The cinematic universe was at first a brilliant gamble, a novel way of telling stories and building a brand. But in the aftermath of Justice League's weekend underperformance, it's clear that the format — which has gone from creative experiment to corporate imperative — has become a drag, limiting creativity and causing movies to suffer in unnecessary ways.
That isn't to say that the superhero movie genre is in bad shape. This has been a largely good year for superhero movies, delivering hits like Logan, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But it's no surprise that those were all solo adventures, largely removed from the context of their respective cinematic universes. Sure, Spider-Man and Thor were each helped out by another Avenger, but Tony Stark was more of a mentor removed from his own storyline in Homecoming, and both Hulk and Thor had been held out of movies and freed from ongoing storylines for three years. Taika Waititi could take the movie wherever he wanted — and he definitely took advantage of that.
Meanwhile, Justice League is a victim of Warner Bros. and DC's own ambitions. The first half of the movie is spent setting up three new characters — Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). And even though they each give good performances and are in fact human highlights in a two-hour blur of bad CGI, the time spent introducing and then setting them up for future solo outings detracted from this movie, depriving it of time with its heroes together and much of the chemistry and in-jokes that could have resulted. That a significant portion of the movie was reshot and cut down in many places definitely didn't help matters, but then again, if there were fewer characters to introduce and give solo beats, that wouldn't be such a problem.
Justice League is undoubtedly the result of some short-sighted, ass-backward planning, and the worst-case scenario for a planned cinematic universe. It's been mostly hype and teases since the start, relying on fans' love for iconic comics characters instead of actually earning that love again with solid storytelling. Sure, Wonder Woman is largely exempt from this, thanks to Patty Jenkins' hit movie, but it's no coincidence that she's the one character other than Superman to get her own solo film. This whole enterprise has been flawed from the start, because Warner Bros. and DC wanted to emulate Marvel and Disney's success without putting in the hard work to get there.
Marvel launched the first modern cinematic universe in 2008, though audiences didn't know it at the time. The company was only beginning to produce its own movies, and after years of X-Men movies at Fox and Spider-Man slinging web at Sony, Marvel didn't have rights to its most iconic characters. So there weren't high expectations for Iron Man, a character no one cared about, and certainly no notion that it would kick off a decade of sequels, spinoffs, and other connected movies.
Marvel was able to slowly build up what is now known as the MCU, giving solo introductions to Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) before bringing them — along with a recast Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), as well as Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who appeared in the various solo movies as connective tissue. When they were finally brought together in 2012's The Avengers, there was sky-high excitement for a team-up among characters that audiences had spent four years and five movies getting to know.
Warners released the final movie in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy a few months later. With that cash cow out to pasture after "just" three movies, it was clear that the cinematic universe offered the only viable way to make a sustainable profit juggernaut. So the decision was made to use 2013's Superman reboot Man of Steel as a starting point for a DC cinematic universe. That in and of itself wasn't the problem — the big mistake came in trying to rush the construction, cutting corners and forcing a new Batman (played this time by Ben Affleck) and several other heroes into a sequel, 2016's Batman v Superman.
Just like Justice League, that movie was a critical bomb, and it fell short at the box office, by blockbuster standards (they cost a lot to make and market). Its failure wasn't an isolated case, simply ascribable to mistakes in its screenplay or elements of its production. Yeah, it had a shoddy story, and was pretty unpleasant to watch, but it was also symptomatic of the larger problem facing the genre's attempts to maximize as much intellectual property as possible, regardless of how bloated an individual movie gets.
There's no better example of this than this year's failed attempt to launch what Universal (which is owned by the same parent company as SYFY) called the "Dark Universe." Even before its reboot of The Mummy came out, the studio announced a whole gaggle of interconnected sequels, each to star different freaks from its stable of classic monsters. The Mummy was supposed to launch the whole shebang, and so it had to tell two stories: Tom Cruise chased an awakened ancient demon that was laying waste to the earth, and Russell Crowe's collected skulls and weird fish hands in his laboratory, which was supposed to be the connective tissue for all the future Dark Universe movies.
The movie tanked, its director and producers left the fledgling "franchise," and the future is unclear. Easter eggs abound in the movie, but they may turn out to be empty.
Even the MCU has its limits, and it was clear that the next big super get-together, 2014's Avengers: Age of Ultron, had exceeded maximum superhero capacity. Not only did it return the core team (which also included Hawkeye), it also introduced several new heroes, including Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and Vision (Paul Bettany). So not only was the movie saddled with further storylines from Phase 2 adventures of Captain America and Thor, it also had to set up three new heroes, plus service Hawkeye, who wound up with one of the biggest subplots in the whole affair.
Age of Ultron also suffered from the fact that, after saving the world from certain destruction in their first go-round, the Avengers were tasked with a big task yet again. Another big blockbuster ended with another big battle against another Big Bad, in a storm of CGI. And no matter how threatening Ultron, James Spader's demonic Pinocchio, may have seemed, we knew that not only would the good guys win, they wouldn't suffer any heavy losses, because Marvel had already announced their next solo journeys.
Like a TV series, there is always another battle to fight in the cinematic universe, something bigger perennially on the horizon. But a TV show doesn't need to have a gigantic blockbuster third act at the end of every episode, so it can create arcs for smaller obstacles, and keep stakes low at times, telling more focused stories with the larger drama lingering in the background.
Right now, the best superhero movies are the ones that have figured out that telling a smaller story doesn't make it less engrossing. Spider-Man: Homecoming was set in a high school and saw Peter Parker fight one arms dealer whose secret weapon was the fact that he was the dad of Peter's crush. Logan looked years into the future and followed Wolverine's bleak last days; there's no doubt that this movie worked better than any of the X-Men prequels, which have been constrained by the original trilogy and the fact that we know just about all of our heroes survive, and the earth is never destroyed.
Even Thor: Ragnarok didn't have to spend much time setting up future adventures. It's an open-ended movie, and we know that he will reunite with the Avengers at some point, but it's largely a contained journey into a cosmic land, unburdened by old plot threads. Ant-Man and Doctor Strange got to similarly chart their own courses, and very much for the better.
Yes, Captain America: Civil War, which had such a big roster of heroes that it felt at times like a de facto third Avengers movie, was great, and defied the trend of suffering under the weight of too many heroes. But the movie still largely focused on the battle between Captain America and Tony Stark, and used the other heroes as supporting players and comic relief.
There's nothing wrong with a large ensemble, as long as supporting characters don't have to get their own huge arcs. Look at projects like Guardians of the Galaxy, which is the definition of a team movie: We only learn what we need to know about Star-Lord and company to get through the movie. Director James Gunn didn't spend his time worrying about setting up spinoffs and other corporate properties, and the focus paid off.
Fans also have to take some responsibility. Spotting easter eggs and speculating about sequels by reading deep into innocuous tweets and Instagram posts has become a full-time industry. The end-credit scene has become just as important as the movie people are paying to see. Fans can't act disappointed by overcrowded movies when they spend years demanding every single one of their favorite characters get the spotlight, and pay more attention to hints about the future than to the actual movie at hand.
It's unclear where DC goes from here. There will most definitely be a Wonder Woman sequel, and a new solo Batman movie by Matt Reeves may be an opportunity to recast and reset that character (once again). If Warner Bros. still wants to try to build a cinematic universe, they should at least do it right this time — though it might be better off focusing on one movie at a time.