’t wish to connect 2022’s The Batman with any other DC property because he didn’t want his film, “…to carry the weight of connecting the characters from all those other movies. I didn’t want them there.” It’s no surprise that making The Batman somehow tie into Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel or Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman or Jason Momoa’s Aquaman would utterly detract from his intricately crafted and uniquely entertaining detective thriller. Leaving that level of creative space for these auteurs to do their cinematic magic to these properties will ultimately produce a more winning and distinct array of films and tv shows separate from the competition so why bother with a cinematic universe to begin with? Simply put money but eventually so much of it gets lost in the overspray that more stable means of production needed to be taken and so far it’s working incredibly well.
Shazam and The Suicide Squad were amazing action comedies with a more goofy undertone to the films that made them more charming than they had any right to be and one of them is R-rated for very good reasons. HBO’s Peacemaker took James Gunn’s peculiar and violent sense of humor to the next level while balancing a few expertly crafted tragic moments to culminate toward a much anticipated second season. Matt Reeves’ The Batman is well on its way to making a new dark and gritty trilogy for Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne. In addition, it successfully set up characters for their own HBO Max series while making a killing in the box office as well as user and critic scores. All of this was made possible by letting the creatives be creative without the ball and chain that is trend-chasing.
This way DC, and by extension Warner Bros, can have their cake and eat it too. They can have franchises without unnecessary interconnectivity. They can have gritty, realistic crime dramas while still having room for a comical actioner. All it takes is knowing the strengths of these IPs and what makes them so popular in the first place and adapting it with the right intentions. Sometimes tweaking your projects in homage to something similar can make for some amazing content but it’s not always needed to make the next best thing. Perhaps the next great success is in the mind of a visionary daring to do what others won’t.
Featured Image Via Collider