Ben Affleck has been done playing Batman. We don’t know if Ezra Miller’s Flash movie will ever come out. There’s not much reason to believe Ray Fisher will return as Cyborg. Gal Gadot’s third Wonder Woman movie has been canceled. And Henry Cavill’s time as Superman has drawn to a close.
Only Jason Momoa’s Aquaman remains, but if his time in the role is coming to an end, this is not the time to do it, as the sequel to his feature film has already wrapped production and doing so will only sabotage its release.
DC Studios heads Peter Safran and James Gunn appear to be hitting the reset button on the DC Extended Universe, a 9-year shared cinematic universe that began with 2013’s “Man of Steel.” There have been some strong entries in it, such as “Aquaman,” “Wonder Woman” and “Shazam!,” as well as some weak ones, like “Wonder Woman 84,” “Suicide Squad” (2016), and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” But ultimately it could not overcome its scars when the cinematic universe showed its hand in “Batman v. Superman,” which tried to jumpstart itself by hijacking what should have been both a “Man of Steel” sequel and a standalone Ben Affleck Batman movie in what has a legitimate case for being the worst comic book film of all time.
Indeed, most of the DC Extended Universe’s scars can be traced back to “Batman v. Superman,” which torpedoed any hope of DC having a somewhat coherent shared universe like Marvel. Wrought with behind-the-scenes turmoil only eclipsed by its sequel, “Justice League,” the film suffers from severe studio interference, who chopped the theatrical cut to the point where much of the film no longer makes sense, which we know because the director’s cut (the “Ultimate Edition”) features key missing scenes.
Beyond that, it simply tried to do too much. Within the span of it, we’re introduced to Superman’s traditional nemesis, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman, Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Doomsday — a villain that, like Thanos, should have been saved for a much later film — Momoa’s Aquaman, Miller’s Flash and Fisher’s Cyborg.
The film’s massive critical flop led to a decentralization of the DC Extended Universe, which some fans enjoyed, given how interconnected Marvel films have become. But many also called for the cancelation of the DC Extended Universe altogether — the studio had simply messed up so bad, it was time to start over and call it a day. The problem was that films like 2017’s “Wonder Woman” and 2018’s “Aquaman” were already deep in production; the only option Warner Bros. had was to go was forward, at least until its films planned up to that point were released.
As 2022 wraps up, we still haven’t seen all of the films teased in “Batman v. Superman,” with Miller’s Flash film being the odd one out. Given the actor’s behavior, it might be more prudent to cancel it, though it must be noted that DC has an easy way out through that Flash film by following to some extent the “Flashpoint” storyline from the comics, which has a natural opportunity to reboot the DC Extended Universe.
Safran and Gunn’s decision to start fresh was inevitable because the DC Extended Universe after “Batman v. Superman” and both cuts of “Justice League” simply had nowhere to go, other than focusing on individual releases and some vague team-up film with Darkseid. But its momentum was greatly stunted by “Batman v. Superman,” which requires viewers to either slog through the virtually unwatchable theatrical cut of the film, or the over-two-hour Ultimate Edition cut just to get a foundational understanding of this cinematic universe.
DC paid dearly for its impatience. Marvel built its cinematic universe a film at a time that focused on individual characters, which made their team-up films (“The Avengers”) special and earned. DC tried launching its “Avengers” in film two, complete with a villain comparable to Thanos in terms of gravity, and the result was a mess that was simply too gnarled and interwoven to salvage.
In hindsight, Joss Whedon’s cut of “Justice League” feels like a desperate last-ditch effort made by Warner to right the ship, with middling results. This cut of “Justice League” is a vast improvement over the theatrical cut of “Batman v. Superman,” but it fails to heal the wounds inflicted on this cinematic universe in that film. It also fails to drum up the excitement a “Justice League” film deserves. Its $657 million is paltry compared to the benchmark Marvel has set with these team-up films; every “Avenger” film has passed the $1 billion mark, with the last two breaking the $2 billion mark.
But perhaps the biggest failure of “Justice League” is that it widened the rift between those who enjoyed Zack Snyder’s style and vision (he was its original director, as well as the director for “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman”) and those that wanted something akin to what Marvel is offering, or just something more coherent. In 2021, HBO Max released Snyder’s version of “Justice League,” which has been the preferred version of the film for many, despite its longer runtime. Like the “Ultimate Edition” to “Batman v. Superman,” the film restores key scenes left on the cutting room floor by Warner and tells a more complete and satisfying story and it provides a canonical conundrum as to which film DC should acknowledge in future projects.
While DC has had some success with its individual theatrical films, rebooting the DC Extended Universe is the right call. Its foundation is just too unstable and there is no easy way to right it. DC also needs a cinematic universe that can tell both individual stories like it has been doing, but also cinematic-universe-wide stories, like Marvel has done effectively in both its “Avengers” films and its later Phase films. Borrowing characters from other films has been so common that recent Marvel releases sometimes function as mini-“Avengers” films, because they’ve been able to weave such a strong connecting bond between all their films.
The key question for DC is this: Can Peter Safran and James Gunn be its Kevin Feige, as effective managers of its cinematic universe? Making one film is a miracle; being able to turn out films in the efficient manner Marvel has is unprecedented, as is the overarching connecting tissue and vision in its “Infinity Saga” that ties together all of those films into one large epic.
It’s perhaps the toughest job in Hollywood, one that only Feige has definitively succeeded in during the modern film era.