The DCEU is in a much healthier position than the MCU


Which long game is better?

Two years ago, the DCEU was a joke. When DC set out to create a cinematic universe to rival Marvel's history making experiment, the results were almost always going to pale in comparison to whatever Marvel did. That didn't mean that the products DC would release would be bad themselves, but the fact of the matter is that a vast majority of their efforts were not that great. Sure, there are ardent fans who defend the films, but those are the minority of filmgoers. The DCEU was notoriously rushed into development after the mildly successful Man of Steel and all hands were on deck to imitate Marvel without understanding why the MCU was as successful as it was.

To put it another way, the biggest enemy that DC had to face wasn't Marvel, but itself. 

The franchise was kind of a mild disaster for Warner Bros, and change needed to happen quick. Even back in 2018, I pointed out just how badly DC screwed things over and recommended that the franchise quietly be put out to pasture and forgotten about.

Now with two years between the Snyder era of the DCEU and four mostly successful movies, I'm actually surprised to say that DC is finally on the right track. That doesn't mean DC has fixed all of its problems with its slate of movies, but its an encouraging direction and one that is making the outlook on the company's future look somewhat optimistic. In fact, I would go so far as to say that DC may actually be in a stronger position now than Marvel with their upcoming slate of releases.

One of the biggest problems with shared universes, as is the same with comic books, is the burden of continuity. Everything is connected, which means every movie is vital to telling one massive, cohesive plot. Marvel understood this and took over a decade to tell one massive superhero epic while simultaneously telling several smaller more intimate movies, or at least as small and as intimate you can get with superheroes beating the life out of aliens.

DC, on the other hand, tried to cram all of its universe building into two movies and treat them like the culmination of years of planning despite none of that being in place. Under the direction of Zack Snyder, rewrites, new directors, and editorial mandates constrained what could be done with each movie, as they attempted to fit into a grand plan. A grand plan, mind you, that had new heads brought on multiple times in order to realign the ship

Now, in 2020, I think it's fair to say that the DCEU, as Snyder planned it, is dead. Gone for good, never to return. No Snyder cut, no resurgence of old characters, no nothing. DC has said that they are splitting their releases into two labels but we haven't heard much about that since then. It's just not all that clear about the official state of the DCEU, but DC seems to have realized that they were never going to be Marvel. They missed the shared universe boat and decided that they were going to build something different, something fresh. 

In two years, we've gotten Aquaman, Shazam!, Joker, and BoPatFEoOHQ (or Birds of Prey for the simps out there), all of which have been mostly well received by audiences, with exception to Birds of Prey. Birds of Prey underperformed at the box office, coming in at around $202 million thanks to a combination of bad marketing and a goddamn pandemic, but trying to gauge its total gross has been complicated thanks to its early release onto digital streaming services and HEAPS of merchandise (Hot Topic alone has about 500 pieces of merch available.) So while it technically failed as it needed to amass around $250-300 million to break even, it easily made the difference back with merchandise. All of this is to reflect something that DC has gotten much better at over the years; telling simple and easy to follow stories.

Aquaman could have put itself as a direct sequel to Justice Leaguecalling back constantly to the events of that movie, but it didn't. Instead it focused on Aquaman being a shirtless dude-bro and beating up sea monsters. Shazam! was about a kid who gained superpowers while also struggling as a foster kid in Philly. Joker served as a breakdown of how society does a bang-up job of failing people who desperately need help but just aren't able to get it. Even BoPatFEoOHQ could be boiled down as a big chase movie with every character trying to find a rare jewel before anyone else. All of them are simple and aren't burdened by massive amounts of continuity. BoPatFEoOHQ even begins with Harley Quinn essentially giving a giant middle finger to previous DCEU continuity by blowing up a metaphorical stand-in for it in a drunken rage.

Are these movies, outside of Joker, taking any major risks? Not really, but that's not really what audiences are really looking for. Keep in mind some of the reasons why the DCEU failed. It was burdened by experimenting with an unproven formula instead of giving audiences what they wanted. I will be the first person to take a crap on Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but I will admit that the eponymous fight scene between the two was kinda, sorta fun. If you're going to market a movie as "DC's biggest superheroes are going to fight each other," then you shouldn't spent 95% of the movie focusing on crap no one cares about.

There is no deep betrayal of expectation now like with Suicide Squad's misleading trailers. Unless they make a boneheaded decision like giving a movie an awful, terrible title, then what you see from their marketing material is what you get. One look at Aquaman's posters and trailers will tell you exactly what kind of movie it will be from beginning to end, no need for over analysis. 

Are their movies flawless now? Of course not, but they're a hell of a lot more enjoyable than what they were. My issues, as the resident DC nerd, stem from the issues of adaptation from the original storyline and the questionable changes made within. I'm still not in love with Geoff John's version of Billy Batson/Captain Marvel/Shazam and I will never like the version of Cassandra Cain that palled around with Harley Quinn, but that's okay. I can still enjoy the movies plenty for what they are and like the fact that these are movies that anyone can start watching and enjoy. They're not beholden to the comics, and that's okay.

But the biggest reason why I feel that DC is in a much healthier position than they were in 2017 is that they finally did away with maintaining a shared continuity. Continuity, at the end of the day, will always be a challenge for newcomers to any form of media. What starts off as simple and easy to understand will eventually become convoluted and harder to understand, leaving most newcomers at a loss. It's not impossible for new viewers or readers to get involved in a show/movie/series, but it takes time and patience, something that audiences have very limited amounts of. 

Let's not mince words here: the longer a shared universe goes on, the harder it will be to get new viewers. Marvel and Disney are frankly in a bad position with the MCU. As Black Widow, as well as most of their other movies and TV shows, have been delayed due to the coronavirus, Marvel and Disney's biggest opponent now is time. The longer it will be between new installments, the less casual filmgoers will be care about the next MCU movie and more time for the next big trend to pop up. But to add onto that, with the next few years of compressed MCU releases (2022 will have four releases in the span of six months), they also run the risk of becoming to complex for their own good. 

One need look no further than what happened to Marvel's Ultimate Universe imprint of the early 2000's. The goal of the line was simple; most Marvel characters had been around for over four decades, so the line was meant to be a fresh starting point. New characters, new status quos, new chances for stories to be told, and most importantly, no continuity. Everything was shiny and new and the line was a huge success... at first. After a decade or so, the Ultimate Universe had a deep and complex continuity and sales began to fall because it no longer was simple for readers to engage with. These characters had lives now and histories, lost loved ones and gained new friends and foes. It was no longer simple and easy to pick-up. The MCU will have to deal with that problem soon.

This isn't a question of if they'll have to deal with it, they WILL have to contend with its continuity. Mantles will need to be passed from generations to generations and, as we all know, comic book fans are totally open and understanding of change. But outside of comic book fans, casual observers will be left at a loss on certain changes as to why some characters are no longer around or are played by different actors. The answer shouldn't be "well you just need to watch this movie from several years ago to understand that, but to understand that movie you'll need to watch these three other movies." It's a precarious tower that will eventually collapse on itself, that's just a fact. Not everyone is going to follow every Marvel release, and relying on blind fealty to continuity is just a recipe for disaster.

DC, meanwhile, won't have to deal with that problem anymore. If there's no more shared universe, then they don't need to offer up an in story explanation why Robert Pattinson is Batman and not Ben Affleck. It doesn't matter because Batman has always had different live-action actors. There hasn't only been one live-action Batman. Harley Quinn appears plenty of times in DC's movies played by Margot Robbie, but her movies almost function as their own little series since they have very little to do with anything else going on in the rest of DC's slate of films. Joker wasn't beholden to any continuity whatsoever and it made an obscene amount of money and was viewed as being accessible for anyone willing to endure its darker subject matter. 

That's not to say that DC is adverse to any continuity whatsoever since it's already greenlit several sequels to its hit properties. Wonder Woman 1984 will most likely release in August and will be a direct sequel to its 2017 predecessor. Aquaman 2 and Shazam! 2 are already in development and as of now won't be connected to any other major franchises. Continuity itself isn't inherently bad. Sequels and prequels are dependent on continuity in order to tell a sprawling and detailed narrative, but the problem comes when there are too many narratives at once vying for space. That was one of the main reasons why Avengers: Age of Ultron is looked at unfavorably nowadays. It was burdened by continuity and trying to address, create, and set-up multiple characters and stories. No shared universe equals no burden of expectation. 

Is the DCEU perfect? Not even close. While most of their output nowadays is inconsistent depending on who you ask, I would argue that they're at least more consistently good than they were in their Snyder era. I'm also not delusional to think that DC will supplant Marvel as the premiere superhero film studio in town, just look at how much bank Marvel movies make, but for long-term growth, DC is in a far better position than they were years ago. Plus with Wonder Woman 1984 not too far in the distance, I have a feeling more people will be talking about DC and their projects versus Marvel and theirs. 

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Jesse Lab
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