Warner Bros. Discovery is still finding a foundation for DC Films. In hindsight, it’s clear Warner Bros. decided to build a cinematic universe backward. Following the success of 2013’s Man of Steel, Warner Bros looked at Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe and wanted to replicate that for its brands. That led to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Justice League, and the announcement of a host of solo films. Regardless of whether you enjoy those films, it did feel like putting the cart before the horse. Under new management, Warner Bros. Discovery is not looking to repeat the mistake.
Today during an investor call, CEO David Zaslav reiterated his focus on DC Entertainment as a brand. Zaslav mentioned Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman were primary intellectual property for the merged company. This backs up previous reports that DC Entertainment is one of the key pillars for the new Warner Bros. studio side.
The Rebirth of DC Films – The New Plan
“DC is the top of the list for us. You look at Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman; these are brands that are known everywhere in the world. We have done a reset. We’ve restructured the business, where there will be a team with a ten-year plan focusing just on DC. We believe we can build a much more sustainable business,” said Zaslav.
He pointed to a division that will function like the early phases of Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU found success in building slowly, starting with Iron Man in 2008 and ending with Avengers: Endgame in 2019. Just over ten years. Marvel Studios has been led by producer Kevin Fiege, but he was put in place by former Disney CEO Bob Iger and former Disney movie boss Alan Horn. Zaslav has been in talks with both executives as he builds out Warner Bros. Discovery.
“It’s very similar to the structure Alan Horn and Bob Iger put together very effectively with Kevin Fiege at Disney. We think we can build a much stronger, sustainable growth business out of DC,” Zaslav explained. “As part of that, we are going to focus on quality. We are not going to release any film before it’s ready. We’re not going to release a film to make a quarter. The focus is going to be on how do we make each of these films, in general, as good as possible. DC is something we think we can make better.”
The statements came after an analyst asked about the cancellation of Batgirl, a film originally shot for HBO Max. Zaslav talked about upcoming films in the DC slate — Black Adam, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, and The Flash — noting the team was “very excited” about them. He also explained that sending films direct-to-streaming with substantial budgets just didn’t fit the model that Warner Bros. Discovery wants to pursue.
“Strategically, we’ve looked hard at the direct-to-streaming business. We’ve seen how direct-to-streaming movies perform. This idea of expensive films going direct-to-streaming, we cannot find an economic case for it. So we’re making a strategic shift,” said Zaslav. “We’re going to focus very hard on quality. We’re not going to put a movie out unless we believe in it.”
That points to the executive team not believing in Batgirl’s prospects as a theatrical film. This does make sense, as the project was conceived entirely as a film for streaming. But it begs the question, which announced films are surviving the WBD purge and which ones are staying around? Does Blue Beetle, which is currently shooting and slated for theatrical release, fit within this new plan? What about all the other announced films and shows?
The New 52 of DC Films – The Previous Plans
I’m glad Warner Bros. Discovery is trying to establish a great new foundation for DC Films. As a longtime comics fan, I want both Marvel and DC to get that cinematic shine. Of course, two major problems remain.
The first one is they still have films in the can at the moment. Black Adam, Shazam: Fury of the Gods, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, and The Flash are all related to the last iteration of the DC film universe. The Flash is positioned as sort of a universe reboot, but that’s an outcome where your primary Batman is the aging Michael Keaton. And very successful projects like The Batman and Joker aren’t related to your main franchise at all. That’s not like Marvel Studios, which was able to start fresh with Iron Man despite previous missteps or cinematic incarnations.
The second is all the past false starts for DC’s film slate. We’ve heard grand plans before from Warner Bros. before. There have been two major touchpoints: when they announced the original DC film slate in 2014, or the second iteration when DC Films president Walter Hamada took over.
Hamada took over DC Films in 2018, announcing an expanded roster of films and streaming projects in 2020. This roster touted the multiverse, with Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and the planned third film in the Wonder Woman franchise on one Earth, while films like The Batman would exist on another. It was a pretty solid plan overall if they actually committed to every project.
Unfortunately, the history of both eras of the DC film universe is littered with projects announced with fanfare only to lead to no actual releases. Supergirl, Zatanna, Lobo, The Metal Man, Nightwing, Black Canary, and Gotham City Sirens were all announced as potential films, but most have come to nothing. A Superman film produced by J.J. Abrams and written by Ta-Nehisi Coates has apparently stalled out. Abrams also had John Constantine and Justice League Dark series planned for Max. There was a Green Lantern Corps show planned for HBO Max, with some casting done, but there were rumors today that it’s been canceled. Does anyone else remember that Steven Spielberg was doing a Blackhawks film?
The Infinite Frontier of DC Films – Trust and Consistency
It’s great that Warner Bros. Discovery wants to focus on quality, but a key part of building a strong cinematic brand is consistency and trust. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has struggled with quality in recent releases, but viewers know that most of their announced projects will get released. The practices used to make that happen aren’t great, but the films and shows do come out. The fans know there’s some direction. And when you have trust and consistency, viewers will turn out for most of the films in your branded universe. Lose one or the other, and they won’t.
There’s none of that with DC Films. It’s got the same problems of uneven quality — hi, Wonder Woman 1984 — without the consistency and trust. And that’s not a problem you fix overnight. It’s not something you fix in a month or even a year. It requires announcing a strong slate of films and then actually delivering great films based on that slate. That takes years. And while we wait for those years, canceling films like Batgirl, offering no details on projects like Green Lantern Corps, and utterly mishandling key characters like Superman just makes DC Films look haphazard at best.
That same haphazard nature has been a hallmark of DC Comics for some time now. If you’re a comics fan, the section titles I’ve used look familiar. Those are various era of DC Comics’ publishing over the past decade. A hard reboot with the New 52, a soft return-to-form with Rebirth, and looking toward a new generation of heroes with Infinite Frontier. The issue has always been one of commitment. DC Comics sells to a shrinking direct market audience. It wants to grow, but it’s afraid of losing that base of hardcore readers. And so, we get false starts and timid new eras. If the comics — the foundation of all these cinematic stories — aren’t delivering, then where do the films go? That’s all before you get to the fact that Zaslav’s comments are focusing heavily on DC Films, not DC Comics. (We don’t even know if there’s a DC Fandome this year.)
“The objective is to grow the DC brand. To grow the DC characters. But also, our job is to protect the DC brand, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Zaslav during today’s call. That’s a great sentiment and I hope his team delivers. Of course, they didn’t actually detail their plan yet and they haven’t even found a Fiege-like figure to lead the division. Until the plan is fully revealed, I’m still waiting for Warner Bros. Discovery to really deliver all of the World’s Great Super-Heroes onscreen.