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Four Recommendations for Rebuilding the DC Extended Universe

James Gunn and Peter Safran inherited what’s left of the DC film universe, rechristening it DC Studios. Now they need to avoid the mistakes of the past.

HBO/Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

To borrow a tagline from a recent, the Rock–starring superhero movie, “the new era of the DC Universe awakens.” That lofty statement may have arrived a bit prematurely, given the underwhelming response to Black Adam, but it now rings true as the end of DC Films brings the beginning of DC Studios.

In October, filmmaker James Gunn and producer Peter Safran were named co-chairs and co-CEOs of Warner Bros. Discovery’s newly formed DC Studios, with Gunn spearheading the studio’s creative direction and Safran handling the business and production side. Since then, there have been a number of reports on behind-the-scenes developments (with varying degrees of truth to them, according to Gunn), farewells from franchise stars, and outrage from a legion of fans who are still clinging to the Snyderverse era. It’s been an awkward transitional period for the new DC Studios bosses, to say the least. But given how scattered the DCEU had been ever since Zack Snyder stepped down as director for 2017’s Justice League, a studio-wide reboot was never going to be seamless.

“Peter and I chose to helm DC Studios knowing we were coming into a fractious environment, both in the stories being told and in the audience itself and there would be an unavoidable transitional period as we moved into telling a cohesive story across film, TV, animation, and gaming,” Gunn wrote on Twitter last month. “But, in the end, the drawbacks of that transitional period were dwarfed by the creative possibilities and the opportunity to build upon what has worked in DC so far and to help rectify what has not.”

The past half-decade of big-screen storytelling has been anything but cohesive for DC Entertainment, but an actual change in the hierarchy of power at DC now offers a chance for a new era of the DC Universe to begin in earnest. And with an announcement about what’s on the horizon for DC expected to arrive any day now, we’ll soon have a clearer sense of what that era will look like.

While we await word from Gunn and Safran on the “exciting information” about their first projects, it feels like an appropriate time to offer up some final, unsolicited advice on how the studio should rebuild the DC Universe.

Commit to a Reboot and the End of the Snyderverse Era

To quote a certain Breaking Bad character whose advice was perhaps a little too good: “No more half measures.”

The Snyderverse era all but ended when Snyder stepped away from the development of Justice League due to a family tragedy and Joss Whedon took over to create an almost entirely new film. Whedon’s zombified theatrical release disrupted Snyder’s reported five-movie plan before it could finish, and proved to be a massive critical and commercial failure. Instead of hitting a hard reset then and there, though, the DC films that followed were a strange mix of Snyderverse holdovers, movies set in separate cinematic universes from the DCEU, and the beginning of Gunn’s DC takeover.

During a span of six years starting in 2016, DC Films released David Ayer’s Suicide Squad and Gunn’s soft reboot The Suicide Squad (with Cathy Yan’s delightful, Harley Quinn–starring Birds of Prey in between), solo Joker and Batman films set in their own respective universes, and two versions of a Justice League movie with vastly different story lines. And while Zack Snyder’s Justice League—the four-hour director’s cut released on HBO Max in 2021—was a significant improvement from its predecessor, it only further muddled the DCEU’s bigger picture and reinvigorated Snyder fans who continue to keep the #RestoreTheSnyderVerse movement alive to this day. (Not only did the Snyder Cut cost Warner Bros. an additional $70 million to make, but it’s still unclear how much of an actual fan-driven movement it was in the first place.)

To make matters more complicated still, the most recent DCEU entry, 2022’s Black Adam, echoed the worst stylistic tendencies of the Snyderverse-era films and featured an odd amount of world-building, including the introductions of Black Adam and the Justice Society of America, connections to key characters from Gunn’s Suicide Squad projects, and the short-lived return of Henry Cavill’s Superman. Despite Gunn and Safran’s big DC Studios announcement drawing closer, four more DCEU films are still expected to be released this year: Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Blue Beetle, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and The Flash, with the latter two featuring Snyderverse actors and no shortage of controversies.

All of this is to say: Gunn and Safran have their work cut out for them. After these final Snyderverse holdovers are released this year, though, it’s time for DC to move on—for real this time.

To Gunn and Safran’s credit, it seems like that’s the direction they’re already going in. Despite all the excitement over Cavill’s return to DC, the actor met with the new executives last month and subsequently announced that he’d be hanging up the cape again after all. (In his place, Gunn is apparently crafting a story that will focus on an earlier part of Superman’s life.) Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman 3 is no longer moving forward either, with Gal Gadot’s tenure in the leading role seemingly ending with it, and Dwayne Johnson’s ambitious vision for Black Adam’s DC takeover will never come to be. It may have been too late to pull the plug on the upcoming films slated for this year, but in order for DC to have a true fresh start, it will need to remove as many ties to the old guard as possible. No more half measures.

There’s no telling how much The Flash will further complicate the path to a clean slate for DC Studios, given its aforementioned Snyderverse ties and its multiversal implications. Likewise, Jason Momoa’s continued involvement remains a question—whether as Aquaman or another character, such as Lobo—following the release of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom in December. But once these final remnants of the Snyderverse hit theaters this year, DC should finally move onward and upward into a new cinematic era.

Learn From DC’s and Marvel’s Past Mistakes

When Walter Hamada stepped in as president of DC Films in 2018, DC’s state of affairs was about as messy as it is today. Snyder was on his way out following the critical and relative commercial failures of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League, leaving his long-term plans unfinished. (Even before Whedon replaced him on the latter film, Warner executives had already been tampering with the creative process behind Justice League in an attempt to soften the director’s darker tone and inject a lighter one, more akin to that of the MCU.) Snyder’s Caped Crusader, Ben Affleck, was ready to hang up the cowl, as well, despite looming sequel plans that involved him starring and directing. Hamada and Warner Bros. Pictures Group president Toby Emmerich could have elected to reboot everything then and start anew, but instead they chose another path: the multiverse.

That decision left the main DCEU in something of a narrative and creative limbo as a result, but Hamada helped carve out new pathways to success for DC Films that steered away from the mess he inherited. During Hamada’s four-year tenure as DC Films head, the studio released a wide range of projects, including Joker (2019), The Suicide Squad (2021), and The Batman (2022)—three different films from three filmmakers which all succeeded in their own ways, despite not being linked at all narratively. (I personally was not a fan of Joker, but it’s hard to argue with the fact that Todd Phillips’s film nabbed two Oscar wins and grossed over $1 billion against a reported $70 million budget on its way to becoming the highest-grossing R-rated film ever made.) While Joker and The Batman may share a similar brooding, self-serious tone, they both couldn’t be more different from the comedic and over-the-top ridiculous tone of The Suicide Squad—and that’s a great thing.

One of the benefits of taking the multiverse approach is that it can afford filmmakers more freedom to create their own visions without having to worry about fitting them into a wider interconnected narrative. As enormous a success as the MCU has been, especially in comparison to the DCEU, here is where DC Studios can really succeed where Marvel Studios has struggled.

The multiverse has become an increasingly popular storytelling tool, with the MCU naming its ongoing saga after it and one of the best movies of 2022 employing the concept better than its superhero competitors. But the MCU’s Phase 4 was one of its most uneven and uninspired collective chapters to date, and though there’s plenty of time for course correction as Phase 5 approaches, Marvel Studios has yet to really use the narrative potential that the multiverse has to offer. Instead of using this saga to experiment and stray from its proven formula, even some of Phase 4’s standout projects, like WandaVision, gravitated toward familiar pitfalls in the end.

Gunn and Safran now have the ability to pick and choose what they want to keep from the odd mixture of the Snyderverse and Hamada’s multiverse that they’ve inherited. That includes two successful franchises in Joker and The Batman, with a sequel planned for the former and multiple projects in development for the latter under the vision of director Matt Reeves. DC Studios can keep those franchises alive—which appears to be the plan, for now—while Gunn leads the process of rebooting the main DCEU around a new, younger version of Superman. Aside from a few cameos in Peacemaker and Black Adam, Gunn’s Suicide Squad characters were separated from the Snyderverse characters and films, so it won’t be much of an issue for those to remain, as well. If executed properly, the multiverse concept can allow DC Studios to do everything from finishing off its existing release slate, to rebooting or continuing ongoing franchises, and starting new ones, all at once.

When The Flash hits theaters this summer, we’ll have a better sense of how DC’s multiverse will exist moving forward. Hamada’s plans for the DCEU were reportedly heading toward a Crisis on Infinite Earths event, a popular DC Comics story line that was recently adapted within DC’s Arrowverse on the CW. (Speaking of multiverses, there’s plenty to be learned from the Arrowverse, as well, which is winding down after over 10 years and six interconnected TV shows.) It remains to be seen what The Flash will look like now, or whether it still comes despite controversies surrounding franchise star Ezra Miller, but it’s long been rumored to be a soft reboot of the DCEU, and now would be as good of a time as any for one.

Revisit Projects Lost in Development Hell

A fresh start for DC Studios means there will be plenty of opportunities to recreate the DC Universe around its extensive roster of beloved characters and catalog of iconic story lines, with new actors and creatives added into the mix. And it’s also a chance for Gunn and Co. to reassess previous projects and characters that didn’t work the first time, and revisit those that remain lost in development hell.

From Gotham City Sirens, to J.J. Abrams’s ambitious Justice League Dark plans, to Static Shock and Green Lantern, and beyond, there’s a very long, impressive list of projects that seem to be stalled at one point or another in their development processes. There are also popular characters, like Cyborg and Martian Manhunter, who never really got a fair chance in Snyder’s DCEU—the latter appeared in nothing more than an epilogue in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Batgirl never got to see the light of day after being scrapped near its completion in favor of a tax write-off. And though Swamp Thing, a series with intriguing potential, at least had the chance to be seen by the public, very few DC Universe products were able to survive the transition from the short-lived streaming service to HBO Max. (Long live Harley Quinn.) There are still so many characters that have yet to be attempted at all beyond lower-budget, live-action projects on HBO Max and the CW, but that means there’s also a tremendous amount of untapped potential for Gunn to work with.

There’s a myriad of reasons that so many previous DC projects have stalled or failed, but now is the perfect opportunity to give them a second look as Gunn returns to the drawing board.

Don’t Rush the Rebuild

In other words: Trust the process.

The MCU wasn’t built in a day, and if DC Studios wants to create a fruitful “10-year plan,” it’s going to take time for it to happen—especially as this year’s release schedule brings only leftovers from the previous regime. Of course, given financial pressures and the near-constant changes at Warner Bros. Discovery, being patient may be easier said than done. But no studio is better equipped to compete with Marvel than its longtime rival in DC.

The Snyderverse failed due to any number of factors, but one of its most crucial errors was how quickly Warners released major crossover events that centered on Batman fighting Superman, or the formation of the Justice League, without enough of a narrative foundation to build up the hype. Ahead of 2012’s The Avengers, every member of Marvel’s superteam had already appeared in a previous MCU film, with almost every hero—save for Hawkeye and Black Widow—receiving their own solo film. In contrast, Affleck’s version of Batman appeared for the first time in Batman v Superman and never appeared in a solo movie, while Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg only had minor cameos ahead of Justice League.

When it came time for the big crossover in Justice League, Warners executives panicked, lost faith in the cinematic architect they had given the keys to, and hired the Avengers director himself to replace him in hopes of being like Marvel. They may have just hired another Marvel alum in Gunn to right the ship, but if the successes of The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker are any indication, he might have what it takes to help lead DC Studios into a prosperous new era. We’ll know soon enough how Gunn and Safran intend to do that.