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DC Might Not Have a Plan, but It Has Your Attention

DC Fandome over the weekend came at a time of upheaval, but stray new footage of properties like ‘The Batman,’ ‘Wonder Woman 1984,’ and Zach Snyder’s ‘Justice League’ was enough to give the company a win

DC/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you ever wanted to see the cast of Wonder Woman 1984 play an ’80s-themed variation on the party game Werewolf or watch Will Arnett interview static images of Harley Quinn and Deadshot, there was really only one place to be this past weekend.

After COVID-19 forced the cancellation of San Diego Comic-Con, DC devised its own at-home hype machine. A 24-hour event focusing on the world of DC Comics and all the DC-related projects under the corporate umbrella of WarnerMedia, DC Fandome attempted to bring something like the Comic-Con experience directly to fans, allowing them to be the first to experience major announcements and first-look teasers, trailers, art, and other details of upcoming projects. There was also a lot of wheel-spinning filler: Those who came for the first extended look at The Batman also got photos of dogs dressed up as Wonder Woman and cosplayers in Swamp Thing costumes.

DC constructed its Fandome in the midst of a storm. The pandemic and the difficult launch of HBO Max led to a series of shake-ups and layoffs at DC’s parent company, WarnerMedia, that hit DC Comics on August 10 when the company laid off roughly one-third of its editorial staff, including most of those involved in the struggling DC Universe streaming service. Asked by The Hollywood Reporter about rumors that AT&T “hates comics,” DC Comics’ publisher and chief creative officer Jim Lee responded, “I don’t think they want to stop us from publishing comics,” before adding, “Comics serve a lot of different purposes and one of them is it’s a great way to incubate ideas and create the next great franchises.”

That goes a long way toward explaining DC Fandome’s emphasis on synergy. Between high-profile panels featuring new trailers for Wonder Woman 1984 and The Suicide Squad, viewers could also watch segments dedicated to the international actors who have dubbed Batman’s voice or see Wonder Women Gal Gadot and Lynda Carter join Patty Jenkins to unveil a new logo commemorating Wonder Woman’s 80th anniversary in 2021. One revealing standout: the Multiverse 101 panel, in which Lee joined DC Films head Walter Hamada and producer Greg Berlanti, who oversees DC’s “Arrowverse” on TV, to emphasize the connections between the smaller universes within the DC “multiverse,” a concept borrowed from DC’s own comics. The subtext: Movies, comics, and TV are all part of a greater whole—and you can’t have one without all the others.

DC’s film projects—a branch of the multiverse that’s experienced its own share of chaos and uncertainty—received pride of place throughout the day, starting with a panel featuring the cast of Wonder Woman 1984. Set for release on October 2, it’s scheduled to be the first major superhero film to reach theaters since the pandemic shutdown. (Unless you count the long-delayed New Mutants, but why would you?) That makes DC Films the first to issue a volley on the ongoing superhero movie competition with Marvel, which will theoretically make its own return a month later with the COVID-delayed Black Widow. The panel featured a new trailer offering a first look at Kristen Wiig as Wonder Woman villain Cheetah, a reveal that prompted mostly flattering comparisons to Cats. Typical of the day, it also spotlighted a cast who professed they loved working together and had an amazing experience making the film. (Also, Venus Williams inexplicably showed up to ask which Wonder Woman characters could beat each other in a tennis match.)

The Wonder Woman 1984 panelists at least had the benefit of talking about a finished project. In a later panel, Neil Gaiman likened the coronavirus to a “pause button” for projects like Netflix’s adaptation of The Sandman. Others largely had to make do with conversation and scraps. For director James Gunn, who’s still editing The Suicide Squad, that meant playing a game of trivia with the cast after unveiling a “roll call” of the film’s characters played by the returning Margot Robbie, Viola Davis, and Joel Kinnaman, and newcomers like John Cena, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Michael Rooker, and brother Sean Gunn (on board to play the Weasel).

Tellingly, neither Gunn nor the other panelists mentioned David Ayer’s famously troubled 2016 effort, Suicide Squad. The omission seems indicative of the current state of DC Films, which has vacillated between committing to the unofficially named DC Extended Universe—a set of interconnected films akin to Marvel’s Marvel Cinematic Universe—or going with the particular visions of individual filmmakers, continuity be damned, as with Todd Phillips’s Joker and Matt Reeves’s upcoming The Batman.

Since Jenkins’s Wonder Woman in 2017, most projects have split the difference with strong results. Though officially set in the DCEU, Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, James Wan’s Aquaman, and David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! have largely taken what they’ve needed from the DCEU and ignored the rest—to mostly positive reviews and box office success. Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) fell short financially but seems well on its way to becoming an enduring cult favorite. Trace elements of DC’s earliest efforts remain in the universally dark color palette and reflexive grisliness—the otherwise kid-friendly Shazam!, for example, has weird bursts of PG-13-pushing violence—but none seem beholden to a house style.

The past has a funny way of resurfacing, however. The DCEU began with a string of films helmed by Zack Snyder that emphasized grimness, grit, and superpowered badassdom. Though both 2013’s Man of Steel, a retelling of Superman’s origin, and 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice drew criticism for their unrelenting bleakness (and for having Batman and Superman bond over their mothers’ shared first name), boy did they have their fans. Snyder’s third DC film, Justice League, arrived in theaters in 2017 in a version heavily reworked and reshot by Joss Whedon after Snyder left to deal with a family tragedy. The film landed with a thud and soon it became an item of faith among a swelling group of #ReleaseTheSnyderCut obsessives that a version of Justice League true to Snyder’s original vision lay in the DC vaults. Their faith paid off earlier this year when HBO Max announced it would premiere a Snyder Cut of Justice League in 2021, giving Snyder time and a budget reported at over $30 million to finish what he started.

Positioned in the middle of DC Fandome’s schedule, the Snyder Cut panel found the director in high spirits. After an upbeat chat with the cast, he conversed with a pair of #ReleaseTheSnyderCut enthusiasts, starting with Chinese fan Fiona Zheng, who said she was inspired to petition for Snyder’s version of the film after noticing “many of the parts of [Justice League] were not consistent with your usual filmmaking style” before adding, “I love you and I want to fight for your work.”

The Snyder Cut puts DC in a weird place. While other DC films have seemed happy to leave behind what didn’t work, it’s built around a failure and the vision of a director DC once seemed interested in putting in its rearview mirror. Teased by an ultra-serious trailer set to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—a reprise from an eyeroll-worthy sex scene in Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation—Snyder’s Justice League will now take the form of a four-part miniseries, making it twice as long as the official Justice League. Of course, when you have a multiverse, it can accommodate all sorts of visions.

Focusing on positivity—though Snyder seemed a bit snippier on Twitter—the panel made little mention of the contentiousness of the issue or star Ray Fisher’s vague but insistent allegations that Whedon engaged in “abusive, unprofessional” behavior during the reshoots. As with most of DC Fandome, everyone avoided controversy regarding DC or the rest of the world. The one exception, and one of the most compelling moments of the day, came with the BAWSE: Females of Color Within the DC Universe panel, in which actresses like Shazam!’s Meagan Good, The Flash’s Candice Patton, Legends of Tomorrow’s Tala Ashe, and incoming Batwoman star Javicia Leslie went beyond messages of empowerment to suggest they’d use their superpowers to arrest the police who killed Breonna Taylor or undo the election of 2016.

Otherwise, the day found most panelists in promotion mode, as if appearing on an eight-hour talk show dedicated to all things DC. Andy Muschietti revealed the new costume Ezra Miller will wear in The Flash. (The big news that both Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton would return as alternate universe versions of Batman went unmentioned, even though it appeared in press items in the week leading up to the event.) Dwayne Johnson offered some suggestions as to what his Black Adam would look like shortly before James Wan chatted with Patrick Wilson about a second Aquaman movie that will be “a little bit more serious, a little bit more relevant to the world we live in today.” (Will it still feature a drum-playing octopus? Let’s hope!) Later, Sinbad stopped by the panel dedicated to the sequel now known as Shazam! Fury of the Gods in a nod to the Mandela effect confusion that’s left many believing he already appeared in a ’90s film called Shazaam. (Whether or not Sinbad will actually appear in the sequel remains unclear.)

Still in the early stages of coronavirus-delayed productions, none of these showcases revealed much about the films themselves. Then came the final panel: a fairly extensive look at a further-along project, The Batman. After Matt Reeves talked to host Aisha Tyler about his inspirations for The Batman, including Chinatown and Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel Batman: Ego, the director shared an impressive teaser cobbled together from the 25 percent of the movie he’d completed before the Liverpool-based production shut down. The clip immediately appeared online, as the events of the Fandome seeped into a pop cultural landscape that’s hard up for new fodder.

The teaser was a fraction of DC Fandome’s running time and an example of how thin the event was when it came to substantive material amid all the promotional padding. Yet for those who love DC, the Fandome offered a welcome shelter from the real world for 24 hours, and a reminder that it’s still fun to get hyped about popcorn movies and argue about whether Robert Pattinson’s batsuit looks better than Christian Bale’s. That it often felt more like an infomercial than an actual engagement with the fan community, as was promised, might have been unavoidable given the restrictions caused by pandemic.

Or maybe, as DC still struggles to define its place in the broader pop culture landscape while dealing with corporate chaos, the all-smiles, everything-is-awesome approach is the best fans can expect. The comics wing has never seemed more fragile and even a sure-thing movie like Wonder Woman 1984 appears likely to debut to a country of still-shuttered theaters and nervous moviegoers. Maybe it’s best to treat such events as the pop culture equivalent of an issue of Pravda, finding an official line and sticking to it. But Fandome also made it easy to feel left out and looking in—and being the center of attention is the best DC can ask for right now.

Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.