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The dawn of a new DC Universe is upon us, with James Gunn and Peter Safran planning a new slate of film, TV and gaming projects. But before we get there, we have nine months of what feels like the last gasps of the DCEU, which is coming to an end, almost poetically, a decade after it made its debut with Man of Steel in 2013.
First out of the gate is David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods, the sequel to Shazam! (2019), which proved to be a modest sized hit and was considered another course-correcting step in the right direction for the DC franchise, the third to be exact, but who’s counting? Some critics even referred to it as the best film in the DCEU to date. A sequel should, in theory, be a big draw as the opening salvo for the three other DC films scheduled this year, The Flash, Blue Beetle, and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. So why does it feel like the DCEU is limping towards a conclusion rather than culminating in a celebration of a decade of storytelling?
Early social media reactions to Fury of the Gods have been enthusiastic and positive, while reviews have been relatively positive, if softer than the original. But the box office projections suggest a less enthusiastic opening. Certainly, aware of the numbers the film is facing, Warner Bros. and New Line’s marketing for the film has become a desperate plea to “come see,” with TV spots spoiling the film’s big cameo which somehow feels ever sadder than Black Adam star Dwayne Johnson all-but revealing Henry Cavill’s Superman cameo during press on the red carpet.
So, what is it about Fury of the Gods that is standing in the way of it being a lightning rod? Well, it comes down to a number of factors. The sequel has no shortage of talent, bringing on Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and Rachel Zegler as antagonists the Daughters of Atlas — Hespera, Kalypso, Anthea, respectively, characters who aren’t from the comics. This makes it somewhat harder in terms of marketing and pointing audiences to specific comic books they can reference and build enthusiasm off of. The second issue is that Shazam’s most iconic antagonist, Black Adam, got a solo movie, which flopped at the box office last year, and stole the thunder away of any possibility of the Shazam versus Black Adam matchup audiences were hoping for since the films were announced. But the biggest boulder standing in the way of Fury of the Gods is that with a new DC cinematic universe on the way, what are audiences being asked to invest in?
Now, you could say that the merits of the movie should be looked at individually, and not in terms of what it sets up, or the post-credit scenes that may never come to fruition in another film. In fact, that’s what I would argue myself. See the movie for the movie and not for how well it serves as a teaser trailer. But I think, if we’re being realistic, that is not the way people watch these movies, at least not entirely. A Shazam movie that has the guaranteed promise of a clash with Black Adam or the character joining the Justice League simply plays differently with audiences than a Shazam movie that teases the return of Sivana and the Monster Society of Evil in a movie that doesn’t seem likely to get made. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. Already, social media chatter has returned to the same query about these pre-reboot films, “what’s even the point?” The point is to see a good film, but I don’t know if that’s enough of a convincing argument for a franchise that, at least critically, has had more misses than hits.
While the new co-head of DC Films, James Gunn, has said that everything is on the table to possibly continue in the DCU, and Shazam!, at least the first film, doesn’t have any continuity-breaking references, it all feels a little bit muddy in explanation for audiences who’ve been told a reboot, with a new Batman and Superman, is coming. Words like “soft reboot,” with elements of The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker grandfathered in, can be thrown out, and that might be the case, but that means nothing to general audiences who have been raised on MCU films highlighting a single continuity in which “everything matters,” despite it being a marketing ploy. But it’s a ploy people believe in, and that is something that Warner Bros. Discovery doesn’t have in regards to their current crop of DC Films, which between the frequent shifts in leadership, the divisive nature of the movies, actors unsure of their future as these characters, and an entire Batgirl movie being shelved, the current situation has taken on an, “eh, we don’t really know if it matters yet” stance.
Gunn’s announcements about Chapter 1: Gods and Monsters, the start of the DCU, were certainly exciting and in general, got a lot of folks more optimistic about the future of DC onscreen, outside of Batman films, than they’ve been in a long time. But it does feel like the announcement comes at the detriment of the films already scheduled for release that fall outside of that. It’s reminiscent of when 20th Century Fox released Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants after the Disney merger, and everyone was already anticipating the MCU’s rebooted version of mutants. And sure, we can hope the quality of the DCEU films this year will surpass those films, but if the marketing for Fury of the Gods, which didn’t even play a Super Bowl spot, is any indication of what we can expect for the rest of 2023, then it seems like WBD is already counting their losses and really just hoping Michael Keaton’s return as Batman can push The Flash to a billion.
There’s a lack of clarity in terms of how these DCEU films connect to Gunn and co-boss Peter Safran’s DCU, if at all, and the wait-and-see approach may be the most logical but it also doesn’t sell tickets. Fury of the Gods was originally set to come out after The Flash, and Sandberg recently gave that as the reason for the costume changes in the film, which have now changed simply because of magic. It’s not a big issue. But when you consider that The Flash was originally going to lead to certain changes seen in Fury of the Gods and Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom, with now-axed cameos referencing those events, it does feel like the issues of a comic book event that have been mixed up and pages have been removed.
Similarly, The Flash, the next film set to be released, is said to serve as a conclusion to the DCEU and set up the DCU. And that would be fine if it weren’t being immediately followed by Blue Beetle, which is supposed to launch a new franchise, and the Aquaman sequel, which was supposed to be the second chapter in a trilogy. Oh, and by the way, Jason Momoa will likely be playing a different character in the DCU, but according to Peter Safran, won’t be playing two different characters, which contradicts Momoa’s statement that he’ll always be Aquaman. So, what we have is the end of a cinematic universe and a new one being born simultaneously and potentially using pieces from the one ending if it seems financially viable, which even for comic enthusiasts is a crisis too complicated.
It would be great to see these 2023 DC movies succeed, both financially and critically, and maybe Fury of the Gods will beat out predictions and show that audiences are still invested in these films despite a reboot in the wings. But I think there needs to be some clarity about where these franchises stand in terms of the DCU. If the plan is to end them here, within the confines of the DCEU, then I think audiences deserve definitive conclusions and a transition that makes sense, like The Flash being an actual finale and leading into a reboot rather than the DCEU ending with an Aquaman sequel that tees up a third installment that the studio doesn’t actually plan on making. Whether you’re excited for the DCU or not, I think that the actors and filmmakers who have contributed to a decade of stories set in the DCEU at least deserve clarity and nobility as they deliver this final chapter.
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