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We seem to have more DC Comics-inspired content heading to the big and small screens right now than ever before, with The Batman knocking out fans in theaters, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and The Flash on the way to the box office, and everything from Peacemaker to Batwoman to an upcoming Penguin spinoff on networks and streaming services.
It's a fire hose with a valve that just keeps opening wider, something we perhaps couldn't have said a few years ago, when Warner Bros. was still smarting from the underwhelming performance of Justice League and looking for ways to retool their still-burgeoning comic book universe even as Marvel Studios headed for the endgame of their massive, interconnected Infinity Saga. In terms of the sheer number of stories Warners has put out in the last four years or plans to put out in the two or three years to come, there's a lot going on. But that doesn't mean it can't be tinkered with yet again.
Variety reports that, in the wake of the Warner Bros. Discovery merger that saw the two entertainment giants join forces, executives at the newly formed company are looking for new ways to "overhaul" DC Entertainment. While comic books themselves certainly fall under that umbrella, the report is less focused on publishing and more focused on Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav and his team plotting ways of " turning DC into its own solidified content vertical." Whatever that means.
I don't mean to sound obtuse there. I mean that there are different ways of looking at a "solidified content vertical," both creatively and financially. You could be more focused on narrative synergy, or you could be more focused on keeping the brand strong in the minds of consumers, pumping out a diverse array of content that makes viewers sit up and take notice. So, what's Warner Bros. Discovery hoping it means for them this time around? According to Variety's report, it actually sounds like they'd like to have it both ways if at all possible. Zaslav and company are reportedly looking around for a Kevin Feige-like figure to align the many "disparate elements" of DC's screen output, but sources also say Zaslav is perhaps less concerned with what that person could do creatively than he is with what that person could do on the business side of things, keeping the big and small screen stories coming out of DC aligned with the goal of maximizing the value of the characters and titles.
We've heard this tale before. It's one we've seen not just at Warner Bros. and the universe they attempted to launch with filmmakers like Zack Snyder and David Goyer, but with everything from grand plans for Transformers to universes of toy movie franchises. Everyone in Hollywood has watched Kevin Feige and his Marvel Studios crew build a shared universe from one feature film to the biggest tentpole in the business right now, with narrative threads running simultaneously in both billion-dollar blockbusters and streaming series, and they want in on that game. It is, as always, easier said than done, which is why Warner Bros. Discovery is also focused on a plan that will wring maximum potential out of every potential starring character in the DC stable. Even as Zaslav and company want to find the "DC czar" who can keep the whole vertical in line, they also want to keep making films like Joker, a standalone feature starring a marketable, previously supporting character which went on to earn big at the big office and win two Oscars.
So basically, according to this report, Warner Bros. Discovery would like to have it both ways with DC. They want the shared universe glory and the filmmaker-driven intrigue, and they want it all unified under a single figure that can keep the machine rolling year in and year out. Whether or not the company finds that figure (or team of figures) is of course still up in the air, as is whether or not this proposed new leader can actually deliver on what the company wants. So while we watch and wait, let's talk about what this actually means for the product itself. What will this strategy do to our superhero stories?
Right now, DC Entertainment seems to be at this really interesting pivot point in terms of its big and small screen outputs, a pivot point stemming from that post-Justice League reframe that put the emphasis on individual filmmakers delivering the stories they wanted to tell without all that much regard for the wider universe. Those kinds of stories are still being told, but the studio is also gearing up for the release of films like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom and The Flash, both of which will put the focus back on heroes introduced in the Snyder years, and in The Flash in particular will attempt to unite various universes under one umbrella, creating a potential multiverse that represents the entire wider DC sandbox in a way that lets viewers embrace the connections between every single big and small screen story.
That multiverse, despite its potential to be somewhat confusing for more casual fans, still seems like the best bet DC has in terms of having their cake and eating it too with the whole synergized content vertical game. It might seem at first blush like an attempt to copy Marvel and ride the coattails of a somewhat bigger shared universe, but DC's been playing with alternate versions of beloved characters for decades. They invented the multiverse in the comic book space, and it remains relatively easy for a viewer to go "Oh, that's just a different Batman from a different world." It doesn't have to be a major selling point of every single story. It just matters when you want it to matter.
If this all works, DC could truly be in a place where they can get every ounce of potential out of a roster of characters that's been constantly growing since 1938, and we could be in for new stories about all manner of heroes and villains with the built-in ease of explaining any connections we don't like or don't understand away via the multiverse. But here's the real trick: Don't get skittish and pull back after one or two films or a streaming series that was maybe a little too weird for an executive's liking. That's the real Kryptonite in plans like these. They either come together so fast that the stories barely make sense, or the people in charge start to get cold feet when the pieces have barely moved on the board. You have a multiverse. You have characters people like. You have Superman, for God's sake. Roll up your sleeves, dig deep into that realm, and let storytellers play. It's worked in the last four years, and it can work again.