The DCEU That Could Have Been


Jim Onyemenam

Budding legal theoretician currently doing his time as an auditor. Diverse interests ranging from the aforementioned law to film, literature, and art. Don't get him talking because he'd probably never stop.

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34 Responses

  1. Avatar George Turner says:

    Great piece.

    Disclaimer: I’m not that into super hero movies, perhaps because they’ve become so over done, over-emphasized, and clichéd.

    The part of the MCU that I have trouble with is the MCU; that there are all these superheroes and Earth threatening cataclysms going on all the time, that all the heroes know each other, and that our entire planet reads stories about them every day. Well, that’s certainly not happening on my planet or I’d know about it. Almost every non-origin Marvel movies require a massive suspension of disbelief as we try to pretend the setting is Earth, even though it’s clearly not even remotely this planet.

    With DCU’s more stand-alone stories, it’s more plausible that there’s one weird city somewhere with a nutcase in tights running around trying to stay out of the papers. It’s easier to buy into that. I think that helped make Wonder Woman work. Even Bruce Wayne had trouble uncovering reliable evidence that she even existed, so maybe she really does. Superman, of course, is much more problematic in that regard because his character is globally significant, and there’s just no way around it. Yet many of the best Superman movies have been his origin stories firmly grounded in the normal world.

    I was pleasantly surprised by DC’s Swamp Thing, which unfortunately got cancelled after ten episodes. It was a pure swamp story involving biotech and the CDC that didn’t require a world that had any super heroes at all. There are perhaps an infinite number of such stories that can be set in our reality, whereas the Marvel approach is restricting itself to having every story set in the same incredulously fictional place with the same broad cast of characters, and every story is basically going to involve the same elements, the same confrontations, and the same resolutions. It’s an overly restrictive formula that although successful, is also very creatively limiting, similar to the situation with Star Trek where only a few elements can be freely chosen and the costumes, setting, and characters are already determined.

    So where Star Trek is a tiny subset of possible science fiction stories, MCU has limited itself to being a tiny subset of possible comic book stories by tying everything together. I would prefer it if DCU avoids doing the same, so I don’t have to sit and wonder “Why doesn’t Superman fly in and fix this?” if for no other reason. Trying to Imitate Marvel’s franchise by making their own “universe” could be a mistake, and it could be that the whole concept of Justice League was likewise a mistake. If your main character is so weak that they need a large supporting ensemble to convey a story, maybe you should have written a better character.Report

    • Avatar Fish says:

      Instead of seeing the relationships in the MCU as a liability, look at it this way: You’ve got all these independent titles, such as Captain America, Iron Man, Ant Man, Black Panther, Thor, Spider Man, Dr. Strange, Incredible Hulk, Captain Marvel. In addition to their solo titles, many of these heroes also have roles in team titles, such as West Coast Avengers, East Coast Avengers, or Guardians of the Galaxy. These titles together establish how all these heroes know each other and that they’ve all got independent lives and responsibilities away from their teams, and this also provides a tissue-thin deniability to answer questions like, “Why didn’t the Avengers just show up and help Spider Man kick the crap out of the Hobgoblin when he was terrorizing New York?” Well, because Thor was in Asgard, Cap was dealing with the Red Skull, Iron Man was busy tracking down and destroying tech stolen from Stark Enterprises, and Captain Marvel was off-world fighting some galactic-level bad guy. And every so often you get a gigantic crossover event involving a handful or two of all these titles, such as Civil War or Infinity War or (thinking back to the comics here) Secret Wars or Acts of Vengeance, in which these already-established relationships can be leveraged to write bigger, MCU-spanning stories.

      DC went down the path of keeping their heroes segregated into their own story worlds and ended up with a mess of multiple timelines and realities which writers then had to clean up with storylines like Crisis on Infinite Earths and Flashpoint–admittedly good stories but born from a need to tighten up the directions their titles were taking.

      And finally, Superman is boring. Think back to the Justice League movie: All the tension was contained in the moments leading up to Superman’s return. Everything after that was a victory lap.Report

      • Avatar George Turner says:

        Superman made all other superheroes redundant. Nowadays instead of fighting the bad guy, they’d all just have Superman on speed dial. An omnipotent superhero creates many of the same philosophical problems as an omnipotent God, with most of the answers boiling down to “Well, just because.”Report

        • Avatar Dark Matter says:

          An omnipotent superhero creates many of the same philosophical problems as an omnipotent God, with most of the answers boiling down to “Well, just because.”

          You should watch “One Punch Man”.

          One Punch is absurdly overpowered. He’s so strong that one punch makes a boss monster explode like a punkin hit by a tank shell. His other powers (durability, speed, and willpower) function at similar power levels.

          Since losing isn’t an option, drama is created by dealing with society and the various dysfunctional situations and politics. There is a hero organization which manages all heros, they have a structure and various tests. He’s a physical god but they put him at the bottom of the rankings because he bombed the written part of the test. Since he’s at the bottom of the rankings they, and the rest of the world, treat him like he’s at the bottom. If he beats something, then it must not have been that strong. As a hero you don’t get to pick your own name so he’s stuck with “caped baldy”.Report

      • Avatar Pinky says:

        The Reeve era nicely laid out the problem with Superman. Movie one: kryptonite. Movie two: rivals from Krypton. Movies three + : hope the writers come up with something interesting (they won’t).

        Smallville and the Animated Universe had some great moments, but mostly with different colors of kryptonite and alien super-villains. Well, that and romance. Smallville had Clark’s first love Lana, and added Chloe who turned out to be far more popular, but once you introduce Lois, you’re just killing time before those two get together.

        I’d love to see a Mr. Mxyzptlk movie, in theory at least, but Hollywood would never make it, and they’d be right not to try.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          Yeah I agree. Superman is simply too powerful. Look at the animated universe where DC properties have actually done decently. They have to either negate his powers or they just silently dumb them down to fit any given story and then inflate them up again. His level of power leaves you no narrative tension to work with.Report

        • Avatar Jesse says:

          “Movies three + : hope the writers come up with something interesting (they won’t).”

          Or ya’ know, look over the thousands of comic stories that have been written since 1939, and repackage one of those.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC says:

      The part of the MCU that I have trouble with is the MCU; that there are all these superheroes and Earth threatening cataclysms going on all the time, that all the heroes know each other, and that our entire planet reads stories about them every day.

      That’s not actually how things work in the MCU. You are correct this is a pretty serious problem in actual comic books, where they constantly try to make the world look like ours, despite how extremely silly that is, but the MCU doesn’t do that. The MCU sorta has ‘phases’, and in addition to them being a easy way to tell the movies apart, the phases basically deliminate how much the MCU has diverged from reality.

      Phase 1 (2008-2012) is no divergence. It has Captain America back in the 1940s, which is just one super soldier, it has Iron Man 1 and 2, which is basically ‘rich genius sometimes flying around in a metal suit (Edit: dealing with basically his own problems, not saving the world)’, and it has The Incredible Hulk and Thor, both of which were mostly successfully covered up by SHIELD.

      And then…The Avengers happen, and an alien army invades New York through a sky portal. Hard to ignore that.

      Phase 2 (2013-2015) starts sliding away from reality. Iron Man 3 has an attempted coup of the US, Thor 2 has _another_ alien invasion (Well, an alien ‘attempted destruction of the universe’, but it looked like an invasion.), Captain America 2 reveals that the Marvel CIA-knockoff is full of Nazis who are trying to take over the world, and Avengers 2 has an AI try to destroy the planet and who does manage to destroy a largish city. And in the TV shows, a bunch of people with superpowers start popping up and a lot become street-level super-heroes.

      By the start of Phrase 3 (2016-2019), the world doesn’t look like ours, with a lot of people freaking out about what’s happened in the last four years with aliens and superheros and world-ending threats and stuff, and the very first movie is Captain America 3, where the UN tries to do something about this utterly insane situation, and makes things worse. And…at that point movies basically stop being set in the ‘real world’ after that, except the two Spider-Mans (Spiders-Man?) and Ant-Man 2. The movies wander off to show us fictional African nations or space or the secret mystic realm that deals with its own stuff. And Captain Marvel was set in 1995, retroactively inserting another Phase 1 movie, something the public never knew about because SHIELD covered it up.

      And then came Avengers 3 and 4, which irrevocably changed the MCU and it doesn’t even slightly look like our world anymore. Any more than that would be spoilers for Endgame, but there is no way in hell to ignore things. And the only announced Phrase 4 film set in the ‘real world’ is basically the Black Widow movie, which seems to be set back during phrase 3. Otherwise, it’s all mystical and cosmic stuff scheduled there.

      tl;dr – Superheroes first showed up in public in the MCU in 2012, and by 2016 the world had gone utterly insane, and by 2018 the world _broke_. The MCU isn’t playing along with the comics premise where for some reason everything is completely identical to reality despite all this crazy stuff going on for decades.Report

  2. Cool piece! I really enjoyed it!Report

  3. Avatar Doctor Jay says:

    Let me state that I liked your piece a lot, even though I’m going to push back some.

    One of the things I have found a bit puzzling is Jon Favreau’s name as executive producer on many, if not all, of the MCU films. Maybe this just gives him a veto power over his performance in said film? (which is something Tom Holland doesn’t have, I note).

    But, as you note, he is, at the very least, responsible as much as Robert Downey Jr, for giving the MCU a big success boost.

    And by the way, he didn’t invent the formula, which also appears in The Incredible Hulk, which predates Iron Man.

    In some ways, complaining that they are formulaic strikes me as a bit like complaining that there’s all that singing in musicals. Heroic fiction always tries to pose the question of what makes someone a hero.

    While a shared universe is theoretically constraining, it is what Marvel has done with these properties since the get-go. DC too. It is delightful. It does not prevent one from exploring alternate tone or stories that are isolated, one just needs to be a bit more careful. But, for instance, Black Panther was first introduced as an adversary for the Fantastic Four.

    In some ways’s this was a cross-merchandising gimmick. But it was also fun and enriching. This time around it gave us a very different look at Spiderman – Peter Parker isn’t isolated, he has a posse. I like this development.

    I recently rewatched Nolan’s Batman trilogy and I’m a lot less impressed now than I was by the Dark Knight. Every moment Heath Ledger is on screen is precious, but the rest of it is kind of meh. Does he have a point? What does this say about heroism? That it really doesn’t exist, but we need to pretend that it exists? That might be the point, but the film doesn’t commit to it the way something like No Country For Old Men does.

    Maybe it’s just meant to portray what a bad place Bruce is in. He only sees the possibility of darkness. He must be bad to do good. (This idea was brilliantly lampooned by, of all things, Dudley Doright). It’s so Iron Agey it makes me want to scream. I loved Frank Miller’s Dark Knight when it came out, because of what went before it. But I’ve long since tired of it, and we seem to be pulling away from it as a culture – to wit, Thor: RagnarokReport

  4. Avatar Fish says:

    Good piece.

    Where DC really shines is in it’s TV offerings: Arrow, Flash, Constantine, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl. I’m only up to seasons 1 and 3 in Arrow and Flash and I just finished Constantine (I found a website which orders all the DC shows and their episodes in order so I’m following that). I’ve seen enough watching over my wife’s shoulder to know that these shows are far better than their movie offerings have been and I’m now scrambling to catch up. I watched the Supergirl pilot a while back and got a definite “Buffy” vibe from the show, and where Arrow perfectly channels the “Dark Knight” vibe and Flash embodies youthful optimism and hope (the shows even gently mock how different Starling City and Central City are when they cross over), Legends seems to be the place where the DC TV universe leaves the more light-hearted fare.

    If I had complaints about Flash and Arrow they’d certainly be in their treatment of female characters and in the utter fascism of their respective law enforcement departments. Outside of sometimes Felicity, none of the women seem to be allowed any agency at all, and then only within a box strictly defined by the men around them. And those police departments! How many convictions get thrown out off Starling City’s courts because of witness tampering or falsifying evidence or some other violation?Report

  5. Avatar Pinky says:

    This article makes sense.

    DC tends to have more one-dimensional heroes and complex, flawed villains, where Marvel has more flawed and complex heroes and one-dimensional villains. That may be why DC has managed to hold its own in the TV universe battles. You can cycle in all the interesting villains while having a stable main character.

    A DC anti-universe would be a Metropolis movie universe, a Gotham movie universe, et cetera. That would include villain movies. That’s the place that DC could really cash in. They just have stronger rogue’s galleries. I mean, Spiderman is considered to have some really good foes, but would anyone want to see a Doc Ock or Rhino origin story?Report

    • Avatar George Turner says:

      I think the DCU screwed up with their Justice League movie because the villain was a typical Marvel type, “I’m conquering the universe because reasons… that I won’t go into!” Boxes of magic power, something, something, something.Report

  6. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    So why are the WB shows based on DC comics generally more light-hearted and fun than the movies? The motto for Legends of Tomorrow might as well be “Legends of Tomorrow because why the fuck not?”

    Exception for Arrow which appears to be dark and brooding except during the annual crossover episodes.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      No Zack Snyder. (Indirectly: no Christopher Nolan.)Report

    • Avatar DavidTC says:

      The Flash has sometimes gotten really dark, too. For no real reason, because it’s honestly not that good at it, and often won’t follow through. Arrow will actually kill main characters, the Flash generally won’t…or at least, the few times they do, it’s not part of darkness, the tone already isn’t there, and it’s not permanent.

      SPOILERS for the Flash and Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow:

      Like, at the end of this season, Flash ‘killed’ a pretty fun and likable character, Nora West-Allen, the time-traveling daughter of Barry and Iris. Except…she ‘died’, or rather was erased from existence, solely because Barry accidentally altered the future event he is to die in from 2024, to 2019, to before she was born instead of after. Except…we know Barry is going to survive that (Kinda stupid show if he doesn’t.), and thus, logically, we all know she’ll be back, slightly different.

      The last main character before that they killed was H.R. Wells, after promising they were going to kill Iris the entire season, and he’s…well, technically, that character’s not coming back, but that was already the fourth character that actor had played, and, sure enough, he was back the next season with another character. They’ve even inexplicably not killed characters before. Like Julian. Why leave him alive, just to have him wander off the show? Why not, no pun intended, Fridge him for Killer Frost’s character development?

      This is opposed to Arrow, which has lost…Tommy, Moira, Quentin, Laurel, (Yeah, the actress came back as someone else about a year later, but the death was treated pretty serious, and honestly it seems like the producers only brought her back due to fan outcry. As opposed to the obvious revolving door of the Wellses.) etc. Which…I mean, maybe it’s just they have more of a rotating cast over there, but it actually feels like important people can die.

      The only way the Flash knows how to do ‘dark’ is to make the villain seem super-gritty and dangerous, but that just makes the villain seem incompetent at not killing anyone important! Especially when they know who Team Flash is, which basically every single one of them has known.

      Meanwhile, Legends of Tomorrow somehow has extremely dangerous villains, and actually has killed more of their main cast than the Flash, but, tonally, doesn’t care one bit, and they will get turned into cats and puppets…and parodic sociopathic killers…while telling a story about Constantine having to deal with his inability to change the fact he previously had to kill his boyfriend in cold blood to stop a demon. Sara struggles with extremely dark urges due to both her past and her resurrection, and her regrets at not saving her sister, and she runs around making jokes. Ava is still dealing with discovering she’s a clone, which sounds lighthearted but…is not. And yet, the entire thing is completely silly.

      The Flash is a light-hearted show that wants to be dark and fails horribly at it, LoT is often a pretty serious show in concept that will deal with those serious issues via musical numbers and circuses.

      I mean, LoT just erased a main character from existence at the end of its season, exactly like the Flash did. (Well, she presumably still exists, but in a very different form, and now it’s retroactively been her brother on the team for the last season and a half.) in the last few seconds of their season, and it almost read as a _punchline_. I mean, in both examples, I’m sure the character be back, but just the treatment is so different. And I know I sound like I don’t like how LoT did it, but actually, it worked really well, a lot better than on the Flash, because the Flash is only faux-dark and we all know they’re coming back and everyone will be happy. Whereas on LoT, I’m sure they will actually deal with the fact that everyone’s _personal history_ just got changed out from under them without them knowing, a fairly serious thing…in an utterly goofy manner.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

        I like the different versions of the Wells’ they have. The Flash is the series that explores the multi-verse most frequently of the three. Legends of Tomorrow comes in at second. Arrow (which I don’t watch) and Supergirl the least and only for the crossover episodes.

        The first season of LoT was horrible in every possible way. The show did not really start getting interesting until they developed their why the fuck not attitude.

        I kind of like the goofiness of the various Wells’ but you are right that the villains tend to be more dark than the show might merit. Zoom did kill Barry’s dad but then it turns out that original Flash is a carbon copy of Barry’s dad.Report

  7. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Part of the situation is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is run by crazy people who know that they want to tell you this story… but before they can tell you this story, they’re going to have to tell you that one… and, yeah, you’re going to need a little bit more background so we’ll have to tell you these other three stories…. and, all told, it’ll take about 20 movies to tell the story of The Infinity Gauntlet.

    And, now that I think about it, there’s a *LOT* of stuff they left out. They could have shoehorned that stuff in had they made another six movies. (They’d have needed The Fantastic Four, at least.)

    Anyway, the MCU is run by a crazy person who wants you to know the stories that he knows.

    The DCU is saying “we need to cash in on this superhero thing! Like, right now! Get someone sneaking a smoke outside of the lot if that’s what it takes to find a writer!”

    And that’s how we get a Superman who kills, sometimes. A Batman who kills sometimes.

    And a universe created by people who can’t understand why their stories aren’t resonating with people.Report

    • Avatar Fish says:

      They’d have needed the FF, X-Men, and Spider-Man at a minimum…and you can’t have THEM unless you tell THEIR origin stories (which they did with Spider Man). And even if you stick to just the Golden-Age X-Men, that’s still Jean and Scott and Alex and Hank and Warren and Logan and Charles (who am I forgetting?).That’s a lot of movies.

      They did hint at Adam Warlock at the end of GotG 2, but never gave us the payoff. Heck, if you think about it, the DID kind of have Silver Surfer’s part in Endgame, but the part was played by Captain Marvel.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        The High Evolutionary arc would be a good movie in its own right!

        Then you could do a Silver Surfer/Adam Warlock crossover movie! Sure, Ego was kinda taken by GotG2, but they could do something with The Living Tribunal! Or the Celestials!Report

        • Avatar Fish says:


          (I forgot Storm. How could I forget Storm?)

          I think part of the problem with the X-Men is that, unlike the Avengers and with the exception of Logan, none of the X-Men had long-running solo titles outside of the team books. And nearly all of their traditional enemies were also teams. That’s a LOT of supers to cram onto a single screen.Report

  8. Avatar Jesse says:

    The problem w/ the DCEU is they hand the keys over to somebody who didn’t get the point of the two biggest characters in the DCEU.

    It’s weird how the moment Snyder was removed from control, the DCEU movies got much, much better.

    Unfortunately, at the moment, DC is so far behind that Marvel are now throwing out characters that comic book dorks like me barely know, while DC is still trying to figure out how to make a Batman movie. I mean, hell, the DC CW Universe has a better Superman that we’ve seen since probably Reeves.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw says:

      The thing about DC comics is that they were always much, much cornier than Marvel comics especially during the Silver Age. I guess that a lot of execs feel the gee golly gee Clark Kent no longer sells.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        During the immediate wake of the Comics Code, DC decided to keep to it and the idea that comics are for kids as faithfully as possible. This meant that their comics read like they were written for ten to thirteen years old. Marvel obeyed the code but stretched but always went for the maximum of what they could get away with. This made their comics read older even when they were going after a teen audience.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      The Diniverse has a better everything that we’ve seen since probably Reeves.Report

  9. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Besides Marvel discovering it’s winning formula, the Marvel Universe exceeded by going for the biggest audience possible and keeping the sex down low at a PG-13 or PG level. The DCEU movies tended towards the grimdark and generally failed at that. Grimdark Batman works but people want Superman to be their light Super hero. Marvel writers know how to go for the widest possible audience. DCEU wants a big audience but also really wants to appeal to a hardcore fan audience more than Marvel does, where they ignore traditional comic book fans.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      Yes! And you know what happens when you write a dark Batman and a pure Superman? You get natural tension between the characters, and a Batman v Superman that doesn’t require ridiculous contrivances. You have to balance the tones in the crossover events, but the conflict writes itself.Report

  10. Avatar CTrent29 says:

    Why does the media feels it has to write one article after another praising the MCU and condemning the DCEU? Writers like the author of this article seemed to be beating a dead horse – namely this comic book movies rivalry. Let’s get something straight . . . I will NEVER choose one franchise over the other. NEVER.Report

    • Avatar Someone Who Reads says:

      The author is literally saying he likes the direction DC is going in now and wishes it had come sooner. He is not advocating choosing one or the other. Rather he is arguing that DC should relish the fact that it offers and has always offered something very different from the MCU and should lean into that difference. He also expends effort criticising Marvel on its formulaicness and praising DC on its bold originality and radicalism. It almost seems like you are criticising the author of this article without reading the article. Do you know him personally?Report