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The Future of Superhero Movies Is the Multiverse

Both Marvel and DC are about to dabble in a storytelling format with limitless possibilities. But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility.

Warner Bros./Sony/Ringer illustration

There are a lot of moving parts between the MCU and the DC Extended Universe, which together have generated billions at the box office in the past decade and employed nearly every talented A-lister in Hollywood and also Jared Leto. Disney is kick-starting Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on Friday with the two-episode premiere of WandaVision on Disney+, the first of many Marvel dominoes to fall in 2021. Meanwhile, fresh off simultaneously dropping Wonder Woman 1984 on HBO Max and in theaters over Christmas, Warner Bros. will be implementing a similar release strategy for all its titles this year, including James Gunn’s quasi-reboot of The Suicide Squad.

But since the Zack Snyder era of the DCEU failed to generate the same level of fanfare and critical plaudits as the MCU, Warners has veered away from trying to imitate its biggest competitor—instead focusing on stand-alone stories that don’t carry the feeling of studio-mandated interconnectedness. (I can’t imagine why.) These somewhat disparate strategies have seemed to work out well for both parties: prior to the pandemic, the MCU was as dominant as ever; Aquaman became the first DCEU entry to gross more than a billion dollars and was soon followed by the Best Picture–nominated Joker, which wasn’t DCEU canon. But there’s one area where these superpowered cinematic universes are starting to align. We’re about to enter the age of the multiverse.

On the Warners side of things, DC Films president Walter Hamada revealed in an interview with The New York Times that the studio’s new creative approach will implement two cinematic universes instead of one. There’s the already established DCEU—featuring the likes of Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman—and then there will be a separate multiverse. The multiverse movies, such as the Matt Reeves–directed, Robert Pattinson–starring The Batman, will be composed of completely stand-alone stories; basically, what the studio ended up doing with Joker. The bridge between these two universes will be The Flash, where two other Batman actors—Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck—will cross paths. And like the MCU’s approach with the new Marvel shows on Disney+, the plan is to also spread the overall story beyond the big screen and into series on HBO Max; The Batman will have a companion series focusing on the Gotham City Police Department.

This is, let’s face it, a bit overwhelming—with three different Batmans set to show up simultaneously in the next couple of years, it’s hard not to think of the Spider-Man pointing at Spider-Man meme. And funnily enough, that’s essentially what the MCU seems to have planned with its own Spider, uh, men. The third Tom Holland–starring Spider-Man movie, which is due out in December 2021, is reportedly bringing back not just Alfred Molina (Doctor Octopus in 2004’s Spider-Man 2) and Jamie Foxx (Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2), but the Peter Parkers of old: Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. With Benedict Cumberbatch also slated to show up, it’s likely that this movie will play out like a live-action version of Into the Spider-Verse—after all, the Doctor Strange sequel is called In the Multiverse of Madness and is being directed by Sam Raimi, who helmed the Maguire-led Spider-Man trilogy of the aughts. And, oh by the way, WandaVision is supposed to lead into the events of In the Multiverse of Madness, so watch that space. (If the last two paragraphs are giving you a headache, don’t worry, that’s a normal side effect of multiverses.)

Confusion about the plot mechanics of all this multiverse-hopping in both cinematic universes aside—perhaps it’s best to heed Austin Powers and just enjoy yourself—the prospect of seeing all these incarnations of two of the most popular heroes on the planet together is undeniably enticing. (I don’t care how much CrossFit the Batfleck does, I just know that Michael Keaton would be able to kick his ass on principle.) The multiverse is a concept borrowed from the comics and has already been used to great effect in Sony Pictures’ Oscar-winning Into the Spider-Verse, so it’s not like these studios invented a narrative cheat code. And there’s also an obvious appeal from a filmmaking and business standpoint: Movie slates can be expanded without having to worry about pesky things like continuity. DC fans were more than happy to brush aside Jared Leto’s Joker and embrace Joaquin Phoenix’s take on the character, why wouldn’t they do the same with Robert Pattinson’s Caped Crusader?

The multiverse approach gets a little more complicated when various TV shows are thrown into the equation, but Hamada doesn’t have any concerns that DC’s strategy will have people’s heads spinning. “Audiences are sophisticated enough to understand [the multiverse],” he told the Times. “If we make good movies, they will go with it.” Marvel certainly shouldn’t have any reservations about implementing a multiverse, either, especially not after the plot of Endgame boiled down to a bunch of self-referential time-hopping to stop Thanos’s finger-snapping rapture from happening in the first place. On the whole, both cinematic universes would appear to benefit from embracing the multiverse—it’s practically a given that the Spider-Man- and Batman-centric stories will have impressive box office hauls. (Assuming theaters can return to normal in a post-vaccination world.)

The biggest issue with DC and Marvel going full multiverse isn’t a financial consideration, but more of a creative one: a superhero movie landscape shaped by myopia. These cinematic universes aren’t just doubling down on superheroes, they’re doubling down on the ones that “work.” Instead of embracing more obscure heroes like, say, the Guardians of the Galaxy, we’re going to be subjected to several iterations of Batman and Spider-Man, who have already been through countless on-screen reboots in the past three decades. (Lest we forget, the list of Batman alums also include Christian Bale, Val Kilmer, and George “Bat Nipples” Clooney.) In his interview with the Times, Hamada implied that less established DC heroes—the piece brings up Batgirl and Static Shock as examples of “riskier” characters—will be relegated to HBO Max; Disney is doing the same by first introducing Phase 4 heroes like Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk on Disney+. Taken as a whole, it’s not a great look when the heroes who are traditionally either a woman or a person of color are deemed a gambit while several iterations of the same hero take center stage—as they have on the big screen for more than 30 years. (At least we still have Miles Morales in the Spider-Man universe.) This approach is also pretty unfounded: The likes of Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and even the Blade trilogy were all successes not just for representation, but from a financial standpoint.

The impending multiverses of DC and Marvel brings to mind another franchise that’s been rebooted this century, Star Wars, and one of the most evocative quotes from the latest trilogy of the Skywalker Saga: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.” As said by Kylo Ren, it might as well have been the mission statement for The Last Jedi, a film that led to plenty of internet uproar because Rian Johnson dared to push the storied franchise into new and purposeful directions. But what’s happened since then seems indicative of the direction franchise storytelling is heading. The Rise of Skywalker, the follow-up to The Last Jedi and the final entry in the Skywalker Saga, was an incoherent mess in part because it spent half its running time trying to undo what Johnson had set up at the behest of a loud but small contingent of fans. Conversely, the second season finale of The Mandalorian, in which a CGI’d Luke Skywalker and R2-D2 come to the rescue of Mando and Baby Yoda, was a bit of fan service that was much more well received. But in bringing back Luke, the franchise was once again shoehorned into focusing on a single bloodline in a galaxy far, far away. By placating audiences with a familiar dose of Skywalker nostalgia, The Mandalorian revealed the shortsightedness that’s inherent to a franchise so beholden to the past.

The multiverse future that both Warners and Disney are charging toward carries a ton of potential. The DCEU, in particular, feels like an intriguing playground for directors to execute stand-alone visions as disparate as Aquaman, Shazam!, Birds of Prey, and Wonder Woman—and as far as first impressions go, The Batman also looks very promising. But when operating under “anything goes” multiverse mechanics and the understanding that the possibilities are endless, one can only hope both studios embrace the limitless creative capacity of their own ambitions, instead of doing more of the same.