Though the Marvel Cinematic Universe may be an interrelated entity in which, as the tagline for the first season of Agents of SHIELD put it, “everything is related,” Suicide Squad revealed that Warner Bros’ DC Extended Universe is structured in an even more intimate manner — one that suggests that each movie is simply a chapter of one massive story, instead of different stories within the same world.
Consider the way that Suicide Squad opens; it doesn’t just reference the existence of Superman, the way that Marvel Studios productions offer Easter egg mentions and nods — it explicitly spoils the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for those anyone who hadn’t seen it. The obvious response, that the percentage of the audience for Squad that didn’t crossover with the BvS audience is likely minuscule, is precisely the viewpoint that Warners is working from: that Suicide Squad isn’t, necessarily, a standalone franchise, but DC Movie No. 3.
With that idea in mind, much more about Squad makes sense — the Batman (Ben Affleck) and Flash (Ezra Miller) cameos that feature the heroes without any attempt at contextualization for newcomers, for one thing, or any of the other cameo appearances or offhanded mentions that make no sense without the context of the larger DC Universe. (The mention of Robin’s murder in Harley’s on-screen bio being perhaps the most egregious offender in this regard; it’s an event that’s been hinted at in two different movies now, but never actually explained — or even confirmed — in dialogue.)
The “shared universe” of the Marvel movies is one that allows for team-ups and guest shots — Avengers movies and Captain America: Civil War-style groupings — as well as shared concepts, but for the most part, each of the series are relatively self-contained. You can watch the Thor movies or the Iron Man movies and feel okay if you decided to skip, say Ant-Man.
Warners is taking things to another level. So far, Suicide Squad refers directly to events in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which refers directly to Man of Steel, even though, theoretically, none of these movies are “officially” sequels to their predecessors. Marvel’s approach made the Marvel brand the thing, and Warners is attempting to double down on that appeal for the DC properties by ensuring that each installment contributes something that makes it a “must-see” for anyone wanting to keep up with any of the properties overall.
Where this goes next will be interesting to watch. It’s worth noting that the upcoming Wonder Woman, because it takes place 100 years in the past, will be the first DC property movie to have a clean start since Man of Steel … presuming, of course, there’s not a contemporary framing sequence that works in references to both Suicide Squad and Justice League. The notion that every single movie in a sequence that produces two installments a year is unmissable is not only exhausting, it’s self-defeating; when each movie is a must-see, what does that make the genuinely important-to-the-franchise movies? Super-must-sees, perhaps; at least it’s on brand for the Superman studio.
Moreover, the more DC properties are made into movies, the more difficult the universe will appear to any newcomers. Should Warners not change tactics, the 2020 Green Lantern Corps movie will be chapter 10 (at least) of the ongoing storyline, rather than the start of a new franchise. How many people curious about space cops with magic wishing rings will want to step into the theater if they’ve missed the earlier nine movies?
And one final problem with the current set-up: audiences don’t know where the story thread they’re interested in will continue next. Where, exactly, does the cliffhanger from Suicide Squad actually continue? The rumored Harley Quinn spinoff? A second Suicide Squad movie? The Batman movie in development? Maybe it’s Justice League. If that last one seems like a stretch, bear in mind the fact that the first time audiences saw the Flash in costume wasn’t in Justice League or a solo Flash movie; it was a dream sequence cameo in Batman v Superman.
Given the poor critical response to both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, it’s clear that the DC Extended Universe requires some retooling as it moves forward. On the basis of what has been seen to date, opening up the space between the individual movies should be part of that reworking. There’s an entire fictional universe to be explored in the DC back catalog; there’s no need to make things so claustrophobic as they currently feel.