It has been a tough decade for DC fans. For some, it has just been one expensive disappointment after another. For others, like me, who have mostly enjoyed the output, it has been years of watching this enjoyment be pilloried by critics (WHAM!), fellow audiences (THWACK!), and the greatest supervillain of them all: the dastardly Review Aggregator (Dawn of Justice is a better film than Gods of Egypt despite their respective RT scores, KAPOW!). But after a rocky few years, the DCEU seems to be finding its way with wider audiences again, and it is worth looking at this journey.
Beginning in 2013 with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the modern output of DC movies has not consistently been the runaway success the studio hoped for. They have been labelled joyless, overly gritty, too dark (in my opinion incorrect, but that is another article). Some balked at Henry Cavill’s Superman killing Zod – unthinkable! – or Batman’s Dawn of Justice brutality (Batman would never kill people! Apparently Christopher “I’ll chuck a demonstrably weakened Zod down an icy ravine” Reeves and Michael “I will literally set this goon ON FIRE with the exhaust of the Batmobile’’ Keaton do not count). Suicide Squad, while raking in $746.8 million to become the tenth-highest grossing film of 2016, was a muddle that deserved its (at best) lukewarm critical reception. Justice League, probably the biggest stumble to date, was fighting a losing battle from the start, plagued by reshoots, reshuffles, and the director’s own personal tragedy.
With their usual moneymakers failing to rake in super-box office numbers, it is interesting to see that the DCEU’s best received and highest performing films of the past few years mostly feature characters making their solo big-screen debuts. In 2017, more than a decade after superheroine films were apparently clapped in irons and sentenced to Movie Jail for daring to have two bad outings, Patty Jenkins broke free with the eagerly awaited Wonder Woman. After whetting appetites with a brief but thrilling cameo in Dawn of Justice, Diana Prince’s long overdue solo flick was a smash hit, raking in $821.8 million and widespread critical acclaim for its tone and characterisations.
Aquaman, however, was the hit no one quite saw coming. DC’s first billion-dollar film since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy would feature a character who had never carried his own film, and long been written off as a useless “ha ha, he talks to fish” joke. Winningly played by Jason Momoa as a kind of frat-bro-with-a-heart-of-gold, Aquaman used his introduction in Justice League as a springboard for an earnest and unselfconsciously weird solo adventure, focused on its own bombastic plot rather than setting up events of the next movie in the universe. A single line from Amber Heard’s Mera refers to Steppenwolf, but after that director James Wan runs riot in his own gloriously inventive world. In the climactic battle scene alone we’re left to enjoy Dolph Lundgren astride a giant seadragon, a Julie Andrews kaiju, and John Rhys-Davies giving a heroic Braveheart-style warrior’s speech (as a crab). Critical reactions were somewhat bemused, but audiences evidently loved it.
The DCEU’s next flick, Shazam! – a kind of Superman-meets-Big family comedy – fell well short of Aquaman’s mammoth box office takings, but charmed critics with its sweet, good-natured humour and a wonderful big-kid performance from Zachary Levi. It also offered a refreshing shift in focus. Though hero Billy Batson does spend time fighting the standard Monologuing Villain and his CGI beasties, the film’s real focus is smaller and grounded in reality: a foster kid building his own family. Like Aquaman, Shazam! doesn’t try to distance itself from its DCEU predecessors but is instead more focused on telling its own story and maintaining its child-centric focus and perspective – best evidenced in Superman’s brief cameo at the end. Clearly meant to be Snyder’s Superman but softly heralded with the iconic John Williams fanfare, it seems to be a general visual representation of Freddy Freeman’s childlike “wouldn’t it be cool if Shazam and Superman hung out (with me!)”, rather than a legitimate stinger for a future team-up.
Which leads us to Birds of Prey or, to grant it its glorious full title, Birds of Prey and the Fabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn. Literally and figuratively dumping Suicide Squad’s loathsome ‘Property of the Joker’ jacket, Birds of Prey was spearheaded by Margot Robbie and her desire for Harley Quinn to finally break free of the clown and get some female friends. Written by Christina Hodgson, directed by Cathy Yan, and featuring a racially diverse and largely female cast, it is a hugely exciting departure from previous comic book films. “There’s more women in front [of] and behind the camera than any movie I’d worked on,” Margot Robbie told Entertainment Weekly. Changes to Cassandra Cain’s origins and a notable lack of founding member Barbara Gordon have raised concerns among some fans, but an all-female superhero team who get to actually interact with one another (rather than a halfhearted “there, we put them all on screen together for 30 seconds, happy now?” scene) is nevertheless an exciting prospect. The film will also introduce Black Canary, Huntress, and Renee Montoya to many cinema audiences who may not be familiar with DC heroes outside of the Big Three. If Birds of Prey is a success, the potential for heroine-centric sequels or spinoffs is tantalising.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that DC’s success lies not in building behemoth cinematic universes, but in allowing multiple stories to exist independently. This is the reason why, mercifully, Jared Leto’s regrettable turn in Suicide Squad as the Clown Prince of Crime didn’t feature in Todd Phillips’ Joker – and why Joaquin Phoenix and Margot Robbie will not be sharing the screen any time soon. Joker clearly was not associated with any of the films that came before it. Instead, Phillips opted for a low budget, Scorsese-inspired character piece, creating one of the most talked-about films of the year. Whatever your stance on the movie, $1 billion in box office takings and 11 Oscar nominations is one hell of a glow-up from a “Damaged” forehead tattoo.
So what’s next? Wonder Woman is set to return in the tremendously psychedelic Wonder Woman 1984 (and it looks like Steve Trevor will now be the clueless fish-out-of-water). Benching Batfleck and introducing R-Batz, Matt Reeves’ The Batman has begun production, poised and ready to offer a new take on the Dark Knight, and obviously make us all feel weirdly attracted to Colin Farrell’s Penguin. Suicide Squad gets another shot in James Gunn’s sequel/soft reboot The Suicide Squad, and Aquaman is set to return to the depths sometime in 2022. We can also expect Flash, Cyborg and Batgirl movies in the coming years, as well as newcomers like the brilliantly strange Elastic Man. Perhaps most powerfully of all, the unstoppable charisma machine that is Dwayne Johnson is set to assume the role of villain/antihero Black Adam. If you are a DCEU sceptic, hopefully there’ll be something to win you over in the next few years. If you’re like me, however, the future looks more exciting than ever.