Following a series of unsuccessful releases and with a reboot on the horizon, Warner Bros. must go beyond convincing fans that a man can soar; they need to instill confidence that this time, there’s a commitment to follow through on that flight to its ultimate destination.
It’s been over a decade since Man of Steel marked the beginning of the DCEU, and exactly a decade this week since the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman in Zack Snyder’s cinematic series. We are all well aware of the challenges and disruptions that this project ultimately faced, leading to substantial reorganization within DC.
However, let’s return to the summer of 2013, a time that was simpler yet filled with immense enthusiasm. During that summer, the buzz among comic book movie enthusiasts surrounding the newly established DC Extended Universe was incredibly loud. Everyone had an opinion, whether it was about Man of Steel and its controversial climax involving Superman’s decision to take Zod’s life, or the casting of Affleck. At the time, Affleck was still associated with his earlier superhero role in 2003’s Daredevil, and fans wondered how he would measure up to the beloved Dark Knight portrayed by Christian Bale.
The DCEU was once a fresh and exciting venture, sparking a wide range of opinions, be they positive or negative, about its future. Fan theories quickly gained traction, comic creators took positions, bloggers realized they could shape the narrative early on, and DC fans became fiercely defensive, arming themselves with arguments. Within just a few years, what was meant to be fun, involving comics, movies, and superheroes, devolved into a bitter landscape marked by personal attacks, grudges, cult-like mentalities, contentious journalism, and career-altering decisions.
Fast forward a decade, and Henry Cavill has relinquished his role as the Man of Steel, Ben Affleck is no longer Batman, Zack Snyder is creating new universes at Netflix with projects like Army of the Dead and Rebel Moon, Joss Whedon has fallen out of favor in Hollywood, and James Gunn, the director who demonstrated the immense success of Guardians of the Galaxy, has wrapped up the Guardians trilogy and now co-leads DC Studios alongside Peter Safran.
Together, they are relaunching the franchise as the DCU. Meanwhile, the fate of the DCEU is uncertain. Blue Beetle has made its way to theaters, though regrettably, it seems that not many are aware of it. Is it the final chapter of the DCEU, making way for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom? Or is it the inaugural entry into the DCU? Few seem to have a clear answer, especially given James Gunn’s puzzling statements that Blue Beetle is the first DCU character but not the first DCU film.
Blue Beetle’s lackluster opening weekend, which ranks among the lowest in the franchise’s history, follows a series of box office disappointments, including The Flash, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Black Adam, as well as pandemic-affected releases like Wonder Woman 1984 and The Suicide Squad. As Gunn and Safran prepare to rejuvenate the DC universe with a slate of film and television projects, observers are left wondering: Where have all the DC film fans disappeared to?
Over the past decade, the world of DC comics and movies has seen a constant whirlwind of changes, from shifting decisions to executive turnovers, and a relentless tug-of-war between critics and passionate fans. This tumultuous environment has left the DC fanbase deeply divided, a division that is palpable on social media platforms. Within this community, there are various perspectives. Some hold an optimistic outlook for the DC Universe’s future, looking forward to the promised reboot led by James Gunn and Peter Safran.
Others find themselves bewildered, as mixed messages persist regarding which actors and projects will continue in this evolving landscape. Meanwhile, some fans still mourn Zack Snyder’s unfulfilled vision, while others have moved on. There are also those who question the need for a reboot, considering the extensive work put into building the DCEU over the past decade. Amidst all these factions, a once-excited fanbase has become a challenging and often hostile environment, particularly for casual fans, leading many to keep their DC fandom low-key and retreat from the intense online discourse, which is dominated by vocal and sometimes aggressive groups.
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has managed to cultivate a relatively cohesive fanbase, albeit not without its own extremes of adoration and criticism, understanding what DC fans truly desire, or even who makes up this fanbase, remains a perplexing challenge. Currently, the prospect of a celebratory DCU Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con seems remote, especially without an accompanying aerial banner hashtag campaign like #SellZSJLtoNetflix, which has become a common occurrence.
In reality, attending the opening night of a new DC film at a movie theater hardly feels like a shared experience with like-minded fans, particularly when the theater seats remain mostly vacant. Generating enthusiasm for DC Films has become quite a challenge, except when it comes to one character: Batman. Batman holds an exceptional place in the hearts of fans. They want Batman, not as a secondary figure in a Flash storyline or as an off-screen allusion in a Harley Quinn caper but as the central focus. Failing Batman, the Joker is a suitable alternative. At present, Warner Bros.’ most secure bets for the future are The Batman Part II and Joker: Folie à Deux, both of which extend beyond the core comic book movie fandom and do not belong to the shared universe of the upcoming DCU.
One way to interpret the lackluster attendance at recent DCEU films over the past year is as a sign of diminishing faith in the brand from both general audiences and fans. It’s reached a point where even quality movies like Blue Beetle are struggling to gain traction. However, another perspective could suggest that this string of underwhelming box office performances offers a candid insight: DC fans, as a collective, are more devoted to the filmmakers behind the projects rather than the characters and the universe itself.
Reflecting on the history of the most successful DC films and those that have garnered passionate fan followings, a common thread emerges: the presence of distinctive filmmakers who can be considered auteurs in their own right. Figures like Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, James Wan, and Matt Reeves all possess instantly recognizable styles and unique directorial qualities. Remarkably, even Joel Schumacher’s films have found appreciation among audiences in recent times. Notably, many of these filmmakers have been associated with Batman, further solidifying the character’s status as the primary attraction for DC fans.
It appears that what truly distinguishes DC’s film endeavors from the MCU is this very factor, where the characters themselves are not necessarily the sole driving force of fandom. In the MCU, a system has been established where fan enthusiasm is primarily centered on the characters, with the directors, for the most part, playing a secondary role. MCU fans adore Spider-Man, for example, but they aren’t rushing to buy shirts featuring Jon Watts or expressing intense interest in his personal life.
In contrast, DC’s fan base has evolved around filmmakers who have achieved celebrity status, resulting in a significant degree of trust placed in their creative choices. This distinction played a role in the underwhelming performance of movies like Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, and Blue Beetle, which were marketed as somewhat akin to Marvel films. Their target audience already had versions of these stories in the MCU, and while the commendable aspect of representation offered by Black Adam and Blue Beetle is important, it alone wasn’t compelling enough. However, when Warner Bros. assigns directors like Matt Reeves or James Gunn to these projects, a certain magnetism is introduced. This dynamic makes it easier for fans to not only accept but also passionately champion unconventional casting choices and alterations to characters.
The future success of the DCU hinges on Warner Bros. recognizing that a significant portion of this fan base is less concerned about expansive cinematic universes and cameo appearances and more deeply invested in filmmakers who bring distinct and sometimes even controversial creative visions to the table. These are the kinds of films that fans will fervently support, ideally in a balanced manner that doesn’t blur the line between the audience and the directors’ personal lives.
James Gunn, in particular, appears to be a filmmaker capable of offering a fresh and inspired take on Superman with his upcoming project, Superman: Legacy. He already commands a dedicated fan following, although in the larger context, this matters less to general audiences. Most people simply want to watch a good movie, and if that expectation is met, a new fan base can naturally emerge. Gunn, as a filmmaker, has earned a considerable amount of trust. However, to retain both existing and new fans beyond Legacy, a collective of trusted filmmakers will be essential. These directors will need to be figures in whom audiences can confidently place their faith.
Warner Bros. should not aim to win back every fan, as attempting to cater to everyone, as seen in the 2017 theatrical cut of Justice League, results in a film that appeals to no one. Rebuilding DC’s fanbase will require time, focusing on unifying the parts that can be unified, and accepting that not everyone will be won over.
Expecting an immediate billion-dollar success with a Superman film would be unrealistic, as we’ve seen from previous experiences. The key lesson for the current leadership is drawn from The Dark Knight: “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”
This means maintaining consistency and not constantly changing direction whenever critics or certain fan segments become nostalgic or express dissatisfaction when a story doesn’t align with their preconceived notions. It means showing decisiveness and allowing filmmakers to not just adapt the familiar but also challenge our expectations of these movies and the characters they depict.
The DCU must go beyond convincing fans that a man can fly. It must demonstrate a commitment to staying the course and seeing a creative vision through to its conclusion. Only then will DC film fans be rediscovered and reinvigorated.