DC’s decision to make self-contained movies is exactly what superhero cinema needs.
Warner Bros. has been shocking the world this week. The first surprise came courtesy of the news that a standalone Joker movie was in the works without Jared Leto anywhere in sight. It will take place outside of their extended universe and Martin Scorsese is on board to produce. Next up, Matt Reeves told The Wrap that his upcoming Batman movie will also take place outside the main DCEU storyline, only to later clarify that his claim was misleading. Questions as to whether Leto would be reprise his role in future DCEU movies were also put to bed when The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that he’ll be co-starring alongside Margot Robbie in a Joker/Harley Quinn movie after Suicide Squad 2. Finally, we learned that the Gotham City Sirens movie has been scrapped. That about covers everything… for now.
The most interesting development to arise from this chaos, though, is the studio’s decision to produce standalone movies in addition to their extended universe. They want the best of both worlds, similar to what the Star Wars franchise is doing with its main episodes and anthology spin-offs, and that’s fine. We’re getting some self-contained superhero movies again, and that’s a breath of fresh air in a market currently oversaturated with interconnected stories.
My own relationship with the current climate of superhero franchises echoes that of typical apathetic viewers. There’s no denying that the formula has been successful and produced some outstanding blockbusters, but the insistence on having them so closely linked has reduced my excitement somewhat. A new Marvel movie is announced… whatever. Another studio announces its plans to create a shared universe… it is what it is. I mean, this has been going on for a decade and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. There’s nothing wrong it per se, but it’d be nice to have other options. Am I alone?
Marvel started this trend, but the formula has been incredibly successful for them thus far. Their track record for producing quality has been consistent, and they’ve set the gold standard for integrating multiple heroes into a coherent narrative. And despite the opinion held by some detractors that their movies are all the same, you just need to look at Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok to see that the studio understands the importance of diversifying their releases. At the end of the day though they’re still cogs in a machine building towards the next big assembled event (even the Guardians will be teaming with the Avengers in future), and that creates a longing for the days when we could just sit down and watch something distinctly individual with a beginning, middle, and end.
Since Disney/Marvel established this trend and showed how prosperous it can be, other studios have followed suit. In addition to Warner Bros. and DC, Universal are retooling their classic monsters to become superhero-lite so they can get a piece of the action. With Netflix’s Millarworld on the horizon and possibly even a shared Hellboy cinematic universe over at Millennium, we might be seeing more down the line as well. It’s unclear what Sony is planning with the upcoming Spider-Man spinoffs, Venom and Silver and Black, but we do know that they’ll be separate from the MCU.
As much of a sure thing as it’s been for some though, other studios’ attempts to replicate the Marvel model have been met with mixed results. Warner Bros. has made over $3B at the worldwide box office, but critical response to their movies hasn’t been the most encouraging for the most part. Meanwhile, Universal’s The Mummy did make $405M, but its $79M domestic tally is a disappointment and the future of the universe is uncertain.
Elsewhere, Paramount’s last Transformers movie underperformed leaving the future of that shared universe hinging on the performance of the Bumblebee movie. Legendary’s MonsterVerse, meanwhile, is faring much better. However, with Warner Bros. and Universal’s stuttery starts, as well as the diminished interest in Paramount’s tentpole franchise, are shared universes starting to show signs of fatigue?
The problem with the interlinked approach isn’t just the risk of audiences eventually losing interest. There is also the chance of one movie getting it wrong and ruining everything. Warner Bros. should be wary of that given the shaky start to the DCEU. But their decision to create this new branch allows them to provide a true alternative to what other studios are doing, which could end up working out well for them in the long run.
Of course, by creating more superhero movies, there is also the risk of overexposing the genre as a whole. Presently, they’re still the biggest box office draws out there, but history has shown time and time again that cinema is cyclical. Eventually a new fad will replace superhero movies for awhile. Still, at least Warner Bros. are striking while the iron is hot, and hopefully it’ll inspire others to shift their attention away from what’s working for Marvel and give us something fresh.
If nothing else, DC losing its mind should make for some interesting cinematic output and attract superhero fans only interested in seeing their favorite characters in singular outings. There is decade’s worth of stories to mine from the DC library, and Warner Bros. can take full advantage of that. Additionally, their new focus on standalone stories could afford directors the opportunity to make the movies they want to make, without worrying about what the next person will need to continue.
However, if DC really wanted to provide the ultimate alternative to what Marvel is doing then they’d move away from the extended universe concept completely and just focus on solo fare. But they want to have their cake and eat it too; hopefully it won’t end up being their undoing. If we at least get another Swamp Thing movie out of it, I’ll be happy.