The superhero wars started way back in 2013, with the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. That Superman film — and the DC Comics Extended Universe it established — was built to challenge Marvel, the industry’s dominant purveyor of caped-crusader fare (and by then already seven films into its own connected universe). DC’s franchise has been a booming financial success (the three films released before 2017 all cleared the $500 million mark globally), but have been dogged by poor reviews, and a general distaste for DC’s somber take on the genre. But after two critical flops in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad (neither of which cracked the much-desired billion-dollar worldwide gross mark), DC has a feel-good hit on its hands in Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. So far, that film has racked up a 93 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a $100 million opening weekend. With its next big release, Justice League, on tap for November, it’s time to appraise where the DC universe stands. Does Wonder Woman mark a corner turned? Or is it just a brief, bright blip on a long, dark horizon?
The Box Office Is Booming — on Opening Weekend, at Least
Let’s get this out of the way: DC is still raking in the cash. Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad each made over $116 million in their first weekends at the box office. On average, DC actually outperformed Marvel in opening-weekend intake in 2016, as the roundly panned Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad beat out the lauded combination of Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange. Wonder Woman feels like an even bigger win for DC. With $100.5 million in its first weekend, Wonder Woman hugely outperformed expectations. Just a month ago, the movie was tracking at just $65 million. That figure gradually increased as the release date drew nearer, but considering what this movie was up against — solo-superhero debuts often make less, as do movies forced to contend with the sexist whims of a certain section of the viewing audience — Wonder Woman was not expected to crack the century mark. Yet it did — director Patty Jenkins is now the first female director to break $100 million domestically over an opening weekend and Wonder Woman is one of the most successful solo-superhero debuts ever (behind Deadpool, Man of Steel, and Spider-Man).
The question is: Can Wonder Woman maintain that momentum? With the DC extended universe, Warner Bros. and DC have yet to come close to having an Avengers ($623,357,910, fifth all-time domestically), or even a Civil War ($408,084,349). Wonder Woman is off to a great nine-figure start, and the overwhelmingly positive critical response and A-rating from CinemaScore suggest that its drop-off in the coming weeks will be gradual, not precipitous. (It helps that in June, Wonder Woman’s only real challengers will be a Mummy reboot and a laughably unnecessary FIFTH entry in the Transformers franchise.) It also seems possible that Wonder Woman will change DC’s trajectory and set the table for a huge box-office performance by Justice League. In 2010 and 2011, solid success from Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger built momentum for The Avengers, which then made over $200 million in its first weekend on the way to becoming the MCU’s most commercially successful entry. Thanks to Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot, DC has a similar energy brewing. And when Wonder Woman joins Batman, Aquaman, and the Flash for the first time in November, DC will be primed for its biggest hit yet.
It Is Possible to Make a DC Movie With Jokes
Wonder Woman is plenty of firsts: the first superhero film with a female lead in more than a decade. The first superhero film directed by a woman. The first film — ever — with a female director to crack $100 million in its opening weekend (the highest-grossing opening weekend for a female-directed film, at that). It’s also the first genuinely fun and funny DC Comics movie — and while that broken barrier isn’t nearly as culturally important as the others, it portends a slightly brighter future for the universe of which it’s a part. For about 120 of its 141 minutes, Wonder Woman is a hoot: a fish-out-of-water comedy layered atop a superhero origin story, with a dash of rom-com tossed in for good measure. Gal Gadot’s Diana is knowingly naive, and Chris Pine flexes physical humor (along with a bunch of abs). The film bops right along until a boring, superhero-standard third act where Diana murders one guy and disintegrates another.
Thus far, DC’s movies have been marked by a self-conscious heaviness at odds with their colorful source material. In many ways, Wonder Woman is the DC film that most resembles a Marvel movie. Zippy, bouncy, a deep belief in the power of love: These are the ingredients Marvel has alchemized into a billion-dollar-bill printing press, and DC seems to have finally realized that its own projects might benefit from a similar tone.
It seems possible that DC will continue to keep things light — or at least lighter — going forward. Aquaman screenwriter Will Beall is on the record calling this fall’s Justice League "a lot more fun" than DC’s previous offerings. The repartee between Ezra Miller’s Flash and Ben Affleck’s Batman in the trailer certainly reads like Snyder checking off the box marked "Fun Banter" — and calls to mind another meeting between a billionaire and a cool teen. This feels significant, not least because the guy who’s received credit for shaping Marvel’s carefully maintained tone is now in the fold. Which leads us to …
DC Hired Marvel’s Biggest Hero
Back in March, news broke that Joss Whedon (director of the first two Avengers movies) had signed on to direct a Batgirl film for DC. At that time, our colleague Alison Herman wrote that, in hiring Whedon, "DC isn’t copying Marvel’s playbook so much as poaching its Super Bowl–winning coach (and lifting its playbook in the process)." That he signed on at all is faintly surprising; Whedon has spoken at length about how difficult he found making the Avengers films to be. But Whedon is also helping out with a non-Batgirl DC project: Justice League. The circumstances that led to Whedon’s involvement in Justice League are deeply sad — after director Zack Snyder suffered a family tragedy, Whedon stepped in to finish post-production. In any case: The film was already trending toward the kind of zippy, star-packed fare that Whedon mastered while at Marvel. And Joss Whedon will in all likelihood make a Batgirl movie with his now-familiar wit and talent for superhero ego management.
DC’s Future: More Secondary Characters, Hopefully More Risks
Justice League marks DC’s shift from featuring its biggest characters (Superman, Batman) toward highlighting secondary figures. Let’s start with the movies that have release dates: Aquaman is set for a Christmas 2018 release, and the various constituent parts suggest some fun is in order. James Wan can shepherd a massive blockbuster (he directed Furious 7), and the cast is stacked with heavyweights (Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe), great muscle (Jason Momoa, Dolph Lundgren), and youngish talent (Amber Heard, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). The Rock will star in Shazam in 2019, unless he’s busy running for president. DC will attempt to market Cyborg, based on a Justice League member whose only recognizable human features are three-quarters of a face, in 2020. And, for some reason, DC will bring back the Green Lantern that year as well. It’s possible to do second-tier superhero movies like these with some amount of flair — hiring creative directors goes a long way, as Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy show. But B-team films can also go awry: just ask the folks who made the first two Thor movies. Wonder Woman suggests that DC has found the right side of that equation, handing the reins to Patty Jenkins and her clear-cut vision for a straightforward origin story.
Things look brighter in the realm of "still in development." Ezra Miller’s Flash is a bright spot in the Justice League trailer; the studio’s pursuit of directors like Rick Famuyiwa (Dope), Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man), and Sam Raimi (the other Spider-Man), suggests that DC views the character as a wise-cracking Spidey analogue — and is talking to the right people to make that kind of movie. And while DC found itself in hot water after Ben Affleck announced he wouldn’t direct The Batman, replacement Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Dawn of and War for the Planet of the Apes) is an extremely capable replacement.
Broadly speaking, things look good for DC — until, of course, we get a Suicide Squad sequel. These movies already make a ton of money; now we’ll find out if the studio will learn the combined lessons from its early failures and new, wondrous success. If the studio can resist the pull of the dark-n-broody template, build out a capable B-team of secondary characters, and prevent the Rock from running for office, the DC extended universe may well hit its stride. That’s a lot to ask, and will require a Superman-sized effort to pull off. If only DC knew somebody with heat vision and the power of flight …