It’s safe to say that Warner Bros. hasn’t quite perfected the formula for their DC superhero movies. Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman remains the only one to gain both critical and commercial success since they launched their superhero cinematic universe in earnest with 2013’s Man of Steel. Their attempts to reverse-engineer the success of Marvel’s Avengers and the intricacies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe landed with a thud when Justice League failed to even gross as much at the box office as the franchise kickoff Man of Steel did four years earlier.
But the just-announced DCEU adaptation of Jack Kirby’s New Gods, helmed by A Wrinkle in Time director Ava DuVernay, will allow the studio to utilize plenty of DC characters without the same baggage and expectations that come with characters like Superman or Batman. New Gods is perhaps the riskiest project yet announced for Warner Bros’ slate of DC superhero movies. It also might be the smartest franchise gamble they’ve taken since the core Harry Potter series wrapped up.
To understand the ambition of New Gods, we have to go back to its inception. When Jack Kirby jumped ship from Marvel to DC in 1970, he brought a much needed injection of cosmic energy to the company. DC had long been the standard-bearer of superhero comics, and Superman was still a top-selling title. But DC lacked the edge of their chief competitors at Marvel, still a relatively upstart group, who were being devoured by the counterculture and on college campuses, fueled by the wild concepts and boundless creative energy of Kirby’s work. New Gods challenged what readers of the 1970s traditionally associated with superhero storytelling; the DCEU adaptation could and should represent the same kind of evolution for the superhero movie genre.
Who are the New Gods?
Jack Kirby was given complete creative freedom in his early days at DC, and he introduced a seemingly fully-formed mythology across four different books. He dropped the shadowy villain Darkseid in the pages of Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen, teased the denizens of New Genesis in The Forever People, and introduced the heroic Mister Miracle in a solo book. But the core title of the cosmic epic was The New Gods. Together, they came to be known as Kirby’s Fourth World cycle.
Think of the Fourth World in general and New Gods in particular as the science fiction equivalent of classical mythology, taking the hi-tech divine space god concepts Kirby introduced in the pages of Marvel’s Thor in the previous years to their very limit. Told in suitably grandiose fashion, like a four-color Homer or Virgil, by arguably the single greatest auteur in the history of comics at the absolute peak of his artistic powers, the Fourth World was unlike anything DC had ever published, and expanded the possibilities of comic book storytelling even further than the boundary pushing work that Kirby had already done at Marvel.
It’s tough to sum up the core of the New Gods in a succinct way, but I’ll try to keep it focused on the key elements that could become the driving force of the movie. Let’s just start with an excerpt of Kirby’s words from 1971’s New Gods #1…
“There came a time when the old gods died…an ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust!
The final moment came with the fatal release of indescribable power, which tore the home of the old gods asunder, split in great halves, and filled the universe with the blinding death-flash of its destruction!
In the end there were two giant molten bodies, spinning slow and barren – clean of all that had gone before – adrift in the fading sound of cosmic thunder…”
One of these new worlds, New Genesis, is a peaceful planet, under the benevolent rule of Highfather. The other, Apokolips, is a war-ravaged industrial wasteland, populated by slaves under the boot of the terrifying cosmic dictator Darkseid. To alleviate hostilities between the two planets, Highfather and Darkseid exchange their infant sons, with each to be raised by the other. Darkseid’s son, Orion, though troubled by the duality of his nature and heritage, becomes a champion of New Genesis. Darkseid, however, puts Highfather’s son, Scott Free, into the orphanages of Apokolips, where he rebels and becomes the superheroic escape artist known as Mister Miracle
If that sounds like a lot, it’s not even close. Darkseid is the most powerful villain in DC’s library, and easily one of the greatest in comics history. He deserves to be done justice on film. And I haven’t even mentioned Lightray, Highfather’s biological son whose nature is the opposite of his troubled stepbrother, or Metron, a mysterious and nigh-omnipotent sage who travels the universe in his Mobius Chair, or Big Barda (Ms. DuVernay’s self-professed favorite superhero), an Apokoliptan warrior who becomes one of the most noble heroes in the entire saga.
How New Gods Fits Into the DCEU
As you can imagine, New Gods mythology is vast. Like any epic, it has a cast of hundreds, with several characters that could become the focus of a saga or get spun off into their own films. It’s not clear at this time what, if any, connection DuVernay’s New Gods movie will have to the already established DCEU. But one of the great things about this project is that it doesn’t need to be part of any other cinematic universe, as there’s enough material there to sustain several franchises of its own.
Of course, this is complicated slightly by the fact that elements of the Fourth World were already introduced to the DCEU in the Justice League movie, including key New Genesis technology like the Mother Box, the preferred method of transportation of Fourth World characters in the Boom Tube, not to mention the fact that the film’s punching bag, Steppenwolf, is the uncle of chief New Gods villain, Darkseid. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. is unlikely to be too worried about the constraints of continuity on this film, especially with a movie that failed to make a sizeable impact at the box office.
The studio is currently exploring numerous “standalone” DC movies (like a Joker origin story that has nothing to do with the version of the character introduced in Suicide Squad), which wouldn’t be concerned with linking their stories to the larger DCEU. It’s possible that New Gods may fall under that umbrella. On the one hand, there’s no reason to explicitly link this to the DCEU early on to establish its Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings scope. On the other hand, Kirby used Superman as a window to introduce characters like Darkseid and the Forever People to DC readers in 1970, and with the Man of Steel’s cinematic future currently uncertain, taking him out of his comfort zone as a POV character for the wild concepts of the Fourth World might not be the worst idea.
As risky as New Gods might seem in some ways, studios do love familiarity, and there are elements of that here. It certainly can’t be pigeonholed as a superhero movie, and done properly could give WB a sprawling cosmic saga with plenty of room for the kind of YA-flavored angst and social commentary that propelled the Hunger Games movies to success. It’s easy to see Warner Bros. betting that audiences might respond to the technological wonderland of New Genesis as they did to Wakanda in Black Panther. New Gods even offers an opportunity to diversify the casting in a way that few other DC properties do, which certainly wouldn’t hurt its box office chances. Keeping these characters as far away from Earth and the usual superhero concepts as possible gives Warner Bros. something better than a superhero franchise, it gives them their very own Star Wars (a film which was, coincidentally, influenced by New Gods). And putting a massive franchise like this in the hands of a filmmaker like Ava DuVernay, much like they did with Patty Jenkins and Wonder Woman, is yet another step in the right direction.
I’ll let Ms. DuVernay and Mr. Kirby have the final word, though…