Marvel set up their cinematic universe in phases. The first phase was leading up to The Avengers; the financing deal the then-fledgling studio got would allow them to make The Avengers pretty much no matter what, although they had contingency plans in case the solo movies bombed (there had been talk of releasing the movie as an Iron Man sequel, for instance).
Since then the phases have been largely delineated by the Avengers movies, with the solo films swirling around and leading into the next team-up movie. It has, to put it mildly, worked. The planning has not been impeccable, but it has been strong enough so far to overcome director changes and the vagaries of public interest.
The DCEU (DC Extended Universe, what the fans call the DC Comics Movieverse) has not been so lucky. The DCEU has seemed like a cinematic encapsulation of the phrase “Man plans, God laughs.” Looking to compete with the MCU, DC’s parent company Warner Bros in 2014 announced an ambitious slate of superhero films… and the wheels started falling off almost immediately. Two of the films from that slate – Justice League, Part Two and Cyborg, are functionally gone. Another, The Flash, is supposedly happening, but has been plagued with the kind of director turnover that can only be attributable to the production office being built on a cursed burial ground. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was savaged by critics and came up short at the box office. Justice League was destroyed by critics and audiences, and was essentially a bomb, not only failing to crack the gold standard one billion dollars worldwide, but actually earning less than every previous DCEU film.
That film was beset by its own behind the scenes problems – Zack Snyder retooled the film late in pre-production to address concerns about Batman v Superman, and then he was forced to drop out when his daughter committed suicide. Joss Whedon stepped in and the effect was like mixing vinegar and milk – a curdled mess that appealed to fans of neither taste.
Wonder Woman has been the shining light of the DCEU so far, artistically and financially. And as that film did well, the rest of the DCEU slowly continued falling apart. Ben Affleck, beset by personal problems, is likely not returning as Batman. Warner Bros has been quietly allowing its movie characters to become part of the TV universes. The studio has become fixated on The Joker, never a good sign. Zack Snyder, the architect of the DCEU (so much as there has been an architect beyond calamity), is out of the picture for good.
And today we learned that Henry Cavill is likely to never return as Superman. He was negotiating a cameo in the upcoming Shazam!, an effort to tie that film closer to the DCEU, but the talks fell apart and with them much hope of Cavill ever again fighting for Truth, Justice and the American Way. This is sad for fans, as Cavill was great casting for The Man of Steel, even if he was never given a great movie in which to appear.
The DCEU wasn’t engineered to support Cavill’s goodness, his optimism, his fresh trustworthiness. Zack Snyder never liked Superman, always had that Watchmen–esque view of elevated superbeings as being eternally suspect. With great power comes great suspicion, and the entire DCEU was structured to undermine Superman at every turn, to tarnish him and to soil his bright red and blue tights.
Cavill could have flown into the post-Snyder DCEU and brought back the light to Superman; I have no doubt about it. The ending of Justice League left Superman in a place where Cavill could just play him correctly for once, have the freedom to be the ultimate hero he can be. But now he won’t get that chance, and his departure – the equivalent, structurally, of Robert Downey Jr leaving the MCU – represents a moment of absolute closure for the opening five years of the DCEU.
Like Downey in Iron Man, Cavill started it all in Man of Steel. Love or hate the DCEU, he’s the foundation of it; all other things were built off of that. Even Batman in this universe was defined by his relationship with Superman. Now that foundation is gone.
They’ll hire another Superman, just as they’re hiring another Batman. And they won’t reboot the character; they’ll just stop mentioning so many specifics about Superman’s past and move forward with the new actor. Everyone will pretend that’s the guy they’ve been hanging around all this time. But the effect of the recasting will be monumental.
Henry Cavill leaving the DCEU will be a de facto reboot in that it will be a cleansing of the palate. It is sad to see him go, but it gives the next group of movies the opportunity to finally move out of the shadow of the disastrous BvS and Justice League. For whatever reason – the fact that it was a prequel? – Wonder Woman feels disconnected from those films. Aquaman, set in its own world and looking nothing so much as like a throwback to 90s action films, also feels disconnected. But now the whole has lost its center – Batman and Superman, the twin icons of the DC Universe – and this has given WB an unprecedented opportunity.
Look at the past five years as DCEU Phase Zero. There was a trend in the comic world for a while of doing “Zero issues,” prequel or set-up comics that predated the main run. They would be ground-laying, introductory things (and also ploys to get more sales). You could, conceptually, skip a zero issue. It was with issue one that things took off.
And so we have our zero issue. There’s been groundwork laid for the DCEU – these heroes exist! These cities exist! – but with the slow removal of Cavill and Affleck (the two actors who have most been abused by the DCEU, I believe. They were both great choices put in bad movies), the movies can now course correct. A recasting allows future filmmakers to handwave away the events of BvS especially and just move forward with a version of Superman that feels correct. This is actually the Marvel way (everybody just stopped referencing stuff like The Clone Saga* or the time Aunt May died rather than do a big retcon), but it will work just as well for DC.
Of course it’s possible that Cavill is just negotiating in the press – we’ve seen this done a lot in the past. But even if he comes back, this moment in time feels like the moment when the dark, crummy past of the DCEU is being shed and the future of the DCEU can be actually written. Aquaman could go either way (the trailers look awful to me, but who knows), but Shazam! and Wonder Woman 1984 look to be the absolute right course corrections.
Weirdly, the main effect of DCEU Phase Zero could be the killing of the dark, hypermasculine version of the DC characters. As Birds of Prey moves forward and as Supergirl comes to the cinematic forefront, as Wonder Woman continues to be the big moneymaker of the universe, the DCEU could transition from fratbro to girl power. If WB decides to let Superman rest between recastings, Supergirl could fly forward to take his place as the standard-bearer of heroism. The Super-family is better suited for that than Wonder Woman, who is a soldier at heart; Superman and Supergirl remain the purest, most peaceful and most hopeful superheroes of them all.
So maybe we come not to bury the DCEU but to praise it. The millstone around its neck – the very genesis of the shared universe – is finally released. There’s enough space for talented, open-minded people to come in and reclaim these iconic characters from the grimness of their misbegotten cinematic origins.
The DCEU is dead… long live the DCEU?
*at least until Dan Slott salvaged it in recent years.