2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the DC Extended Universe, but it will also be the final year of the DCEU’s existence. When Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom arrives in December, the DCEU will be put to rest in favor of a new cinematic universe, the DCU, from DC Studios co-CEOs James Gunn and Peter Safran. The new DCU will launch (writers’ and actors’ strikes permitting) in 2025 with Superman: Legacywhich Gunn is writing and directing.
With Blue Beetle about to hit theaters this week, it feels strange to throw dirt on the DCEU’s premature grave. In theory, this should have worked. Marvel Studios proved that comic book movies could deliver multiple blockbusters within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. By contrast, and unlike Marvel, DC had access to all of its characters, including some of the most famous superheroes in the world. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are true icons. But as a whole, they came up short when compared to the MCU’s unparalleled success.
While there could be a very long list of things that the MCU does better than the DCEU, the reverse is also true in certain categories. In a handful of ways, a few of the DCEU films were just as good if not better than their Marvel counterparts. And it’s worth examining the seven crucial things that the DCEU did better than the MCU in the hope that the team behind the DCU will keep them in mind and avoid some of the same mistakes that brought down this cinematic universe.
The DCEU created a cohesive narrative
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Say what you will about Zack Snyder’s films, but the three DC movies that he directed, Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceand Justice Leagueall flowed into each other naturally. That’s because it’s largely the story of Superman, from his emergence as a hero, his premature death, and his resurrection alongside the first superhero team in the DCEU. Marvel’s first few films were all over the place tonally and thematically, with only the Infinity Stones as the narrative glue that started bringing the heroes together in The Avengers.
Even Wonder Woman and Aquaman built on Snyder’s storyline and felt like proper pieces of the puzzle. But it really fell apart when Snyder left Justice League during the film’s production, and Avengers director Joss Whedon took over the shoot and added his signature sense of humor. That film failed at the box office, but Zack Snyder’s Justice League was a definite improvement when Snyder had a chance to finish his vision for the movie. It just took a nearly four-hour cut to get there. Unfortunately, after Aquamannone of the DC movies have been able to regain that sense of vision or even a coherent direction.
Wonder Woman broke the glass ceiling for female superheroes
Wonder Woman wasn’t the first female-led superhero movie, or even the first DC heroine to headline a film. Surely everyone remembers Halle Berry’s ill-fated 2004 Catwoman movie, or even Marvel’s Elektra film starring Jennifer Garner in the title role. Those films flopped so hard that studios were openly reluctant to ever give female heroes another chance to carry a movie. And if we’re being honest, the Black Widow movie should have happened about seven or eight years sooner than it finally materialized.
However, Wonder Woman arrived at just the right time to make Gal Gadot a star and remind the general public why Wonder Woman herself has been popular for decades. For the first time since Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman TV series in the ’70s, the Amazon heroine fully reclaimed her status as an equal next to Batman and Superman. Wonder Woman made $822 million worldwide, and it helped pave the way for more heroines to get their due on the big screen. The sequel, Wonder Woman 1984was hit by a pandemic release and the fact that it just wasn’t as good as the original. But that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of Wonder Woman in the DCEU.
The redemption of Aquaman
Marvel has done a very good job of taking some obscure characters, like the Guardians of the Galaxy, and turning them into movie stars. DC may have already had the icons, but it pulled off something even more impressive by finally redeeming the king of the seas in the minds of the general public. Comic book writers like Peter David and Geoff Johns had already gone a long way towards repairing the reputation of DC’s King of Atlantis. But for several generations of comic book movie fans, Super Friends Aquaman was still the butt of everyone’s jokes.
Note that the above image is an actual screencap from Super Friends with Aquaman and the Wonder Twins. And on a campy animated show for kids, the blonde guy who talks to fish was somehow the goofiest non-sidekick on the series. This was the worst take on Aquaman, and it took hold for decades until Jason Momoa’s Aqua-bro performance as the character made him seem like a legitimate contender. Aquaman was also a massive hit with $1.148 billion worldwide, and it has made Super Friends Aquaman a thing of the past.
DC delivered the first Latino-led superhero movie
Quick quiz: Name even one Latino hero that Marvel has in a prominent leading role in an MCU movie or a TV series. It’s a trick question because there isn’t one. Now, if we had asked you to name one of Marvel’s Latino heroes, we would have accepted Miles Morales as an answer since he is Afro-Latino. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse are animated films produced by Sony Pictures, and Miles has to share the spotlight with almost every Spider-Man in existence.
Blue Beetleon the other hand, not only features a single Latino hero, Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña), in the leading role, it actively embraces his culture and his extended Mexican-American family including his parents, Alberto (Damian Alcazar) and Rocio Reyes (Elpidia Carrillo), his uncle, Rudy Reyes (George Lopez), his sister, Milagro Reyes (Belissa Escobedo), and his grandmother, Nana (Adriana Barraza).
It’s far too soon to say how Blue Beetle will perform at the box office, but the fact that it exists at all feels like a minor miracle. Keep in mind that this movie was originally intended as an HBO Max original film before it was upgraded to a theatrical release. The Batgirl movie was not as lucky, and it was sacrificed as a tax write-off by DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery.
Peacemaker integrated DC movie characters into the show
Thanks to Disney+, Marvel Studios now has an abundance of TV shows set in the MCU. Unfortunately, quantity has not always meant quality for Marvel, and Disney CEO Bob Iger has indicated that there may be a lot fewer MCU shows in the future. The DCEU only had a single TV series in its decade of existence: Peacemaker. Series creator and director, James Gunn introduced John Cena’s Peacemaker/Christopher Smith in The Suicide Squad as a member of the team and as a secondary antagonist. However, Peacemaker pulled off the impressive feat of humanizing Peacemaker himself within the context of his own self-contained alien invasion storyline. This series didn’t exist to set up some film or a sequel. It told its own story, and then it was done.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect beyond the season-long evolution of Peacemaker is the way that the show got a lot of mileage out of the cameo appearances by Viola Davis’s Amanda Waller. The season finale also featured a very funny cameo by Jason Momoa and Ezra Miller as Aquaman and The Flash, respectively. That made the series feel like it truly belonged among the DC movies.
To date, there has not been an MCU R-rated movie. Deadpool 3 will reportedly be the first, but it is yet to be finished, much less released. And to be fair, the vast majority of superhero flicks land in the realm of PG-13 because of the fear that an R-rating would negatively affect the box office. It’s worth noting that the DCEU’s two R-rated flicks, Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squaddidn’t become blockbuster hits, but there were mitigating circumstances for The Suicide Squad which was released day and date with its streaming debut on the service formerly known as HBO Max.
Having said that, the action in those films is the best reason to watch them. The Suicide Squad works particularly well because it manages to marry the action to both the comedic and the dramatic elements of the script. That’s the kind of comic book movie that could do Deadpool-like numbers if the new DC regime revisits that in the future.
DC’s early films maintained a more serious tone
This one comes with a caveat because the tonal differences between the MCU and the DCEU went out the window when Suicide Squad and Joss Whedon’s cut of Justice League tried as hard as possible to recreate the look and feel of Marvel’s movies. But the DCEU movies that came before that were refreshingly serious compared to the far-more jokey Marvel films. Some of the MCU movies like Thor: Love and Thunder have even gone so far into comedy that they play like self-parody.
Unfortunately, that is also true for later DC movies like Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Black Adamand The Flash. Once DC films were no longer distinguishable from Marvel’s flicks, they were largely disposable and easily ignored. If the new DCU is going to reinvigorate the brand at the box office, the people running the company have to remember that DC movies need to tell DC stories, and at all costs, they should avoid being pale imitations of DC’s biggest competitor.