Justice League and What Comes Next for the DCEU

After a disappointing opening weekend for Justice League, we consider how WB might rebuild the DCEU and its shared cinematic universe.

It’s fair to say that Warner Bros. and DC fans are having a rough weekend. While the final box office numbers for Justice League’s opening weekend are still days away, it’s already clear that the superhero extravaganza event—the one that a studio sprinted toward making—is going to open south of the nominal $100 million-line. In sunnier weather, the estimated $96 million is nothing to sneeze at for a three-day gross. But when this is the number attached to a movie that cost about $300 million to produce following reshoots (and not counting marketing expenses), it’s pretty dismal. Especially if Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s multiplier is anything to go by, then that opening number might amount to 50 percent of Justice League’s entire domestic take. (In other words, it may only gross about $200 million in the U.S.)

To put this in perspective, the aforementioned and highly frontloaded Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opened at $166 million while setting up the theoretically even bigger Justice League movie in its title. It was supposed to be the dawn of a new age. And by extension, no movie featuring Batman in the last decade has grossed less than $158 million in its opening weekend. Until now. By comparison, Marvel Studios’ own maiden voyage of a team-up movie, The Avengers, grossed a then-record shattering $207 million in its opening, and with nary a character as popular as Batman to boot. Even Marvel’s “B-player” Thor just opened Thor: Ragnarok this month to $122 million, a number that may only be about $25 million higher, but looms like Mount Everest in terms of brand value.

So yes, DC and its fans had a bad weekend. Still, this too shall pass, and like a beleaguered Gotham City district attorney, I can promise you that the dawn is still coming. It’ll be here tomorrow morning, in fact. So after the dust settles, the question is where does this leave the DC Extended Universe? Well, only studio executives can know for certain, but the news is not entirely doom and gloom.

This is not the end of the DCEU. Aquaman is in the can and has a nice yearlong post-production process to be refined. Wonder Woman still has a decent shot at making real waves at the upcoming Academy Awards, and Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot are already preparing to shoot Wonder Woman 2 for release in 2019Wonder Woman is proof positive that good superhero movies continue to do even better business, and WB has a whole stable of these caped folks at their disposal. But things are definitely about to change.

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Chasing Marvel Ends

When Zack Snyder and Harry Lennix strolled into San Diego Comic-Con’s Hall H in July 2013, Man of Steel was barely a month old. Yet with a box office opening that left WB executives cold and ready for some Shakespearean power plays (and which at $116 million looks ironically appealing today), it was clear some last-minute and frenzied reworking was done, for Snyder and Lennix were on hand to reveal that a Man of Steel sequel would really be a Batman vs. Superman kind of affair.

Obviously WB was eager to jumpstart a shared multi-franchise behemoth as broad and lucrative as what Kevin Feige built with his Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is still the envy of all other studios in Hollywood. However, it is now apparent that rather than growing the cultural and financial worth of the Superman brand by placing Batman into his sequel, the rush to build a comparable model of crossovers and team-ups with DC’s trinity has at least had a diminishing effect on Batman’s appeal. To the point where the direct sequel to Batman v Superman, and the reason for rushing into a “versus” film in the first place, opened to a grim November holiday.

Just as Man of Steel’s numbers led to a reckoning at WB, it is inevitable that Justice League’s smaller intake with a higher price tag will also lead to a sea change. Warner Bros. has already backed away from Zack Snyder’s vision for this universe. Painting BvS in his own image, Snyder was too entrenched in Justice League’s production after that 2016 film opened to big numbers (but a chilly critical and audience reception) to be replaced. And yet, WB was still able to curtail the original plan for Justice League, which was to be a two-part film event, into a streamlined and fairly standard one-and-done movie. And given that Snyder was not there to complete his vision for League, it is almost impossible to imagine him coming back for a Justice League 2.

Further, it is hard to see any sort of Justice League sequel or crossover coming in the near future. Having already backed away from rushing a Justice League 2 into production like the studio had with its first entry, WB has also spent months laying the groundwork to distance themselves from the desire to emulate the Marvel model of a constant overarching narrative.

This was crystallized in August when it was revealed that WB is developing a standalone Joker movie with director Todd Phillips and Martin Scorsese as producer. It was made explicitly clear that Jared Leto would not be playing the Clown Prince and that it would not be associated with the DCEU. While the fate of that particular movie remains murky—WB is also developing a Joker and Harley Quinn movie that would presumably include breakout Margot Robbie and Jared Leto—the message is clear. They’re backing away from doing serialized movies that lead to big events like Justice League or Avengers.

Personally, I suspect this is going to become increasingly the new normal for DC movies. Warner Bros. sank well over a third of a billion dollars into Justice League and diminished the popularity of their biggest non-Harry Potter brand as a result. Justice League 2 currently has no release date and is going to be placed on the backburner indefinitely. And it’s easy to guess the studio might even be gun shy about doing any crossover movie in the next few years that could be gleaned as a sequel to BvS and Justice League. Which means that Flashpoint—a Flash centric movie wherein Flash meets different versions of Justice League members in an alternate timeline while resetting his own reality, a la X-Men: Days of Future Past—is probably going to be quietly put on the shelf.

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I am not saying we will never get a Flashpoint movie, but a Justice League-centric film with actors the audience has yet to fully warm to in the next three years? Don’t count on it. WB has already eased audiences into terminology like “standalone” and “director-driven” movies. These massive team-ups are going to be taking a break.

Who Still Gets a Movie?

But by extension, it is also going to be curious who keeps their solo movie and who does not. With any course correction, studios are going to need to reevaluate where resources go. And when $150 million is considered making a PG-13 superhero movie on the cheap, that is a lot of resource to reconsider.

First of all, those hoping for a proper Man of Steel sequel should probably put that dream to rest. Despite being arguably the most recognizable superhero in the world, the Last Son of Krypton has proven to be an elusive property for Warner Bros. in the last three decades. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns sputtered out in 2006, and Zack Snyder’s Jesus-obsessed quasi-trilogy with the birth (Man of Steel), the death (BvS), and the resurrection (Justice League) has been met with indifference. Not clearing $300 million domestic made Man of Steel a disappointment, but the third straight movie with him as a central figure will make far less than $291 million in the U.S. Granted none of these movies have been particularly amazing. Nevertheless, to a studio that is being asked to spend another $200 million on a character who hasn’t soared with audiences in this century… that becomes a problem.

From a corporate perspective, BvS did everything the studio had been trying to do with the character for 20 years: he fought Batman, he acted like Batman, and then he died. It didn’t make him or the League founded in his name more popular. Superman is likely going on a sabbatical, especially if there are no team-up movies on the horizon.

The question is where does that leave the rest of the Justice League? Honestly, I suspect the fate of Ezra Miller’s delightful Flash and Ray Fisher’s intriguing Cyborg lie in the hands of Aquaman. It is conceivable both of them will be put on hold as WB considers its options. But Wonder Woman was a bigger hit than anyone could predict for a variety of reasons, and that is reason enough to not shy away from the non-Batman characters. If Aquaman works, especially with audiences, the other two will have a better shot at still getting their solos. David Sandberg’s Shazam is deep in pre-production and will begin filming early in 2018, so has a shot at making its 2019 release date if the studio doesn’t put the movie on hold after this weekend (which at this point is anyone’s guess). But the good news is Aquaman is directed by James Wan, who unlike Zack Snyder has made only crowd pleasers for the last decade. 

As for various other developing DCEU properties like Justice League Dark and Green Lantern Corps., those too may be facing a lengthy stay of action until Aquaman comes out. I wouldn’t expect the Corps. to make their 2020 release date, at the very least.

Until then, WB will focus on what works, which right now is Wonder Woman and Batman movies. Patty Jenkins will probably have even more freedom on Wonder Woman 2, as she will be less beholden to phantom team-up movies, and WB will continue building their little Batman mini-universe. It is hard to predict if Joss Whedon will stay on the Batgirl movie as director given his recent PR troubles, or which if any of the Joker movies get made, but I imagine movies starring both characters will happen. Batman remains ever a safe bet, and the Joker is the most popular villain ever. That plus Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn are why Suicide Squad was a hit despite not being a particularly good movie. And that goodwill is why WB will probably power through and make Suicide Squad 2 happen.

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But speaking of Batman…

Expect New Faces

As this massive retooling gets underway, it is also fair to say that Justice League is going to be the end of the DC road for some of its stars. As has long been rumored, Ben Affleck is done as Batman. We’ve heard from a reliable source that he has been out since last spring at least, and that Matt Reeves wants to choose his own lead for the solo Batman movie. If there was any waffling on this, it’s definitely moot after Justice League’s performance. We can’t comment on recent rumors that Jake Gyllenhaal is the new Bruce Wayne, but Reeves is definitely going to make his Batman movie, which is honestly where the Dark Knight is most effective as a character.

Also, if there are no Superman sequels in the near or distant future, and Justice League 2 is at least a half-decade off, it is also probably safe to assume Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are going to part ways with the DCEU. Cavill has said he wants another Man of Steel movie, but it is difficult to imagine the star of the upcoming Mission: Impossible 6 waiting indefinitely in the wings for a cape. And quite honestly, the frequently Oscar nominated Ms. Adams has not had much to do since the first Man of Steel. It is easy to imagine she could be by now looking for the exits.

Where does this leave the rest of the faces of the DCEU? From Jared Leto to Jason Momoa, it is hard to say. Only Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman has really caught audiences’ imaginations. But if she is the warm face of the DCEU, then it is conceivable many of those around her are replaceable.

The DCEU will survive. But expect it to look very different after this weekend.