Well, that was surprising. On Thursday, Vanity Fair confirmed that Ben Affleck wold reprise his version of Bruce Wayne/Batman right alongside Michael Keaton’s version from the Tim Burton movies in Ezra Miller’s The Flash. After making three appearances across Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Justice League, Affleck was writing and directing his own solo film for Warner Bros.’ DC Extended Universe. But in January of 2019, he left the project and retired as Batman. Until now.
With his Dark Knight returning for a final sendoff in the 2022 film and Keaton’s version of the character taking up an ongoing Nick Fury-like mentor role in the DCEU moving forward, the overarching plan of DC Films president Walter Hamada is becoming clear. Prior to his promotion in 2018, the production banner was far too reactive. Warner Bros. chased after the crossover success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Batman v Superman and Justice League after Man of Steel failed to meet expectations. Now, DC Films is differentiating itself from Marvel by embracing the inherent weirdness of comic books and building a multi-verse spanning continuity.
“This movie is a bit of a hinge in the sense that it presents a story that implies a unified universe where all the cinematic iterations that we’ve seen before are valid,” Flash director Andy Muschietti told Vanity Fair. “It’s inclusive in the sense that it is saying all that you’ve seen exists, and everything that you will see exists, in the same unified multiverse.”
The moment Miller briefly popped up on The Flash during the Arrowverse’s five-episode Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover in January, we should have known what’s in store. It no longer matters if a tale takes place within the DCEU or not, such as Robert Pattinson’s The Batman. With the parallel dimension-hopping multiverse in play, WB has the freedom to make both standalones and crossovers simultaneously. The Flash is now a testing ground for future franchise planning, which WarnerMedia is uniquely positioned to leverage.
The DCEU, The CW’s Arrowverse and DC’s streaming series (which will include an HBO Max show set in Gotham within the Pattinson-verse)—not to mention decades of prior superhero content—can now all technically interact with one another as canon. The ability to match different elements, characters and stories from each in various forms across theatrical releases, linear TV, and streaming is a huge strategic advantage for WarnerMedia.
For example, Margot Robbie, who plays the live-action big screen Harley Quinn, can now cameo in Kaley Cuoco’s excellent animated Harley Quinn series. The Arrowverse can boost its linear ratings with another brief cameo of a big screen hero. Don’t be surprised if more unexpected DC characters from different platforms and mediums pop up in The Flash. The possibilities are endless in a way that doesn’t run along the same axis as Marvel.
WarnerMedia can use both its vast existing network of theatrical and linear TV outlets as well as its in-house streamer to create ping-ponging content that drives interest from project to project, platform to platform, and medium to medium. The rampant consolidation that has consumed the media industry and raised concerns about its long-term health are valid, but it’s not as if vertical integration doesn’t have its perks too.
Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton both returning as Batman—in a non-Batman film no less!—is the exclamation point on DC’s plan to reinvent itself as a multi-verse spanning, continuity reshaping hydra of blockbuster storytelling. It’s teeming with potential and pitfalls (it’s not as if we exactly needed more Batman, even if we’re excited at the prospect). The execution of this plan will decide the future of the franchise.