Deconstructing the Marvel method: How DC movies finally found their groove

dc extended universe hero
DC Universe

It wasn’t that long ago that critics and audiences alike were relegating the DC Extended Universe to the vault of failed franchises. After the WB’s first three interconnected superhero films underperformed both critically and commercially despite featuring some of comics’ most iconic characters and A-list casts, the outlook for the DCEU seemed as dark and gloomy as the films’ color palettes.

Four movies later, however, and the rumors of the DCEU’s death seem grossly exaggerated. Two of the last four DCEU movies — Wonder Woman and Aquaman — have been bona fide blockbusters, winning over both critics and audiences, while the latest, Shazam!, is poised to become another hit. It’s taken several years, but the DCEU is finally beginning to feel like the rich, exciting universe that longtime fans of DC Comics have always known it could be — and there’s ample evidence to suggest it’s only going to get better.

A particular vision

DCEU rival Marvel Studios did well early on with its cinematic superhero universe, the MCU, in part by employing low-profile directors who could bring out the best in the actors’ performances and showcase what gives these characters generation-spanning popularity.

dc extended universe jon favreau iron man marvel
Robert Downey Jr. with director Jon Favreau on the set of Iron Man Zade Rosenthal/Marvel

Directors like Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh weren’t exactly household names for their work behind the camera (although Branagh was famous for his work in front of it), despite having some box-office hits on their resume. They didn’t need to be, though, because Marvel chose to bet on its characters. The first batch of Marvel movies succeeded because their directors let their vision serve the characters, and not the other way around.

Movies like Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger (directed by Joe Johnston) were well-served by this approach, setting a vibrant and diverse stage for the films to come.

Marvel movies succeeded because their directors let their vision serve the characters, and not the other way around.

The DCEU, on the other hand, initially tried to replicate the success of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy by having a single creative — Zack Snyder — guide the studio’s superhero universe. As audiences (and eventually the studio) would learn, forcing an entire universe of colorful characters to conform to one director’s signature visual and tonal style can be a recipe for disaster, no matter who you cast in the roles.

Fortunately, the studio eventually saw the virtue in attaching stylistically unique, but still low-profile filmmakers to each DCEU property. This approach treats the DC Comics pantheon of characters like the larger-than-life, iconic heroes they are instead of taking a “one director fits all” approach.

Where Snyder’s Man of Steel, Batman V. Superman, and Justice League all seemed to blend together visually and thematically in a grim, angry pool of muted colors and stylized violence, Wonder Woman and Aquaman carved out unique niches for themselves in the DCEU thanks to the talents of directors Patty Jenkins and James Wan, respectively.

Even the much-maligned Suicide Squad felt marginally different from Snyder’s films due to director David Ayer’s presence behind the camera, but early pressure to have the film match up tonally with Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman V Superman could arguably be as much to blame for its failure as any of its other flaws. With the film’s sequel (or reboot?) now set to be directed by Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn, it appears we’ll finally see what a Suicide Squad movie would look like without that pressure. (And given Gunn’s work on the Marvel side, it’s easy to be optimistic about that prospect.)

Shazam! is possibly the most distanced from those early films of all the movies so far, and that has a lot to do with the choice of David Sandberg to fill the director’s chair. Although the movie has some issues when it comes to balancing its lighter and darker elements, Shazam! offers up excellent moments from both sides of its story — managing to be both incredibly lighthearted and surprisingly scary at various points. The latter isn’t all that surprising, given Sandberg’s roots in the horror genre, but the warmth and sincerity of the lighter material is a pleasant surprise.

Those are the sorts of surprises that have turned the DCEU’s fortunes around — but that’s not all it has going for it.

The freedom to fly solo

Although there are some lessons the DCEU can learn from Marvel’s superhero films, there are some elements of the MCU it might be better off dismissing.

At this point, the studio’s initial vision for the DCEU as another closely interconnected universe has been thrown so far off course with early misses that the characters could arguably be better served with loosening the ties between films. The two most successful DCEU movies so far, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, also happened to have the least-defined connections to prior films in the franchise, lacking much in the way of shared characters, plot points, or even passing references to the events of earlier films.

And contrary to conventional “cinematic universe” wisdom, that lack of cohesion didn’t seem to turn away audiences in the slightest.

The same holds true for Shazam!, which also features little in the way of DCEU connections aside from a mid-credits scene that suggests — but coyly falls short of confirming — a link between the film’s events and those of the other DCEU movies. In fact, the film seems to revel in its disconnect from the darker stories playing out in films like Justice League and Batman V Superman, and that separation is part of what makes it better than those films.

Without being mired in the world-shaking events of Batman V Superman or Justice League, these new films have a level of freedom that even Marvel’s don’t have.

Future DCEU films appear to be taking a similarly distanced approach from the franchise’s prior continuity, with team-up movie Birds of Prey disconnecting Harley Quinn from both Batman and Joker, and Gunn’s The Suicide Squad reportedly starting over with an (almost) entirely new team of supervillains.

Wonder Woman 1984 also appears to be avoiding the existing DCEU by unfolding decades before the events of other films, while both the long-developing solo movie The Batman and Todd Phillips’ Joker movie with Joaquin Phoenix seem likely to be set in completely different timelines.

Wonder Woman 1984
Wonder Woman 1984 Warner Bros. Pictures

So far, it appears that this decision to create some narrative distance between the latest films and the overarching DCEU concept appears to be paying off, yielding some of the studio’s best superhero movies to date. Without being mired in the world-shaking events of Batman V Superman or Justice League, these new films have a level of freedom that even Marvel’s don’t have, leading to some fantastic moments and pleasant surprises.

The future is bright

While there’s been no formally announced change in strategy when it comes to the studio’s vision for the DCEU, the pivot that has seemingly occurred in recent years is a relatively significant one for the franchise.

DC Comics characters have finally found their groove on the big screen.

By shifting the focus from filmmakers to characters, and relaxing the chains of previous DCEU films, live-action DC Comics characters have finally found their groove on the big screen. More importantly, however, the WB finally appears to realize the value it has in the vast DC Comics library that has kept fans hooked for generations, and is treating those stories and the characters they feature with the respect they deserve.

It’s a “better late than never” scenario, of course, but when we have movies like Wonder WomanAquaman, and Shazam! paving the way, the path toward whatever’s next for the DCEU certainly looks a lot more appealing than it once did.

So go ahead and feel optimistic about the future of the DCEU. It’s taken a long time to get to this point, and in the end, having superhero movies to look forward to is always a good thing.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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