Though the ratings haven’t been stellar as of late, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s creative renaissance in the wake of Captain America: Winter Soldier has shown the benefits of a shared TV-to-movie universe. And with DC establishing a firm foothold on the small screen by launching a bunch of TV properties (Gotham, Constantine, The Flash) and seemingly trying to get their own shared cinematic universe off the ground, it might seem like a no-brainer that they'd want to follow suit and connect it all. But I think it’d be a terrible move.
Yes, I love The CW’s Arrow as much as the next fan, and a part of me thinks it'd be beyond awesome to see him team up with Superman and Batfleck on the big screen at some point. But the show is just fine without a connection to Zack Snyder’s big-screen sandbox. After the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC would be foolish not to follow suit with Man of Steel sequels and an eventual Justice League flick. That’s an awesome idea. Just leave it on the big screen.
As Arrow has shown this season, and Smallville for a decade before it, these DC properties are deep enough to stand on their own. Period. Arrow sticks to its corner of the DC canon, and it’s telling some of the most compelling genre stories you’ll find anywhere these days. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is fun because it’s an extension of the Marvel movie-verse, yes, but that connection has also hamstrung the series in other ways. The recent HYDRA arc has been a blast, but fans had to wait through half a season of what often felt like wheel-spinning to get there.
There are pros and cons, and a pitch for a show like S.H.I.E.L.D. probably couldn’t have really worked on its own. It needed to be propped up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe to give it some weight and purpose, and seeing how it’s connected to Winter Soldier has been an enriching experience for both media. That’s great, but again, that doesn't make it the only, or the best, approach.
By standing on its own, Arrow is able to set its own stakes, and the show is so much the better for it. They can dig into their own stories, go wherever they want with character development (within reason), and even (literally) blow up half a city if they see fit. I don't need them to try and randomly explain why two aliens duked it out in Metropolis. Instead of seeing that standalone approach as a limitation, the Arrow team turned it around and built their own self-contained universe that stands apart, and more importantly, stands strong. Heck, the Arrow-verse has become so rich that it’s already spinning off its second series in The Flash.
It's worth noting that The Flash was a project that grew organically out of Arrow, and is the perfect example of taking a prudent approach to the shared-universe question. For one, they’re both on TV. Nothing is beholden to a movie release schedule. They developed two properties from the ground up that can fit in the same world, and used each franchise to enrich the other’s mythology, much as was successfully done with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The trick is to keep it at a manageable level, where you can still tell small-screen stories with film-type stakes.
Marc Guggenheim, a producer on Arrow, compared their approach to the classic crossovers between the Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, noting that they can still tell big stories on their own — but it opens up the lines of communication to cross over and interact in ways that enrich both shows. Here’s what he told Comic Book Resources:
“Honestly, I’m just excited to help be a part of expanding the DC Universe. I think one of the big thing that appeals to me about comics in general is the idea of the shared universe. It’s a lot of fun to be able to do that in television, and growing up one of the things I enjoyed was the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ and ‘The Bionic Woman’ and the way those two shows would interact with each other. We’re at least a season away from ‘Arrow’ interacting with ‘The Flash,’ but the potential for that is really exciting for me.”
After seeing the way Arrow has succeeded on its own, I’d argue that everything from Constantine to Gotham would benefit from being on an island, digging into their own, distinct corners of the DC universe. The main reason: the wealth of content, storylines and characters already available within each of those separate properties. If you can’t write a good series set within the extremely rich Batman universe (even without Batman), then you don’t need to be writing.
The world of Batman is a deep one, and here's hoping Fox’s Gotham takes full advantage of its resources and digs into that mythology to develop a compelling series. It would be tragic for the writers of Gotham to be beholden to potential arcs related to the movies (i.e. characters that couldn’t be killed, storylines that are off limits, etc.) as part of the prequel. The focus needs to be on creating the best television series possible. Period. As Christopher Nolan proved with his Dark Knight trilogy, there’s more than enough there with a canon as rich as Batman. No crossovers required.
As for Constantine? It’s one heck of a cool story, and one that most definitely needs to be told on its own. That’s a tale with (literal) stakes for Heaven and Hell, and a universe that rich would only be limited by trying to tie it in to something else. Constantine also raises the question of tone, which can make or break a series (or entire universe if it's connected). If told right, Constantine should have a special kind of darkness and weirdness. If you tried to tell me that literal demons exist in the Arrow-verse, or even the eventual Gotham-verse, that’s going to be the beginning of a train wreck.
Marvel is diving into untested waters by tying S.H.I.E.L.D. to the cinematic canon, and it’s had some successes and missteps, but that doesn’t mean DC should jump on the bandwagon. We already know they’re having preliminary discussions on the topic, and ramping up one of the company’s biggest TV production slates in history, but we hope DC will see the value in their own content and not try to shoehorn it all together.
While admitting those talks of a more "cohesive" approach have taken place, even Man of Steel writer David Goyer told IGN that DC should be very cautious when considering something of this magnitude:
“I mean, it's too early. I know that Warner Bros. would love to make their universe more cohesive. There have been a lot of general conversations about that, but it's really, really early. I'm not sure. Marvel has had enormous success, but I'm not sure that everybody should try to emulate them, either. It's just been vague conversations so far.”
Goyer’s exactly right. You can find unique ways to connect your properties (i.e. Arrow/Flash) without throwing it all into the blender.
Heck, if they’re looking for a template for success, look no further than Arrow. DC has already nailed how to do this right with standalone series — they just need to realize that they’ve already figured it out.