Earlier this week, news broke that Martin Scorsese would reportedly be producing a Joker origin-story film for Warner Bros. But the most interesting part of the announcement wasn’t Scorsese’s involvement, or the idea of digging into the Joker’s history again — it was the fact that the planned prequel wouldn’t be set in the existing DC Extended Universe film franchise, alongside Suicide Squad and Justice League. Instead, it’d be part of a new sub-series of DC movies focused on unconnected original stories. Just after that, recent comments from The Batman director Matt Reeves resurfaced specifying that his upcoming Caped Crusader film would also be “standalone, it’s not part of the extended universe.”
Standalone stories might be the studio’s last chance at redeeming its flailing cinematic canon
Reeves has since tried to walk those comments back, but according to The Hollywood Reporter, it’s still unclear where exactly the standalone Batman film will eventually land. That abrupt contradiction is strange, and suggests a studio without a fixed strategy in place for its biggest, most audience-friendly properties. The idea of standalone DC films even suggests that Warner Bros. might finally be throwing in the towel and admitting it can’t play Marvel’s game of building a vast saga out of popular, interconnected blockbusters. Given the current state of the DC Extended Universe, standalone stories might be the studio’s last chance at redeeming its flailing cinematic canon.
Warner Bros. wouldn’t be the first studio to fail at copying Disney and Marvel’s formula. Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man films underperformed, to the point where it called in Marvel Studios to reboot the character again with this year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Universal’s misbegotten Dark Universe has already been rebooted once, and its relaunch with The Mummy was met with critical jeers and widespread indifference. The nascent Transformers cinematic universe is already off to an odd start, with Transformers: The Last Knight’s attempts to build out the canon of the franchise backfiring into a slog of a film. And while the Godzilla / King Kong “Monsterverse” is still in the early stages, it looks like it’ll have an uphill battle to mainstream success. It turns out that building an intricately plotted, fiscally successful series like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is harder than it looks.
Recent history makes it clear why Warner Bros. might want to give up on the DCEU. While none of DC’s films have done poorly at the box office, the four franchise installments to date have resulted in one outstanding feature with widespread critical acclaim (Wonder Woman), one with middling reviews (Man of Steel), and two that were widely crucified as awful. (Looking at you, Suicide Squad and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.) And while franchises like Transformers and Fast and Furious have proven that movies don’t need to be intelligent, nuanced, or even coherent to be successful, it certainly doesn’t hurt, especially with comic-book films that rely on fan goodwill as such a big part of their audiences.
DC films aren’t competing at the same level as most other major blockbusters
And like it or not, Warner Bros. does have to do something, because right now its DC films aren’t competing at the same level as most other major blockbusters. Batman v Superman should have been an easy win. It combines two of the best-known superheroes of all time in a single film, and pits them against each other in a city-shaking grudge match. It was the most anticipated of the DCEU movies, but it failed to crack $1 billion worldwide. In contrast, Disney's flagship films regularly cross the $1B mark globally — The Avengers, The Force Awakens, Rogue One, Captain America: Civil War, Beauty and the Beast, and Zootopia are just a few to have hit the mark. And Universal has pulled it off with the last two Fast and Furious movies and Jurassic World. A movie that brings in $850 million is definitely successful, but BvS was projected to make so much more that it was considered a financial disappointment, to the point where Greg Silverman — the Warner Bros. executive in charge of the DCEU — was fired and the entire DC arm of the company was restructured. At the end of the day, Warner Bros has to answer investors asking “Why isn’t this making Avengers money?”
The movie that may have shown the new path forward was Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins’ film reaped the biggest box-office returns of the DCEU films, and was also the cheapest to produce. But Wonder Woman wasn’t a hit because fans caught a glimpse of her in Batman v. Superman and were dying to see her origin story. It was a success because it told a compelling story about a beloved character, as seen through the eyes of director Patty Jenkins, a talented filmmaker with a strong, vibrant vision for the film.
Start by making more films in the mold of Wonder Woman
It’s wartime period-piece setting placed it apart from the rest of the films as a standalone story, in spite of the bookends tying it back to Justice League. By moving the story so far away from everything else in the DCEU aesthetically, chronologically, and thematically, Wonder Woman was able to leave behind the baggage of previous entries in the franchise and succeed like no other recent DCEU film has. If DC is looking for a pattern of success to emulate, it should stop looking at Marvel’s seemingly impossible-to-replicate strategy, and start by making more films in the mold of Wonder Woman.
And we’ve already seen that shifting to a individual-movie approach can work on a critical, financial, and creative level. 20th Century Fox’s attempts at big-budget, Avengers-style X-Men movies fizzled out with X-Men: Apocalypse, which grossed less than any other X-Men film besides First Class and The Wolverine. But on the flip side, the studio has found great success with Logan and Deadpool — movies that took strikingly different angles on the expected superhero tropes, and found great success with audiences and critics alike.
As a standalone approach, the 1980s hard-boiled crime film Deadline described as the plan for the Joker film would would work on a similar level as the World War I setting in Wonder Woman, or the gritty post-apocalyptic world in Logan. Instead of offering the same grey-and-grim style of most of DC’s other films, standalone settings would let Warner Bros. change up genres, characters, settings, and even actors without having to worry about maintaining continuity across a dozen films, or asking audiences to do hours of homework to understand what’s going on in the next big team-up. A gritty Joker origin story may be a terrible idea for many other reasons, but from a conceptual angle, at least it’s something new.
What’s more, if DC does shift to more varied, one-off films that draw on directorial vision and a variety of genres, it could give the company a big one-up on Marvel, which historically has struggled with ceding control to a director. At this point, Marvel Studios makes a certain type of film, and anyone who doesn’t gel with that mandate doesn’t end up working with the studio. Consider Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man, or Joss Whedon’s well-publicized Age of Ultron fatigue. Before Patty Jenkins went to DC to direct Wonder Woman, Marvel had her set to direct Thor 2. But the company let her slip through its fingers over creative differences — leaving us with the mediocre Thor: The Dark World instead. More recently, acclaimed Selma director Ava DuVernay passed on Black Panther out of concerns that creative compromises would keep the movie from being “an Ava DuVernay film.”
The benefit of Marvel’s control is that its films are comparatively consistent in quality, tone, and vision, because there’s a single person guiding the entire process like a showrunner. Warner Bros. and DC simply just doesn’t have a Kevin Feige. Instead of one vision, DC has a conflicting mess of too many cooks, with studio execs, Geoff Johns, Zack Snyder, Ben Affleck and more all running different parts of the show at different times. Warner Bros. can’t have it both ways — you can’t have a single, unified, overarching universe with dozens of people pulling it in a dozen directions. Unless the studio is willing to cede creative control to a Kevin Feige of its own (and reports of heavy-handed oversight on films like Suicide Squad suggest it isn’t) standalone films may just be the best fit for Warner Bros.’ culture.
And they would also give Warner more of a chance at bringing audiences a diverse, memorable slate of films to contrast with Marvel’s slate. After almost 10 years and 16 films, MCU installments are run by formula. Audiences walking into Doctor Strange or Ant-Man pretty much knew what they’ll be getting — Marvel’s signature blend of action, humor, and world-ending stakes, neatly wrapped up in the third act with enough room for a sequel and a reference or two to an Infinity Stone. More recent efforts, like James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films or Taika Waititi’s reportedly mold-breaking Thor: Ragnarok, are trying to edge further from the formula. But Marvel still has a way to go before any MCU films feel like directorial projects, rather than studio projects.
If Warner Bros. wants to compete, its leadership might consider Wonder Woman’s lessons
It’s entirely possible that DC’s pivot away from its Extended Universe plan won’t actually play out at the theaters. The Joker prequel is still in its extremely early stages, and Reeves backed down on his claims of independence. (That’s reminiscent of the way Sony announced its Spider-Man spinoff films would be set in the MCU, until Kevin Feige publicly shot down the idea.) Given that DC already has far more movies on its slate than it has directors, scripts, or even release dates, let alone any active production, all these plans are still up in the air.
But if the last 10 years of genre films have taught us anything, it’s that beating Marvel at its game is difficult — and maybe impossible, given how firmly the MCU is based in the specific visions of talented people trying to forge something new, rather than imitating an industry leader. If Warner Bros. wants to compete, its leadership might consider Wonder Woman’s lessons, and try a different approach, rather than sticking with the one that isn’t working.