Why DC's ambitious reset might actually work

James Gunn
James Gunn

There are two important things to remember when it comes to DC, whether you’re talking about the company’s decades of success with creating comics or its years of mixed results with film and television. First, unlike principal competitor Marvel, DC has never shied away from hitting a big companywide reset button. And second, DC is no stranger to staring down a capital-C crisis.

With their ambitious announcement this week of plans for both an extensive reboot and a cohesive vision for the DC Universe, newly installed DC Studios co-chairs James Gunn and Peter Safran demonstrated their willingness to embark on a massive reset of the company’s film and TV operations. And with their urgency in making these moves—the news came just three months after Gunn and Safran took the reins at the troubled entertainment powerhouse—the new bosses signaled their eagerness to face head-on the crisis that has plagued DC movies and shows for years.

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Of course, most of DC’s previous crises didn’t take place in the real world. In the 1960s, DC introduced the Justice League/Justice Society “Crisis On Multiple Earths,” hugely successful crossovers that introduced the concept of parallel realities to play home to its Golden Age heroes and other properties. And in the 1980s, DC rolled out the sweeping maxi-series “Crisis On Infinite Earths,” which re-wrote, re-defined, and reinvigorated 50 years of the company’s splintered continuities. In both instances, DC reaped significant creative, critical, and commercial rewards for its efforts.

This week’s moves by Gunn and Safran are designed to staunch the real-life crisis that has roiled DC’s film and TV output for more than a decade. The performance of the company’s signature characters, particularly on the big screen, has been wildly uneven and increasingly disconnected. And DC’s problems have multiplied as Marvel’s stable of heroes emerged to become the era’s reigning pop cultural phenomenon. Sure, some DC films and TV projects had their loyal enthusiasts, like the first Wonder Woman film or the second Suicide Squad entry. But overall there’s been a rudderless feeling, and a creative malaise, to the oft-disconnected DC Extended Universe. Even the considerable star power of Dwayne Johnson couldn’t make Black Adam a hit, prompting DC’s parent company Warner Bros to finally pick up the Bat Phone and call in Gunn and Safran.

So say goodbye to the cinematic DC Extended Universe—most of it, anyway—and while you’re at it, bid adieu to TV’s Arrowverse—once vibrant but slowly running out of creative gas. Gunn and Safran plan to profoundly alter the company’s landscape, aiming for a unified whole that will both offer audiences a sense of consistency, continuity, and storytelling integrity, as well as an opportunity to better contend with the cross-pollinated, must-see, epic-scope appeal of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Gods, monsters, and quality storytelling

Chapter 1 - Gods and Monsters | DC Studios | DC

Gunn and Safran’s newly revealed slate offers a giddy picture of the coming DC Universe, subtitled “Gods and Monsters,” one that leans into a few iconic pillars (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern) while mining DC’s incredibly deep bench of unique characters and high-concept creations (Booster Gold, Amanda Waller, and the Authority). It also offers revolutionary revisionist takes on B-listers (Supergirl) to help launch them into the pop consciousness. That audiences will be seeing legendary characters crossing into the worlds of the less well-known gives the whole endeavor a promise of freshness, unpredictable twists and potent new character combinations.

At the same time, Gunn and Safran are simultaneously offering fare for the superhero-fatigued by immediately dipping into the company’s ample toy box of horror and supernatural fare, from the familiar Swamp Thing to the downright obscure Creature Commandos. Given that horror is one of Hollywood’s most reliably bankable genres, the new DCU offers audiences big scares and charismatic monstrosities, and with the right kind of crossovers may hook fans on its superhero slate as well. Both are well-chosen: Swamp Thing has powerful comic book canon to draw on, from some of the medium’s finest writers and artists, while Creature Commandos offers creators all sorts of leeway for interpretation.

Perhaps most exciting is Gunn and Safran’s professed dedication to high-quality writing and storytelling as they unroll each new DCU project: as Gunn has demonstrated throughout his career as a screenwriter and filmmaker, he has a keen eye for both character and story, a scholar’s approach to comic book history and a distinctive ability to draw out and remix both essential and seemingly throwaway elements in new, delightful and often shocking ways, all while still staying true to the original incarnations (see the Guardians of the Galaxy films and Peacemaker).

Gunn also possesses a tremendous sense of humor, especially for what will play well on screen, which should provide a much-needed antidote to the relentlessly bleak and grim tone of the DCEU’s “Snyderverse” and even the Dark Knight films of Christopher Nolan, where that tone was perfectly appropriate. Gunn also has, thanks to his long-ago Troma bona fides, a well-developed sense of mayhem and carnage that may appease the fans who embraced the prior universe’s darker bent.

Edgier characters and hope for the future

Superman Vol. 3: The Truth Revealed
Superman Vol. 3: The Truth Revealed

Above all, though, Gunn promises to bring considerable heart to the new universe, something that’s integral to icons like Superman and Wonder Woman, but will benefit even the edgiest of DC characters. There is certainly room for bleakness, even unhappy endings, but grit and grittiness mean little without a genuine investment in the characters and their aspirations. There is a suggestion in the announced titles and the “Gods and Monsters” theme that even uber-powerful characters like Superman and Swamp Thing will grapple with vulnerabilities as they try to discover just how they fit in the world.

Meanwhile, The Authority, as sort of a fascistic take on the Justice League, may well offer a venue for fans of the darker, more violent aspects of the Snyderverse and an opportunity to contrast the team with the DCU’s presumably more compassionate heroes. And given the influence of the Tom King-penned series that it derives from, Supergirl: Woman Of Tomorrow will likely offer a slightly more “angry Kryptonian unleashed” spectacle than her Earthbound cousin. Nevertheless, the relatable human component of both properties will likely be essential to their success.

Of the announced TV series, Lanterns has a lot of promise and makes a lot of sense: the mythology of the Green Lantern Corps is one of DC’s richest and most complex, and audiences will benefit from a deeper and more extended entry point into that corner of the cosmos. More curious is the Amazon-centric Paradise Lost, if only because there’s no announced Wonder Woman project to tie into as of yet—though the show’s very existence suggests there will be soon.

One of the more intriguing questions, which Gunn and Safran haven’t explicitly addressed, is where certain remnants of the old DCEU might fit into the new landscape. Hollywood is, after all, a business built on box office success, and should any of the unreleased DC films in the pipeline—The Flash, and the second Shazam and Aquaman films—reap huge hauls, it’s hard to imagine Warner Brothers not wanting to fold some of those characters and actors into the new DCU at some point.

Similarly, even though Patty Jenkins’ third Wonder Woman film was scuttled, it would seem to be a huge waste of audience goodwill not to offer Gal Gadot an opportunity to continue on with the character, and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn also seems deserving of a place in the reconfigured universe—without being relegated to non-canon projects under the Elseworlds label, which seem to defeat the purpose of a newly coherent continuity.

The best of both worlds

Viola Davis as Amanda Waller
Viola Davis as Amanda Waller

In the mid-’80s DC faced similar conundrums in its comic book universe, where characters like Superman and Wonder Woman received whole-cloth revamps, while Batman was given an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, with continuity tweaks slowly and subtly incorporated. Comic book readers accepted it, for the most part, and a similar approach with the films likely won’t discombobulate the broad audience, but it remains to be seen if having two concurrent Batman film series—Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson’s The Batman, and the announced The Brave And The Bold film featuring a Grant Morrison-inspired take on Batman and his son/latest Robin, Damian—will prove challenging. While audiences may well be fine with dual Batfilms, the real challenge may be finding a new actor of talent and stature willing to don the cape and cowl while another one is already playing the role in an active sub-franchise.

Lastly, Gunn and Safran have wisely laid down a shrewd foundation for cross-continuity and sliding in the best surviving aspects of the prior cinematic universe with Waller, the planned series starring Amanda Waller. Bringing over Waller from the two extant Suicide Squad films and the Peacemaker seriesas well as the actress who plays her, the extraordinarily gifted Viola Davis—gives the new DCU a character planted firmly at the center of the universe and a fixed point where any of the others may logically cross her path. Even better, Waller is one of the most complicated and morally gray DC characters of the last 40 years, and Davis can be counted on to strike flinty sparks with any actor she shares the screen with.

Booster Gold, too, with his somewhat mercenary goals of fame and fortune, will also provide a great cornerstone for crossoverBooster is always best in sharp relief to the more altruistic heroes like Superman and no-nonsense crusaders like Batmanand decades after his introduction he’s as ripe a vehicle for social commentary on fame, money, and influence as he ever was.

All in all, Gunn and Safran’s slate has more than enough potential to launch a near-fully formed universe right out of the gate. Now it’s a matter of execution, and audiences will find out if this latest and largest DC Crisis has a happy ending.

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