Six years and seven movies in, the DC Extended Universe—or whatever it is we’re calling Warner Bros.’ on-going comic book experiment these days—is a fascinating thing. By most metrics, it’s been a success from the start. Man of Steel opened things up in 2013 with an impressive $668 million worldwide. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice took things to new heights with a whopping $873.6 million. Suicide Squad shockingly—and, let’s be honest, hilariously—won an Oscar. An Oscar. But Suicide Squad is also a film that asked you to believe Jai Courtney is one of the most dangerous men on Earth because he’s semi-accurate with a boomerang. That’s the thing; those early-days DCEU films, the Zack Snyder Years, if you will, created a dour funk in both quality and tone that’s still hard to wash out. Even the DCEU diehards who love each film unabashedly—and I know you’re out there and I respect your choices in life—have to admit those first steps out of the gate were bumpier than Doomsday’s deltoids. For every box office success and random Academy Award, there was a “Martha”, there was a Batman Crossfit montage, there was an awkward Eminem needle-drop.
So where are we now, with Snyder no longer the architect of the DCEU and Shazam! thunder-bolting its way into theaters with a $53 million debut? (The lowest, it should be noted, in the DCEU’s history, albeit with the second-highest Rotten Tomatoes score.) It’s hard to say, exactly; even more fascinating than the way the DCEU started is the way it’s evolved. And the wonkiest part of the evolution was 2017’s back-to-back twin attack of Wonder Woman and Justice League.
Following Suicide Squad, three uninterrupted hours of Bruce Wayne’s waxing routine probably would’ve been an upgrade. But director Patty Jenkins‘ Wonder Woman was a genuine revelation, a shining glimpse at a modern-day DC Comics movie that was not only a good time but had hope, all anchored by a bright-eyed breakout performance from Gal Gadot. Audiences noticed a shift. And then WB noticed the audience noticing that shift, and kicked that brightness into high-gear. Zack Snyder either left Justice League for personal or professional issues depending on who you ask, but what we know for sure is that the studio tapped Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon to finish the project. To be clear, having Joss Whedon finish a Zack Snyder movie is like trying to stop a prison riot by calling in a team of Dachshund puppies. The result was a strange Frankenstein’s Monster of a movie, a tonal clash from beginning to end. Justice League is the literal embodiment of a franchise being pulled in two different directions; on one side, that Snyder-esque grit and grimness, and on the other something a bit too saccharine and full of yucks. The DCEU’s massive team-up movie grossed just $657 million worldwide, and a choice had to be made as to just what the heck this franchise even was.
Or did it? With the tonal strangeness of Justice League still hanging in the air, WB’s next move was under the sea for James Wan‘s Aquaman, a vehicle for Jason Momoa‘s Arthur Curry based on a character so historically lame that HBO’s Entourage made a running joke out of giving him a standalone flick. It proceeded to gross more than a billion dollars around the world, and while reviews were still mixed—I loved it, but to be fair “Jason Momoa riding a Lovecraftian sea-beast into battle” is my favorite genre of film—they were certainly enthusiastic, as to be expected for a genuinely insane film that includes both a drum-playing octopus and Pitbull covering Toto’s “Africa” for seemingly no reason. The DCEU wasn’t saved by any means, but all that water seemed to be washing off some of the grime.
Then, just recently, came Shazam!, and again things could be better—$53 million domestic opening is solid, not spectacular—but there are also milestones you can’t quite measure with box office numbers. The mood just feels different around the DCEU these days, the same way those first films felt oddly unsuccessful even when they were raking in money. There’s not a whole lot of connective tissue between Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam!, other than extremely charismatic leads, an overall optimism, and a bare-bones approach to connecting to the larger DC Universe.
And that’s partly the point. I maintain that outside all the mumble-grumbly angst and Batarang branding, there’s actually a lot to love in Snyder’s DC movies. But pitting Batman against Superman and trying to introduce Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg in the same movie—just the second movie in the franchise, no less—was clearly trying to fly before you can walk. Wonder Woman was a breath of fresh air because it brought things back to Earth; Aquaman because it introduced a specific pocket of the universe; Shazam! because the stakes were family, not the fate of the world.
So, again, just what is the DCEU at this point? You’d be hard-pressed to find a definition by looking at its upcoming slate. There’s Joker, Todd Phillips hard-boiled noir look at the Clown Prince starring Joaquin Phoenix. There’s a Wonder Woman sequel set in 1984 that somehow features a very alive Chris Pine. There’s Birds of Prey, a Suicide Squad spin-off for Margot Robbie‘s Harley Quinn that seems to be completely ignoring Suicide Squad, followed by a sequel to Suicide Squad miraculously written and directed by, of all people, James Gunn, that also…seems to be completely ignoring Suicide Squad. Ben Affleck is no longer Batman. Henry Cavill—from the neck up, at least—is no longer Superman. Ezra Miller has to write his own dang movie just to be The Flash again.
The bottom line is that even after three critical hits the DCEU is still a hot mess of a whirlwind, but at this point it’s kind endearing. The variety is the brand. Marvel built a bajillion-dollar universe with a tried-and-blueprint, developing that MCU formula that ensures even the more out-there entries like Thor: Ragnarok or Guardians of the Galaxy feel, under the surface, familiar. Warner Bros. tried this and failed, first on a storytelling level and then finally, with Justice League, on a financial level, too.
But by tossing the blueprint into the Phantom Zone, Warner Bros. is just honoring comic book storytelling in a different way. Marvel is all about the interconnectivity of it all; the reference, the Easter Egg, the big crossover. Disney built a universe then connected it. Lately, Warner Bros. seems to be demonstrating just how vast the DC Universe is by having nothing connect — tones, team-ups, creative teams. And honestly? The crisis isn’t exactly over, but it also feels far from infinite.