By 2013 the Marvel Cinematic Universe was in full swing, with 2012’s Avengers Assemble taking the world by storm. The team over at DC/Warner Bros hoped that they could pull off something identical, leading to the launch of the of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) with 2013’s Man of Steel. This was a gritty version of Kal-El’s origin story, akin to the Dark Knight trilogy, and would see him saving Metropolis from fellow Kryptonian General Zod. The film was a box office success, making more money than any of the previous Superman titles, but many felt that it lacked the joy and excitement of… well… earlier Superman titles. There are hints of what was to come, including a LexCorp building, a Wayne-Tech satellite and an open Kryptonian stasis tube in the Fortress of Solitude. These allude to longtime Superman villain Lex Luthor, masked vigilante Batman, and Kara Zor-El aka Supergirl.
It would be 3 years until a follow up feature appeared with Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. The film introduces Ben Affleck as Batman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman while pulling plot elements from comic book storylines The Dark Knight Returns, and The Death of Superman. It also attempted to introduce Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, in a move so universally despised that they retconned his name to Lex Luthor Junior. Batman Vs Superman (as it became known) was mauled by fans for a variety of reasons that include an over-abundance of plots and abruptly killing Superman (but not really). There is also an abundance of references to the larger universe that this film is hoping to build in to. We get a sequence dedicated to the almighty villain Darkseid, some Joker graffiti on a Batsuit, and cameos from the rest of the Justice League on some CCTV footage at S.T.A.R. Labs. For a more in-depth analysis of where this movie succeeded, and where it didn’t, I recommend checking out MovieBob’s video Really That Bad: BvS [HERE].
The third entry in the DCEU- 2016’s Suicide Squad– would be a financial success but a miss with fans. It sees the formation of the titular team in their battle with The Enchantress and her brother Incubus. Many felt that the film was ugly, and had a plot that was all over the place. Many also took issue with the casting of cult leader Jared Leto as The Joker who was abusive to his co-stars, sending them dead animals under the guise of method acting. Ultimately his presence in the film lasts just under 8 minutes and didn’t add anything to the plot, meaning that none of the trauma was worth it. The one part of the film that many agreed to be the best aspect was Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, while others also approved of Will Smith’s enthusiastic portrayal of Deadshot. Suicide Squad featured cameos from both Affleck as Batman and Ezra Miller as The Flash, as well as mentioning that Harley Quinn assisted in the murder of famed sidekick Robin.
So far, the DCEU seemed to be flailing its arms in the hopes of producing a film that was a hit both financially and with fans… which would finally arrive with 2017’s Wonder Woman, which was DC’s third female led film, after Supergirl and Catwoman, but the first for the DCEU. Meanwhile, their rivals at Marvel were still to provide their first. The story follows our titular heroine as she attempts to prevent World War One, which she believes was started by Amazonian villain Ares, as she falls in love with pilot Steve Trevor. At both the beginning and end of the film, she is seen communicating with Bruce Wayne, however the biggest DCEU link comes during the epilogue where her assistant Etta appears to be searching for a Motherbox. As she had done for many decades, and continues to do, the character of Wonder Woman sparked criticism for either being too feminist or not feminist enough. Is she a symbol of strength for women, or a detriment to their image? As a man, I can’t say for certain, but I urge you to look at the joy she brings to young girls dreaming of a better future. Tell me that isn’t worth it.
What happened next is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting things to happen in the cinema industry in a long time. Since before the release of Man of Steel, the DCEU had always been leading to a team-up film and in 2017 it finally arrived. Justice League sees the formation of the titular team as they battle Darksied’s henchman Steppenwolf, who has come to Earth in search of Motherboxes. These Motherboxes would terraform the Earth into somewhere more akin to Darksied’s homeworld Apokolips. Along the way, Superman is resurrected and a larger universe is alluded to. During a flashback to Steppenwolf’s first invasion of Earth, he is fought of by a group consisting of the Green Lantern Corp, whose Green Lantern character is still to appear. Perhaps most importantly the end-credits scene sees the appearance of Lex Luthor Junior and Deathstroke as they plot to form the Legion of Doom. According to reports, Warner Bros were critical of how the film was being made under Zack Snyder, as BvS, which he was also behind, had not met up to the studio’s standards. This supposedly led to numerous re-writes of the script while they were still filming. This would be enough to damage any film, but post-production was where things would really seem to fall apart. Following the unfortunate passing of his daughter, Zack Snyder would leave the project and would be replaced by Joss Whedon whose job would include scripting original scenes and over-seeing any re-shoots. Unfortunately for Justice League, Henry Cavill was filming Mission Impossible: Fallout at the time and was contractually obligated to keep the moustache he had grown for the role. This would lead to editors attempting to CG it out of any re-shot Superman scenes, but despite all these issues, Warner Bros refused to move the films release date. The response from critics and fans was almost unanimous, with many finding the screenplay to be poor, the pacing to be all over the place and the CGI to be sub-par. According to reports from crew-members, including the actors themselves, this was not the film that Zack Snyder had shot. This lead to people calling for a release of the ‘Snyder Cut’. I am, of course, extremely simplifying events here because the story of Justice League’s production could be a written piece itself.
In 2018, a love for the DCEU would re-surface with the release of Aquaman. It sees the hero coming under attack from his half-brother Orm of Atlantis and having to defend both the land and the sea. It was praised for the cinematography, as well as it’s entertainment value, however some felt that there was too much CGI. Whilst Aquaman is a part of the DCEU, there are no references to it – bar a namedrop of Steppenwolf – which allowed the film to focus on itself. It would choose to set up a direct sequel instead, with the survival of villain Black Manta.
2019 gave us the widely praised Shazam! which sees young Billy Batson being granted superpowers by a dying wizard. Along with his new best friend (and brother through adoption) Freddy, he must face off against the powerful Doctor Sivanna. As a mix between Superman and Big (a comparison the film was designed on) the film was heralded as the most fun project from DC to date while the message of found family was especially hard-hitting for some. There are references to previous instalments here, with Freddy owning a Batarang and a bullet that bounced off of Superman as well as newspaper articles depicting the defeat of Zod, and Superman’s return. They aren’t a focal point of the film, and depict events that have been comic canon for decades, meaning that Shazam! can still stand on its own. Again, they choose to set-up a direct sequel instead of a larger universe with the appearance of alien worm Mister Mind. It’s ok, I had to look him up too.
Thus far the DC productions had been rated 12, but 2019 would give us the first 15 rating with Joker. Telling the story of failed stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck as he slowly descends into the madness of Batman’s most famous villain, it was received well. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in the titular role received heavy praise as did the score and cinematography. Joker is a stand alone film, completely unconnected to the rest of the DCEU allowing it to take place in the earlier era of Gotham history. The film’s ending sees the iconic deaths of Bruce and Martha Wayne which would lead to their son Bruce becoming Batman. With another solo Batman venture in the works, starring Robert Pattinson, many wondered if the two films would connect, but we have been assured that they will not.
Before diving into the final film of this piece, I feel it is important to divert into the realm of television for a moment. 2012 saw the release of the CW show Arrow, starring DC superhero Green Arrow. From here the show would spin-off into The Flash and Supergirl, among others, leading to the birth of the Arrowverse. These shows would have crossover events on a yearly basis and in late 2019 they adapted the Crisis on Infinite Earths storyline. As you might expect, it saw an infinite amount of Earths being destroyed, but the important part here is that we got to see those Earths which included the Gotham of Batman ’89 and the 60’s Adam West show as well as the San Francisco of DC Universe’s Titans in its opening minutes. From here, the crossover event would take us to Smallville, the short lived 2003 Birds of Prey, fellow CW show Lucifer and even HBO’s Watchmen, but perhaps the most important cameo occurred in part 4 where Ezra Miller appears as his version of The Flash. This moment of Flash meeting Flash can only occur because they are both running through the speed force, but on top of that, this is the first time that anyone has called Ezra’s Flash “The Flash”. If this is acknowledged in his solo film it could have major repercussions wherein the DCEU and Arrowverse would be directly linked. As a result, every other version of every DC character we have ever seen will exist inside one massive multi-verse.
This finally brings us to 2020 where DC would release another 15 rated venture with Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of one Harley Quinn, later shortened to Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey. Having finally broken up with The Joker, Harley finds herself at the mercy of every person in Gotham that she ever wronged. While trying to survive, she encounters other women who are seeking emancipation and eventually forms the Birds of Prey. Harley directly references the plot of Suicide Squad as well as pointing out a mugshot of fellow member Captain Boomerang meaning that the events of that film have taken place, but there is nothing to suggest a larger story beyond that. Whilst it didn’t perform at as well at the box office as Warner Bros had hoped, and despite being released early to Demand services due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the film is currently sitting at a modest haul of $201 million worldwide.
As I write this, the future of the cinema industry is uncertain. The COVID-19 pandemic continues and there is no telling when anybody who isn’t working an essential job will be allowed to return to work. Wonder Woman 1984 is ready to be released whilst The Batman and The Suicide Squad have had to put a halt to filming. The future of DC includes projects like Black Adam and Batgirl as well as sequels to both Aquaman and Shazam! which may or may not tie into the DCEU. They may even be attempting a soft reboot of the entire idea, but that remains to be seen.
The Story Continues…