Where the DC Cinematic Universe Went Wrong (And How It’s Making a Turnaround)


Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Superheroes from the DC Universe are pictured standing together.

Henry Diep, Staff Writer

As a child, I enjoyed reading the superhero comic books that my local library had to offer. I ended up developing an interest for the characters of the DC Universe in particular over those of the Marvel Universe; I just liked the heroes and their stories more. So as an avid comic book reader and DC fan, I naturally had high hopes for the DC Extended Universe, and how it would rival that of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, when its first movie Man of Steel was released in 2013.

I have to admit that I was more so excited at the prospect of a shared cinematic universe between the characters that I grew up reading about than the actual Man of Steel movie. I just wasn’t that big of a Superman fan growing up despite him being one of two figureheads for the DC Universe (next to Batman). The movie itself wasn’t bad, but I was more looking forward to the future DCEU movies featuring heroes who had never before hit the big screen. 

Coming off of the worldwide success of Christopher Nolan’s critically-acclaimed Dark Knight trilogy, things were looking good for the DCEU. While Man of Steel was pretty controversial among critics and was hit-or-miss with audiences, it wasn’t a bad movie and certainly wasn’t a flop at the box office. Following Man of Steel’s release, the announcement for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was made, the first live-action movie to feature both Batman and Superman, arguably the two most well-known superheroes in the world.

There was a lot of pressure and hype riding on BvS and it wasn’t until three years later in 2016 that the movie was finally released, facing major criticism from the public and critics alike. It didn’t necessarily flop at the box office as it did make $872 million, but the reviews were terrible and most tickets were bought during the opening weeks off hype for what was supposed to be one of the biggest comic book movie events ever.

I personally found the pacing of the movie to be really bad in the two-and-a-half hours it ran for. We rarely saw Batman and Superman share the screen together while other parts were boringly drawn out. The movie does have some bright spots but overall, the plot was convoluted and somewhat unnecessarily complicated and the potential of the villains was just wasted. Doomsday seemed like your generic “destroy everything in sight” villain and, as good of an actor Jesse Eisenberg is, I couldn’t help but feel as if he just didn’t fit the role of Lex Luthor; I always imagined Lex as a more intimidating and powerful figure, but he felt more like the Riddler in the movie.

Above all, while Man of Steel was technically the first movie in the DCEU, BvS was supposed to be the movie that introduced audiences to the shared universe. Instead, it butchered the appearances of the rest of the Justice League aside from Wonder Woman and turned fans off to a DC cinematic universe, essentially destroying the wave of success that the Nolan trilogy built up. The director’s cut of BvS does the movie more justice than the theatrical cut, as Warner Bros. shortened the run time and cut out some scenes key to understanding the whole movie.

The next movie to be released in the DCEU was Suicide Squad in 2016, which also flopped in reviews and ratings (yet somehow still managed to succeed at the box office making $746 million). The DCEU was getting off to a horrible start while Marvel was enjoying massive success with the MCU. However, DC finally struck success with Wonder Woman in 2017. It made $821 million at the box office and was, up to that point, the most popular DCEU among critics by far. DC seemed to be trending up on the big screen — that is, until the release of Justice League later that same year.

Warner Bros. made a huge mistake releasing Justice League so early. Marvel introduced audiences to their four main heroes in Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and Hulk with solo movies before releasing the team-up movie in The Avengers in 2012. Warner Bros., in their haste to compete with Marvel (which had just released Spiderman: Homecoming and was preparing to release Avengers: Infinity War in the coming months), prematurely released Justice League while only three of their six main heroes had proper solo movies (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman). Even then, Batman’s background and solo story were largely unexplored in BvS outside of how his story intertwined with Superman’s.

Up until that point, Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman had only appeared on the big screen once in their short cameos in BvS. Unlike Marvel, DC tried to rush their movie timeline and didn’t properly introduce and make these characters meaningful to fans. As a result, they felt like afterthoughts as characters and unimportant. In addition, Justice League was forced to switch directors mid-production after original director Zack Snyder, who directed both Man of Steel and BvS, was forced to leave the project after the abrupt death of his daughter.

The director who took up his mantle, Joss Whedon (who directed Marvel’s The Avengers), ended up changing the direction and tone of the movie. The finished product suffered much of the same problems that BvS did, in addition to plot holes, poor planning, and more. Many fans today still clamor for the ‘Snyder cut’, which is the supposed finished version of the movie that Snyder had in mind pre-Whedon and Warner Bros. meddling. The cut lasts nearly three-and-a-half hours as opposed to the theatrical cut, which Warner Bros. ordered to last only two hours long and was likely the reason for the plot holes and poor pacing.

With Justice League, many had finally written off any potential that the DCEU ever held and declared DC’s attempt at a cinematic universe a complete flop. I personally am not the biggest fan of Snyder’s directing, but he had a vision for the DCEU that Warner Bros. continually interfered with for BvS and Justice League. While both movies may still have faced a lot of criticism, I have no doubt that Snyder’s cut of Justice League would have been much better than what we received in theaters. A combination of conflicting visions for the movies between the production studio and the directors’ office as well as rushed planning that ultimately led to failure of the DCEU (that is in addition to the movies just being plain bad).

However, ever since then, the DCEU has actually been trending upward. The release of Aquaman in 2018 put DC back on the map as it peaked as the 20th highest-grossing movie of all-time (currently 23rd) with $1.1 billion in the box office, a feat all the more impressive considering that Aquaman was largely unknown or seen as a joke by the general public before the release of the movie. It has its cheesy moments, sure, but I really enjoyed the movie and it lived up to my personal expectations as Aquaman had always been one of my favorite characters.

Soon after, Ben Affleck officially declared that he was done playing Batman and Robert Pattinson was later cast as the next Batman in the 2021 film. DC seemed like it was finally finding its footing and actually knew what it wanted to do in the future. Shazam, released in 2019, was a success among critics as well as in the box office (especially considering that it was a low-budget film).

Joker, while technically a stand-alone film and not in the shared universe of the DCEU, was also a massive hit, becoming the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all-time. Unlike before, DC was no longer trying to copy and catch up with Marvel but instead was doing its own thing, releasing movies under different directors of different tones and natures that were loosely connected in the shared universe, if connected at all. Birds of Prey, released just the other month, did flop at the box office but was not as badly received by critics and audiences as the first few DCEU movies.

DC’s future in films is much brighter than it was in 2017, and the future releases of The Batman, Wonder Woman 1984, Black Adam (starring Dwayne Johnson!), The Suicide Squad (a reboot of the failed Suicide Squad in 2016), and an untitled Flash movie, the DCEU is certainly making a turnaround for the better.