Warner Bros. Discovery recently announced plans to assemble a new 10-year plan for DC movies, but it will only succeed if they fix their long-running PR and marketing problem to get audience buy-in. In the wake of Batgirl's cancelation, CEO David Zaslav said WBD will "reset" its approach to DC movies, meaning the company is about to present its third new DCEU plan in five years.
Marvel Studios changed Hollywood's approach to franchise filmmaking with the arrival of The Avengers in 2012, a year before Warner Bros. released Man of Steel, which became the foundation of their initial DCEU plan. The success of The Avengers and the boost it gave to the box office of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's "Phase 2" and beyond made most Hollywood studios hungry for their own long-term plan for interconnected universes based off of famous intellectual property.SCREENRANT VIDEO OF THE DAY
Related: Batgirl's Cancellation Is A Consequence Of WB's Bad DCEU Planning
Despite numerous attempts to launch a similarly sprawling universe with DC's comic book characters over the years, Warner Bros. plans continually stall out, only for the company to declare a change of plans. It's certainly important for the DCEU to have a plan like any of the franchises its trying to emulate, but it's even more important to demonstrate confidence in that plan and sell it to audiences in order to avoid the numerous pitfalls experienced in the DCEU's bumpy road to this point.
WB Has a Long History Of Cancelling or Changing DC Movie Plans
The DCEU is infamous for delaying or canceling projects and rebooting plans, but it's hardly a new problem. Going back to the 2000s, Warner Bros. canceled plans for multiple Superman movies (including Kevin Smith's Superman Lives and J.J. Abrams' Superman Flyby), a Batman vs. Superman movie (pre-Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), and George Miller's Justice League Mortal. Even the infamous Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie was intended to serve as DC's response to Iron Man and launch an interconnected DC universe. Man of Steel wasn't marketed as the cornerstone of a universe, but in interviews, Zack Snyder described DC's universe as a "top-down affair" and said "you have to get Superman's house in order" before beginning to introduce other character (which Man of Steel teased with Easter eggs for things like Wayne Enterprises and Lexcorp).
Snyder's post Man of Steel plan, developed with Jim Lee and Geoff Johns, continued with the introduction of DC's Trinity by bringing Batman and Wonder Woman into Man of Steel's direct sequel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and was set to continue the focus on Superman through a five-film arc following Joseph Campbell's Monomyth, the hero's journey, featuring Superman's birth, death, rebirth, resurrection, and return. Through that arc, the Justice League would form around Superman, creating opportunities for spin-offs like Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and The Flash, as well as a number of canceled projects like Ben Affleck's The Batman, Green Lantern Corps., and a solo Cyborg movie for Ray Fisher.
This iteration of the DCEU didn't even survive to Batman v Superman's theatrical release, with Warner Bros. executives removing 30-minutes of runtime, including a major Steppenwolf tease to set up Justice League. Suicide Squad saw major rewrites and reshoots to change the tone and replace much of Steven Price's score with a pop music soundtrack. Of course, Justice League is the most infamous casualty of Warner Bros.' interference, seeing a major rewrite and on-set creative conflicts prior to Zack Snyder eventually leaving the project entirely, with Joss Whedon taking over in the 11th hour with another major rewrite and significant reshoots to change the story, lighten the tone, and sever teases for almost every future movie in Snyder's plan.
Related: The Snyderverse's Very Real Popularity Is WB's Biggest DCEU Problem
Little is known about WB's replacement plan at the time, but the new DC Films co-presidents Geoff Johns and John Berg said they “accelerated the story to get to the hope and optimism a little faster,” and changes to Justice League's Lex Luthor and Deathstroke scene replaced set-up for Ben Affleck's Batman movie plan with a tease for a potential sequel where the Justice League faced off against the Injustice League or Legion of Doom instead of DC big bad Darkseid as teased in the Snyder Cut, AKA Zack Snyder's Justice League after it was released on HBO Max.
Johns and Berg were replaced by Walter Hamada shortly after Justice League flopped. Hamada didn't formally announce any future plans, although, in the wake of the Warner Bros. Discovery merger and cancellation of Wonder Twins and Batgirl (two of the only movies even greenlit by Hamada) and the announcement of a new 10-year plan, it's now come out that Hamada was supposedly building towards a Crisis on Infinite Earths event film to serve as both a culmination and reset of the DCEU. Although, with Ben Affleck's Batman and Henry Cavill's Superman seemingly in need of a recast, and no apparent plans to use the characters in the near future, it's not clear how far off a Crisis movie could have been, or how it would have worked as anything more than an "Easy Button" reboot plan without any characters firmly established enough to make it matter.
WB's DC Problem Isn't Bad Plans, It's Bad Expectations
During this time, the chatter surrounding the DCEU was dominated by the franchise's mistakes and the lack of future plans, while the MCU flourished. Although, despite Marvel Studios' perception as a well-oiled machine, the MCU's famous 10-year plan wasn't as smooth as people think. There were major conflicts with filmmakers like Edgar Wright on Ant-Man or Patty Jenkins on Thor: The Dark World, movies like Inhumans were canceled, and a number of movies saw major scheduling reshuffled thanks to Spider-Man joining the MCU. Additionally, changes to Marvel's TV leadership meant popular MCU-adjacent shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. or Daredevil and the rest of Netflix's Marvel shows were distanced even more from MCU canon and eventually canceled altogether. Despite these issues, the MCU didn't draw the same criticism as the DCEU because of the perception of "the plan" was established when Kevin Feige announced MCU Phase 2 and 3, culminating in Avengers: Infinity War Part I and Avengers: Infinity War Part II, which became Avengers: Endgame.
Ironically, the disparate treatment between the DCEU and MCU can be summarized by Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight: "Nobody panics when things go 'according to plan.' Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all 'part of the plan.'” While Disney and the MCU have projected a sense of confidence in their projects, filmmakers, and overall plan, Warner Bros. and DC films broadcast a lack of confidence if not outright rejection of their own filmmakers and movie slate. Even before Justice League's release, WB was already revealing course corrections, such as The Flash movie being Flashpoint, suggesting plans for an X-Men: Days of Future Past style reboot before the Justice League even had its first big team-up. Walter Hamada's plan for a Crisis on Infinite Earths movie betray the same lack of confidence.
WB Can Fix its DC Plan Problems With Better PR and Marketing
Granted, the DC universe has been in need of course correction for years, but it's important to note how those problems were all first introduced by Warner Bros. abandoning Zack Snyder's plan following the divisive response to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While some revisionist history says both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were panned disappointments, upon its release, Man of Steel was praised as a financial success and exciting launch to the franchise. Even Batman v Superman, notorious for its box-office drop and less-than-$1 billion box office haul is cited as the source of many of WB's DCEU problems, yet Batman v Superman is still the second highest grossing movie in the DCEU. In fact, the franchise's top five movies are Aquaman, Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, and Man of Steel, all movies Snyder either directed himself or served as a major collaborator during development.
Related: WB's Tax Write-Off Means Batgirl Can Never Get A Snyder Cut-Type Release
Compared once again to Marvel Studios and the MCU, Iron Man was a relative hit (grossing nearly $100 million less than Man of Steel), but the rest of the MCU's Phase 1 had sub-par box office and lukewarm reviews. It wasn't until after the $1 billion hit of The Avengers that audiences started to see the franchise take off with far more forgiving reviews and ever-increasing box office numbers. Back with Snyder's DC movies, after Zack Snyder's Justice League came out, it had a similar effect to The Avengers, getting audiences interested in where the story was supposed to go next and improving perceptions of previous movies, even giving Batman v Superman a (slight) boost to its Rotten Tomatoes score. Whether or not sticking to Snyder's original plan would have seen the same level of success as Marvel is hard to say, but with a grand culmination planned at the end of the five-film arc, it would have at least given Zack Snyder's run a clean ending so the franchise could reset in 2020 or 2021.
Part of the problem is Warner Bros. wanted to position the DCEU as a similar product to the MCU, hoping to draft of the MCU's success with audiences. The problem with that approach is it advertises a version of the movies the filmmakers they hired were making, leading to the audiences having the wrong expectations, and exacerbating the divisive reactions. Joker also generated controversy and some backlash with its release, but Warner Bros. was honest with audiences about what to expect, and even leaned into the fact that it was getting negative reviews during marketing, and it became one of the highest-grossing DC films of all time. Instead of showing that kind of confidence in their DCEU projects, the constant fits and starts of reboot rumors and announcements of the franchise going in new directions broadcast the studio's lack of confidence in its filmmakers, films, and larger plans, instilling the same doubt and lack of confidence in its audience.
Whatever David Zaslav, Alan Horn, and the rest of the team that develops DC Films' next 10-year plan comes up with, the most important part is ensuring the studio, the filmmakers, and the audience are on the same page about what kind of movies they're making. This means the studio's marketing and PR strategy needs to approach the franchise from a position of strength by focusing on supporting their filmmakers and ensuring audience expectations are in line with the movies they're actually making instead of broadcasting a sense of insecurity from trying to sell "the new DCEU plan" by contrasting it against the old plan or comparing it to another franchise's plan. After all, nobody panics when "it's all part of the plan."