The Fall from Grace

A Post-Mortem for the DCEU, Part 3

Once James Gunn was brought in to write and direct The Suicide Squad, it seemed only a matter of time before he took over the whole cinematic universe. DC had been trying to find someone to spearhead the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe., someone to be the “Kevin Feige” for their universe (as that Feige himself had been for the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe.), and the exec in charge of the DCEU at the time, Walter Hamada, simply wasn’t cutting it. Under how watch profits from the DCEU had dropped, movie after movie, and the suits didn’t think it was just the pandemic that was to blame. Audiences weren’t responding well to the films, and even when streaming their numbers dropped precipitously after the initial release weekend. Someone new was needed, and that mane was James Gunn.

To be fair it is actually two people: creative lead James Gunn (who developed a good working relationship with DC through The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker) and Peter Safran (who also had a good working relationship with WB through the well received The Conjuring series). These two came out swinging, stating that after the current slate of DC movies was done, they would shift gears, rebooting the universe, only keeping what worked before and scrapping everything else. When this statement was made it wasn’t clear which characters would continue on, although most assumed that the characters he’d been tending across The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker would make the cut (which was all but confirmed when Gunn said a second season of Peacemaker was readying for pre-production.

Of course, that did mean that the various movies that were still on the slate from the old regime that were close enough and, allegedly, good enough for release (sorry Batgirl) would still come out as part of the old DCEU. Their performance would dictate whether those characters would have any chance of appearing in the new Gunn/Safran DCU that was coming, although it was already clear that Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman would all be recast. It was just a matter of seeing which films would perform well enough to grant their characters a second life.

Spoiler: none of them did. Not one, although Gunn has stated that he enjoyed Xolo Maridueña’s Jaime Reyes / Blue Beetle enough that the character might carry over even though his film didn’t do that well at the Box Office (which we’ll get to shortly). That left five films in various states of completion, from theater-ready to post-production editing, that had to be burned off: Black Adam, Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, The Flash, Blue Beetle, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. Some of these were presumed sure things, others were clearly disasters in the making, but one thing was clear: these were the last gasps of the dying DCEU.

Black Adam Awakens

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been trying to get a Black Adam film off the ground with DC since the early 2000s. He’d been approached to play the villain in a ShazamOnce known as "Captain Marvel", this superhero (created by Fawcett Comics before they were bought by DC) has seen many changes to his story over the years. One thing has remained the same: his awesome, god-like powers. movie in 2007, and even when that initially fell through, he kept pitching and working, trying to get his villainous character into a movie. If not Shazam! at the time then even better, because why not a Black Adam film instead? This became one of his passion projects, with the wrestler-turned actor working for years to get his movie made. He eventually settled on it being a solo film, with the villain pitched more as an anti-hero (despite his long history as a villain in the comics). And when it came time to actually make the movie, curiously, Shazam! (or Captain Marvel, depending on how big of a nerd you are) was nowhere to be seen in the movie.

There are, honestly, a lot of weird things about this film. It wants to be a hyper violent, dark, and brooding anti-hero piece. At the same time it wants to be a family-friendly adventure that appeals to everyone. And it wants to be the launching pad for a whole new set of heroic characters in the DCEU, the Justice Society, so that a whole new branch of the DCEU can be opened up, but maybe with Black Adam in place of Shazam’s traditional role on that team. It wants to be so many things and, unfortunately, it doesn’t really work on any aspect of the film.

Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of the film that are fun. I love the Justice Society here and while they don’t get enough screen time to really feel fleshed out, they absolutely do make the film far more watchable than it has any right to be. Meanwhile, Johnson isn’t bad as Black Adam when the film lets him be a dark and brooding anti-hero. He has the chops to pull off that aspect of the character, with his mean mug and his heel-turn attitude. At the same time, though, because the film wants him to be the protagonist of the story, he can’t ever be truly evil. It has to let him be nice, and kind, and have a kid sidekick to hang out with. In these moments the performance falters and we are no longer watching Black Adam but just the Rock in a superhero suit.

And, really, the whole plot itself is a confused mess. There’s a magic crown, and a demonic villain, and a group of people trying to get the crown for the demonic villain, but it’s never really explained why everyone is working together or what the gang hopes to achieve working with the bad guy. They remain notably generic throughout, and much of this can be blamed on there being so many characters pulling the story in so many directions that nothing ever feels balanced or cohesive.

The film, frankly, would have worked a lot better if Black Adam could have just fought the Justice Society, with them thinking him a threat to the world while he wants to do, well, whatever it is that he does. But because the Justice Society aren’t villains, and the Rock purposefully pitched his character as being the good guy of the movie (while also having a clause in all of his contracts that he can never lose a fight), the film has to twist itself to come up with a last act villain, and a bunch of goons for him to fight. It just doesn’t work.

Black Adam is a film full of potential, but it fails on execution. And because the Rock insisted Shazam! couldn’t be in the movie (he didn’t want some kiddie hero running he vibe), instead dragging Henry Cavill’s SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s. in, only for the film to tank and Gunn to say, “no, this isn’t happening,” this film ends up sitting awkwardly promising a lot, but never actually engaging properly with itself or its source material. It’s just bad.

Shazam! Fizzles

You know what people expect when you have a Shazam! sequel following a Black Adam film? That the sequel would have Shazam would fight Black Adam. Well, due to the Rock and his weird control over “his” character, that wasn’t going to happen so some other villain had to be found. Mind you, there was a villain set up for the sequel at the end of the first movie: Mister Mind. He appears in the prison holding Mark Strong's Dr. Thaddeus Sivana and he promises that the two will end up working together so that Silvana can get his revenge on Shazam!

However, despite the same director (Davis F. Sandberg) and writer (Henry Gayden) working on both movies, the film doesn’t follow this plot thread. It instead makes three new villains – Helen Mirren as Hespera, Lucy Liu as Kalypso, and Rachel Zegler as Anthea – that don’t appear in the comics so that Shazam! and his whole family of superheroes can battle the Greek gods… or something. Frankly the film is a mess, start to finish, and new villains being added in place of any one of Shazam’s regular rogues is the least of its issues.

The issues with the film go beyond no-name villains that no one had heard of before. The first film was built on the idea that Billy had to figure out that there was a family here, waiting for him, all while the mother he was looking for wanted nothing to do with him. In the end he embraced this new family and was able to move forward into… this film where all story development for that family is cast aside. There’s a threadbare plotline about Billy being unable to call his foster mother “mom”, but it’s so underdeveloped and barely there that when this story finally reaches its conclusion (with him calling her “mom”) it doesn’t work. There’s no heart there, no soul to the story. That’s every character, every arc, everything going on here.

And yes, the villains aren’t great, but that’s because they feel so out of place. They take a lighthearted family superhero film and change its sequel into something dark, and brooding, and (worst of all) bland. They’re goddesses (well, Charities) that want a power stick so they can wipe humanity away. To do this they melt people and cause mind-bending twists in reality (stolen from Doctor Strange) and then create big, goopy CGI monsters. It all feels very generic, and soulless, and empty. The heart of the film is missing.

I enjoyed Shazam! because it was a fun, lighthearted movie. It wasn’t part of a greater universe and it didn’t even care about being a standard superhero film. It just did its own thing and it was great. Watching Shazam! Fury of the Gods I saw what happened when a studio with no clue what it was doing overworked and overengineered a film until all the heart and soul was gone. Shazam! was a low-key hit that audiences generally loved. The sequel bored audiences when it came out, and only barely made it past its absolutely bloated $125 Mil budget. That’s just sad.

The Flash Stumbles

Now here’s the big one. DC had, for years, been trying to get a The FlashStruck by lightning while working in his lab, Barry Allen became a speedster known as The Flash, launching an entire set of super-fast superheroes. movie off the ground. The Flash show on the CW was that network’s solid superhero hit, and the most popular part of the ArrowverseWhen it was announced that the CW was creating a show based on the Green Arrow, people laughed. The CW? Really? Was it going to be teen-oriented like everything else on the network and be called "Arrow High"? And yet that one show, Arrow has spawned three spin-offs, various related shows and given DC a successful shared universe, the Arrowverse on TV and streaming.. DC wanted to try and get that character with name recognition, played by (at the time) popular actor Ezra Miller, out into theaters. But the failure of Justice LeagueThe premiere team at DC Comics, their version of the Avengers (which actually came before the Avengers and, really, has existed in some fomr since the early 1940s), the Justice League is the team-up to end all team-ups, featuring some of the most popular, and longest running, characters in all of comics history (and also Booster Gold). put the kibosh on a lot of planned projects (no one even talks about the failed Cyborg project), and The Flash ended up in development hell for years. And then, when DC finally got a shot at making the film, really getting into production after years of rewrites, Ezra Miller ended up going crazy and being a giant creep.

Miller’s long run of criminal activity (fighting women in bars, kidnapping people, maybe trying to form a cult) should have gotten him removed from the project, but for some reason DC kept him in instead of recasting him. And apparently the film was far enough along, and was so integral to DC’s plans for their cinematic universe that it just had to come out. (Sorry Batgirl.) DC absolutely wanted to use this film, based on the “Flashpoint” storyline from the comics, as a way to reboot the franchise and carry it forward away from all the baggage of the Synder years. There was a lot riding on this project, so the film was going to come out one way or another.

And it did. And it was fine. That’s really the best way to say it. The film was fine. Not great, not even good. Just fine.

Look, say what you will about Miller, but he’s not bad in this movie. He does give a good performance as Barry Allen, and there are multiple times where he (and his younger version, as he plays two forms of himself) has a lot of fun getting to goof and be a superhero. That energy is alive in this film (just like it was in Justice League making his character, for me, one of the best parts of that movie). It’s just that the film written around him simply doesn’t work. It’s a mind-boggling collection of bad ideas all wrapped up together.

The film can’t just be an adventure of the Flash even though this was his first big, on-screen solo adventure (supposedly). He’s the headliner in name, but in reality the film is far more concerned with bringing in Michael Keaton’s BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen. and Sasha Callie’s SupergirlIntroduced in 1959 as a female counterpart for Superman, the Last Daughter of Krypton would go onto have a long career in the DC Universe, thriving, dying, coming back, all the eventually become an even more powerful superhero than even her famous cousin.. There are stretches where the Flash takes a back-seat in his own movie and it’s just… weird. It feels more like an off-brand Justice League film than any kind of actual Flash movie, something the movie itself even namechecks.

It was pretty clear, just watching the film, that it had been edited and reshot and over engineered time and again by the studio to the point where the original film was mangled beyond all comprehension. Nothing about it really works, and it all builds to a big, dumb, CGI-filled conclusion that not only has no heart or soul to it but that also managed to offend a ton of fans in the audience (namely by resurrecting dead actors for brief glimpses that served no purpose). Why bring back these heroes? Why even bring back Keaton’s Batman or introduce Callie’s Supergirl when, in the last moments all of them are wiped away. It doesn’t make sense.

The Flash itself is just a complete wreck. That it works at all is surprising, and speaks well of the actors in the film doing all they can to salvage the movie. But end of the day, the film doesn’t work and no amount of engineering from DC was going to turn it into something audiences wanted. It came and went, another bomb on the DC balance sheet (to the tune of $273 Mil at the Box Office against a $220 Mil budget) that the studio had to move past.

But at least now DC knew truly and completely the DCEU absolutely couldn’t be salvaged. Unfortunately they still had two more movies to go before they could close it out.

Blue Beetle Bombs

The sad thing is this movie actually isn’t bad. I really liked it when I finally got around to watching it at home. But that right there speaks volumes about where DC was at with their movie releases by the time Blue Beetle came along. If I, a person dedicated to tracking and watching all the superhero films as they came out so I could review them for this site, couldn’t get the energy together to see this film when it came out (and I would be considered a “motivated viewer”) how could they expect the rest of the viewing audience to care?

The fact this film came out in theaters actually is a testament to the weird place WB and DC were in. Company head David Zaslav saw this film as it was being produced and said, “we should take this movie that was made to run on MaxThe oldest and longer-running cable subscription service, HBO provides entertainment in the force of licensed movies along with a huge slate of original programming, giving it the luster of the premiere cable service. Now known primarily for its streaming service, Max. as a direct-to-home extension of the DCEU and we should spend more money on it and shove it into theaters.” Something on the order of $30 Mil extra was spent on the film, plus advertising to make it “theater ready”, and then it was shoved out the door to audiences that didn’t know who Blue BeetleThree heroes in DC's history have gone by the moniker Blue Beetle, from a magically enhanced detective, to a tech-genius, and then a kid with a sci-fi scarab, but they've all kept the title of hero alive. was and, more than likely, were tired of everything DC was selling. Had this come out on Max as a fun little film to view between binge-watches I think it would have been fine. But DC shoved it into theaters where it bombed. It wasn’t a fate the film deserved.

The film is actually a lot of fun. It has a great cast, a fun and different superhero than what has been seen in theaters, and a richly constructed world with a lot of potential to it. Had this film come out in a void I think it could have done really well. It’s certainly different from DC’s normal fare, and even has enough energy to it to stand out from what Marvel has been doing as well. But audiences are very much suffering from superhero fatigue and yet another DC hero film, no matter how fun it could have been, just wasn’t going to get eyes.

Blue Beetle is absolutely worth a watch. In the end, though, Zaslav should have left this film on Max where it could have had the nice, happy, quiet release it deserved (you know, right alongside Batgirl). It would have found its audience there (and, from all reports, it finally did when it went to Max after its theatrical release) and been embraced as a solid superhero adventure. Too much pressure was put on a film not meant for theaters, and audiences rejected it.

Hopefully we get to see Blue Beetle in the new DCU. There’s nothing in this film tying it to the larger DCEU so it could function as a standalone series or get tied into the DCU neatly. But for now, though, it seems like this unforced error on Zaslav’s part might just have sunk this hero.

Aquaman Can't Save This

And now we reach the last, and most recent, of DC’s failures. This one should have been a sure bet, a follow up to a successful, billion-earning superhero blockbuster. But then you could have said the same thing about the Captain Marvel follow-up, and then The Marvels tanked in theaters. We have clearly entered into a different era for theatrical films, and just making a sequel to a movie that was successful isn’t going to cut it. You have to give audiences something they want and that, right there is where Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom fails.

What makes Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom so spectacularly bad is that (and it’s bad for all kinds of reasons, mind you, from the bad character development, bad storytelling, bland action, weak villain… I could just go on) is that it doesn’t even seem to understand what made the first film so much fun to watch. Jason Momoa is here, once again, playing Arthur Curry / Aquaman, trying his best through sheer beer-bro charisma to elevate an otherwise unwatchable movie. He’s holding it up with both hands, trying to turn this sequel into something anywhere near and breezy and fun as the first film and he just can’t.

What’s weird is that it was reported this film went through just as much over-engineering and re-shooting as The Flash, this despite the fact it was clear the DCEU was ending and people weren’t interested in just another adventure for that universe. It would have been better to let this be the “fuck it” film, to go out in a blaze of glorious having the dumbest, wildest time. What’s the point in continuing the universe and doing what had been done before when there won’t be anything after this. DC, for whatever reason, played it safe with this film, trying to engineer a film to appeal to everyone, and in the end they made a boring, bad movie no one wanted to watch.

Well, not in comparison to the previous Aquaman. It did still do better at the Box Office than The Marvels, and, with international markets included, it managed to make just enough to not be a bomb. But in our hearts it’s a bomb. It’s overly long, very boring, and just not fun to watch. It’s not the movie we should have gotten to close out the DCEU. It’s not the film we should have gotten at all, frankly.

A Brigher Future?

And that’s it. The DCEU ends with a whimper, a mediocre film that is there and gone and then will be forgotten. James Gunn and Peter Safran inherit the comic characters so they can do as they want, and they will be taking their universe in a different direction. A new Superman, a new Wonder WomanLong considered the third pillar of the DC Comics "Trinity", Wonder Woman was one of the first female superheroes ever created. Running for as long as Batman or Superman (and without breaks despite a comic downturn in the 60s that killed superhero comics for about a decade), Wondie has the honor to be one of the longest serving, and most prolific, superheroes ever., a new Batman, and for the most part a new cast for everyone else, too. A few stragglers will carry over (like the case of Peacemaker) but for the most part this will be a whole new world, a whole new universe.

Will it get audiences back into theaters? That’s a hard call to make. Solo superhero films seem to be able to do well when they aren’t connected to a massive, sprawling universe, but Marvel’s handling of their own MCU (which I might just have to write a post-mortem for, at this rate) has driven the idea of connected universes into the ground (ironic since they’re the ones that made the idea viable). It’s hard to say that audiences will care about another new version of DC’s cinematic aspirations, not when their last one went down with a whimper.

In the end we’ll just have to wait and see. For sure, though, it’s hard to see how what Gunn and Safran have planned could be any worse than this mess. Farewell DCEU, you burned poorly, lit a lot of stuff on fire, and then went out in a plume of foul smelling smoke. We probably won’t miss you.