Although the success of the DCEU thus far has never actually been in doubt, the creative direction of the universe has. Some of the films have had a clear, unimpeded creative vision, such as Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman. Batman v Superman presented a bold deconstruction of two iconic characters, and involved a complex and philosophically-based villain, but even in that case, Warner Brothers gave incredible latitude to the filmmakers, intervening only near the end to reduce the runtime in theaters. Other films—we're looking at you Suicide Squad and Justice League—had substantial studio interference as Warner Brothers lost their resolve following the mixed reception of Man of Steel and the negative reception of BvS.
For more than two years now, fans of the DCEU (and especially fans of BvS) have had legitimate questions and concerns about the creative future of the universe. Would WB operate out of fear or would they place trust in their talented filmmakers? Would they try to mimic other successful franchises or would they find their own style, taking inspiration from the diversity of characters in their DC stable?
This week, we gained some clarity on those questions. The Hollywood Reporter interviewed Toby Emmerich, chair of the WB Pictures Group, and he made these remarks about the DCEU:
We all feel like we've turned a corner now. We're playing by the DC playbook, which is very different than the Marvel playbook. We are far less focused on a shared universe. We take it one movie at a time. Each movie is its own equation and own creative entity. If you had to say one thing about us, it's that it always has to be about the directors.The first sentence speaks to unity, which is a good sign after the tumultuous leadership around the time of Justice League. The second sentence indicates that they are confident in their own style and direction, rather than aping others. The remainder of the quote gives some insight into that DC style, which will be allowing more freedom for individual filmmakers rather than forcing them to adhere to an overall plan. I think this is a wise move as it will allow for sub-franchises to flourish within the overarching DCEU. We could have a Wonder Woman series developing alongside an Aquaman series, with lots of interesting things happening in Gotham City at the same time—all within the same universe, and team-ups would still be possible, but they wouldn't be dictated. This also allows for one-off films like Spielberg's Blackhawks and it also allows for multiple tones to exist at the same time without being in conflict—Shazam! and Birds of Prey do not need to feel the same, nor should they, given the characters involved.
The final sentence from Emmerich, about recommitting to being a "director-drive" studio, may ruffle some feathers in the DCEU fan community. Suicide Squad and Justice League are two sore spots because they are instances where WB trampled on their longstanding pledge to be director driven, and the resulting films suffered for it. But that was before Emmerich's promotion, and notice that he doesn't say WB has always been about the directors—he said that it "always has to be about the directors." So if we read between the lines, he may be saying that mistakes were made in the past when the directors were overridden by executives, and he is intending in the future to reestablish the trust in directors, as has already been done with Aquaman, Shazam!, and Wonder Woman 1984.
Personally, I think this brief description of the DCEU's future sounds very good.
Another bit of DCEU news also came out recently from the Hollywood Reporter Heat Vision newsletter. They mentioned that the Shazam! production budget is approximately $90 Million. Although this isn't a confirmed number (and my personal guess is that the budget will ultimately be in the $100-120 Million range), it does clearly show that WB is taking a more frugal approach with the David Sandberg-directed flick. This is most likely a result of Walter Hamada being promoted as the head of the DC Films division, and as I wrote before with regard to Birds of Prey, I think having some films with more modest budgets is an extremely wise move—and the reason I like the decision relates directly back to the director-driven issue discussed above. In short, if WB has less money on the table, they will be less nervous about the investment and less likely to step in and interfere with the filmmakers' vision and execution. For example, I love Zack Snyder's work, but he is not exactly the most frugal filmmaker. When you pair that extravagant operating style with a risk-taking type of creative vision, it is actual kind of amazing that Batman v Superman exists at all. I am, of course, extremely happy that BvS does exist, but thinking toward the future of the DCEU, I recognize that the films can't all be like BvS.
A mix of films driven by a diverse set of filmmakers, and with some operating on more modest production budgets, thus reducing the pressure for huge box office performances, seems like an incredibly good recipe for continued success.
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