DC Has Stopped Trying to Beat Marvel at Its Own Game

With 'Aquaman,' 'Wonder Woman 1984' and a 'Joker' stand-alone, Warner Bros. is letting its films feel less connected.

After years of attempting to repeat the success of Marvel Studios by, basically, attempting to repeat Marvel Studio’s model of moviemaking, Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment may have uncovered an alternate path to success… by letting DC be DC.

Last month's San Diego Comic-Con has sparked discussion about DC’s “new direction,” post-Justice League (and the failure, thereof). In some sense, this is a bit of a misnomer, especially when it comes to films like Aquaman and Wonder Woman 1984 — after all, both of those pics firmly exist in the same universe as what has come before, without any sizable retcons or rewrites of the previous movies. While there’s clearly a visual and tonal shift from the Zack Snyder Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in both, that had already started with 2017’s Wonder Woman, and even continued in Justice League, directed in part by Snyder, with Joss Whedon. If this was a “new direction,” it’s more than a year old already.

But the idea of allowing the films to co-exist in the same universe, yet each have their own look and feel, is something that is quintessentially DC. While Marvel’s comic book origins are rooted in a small group of creators trying to follow the aesthetic choices of just three men (Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko), DC’s comic book output has always been, historically, more varied; the Superman comics looked different from the Wonder Woman comics, which looked different from the Batman comics, and so on. When the characters teamed in the 1940s Justice Society of America stories, individual chapters were illustrated in different styles to match their regular looks; when the Justice League of America was created two decades later, the style used by artist Mike Sekowsky was gloriously off-model for most of the members.

That variety has continued to be DC’s hallmark throughout its existence. Marvel proudly promoted the idea of a “house style” — to the point of publishing a book called How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, which offered a watered-down version of Jack Kirby’s dynamic approach. But DC’s strength was its diversity, an attitude that was developed further with the adoption, of “Imaginary Stories” that purposefully abandoned the regular canon in order to tell stories where Superman was married, Batman and Superman had teenage kids (called, wonderfully, Batman Jr. and Superman Jr.), or similar twists on the existing formula.

Those stories, initially told inside the ongoing monthly comics of their lead characters, were later extended into entirely separate series like Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, wherein the focus was that particular story, whether or not it fit into the greater continuity or not. Such an approach morphed into the Elseworlds imprint before disappearing for some time; it reappeared this year as the DC Black Label line. Again, this is where Warners/DC’s movie plans dovetail with its comic book output: Joaquin Phoenix's upcoming stand-alone Joker movie is, essentially, a DC Black Label comic, onscreen.

It’s unclear how much of this process is actually intentional and formalized; the DC movies haven’t had announced imprints, after all (though there have been rumblings of a separate label for stand-alone movies). Had Batman v. Superman and Justice League been massive hits — or Wonder Woman a flop, for that matter — it’s arguably just as likely that whatever films followed would have hewed to Snyder’s template more closely, rather than diversifying. But whether or not the current approach was always the plan or something arrived at by mistake, the future of DC’s movie output more closely resembles DC’s comic book history than at any point in the last decade, if not longer. Perhaps this won’t be the road to success for the DC properties on the big screen, but if nothing else, at least they’ll fail in a manner more true to what the company has historically been.