Why DC’s Creative Reset is Problematic
To say that DC has had a rough time theatrically since the end of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy would be an understatement. They’ve spent their time trying to chase the success of Marvel and build out a cinematic universe that unites all their heroes just as they are in the comics. There has been studio interference, fan movements, power vacuums, and Henry Cavill leaving, returning, and leaving the role of Superman. Now they have James Gunn and Peter Safran at the helm. Hopefully, that steadies the ship, but they have a much harder challenge now than just making a good comic book movie universe.
James Gunn is a proven commodity. He knows comic books, and how to bring them to the screen. His Guardians of the Galaxy films are some of the most beloved ones in the MCU, and both The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker are two of the most critically acclaimed projects DC has had in the last ten years. There’s no question that he and Safran can come up with a coherent, well-made universe. Creatively resetting the DC Cinematic Universe should be easy for them.
The fact is, DC as a brand is tainted. Between the maligned Zack Snyder films, the Snyder-Verse fan movements, the confusion about their multiverse plans, and Henry Cavill’s return and almost immediate departure, DC’s public image is that of a house in shambles.
Simply put, creatively resetting the DC Cinematic Universe, or whatever they decide to call it next, is a meaningless endeavor unless they can reset their reputation as well.
Gunn and Safran can give people good DC movies, but DC has had good movies, what they need to give people is a reason to be invested. It’s up to Warner Bros. as well. They’ve promised positive change and long-term plans for a while, and it’s never led anywhere. Until audiences are confident that won’t happen again, a few good DC films won’t matter. After all, why get invested in a universe you think might get reset again? DC and Warner Bros. are the film studio that cried wolf, and they need to show everyone they’re done crying.
Even if they can deliver that, it needs to be communicated as clearly as possible to the general audience. Gunn’s own The Suicide Squad was a critical darling when it was released. It’s exactly what DC needed but its box office was underwhelming in part because of its supposed connection to the first film and the DC Universe that Snyder built. It was both a sequel to the disaster that was Suicide Squad and a reboot. Keeping some characters but having a separate story unconnected from that film. For many though, having a film that may or may not be a sequel to a movie they didn’t like that takes place in a universe they didn’t like was enough to steer them away.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the biggest movie star in the world couldn’t even turn a profit in the DC Universe. Black Adam was a box office bust despite starring one of the biggest stars on the planet, having a large marketing campaign, and the widely publicized return of Superman. Some might say that Black Adam isn’t a popular enough character but DC’s rival Marvel makes billions of dollars on lesser-known characters like Ant-Man and Gunn’s Guardians. The difference is that people trust the Marvel brand. They’ve been consistent enough that people feel safe knowing they might enjoy themselves despite not knowing the characters ahead of time.
There is no safe feeling for a new DC film. Any new DC film good be great, it could be bad, it could be a new beginning for the universe, or it could be a continuation of something. At a certain point, people just stop caring. Black Adam was marketed heavily with the tagline “the hierarchy of power in the DC Universe is about to change,” but any change in hierarchical power was completely wiped away a few months later with the appointment of Gunn and Safran. Who’s to say that won’t happen again?
Zack Snyder had a five-movie plan for his DC Universe, but the critical and box office reception of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice scared Warner Bros. so much that they immediately started trying to get away from him and the DC Universe he was building. That’s how we got where we are today. What’s stopping them from doing the same thing to Gunn and Safran should there be a movie or two in this new universe that doesn’t meet their box office demand?
Even without the cinematic universe they’ve been trying to build, there’s a road of abandoned ideas. The theatrical cut of Justice League has a post-credit scene that set up something which never got paid off. As does Suicide Squad and Shazam. DC is the universe that never delivers on its promises. Until it proves it can deliver on its promises, people will look at it as they do now, even if the film-to-film quality improves.
Warner Bros. has to show it’s in it for the long haul this time. People want good a DC Cinematic Universe, and James Gunn can give that to them but it won’t matter unless they can repair their image. For too long, Warner Bros. and DC have felt like Arkham Asylum with the inmates on the loose. A madhouse. Fixing that reputation will take longer than fixing their creative woes, but if they don’t, then their new creative direction will be as meaningless as fighting Superman without Kryptonite.
- Matt Fresh