DC's Movies Are Finally Embracing Their Destiny

Warner Bros. is now developing filmmaker-driven projects that won't be connected to its larger shared universe, something that's been happening in the comics for decades.
Courtesy of Nick Cardy/DC Entertainment

While everyone — myself included — was distracted by the thought of a Joker origin movie, there was another piece of news in Tuesday's story that Todd Phillips is working on a movie about the Batman villain. Warner Bros. is creating a new label for movies featuring DC characters outside of its main shared universe.

The notion of a boutique DC films imprint that allows filmmakers to play with characters from the comic publisher without having to deal with the continuity (or cast) of other movies is certainly something that fits in with the history of the company, which has told stories outside of its central timeline for decades under a variety of conceits and publishing initiatives. How else to explain stories from the 1950s where Superman and Lois Lane were a married couple, from the 1970s where Superman and Batman's teenage sons tried — and, for the most part, failed — to be rebellious, or from the 1990s, where irresponsible superheroes almost caused the end of the world? (Well, okay, the Lois and Superman one was really just a dream; it'd happen for real in 1996, of course.)

Those comic book stories — and countless other "imaginary tales," Elseworld stories or whatever other branding they wore at the time — demonstrate the value in the idea of pulling characters outside the larger shared universe and giving them a chance to exist independently, following a particular artistic vision and being allowed the closure that would otherwise be denied them. As a concept in and of itself, there's a lot of potential in giving creators the chance to create their "own" versions of iconic characters and taking it as far as they want, as the ongoing success of Frank Miller's 1986 The Dark Knight Returns bears out.

That said, there's no denying that such a thing could be confusing to the audience as it's being rolled out. How can Warners correctly delineate which movies are part of the Justice League shared universe, and which ones aren't, to a potential market who isn't following online chatter about upcoming releases? Does such a thing even matter, or will viewers just think, "Oh, it's a different guy playing the Joker this time, that's cool"?

It could be argued that this confusion over what does and doesn't "count" as part of canon is in keeping with DC tradition. Unlike Marvel, which has made such an effort to tell audiences that everything happening on a screen is happening in the same fictional universe that it adopted the phrase "It's all connected" as a tagline, DC's onscreen efforts have been far more diffuse. Sure, Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and Supergirl all cross over, but Gotham and other television shows are entirely disconnected. And the current Warner Bros. big-screen efforts are disconnected from the TV shows (whereas Marvel shows like Agents of SHIELD and Daredevil take place in the same universe as the movies). The Flash played by TV's Grant Gustin is a separate, but equal, version of the character as played by the film's Ezra Miller, just as Tyler Hoechlin's Superman isn't Henry Cavill's, and audiences seem to be able to keep that straight in their heads easily enough.

Perhaps that's because DC's comic book mythology has long played with the concept of multiple variations on the same character co-existing alongside each other. Justice League of America No. 21 — published in 1963, just seven years after editor Julius Schwartz reused the name and gimmick of 1940s hero the Flash for a new character — introduced the idea of a multiverse filled with alternate, parallel worlds, allowing for endless variations on an idea to be published depending on creator whims.

That such an idea would end up, decades later, so confusing for new readers — Which Earth did each comic take place on? What happened when creators forgot and misidentified worlds? — that an entirely separate comic would have to be created to simplify matters couldn't have been foreseen at the time, but should, perhaps, serve as a warning to Warner Bros. moving forward. The title of that comic, in fact, could be considered a sign of things to come if quality control and strong oversight aren't exercised on future movie projects, both inside and outside this new creator-led imprint: Crisis on Infinite Earths. Or, at least, "Crisis in multiple multiplexes."

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