Last week, Warner Brothers announced its tentpole slate until 2020, which includes LEGO movies, that Harry Potter spinoff prequel franchise, and most importantly, the DC Cinematic Universe. After years of conjecture and speculation, we finally get an idea about how the home of Doctor Fate, Doctor Destiny, and Doctor Death plans to play catch up with the enormously successful Marvel Cinematic Universe… as well as what to expect for a time spanning the next two presidential elections. Which, in turn, might make you ask, “What am I doing with my life that I’m concerned with this?”
Even with learning about 10 movies on the horizon, excitement over this endeavor seems a bit tempered, and understandably so. For starters, having everything in front of us in one fell swoop takes away the excitement of learning what comes next. Part of the fun with Marvel is having that “Guardians of the Galaxy? What the hell are they thinking?” moment. (Aside from the already-announced Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man, Captain America 3, Dr. Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Marvel has announced six release dates between now and 2019, but has yet to attach specific titles to them.) But more importantly, when pondering what’s to come next, we only have one baseline to compare it against – Man of Steel, and even people who didn’t lose their loved ones and livelihoods from the leveling of Metropolis are still hurting over that film… never mind that the destruction featured in that movie is perfectly in line with that which befalls Metropolis in most episodes of Superman: The Animated Series or the animated Justice League series.
With the less than enthusiastic response to Superman’s first flight, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice becomes quite possibly Warner Bros.’ most important movie of the 2010s. Man of Steel was a trial balloon. This is the first time we get to see DC’s true vision for an interconnected universe. However, this leads to another major obstacle that this franchise needs to overcome – Justice League might end up seeming anti-climactic after BvS (which shall henceforth serve as our shorthand, because Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is way too long and awkward to say every time). After all, with BvS, we’re getting all the heavy hitters in one place. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor – the big four of the DC Universe. We’re promised a fight between the first two (it’s right there in the title), and we can easily assume a disaster porn-strewn climax with at least two of the three heroes teaming up to bring Luthor to justice (perhaps sometime around daybreak).
If we’re getting all of that in BvS, what will Justice League have to offer? The obvious answer is a more substantial team-up movie with, presumably, Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg. But is this much of a selling point? Part of the reason The Avengers worked was because they took the time to develop most of the characters to the point where you wanted to see them team up. Or they cast actors (e.g. Samuel L. Jackson, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson) who have enough of a presence/renown that they could be selling points by themselves. And even then, each character made at least one cameo-plus appearance in a prior feature. With the DCCU, even the casting of the Big Three raised eyebrows. Gal Gadot was a scene stealer in the Fast Furious movies, but not a lead; Affleck’s casting was met with significant controversy (though I approve the choice); and Caville’s Superman didn’t make many fans during his last spin around the globe. (I am very much in favor of the casting of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, though; I think he’s an exciting choice. The idea of his scrawny-ish physique contrasted against the completely jacked Caville and Affleck makes for an interesting visual.)
Beyond the major players, DC is taking an even more alternative approach than The Avengers by having at least two of the three teammates cameo in BvS – we know about Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg; Ezra Miller as The Flash is still uncertain – before bringing them all together for Justice League Part 1 in 2017, only two movies down the line (with Suicide Squad – more on that next time – and Wonder Woman as the buffers). The key to making a successful team up movie (regardless of the franchise) is the anticipation of seeing how all of these characters combine finally, and a big part of that has to do with wanting to see how the actors interact. BvS will already give us that, to some extent. Sure we got characters meeting throughout Marvel Phase I, but most of the heroes remained in their own separate spheres. BvS will supposedly give us everyone together, to some extent, from the start.
Sure, they might have instant chemistry and a major screen presence, but this is far from guaranteed. None of the trio of Momoa, Fisher, and Miller has successfully carried a major motion picture. Miller was terrific as the titular character in the excellent high school homicide film We Need To Talk About Kevin and got good reviews in the high school suicide film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but neither of those indicate he has the “plays the fool to hide a warrior’s pain” quality of The Flash. They tried to give Jason “Khal Drogo” Momoa a franchise with the Conan the Barbarian reboot, and that failed (though I personally thought the movie was passable). And Ray Fisher has never even been in a movie.
This decision can be read in one of two ways. Either they see the characters’ names as big enough alone to bring in an audience, or the casting director is remarkably good and they have genuine confidence in these choices to stand out amidst the bloat that will probably be BvS. I am hoping for the latter, because the former shows a condescending cynicism towards the audience that we will be able to smell. Need I remind anyone of Green Lantern?
Of course, Justice League can wrangle in more characters to bolster this line-up when 2017 hits. My personal hope is for Martian Manhunter because he is one of the most fascinating characters in the entire DC Universe and the Justice League’s soul. But they’ll need an actor who is a genuine proven commodity to make the choice seem interesting and believably compete against the bigger names in the cast. To again invoke The Avengers, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk was the only actor/character to really be introduced to the franchise, but the Academy Award nominee (supporting actor for The Kids Are All Right) had already established himself as a legitimate actor with important parts in major movies (e.g. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Collateral, Shutter Island) and proved up to acting against his Zodiac co-star Robert Downey, Jr. The scenes with Tony Stark and Bruce Banner prodding one another proved some of the best of the entire movie, if not the entire mega-franchise. But just because he made it look easy, doesn’t make it so. That being said, someone who can play off the rest of an established cast while being a dominant figure and knowing he’ll probably be a secondary character until we’re well past Justice League 2 and into the next decade is one who rightfully earns the name Martian Manhunter.
The other tactic that DC could adopt that would be superior to the cameo gambit is hoping BvS makes us fall in love with the style of the DC Universe. This is quite possibly the one area where director Zack Snyder and crew might gain an advantage over their Marvel counterparts. For all of the movies and success, Marvel Cinematic Universe hasn’t achieved a distinctive look and feel, whereas DC has been far more successful in that regard. Although not part of this universe, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Saga had an impressive design and “lived in” feel. For all of its faults, Man of Steel (a movie I feel is unfairly maligned) had a unique and distinctive visual style with a strong understanding of the power of raw imagery. However, this is equally uncertain to work considering how the mixed/negative reaction to Man of Steel led to a sequel that shoehorns in much of the DC roster.
But none of these components cuts to the core of what Justice League will have to offer to make it superior to BvS. A big reason behind the success of The Avengers was that it wasn’t a sequel to any of the movies came before it; it was its own entity. Justice League needs to stand alone as something more epic than either Man of Steel or Batman v. Superman while still being an individual. Having most of the Justice League show up in the earlier film, even in smaller roles, creates a hurdle insofar as it will already seem more like a sequel to BvS than its own property.
BvS itself is in a good spot. It’s the first time we’re having live action Batman/Superman together, a new Lex Luthor that might get him right (I’m looking at you Spacey), the first live action Wonder Woman in ages, and the ability to introduce a gamut of things from throughout the DC comics universe, many of which have never been introduced to mass audiences. I honestly feel it has the legitimate possibility of being one of the biggest and best superhero movies ever made. But where do you go from there? We’re getting most of the characters we want to see already in key roles, and we’re getting arguably the best villain of all time. It’s hard to believe that more Aquaman and Cyborg are enough of a draw (not to mention how we already get The Flash weekly) to propel Justice League Part 1 into something all that greater than its predecessor.
Needless to say, Justice League could end up surprising us all and immediately position itself as a worthy challenger to the Marvel empire. But going bigger isn’t always the best option. Man of Steel already featured the entire world threatened with annihilation from Zod’s terraforming doodads, and the audience groaned. Besides if major destruction is your thing, how do you top that? Seeing obliteration on a massive scale used to be impressive, now it inspires yawns. Third act fatigue is a common occurrence with these bloated, 2.5 hour blockbusters. Marvel understands that, and while it might not avoid the compulsion to close out the film with extensive action sequences, the overall emphasis on characters and humor makes it more bearable.
While good characters are practically essential in convincing us to follow this franchise, another way the Justice League Interconnected Universe could differentiate itself is with an interconnected story. While there’s some loose connection between all the Marvel movies, usually with Infinity Gem McGuffins, they are mostly standalone fare – even the specific sequels. Having each movie in the series directly tied to the ones that came before and after it (e.g. if each “Single Character Movie” concerns a thread or mission that was directly broached or will pay off in a Justice League film or spin-off) could help give each individual component a “must see” quality.
However, this could lead to another problem insofar as we could lose out on great standalone stories from some of the better heroes. Nolan’s films only scraped the surface of Batman’s rogue gallery, and it would be nice to finally see a respectable Riddler. Almost none of Superman’s villains have a live action counterpart with the exception of on Smallville…and we don’t talk about Smallville. But this is the balancing act these mega-franchises must consider, and if the focus is on going bigger and blow-upper, then we’d disappointingly have to abandon less flashy but nevertheless interesting villains like Hush, Mr. Mxyzptlk, Penguin, or Toyman. Of course, we won’t get a standalone Superman or Batman film until 2021 at the earliest. By that point, if we’re not burned out of this genre, we’ll probably be ready for a system wide reboot.
Next time on “The DC Cinematic Universe”: Suicide Squad, Shazam, and Sandman