Is the DC Brand Becoming Toxic?

There are already some worrying signs ahead for fan interest in DC Studios as James Gunn appears poised to reset large swaths of the DC universe.

Justice League in mourning
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

We wouldn’t blame him if James Gunn is wondering right about now if there’s an idea for “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 4″ based on how his first two months as co-CEO of DC Studios has gone. Gunn and partner Peter Safran officially started in their jobs on Nov. 1, tasked by Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav with revamping and rebooting the company’s occasionally lucrative DC Comics cinematic universe after a troubled near-decade at the multiplex has led to some triumphs, a whole lot of failures, a fractured and incoherent slate of films, and a bitterly divided fan base. And at least the initial response in the press to their hiring was overwhelmingly positive.

Based on recent events, however, the pair have their work cut out for them. Before they can even start to produce and release the films and TV shows that they are developing, there are still four more DC movies on the schedule for 2023. And that’s where the trouble seems afoot. Online movie ticket seller Fandango released a survey conducted among users of the top 10 most anticipated blockbusters (of course, that’s assuming they make “blockbuster” money) of next year. Of the 10, only one was a DC film: Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, which came in at number six.

The top three films on the list were (in order) Gunn’s own Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, and Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania—two MCU films and one Marvel-adjacent movie.

On a smaller list of the top five most anticipated superhero films, the top four were all Marvel, with The Marvels landing at #4 behind the three already mentioned above, and Aquaman 2 coming in at #5. Nowhere to be found on either list: DC efforts Shazam: Fury of the Gods, Blue Beetle, and the problem-plagued, $200 million-costing The Flash.

Ad – content continues below

The question thus becomes: Has the arguably lousy quality of several recent DCEU releases—Wonder Woman 1984, Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and Black Adam—turned audiences off this particular film universe? Also while the general public may not be as aware of the intricate details, has the recent drama involving Gunn and Safran’s alleged scrapping of most of the remaining elements (and cast members) from the Snyderverse iteration of DC, the continued toxic behavior of bereaved DC fans on social media, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s very visible attempt to commandeer the DC canon just made even casual fans throw up their hands and give up?

All of this came to a head in the embarrassing spectacle surrounding Henry Cavill’s brief return as Superman in the mid-credits scene of Black Adam. The whole thing was apparently willed into existence by Johnson, who was intent on setting up at the very least his own corner of the DC universe in which his Black Adam and Cavill’s Kal-El could go mano a mano.

But Gunn and Safran had other plans, telling Cavill just two months later that his services were no longer required, and telling Johnson a short time later that his wouldn’t be either. With some reports suggesting Black Adam stands to lose as much as $150 million for Warner Bros. (Johnson has disputed these claims on social media), we don’t see a future in which that character fights the IRS, let alone the last son of Krypton.

With Cavill and Johnson out, Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 3 canceled, and the fate of Snyderverse charter members Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Jason Momoa (Aquaman), and Ezra Miller (the Flash) uncertain—although Gunn has denied rumors that all of the old guard will be recast—a number of fans online, many of them still clinging to the hopeless “restore the SnyderVerse” quest, have already begun calling for Gunn’s head (often in typically classless terms).

Gunn himself addressed the issue in a Twitter thread earlier this week, saying that he and Safran “were aware” that certain fans could be “uproarious and unkind, to say the least,” while adding, “Disrespectful outcry will never, ever affect our actions.”

Let’s face facts: the DC universe as previously configured was broken. With three different actors playing Batman in already released or upcoming films, plus different iterations of characters like Joker, Superman, Flash, and others scattered across both the big and small screen, and almost none of it moving forward in a cohesive fashion, David Zaslav had the right to say, “We’re gonna blow this up and start over again.” (What you think of his other creative and commercial decisions are another matter.)

Ad – content continues below

By anointing Gunn and Safran as the creators handed that assignment, he has given them the mandate to do whatever they think is necessary to right the sinking ship. If that involves wiping the slate clean and beginning with a blank slate, so be it. They should, at the very least, be given the chance to make their case. As Gunn himself has said, you might not like or agree with all their decisions, but it’s their decisions to make. Clearly things were not working before this.

But what remains to be seen is whether the public at large, as well as the more dedicated fans, are tired of all the reboots, the changes, the failures, the bullying, the harassment, and the second guessing, and if the combination of all that has damned DC to the Phantom Zone no matter what.

At the moment, it would seem interest is waning at dangerous rates in the four remaining DCEU movies due out next year. Convincing an audience afterward that the next one will be better can be a tricky proposition. Just ask Gunn who made a terrific Suicide Squad movie in 2021 after the artistically compromised original in 2016. He had the goods, but getting folks to see them turned out to be the hardest part.