Though Warner Brothers and DC were slow to begin building their own shared cinematic universe in a fashion similar to Marvel’s, there was no reason to believe that they wouldn’t be able to pull it off successfully in their own time. Looking at the current state of things, though, that’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe.
On Wednesday evening, news broke that Warner Bros. may have scrapped what was once meant to be a Gotham City Sirens film centered on Harley Quinn and a squad of Gotham’s other iconic female villains. Definitely reported was that the studio was fast-tracking a Joker and Harley film written and directed by the team behind Crazy, Stupid, Love. Ba-dum-tiss.
Earlier this week, another report made the rounds explaining that Warner Bros. is moving forward with a standalone Joker film produced by Martin Scorsese that would focus on the the character’s early days in Gotham long before that fateful accident that would lead to his becoming Batman’s arch nemesis. The strategy for this film, described by some as taking cues from DC’s Elseworlds imprint, would have it set outside of the DCEU’s continuity. This decision would allow yet another actor to portray the Joker rather than sticking with Jared Leto, whom audiences were just introduced to in last year’s widely panned Suicide Squad.
In the months since Wonder Woman proved that Warner Bros. is more than capable of making a DC film that’s both a financial and critical success, there’s been the general belief (if not hope) that the studio could get its act together. But after this week’s news, it’s hard not to believe that Warner Bros. simply doesn’t know what it’s doing and, in absence of a plan, is choosing to throw everything it’s got at the wall in hopes that something sticks. This is a patently bad idea for reasons that should be obvious, but apparently aren’t to Warner Bros.
Looking from the outside in, there are at least two major problems that Warner Bros. is setting up for itself. The first, an over-reliance on the Joker intellectual property, is rather easy to avoid. The second, beginning to build out a potential set of films that exist outside of the canonical DCEU, is a little more complicated.
It isn’t hard to understand why Warner Bros. would want to capitalize on the Joker in a film when you consider both how popular the character is to fans and how much of a revenue generator he is. If you were to go to the nearest big box store near like you a Target or a Wal-Mart, you are almost guaranteed to come across a collection of toys, clothing, and other merchandise explicitly associated with the character. Comic books aren’t typically sold in stores that aren’t bookstores or comics shops, but The Killing Joke, one of DC’s consistent top-sellers, certainly is. As much as we like to think of movies like Wonder Woman and Batman v Superman solely as pieces of cinematic art inspired by comics we love, it’s important to remember that these projects are all fundamentally about making money for the companies behind them. You see the movie, you like the movie, you go out and buy things associated with the movie, and all of that translates to profit.
The issue with clinging so tightly to the Joker the way that Warner Bros. seems to be doing right now is that the studio is running the very serious risk fatiguing and alienating audiences who’ve only just now come to accept Leto as the new Joker. Recasting the role would be one thing, but to have two cinematic iterations of the character running around in the public’s mind simultaneously is bound to lead to much confusion for people who don’t closely follow the specifics of these movies. What’s more, there’s an undeniable sting to the idea that Sirens, a Harley Quinn-led film focused on the women of Gotham, might be taking a back seat to “a criminal love story” between a woman and her abusive spouse. Coming off the success of Wonder Woman, this is an incredibly bad look for the studio to take.
There is a second and much larger problem that Warner Bros. seems to be walking into. The Elseworlds imprint represents everything that makes multiverses a fun concept in comic books. Take a bunch of characters you know, mix em up a bit, and tell a different kind of story that readers don’t expect. In the world of comics, the idea of disconnected multiverses are very much a thing that characters recognize and explain often enough that you pick up on the conceit fairly quickly.
The same isn’t true of most superhero movies right now. Marvel has its MCU, DC has its DCEU and audiences understand that there is a set kind of science and logic to those particular universes. Imagine, then, a casual movie goer who hears about a Joker prequel, assumes that it takes place before the events of Suicide Squad, and then goes into the theater only be presented with a world doesn’t quite fit into their understanding of what kind of movies DC’s making.
In managing to get the jump on other studios, Marvel set the standard for comic book shared cinematic universes. Seeing how successful that particular vision worked for Marvel, other studios have since hopped on the bandwagon in hopes of being able to similarly capitalize on the inherent buzz that crossovers within shared universes generate. Though the shared universe model may feel restrictive when laid out on paper, it’s one that DC willingly chose to adopt, but is now apparently trying to make work in addition to these standalone films.
The weird thing about all of this is that Warner Bros. has plenty of experience with an Elseworlds-esque cinematic universe with all of its television shows.
Fox’s Gotham, for example isn’t at all related to the CW’s DC shows, and neither network is at all linked to Syfy’s upcoming Krypton series. This approach to capitalizing on DC’s vast portfolio of stories is even more immediately apparent when you consider Warner Bros.’ animated projects. No one would ever mistake Batman: The Animated Series and DC Superhero Girls as existing in the same universe because Warner Bros. animation branch made the conscious decision that its offerings would be discrete properties from the very beginning.
There have been shows like Batman: TAS that went on to share significant amounts of narrative DNA with other shows like Justice League, but again the difference here was that the studio took the time to “teach” audiences how to consume the stories that they were telling and understand that they were independent from one another. For example, The Batman, Beware The Batman, Batman Unlimited, and Justice League Action are all shows that prominently feature Batman, but the each differentiates itself in terms of tone and visual aesthetic to convey that they’re their own thing. The beauty of these animated shows and movies is that they cost a significantly lower amount of money to make and if one stops being profitable, Warner Bros. can pack it up and start all over again. That isn’t quite the case with a multimillion dollar live action movie.
Though it has a roadmap for the future, DC’s Extended Universe is barely off the ground at this point and introducing another set of technically unrelated live-action movies that will compete with the DCEU feels like a odd bifurcation of Warner Bros.’ brand.
None of this even deals with the fact that most of the DCEU’s movies just aren’t that good. You’d imagine that Warner Bros. would be focused on trying to recreate what it was about Wonder Woman that made audiences love it so much to make sure that its next movies are successful, but that seems not to be the case.
This shouldn’t at all come as a surprise to anyone but as both a critic and a fan of comic books, I very sincerely want to see Warner Bros. and DC out there kicking all kinds of ass and giving Marvel a run for their money. The stronger these movies are individually, the better the genre becomes as a whole. But right now, Warner Bros. seems hellbent on shooting itself in the foot and hurting all of us in the process.