The dawn of a new DC universe is upon us, with James Gunn and Peter Safran planning a new series of film, television and gaming projects. But before we get there, we have nine months of what feels like the last gasps of the DCEU, which is coming to an end, almost poetically, a decade after it debuted with Man of steel in 2013.
First out of the gate is David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! Wrath of the Godsthe sequel to Shazam! (2019), which turned out to be a modest hit and was seen as another course-correcting step in the right direction for the DC franchise, the third to be exact, but who’s counting? Some critics even referred to it as the best film in the DCEU to date. A sequel should, in theory, be a big draw as the opening salvo for the other three DC movies slated for this year, The lightning, Blue Beetleand Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom. So why does it feel like the DCEU is limping toward a conclusion instead of culminating in a celebration of a decade of storytelling?
Early social media reactions to Wrath of the Gods have been enthusiastic and positive, while reviews have been relatively positive, if softer than the original. But the box office projections suggest a less enthusiastic opening. Clearly, aware of the numbers facing the film, Warner Bros. and New Line’s marketing of the film has become a desperate plea to “come and see”, with TV spots spoiling the film’s big cameo, which somehow feels sadder than Black Adam star Dwayne Johnson nearly reveals Henry Cavill’s Superman cameo during red carpet press.
So what is it all about Wrath of the Gods what stands in the way of it being a lightning rod? Well, it comes down to a number of factors. While the sequel isn’t short on talent, it brings Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu and Rachel Zegler as antagonists. They play the daughters of Atlas – respectively Hespera, Kalypso, Anthea, non-comic characters. This makes it somewhat more difficult in terms of marketing and directing audiences to specific comics they can relate to and build enthusiasm from. The other problem is that Shazam’s most iconic antagonist, Black Adam, got a solo movie that flopped at the box office last year, stealing the thunder away from any possibility of a Shazam versus Black Adam matchup audiences were hoping for since the movies were announced. But the biggest boulder stands in the way Wrath of the Gods is that with a new DC cinematic universe on the way, what are audiences being asked to invest in?
Now, one could say that the film’s merits should be seen individually and not in relation to what it sets up or the post-credit scenes that may never be realized in another film. That is actually what I would say myself. Watch the movie for the movie and not for how well it works as a teaser trailer. But I think if we’re being realistic, that’s not the way people see these movies, at least not entirely. A Shazam movie that has the guaranteed promise of a clash with Black Adam or the character joining the Justice League simply plays differently with audiences than a Shazam movie that teases the return of Sivana and the Monster Society of Evil in a movie that doesn’t seem likely to be made. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is. Already, social media chatter has returned to the same query about these pre-reboot movies, “what’s the point?” The point is to see a good movie, but I don’t know if that’s a compelling enough argument for a franchise that, at least critically, but not for me personally, has had more hits than misses.
While the new co-head of DC Films, James Gunn has said that everything is on the table to possibly continue in the DCU, and Shazam!, at least the first film, has no continuity-breaking references, it all feels a bit muddy in the explanation for audiences who have been told that a reboot, with a new Batman and Superman, is coming. Words like “soft reboot”, with elements of The Suicide Squad and Peacemaker grandfather in can be thrown out, and it may be, but it means nothing to the general audience that has been raised on MCU movies that emphasize a single continuity where “everything matters”, despite being a marketing ploy. But it’s a trick people believe, and it’s something that Warner Bros. Discovery doesn’t have compared to their current crop of DC movies, which between the frequent changes in leadership, the divisive nature of the movies, actors unsure of their futures as these characters, and an entire Batgirl movie being shelved, it has current situation adopted a “oh, we don’t really know if it matters yet” attitude.
Gunn’s announcements regarding Chapter 1: Gods and Monsters, the start of the DCU, was certainly exciting and overall got a lot of people more optimistic about the future of DC on screen, outside of Batman movies, than they have been in a long time. But it feels like the announcement comes at the expense of the films already slated for release that fall outside of it. It reminds me of the 20th centuryth Century Fox released Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants after the Disney merger and everyone was already anticipating the MCU’s rebooted version of mutants. And of course we can hope that the quality of the DCEU movies this year will surpass those movies, but if the marketing for Wrath of the Godsthat didn’t even make a Super Bowl berth is any indication of what we can expect for the rest of 2023, it looks like WBD is already counting their losses and really just hoping that Michael Keaton’s return as Batman can press The lightning to a billion.
There’s a lack of clarity as to how these DCEU movies connect to Gunn and co-boss Peter Safran’s DCU, if at all, and the wait-and-see approach might be the most logical, but it’s not selling tickets either. Wrath of the Gods was originally set to come out after The lightning, and Sandberg recently gave it as the reason for the costume changes in the film, which are now changed simply because of magic. It’s not a big problem. But when you think about it The lightning was originally supposed to lead to certain changes seen in Wrath of the Gods and Aquaman and The Lost Kingdomwith now axed cameos referencing these events, it feels like the issues of a comic book event that have been mixed up and pages removed.
Corresponding The lightning, the next film set to be released is said to serve as a conclusion to the DCEU and set up the DCU. And it would be fine if it wasn’t followed up right away Blue Beetlewhich is supposed to launch and new franchise and Aquaman sequel which was supposed to be the second chapter in a trilogy. Oh, and by the way, Jason Momoa will probably play a different character in the DCU, but according to Peter Safran, he won’t be playing two different characters, contradicting Momoa’s statement that he’ll always be Aquaman. So what we have is the end of a cinematic universe and a new one being born simultaneously and potentially using pieces from one ending if it seems financially viable, which even for comics enthusiasts is a crisis too complicated.
It would be great to see these 2023 DC movies succeed, both financially and critically, and maybe Wrath of the Gods will beat predictions and show that audiences are still invested in these films despite a backstage reboot. But I think there needs to be some clarity on where these franchises stand in relation to the DCU. If the plan is to end them here, within the confines of the DCEU, then I think the audience deserves definitive conclusions and a transition that makes sense, such as The lightning is an actual finale and leads to a reboot rather than the DCEU ending with an Aquaman sequel that kicks off a third installment that the studio doesn’t actually plan to make. Whether you’re excited about the DCU or not, I think the actors and filmmakers who have contributed to a decade of stories set in the DCEU deserve at least clarity and nobility in delivering this final chapter.