Warner Bros. is trying to turn its comic book movie universe around. It is three films and four years into a crossover franchise, and it hasn’t produced a uncontroversially successful DC superhero film since 2008. At least, not a live-action one.
But the company’s latest spate of announcements reveal some interesting correlations. Unlike some of its other long-gestating DC Comics projects, they’re productions that actually look like they’re on track to feasibly happen in the near future. And they’re all poised to grab a significant female audience.
Warner Bros. has shown signs of inner change
In 2016, in the wake of disastrous reviews for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and a 70 percent-drop in box office proceeds from its opening weekend to its second, Warner Bros. considerably restructured its DC Comics films division. The company put an actual creative-side comics industry veteran — Geoff Johns, president and chief creative officer of DC Entertainment — in a position of power over the entire franchise (in a co-running position with a WB executive) for the first time.
But any changes flowing from the WB’s shakeup are unlikely to have had a significant effect on the next two installments in the company’s DC franchise — Suicide Squad or Wonder Woman — before their release. The timeline simply doesn’t shake out: Johns’ position was announced in May of 2016, when both films were already in post-production. Where we should be looking for a sea change in how Warner Bros. is structuring its DC franchise is in the flurry of movies that the studio has announced lately.
Unlike many, many announcements before them, these prospective films have directors and writers attached — demonstrating not merely a studio show of being invested in a franchise, but of actual resources and completed contract negotiation. The Flash, Cyborg, Green Lantern Corps, and untitled Deadshot and Black Adam movies, as well as the untitled Suicide Squad sequel, all lack directors and, in some cases, screenwriters. Shazam and a long-ago-announced Man of Steel sequel are languishing in the directorial negotiation stages, and The Batman is straight-up floundering.
Contrast those with the female-fronted Gotham City Sirens and the as-yet untitled Batgirl and Nightwing movies. Sirens has a writer, director, a star and a small production company ready to develop. This week, the Batgirl movie has somehow managed to get Joss Whedon interested in making big-budget superhero movies again, and it even has a reported direction, using Gail Simone’s 2011 run on the title as a “starting point.” The Nightwing movie was announced with a writer attached from the start, along with a director who has just come off the most critically successful DC-centered film Warner Bros has made in years, The Lego Batman Movie.
Unlike most of DC’s numerous announced films that have yet to start filming (seriously, there’s more than a dozen), these three female-facing films look the most likely to actually get made on a reasonable timetable.
Wait, but ... Nightwing?
Nightwing has always been a character who was made available to the female gaze — a rare male comic book superhero who was even framed as having consistent, healthy, sexual relationships (outside of marriage) in the first place. Dick Grayson and Starfire are among the first comic book couples who were ever depicted sharing a bed on panel. The character’s raw masculine attractiveness has been so codified that, at this point, it’s a running gag more than a decade old.
Batgirl is arguably the most famous female superhero, next to Wonder Woman. I really wish that WB had gotten a female director to tackle her film, and I have my concerns about how Joss Whedon’s penchant for heroines with traumatic pasts will yet again bring the events of The Killing Joke to an unfortunate forefront — but I have no doubt that Whedon is capable of making a movie about a female hero that hangs together from a narrative standpoint and is even, dare I say it, fun.
Gotham City Sirens stands to be the big screen’s first all-female team superhero movie. It has a female screenwriter and exists entirely because of the enthusiasm of Margot Robbie for the character of Harley Quinn.
It’s almost as if Warner Bros. is acknowledging the biggest edge that DC Entertainment has over Marvel Entertainment in the making movies game — that it has a wide array of characters who are visible in the mainstream, but are something other than white dudes. The majority of the most famous female and/or non-white Marvel characters are associated with the X-Men or the Fantastic Four, and thus unavailable for incorporation into the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
But thanks in part to previous film adaptations — and in part to a half-century history of hugely successful live action and animated television productions — DC Comics characters like Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Cyborg, Static and the Green Lantern John Stewart are known quantities.
If there’s anything deliberate in what Warner Bros. is doing here, however, it’s more likely that it’s all about Batman. Nightwing, Batgirl and the Sirens would all necessarily be pulling from a Gotham City setting — still the birthplace of the WB’s most successful superhero film franchises.
It’s understating it a bit to say that Batman and female characters are two things that are directly relevant to my interests. But if playing to my interests was all you had to do to get me to like a thing, I’d have no problems with the writing, characterization or cinematography of any of the DC Extended Universe movies. I’m interested to see how this Warner Bros. slate plays out, but I’m not yet holding my breath.
Ask me again in June, once I’ve seen Wonder Woman.