After a long period of false starts, behind the scenes struggles, director replacements, bad press, and other disastrous buzz, before finally appearing to his rock bottom with Justice LeagueWarner Bros. has finally started gaining traction for the next phase of the DC Extended Universe.

The DCEU has been mired in difficulties since its inception. As Warner Bros. attempted to keep up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe while putting their own stamp on the iconic franchise, they repeatedly stumbled. The disastrous reviews for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice created an image problem for the franchise, not helped by the muddled mess of Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman brought the series its best reviews and gave the studio some much-needed shine, but it didn’t last long thanks to the staggeringly bad domestic and international box office numbers for Justice League. Before the film reportedly lost Warner Bros. between $50-100m, its production was knee-deep in issues of re-shoots, a director replacement, and rumors that its lead actor wanted out. Bad headlines have followed the franchise from the get-go.

No film production is perfect, and in an age where everyone has access to trade news, it’s more widely discussed than ever. Still, what the DCEU has been through is tough to ignore. Even the most outlandish rumors seemed believable in the context of the franchise because the mood surrounding each film was so negative. Even its most ardent fans had to admit that something was up: Bad reviews, directors being swapped out regularly (The Flash film has seen no fewer than three directors sign up to various iterations of the project), pricey re-shoots, producer drama, and the general sense that the franchise would always be playing catch-up to Marvel. What was intended to be the darker, grittier, more grounded and more auteur-driven approach to the superhero genre has become a failing folly with a gargantuan price-tag. The PR could not have been worse.

However, positive change seems to be on the horizon. The studio and franchise that used to be unable to escape from bad headlines has acknowledged its many problems and started moving forward with a more focused agenda. The leadership change seems to be for the better, the buzz around upcoming projects is more positive than ever, and after a few years of wandering in the wilderness, the DCEU seems to be finding its feet.

The Right Leadership is Finally in Place

When Zack Snyder was brought into the DCEU fold, he was given immense creative control over the upcoming franchise. As the primary director on the slate, as well as the most publicly recognizable, he was able to put his stamp on both Batman and Superman. While his work certainly has its fans and is often dazzling in its execution, it quickly became apparent that this wasn't the right approach for making blockbusters with mass appeal as Warner Bros wanted to compete with Marvel. By having such influence over the franchise in terms of style, tone and character, it became difficult for WB to implement changes when critics and audiences questioned the final product.

After Batman V. Superman was torn apart by critics, Warner Bros. tried to make changes to Suicide Squad, adding a neon finish and more laughs in re-shoots. Ultimately, that created more problems. Wonder Woman managed to get away from this with greater success, but Justice League couldn't. After Snyder was pushed out and Joss Whedon took over, the final film bears the fingerprints of two distinctive film-makers whose visions never really line up. There's a reason fans keep asking for the near-mythic Snyder cut.

Snyder was never supposed to be DC's equivalent of Marvel's Kevin Feige, but he was given that hefty responsibility mostly because Warner Bros. had nobody else to fill the job. Warner Bros. tried to change track by having comic book writer and DC's President and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns serve as co-runner of the franchise, hoping he would create a robust narrative for the expanded universe. While he has numerous story and screenplay credits, including the upcoming Aquaman and Wonder Woman 2, it never felt like a good fit to have Johns in such a major role. He's a writer, and a good one at that, but there's a difference between running a comic book universe and a comic book adaptation franchise worth billions of dollars, and with Johns' experience as a movie producer being mostly limited to the disastrous Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie, he may not have been the best fit on the film side. While Johns will still have a role to play in the DCEU, the main duties have been handed over to Walter Hamada.

The addition of Hamada to the board seems to be the boost the DCEU needed. While working at New Line Cinema, he served as an executive producer on various films, most notably horror franchises like The Conjuring. He's also credited on Lights Out and IT. While not every film in his roster was a hit, he established himself as a savvy player in genre fiction with smart budget controls. The Conjuring is its own strange expanded universe, albeit on a way smaller scale than that of the DCEU, but it demonstrated Hamada's business prowess and ability to create hits that turn a profit, like IT. What the DCEU needs is that sturdy producer force behind the scenes.

Page 2: The Leaks are Under Control and the Future is Bright

The Leaks Have Been Replaced By Good Buzz

Leading up to the release of Justice League, the buzz was never good, and the matter wasn't helped much by confused trailers and a now infamously sad looking Ben Affleck. DC's next film, Aquaman, has had none of that. While the marketing blitz has yet to start, the project isn't mired in scandal or the inevitable sense of failure. Instead, people seem really hyped for James Wan's film, and there's excitement to see something truly unique in the DCEU.

When Shazam was announced as the next production, most fans seemed confused by the choice, but now there's some growing enthusiasm at the prospect of the franchise embracing a more esoteric and light-hearted property. There's nothing else like Shazam on the market right now and that's benefitting DC. After a few too many mega-budget disappointments, a film like Shazam signals a more interesting creative risk that's also reasonably proportioned in terms of cost and expectation. Notably, both Shazam and Aquaman are direted by Walter Hamada collaborators, David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation) and James Wan (The Conjuring).

The obvious jewel in the crown of good DC buzz is Wonder Woman 2, which starts production soon. Patty Jenkins is returning to the director's chair and Kristen Wiig has signed on to play the main villain in the '80s set sequel. Building on the critical gem of the franchise can only be a good idea and it's hard to deny how genuinely enthused that buzz is from fans and critics alike.

DC's Future is Bright

DC’s upcoming slate of projects is markedly different from what preceded it. There’s less concern with adhering to the restrictions of a shared universe model, and more focus on creating the kind of unique material that Warner Bros. always wanted from the series. Rather than trying to keep up with Marvel, these projects signal a hunger to do the kind of work that the other superhero franchise isn't. There's the more focused auteur push, with none other than Steven Spielberg attached to direct an adaptation of Blackhawk, and Martin Scorsese still attached as a producer for Todd Phillips'  rumored Joker movie.

The latter is of particular interest because it shows how Warner Bros. is less interested in tying every film together in the same narrative. A film like The Joker could allow them to explore various timelines and iterations of iconic characters, which is certainly unique compared to Marvel's detailed long-term universe plans. Ava DuVernay's New Gods has similar potential to be new territory for the DC universe with its epic space opera approach. They now have the ability to point at these projects and show them to the press as serious artistic endeavors worth taking risks on. It’s a hell of a lot better for press than a 9-figure blockbuster whose re-shoots are seemingly never-ending.

This approach has also allowed for more input from DC's roster of stars. Margot Robbie, whose performance as Harley Quinn was one of the few things critics liked about Suicide Squad, has been working overtime as a producer to make cool things happen behind the scenes at DC. A recent report says a Birds of Prey movie is coming with relative newcomer Cathy Yan attached to direct, a move that was reportedly pushed for heavily by Robbie. DC's roster of female characters has always been one of its most exciting elements, but the films have never fully embraced it until everyone suddenly realized how much audiences loved Wonder Woman. Planning an all-female team-up, to be directed by the first Asian-American woman to helm a superhero movie, is the stuff of which good buzz is made of.

Even previously messy projects seem to be coming together neatly. The drama surrounding The Batman was immense for many months, between Ben Affleck’s script being scrapped and him pulling out as director to be replaced by Matt Reeves, and that doesn’t even count the constant rumors that Affleck wanted out of playing Bruce Wayne altogether. Now, new rumors suggest Affleck is interested in staying in the role after all, and Reeves is the kind of secure, talented director who inspires both hope and hype. Even if the rumors are true and this is the swansong of Affleck-era Batman, at least the PR around it is ready for the best narrative possible.

The DCEU cannot and never will be the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Any attempts to replicate that model have only resulted in disappointment for Warner Bros., and efforts made to re-establish themselves as a unique creative force have taken huge hits from the media and fans alike. That’s not to say that they can never get back on the right track, and it’s clear that the right moves have been made to ensure a steady journey going forward. They’ve locked down their problems, kept the leaks at bay and may be on the path to greater success.

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