James Gunn has always delivered a body count with his movies, his deliberately hyper-murderous 2022 DC film debut The Suicide Squad most of all. But no one ever figured him for an executioner.
That changed last month, as Gunn and Peter Safran revealed the first serious look at their plans as the new heads of DC Films, plans that seem to include bringing to a close large portions of the DC Comics movie universe—and specifically those bits that have often worked under the label of “The Snyderverse,” rooted in the films that director Zack Snyder spearheaded from 2013 to 2017 when, for all intents and purposes, he was the primary architect of the studio’s superhero franchise.
Now it’s Gunn’s job to deal with the fallout from a decade of very muted successes and very loud scandals, a table-clearing process highlighted by the reveal late last year that Henry Cavill, who helped Snyder bring the DC films universe to life with 2013’s Man Of Steel, had been let go from the franchise entirely, with an as-yet-unnamed new actor being brought in to star in the Superman film Gunn is in the process of writing.
Gunn and Safran are now in the strange position of being the first creators—give or take the shame-faced, “Let’s pretend this never happened” masterminds over at Universal, who had to Old Yeller their abortive Dark Universe movie monster franchise after one misguided Mummy movie a few years back—to have to kill off one of these billion-dollar, highly public, very orchestrated webs of cinematic interdependence. How will they go about it? What can they learn from their predecessors in comics, who have nearly a century-long track record of sweeping their biggest failures under the rug? How the hell do you kill a cinematic universe?
It all starts with Superman
When Man Of Steel arrived in theaters 10 years ago this June, it did so with a number of goals on its slightly monochromatic mind. Partly, the film was simply Snyder’s first real thesis on the modern superhero, living natural disasters existing in inevitable conflict with the mortal authorities clinging to their nominal power over them. And partly, it was an effort by Warner Bros. to right the Superman cinematic ship, after Bryan Singer’s devotedly backward-looking Superman Returns failed to reignite movie-going passions for the character in 2006. But underpinning all of that, if we’re being honest here, was envy.
2013 was, after all, just one year after 2012, when the studio’s rivals over at Marvel had smashed through the billion-dollar box office mark with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, the culmination of a multi-year plan to create a shared universe of movies surrounding the company’s superheroes. (The ones that hadn’t already been farmed out to Sony or Fox, leastways.) Warner Bros. had a whole stable of its own heroes, of course, in the form of the DC properties—heroes who had, with some frequency, outperformed the Marvel B-listers currently staffing the MCU at the box office. Why shouldn’t Superman and Batman get some of the shared universe cash that Hawkeye, of all characters, was somehow pulling in?
It’s easy to see how they all thought it would work: Man Of Steel would set up the universe, and the tone; after a brief flirtation with trying to rope in Christopher Nolan’s highly successful Dark Knight trilogy, it was then decided that a new version of Batman (and Wonder Woman) would be introduced in the sequel, paving the way for a fuller crossover film down the line. Justice League would serve as the Avengers-style nexus of everything that came after, building the DC heroes up in advance of big fights with a rival Injustice League formed from iconic baddies, and a final boss battle with DC’s biggest villain, the Jack Kirby creation Darkseid.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Endgame: DC’s side projects kept out-performing the tentpoles that were supposed to be propping them up. The clearest early example was Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, which handily topped its 2017 follow-up Justice League at the box office, despite costing something like half that movie’s budget. As the chaos surrounding that latter film intensified—with Warner execs reportedly using the excuse of a personal tragedy in Snyder’s life to push him off the project once and for all—it started looking like the clearest sign of success for a Warner Bros. DC movie was how far from the main franchise it situated itself. Billion-dollar movies like Aquaman and Todd Phillips’ non-DCEU Joker notably operated at increasing removes from the Snyderverse; even 2019’s Shazam!, which “succeeded” at the box office largely on the grounds that it only cost about $100 million to make and roughly tripled that number in ticket sales, notably reduced its one big JL cameo to a headless torso. Rather than drawing strength from a shared narrative, the DC movies seemed increasingly desperate to escape its orbit.
Follow the DC Comics playbook
Which brings us back to Gunn and Safran—the latter of whom, it’s worth remembering, likely has his job now in part because of his work bringing Aquaman to the top of the DCEU earnings charts. (Gunn, meanwhile, is still riding high on his talents as a writer/pitchman/visionary-type and his success turning Guardians Of The Galaxy into a going concern at Marvel; certainly, the pandemic-asterisked performance of The Suicide Squad at the box office isn’t what scored him the gig.)
It’s clear from the outline they’ve sketched for the newly christened DC Films that the pair would like to be in the cinematic universe business … eventually. The MCU remains the single most astonishing money-printing endeavor in the modern movie-making business, so it’s no big shock that everybody, from the Godzilla people, to DC, to the poor bastards who once staked their careers trying to sell you on a big-budget Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde movie, might want to duplicate its success. But before Gunn and Safran can embark on their own long-form narrative, they have to clean up what’s come before.
In the world of comic books, there have typically been two big approaches to clearing the narrative decks, one favored by DC, and the other by Marvel. DC’s is the flashier of the two: The Crisis, a big, continuity-exploding mega-event every decade or two, designed to clear the board entirely and set up a new storytelling reality. Crises are big and messy, but they also have obvious appeal: They (ideally) set a whole bunch of decades-old characters back to easier-to-understand points that are easy for new readers to get into; they also sell a whole bunch of comics in the process.
The ur-example is, of course, 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths, in which Marv Wolfman and George Pérez served as the triggermen on decades of DC Comics stories, allowing new narratives to grow up in the aftermath (and even allowing a handful of characters to have actual endpoints, a shocking rarity in the never-ending churn of comics publishing).
The Marvel approach is more subtle, at least usually: You let time do the work for you, pushing unwanted stories into the background as you highlight new threads. Technically, for instance, everything that’s happened to Peter Parker since August of 1962 has still happened to the poor bastard, give or take the occasional marriage-erasing deal with the devil—and including all the very embarrassing bits with clones and whatnot in the 1990s. It all happened, but the writers and editors choose which bits of the character’s history to emphasize; unwanted storylines and characters just fade into the ether, until some new writer decides there’s something worth resurrecting out of the mess.
It’s not like Marvel has been immune to the allure of the Crisis, mind you—2015 event comic Secret Wars was just the latest attempt at blowing up the status quo and shaking things around in the publisher’s history, merging parts of the spin-off Ultimate Universe into the main 616 continuity. But, as Douglas Wolk argues in his excellent 2021 book All Of The Marvels, the ongoing narrative of the Marvel universe remains one of the richest, and longest, continuous stories that humanity has ever told itself.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has, in part, followed suit: While 2018’s Infinity War and 2019’s Endgame obviously mark a major delineation point between early Marvel and the Phase Four material the studio has rolled out since, all that latter-day stuff still takes place in a reality where those prior events all happened. (Sometimes awkwardly, admittedly; some projects, like WandaVision and the Spider-Man movies, have dealt much better than others with the whole “half of all of humanity winked out of existence for five years” thing, for instance.) Heroes die, or retire, or make their way off planet, or slip back into the timestream for some temporal lovin’. But their pasts remain intact. It’s all one universe (or, increasingly, multiverse), 30 films and counting standing in continuity with each other in a way nobody’s ever managed before.
Lean into The Flash
It sounds like Gunn and Safran are leaning the other way, though. And it’s hard to blame them: DC Comics precedent is on their side, and the “Snyderverse” is so mired in toxicity and scandal and expectations that an exhausting, box-office-sapping pall falls over the whole thing. (The latest unpleasantness surrounding Dwayne Johnson’s attempts to throw his movie star weight around in a power vacuum, making big demands for his tepidly performing Black Adam, only being the latest example.) But the new DC Films duo also has a ready-made, already-shot film centered on DC Comics’ most Crisis-prone character landing right in their laps, one last (toxic, scandal-ridden) gift from the studio’s checkered past: The Flash.
As the first DC Comics character to regularly travel between realities (itself an acknowledgment of the company’s earlier exercises in continuity resets), Barry Allen has frequently found himself at the center of DC’s various Crises. Even before Gunn and Safran took over the studio, we knew that Ezra Miller’s take on the character would be bouncing around universes, bringing Michael Keaton’s Batman back into the fold after 30 years of silence.
And, more recently, Gunn has made it clear that Andy Muschietti’s long-delayed movie will serve as a “reset” for “many things” in the DCEU. (That “many” presumably centered on the fact that Aquaman 2 still needs to do numbers with Jason Momoa this Christmas, and Gunn’s desire to keep those properties touching his Suicide Squad stuff, including the on-hold Peacemaker, and Viola Davis’ upcoming Waller show, intact.)
It helps explain, among other things, why the studio seems bound and determined to stay in the Ezra Miller business, despite the various allegations of wrongdoing and misconduct that have dogged the actor over the last few years: Flash is presumably just too perfect to lose as a chance to initiate the much-needed mercy killing of this cinematic universe.
It probably won’t be that cut and dry. Gunn, among other things, has a very non-DCEU knack for maintaining good relationships with his stars, one of the factors that made Marvel such a juggernaut; his talk about transitioning some of the Snyderverse stars into other positions in his new universe as an olive branch has at least a whiff of the genuine about it. But don’t get it twisted: He and Safran are here to swing the axe on the first big cinematic universe to go down—because how else can a new one grow up in its place?