It’s been more than a decade since Man of Steel ushered in the DCEU, and 10 years this very week since Ben Affleck was announced to play Batman in Zack Snyder’s cinematic saga. We all know the turmoil that endeavor ultimately resulted in, and the seemingly ceaseless restructuring of DC that followed partially as a result.
But for now, let’s journey back to the summer of 2013, a simpler, yet undeniably passionate age. The noise from comic book movie fans circling the newly minted DC Extended Universe was near deafening that summer. Everyone had an opinion, both on Man of Steel with its controversial third act in which Superman killed Zod, and the casting of Affleck, who still hadn’t quite come clean of the spandex stench of 2003’s Daredevil yet was somehow supposed to measure up to Christian Bale’s beloved Dark Knight.
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The DCEU was shiny and new, and whether positive or negative, everyone had an opinion on its future. Fan theories took hold quickly, comic creators took sides, bloggers discovered they could gain control of the narrative early, and DC fans fortified defenses and stockpiled ammunition. In just a few years, they would take what was theoretically supposed to be fun (Comics! Movies! Superheroes!) and turn it into pure misery, a war of personal attacks, vendettas, cult mentalities, antagonistic journalism and career-altering decisions.
Cut to 10 years later, and Henry Cavill is no longer the Man of Steel, Ben Affleck is no longer Batman, Zack Snyder is building universes at Netflix with his Army of the Dead and Rebel Moon franchises, Joss Whedon is persona non grata in Hollywood, and that guy who showed everyone just how successful the Guardians of the Galaxy could be, James Gunn, just wrapped up the Guardians trilogy on a successful note and is now the co-head of DC Studios, alongside Peter Safran.
Together they are relaunching the universe as the DCU. And as for the DCEU? Blue Beetle is in theaters — though, sadly, it seems few know it. Is it the penultimate installment of the DCEU, paving the way for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom? Or is it the DCU’s first entry? Few seem to know the answer to that one either, given Gunn’s perplexing comments that Blue Beetle is the first DCU character but not the first DCU film. Blue Beetle’s opening weekend, among the lowest in the franchise’s history, comes after a string of box office misses including The Flash, Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Black Adam, and COVID-affected titles Wonder Woman 1984 and The Suicide Squad. As Gunn and Safran tee up their relaunch with a slate of film and television projects, pundits are wondering: Where have all the DC film fans gone?
A decade of constantly shifting decisions, executive musical chairs, overly aggressive critics and overly aggressive fans have left DC fandom a house divided, the reflections of which we can see all over social media. It’s a swamp that even Swamp Thing would be hesitant to dip a mossy toe into. There are those who are optimistic about the DCU’s future and eager for a reboot following Gunn and Safran’s unveiling of “Chapter One” in January. There are those who are puzzled over what the DCU actually is, given the mixed messaging behind some actors and projects continuing on — like the Suicide Squad spinoff series, Peacemaker — while most will not. There are those who lament that Snyder did not get to finish the saga as he envisioned, but there are others who have moved on, just as the director has. There are those who find a reboot unnecessary given the decade of work that’s gone into building the DCEU. There are those who have taken a cult-like approach to Snyder’s films, making them (and him) their entire identity, and crowding out those who were just fans of his movies and didn’t conjure up images of Eminem’s “Stan” with violent threats and mobilized harassment. And there are those who have moved on from the whole comic book movie thing.
It’s a difficult, and often hostile environment for any casual fan to thrive in, and too much work for those, myself included, who are invested in these characters but find the online discourse to be filled with traps. Many of those who were excited about Man of Steel and Affleck back in the summer of 2013, and found much to appreciate in the follow-up Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), have since receded to the background, keeping our DCEU fandom close to the vest, while being crowded out by the hashtag brigades and burn-book zealots.
While the MCU has been able to create a fairly unified fan base (though not without its own share of sycophants and antagonists) nobody really has a strong idea of what DC fans want, or who the fans really are. At the moment, it doesn’t even feel possible for DC to have a celebratory DCU Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con, certainly not one without a plane flying over the city with a banner proclaiming #SellZSJLtoNetflix (the latest hashtag campaign).
Truthfully, it’s barely possible to go to a movie theater for a new DC film opening night and feel like you’re there sharing the experience with like-minded fans — that is, if you’re sharing the theater with anything other than rows of empty seats. It’s difficult to generate any excitement about DC Films. Unless, of course, it’s related to Batman. Fans love Batman. But not Batman as a supporting character in a Flash adventure, or Batman as an unseen reference in a Harley Quinn heist film. They just want Batman. And if not him, then the Joker will do just fine. As it stands, Warner Bros.’ safest future bets are The Batman Part II and Joker: Folie à Deux, neither of which are part of the shared universe that makes up the upcoming DCU, and both reach beyond the core comic book movie fandom.
On one hand, you can look at the poor turnout for the past year of DCEU films as a lack of faith in the brand from general audiences and fans, to the point where even the good movies, like Blue Beetle, are getting brushed off. But on the other, perhaps this string of box office disappointments casts a lasso of truth around audiences, revealing that when it comes to movies, DC fans en masse aren’t broad fans of the characters and universe itself, but of filmmakers. When we look back at the history of the most successful DC films, and the ones that created passionate fan bases, there is almost always a distinctive filmmaker who can fit into auteur theory behind them. Richard Donner, Tim Burton, Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder, James Wan and Matt Reeves are all filmmakers with instantly recognizable styles and directorial traits. Hell, we could even add Joel Schumacher to that list, as even his films have found their audience of late. The fact that the lion’s share of those filmmakers took on Batman has only cemented his place as the biggest draw for DC fans.
It seems that it’s this factor, not the necessarily characters themselves, that really separates DC’s film projects from the MCU. The MCU has created a system in which fandom is generated by its characters and the directors, for the most part, are secondary. The fans love Spider-Man, but they’re not buying Jon Watts shirts or expressing interest in his personal life. But DC’s fandom is driven by filmmakers elevated to celebrity status, and as a result, trust is placed in their decisions. It’s that rationale that led to Black Adam, Shazam! Fury of the Gods and Blue Beetle — all of which were marketed as Marvel-lite — failing to draw out the fandom. Their target audience already had versions of those movies in the MCU, and the merits of representation that Black Adam and Blue Beetle offered, while commendable, are not a big enough draw in and of themselves. But when Warners puts someone like Matt Reeves or James Gunn behind those titles, then there’s a draw, and everything from unconventional casting choices to character alterations becomes easier for fans to not only embrace but defend.
The future of the DCU relies on Warners’ awareness that much of this particular fan base is less interested in cinematic universes and cameos, and more invested in filmmakers with distinct, sometimes even controversial, visions. Those are films that fans will rally behind, but hopefully in a well-adjusted way that doesn’t make you think you’re going to see them inserting themselves into their directors’ family photos. James Gunn certainly seems like a filmmaker who can deliver an inspired take on Superman with Superman: Legacy. He has a built-in fan base, which, truthfully, matters a lot less with general audiences in the grand scheme of things. Most folks just want to see a good movie, and if that is delivered upon, a new fan base can emerge. As a filmmaker, Gunn has earned a lot of trust, but for fans, both old and new, to stick around after Legacy, he’s going to need more than a blueprint for the future. He’s going to need a league of filmmakers in whom audiences can put their trust.
Warner Bros. isn’t going to win back everyone, and it would be a mistake — one that the studio made in the past with the DCEU — to even think that they can. Attempting to make films for everyone resulted in the theatrical cut of Justice League (2017), a film for no one. And it will take time to rebuild DC’s fandom, to unify the parts that can be unified, and simply let the rest go. Not everyone is going to be sold, and expecting a billion-dollar Superman film out the gate would be absurd, but of course, we’ve been down that road before. Perhaps the simplest lesson for this current regime comes from the film that spearheaded a DC cinematic universe in the first place, The Dark Knight: “Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”
That means offering consistency and not changing directions every time some critics and certain segments of fandom become blinded by nostalgia or throw tantrums when the story isn’t told the way they wanted it to be. That means decisiveness and letting filmmakers do more than simply adapt the familiar, but challenge what we think we want from these movies and what we think we know about these characters. The DCU has to do more than make fans believe a man can fly. It has to make them believe that this time, there’s a willingness to stay the course and see that flight to its destination. Only then will the DC film fans be found again.
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