One only has to look as far as the Marvel Cinematic Universe to see the benefit of a shared universe of interconnected movies. Producers get more out of each movie because each one builds on an extant franchise, and has its meaning deepened by the content of other films. It’s no surprise that Warner Bros is trying to establish a cinematic universe with competing superhero brand, DC Comics, trying to parallel or surpass Marvel Studios’ 2012 success with The Avengers.
However, Marvel presently has fourteen movies behind them, and DC has been trying to compete with only three. These are incredibly packed movies, and the lack of clear connective tissue between them has made it difficult to bring either critics or even general audiences up to speed, especially when the MCU has been able to smoothly transition into that shared universe.
The first movie that teased a new, connected cinematic universe for DC and Warner Bros was 2013’s Man of Steel. This was likely a follow up and reaction to two different things — the earlier box office failure of the bright, optimistic, comic-booky Superman Returns (2006), and the box office success of Christopher Nolan’s grimdark Batman movies. Man of Steel looked at Clark as a man who grew up among the working class, who traveled the US in guarded solitude to hide his powers and occasionally participated in vigilante justice. The film’s narrative overall looked at how the worst, most fearful sides of humanity would respond to the existence of a super-powerful alien living among us. It culminated in Superman — a character known for never taking the life of an enemy in the comics — killing his enemy Kryptonian, Zod.
It was a different take on Superman, to say the least. Unfortunately, this was ultimately a poor decision for building the brand. In the attempt to make not just a flawed, but damaged, version of a character that is supposed to represent our highest human ideals, filmmakers created a characterization of Superman that could not easily be seen on the covers of DC’s comics. People who wanted more of Man of Steel’s Superman were unlikely to find him on page, and long-time fans of Superman from the comics may have felt disconnected from his on-screen portrayal. Likewise, fans of other big DC names were mostly left in the dark—there were only a handful of teasers, and at the time none of them directly pointed to Clark interacting with characters who would later become major players.
In that sense, Man of Steel neither succeeded in laying the foundation for a cinematic universe that could easily expand, nor did it serve as an advertisement for the comics. While even the Marvel Cinematic Universe has not been 100 percent faithful to Marvel’s own comics, the tone, themes, and imagery all carry through between different outlets. This is Transmedia Marketing 101 — there should be a clear line of transference from one medium to another for the largest possible audience. Now, it is worth mentioning that Marvel Comics and Studios have the benefit of being a consolidated brand. The MCU has had the guidance of Kevin Feige, who operates within Marvel Entertainment and the Walt Disney Company, while DC movies were only organized under their own specific division with their own dedicated, "genre responsible" executives in May of this year. However, the rules of branding and creating a transmedia franchise still apply, even that lack of consistent executive vision has made it more difficult for DC to accomplish the same things Marvel has.
By the time Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice rolled around, we could start to see DC getting wiser. We begin to see a cast of dynamic heroes on screen with different levels of involvement. While the movie centers around Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, we also see that Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg have speaking roles — or at least a face. Batman v Superman was criticized for being busy — and it was, partly because it was trying to cram four movies’ worth of world building into one. Still, despite its flaws, it did ultimately set up Justice League and introduce Wonder Woman.
What it didn’t set up was Suicide Squad. Not many people were ready for a movie that broke the rules of a universe where the rules had yet to be really, solidly established. It was a movie disconnected from a franchise that was disconnected from its own franchise. Marvel Studio’s Guardians of the Galaxy seemed odd enough, but Marvel had a proven success rate and nine movies in their CV to back that up. Audience members who had questions about elements of Guardians could easily seek out previous movies or comics to contextualize it.
I’m not saying it’s all in shambles! Entries in the DC movie universe have seen some box office success. Even though Marvel/Disney has been the first to capitalize on that success doesn’t mean they will be the only ones.
For all their stylistic flaws, there is room for DC/Warner Bros.’ movies to fill a niche that the MCU isn’t. We’re already seeing critics taking a harsher look at Marvel’s on-screen diversity. Black Panther and Captain Marvel are great starts, but they are arriving after a whopping 17 and 20 movies respectively. Parent company Disney’s current track record with LGBTQ representation and its family-focused target demographics raise questions about the likelihood of ever seeing marginalized sexualities or gender identities on screen.
On the flip side, we’re seeing DC making Wonder Woman a priority film while casting multiple people of color in the upcoming Justice League movie. Warner Bros’ hiring of Patty Jenkins as a director is also significant, as she famously split from Thor: The Dark World over "creative differences." As the MCU grows and audiences realize it reflects them less and less, it’s possible that the incredibly broad appeal that’s made the franchise successful will begin to stale.
There’s opportunity here for the DC Extended Universe, so long as they can finally find a way to welcome audiences instead of just trying to bring them up to speed.