Haven’t read Vol. 1- Justice Beleaguered? Find it here.
While most of the attention for DC 2020 is understandably on Justice League and its many spin-offs, the slate also revealed two movies that may-or-may-not-be part of this massive universe: Suicide Squad and Shazam. Throw in the rumored Sandman movie and its myriad of television projects, and DC seems to be taking a multiverse approach rather than following Marvel’s all-encompassing, interconnected universe. And that’s a good thing.
One of Marvel’s biggest strengths is its interconnected universe, but that could also end up being a weakness. While it’s been fantastically successful up to this point, a misstep could produce a domino effect with their future plans, and the larger the universe becomes (like with the Netflix series, or more relevantly with the just announced Phase III plans that completely trounced DC 2020 in attention, excitement, and intrigue), the more overwhelming it might seem to audiences. (I also think it’s very important to note that most of Marvel’s bigger names are, in fact, at other homes. With only two movies a year, would they have had time for Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy if they had the chance to introduce Fantastic Four or Spider-Man? Of course, we might not have gotten Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 3, so it’s a toss-up.)
But the upcoming Suicide Squad, Shazam, and Sandman may very well have nothing to do with the Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, et al., team-up event. Sandman is linked to an alleged “Vertigo slate of films” that has nothing to do with these projects. Producer Toby Emmerich declared Shazaam “not a Justice League character” – though I don’t know if Emmerich means he’s not a Justice League character (as in he’s not part of the Justice League team) or he’s not a Justice League character (as in he’s not part of the Justice League franchise). In comics lore, Shazam and his arch-nemesis Black Adam generally keep to their own sphere, but DC recently included him in the horrendous Justice League: War animated feature as part of the crew.
Due to none of its main characters being directly connected to BvS or the rest of Justice League, I have the probably faulty impression that Suicide Squad is its own independent thing, or at least something only very tangentially related to the rest of the films, like Guardians of the Galaxy is to the Marvel-verse. But that could be solely based on hope. (Author’s Note: In between writing and editing, Deadline reported a rumor that DC is seeking Eisenberg for a part in Suicide Squad as Luthor. So…maybe this is only loosely connected to Justice League?)
Regardless, I am personally fond of this angle. Having multiple universes running concurrently allows DC to experiment and permits franchises to find their own voices, rather than feeling tied down to a single tone or style or storyline. After all, one of the biggest complaints of Man of Steel was its shockingly morose and humorless quality. If that mentality persists across 10 upcoming films, they’ve already lost the battle. Hopefully, BvS avoids this tendency – at least there’s some fun shenanigans going on behind the scenes.
Knowing (or should I say, believing/hoping) that there are projects on the horizon other than those directly connected to Justice League makes me far more interested in DC’s overall plans. With the exception of BvS, Suicide Squad (coming in 2016 as BvS‘s immediate follow-up) is the property that I’m most interested to see develop. The Squad is made up of “expendable” incarcerated supervillains who undertake black ops missions on behalf of a government organization led by, at times, antagonist/antihero/ally/all-of-the-above Amanda Waller.
At first glance, it might seem that the success of Guardians of the Galaxy influenced DC’s decision – a group of morally ambiguous criminals essentially drafted into service on behalf of a government? Sure, they skew closer to evil than Star Lord’s gang, but it’s DC, so it naturally needs to be darker. But the Squad, which includes the likes of Deadshot and The Joker’s main squeeze Harley Quinn, has earned significant popularity of its own over the past few years. They, particularly Waller, have a regular presence on CW’s Arrow, and this year, they were the stars of their own animated feature – 2014’s Batman: Assault on Arkham. Clearly, DC has recognized their potential.
The behind-the-scenes information also gives this film more credibility than it simply being a placeholder until they can rush a Justice League installment into production. They’ve chosen David Ayers (Fury) as a director, which is a sign they’re going for more adult sensibilities. His description of it as “Dirty Dozen with supervillains” conjures up a positive first impression by moving expectations from a conventional comic book action-adventure to more of an espionage action-thriller… but with superpowers. Plus it gives November 2015’s The Amazing Spider-Man villain team-up spin-off Sinister Six movie a kick in the teeth, and I’m supremely, if morbidly, fascinated by watching that mega-franchise struggle.
The producers are also allegedly going for bigger names as its leads. People like Ryan Gosling, Tom Hardy, Will Smith (hopefully not as Waller), and Margot Robbie (a curious choice for Harley Quinn, to be sure) have been mentioned in connection to some of the roles, and they are more notable than even those selected for major parts in Justice League. While popular actors shouldn’t be the be all-end all of a project, DC seems to be going for more than box office sensations, they are going for respected performers…plus Cara Delevingne?
Moreover, introducing supervillains (especially obscure ones) without their heroic counterparts shows a belief that these characters can stand on their own without needing more popular figures to hold the public’s hand during introductions. (A Harley without first meeting this universe’s take on The Joker?) All of these elements imply a confidence in the property that makes it genuinely appealing. As long as the film doesn’t soften the villains’ edges, it’s a way to use DC’s penchant for pessimism positively.
The Shazam announcement is particularly surprising. After all the build-up this year with Dwayne Johnson promoting his role as Black Adam, it’s not hitting theaters until 2019? I can’t say I’m entirely disappointed, though. While Johnson’s admiration for the character and take on him as an anti-hero is certainly admirable, they still have to find someone who can compete with him physically and in on-screen charisma for the titular role. And most importantly, hopefully by 2019, they’ll realize that Billy Batson is a horrible character and, much like the orphan boy he is, nobody wants him. Of course, it won’t be difficult for Shazam to be more of a Boy Scout than Superman in this run… it won’t be hard for Lex Luthor to be more of a Boy Scout than Superman in this run.
Finally, we have Sandman. Produced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, this franchise will be based on the groundbreaking comic series by Neil Gaiman that ran from 1989 to 1996. Its 75 issues are a landmark in the genre, and show how the interplay of design and dialogue can turn comics into a true art form. These books are transcendent and produce a visceral, cerebral experience that crosses time, dimensions, and philosophies. They’re as epic in emotions and abstract ideas as all these other films are in flat-out action.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Sandman is unfilmable, but getting to the heart of what makes it so powerful is definitely not suitable for a masses-friendly, big budget movie. It would require the intricate understanding of how to use tone and emotion to tell humanistic stories that someone like Shane Carruth (Primer) showed himself truly adept at in Upstream Color, mixed with the surrealistic visual sense of Terry Gilliam or David Cronenberg. And it’s doubtful Terrence Malick would take the gig. More than any comics property, this would be esoteric art house drama at its best, and any attempt to shove it into an action-adventure template would shatter the myth. But I’d totally be up for some 1940’s noir with Wesley Dodds Sandman as the lead.
Besides the movie franchises, DC has even more plates spinning in the TV arena. CW’s Arrow is one of the most popular “geek” shows on TV currently (even more so than Agents of SHIELD, which is having a better-than-expected second season), and its spin-off The Flash has gotten off to a positive start. FOX has the pre-Batman Gotham, which is suffering from all the problems you’d expect it to have. NBC currently airs Constantine, a more obscure DC character whose attempt at big screen glory was ended in 2005 thanks to Keanu Reeves and Shia LeBeouf. CBS recently greenlit a Supergirl series (and we know what happened the last time we had a Superman series without Superman…). TNT is developing Teen Titans with an older Dick Grayson as Nightwing as the lead. And this week, it was rumored that Man of Steel writer David Goyer is developing a pre-Superman Krypton series. And with the exception of the CW shows, none of them are meant to be interconnected.
Depending on how you want to look at it, DC is either hedging its bets or giving viewers a wide variety of options. More interested in the supernatural elements of the DC canon? There’s Constantine. Didn’t like Man of Steel? Maybe Suicide Squad will be more your speed. Ezra Miller not working for you? There’s Grant Gustin. And this is where DC can truly differentiate itself from Marvel. It’s certainly fun seeing how disparate elements join together like with The Avengers franchise, but there’s also pleasure in knowing that all the characters you like (or don’t like) aren’t beholden to one franchise bible. Now bring on Crisis on Infinite Earths starring Michael Keaton.