The DCEU has become a crisis of Warner Bros.’ own making

One of the most curious details to come out of recent reports focused on the corporate fracas happening over at HBO Max and the rest of Warner Bros. Discovery was CEO David Zaslav’s announcement of an explicitly Marvel-esque, decade-long plan for the studio’s films based on DC’s comic books. To listen to Zaslav’s assertion that this move’s meant to “grow” and “protect the DC brand,” one might’ve gotten the impression that Warner Bros. wasn’t already in the midst of a years-long effort to build out a cinematic universe of superhero movies. To get that impression, though, one would somehow have to have forgotten or blocked out the DCEU, Warner Bros.’ most-recent constellation of loosely-connected, live-action comic book adaptations that began with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel in 2013.

Looking at what happened to Batgirl, it’s fairly obvious that post-merger, the new guard at Warner Bros. Discovery wants to jettison or at the very least put some distance between itself and the DCEU’s current iteration (along with all the baggage associated with the endeavor.) But doing so is going to be an unenviable and almost impossible task for a multitude of reasons ranging from Black Adam’s impending release this fall to the fact that the studio still seems very bullish about its upcoming Flash feature starring actor Ezra Miller.

The DCEU often felt like it was racing towards a crisis event that would either make or break the franchise. While there was the possibility of that crisis being fictional and an adaptation of one of DC’s capital-C Crises storylines, what’s become far more clear over the past few weeks is just how fraught the DCEU’s future is, and how the studio might not be working with a solid gameplan.

Ezra Miller as Barry Allen in Justice League.
Warner Bros.

The DCEU was plagued by a number of issues long before Warner Bros. took Discovery’s name like a general lack of cohesion, subpar storytelling, and an association with a toxic fandom whose obsession eventually devolved into harassment campaigns against studio executives. Looking back, Justice League as it was released in 2017 was a haphazard attempt to catch up to the MCU that put far too much faith in the power of people’s general familiarity with characters like Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and Aquaman who didn’t really have presences in the DCEU at the time.

Though Justice League made quite a bit of money, it was a far cry from the financial success that Warner Bros. wanted and needed it to be. In the wake of the movie’s box office underperformance, one could plainly see Warner Bros. recalculating how it wanted to craft the DCEU, and opening itself up to the idea that the traditional DC Trinity — that is, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — might not need to be the pillars of the brand.

That idea and the unexpected success of projects like James Wan’s Aquaman and David F. Sandberg’s first Shazam! has a lot to do with why Black Adam, a magically muscular throwback to the Bronze Age of DC’s comics, will headline his own film before so many other much more well-known characters. It’s strange, sometimes, to think about Black Adam: a.) existing and b.) finally escaping development hell. But after director Todd Phillips’ first Joker and Matt Reeves’ The Batman, two Elseworlds-style stories purposefully set outside the DCEU’s continuity, it seemed as if Warner Bros. might have settled on making big, bold, standalone movies meant to win viewers over with their distinct voices.

From a financial perspective, it’s not surprising that both Joker and The Batman are slated to get sequels, but rather than leaning into those objective wins, Warner Bros. Discovery’s apparently planning to keep chasing after an MCU-shaped white whale. It has been rather interesting to learn that Warner Bros. Discovery recently tacked on a completely new post-credits scene to Black Adam ahead of its October release meant to establish its titular antihero as a more significant power player in the DCEU.

Dwayne Johnson on filming on the set of Black Adam.
Warner Bros.

Connecting Black Adam to the DCEU (presumably to fight his gang of child nemeses) would make much more sense if it were a thriving, vibrant place where massive crossovers were portents of epic and awe-inspiring narratives to come.

But just as Hollywood’s settled into its current addiction to multiverses, the DCEU’s fate has become potentially imperiled by its reliance on Ezra Miller in The Flash, a universe-hopping epic that’s looking more and more like DC’s answer to Spider-Man: No Way Home. Despite how it’s frequently felt like Warner Bros. might just straight up not like making comic book movies, the possibility of director Andy Muschietti’s Flash feature using the multiverse to link Warner Bros’ multitude of disparate comics adaptations together is a tantalizing one. In addition to echoing the beats of DC’s Flashpoint comics event, using The Flash that way could, one imagines, lay the groundwork for a completely new direction for Warner Bros.’ superhero movies.

Along with all that possibility though, The Flash has also become associated with the allegations of assault and grooming of children being leveled against Miller, who reportedly showed up for the movie’s additional photography earlier this summer before being arrested in August. Warner Bros.’ reasons for not immediately wanting to hit the brakes on a tentpole movie years in the making — and just months before its intended release — are easy enough to understand up to a certain point. But with each different incident involving Miller since footage of them choking someone in an Icelandic bar surfaced in 2020, it’s increasingly appeared as if Warner Bros. might be willing to completely disregard the actor’s behavior in favor of putting The Flash first.

Between Warner Bros. shelving Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s nearly-completed $90 million Batgirl movie, and Zaslav enthusiastically name-checking The Flash on investor calls, it’s clear that studio leadership thinks there’s too much riding on the film to can it despite the damage Miller might do to the brand. Ultimately, that may be the case, but that sort of strategy-first, substance-second approach to franchise building is precisely what brought Warner Bros. to this juncture in the first place, and it could easily end up poisoning whatever future Warner Bros. Discovery has planned.

At this late, late stage in the superhero movie game where a lot of the novelty’s come and gone, what Warner Bros. Discovery needs isn’t necessarily to make movies the way Marvel does, but to truly commit itself to a cohesive vision for its DC projects, and then seeing that to its very end.

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