Despite Everything, the DCEU’s Here to Stay (And We’re Actually Lucky to Have Them)

If you had asked me a year ago what I thought of the DCEU… well… let’s just say that those of delicate dispositions would have had to clear the room, because aside from the lone bright spot that is, was and ever shall be Wonder Woman (2017), there basically was nothing worth salvaging from this dumpster fire of a superhero franchise.

Man of Steel (2013), for instance, offered up a highly controversial take on the Superman mythos that sharply divided an otherwise enthusiastic fanbase,  Many would-be DCEU fans to question moral imperative of why the platonic icon of truth, justice and the American way was busy snapping the necks of his enemies after he’d already saved the day.  Sure, it had a kickass final fight with Zod leading and a lot of the characterization was – at least in theory – interesting, but almost none of it worked in practice and it was weighed down by director Zack Snyder’s uniquely classical hang-ups as a filmmaker.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was inexplicably even worse.  Widely panned as one of the worst movies of the year (to say nothing of its genre), it Frankensteined together two of the most iconic stories of two of the most iconic superheroes of all time (The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman) – threw in Wonder Woman’s big screen debut seemingly as an afterthought – and ended up with a muddled, incomprehensible, downright embarrassing mess of a blockbuster that had the unfortunate timing to debut ahead of Captain America: Civil War (2016), a movie that took the exact same premise and built it up into what is hands down the best movie of its mega-franchise.

Suicide Squad (2016) should have been a pretty safe bet: it had a big cast of popular actors playing popular (if downright dastardly) characters in what, was essentially an R-rated version of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), headed up by a man uniquely suited for that bizarre combination of cinematic ingredients.  But that R rating got downgraded to a milquetoast PG-13, the movie began shooting without a completed script, the much-advertised Joker was relegated to a middling B-story that never intersected with the movie’s actual (and far less interesting) plot and the resulting celluloid somehow ended up being even less cohesive than the already infamous Dawn of Justice.

Skipping ahead in time slightly, we came to Justice League (2017): a stitched-together, Frankenstein’s monster of a movie that was, if nothing else, somehow better than it every should have been.  That’s not to say that it was any good at all whatsoever – on the contrary, it was one of the worst movies I saw of that year – but at least, unlike its predecessors, it was just bad.  It was regular-bad.  It was the ordinary sort of terrible that’s the bread-and-butter of mainstream blockbuster season, and of a kind that could be stomached well-enough by pinching your nose and choking it down as quick as possible.  It came and went without much fanfare, as was to be expected at this point, especially given the franchise’s incredible losing streak until that point as well as the movie’s prodigious production and post-production woes.

To this point, the only recent DC movie worth a damn was Wonder Woman (2017) and, admittedly, that movie was fantastic to its core.  At first a mere production slate placeholder between Suicide Squad and the seemingly all-important Justice League (2017), it rapidly proved to be the best (and only unshakably good) movie this cycle of DC movies had to offer.  Tapping the incredible Patty Jenkins to direct and putting sensational Israeli actress front-and-center, they delivered a solidly made action-adventure blockbuster in the vein of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) that everybody, at long last, could get behind.

Hilariously enough, Aquaman (2018) – the fishy-looking solo movie that nobody asked for starring the the Justice Leaguer that nobody liked – proved to be another Wonder Woman-sized success story – both financially and popularly – thanks to it leaning in to all the inherent bizarreness of the character like some kind of Diet version of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) or Thor: Ragnarok (2017).  It was fun, funny and lit up like Tron (1982): in every way, the kind of enjoyable, escapist blockbuster that used to be the industry norm.  It wasn’t Marvel-level good, but it didn’t have to be.  “Soggy Thor” was certainly good enough to breathe second life into this largely aborted franchise, and I was grateful for everything I could get from these movies at this point.

Now we have Shazam! (2019), yet another DC movie is a shockingly good winning streak that gets what Marvel pretty much figured out from the start: these characters are fun, the costumes are colorful and people want to see grown men and women getting comic-book-level-weird on screen and no-holds-barred fight scenes.

Rest assured, the movie is excellent: the kind of goofy, Thor-adjacent origin story that simply gets what’s great about the character and is able to deliver well-enough on that premise.  It’s thematically cogent, filled with a bunch of extremely talented people (particularly the children, who really go above and beyond what’s expected of a child actor here) and, most importantly, fun.

With the tolerable-looking Joker movie and the genuinely good-looking Wonder Woman 1984 in the pipeline, it’s entirely possible that DC’s back on track making good, if not great, movies again.  And, really, that’s all I ever really wanted from them.  Now just keep it coming, Warner Bros, and don’t look back!


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