Early reviews of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice are flooding in, and there's a recurring motif in them: The movie is very obviously — perhaps oppressively — designed to set up future movies. It's filled with cameos from actors who are booked for upcoming sequels and spinoffs, there are portentous bits of dialogue about things to come, and it ends very firmly on a note of foreshadowing. That's all to be expected. Warner Bros. long ago made it clear that this film is supposed to be the foundation in the construction of a shared universe of superheroes, all of them based on tales from DC Comics.
Warner Bros. is already playing a bit of catch-up on that front. DC's longtime rival, Marvel, is the architect of entertainment's most lucrative shared universe. Marvel Studios constructed theirs slowly and organically, building up a portfolio of almost a dozen successful movies before they announced plans to nearly double that number. DC, on the other hand, only had one movie in its universe — 2013's Man of Steel — before it made a similar announcement about a massive expansion. Batman v Superman is the second movie in that initiative, and while it's sure to make mountains of money, and its cool reception likely won't change many of DC's long-term plans, all that doesn't change the fact that DC's approach to expanded universe-building is aggressive to a degree we've never before seen in Hollywood.
Let's take a step back and review the new logic of franchise-building. Studios are aiming to follow the model of Disney's Marvel franchise by creating so-called shared universes, in which a wide array of movies (and even spinoff TV shows) all occur in the same fictional world. Franchise crossovers are nothing new: It’s been 68 years since Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein, after all. But a shared universe is something different, something far more totalitarian. It’s a concept that originated in superhero comics and came into full flower in the 1960s, when Marvel writer-editor Stan Lee decided to have all of his new batch of costumed do-gooders from different series inhabit the same New York City. They’d run into each other regularly and events in one series might affect the characters in other series.
It was a bit of artistic brilliance in that it created an expansive and interconnected tapestry of otherwise disparate narratives. But perhaps more importantly, it was a stroke of sales genius: In order to fully understand what was going on in any one character’s exploits, you had to put down hard-earned cash to learn about what was going on with the other Marvel heroes. Longtime rival publisher DC Comics took note and began to tighten its hold over its various superhero properties, too, eventually establishing a similarly unified mega-narrative. Superhero comics have been defined by these byzantine world-building constructs ever since.
So it’s no wonder that superhero fiction is what brought the idea to the big screen. When Marvel Studios premiered Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk in 2008, it chose to link the two films through a post-credits sequence in the latter, and the film landscape was irrevocably changed. Over the ensuing years, more Marvel movies were placed in this new world, the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Then, in October of 2014, Marvel made a bold announcement: It had a detailed plan for at least ten more MCU movies that they’d release by 2019. It was ambitious, to be sure — the MCU had made a ton of money by that point, but was it wise to assume that we wouldn’t reach Peak Superhero when we neared the end of the decade? But that ambition paled in comparison to an announcement that had been made just a few days prior by Warner Bros., the holders of the film rights for all of DC’s superhero properties: They were planning their own cinematic universe of ten new movies, planned out all the way to 2020.
Here was the big difference between the two plans: By the time the shared-universe expansions were shouted to the world, Marvel already had ten MCU flicks under its belt, most of them big hits. DC had released exactly one movie set in their newly christened shared universe: the aforementioned, Zack Snyder–directed Superman vehicle Man of Steel. It had been successful, netting more than $600 million at the box office, but it hadn’t been a hit on the scale of, say, The Avengers or even the previous DC-adapted outing The Dark Knight Rises (which was in its own, wholly unrelated universe). Just as importantly, critics generally disliked it — it netted a 56 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, lower than anything the MCU has ever put out. It was like building a pyramid upside-down, with one movie as the foundation and an increasingly cumbersome and intertwined set of franchises piling on top of it.
And now, a year and a half after the big unveiling of the DC slate, we’re finally getting the second episode in the DC cinematic universe — officially called the DC Extended Universe (or DCEU) — in the form of Batman v Superman. It carries a significant burden on its back. If this movie underperforms, the repercussions will be felt in the creation of nearly a dozen future ones. The following installment, August’s Suicide Squad, is mostly complete, but every other upcoming DCEU film has room for tweaks or total overhauls. Given how negative many of the initial reviews of BvS have been, there's a strong chance Warner might need some thematic and tonal course correction.
That said, critical input will likely count for very little. The film is tracking well and Warner expects it to make more than $300 million during its worldwide debut alone (and such numbers are necessary for them, as the movie was one of the priciest in Hollywood history). But on a historical level, its performance isn't the most interesting part of the endeavor; the audacity is.
The DCEU is an awe-inspiring moon shot of a project, and it could impact the rest of the film industry. If Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad are hits, that will embolden studios to believe they, too, can embark on wild plans to inorganically force a shared universe on the public, critics and data be damned. There are already projects being spun out of the Star Wars, Universal Monsters, and G.I. Joe franchises. The sky's the limit. Got a successful movie about magicians? Why not try nine more? One hit flick about adorable CGI bears? Go to town and build the CGI Bear Cinematic Universe (CGIBCU)! It’d be much riskier than this endeavor, given that superhero adaptations already have built-in market-testing in the form of longstanding comics cosmology. But it’s not unthinkable. Soon, we might be worrying less about Peak Superhero and more about Peak Universe.