DC and Warner Bros. have had a tough time at the box office. They’ve been making money, but have yet to make the same cultural impact that Marvel has made in theaters despite having the better-known cast of characters. But things have been changing lately. Wonder Woman is a good movie that did well at the box office. Aquaman is fun and happens to be the most profitable DC movie ever.
What’s going on? What changed?
“The universe isn’t as connected as we thought it was going to be five years ago. You’re seeing much more focus on individual experiences around individual characters,” said Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara talking to the Los Angeles Times.
“What Patty Jenkins did on Wonder Woman illustrated to us what you could do with these characters who are not Batman and Superman. Obviously, we want to get those two in the right place, and we want strong movies around Batman and Superman. But Aquaman is a perfect example of what we can do. They’re each unique and the tone’s different in each movie.”
From the release of Man of Steel up through Justice League, the films based off of DC comics were guided by a singular vision of a dusty, gritty superhero world where muscled men were burdened by their strength and intelligence, saving an ungrateful world. Unfortunately, moviegoers didn’t bite as hard on Zack Snyder’s take on DC as Warner Bros. had hoped. A bunch of movies were already in the pipeline, though, so it was hard to tell if DC was learning anything from the audience response to these movies.
But this is a pretty candid response from Tsujihara that shows that people at the top of Warner Bros. are not just paying attention to what’s happening with DC movies, they’re taking away the right messages. Wherever you stand on the scale that ranks Snyder from villain to hero, the so-called DCEU – an unofficial name that DC and WB do not use – came in undercooked and never coalesced into something to rival the Avengers in popularity.
And so DC/WB stepped back. Patty Jenkins was given a lot of freedom with Wonder Woman, and even able to fight for the movie’s defining “No Man’s Land” scene. James Wan, meanwhile, got to make one of the weirdest big-budget superhero movies ever and ended up pulling in cash by the truckload. Aquaman. Aquaman. If that doesn’t suggest that DC’s cinematic endeavors are looking up, I don’t know what does.
Looking at the short-term, we have the appropriately silly-looking Shazam! and a Joker movie that is starting to look like it might be a stunner. Birds of Prey is further out and not only capitalizes on the popularity of Harley Quinn but puts a spotlight on some of DC’s coolest women. The Suicide Squad is being handled by the guy that turned Guardians of the Galaxy from a “who?” to a hit. Further out are Matt Reeves’ detective-focused The Batman film and promises that the Flash and Green Lantern will still see the light of day.
And then there’s the reported shelving of those Jared Leto Joker flicks, which felt like one of the few parts of the Snyder-verse that everyone agrees were bad ideas, even if there were other bright spots in the mix.
Justice League didn’t work for whatever reason you might want to subscribe to, and it proved what Marvel demonstrated with Avengers: you can’t rush a team-up. Even if people care about Batman and Superman, they have to care about that particular Batman and Superman before they’ll sign on for crossover.
DC is focusing on weird, interesting, and unique places of its comic universe, embracing everything from Greek mythology to a wizard named Shazam and we’re getting movies that match the characters in tone and theme instead of dumping them all into the same grimdark world.
There’s the potential for another team-up in there, and Tsujihara acknowledges it: “That’s not to say we won’t at some point come back to that notion of a more connected universe. But it feels like [individual films are] the right strategy for us right now.”
Even the guy at the very top of the company seems to have a good grasp of what’s going on with the movies based on the characters we love, and that’s a very good sign Wonder Woman and Aquaman weren’t flukes.