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The Future of the DC Extended Universe Is Equally Murky and Enticing

After ‘Aquaman,’ the DCEU’s general aimlessness may be what finally separates it from Marvel—for the better

Getty Images/DC Comics/Warner Bros/Ringer lllustration

Marvel’s already waved goodbye to 2018, having released two of its most influential and zeitgeist-tapping films ever and another movie that did pretty well, too. Now, after all of that, the DC Extended Universe is finally rearing its head. On December 21, Aquaman will arrive in theaters, and while it’s the only DCEU offering this calendar year, its robust presale ticket numbers in the United States—higher on the popular service Atom Tickets than Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War’s totals—and early box office success in China is a promising sign for the character’s franchise future. Certainly, then, the film’s shaping up to be another bright spot for Warner Bros. and the DCEU, which could use another win after the positive momentum of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman was stalled by the tepid critical and commercial reaction to last year’s Justice League.

Here’s the spoiler-free good news: Aquaman is a step in the right direction. While the bar isn’t exactly high considering the DCEU catalog, director James Wan created a vibrant, playful, colorful world that couldn’t be farther from the bleak, biblical-heavy undertones of Zack Snyder’s DCEU starter films like Man of Steel. At one point in Aquaman a giant octopus bangs on a set of drums ahead of an underwater gladiator battle—it’s that kind of movie.

There is also (very minor spoiler warning) a mid-credits scene, essentially a requirement for all superhero flicks at this point. In the MCU, these moments often serve as mini-teasers for future installments, like how multiple films featured Thanos and foreshadowed Infinity War. But the Aquaman mid-credits scene isn’t concerned with the DCEU at large; the moment serves as a revelation for a character tied to the film’s narrative, rather than some larger world-building device. It’s a small, but telling sign: Even the DCEU isn’t exactly sure what’s coming next.

Technically, DC movies are coming. Next year, we’re getting two of them: Shazam!, the lighthearted, body-morphing action comedy, and Joker, a gritty Joaquin Phoenix–led origin story of sorts, cowritten and directed by the man responsible for The Hangover franchise. Then, in 2020, there’s Birds of Prey, a Margot Robbie–led film about a team of female heroes—directed by indie up-and-comer Cathy Yan—that will also serve as a lead-in for a Batgirl stand-alone movie. That year we’ll also get the highly anticipated Wonder Woman sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, set in—you guessed it—the ’80s and somehow bringing back Chris Pine (who has a fanny pack!), despite the fact his character died in World War I.

If you think that sounds all over the place—an action-comedy, an ’80s-set sequel, another superhero team-up, and a Joker who isn’t being played by the Suicide Squad Joker, Jared Leto—well, we haven’t even addressed all the projects in different stages of development that could be sprinkled in throughout the 2020s. [Extremely deep breath] There’s a Suicide Squad sequel that could retain Leto’s joker, with a script currently being written by James Gunn; there’s the aforementioned Batgirl stand-alone movie from Bumblebee writer Christina Hodson, who is replacing Joss Whedon; there’s an Ava DuVernay–developed New Gods movie based on the eponymous cosmic heroes from DC Comics; there’s a Green Lantern reboot in the works, and Tyrese Gibson really wants to be involved (it’s unclear if the feeling is mutual); there’s a stand-alone movie for Ezra Miller’s Flash in 2021, after that project was stuck in development hell for years; there’s another Batman movie, which Ben Affleck was going to direct and star in but is now being helmed by Planet of the Apes franchise director Matt Reeves, and may or may not keep Affleck as the lead; there’s a Supergirl stand-alone movie in the works, and that process could be accelerated by the fact Henry Cavill is reportedly out as Superman; there’s a Jared Leto Joker stand-alone movie, proving this is the darkest timeline; there’s a possible Joker–Harley Quinn movie; there’s a Nightwing movie, with Lego Batman Movie filmmaker Chris McKay slated to direct, which is another way of saying they’re doing a Robin film; there’s a chance David Ayer of Suicide Squad and Bright fame could helm a Gotham City Sirens film, which would see Harley Quinn team up with a bunch of female antiheroes; there’s talk that Warners wants to tap Michael Goddamn Bay to direct a Lobo movie; there’s a possibility that Dwayne Johnson could star in a Black Adam movie, as the titular character who is one of Shazam’s greatest adversaries; there’s apparently a chance Deathstroke gets a stand-alone movie... because Justice League had a Deathstroke cameo?; and there’s even a scenario in which Steven Spielberg (!) makes his superhero movie debut for Blackhawk, the leader of a team of pilots during World War II. And oh, yeah, it’s a safe bet we’re getting an Aquaman sequel.

It’s worth noting that many of these projects are in the nascent stages of development, and that a good deal of them may never come to fruition. (For starters, it’s inconceivable that Margot Robbie will play Harley Quinn across so many movies—and the Deathstroke film is already on life support.) But the scattershot selection speaks to the broader strategy applied for the DCEU, which seems to be throwing all kinds of superhero-adjacent projects at the wall—antiheroes, a World War II drama, two different Jokers—to see what sticks. Snyder has stepped back from his involvement in the DCEU, after having his imprint on the first five films as either a writer, executive producer, or director. Love him or hate him, the filmmaker has a unique flair and fondness for slow-motion that isn’t easily imitated—so it seems like, post–Justice League, the remaining DC Comics projects won’t have a unifying aesthetic. The state of the DCEU is that of perplexing, silly, intrepid, and occasionally exciting disarray. It’s a far cry from the MCU, which has meticulously laid out its different cinematic “phases,” and, with the exception of a few early failures like Edward Norton’s Hulk, has hardly missed a step toward its endgame.

Even though the current DCEU is in an early “phase” analogous to the initial MCU—with more projects on the horizon than completed—it may already be worth pulling the plug on an ultra-connected universe featuring several superheroes that will team together every few years. The Justice League movie wasn’t a Suicide Squad–level cinematic disaster (Cavill ’stache notwithstanding), but it was a fast-tracked, failed attempt to mimic The Avengers’ success without providing the years of build-up and character development the moment required. Perhaps more concerningly for Warners, it was also a relative commercial flop. Now, with one-third of that original Justice League team in Affleck’s Batman and Cavill’s Superman reportedly out the door, it’s difficult to conceive of a sequel without a major overhaul—and a lot of the forthcoming films don’t seem to lend themselves to that kind of interconnectivity.

That doesn’t mean the DCEU is doomed, just that its best bet might be sticking to what’s already worked. In lieu of franchise connectivity, the DCEU might be better off establishing more self-contained narratives and characters without worrying about a bigger picture. By deemphasizing the idea that all these heroes are connected in a shared world, the focus on the individual could lead to greater results—as it already has with Wonder Woman and Aquaman, both of which eschewed bringing in additional heroes in favor of developing their own lead heroes, forming their own ethos, and creating distinct worlds in Themyscira and Atlantis, respectively.

It seems this might be what the DCEU is pivoting toward: How else can Warners explain having two different Jokers running around simultaneously? The Phoenix-led Joker appeared, at first, like a bizarre and haphazard creative decision—and it still might be. But as a one-off film in which one of our best working actors gets to mess around on the streets of New York with Zazie Beetz and (reportedly) Robert De Niro, it’s also undeniably enticing. And if someone is going to salvage the hot mess that was Leto’s Joker, maybe James Gunn—given his work helming the Guardians of the Galaxy for Marvel, arguably the MCU’s most auteur-driven vehicle—is the filmmaker to do it. Of course, all of this would be contingent on the DCEU committing to these types of offshoots, which may be an easier sell if those projects are attached to pedigreed directors like DuVernay, Reeves, and especially Spielberg.

For the time being, though, the DCEU’s future is about as ambiguous as the seemingly limitless collection of potential, scattershot projects. What sounds great conceptually may never come to fruition or yield promising results—the way Suicide Squad’s excellent “Bohemian Rhapsody”–scored trailer burned us all two years ago. But in the interim, the DCEU can reap the rewards of Aquaman, a fun underwater caper which, given the positive early box office projections, shouldn’t be a sunk cost. There’s no time like the present when the future is still undetermined. Moving forward, however, the DCEU shouldn’t consider continually copying the Marvel blueprint—its smartest play could be positioning itself as a unique alternative from the MCU’s synchronicity. There is a charm to having weird, arbitrary, one-off projects with A-list talent and deep, multimillion-dollar resources. If superhero movies weren’t the single biggest moneymaker in Hollywood, such a strategy might even be considered niche.