While Warner Bros. Pictures’ upcoming slate of films based on DC Comics characters – Aquaman, Shazam!, and Wonder Woman 1984 – has the potential to change the narrative course of the studio’s DC film universe, some misfires from early planning continue to plague its attempt to become a competitor to Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe. And on Wednesday morning, it seems the film series, known by fans as the “DC Extended Universe” for lack of an official title, lost its Superman. Maybe.
Though there are some conflicting reports – and tweets – it appears Henry Cavill is ready to quit playing Superman. Talks between the studio and Cavill regarding an appearance in Shazam! broke down recently, and coupled with his new status as the star of Netflix’s upcoming Witcher adaptation, it looks like further opportunities to play the first comic book superhero will become limited or impossible. (There is some hope for fans, though: According to the studio, “no decisions have been made regarding any upcoming Superman films” and their relationship with the actor “remains unchanged.” Even Cavill’s manager, Dany Garcia, tweeted on Wednesday that “the cape is still in his closet.”)
Meanwhile, Ben Affleck is probably, almost definitely (though not completely) out as the Batman.
Should the studio suddenly be without the actors playing its most high-profile comic book characters, how does the DC Comics-based film series soldier on? Though it’s earned a certain reputation thanks to a series of well-publicized blunders and some rough Tomatometer scores, there are serious strengths in the universe that could inform how it moves forward on a good foot. Looking at those strengths, and the underlying strengths of DC’s stable of characters, here are just a few ways DC’s film future can be bright should Cavill choose to fly away.
To a certain extent, all Warner Bros. really needs to do is stay the current course and depend on Wonder Woman. While the films prior to Wonder Woman‘s release were commercial success, their critical appraisal faltered or waned over time. Even incoming WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey had to admit “some of our franchises, in particular at DC, we all think we can do better.” But Wonder Woman shook off the DCEU reputation by finally giving the character a definitive screen treatment that both rang true to the comics and gave filmgoers a compelling reason to invest emotionally in her story. It also probably helped that star Gal Gadot felt natural in the part and in the costume. So while the studio looks for actors to replace Cavill and Affleck, why not make her the unambiguous leader of its nascent film superhero team?
She already has a tremendous amount of goodwill earned from the first film – which, at 93%, has the highest Tomatometer score of the DCEU – and she was a highlight of Justice League. Though no sequel to that film is planned, maybe having her pop up in Aquaman, Shazam!, and The Flash to assemble the team again would build the sort of momentum that made The Avengers work critically and commercially.
Warner Bros. is also pivoting toward Wonder Woman, or at least its vibe, in another way: it is developing a Supergirl feature film. If successful, it may make the need for a Superman less of an immediate issue.
In rebuilding the universe, one thing may have to be purposefully overlooked: Zack Snyder’s DC trilogy of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Justice League. Starting with Man of Steel, the pictures felt more like ordeals to some viewers than enjoyable film adventures. And though there is an appeal to taking the DC Comics characters super-seriously – any reader of comics in the 1990s will tell you that – part of their allure is their larger-than-life powersets and personas. A trilogy about the impact of Superman is, ultimately, less enjoyable than a movie centered on Superman trying to foil the plans of Lex Luthor, Darkseid, or Brainiac.
With Cavill (and Affleck) gone, the faces of Snyder’s interpretation vanish. Perhaps that overly serious tone will go as well. Warner Bros. is already on its way to that, with Wonder Woman 1984 ignoring a key plot point from Snyder’s story – Diana’s 100 year exile – while Shazam! looks like it could not be further away from the tone of Man of Steel. Even Aquaman, the project most tied to the early days of DC film planning, looks to go brighter and lighter than its cinematic forebears.
Of course, the darkness of the previous Christopher Nolan-helmed Batman film series always appeals to Warner Bros. Former studio president Jeff Robinov infamously said, after the success of The Dark Knight, that he wanted to “try to go dark to the extent that the [DC Comics] characters allow it.” Though he left the studio before the DC film plan developed, his concept remained part of the mission statement. For the most part, this only works for Batman, as the Snyder trilogy revealed. And at this point, it is better to trust the tone of the individual characters than force them into a Gotham City gloom.
Assuming it will take some time to find a new Superman – Batman will likely be cast first as director Matt Reeves will need an actor for his upcoming The Batman – Warner Bros. can look deeper into the DC Comics library for characters with the power and charisma to pick up the slack.
In possessing the top three superheroes, the studio missed the lesson of Iron Man – sometimes it is advantageous to work with a second-string character. As it happens, Iron Man was so successful, it obliterated the perception of the character as a B-Lister. Within the pages of DC Comics are vast swathes of characters ready to be promoted to marquee status in Superman’s absence. Fans of Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, for example, have been dying to see the superbuds on screen for ages. Characters like Starman Jack Knight, Nightwing, and Manhunter Kate Spencer all possess the necessary qualities to build screen success.
In fact, the DC Comics notion of legacy – in which characters like the Flash and Green Lantern hand over their costumed identities to new generations of heroes – is a strength never utilized in film. While it may not work for Superman, it could work when Ezra Miller is ready to put away his running shoes.
Warner Bros. is headed in this direction with projects like Lobo, Birds of Prey, and Batgirl in development. Each features a few characters new to the big screen and full of potential. Even the planned Green Lantern Corps will focus on a wider array of DC characters. Perhaps with Superman on ice for the next few years, a few of the outlier projects, like Nightwing, will go into production.
In defining the major differences between Marvel and DC, former Starman and Justice League writer James Robison once claimed Marvel had the better rogues gallery, with complicated villains like Magneto, Dr. Doom, and unambiguous universal threats like Galactus. But DC’s assortment of thieves, eco-terrorists, alien invaders, and would-be despots rival the masters of Marvel mayhem on any day. In fact, the DC group has the better name: the Legion of Doom. Granted, it comes from the Superfriends cartoon – in comics, the Legion of Doom is generally known as the Injustice Gang – but it offers a direction to the DC film universe not as readily available to Marvel Studios.
The blueprint for this has always been there in the critique that Batman’s screen villains often outshine the Caped Crusader. It also appears to be the direction that any further Justice League pictures would have gone, as evidenced by the post-credits stinger in which Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor suggests he and Deathstroke (Joe Manganiello) make a league of their own. If one thing could be salvaged from the Snyder trilogy, it is this tantalizing concept.
Following up on the scene also allows some of the other films to spotlight great villains like perennial Green Lantern foe Sinestro, Flash nemeses like Reverse-Flash and Grodd, the infamous Black Adam (to be played by Dwayne Johnson in his own solo feature film), and Wonder Woman 1984 antagonist Cheetah. As seen in the 1989 Batman and The Dark Knight, making the villains shine can lead to stronger films with a ton of box office appeal.
Not that this means every villain needs a feature of their own. While Black Adam and Joker have the potential to be strong lead characters without their heroic foes, Grodd needs the Flash. Also, imagine a movie called Grodd.
Of course, finding a new Superman will be a challenge. Despite both Brandon Routh and Cavill possessing an innate “Superman-ness,” their appearances as the characters never quite gelled with some fans. And unlike characters such as Barry Allen, Aquaman, and even Captain America, Superman’s facial features are key elements to the look. For better or worse, Kal-El of Krypton is a square-jawed, blue-eyed classical Adonis, which puts Manganiello – who nearly played the part before – back in the frame. Sure, he appeared in Justice League as Deathstroke and was intended to appear as the character in Affleck’s version of The Batman, but he could still pull off a mature Superman.
If the studio wants to go younger, it could always promote TV Superman Tyler Hoechlin. His few appearances as Clark on The CW’s Supergirl prove he has the looks and at least some of that innate Superman quality. Yes, he is an untested big-screen presence, but so was Christopher Reeve 40 years ago. And if bankability is a primary concern, there’s always Zac Efron.
Then again, in a time when Superman is surrounded by established actors playing established characters, the studio could go with the choice director Richard Donner made with Reeve in Superman: cast an unknown who maintains all the qualities of the character and none of the star persona of an Efron or – back in the ’70s – a Robert Redford.
Granted, this is presuming the next Superman will retain the character’s traditional look. Rumors already indicate the studio is eyeing Black Panther‘s Michael B. Jordan for the role. And we are definitely here for that casting choice.
Sadly, there is one thing in-universe that Warner Bros. cannot do – play up Superman’s absence. That story beat was used in Justice League, and even if the films going forward ignore most of the events of the Snyder trilogy, the audience still remembers, and they’re not hungry for a retread. In this, the use of comic book-style continuity hinders the studio’s goals the most. Unlike the Flash, who can simply be replaced by a character like Wally West, Bart Allen, or Jenni Ognats, there is only one Superman; DC’s own attempts to give him a successor generally falter. Even if his days as Kal-El are over, Cavill is still the face of the character until someone steps into his tights and takes possession of the role. And despite anything the studio may do in the interim, that loss will make the DC film universe less cohesive.
Meanwhile, it’s always possible Cavill could return. Though there has never been more than preliminary discussions about a direct Man of Steel sequel, that could be the carrot necessary to bring him back into the fold. As his future is still uncertain, it may take a leading role — and leading-role money — to keep him in the DC Universe.