Last week brought word of a new spinoff project from the blockbuster DC superhero film Aquaman. Entitled The Trench, the spinoff will be a horror-fantasy project based on the vicious underwater kingdom of creatures featured in Aquaman. Then, yesterday came confirmation the Aquaman sequel signed screenwriter David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick. This is all more evidence DC Films has gained new footing and a new creative spirit that makes the future of DCEU (or “worlds of DC,” or whatever you want to call it for now) brighter than ever.
As always, I will include the disclaimer — surely unnecessary by now, if not for the inevitable angry reactions I get when I forget to include it — that I personally loved Zack Snyder’s vision of the DCEU. So recognition of the new vision does not erase my enthusiasm and affection for the previous films.
The Trench is a smart way to explore alternate franchise potential for related materials, similar to the approach DC Films President Walter Hamada used to great effect while producing and overseeing The Conjuring universe of films, and I’m betting the initial “huh?” reaction from some fans and media outlets will give way to “ah!” as the full potential and intent of The Trench project is revealed. Think The Abyss, but with creature-feature monsters instead of benevolent sea “aliens.”
For 2019, the studio has pushed back director Patty Jenkin’s Wonder Woman 1984 starring Gal Gadot, so Shazam! starring Zachary Levi and directed by David F. Sandberg, and the Joker movie starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips, will have to carry the DC Comics banner this year. Both films appear more than capable of doing the heavy lifting in 2019.
Shazam! looks like a crowd-pleasing all-ages good time, sporting some surprises that will increase its popularity with families and younger viewers while providing plenty of sense of humor and action to keep fans and adult viewers happy. That should translate into a solid box office performance, even sandwiched as it is between Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, which will obviously both play to monster box office results. I suspect Shazam! will perform more in the $600-700 million range rather than $700-800 million that might be possible in a different calendar position, but that’s more than enough to make it a big success for DC. That said, it’s important to remember Shazam! was budgeted at about $100 million, and will reach break-even point at roughly $250 million, meaning any result north of perhaps $350+ million will be a success for the more modest, smaller film.
Then again, with 2018 proving so successful for the superhero genre and audience enthusiasm likely to continue into 2019 with another rockstar slate including Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Far From Home, it could be the proverbial case of rising tides lifting all ships, so perhaps Shazam! will perform at the higher end of potential. Indeed, since it releases in proximity to Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame, and since there should be lingering good will toward DCEU films in the aftermath of Aquaman’s record-setting performance, there is definitely reason to think Shazam! — with its sensibilities and tone consistent with the sort of pictures audiences reward most — will beat expectations.
Meanwhile, Hellboy, Dark Phoenix, and New Mutants are the only real question-marks on the calendar for superhero cinema, but hopefully they’ll at least be okay enough for audiences to avoid holding it against the genre or otherwise letting them sour enthusiasm for other entries in the genre.
If Joker earns good reviews and enough positive word of mouth in October, then the popular villain could wind up overperforming by a wide margin — with a roughly $55 million budget, even an enormous $100 million marketing campaign would still make it a relatively modest investment in the comic book genre, with great potential to score blockbuster box office numbers off the character’s own branding and the proximity to Batman’s brand. And I don’t expect a $100 million ad campaign, so more likely total investments will amount to somewhere around $125+/- million.
It’s worth noting that despite mixed results and several years of shuffling plans and staff, the DCEU movies have still been largely successful and delivered some of Warner’s top box office numbers year after year. In 2016, the combo of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad teamed up for $1.6+ billion, and the 2017 one-two punch of Wonder Woman and Justice League delivered $1.48 billion. While in each of those years one of the respective DC film underperformed, it’s a testament to the enduring power of comic book movies and DC character brands that such huge box office numbers represent some degree of “underperformance” and were still more than enough to deliver enormous box office results.
With Aquaman finally lifting the DCEU to the magic $1+ billion number, if Shazam! and Joker can combine for something close to the $1+ billion mark (as I think they will), and if in 2020 Wonder Woman 1984 likewise performs in the $800-900+ million range while Birds of Prey’s cume falls in the $700 million range, then DC will have clearly gotten its feet under it even without Batman’s and Superman’s help. So by the time The Batman and Supergirl arrive in 2021 to revive and revamp those two properties’ fortunes, there’s a high likelihood the DC movies will have overcome whatever remaining audience uncertainty slowed it down in the initial years.
And let’s not forget, the entire idea of audiences and critics having mixed reactions to DC properties is a new phenomenon. DC used to rule the superhero cinematic roost with their Superman and Batman franchises from the 1970s through the 1990s, with occasional stumbles but overall cornering the marketplace when it came to comic book movies. In the 2000s, Marvel finally entered the game for real and started to shape the future of the genre, but DC didn’t drop off the radar and came right back in the mid-2000s to launch The Dark Knight Trilogy and Superman Returns (the latter got some mixed reactions, but in truth it earned critical reception almost equal to Batman Begins while scoring higher box office than the Batman relaunch). Watchmen in 2009 also got mostly positive reviews, with many of us calling it a masterpiece of the genre.
As I’ve pointed out many times before, even the DCEU’s reception was not actually as negative overall as the popular narrative likes to pretend. Man of Steel received majority-positive reviews and was very successful with $668 million, even if it did underperform a bit against initial hopes. Batman v Superman was ravaged by critics (despite being a fantastic film), but even its underperformance at $873 million was enough to be a blockbuster hit as the seventh-highest grossing movie worldwide in 2016. Suicide Squad faced even worse reviews, but actually overperformed with $$746 million (and that’s without a release in China, which hypothetically would’ve pushed it toward $800 million). Then of course Wonder Woman garnered fantastic reviews and soared at the box office to the tune of $821 million. Justice League sadly collapsed at the box office, in relative terms, with mostly bad or mixed reviews and the lowest box office gross of the entire DCEU to date, with $658 million.
But consider, $658 million represented the box office basement for the DCEU, and Justice League went on to top $100+ million in Blu-ray/DVD/Digital-HD sales and rentals. So the fact their worst-performing movie went through a chop-shop of editing and reshoots, faced months of dragging by the press, and carried the negative baggage accumulated by the DCEU, yet still performed at a level making it a blockbuster with box office receipts consistent with what we normally consider a good, solid performance for a big movie, is important context to keep in mind.
The Justice League budget and potential of the brand obviously should’ve scored vastly higher results, without a doubt, but the point is box office itself doesn’t really care about those considerations in literal terms. So judging the pure dollar figures at the box office and on home media outside of that context, the point remains that $658 million theatrical and $100+ million home entertainment is a lot of dough for a (pardon the pun) doomsday outcome.
I do not in the least underestimate or deny the extent to which the DCEU had trouble that pointed to longterm problems for financial viability and the health of the major IP involved. It’s not sustainable to face constant mixed-to-negative reviews and box office underperformance while competitors are scoring billion-dollar results and rave reviews, not to mention merchandising revenue streams to drool over. What I’m saying is, the degree of trouble was manageable, it had plenty of silver linings, and it only took a couple of years for the studio to recover and find a good path forward. So as a foundation, the DCEU wound up working fine, all things considered, and in a larger historic context it was really just a speed-bump in an otherwise mostly smooth and impressive journey for DC movies.
The combined budgets of all six DCEU releases to date is about $1.26 billion, while the combined worldwide box office results from all six DCEU films is $4.88 billion. Add in roughly $750+/- million for marketing the six films, and the total costs (in simplified form) total around $2.1 billion, five or take a few million bucks. And when Aquaman’s theatrical run is over, it will boost the final box office total for the DCEU to somewhere near/over $4.9 billion.
Now add in $400 million from just domestic Blu-ray/DVD sales alone for the first five DCEU movies (Aquaman hasn’t had its home release yet, but will probably match Wonder Woman’s $100 million in this regard), plus another likely $150+/- million from Digital-HD domestic sales and the domestic rentals from Blu-ray/DVD/Digital-HD. Finally, add at least a few more hundred-million dollars for all of the international sales and rentals on the home entertainment market. After Aquaman joins the fray, the home release figures for the first six DCEU movies will approach or exceed $1 billion, in addition to the $4.9 billion from DCEU total box office. Not bad for an overarching franchise brand widely considered to have been in trouble for the past several years.
That DC faces a brighter future and looks likely to win over audiences and critics with their upcoming slate of films is, then, not really a surprise.
Now, let’s discuss a few elephants in the room. The Flash movie has been repeatedly delayed in the past, and recently once again slowed down and pushed back the expected start of production (although to be perfectly clear, there was no actual start date set for the film, so this is all about expectations rather than firm plans). We could fairly ask whether the delay to allow lead actor Ezra Miller’s filming schedule to free up will eventually lead to another change of direction that might wind up seeing the project switch directorial hands again, and/or even evolve into a reboot with a new lead actor.
I suspect it’s simply hard to make a Flash movie at the same time a successful, beloved, high-quality TV series has already gotten the character so perfectly right while adapting some of the best, most iconic story arcs alongside a larger shared world of DC superheroes. While there’s of course plenty of room and opportunity for a feature film adaptation that leans into some of the same material but finds its own unique voice and approach, doing so without feeling redundant or stepping on the TV show’s toes, and also adding something rich and popular to the DC film slate, requires a deft hand and careful consideration of the right time and right way forward with a Flash project.
So, while I fully understand fans’ frustrations and desires for the Flash project to get moving, I think it’s smart to remember the context, to temper frustrations and avoid trying to pressure anyone into hurrying a project, and to appreciate DC Films’ choice to proceed with caution to ensure they don’t screw it up.
The Suicide Squad sequel, meanwhile, is moving forward as a sort of soft reboot to some extent, and is expected to have a new cast of characters and avoid direct tie-in to the first film’s events. Harley Quinn is not expected to return, and James Gunn’s script will be a new approach and rethinking of the property. The Mad Love-type Joker and Harley Quinn film has also fallen by the wayside, as has the solo Joker project for Jared Leto’s version of the character from Suicide Squad. With Gunn on board as director, the film has plenty of room to bring a new flavor to the series and to the world of DC films as well. [UPDATE: I have learned from sources close to production that in fact, the information about Harley Quinn being absent from the new Suicide Squad movie is no longer up to date — she is indeed expected to appear in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, which is expected to begin production later this year.]
Superman has been shelved for now, as a temporary measure to let Supergirl step into the limelight and carry the Kryptonian banner for a little while on the big screen, as the worlds of DC continue to evolve and solidify a path forward. Superman will of course inevitably appear again in movies some day, and I’d remind impatient fans that it has literally only been 14 months since Superman showed up in Justice League, his third outing in the current version of the DCEU and his fourth feature film appearance overall in a 12-year period.
Superman has had a total of nine feature films, starting with Superman and the Mole Men way back in 1951. Counting his big-screen serials in 1948 and 1950, plus all of his live-action TV shows (including Adventures of Superman, Superboy, Lois & Clark, Smallville, the CW Arrowverse version of the character, and Krypton), Superman has had more live-action appearances in film and television than any other superhero in history. He’s been around a long time, we’ve seen a large number of versions and approaches adapting all sorts of source material and new concepts, so there’s no reason to pretend he’s somehow not getting his due.
Nor should we forget that Henry Cavill — who, contrary to recent rumors, is not on the verge of making another Superman picture and did not film a secret cameo for Shazam! — played Superman in a solo origin film, a Trinity team-up with Batman and Wonder Woman, and in a Justice League team-up movie, all of which combined to adapt portions of some of the most famous and historic Superman comic book series ever written. So if as expected Cavill doesn’t don the cape again, he still leaves behind a fine legacy of film portrayals as Superman, as part of that large library of live-action adaptations I described above. And for what it’s worth, my understanding is that the rumors of Superman being actively shopped around are exaggerations (like most rumors floating around right now).
It seems the reports about James Gunn being “offered” Superman were misunderstood by a lot of folks, and that Superman is one of many characters technically “on the table” for filmmakers to pick from when they are negotiating with Warner about potential projects. If a filmmaker actively chose Superman and made a pitch the studio liked, then of course that would be a different situation, but it’s not accurate to portray it as if the studio are actively shopping around a Superman project to try to get a director attached.
Likewise, The Batman has had some ups and downs including Ben Affleck dropping out as writer-director-actor, and negotiations with current writer-director Matt Reeves temporarily ending before he was (thank god) lured back. Reeves has finished his script and is working on rewrites, and the film will enter production later this year (although maybe not as late as everyone thinks). Yes, it will release later than many assumed — not in 2020 as had originally been hoped, but in 2021 — but the delay is no big deal, so fans and fan sites should stop treating it like a problem and just learn to be patient and realistic. You can read more about the details concerning The Batman in my recent post here — and I’ll add that the new rumors about Robert Pattinson are just fan rumors right now, nothing more (although for the record he’s a good actor and any negative fan reactions are unwarranted).
We just had the DCEU Batman in three films, the most recent one merely 14 months ago. It hasn’t been some long, painful period of drought for Batman fans, in other words. Just a few years before being rebooted in the DCEU, Batman had the acclaimed and massively successful Dark Knight Trilogy, giving him a total of six films over a 13-year period. We’ll get The Batman in 2021, and that’s only a four-year period without Batman in film — the same amount of time between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. No need to wring hands and gnash teeth, then, about the time this new project is taking.
We should also talk a moment about a couple of other major projects still out in the future for DC. The first is Ava DuVernay’s New Gods project, which we are starting to hear some rumors about. DC going into the cosmic side of things in a big way is welcome news, and a sign they are willing to delve into their large library of lesser-known titles and characters for material to adapt on the big screen. Warner Bros. has in fact always been bold about taking risks on comic adaptations and visionary directors. After all, they brought us V for Vendetta and Watchmen, as well as starting the entire superhero cinematic genre with Superman: The Movie, and being the only studio to listen and understand the potential for a serious live-action adaptation of Batman back in the 1980s.
Which brings us to the other project down the road that needs to be mentioned here. Green Lantern Corps as a big space epic would also represent part of a cosmic corner of DC, and while it’s probably unlikely to happen I would love to see Warner go all-in and let Geoff Johns write a full trilogy to be filmed back-to-back, akin to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchise. Treat it like the superhero version of Star Wars, with big ensemble casts performing with lots of wild creatures and planets spread across the universe, in a three-part story about a massive intergalactic war, adapting the best of Geoff Johns’ own Green Lantern comic book stories (they’re the best stories ever written in the character’s comic book history).
Now throw in some casting like Tom Cruise, John Krasinski, Matt Damon, or Bradley Cooper as Hal Jordan and with Daniel Kaluuya, Stephan James, John Boyega, or Algee Smith as John Stewart. Add in a supporting cast with Ethan Hawke as Sinestro (channeling Vincent Price for the characterization) and Thandie Newton, Eva Mendes, or Penélope Cruz as Star Sapphire. Then get a director like F. Gary Gray, Kathryn Bigelow, Christopher McQuarrie, the Wachowskis, Mimi Leder, Dee Rees, Brad Bird, or J.J. Abrams for example, and we are talking about one heckuva big trilogy project with massive box office potential. Heck, I’d even say it’s worth asking Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson if they’re interested in directing a three-film sci-fi space opera.
But you get the picture — Green Lantern Corps could launch a blockbuster franchise that lends itself to an endless array of spinoff potential for different characters and situations. So keep New Gods and Green Lantern Corps in mind, then, as you contemplate the directions and scale the DC movies can pursue in the future, alongside the other projects we already know are in the works…
Shazam! Joker. Wonder Woman 1984. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Supergirl. The Suicide Squad. The Batman. Batgirl. The Trench. Aquaman 2. New Gods. Green Lantern Corps.
That’s a nice looking list, to which we can probably add Aquaman 2, and Wonder Woman 3. Other projects we haven’t heard about yet will also make their way into the schedule too in the coming months and years. So we have a dozen or more DC movies to look forward to in the next half-dozen years.
For the record, Birds of Prey and Batgirl will not be tied together, for those who mistakenly believed the rumors that Barbara Gordon would have a continuing arc through both films. And there is not a Gotham City Sirens project crossing over with Birds of Prey, despite rumors to the contrary.
There were also projects in the works involving Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, Nightwing, Deadshot, Justice League Dark, Cyborg, Lobo, and a few others, but most of those seem to be either on hold, cancelled, or in some stage of development Hell for the moment. I think we might eventually see a couple of them revive and join the list of future DC films, but for now I’m not counting on it (even though I’d love to see all of those projects). Which is fine, since right now there are plenty of DC projects in the works for coming years, more than enough to satisfy fans and audiences. Perhaps instead some of these projects will wind up evolving into serialized series on the new WarnerMedia streaming service.
Be of good cheer, then, DC fans. There is lots of great news already out for the future of DC on film, and even more good news coming soon — and I’ll be sure to pass it all along to you when I can, so stay tuned!
Box office figures and tallies based on data via Box Office Mojo , Rentrak, and TheNumbers.
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