After Years of Laughable False Starts, It’s Finally Time for DC Films to Shine

With Marvel, 'Game of Thrones' and 'Westworld' all sitting out San Diego Comic Con this year, it's finally time for DC Films to step up.

SDCC 2018 Wonder Woman DCEU
Warner Bros.’ ‘Justice League.’ Clay Enos / TM & (c) DC Comics

Netflix (NFLX)’s entire business model is built on buzz: the more of it the streamer generates, the further its brand awareness extends and the more subscriptions it collects. Good press, grassroots word-of-mouth campaigns and fan-driven interest is what it’s all about. While the movie business doesn’t work quite the same way, we’ve seen the power derived from buzz, or a lack of it, when it comes to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe (DCEU).

The former is known for its crowd-pleasing superhero adventures, with each chapter feeding into the next feature, constructing a never-ending track of audience engagement. The latter is known for its divisive output that has underwhelmed critically and commercially and left DC Films in a state of uncertainty.

But with Marvel, Game of Thrones and Westworld all sitting out this year’s San Diego Comic Con (SDCC), where the famed Hall H panels have become annual hype generators, the studio finally has an opportunity to effectively reinvent itself and set the stage for sustained success. With exactly one month to go, here’s why DC Films can do that.

New Leadership

Back in January, Warner Bros. announced that Walter Hamada would take over as president of the DC Films production unit after a decade with the WB-owned New Line Cinema division. At the time, I was critical of the move because it marked the third hierarchy shakeup in five years for the troubled outfit, but I’ve come around with the benefit of hindsight.

After overseeing the unexpectedly successful Conjuring franchise and its lucrative low-risk, high-reward spinoffs, as well as executive producing It to record-breaking box office totals, there’s every possibility that Hamada can heal the potentially mortal wounds of the DC Extended Universe and beyond. His promotion allows chief creative officer Geoff Johns to assume more of a creative production role, with the celebrated comics writer receiving partial credits for Aquaman, Wonder Woman 1984 and the upcoming Green Lantern Corps, while also contributing behind the scenes in development.

While there are concerns about how Hamada can handle a bigger sandbox—the most expensive film on his resume is The Conjuring 2 with a budget of $45 million—he’s already begun to tailor DC Films to his own way of moviemaking. Based on his early choices in the role, Hamada seems to be plotting a definitive course for the studio with a specific vision in mind, a change from years past.

New Strategy

Last year, rumors began swirling that Warner Bros. was developing a standalone Joker origin story produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover) set outside of the continuity of the DCEU. This was to be the first film in a new banner at DC Films intended to be a filmmaker-driven genre outings that took more risks against smaller budgets.

While I’m skeptical about any sort of Joker origin story—one of the character’s major appeals is his lack of a background—this diversification strategy centered on branching out with ambitious directors at the helm is exactly the sort of move that can make DC Films stand out from Marvel. And, admittedly, everything that has come out about this Joker project has built intrigue (let’s not talk about the other Joker movie in development right now).

Three-time Academy Award nominee Joaquin Phoenix is set to step into the role of the Crown Prince of Crime with Scorsese rumored to be courting Robert De Niro for a key supporting role. According to THR, the film has been given a $55 million budget, giving it ample room to do something different, and will begin shooting this fall. As we saw with The Dark Knight trilogy and Logan, going dark produces the best superhero films when executed correctly. Other potential projects that could fall under this new banner include Steven Spielberg’s Blackhawk, which would be the first superhero film for the legendary filmmaker.

Per The Hollywood Reporter: “According to insiders, Hamada has spent months going over the projects in development, culling certain ones, elevating others, keeping an eye on the big marquee heroes while also developing lesser-known characters that could pop big.”

New Movies

While interest in those “elseworld” movies is rising, Warner Bros. is still forging ahead with the DC Extended Universe for now. Given the absence of the major players at SDCC this year, WB has the opportunity to dominate the most crucial aspect of the entire event: movie trailers.

The release of a highly anticipated blockbuster’s first trailer at SDCC has become a time-honored tradition, with well received footage dominating the news cycle and reinvigorating fan bases. This year, Warner Bros. will (finally) release the trailers to two of their big upcoming releases: Aquaman and Shazam!. Don’t be shocked if they sneak some type of Wonder Woman 1984 reveal into their panel too.

The first Aquaman footage was screened at CinemaCon in Las Vegas earlier this year and received universal praise from those in attendance. Jason Momoa’s portrayal of the oft-mocked superhero went over OK in Justice League, but all accounts point toward James Wan’s solo adventure hitting its mark. It’s not hyperbole to say that the fate of the DCEU may rest in the hands of the King of Atlantis. A hit will establish immediate confidence in Hamada’s new reign, while a flop could derail the rebuilding efforts.

Shazam!, which kicks off the absolutely stacked 2019 summer blockbuster season, will be lighter in tone than many of DC’s previous films. This continues the “Marvel-ization” of the studio’s main slate with an emphasis on lighthearted humor. The film isn’t expected to carry a massive budget, so if it connects with audiences, it could prove to be a big moneymaker and another step forward.

If both trailers are received well, Warner Bros.’ DC Films will be the talk of SDCC with much-needed positive buzz beginning to build.

After Years of Laughable False Starts, It’s Finally Time for DC Films to Shine