DC needs to stop copying Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe

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Ezra Miller stars as Barry Allen in Warner Bros.’ “The Flash.”

Warner Bros. Discovery

“The Flash” is a flop. “Black Adam” was a bust. And does anyone remember “Shazam: Fury of the Gods”?

DC Studios needs more than a hero, it needs a new strategy – something different than even its recently established reboot plan.

DC and its parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, have Marvel Cinematic Universe envy. It’s easy to see why. The MCU’s movies, including ones that haven’t been released by Disney, have grossed about $30 billion worldwide since 2008. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav has directed DC Studios co-CEOs James Gunn and Peter Safran to create their own shared universe involving iconic characters like Batman and Superman.

The problem is, Warner Bros. and DC are already working through the tail end of a previous – and failed – attempt to tie their characters together through multiple films and shows. At the movies, DC’s Justice League just can’t measure up against Marvel’s Avengers.

The likely answer to Warner Bros. and DC’s issues is right in front of them, though: Character-specific franchises that adhere to one filmmaker’s vision, not a TV-style writers room. Basically, let your heroes fly solo.

It’s worked for DC properties before, even recently.

Read more: Legacy media companies enter dark times as failures mount

Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which wrapped in 2012, was a well-reviewed box office juggernaut. And even though they were both connected to the prior attempt at creating a DC movie universe, 2017’s “Wonder Woman” and 2018’s “Aquaman” focused mainly on their title characters and racked up big bucks and accolades in the process.

To put an even finer point on it, look no further than the financial and critical success of Todd Phillips’ “Joker” and Matt Reeves’ “The Batman.” Neither movie is connected to an extended universe.

“Joker,” released in 2019, grossed more than $1 billion worldwide despite being rated R, while racking up a best actor Oscar for star Joaquin Phoenix. Last year’s “The Batman,” starring Robert Pattinson as an early-career Caped Crusader, garnered around $750 million globally. Sequels to both movies are in the works.

But so is “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” from “Flash” director Andy Muschietti. It will not star Pattinson and will instead serve as “the introduction of the DCU Batman,” according to Gunn. How many different Batmen does an already-superhero-saturated moviegoing audience need? Especially after “The Flash,” which featured four different Dark Knights from previous movies and shows.

Fun vs. homework

Marvel Studios’ “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.”

Disney

Comic books were once a refuge from homework. Now, to keep up with everything going on in Disney’s MCU and Sony’s Spider-Verse, which is also connected to the MCU, you need to have watched pretty much everything that came before to get up to speed. That’s dozens of movies and shows, going back to the original Robert Downey Jr. “Iron Man.”

“The Flash,” meanwhile, might be the most intense comic book movie pop quiz, even though DC’s cinematic universe has been all over the place. It’s jam-packed with cameos (some real, some CGI-generated) from past DC movies and shows, going all the way back to George Reeves’ black-and-white Superman.

But in order to understand all the gags, you have to be really into this stuff. Unless you’re a big fan of “Clerks” director Kevin Smith – big enough of a fan to have watched his standup specials, that is – a “Flash” sequence involving a Nicolas Cage version of Superman fighting a giant spider might be lost on you. The movie’s punchline, involving George Clooney returning to the role of Bruce Wayne 26 years after the badly received “Batman and Robin,” is clearly geared toward Gen-Xers and older Millennials, not today’s younger audiences.

Even the MCU model has tripped up at times. Disney CEO Bob Iger himself has suggested that the studio was going to the well too often with certain characters, after the fourth Thor film and third Ant-Man installment underwhelmed at the box office. That should be another warning sign for DC Studios.

For his part, DC’s Gunn recently acknowledged that there are “too many” superhero movies and shows. If anyone can come up with a creative way to change course, it’s him.

After working with schlock factory Troma Films early on, Gunn built a sturdy Hollywood career as a writer and director, alternating between R-rated flicks like “Slither” and stuff for general audiences, like his Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel and Disney. The third entry in that series snapped the MCU out of its mini funk. It’s so far the second-highest-grossing movie of 2023, behind Universal’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”

And he already has a couple DC works on his resume: the 2020 movie “The Suicide Squad” and its 2022 companion series, “Peacemaker,” both of which won wide acclaim.

Gunn is writing and directing “Superman: Legacy,” due in 2025. It’s intended to usher in the new DC shared universe. But there’s still time for him to reconsider his approach and let the Man of Steel – and all the other DC heroes – be super on their own.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal and CNBC.

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