Well, this a weird coincidence – two entirely different “Captain Marvel” movies released a month apart from each other. I suppose it’s just some sort of cosmic probability over 75 years in the making. Still, weird.
Regardless, SHAZAM! (the original Captain Marvel) has done exceedingly well as a film – winning over both audiences and critics alike. As a premise, it’s timeless.
For a character nearly as old as The Man of Steel, it is pretty funny that some critics are heralding SHAZAM! as a clever deconstruction of the superhero mythos, despite being a golden age character.
The premise is timeless – a young boy gets gifted with superhuman powers, learning about responsibility, defeating villains … all that good stuff. It’s a hero’s journey as classic as Star Wars and has been revamped into everything from Dial H for Hero to Ben 10. As films go, it delivers on everything it promises.
But for this post, I’m going to focus on the changing face of the DCEU, why it’s changing, and the struggles that may come with it.
THE BEGINNING OF THE DC EXTENDED UNIVERSE!
In the distant past of 2005, we saw a rebooted Batman for the new millennium – the “Nolanverse”. This moved away from the campy goofiness of the 90s Batman and Robin and gave us a grittier character that drew upon more of a Dark Knight Returns-onwards iteration of the character.
The trilogy was well received, with critics praising 2008’s The Dark Knight’s more political post 9/11 take on the character and story.
At the same time, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was starting off with Iron Man, building up multiple different characters, continuous subplots and stories, culminating in The Avengers and a franchise built on spherical storytelling.
DC had only built up Batman (with a brief, poorly-received Green Lantern movie). They now had to play catch-up with Marvel whilst drawing from their library.
In an attempt to be more (quote unquote) “adult” than Marvel, the comics saw the launch of The New 52 – reimagining characters without the baggage of 70 years of continuity. Some stories were good, but it was shortly lived and wasn’t received as the “real” DC comics universe – with it being scrapped to make way for DC rebirth.
In 2013, we saw this gritty edge continue with Man of Steel – if it worked for Batman, surely it could work for their other flagship character? It was polarising to say the least.
This grit was the foundation for the DCEU. A cinematic universe with a foundation built by Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder – fresh off the Dark Knight trilogy and 2009’s Watchmen (which was meant to be gritty).
After Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice rushed to cram in everything from The Death of Superman to The Dark Knight Returns to an introduction to upcoming spin-offs like Wonder Woman, Flash, and Aquaman whilst also playing catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe … yeah … it was a storytelling mess.
Wonder Woman was well received – but it wasn’t integral to any ongoing narrative.
Now we have our lead Batman leaving … so what next?
I think much of what went wrong was the panic Warner Bros. felt as they tried to compete with Marvel. So much of what was going on was to challenge or subvert the Marvel spherical storytelling formula and rebrand the DC universe as some ultra noir property.
Suddenly, when James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpoolblows people away at the box office, we saw reshoots of Suicide Squad and evidence of no clear plan from the start.
Always have a plan – even if you need to improvise some of the finer details.
THE NEW AND IMPROVED DCEU?
One of the biggest things I felt the DCEU was hindered by was its overarching emphasis on control. The first three movies were designed to keep a consistent dark tone that other movies would supposedly follow – they didn’t.
Instead of giving everything to one director, the DCEU appears to have somewhat, improved on the Marvel philosophy – giving creative freedom to the directors.
Think about some of the most stand-out Marvel movies. Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther? What do they all have in common?
The directors were given greater control over the character and story.
Sure, they’re all part of a greater cinematic universe. But at the core is a vision of auteurs like Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and James Gunn defining a style and Marvel brand.
Each character can exist in their own corner of the universe, whilst coming together for a bigger event crossover movie – a true spherical storytelling technique; and a very profitable one at that.
After rushing out a cinematic universe, the DC approach is now almost going in an opposite direction – having properties exist as far apart as possible … whilst still existing in the same universe.
I think this first truly started with Aquaman. I had to laugh when the only connection we got to any of his Justice League friends was when Mera spoke about that time he fought Steppenwolf.
That was it. That was how little Justice League mattered in the grand scheme of things.
SHAZAM! was even more bizarre. We see figures of Batman, and newspaper stories of Superman, somehow existing in the same universe where Batman brands and kills people, and Superman is associated with the mass destruction of a major American city!
Their character tie-ins to this film make absolutely zero sense in the universe they established for themselves. I mean, what toy manufacturer is making giant figures of an established killer?
Even for a character who gets his powers from Greek myths, I would have imagined a greater tie-in to Wonder Woman – what with them getting their powers from the same pantheon.
But nope! Separate character, fun movie, what Justice League?
It seems like a soft reboot – and that’s probably for the best given their rocky start.
Much like their comic-book inspiration from The New 52, the grittiness was unsustainable, and we’ve now got something more fun and creative.
As for what’s in development, we have an upcoming horror movie on The Trench from Aquaman – where humans evolved (devolved?) into hideous Lovecraftian horrors being directed by horror director James Wan.
At the very least, there’s a clear tie-in to Aquaman. So that’s neat.
We have another period piece for Wonder Woman 1984 – which isn’t a sequel.
But then we have this year’s Joker. A more political reimagining of the origins of the Clown Prince of Crime. From the trailer alone, this looks great.
It looks like it ties into nothing Suicide Squad-related, and raises many questions about the DCEU timeline, or just who Jared Leto’s Joker is … but it looks cool.
That said, I probably don’t want to see Shazam go against this Joker, purely because their tones and themes look to be just about polar opposite.
Finally, we now have Suicide Squad 2 being directed by James Gunn – something that I imagine will very loosely follow on from the first installation.
So, this is the DCEU now – A series of unrelated films that exist in the same universe without really interacting with each other.
As for Shazam now being confirmed for Justice League 2, we have no idea what the roster for that movie will look like given a lack of Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill, so it could just as easily be an entirely new team.
FRANCHISE BUILDING PHILOSOPHY
I’ve written extensively on how transmedia storytelling, and the appeal of spherical storytelling.
In essence, studios have the potential to build interlocking chapters and explore different corners of their universe, and DC seems to be succeeding by doing less of that.
Whereas Marvel placed so much of their emphasis on narrative, with plot points like the tesseract showing up in over ten films.
It appears more that this is to do with the DC brand than the DC narrative.
People are already somewhat familiar with DC’s characters and history – given their 80 years of it. We’ve seen countless interpretations of Batman and Superman, and so developing some of their lesser known IP (like Shazam) can be a good way to get new viewers on board.
I suppose we’ll just have to wait until Justice League 2 to see how this all works out. It could be that they’re now committed to a spherical storytelling model; building up lesser known superheroes before putting them in an all-star team up – but we’ll have to wait and see.
CAPTAIN MARVEL V. CAPTAIN MARVEL – FRANCHISE WARS?
Both DC and Marvel are at a crossroads. After Avengers: Endgame we have some big actors reaching the end of their contracts: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Hemsworth.
I’m not going to predict anything about what will happen to Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor, but I think it’s fair to say that Marvel looks to want to develop other characters – Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain Marvel all look to take up the main roles going into the fourth phase of the MCU.
At the very least, I think the fear of Marvel being ahead of the game is changing – especially after Endgame which will most likely see a shake up of the status quo.
Now both companies have to re-evaluate how they’re going to maintain the goodwill of their fanbases.
It’s odd to say the least; made even odder by both companies having a “Captain Marvel” pave the way into the future of each franchise.
But whereas Marvel now has the upcoming Disney+ to fall back on when it comes to establishing a transmedia dominance, DC has a somewhat different approach to transbranding – but that’s a post for next time …