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After Henry Cavill's departure as Superman, what's next for the DCEU? A multiverse, maybe

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Sep 12, 2018, 5:50 PM EDT

We are reportedly a world without a Superman once again, at least as far as the DC Extended Universe is concerned.

Henry Cavill, who played Kal-El/Clark Kent in three films over five years in Warner Bros.' first attempt at a shared cinematic universe based on the DC Comics, is apparently hanging up his cape and moving on to new things, like his upcoming Netflix series The Witcher. This leaves the DCEU — already in a divisive, disjointed, and inconsistent place both in front of and behind the camera — not just without its original star, but without the superhero. If Superman is done right, he should be a standard-bearer not just for his franchise, but for superhero media in general, and now Warner Bros. is facing a world in which they don't have him at all. 

The loss is compounded by other destabilizing factors, including the seemingly imminent loss of Ben Affleck as DC's other top superhero, Batman. And while Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman is going strong, that's two of three prongs of DC's Trinity gone less than a year after the first Justice League film hit theaters. Then there's something that's perhaps even sadder to consider: At the end of Justice League, Cavill's Superman was finally becoming Superman. He was finally becoming a symbol of hope after the previous two films put him through hell to learn and discover what kind of hero he needed to be. Justice League's wild tonal shifts aside, it felt like there was a brighter future ahead for this version of Superman, and now that's blowing up like Krypton.

That's complicated enough, but to make things even more complicated, Warner Bros. has to find a way to reset on the fly, thanks to the success of Wonder Woman (they're not letting Gal Gadot go any time soon if they can help it), the impending release of Aquaman and Shazam!, and the development of films featuring The Flash, the Green Lantern Corps, the Birds of Prey, The Joker, Supergirl (who may well be the DCEU's successor to Superman), and more. 

So where does the DCEU go from here, as it juggles the impending departure of two of its biggest stars as well as a Wonder Woman sequel, the first Aquaman solo movie, and several other promising developing projects? How do you harness whatever momentum you do have to salvage what's good even as players are leaving the game?

One ambitious and fascinating way might be to embrace an enduring and beloved DC Comics tradition: The Multiverse.

Unlike Marvel Comics, which promised to depict "the world outside your window" and functioned early on as a relatively small group of creators who were more than happy to produce crossovers ranging from characters passing one another on the street to joining up multi-issue epics, DC Comics began as a more scattered beast. Superman and Batman were not supposed to be a part of the same world (hence the age-old complaint about the proximity of Gotham City to Metropolis), and other Golden Age characters weren't necessarily created with crossover appeal in mind, until team-ups like the Justice Society started to emerge.

Even then, these creators were not telling stories with an eye toward one universe. They were just doing whatever seemed interesting that month. That created disparities, which DC eventually explained away as "Those two stories are about two different Supermen," which then gave way to the multiversal concept, which was then destroyed, recreated, and constantly tinkered with in events beginning with Crisis on Infinite Earths in 1985 and continuing right up until today.

If that sounds messy to you, that's because it is messy. It's messy to just keep track of a single continent full of fictional cities and the heroes that populate them, and then that mess is extrapolated to 52 (or more) alternate universes full of characters who, while distinct, often share similar costumes, motivations, and missions. Even when a Crisis or a Flashpoint or a Rebirth comes along and attempts to clarify and merge all of these ideas, things remain complicated, because everyone has to decide what stays and what goes, and sometimes that's not as clear of a list as publishers would have you believe.

When a new reader trying to get into superhero comics feels intimidated by the field, keeping track of issue and volume numbering might be their first complaint, but stuff like the DC Multiverse is usually a pretty close second. 

Here's the thing, though: When viewed from the right angle, that messiness can be a huge asset, especially if you're telling these stories in a world in which your characters aren't just drawings who only age when you pencil them that way. Even if the DCEU had launched perfectly back in 2013, with a clear plan and mission statement that was executed well enough to lead to box office success every single time, Henry Cavill was never going to play Superman forever. Ben Affleck, an actor chosen to play Bruce Wayne specifically because he's older than a lot of franchise heroes these days, was never going to be Batman for a decade. That's why when Warner Bros. announced its intention to make a Flashpoint movie last year, it was widely believed it would be a multiversal excuse to jettison Affleck and replace him with an alternate Dark Knight.

The same could be done with Superman, easily and entertainingly. 

How? Well, that's for writers and producers to decide in the coming weeks and months, but it's not hard to imagine a universe in which Aquaman and Wonder Woman are transported (perhaps by the speed powers of Ezra Miller's Flash?) to another Earth, where they meet Supergirl, who survived the loss of Krypton along with her cousin... a different Superman who can be any actor WB wants, including Michael B. Jordan. That Earth can also have its own new threats, its own new allies, and its own new tone, something the DCEU has always struggled with. There are, of course, also simpler solutions (Supergirl and Superman could come to the DCEU Earth Prime after that world's Superman and Batman are lost), but you get the idea. It's all built right in to the comics. 

Perhaps more importantly, though, implicit in the concept of the Multiverse is the idea that it all counts. If that concept is enthusiastically integrated into the DCEU, then Cavill's performance is not erased for fans of his Superman, nor are his adventures with Wonder Woman and his developing friendship with Batman. His struggles with the brutality of the things he's done, his sacrifices to save the world, and everything else still get to be part of the fabric of the story, because those threads are woven into wherever we meet the next Superman.

It allows creators tremendous freedom (something Warner Bros. is already working on with its impending standalone Joker film) to tell new stories with new actors, while also allowing constant fans and viewers the satisfaction of seeing how it all still connects. Sure, if you do it wrong — and Warner Bros. definitely could do it wrong — it's an overcomplicated mess, but if the studio places it in the right hands, it could be magic. 

Oh, and if you still think the idea of a black actor like Michael B. Jordan playing Superman is a ridiculous idea, well...The Multiverse would appear to disagree.

Operation Justice Incarnate DC Comics

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.