So, Warner Bros wants to “reset” the DC superhero universe … again. According to the Hollywood Reporter, chief executive David Zaslav recently told investors that the studio (now Warner Bros Discovery after mergers) has a new 10-year plan for the comic book mega-saga that it hoped would ape the success of Marvel. All of which, the recent cancellation of Batgirl aside, sounds more fantabulous than Harley Quinn executing a backflip – until we recall how many times we’ve been here before.
The original plan for DC was to build a universe of interconnected films around Zack Snyder’s 2017 Justice League movie, featuring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash, among others. How could this go wrong? Well, the movie flopped after Snyder left midway through development and was replaced by Joss Whedon as director. Warner execs subsequently panicked and began focusing on standalone movies that had done well - such as Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman or Todd Phillips’ Oscar-winning Joker. All of a sudden there was less emphasis on making sure each movie helped set up the next chapter, Marvel-style, and more on giving film-makers creative freedom.
Then came Matt Reeves’ brooding, esoteric The Batman, featuring a version of the caped crusader who seems about as likely to ever meet Superman as the Conservatives are of understanding the cost of living crisis. But that’s OK, because somebody at Warners decided to give Snyder the chance to reshoot Justice League for the company’s new HBO Max streaming project, and quite a lot of people actually liked the new four-hour epic. Which means that film’s Batman, played by Ben Affleck, achieved a sort of mini-renaissance (after all that Sad Affleck stuff) and all of a sudden is back in the picture, namely in the forthcoming Flash and Aquaman films.
Perfect, you might think. Warners now has a younger, darker Batman who can navel-gaze around his Gotham mansion and take out a bad guys to the strains of Nirvana, and another older one who’s cool with meeting other superheroes and possibly venturing into the DC multiverse. Everybody wins!
Except this doesn’t tally at all with the carefully curated Marvel-style universe that Warner Bros seems to want. At some point, the studio is going to need to decide if it wants to give film-makers the creative reins or hire a Marvel-style supremo like Kevin Feige who basically rules the roost and makes sure all these movies interconnect, in style as well as narrative.
Warners appears to want both, but the result currently looks more like throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks than a considered 10-year plan.
The giant mess that DC has become on the big screen looks even worse when we consider that Warners is reportedly now considering scrapping The Flash – its Spider-Man: No Way Home-style multiverse movie – due to the negative publicity surrounding star Ezra Miller. According to the Hollywood Reporter there is no way to reshoot the $200m project, which is based loosely on the 1980s comic book storyline Flashpoint, because Miller is in almost every scene.
The Flash might have made sense of multiple Batmans, as it is all about the creation of alternative universes and already features Affleck alongside the original big-screen dark knight, Michael Keaton. If the film does get canned, at incredible expense, Warners will find itself in an almost impossible position.
At this point, we might ask ourselves if Zaslav and his team should really be thinking about starting all over again. There comes a point for every creative where you have to look at the work you’ve done and decide it just doesn’t work.
If Warners/DC really want a reset, perhaps it would be best served starting with a clean slate. This, surely, would be better than continuing to try to stop a franchise that increasingly resembles a late-stage Jenga game from collapsing into a pile of rubble.