Last weekend, Warner Bros announced that a brand-new Superman movie was in the works from writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and producer JJ Abrams. But this isn’t a sequel to Man of Steel starring Henry Cavill; this is a reboot, featuring a different actor as the Last Son of Krypton.
Coates said (opens in new tab) that it was an honor “to be invited into the DC Extended Universe,” which raises some questions. The DCEU is the name used for the shared movie universe that began with Man of Steel, which we’ll next see again in Zack Snyder’s Justice League. Movies outside of that continuity, like Joker and the upcoming Batman reboot, aren’t supposed to be part of the same continuity.
At first glance, the Coates quote suggests that the new Superman will take place in the existing shared universe. Then again, that was supposed to be the case with Matt Reeves’ The Batman — until last summer, when DC Films President Walter Hamada confirmed that it was not a DCEU movie.
Are you confused yet? We are. This news has reminded us just how messy the DC movies actually are.
It wasn’t always like this
Think back to the far-off days of summer 2013. Man of Steel had just come out, and was successful enough that Warner Bros. decided to make a sequel. A year earlier, The Avengers had demonstrated that the shared movie universe model could work, grossing over $1 billion dollars at the box office.
Warner Bros. put plans in motion for the fledgling “Man of Steel 2” to feature Batman and kickstart DC’s own shared universe. The company even announced an ambitious DC movies slate, stretching from all the way to the year 2020. It was a simpler time.
Then Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice hit theaters in 2016, receiving a lukewarm reception, and underperforming at the box office. Later on that year, Suicide Squad arrived to almost universal criticism. Things quickly began falling apart, and DC’s plans for its movies quickly spiraled out of control.
Cut to today, and things are very messy. Of DC’s original slate of nine post-Batman-v-Superman movies, only five saw the light of day. Of those movies, only one has been successful enough to already have a sequel (Wonder Woman). Another (Suicide Squad) performed so badly that it was a miracle that it managed to get a sequel at all. (Well, technically a soft reboot, which is simultaneously a sequel and not a sequel. Because this wasn't confusing enough already.).
There are also 21 other films in various stages of development, including the Superman reboot. Some of them are original movies, while others are sequels or spin-offs. We have to assume that these movies will be part of the DCEU continuity until we hear otherwise. But they don't necessarily have to be.
Todd Phillips’ Joker movie, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the title character, was originally supposed to be a spin-off starring Jared Leto. Likewise, the aforementioned The Batman was originally a DCEU prequel movie starring Ben Affleck.
But which movies are which?
The biggest issue here is that we have no way of knowing which movies are which. Do you need to see Suicide Squad to understand Joker? Absolutely not, and it’s probably better than you don’t. Are you going to walk out of The Batman and wonder why there are extras wearing Superman and Wonder Woman outfits (opens in new tab) because you assumed Robert Pattinson and Ben Affleck were the same iteration of Batman, who shouldn’t be aware of the other superheroes at this point in time? Of course not.
Audiences aren’t stupid, and are completely capable of realizing that these movies are not related to each other. Similarly, they won’t struggle to understand what’s going on if Superman ends up being played by a Black actor in the new movie, as fans have speculated.
But Warner Bros. could do a much better job of telling us what’s what. Which movies are canceled? (the Nightwing movie has had no updates since 2018.) Which movies are and aren’t going to be part of the same continuity? (Joker and The Batman.)
If anything, that makes now the perfect time to resurrect an idea Todd Phillips pitched (opens in new tab) back during the development of Joker: Bringing the DC’s Black Label comic imprint to the big screen.
Warner Bros. wasn’t on board at the time, and Phillips has since said that there’s no reason for Warner Bros. to go to the trouble of creating a whole new cinematic brand. But I completely disagree.
DC Black Label Movies could be something fresh
For those who don’t know, Black Label is a DC imprint that handles more mature comic stories. These books are typically standalone stories outside mainstream DC canon, although older comics have also been reprinted under the label - like comics from the now-defunct Vertigo imprint.
When you see a story with the DC Black Label logo, you know two things: This comic is not for kids, and it’s not going to affect the ongoing series that DC publishes each week.
Frankly it’s the perfect way to differentiate different DC movies on the big screen. It wouldn’t necessarily have to target adult audiences — that’s what R ratings are for — but it can still be used to make better sense of DC’s ever-growing movie slate.
With reboots of Batman and Superman on the way, now’s the time to make it happen. Joker made over a billion dollars at the box office and in the process received critical acclaim and several prestigious awards. The film even netted Joaquin Phoenix an Oscar for best actor. Joker proved that a standalone movie can still work in a world where every DC movie has some sort of linked continuity.
We don’t even have to wait that long to put such a thing into place. We’re a year away from the release of The Batman, starring Robert Pattinson as the Dark Knight. You will notice that he is not Ben Affleck, and it’s been confirmed that this is a totally different iteration of the character. The Batman is the perfect candidate to try out a new branding experiment.
Whether the film succeeds or fails, what better time to launch something new and fresh than with a Batman movie? Some people might not understand what this whole deal is, but give it some time, and I believe people will come around. After all, fans eventually realized that just because a film has a Marvel logo at the start, it’s not necessarily in the MCU.
You just need Warner Bros to be consistent with the marketing. Marvel has continually pushed the shared universe in its films, no matter how good or bad the final product was. Whereas Warner Bros has a history of backpedalling to try course correct at the first sign of trouble. Suicide Squad is the best example of this, since the studio made extensive late-production changes to the cut in response to some of the criticisms leveled at Batman v Superman.
What I’m saying is that should Warner Bros go down the road of bringing the Black Label to its movies, it needs to play the long game. Every new idea faces hurdles along the way, and the only way to guarantee failure is to give in to them.
Whether a new brand will actually clear up the messy DC movie universe is another thing entirely. That’s pretty much down to Warner Bros. itself to sort out. But as any comics fan knows, DC comics continuity is an unholy mess as well. If anything, it's not surprising that the movies are going down the same path.