DC Comics’ extended universe (DCEU) experiment is reeling after Justice League’s box office failure, and questions about its survival are real. Despite an announced slate of over a dozen DC superhero films, so far only three have reached theaters. And only one of them — Wonder Woman — can legitmately be called a success (and we’re a long ways from Wonder Woman 2 coming to the rescue). With few projects in production, there are far more questions than answers about the viability of this endeavor.
In other words, the short-term future of the DCEU appears murky, if not bleak.
In 2018 there’s exactly one new DC film hitting theaters: Aquaman — a character considered a punchline not that long ago, although Jason Mamoa does bring something new and exciting to the role. The other stars of Justice League are wavering or questionable to return to their roles. Ben Affleck has one foot out the door (it’s anyone’s guess if he’ll even appear in Matt Reeve’s Batman movie); Henry Cavill is only signed for one more appearance as the Man of Steel; Ezra Miller’s Flash was a bright spot in Justice League, but his movie is in complete limbo; Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is scheduled for a solo movie too, but try to find five people who are excited about this concept (you’ll have five more than me).
Parent studio, Warner Brothers, is keen to keep the DC ball rolling, however. After bouncing a few execs and reshuffling a few others, former New Line Production EVP, Walter Hamada, has been named President of DC Films; Hamada is associated with recent horror successes — The Conjuring franchise and Stephen King’s It — micro-budget productions that made exceptional money at the box office. Given the $300 million production of Justice League (and it’s expected $100 million loss for the studio), frugality and discipline are rather powerful traits for a WB exec to possess.
According to Deadline, Hamada has the tools to bring order to DC’s chaos, but how likely is that at this point?
Aquaman’s debut is not until December, more than a year after Justice League. (Meanwhile, rival Marvel studios has three new films this year: Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp.) Does anyone expect Aquaman to save DC’s bacon? Me either. Next up, Shazam begins filming this month, but this character barely moves the needle for mainstream audiences (I dare say there’s more excitement for Aquaman). Beyond Wonder Woman 2 and Reeve’s aforementioned Batman movie, there’s not a lot of clarity about the next two or three DC Films, which brings into question whether the DCEU can survive (and does anyone outside of WB really care)?
Obviously, a single movie can totally realign expectations, as Wonder Woman did last summer. But so too can a single film shatter expectations (see: Justice League). Here’s the thing, Wonder Woman was already well-entrenched within pop culture, thanks largely to the 1970s Lynda Carter TV series. The rest of the DC slate, not so much. Some of the other announced DC films include: Nightwing, Black Adam, Lobo, Suicide Squad 2, Green Lantern Corps — again, find five people who can tell you anything about these characters (although some will surely recall that the original Suicide Squad and Green Lantern movies were terrible). None of this suggests a bright future for the DCEU.
Hopefully, Hamada has his ear to the ground and elects to wipe the DCEU whiteboard clean. Marvel has proven that successful shared universes are the exception not the rule. (Ask Universal about the state of their “Dark Universe,” if they’ll even return your calls.) The best thing that Hamada can do is drop the DCEU entirely and focus on Batman and Wonder Woman 2, and I guess Shazam too, since this is clearly happening. Thereafter, just make one movie at a time, independent of any other film or shared connections, and only consider a bigger (more costly) team film like Suicide Squad 2 or Justice League 2 when you’ve got a truly killer script that demands to be made, not because there’s a hole in the calendar that begs to be filled (see: Suicide Squad).
The DCEU is in trouble, and with only one film this year it’s not going to turn around anytime soon. If there’s one clear takeaway from Marvel’s success, it’s that a focus on successul solo films is the key, and once you’ve got that down, then and only then should you pursue anything greater. Also, Hamada probably isn’t going to sign-off on another $300 million production until DC Films proves it can enjoy the kind of cost-to-revenue ratios that he enjoyed with It and The Conjuring, and that’s just smart business sense.