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Nearly six years ago, Warner Bros. revealed an expansive new slate of films centered around DC Comics characters. The news was quietly shared online, giving fans their first glimpse of an emerging competitor to contest the ever-growing behemoth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That same year, Marvel Studios had released two of their most critically acclaimed and lucrative projects to date: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, denoting that Disney’s cash cow was only just revving its engines.
Meanwhile, production on Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman was well underway, with a screenplay initially being scrambled together in a few months by Man of Steel screenwriter David S Goyer, who had proclaimed in 2006 that a ‘Batman Vs. Superman’ film ‘is where you go when you admit to yourself that you’ve exhausted all possibilities … an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp’. The screenplay was subsequently rewritten by Oscar winner Chris Terrio, and the film’s release was delayed from Summer 2015 to March 2016.
The slate included ten films, to be released between 2016 and 2020, with narratives intertwined and a recurring host of characters to create a shared universe in the same vein that Marvel had pioneered. The success of all these films was entirely hinged upon that of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman. And the rest is history. While certainly not a box office bomb, the film was by no means the billion-dollar success which DC executives had yearned for as they watched The Avengers in 2012 with dollar signs in their eyes.
Followed by the abysmal autopsies performed on both Suicide Squad in 2016 and Justice League in 2017, moustache removal and all, to grant them greater mass-market appeal, and relative successes with the release of Wonder Woman and Aquaman solo films, Warner Bros were left with a franchise defunct, without direction, and with four of those original ten films left in seemingly perpetual development hell.
Enter Todd Phillips. In 2016, he pitched a dark, R-rated character study of one of DC’s most recognisable and lucrative characters, The Joker. He compelled DC Films to attempt to deviate their franchise from the cinematic universe model adopted by Marvel and follow in the footsteps of a studio such as Blumhouse Productions, renowned for its highly profitable business model, financing extremely low-budget horror films and decisively marketing them for mass appeal. Thus, Joker was granted a budget of roughly $55 million, a meagre amount given the estimated costs of Justice League amounting to $300 million (not including marketing). The result was a resounding success: Joker was not only a critical darling but pulled in an incredulous $1.07 billion at the box office, becoming the fourth highest-grossing film Warner Bros. have ever released. Warner Bros. had at last conceived a strategy to level the playing field: namely, to quit the game entirely.
On August 22nd, DC Films hosted a 24-hour event, live-streamed globally, to celebrate the past and unveil the bright future of the franchise in both film and television. The success of Joker revealed, unabashedly, that mimicry of Marvel’s shared universe is wasted time with DC characters, as one of the greatest strengths of the brand is its notion of a Multiverse. Rather, Warner Bros have realised that each of their properties can be developed separately, in tandem, with visionary directors and screenwriters behind the scenes to secure the cultivation, first and foremost, of good storytelling. Matt Reeves’ The Batman need not resemble James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad or Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984, or even Joker itself, as they must no longer begrudgingly attempt to adhere to a linear narrative. These characters now exist in playgrounds of their own, to be explored as creatively and uniquely as their respective cast and crew see fit, without discarding the potential for future crossovers entirely.