By 2012, moviegoers had already seen Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers. These films were incredibly successful, and they established the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Over five films, Marvel Studios brought in the first six Marvel heroes they could use: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. Hardly anyone outside of comic book fans could have named any of these characters outside of the Hulk and maybe Captain America. However, these six are the foundation of a multi-billion-dollar movie empire.
Now imagine a newly formed DC Films company taking Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, and Aquaman and making a Justice League movie in 2013 instead of Man of Steel. It would have eclipsed Marvel immediately. All of those characters have massive name recognition for even the most casual fan of comic book superheroes. They have a built-in audience.
I’m not saying a single Justice League movie right out of the gate would have made more money than the six Marvel movies combined, but it would have come close.
Back in 2012, the people in charge of the DC Comics slate of films had just finished the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Dark Knight trilogy of Batman films. These movies were more “films” than summer popcorn blockbusters. They were serious films with serious actors and directors in charge. In contrast, the Marvel movies were fun superhero romps with interesting actors as leads and villains and good stories with the right mix of special effects. The Dark Knight came out in July 2008 and won Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar. Iron Man came out two months earlier and started a multi-billion-dollar movie franchise. The Dark Knight trilogy is, by most accounts, better cinema than any of the Marvel movies, but the audience for these movies says, “who cares?”
The lack of long-term vision for the characters and stories regarding the DC Expanded Universe is why the DC films are a mess and why the Marvel Cinematic Universe dominates at the box office and streaming.
Creating a successful movie franchise without billions of dollars in intellectual property is exactly what Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige did. They should be honored and praised for their forward-thinking and taking a massive leap of faith. DC Films and Warner Brothers missed out on fully capitalizing on their intellectual property by giving their most important characters, worth billions of dollars, to the wrong writer/director who had the wrong aesthetic, the wrong understanding of the characters, and the wrong creative impulses. Zack Snyder was the wrong choice, plain and simple.
So, the DC Expanded Universe is all over the place. I don’t think it can be saved without a wholesale reboot of everything or, I guess, incorporating the newest shiny object in the superhero movie franchise concept treasure chest: the multiverse. I have high hopes for the next slate of DC Comics films from Black Adam to The Batman. Still, they screwed the pooch in 2013 with Man of Steel and have yet to recover fully. Maybe, just maybe, The Flash will fix the DC Expanded Universe.
Just looking over the cast list and some of the leaked pictures, it’s obvious the Flash is jumping either through timelines or parallel universes… probably a little of both. It’s been reported the screenwriters used the comic book Flash maxi-series Flashpoint as a reference, but I think they are only going to use the plot point about going back in time to save his mother. I highly doubt we will see the Reverse-Flash or any Emperor Aquaman versus Amazonian Princess battles. I was partial to the idea of Keaton coming in to play Thomas Wayne, but I think it’s much more likely to be an older version of the 1989 Batman.
Since we can’t go back in time and fix the DC Expanded Universe, it looks like the powers-that-be will be repairing it by moving forward with a multiverse.
Here’s my guess on how The Flash ends: Barry resets the universe/returns to his proper timeline, and searches for Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). Arriving at Wayne Manor, the door opens, and we see Alfred (a Jeremy Irons cameo) telling Barry, “Master Wayne has simply vanished.”
The post-credit scene opens on black with a black and white TV screen turning on, and we see Ezra Miller’s Flash. There’s no sound. Another screen flips on, and we see Henry Cavill’s Superman. In quick succession, we see Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Ben Affleck as Batman, and Jason Mamoa as Aquaman on new screens.
The screens keep popping up, and it grows like the end of Love Actually. More screens turn on, and we see Margo Robbie as Harley Quinn and Zachary Levi as Shazam!/Captain Marvel. We see Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. We get a glimpse of Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam and Robert Pattinson as Batman. More screens pop on, and we start noticing the images on the screens are from all the live-action movies and television shows based on DC Comics properties. We see clips from the 50s Superman TV show, 60s Batman TV show, the 70s Shazam! and Wonder Woman shows, Lois & Clark, Smallville, Birds of Prey, Gotham, Constantine (TV and Movie), Watchmen (TV and Movie), all the CW shows, the terrible Justice League of America failed pilot, the Wonder Woman failed pilot, Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh as Superman, all the different Batman actors from the movies. All the villains from those movies. Fans will talk about the Easter eggs on this post-credit scene for years.
Finally, we pull back farther and see a man with a distinct haircut watching all the screens. DC fans will know the character as The Monitor.
Played by Ian McKellen.
The DC Expanded Universe plays its biggest card: Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Wouldn’t that be something?