wonder woman 1984

DC Rethinks Its Universe

There’s a paradox at DC Entertainment, and it can be summed up by looking at two men who wear Superman’s tights. One of them is Tyler Hoechlin, a dreamy American who portrays the Man of Steel on the small screen as part of the TV show Supergirl. The other is Henry Cavill, a statuesque Brit who plays him in DC’s big-screen outings like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and this fall’s mega-tentpole Justice League. Hoechlin’s Superman has a sterling image among the public: He’s not a series regular, but when he does show up, fans go gaga for him, much as they salivate over the well-reviewed show, in general. Cavill’s Supes, on the other hand, has an image-control problem: All of his movies so far have been met with at least a certain amount of critical disdain, if not outright derision. In short, one Superman is flying high; the other is experiencing turbulence.

It’s DC Entertainment in microcosm: When it comes to movies, there’s chronic bad buzz; elsewhere, things are going swimmingly. Once known as DC Comics, a 2009 restructuring made the Warner Bros.–owned company more than just a comics publisher — they now also work in coalition with the rest of Warner to produce superhero content in TV, games, consumer products, and films. Their comics are in a sales renaissance, thanks to a recent initiative called Rebirth. DC TV shows like Gotham, Arrow, and The Flash enjoy meaty ratings and fan loyalty. DC video games like the Injustice and Batman: Arkham franchises are considered some of the best the medium has to offer. Hell, even a partnership with Warner’s consumer-products division is bearing fruit: the DC Super Hero Girls toy line has turned into a miniature empire complete with animated web cartoons and a New York Times–best-selling book.

So what accounts for the contrasting reputations? Perhaps part of the problem is that the movies, until recently, had very little influence from the core DC Entertainment team, who had done so well elsewhere. “It took some work for us to earn our stripes, I think, with the rest of the studio and filmmakers,” says the company’s boyish chief creative officer, Geoff Johns, sitting at a long table alongside a clutch of DC executives in a San Diego Marriott on the first day of this July’s San Diego Comic-Con. But in the past 16 months, they’ve gained significantly more influence on the movie operation, and that change is already bearing fruit. “It’s not chaos,” DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson assures me, seated near Johns. “It’s intentional.”

They’re in the midst of a fight to convince the public that’s the case. For years, they struggled at the multiplex while their blood rival, Marvel, soared. Starting in 2008, Marvel pioneered a Hollywood-buzz concept known as the cinematic universe: a narrative enterprise in which a bunch of individual films are said to exist in the same world, with characters crossing over and lots of buildup to megamovies where the whole gang gets together. Disney-owned Marvel has captured billions of eyes and dollars by running that operation with an iron fist: Its movies are all tightly linked and its brand image is held in a vise grip.

Seeing the success of that model, Warner launched its own shared filmic cosmology with 2013’s Man of Steel, which did well at the box office but received criticism for its depiction of a brooding Superman who murders someone at the end of the story. Then came 2016’s grim, gritty, and costly Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which drew a harsh critical response and, with a global gross of $873 million, fell far short of Marvel’s $1.153 billion-earner that year, Captain America: Civil War. Just a few months later, Suicide Squad earned $745 million — a hefty chunk of change — but was savaged by critics, leaving it with a 25 percent critical aggregate on Rotten Tomatoes. Those speed bumps would be bad enough, but the fact that these DC movies were all part of one interlinked super-story made the situation all the more problematic: How can you have a successful universe if its individual galaxies aren’t doing so hot?

None of that seems to worry Nelson, and that’s partly because DC and Warner have adopted a new strategy: Let’s rethink that whole universe thing. They’re not giving up on the idea of continuity, but they want to deemphasize the idea that all of these flicks are occupying the same space. “Our intention, certainly, moving forward is using the continuity to help make sure nothing is diverging in a way that doesn’t make sense, but there’s no insistence upon an overall story line or interconnectivity in that universe,” says Nelson, drawing nods from the top brass around her.

This new approach already has a test case, and, by any measure, it was a successful one: Wonder Woman outearned every other movie this summer while scoring a 92 percent on Rotten Tomatoes — higher than nearly every Marvel movie. And one of the keys, as Nelson and her execs saw it, was the fact that it more or less told the viewer to ignore the rest of the universe and just focus on what was in front of them. There was a tiny nod to Batman v Superman, but that was it. “The movie’s not about another movie,” says Johns. “Some of the movies do connect the characters together, like Justice League. But, like with Aquaman” — one of their next efforts, out in 2018 — “our goal is not to connect Aquaman to every movie.” As Nelson puts it, “Moving forward, you’ll see the DC movie universe being a universe, but one that comes from the heart of the filmmaker who’s creating them.”

One of the centerpieces of this new, decentralized strategy is an as-yet-unnamed side label of occasional movies that are completely separate from everything else, set entirely outside the cinematic universe. Total stand-alones based on good ideas from big-name filmmakers. Movies that are just movies, not components of a larger piece of clockwork. The first one they’re talking about is a solo outing about supervillain the Joker, set to be directed and co-written by The Hangover and War Dogs alumnus Todd Phillips. Johns says they’ll be announcing the name of of this side label “soon-ish.”

That all may be welcome news for critics who felt that previous DC outings were too tied up in world-building, but it won’t single-handedly clobber the pessimistic chatter Warner’s superheroes face. While DC Entertainment has experienced tremendous success in TV, comics, and games, when it comes to film, they still have a huge issue with public perception. But they think they’re turning a corner. The approach Warner and DC are now implementing at the cineplex is not one they came to easily, nor is it one they hammered out solely as a reaction to movie backlash. It arrived after nearly a decade of growth, missteps, and careful corporate maneuvering.

If the story of DC Entertainment’s rise were a comic book, it might be one of those comics starring an unlikely pairing of mismatched protagonists. Call them Geek Lad and Executive Woman. Johns is every inch an Über-nerd, having read comics his entire life and practically memorized whole reams of them; Nelson had hardly ever lifted a comic book prior to getting her current job. Johns is eternally in the public eye, cheerily giving interviews to even the flimsiest geek blogs to tout the company line; Nelson rarely talks to journalists and mostly operates in the background. Johns built a career as a DC Comics writer after getting his first gig there in 1999; Nelson navigated Warner’s C-suite and distinguished herself by managing the company’s Harry Potter brand. But in the pivotal year of 2009, they were brought together to face a common foe: the threat posed to Warner by Marvel.

Up until that point, Batman had brought great treasure to Warner, most recently in the form of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and billion-dollar earner The Dark Knight (2008). But a challenger was emerging with a new strategy. Marvel Entertainment had started making its own movies, and the first two — 2008’s sensational Iron Man, and that same summer’s lesser hit The Incredible Hulk — had drawn attention for being set in the same world and promising future installments in that shared franchise. They’d even been successful despite starring B-tier superheroes. Warner was making good movies, but Marvel seemed to represent the world to come.

“DC was so far behind the eight ball of Marvel, in terms of the entertainment side,” says a former DC editor. “They needed to get their shit together. And Warner Bros. needed to get their shit together in terms of the film stuff.” Warner Bros. Entertainment chairman/CEO Barry Meyer, president/COO Alan Horn, and Warner movies chief Jeff Robinov convened and decided to emphasize DC as a bulwark against the rise of Marvel. That meant an end to DC Comics and the birth of a reinvented organization: DC Entertainment, with the mandate to get DC intellectual property aggressively placed in more parts of Warner’s operations, and push out superhero product in as many mediums as possible. There were few precedents to such an initiative … except for what they’d done with Harry Potter. When it came time to pick a leader, the choice was natural. Robinov asked Nelson to take the job and, after she accepted, DC Entertainment was announced on September 9, 2009.

Nelson knew DC would retain its near-total control over what it did with comics, and to handle that task, she selected creator-editor Jim Lee and exec Dan DiDio to act as co-publishers. Their first order of business was getting their comics back on track after years of slumping sales, and they did so with an unprecedented effort called the New 52. In it, they canceled all their existing superhero comics and replaced them with 52 new ones all set in a tightly controlled new universe, not unlike the one that would later be experimented with in film. It was a smash, and shot them ahead of Marvel in sales.

DC Super Hero Girls. Photo: DC Entertianment

Nelson and her team didn’t have — and would never have — that kind of direct influence over any of the other mediums in which their superheroes appeared. When it came to all other divisions, Nelson would have to play nice. That meant a need for a new role, one whose borders would be blurry and whose responsibilities would be multitudinous: a chief creative officer who would act as liaison to the rest of Warner. Johns was DC’s golden boy at the time, penning hit stories about the company’s biggest characters and stoking interest in many of their lesser-known ones, too. What’s more, he had Hollywood experience: Before working at DC, he’d been an intern and production assistant for production house Donners’ Company. After a series of conversations, Nelson concluded that she’d found in Johns a perfect candidate and anointed him as her CCO.

Together, they inherited a mixed bag of existing multimedia projects. Some were exciting visions of the future: most notably, video game Batman: Arkham Asylum had just drawn praise for its innovative gameplay. On the other hand, there were unpromising movies in the pipeline: a film adaptation of lesser-known DC Comics character Jonah Hex, starring Josh Brolin, bombed; another, about violent anti-hero Lobo, was announced but then never materialized.

Oddly, and frustratingly, the one project that ended up being Warner’s biggest DC Comics-based effort was the one Johns and Nelson had the least access to: the nascent DC cinematic universe. In August 2008, just after the release of The Dark Knight, Warner opted to do a new take on Superman. Robinov turned to Christopher Nolan, who had successfully reinvigorated the Batman franchise, for advice on how to move forward. Nolan suggested two potential helmers: Black Swan’s Darren Aronofsky and 300’s Zack Snyder. The studio moved ahead with Snyder, who was in a way the least likely choice of the two, given that he had just directed 2009’s DC adaptation Watchmen and received mixed reviews and mediocre ticket sales. Nevertheless, the process of making Man of Steel began.

Around the same time, a film initiative that took up much of nascent DC Entertainment’s attention was a 2011 movie about Johns’s beloved Green Lantern, which had been in development long before DC reorganized. Ryan Reynolds was the star, Blake Lively was the female lead, and Warner had plans to build it out with at least one sequel. DC wasn’t closely involved in the film’s development, but Johns was a consultant and cheerleader, and director Martin Campbell recalls meeting with him to talk about the ins and outs of the character. DC offered support where they could: Johns’s office coordinated with others at Warner to help create a Green Lantern animated movie and a Green Lantern CGI kids’ cartoon. Expectations were steep.

So was the fall. Released in June of 2011, Green Lantern barely made back its budget and earned a 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. “Obviously, the film was a failure,” Campbell recalls bluntly. “It comes out and everybody feels depressed and so on and so forth. There’s no point in bullshitting about it.” Critics and viewers railed against the childishly light sense of humor and incoherent climax, as well as the kitschy, cartoonish effects. Plans for sequels were abruptly canceled. Just like that, Warner’s big plan for a new DC celluloid hero was dashed, and an embarrassment was made of the first major attempt at cross-platform branding in the DC Entertainment era.

Nelson and Johns faced further cinematic frustration: During the development of Man of Steel, they were marginalized creatively. It was a decidedly gritty take on Superman, and its final battle featured him remorselessly destroying skyscrapers and ultimately executing his foe, General Zod. This didn’t sit right with Johns. “Geoff Johns and Diane were reading scripts, and Geoff Johns, to his credit, was concerned that there was not enough lightness or humor, given who the character is,” recalls one person with knowledge of the making of Man of Steel. “Geoff definitely raised that point, but that current administration didn’t care that much about what Geoff Johns thought.” The movie came out in June 2013 with the DC Entertainment branding, but largely without its fingerprints.

It also had the seeds of a larger, Marvel-style expanded world. A few weeks after its release, at 2013’s San Diego Comic-Con, Warner announced a sequel that would pit Batman and Superman against each other, and it was made clear in the announcement that the film would draw on the famously dark 1986 comic The Dark Knight Returns. Johns’s warnings about needing lightness were going unheeded. A new Warner CEO, Kevin Tsujihara, was coronated that year, and he was much more bullish on superheroes than his predecessor had been. Under his watch, the studio rolled out in October 2014 an ambitious slate of ten DC-based movies, stretching to 2020. They were all to be part of the same grand cinematic universe. It was more than a little insane, given that the cinematic universe, at that point, only consisted of Man of Steel, which hadn’t been received with wild enthusiasm. But it was too late for second thoughts — Warner was all in on DC properties, if not always on DC advice.

A “Berlantiverse” crossover episode of Legends of Tomorrow. Photo: Bettina Strauss/The CW

So, largely shut out from the big screen, Johns and Nelson focused on the small. There, they found salvation in the form of an embittered veteran of Green Lantern. Screenwriter and TV showrunner Greg Berlanti, of Dawson’s Creek and Everwood fame, had co-written the initial passes at the Lantern script and had been set to direct before he was reassigned to another Warner feature and lost control. He was understandably displeased with the finished product and nearly walked away from Warner for good. In a last-ditch effort to hold on to him, Johns, as well as TV execs Peter Roth and Susan Rovner, reached out to Berlanti and encouraged him to pitch a blue-sky idea. A lifelong DC Comics geek, Berlanti said he had been kicking around the notion of adapting the archery-themed crusader Green Arrow.

He got the go-ahead, and he and co-producers Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg got to hammer out what went on to become the CW’s Arrow. They would get near-total creative freedom, and there was no talk of tying in to the DC film universe. The show debuted on the CW on October 10, 2012, and within days, it had a full-series order. Johns didn’t just advise creatively, he also wrote episodes for it, and eventually started scheming with Berlanti and Kreisberg to create a spinoff series about DC staple the Flash. It debuted on October 7, 2014, and represented Johns’s biggest involvement in TV yet. A so-called Berlantiverse started to emerge in the next few years, with two more shows set in the same shared cosmos: Supergirl and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. The shows have earned booming praise from fans, built on a guiding philosophy of, as Berlanti Productions president Sarah Schechter puts it, “heart, humor, and spectacle.”* It’s working — Berlantiverse shows regularly top the ratings charts at the CW.

DC developed a winning strategy on TV, one that presaged their current one for the movies: allowing people to throw a wide variety of approaches at the wall and see what sticks. For example, the Berlanti-produced programs have a shared universe, but Gotham, iZombie, Lucifer, and the upcoming Titans all stand on their own and have wildly different tones from one another. Creators are trusted to make their own decisions about direction and feel, and Johns’s team is seen as a trusted set of partners offering suggestions and constructive criticism, not a draconian office forcing everything to fit into a single shared megastory.

Slumping New 52 sales led DC to adopt this creator-first tactic in comics, as well. In May of 2016, they launched an initiative called Rebirth, in which the tight continuity was eschewed in favor of whatever good ideas the comics creators had. The Flash comics writer Joshua Williamson recalls worrying about violating New 52 continuity during a Rebirth brainstorming session with Johns, but “Geoff was like, ‘Just forget everything. Forget everything, none of that matters. None of it matters. What are you trying to say about this character?’” Rebirth was an instant hit when it launched on May 25, 2016, and it continues to be one.

But a week before Rebirth debuted, a bomb was dropped. Johns had flown to New York to talk to reporters about the comics initiative, but he found himself mobbed by questions wholly unrelated to the funnybooks. Reports had emerged overnight that Johns was no longer just a creative liaison to the rest of Warner Bros. and that he’d been paired with studio exec Jon Berg to oversee Warner’s superhero-movie output. The message was clear to anyone paying attention: The recent critical failure of Batman v Superman had spooked the powers that be, and a change in the leadership structure was necessary. Having found success in TV and comics, the experts at DC Entertainment were being called in alongside Berg to bring their skills to a new arena. Johns — and his boss, Nelson — had just adopted a problem child.

The DC cinematic universe made a splash two months prior to Rebirth with the troubled, March 2016 release of the Snyder-directed Batman v Superman, which had, like its predecessor, kept Johns and DC at arm’s length creatively. The similarly gritty Suicide Squad was in the middle of its own difficult postproduction at the same time, reportedly going through massive reedits to make it closer to the tone of an early trailer. When BvS flopped critically, there was finally concern about the creative choices that had been made up to that point. Johns and Berg, newly installed, swiftly decided that a core element of their new strategy would be a lightening of the previously sludge-dark mood. All of a sudden, you saw Johns doing interviews where he’d talk about how the DC mythology is built on “hope and optimism.” Berg was on the same page. “We talk about four things,” Berg says. “Heart, heroics, humanity, and humor.”

There was one place where they could swiftly implement that approach: the Patty Jenkins-directed Wonder Woman, slated for release the following summer. Though he wasn’t credited as a writer in the finished product, Johns assisted writer Allan Heinberg with the script, and he grew close with Jenkins. The result of their partnership was the most all-around successful DC cinematic universe movie to date. As of now, it’s accumulated more than $410 million domestically, a bigger domestic gross than any Warner Bros. movie in history other than two of the Nolan Batmans. Not only that, but it was the highest-grossing live-action film ever directed by a woman and was held up by its proponents as a kind of feminist landmark. For the first time in history, Wonder Woman is more of a crown jewel for the DC brand than Superman or Batman.

However, there’s still a spandex-clad elephant in the room: this November’s Justice League. Its optics haven’t been great. Right after BvS’s backlash hit, the fact that Snyder would also be in charge of Justice League cast a pall over the latter effort among the movie commentariat. There were internal discussions about how to revamp parts of the movie. Johns and Berg mulled the idea of having someone other than Snyder write new scenes for the film. By coincidence, the writer-director of Marvel’s The Avengers, Joss Whedon, met with Johns and Berg to discuss creating a movie with them. The pair were game for that (they eventually chose one about Batman ally Batgirl), but later realized they could accomplish another goal: “Everyone was excited about Joss being a part of DC, and we thought he’d be great to write the [Justice League] scenes, the additional-photography scenes that we wanted to get,” Johns recalls.

A still from DC’s Batman: Arkham Knight video game. Photo: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

That choice took on added import when tragedy hit Justice League soon afterward: Snyder’s daughter died by suicide in March of this year. The director remained attached to the film for a few months, but on May 22, he announced he would be departing to grieve, leaving the remainder of the film to Whedon. Since then, rumors about the picture have come out in dribs and drabs: Whedon has allegedly rewritten a third of the film, including the ending; the Justice League sequel that was announced in 2014 was very notably not mentioned at a Comic-Con presentation, compounding speculation that it’s not going to happen; there are reports of expensive, difficult-to-coordinate, last-minute reshoots; and so on. DC and Warner don’t comment on these rumors, but it hasn’t added up to a great image for the mega-tentpole.

In general, image control appears to be one of the biggest challenges facing the DC-movie enterprise today. If they’re getting their house in order behind the scenes, the public rarely sees that. News about hiring or development deals come from unofficial channels, and they are often portrayed as being the product of a studio that’s just trying things without any coherent mission. One minute, the director of the next stand-alone Batman movie, Matt Reeves, will suggest the flick isn’t set in the cinematic universe; the next day, he’ll say it’s “of course” part of that universe. There was once talk of a Suicide Squad spinoff called Gotham City Sirens, then there was a report that another movie would supersede it, then there was a report that Sirens was still on.

When I ask Johns about the criticism that it seems like there’s no strategy, he shows a rare break from his usual buoyancy. “Some of the stuff is true, some of it isn’t true,” he says. “When we talk about things or we’re making deals for people to develop scripts or whatever, sometimes, things leak; sometimes, things are misreported, and it’s frustrating. Because we do wanna go out there and talk about what our strategy is, and this stuff just muddies the water. There’s a lot of internal conversations going on about, How do we help kind of clean that up a bit?

Still, there’s little sign that DC’s first post-Justice League feature, next year’s James Wan-directed Aquaman, has been troubled in any significant way, so even if League doesn’t flow quite right, Warner hopes to come out well with the next installment. Plus, Nelson says, to just look at the movies is to miss the overall forward motion that DC Entertainment has been experiencing in its few short years. “Films are massively important, but they’re not everything,” she says. “We wanna make sure these stories and characters are working everywhere, and they have, I think, in a pretty unprecedented way,” she says.

In more than a few ways, she’s not wrong. The stories and characters are working extremely well in comics, games, and TV. And the first movie DC Entertainment had substantial influence on, Wonder Woman, certainly worked. The question now is one of organization and momentum. Can they get their public perception sorted out and convince more consumers that they understand what makes the Man of Steel, the Dark Knight, and Diana of Themyscira tick? When Johns was out promoting Rebirth, he was asked about what made the DC characters distinctive. His reply encapsulated the challenge his company faces. “The iconography and the representation of the ideals they embody mean so much to people,” he said. “There’s a lot of emotional underpinning of the characters and the stories. But when it’s not there, you really feel that emptiness.”

*An earlier version of this article misstated Sarah Schechter’s official title.

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