The latest deathof Superman is upon us: Henry Cavill, the English-born actor who’s played the Man of Steel in three movies, is reportedly leaving the DC Universe. What Warner Bros. will do going forward is unclear, but the studio did release a statement today saying "we have made no current decisions regarding upcoming Superman films." And with that, for the first time in years, the onscreen fate of one of DC's most critically and commercially bulletproof characters is up, up in the air. And maybe it should stay that way.
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Ever since 2013's Man of Steel, Warner Bros. has been attempting to replicate the shared-storyline success of Marvel's decade-old mega-franchise. It could have worked. Warners had plenty going for it: A galaxy-sized archive of DC Comics characters and narratives; access to major stars like Ben Affleck (Batman) and Will Smith (Deadshot); and a hit-making architect in writer-director Zack Snyder. But whereas the Marvel films balanced gravitas with humor and comaradery, Snyder’s brooding vision was full of aggro heroes and city-leveling catastrophes. The resulting movies were bombastic, baffling, and unaware of their own joylessness (not to mention expensive). By the time of 2017's failed Justice League—the equivalent of a two-hour screen-saver, full of unhappy performers and unconvincing CGI—it was clear the studio's unification plan would need to be rethought.
Now, DC's big-screen interconnected universe may be dead for good; at the very least, it's on ice. Deadline notes that Affleck—who has portrayed Batman in a trio of Warner Bros. films—likely won’t be returning to the cowl-and-growl role that resulted in one of the more depressing memes of all time. And a long-ago-promised sequel to Justice League will likely slip off IMDb at some point soon, much to the chagrin of no one, save for Jason Momoa's abs sommelier, who was looking forward to that bonus.
Instead, Warner Bros. is focusing on stand-alone stories featuring characters like Wonder Woman, Shazam, The Joker, and Batgirl. Wonder Woman 1984 will take place in a Supes-free past, while the recent Aquaman trailer was almost exclusively about Aquaman, with no winking big-star cameos. Even the in-the-works The Batman looks to remain grounded in Gotham.
These are characters who are creeping toward their 100th birthdays, yet have remained fundamentally unchanged for decades. Both are due for some sort of radical re-thinking.
For those who've endured the studio's labored, Martha-lovin’ attempts to bring their heroes to the multiplex, the new DC Existential Unilateralism (or DCEU) feels like the only sane approach. Characters like Batman and Superman were never intended to play well with others: They’re outsiders—one a billionaire loner, the other an awkward alien—whose social skills and inflexible ideology all but demand they work in fortresses of solitude. One of the more inspired elements of the Tim Burton-directed Batman was to play up the fact that Bruce Wayne wasn't particularly suave or assured; instead, he was a night-crawling nut who barely felt at home in his own mansion. The idea of Burton's Batman having a sustained conversation with another hero, much less teaming up with one of them, was unthinkable.
That first modern Batman movie turns 30 next year—which points to another reason for Warner Bros. to pull the limelight from some of its better-known in-house heroes: There’s very little left to say about them. The last four decades have seen eight live-action movies with Superman, and ten featuring Batman. Villains have been recycled, costumes have been refurbished, origin stories have been reiterated. These are characters who are creeping toward their 100th birthdays, yet have remained fundamentally unchanged for decades. Both are due for some sort of radical re-thinking.
But first, they need to disappear for a while. It took almost two decades for the camp-Batman of the '60s to transform into the noir-weirdo Batman of the '80s. The same amount of time passed before audiences were willing to let go of the square, small-screen Superman of TV, and embrace Christopher Reeve's winking, more emo Man of Feels. Those sort of changes require a prolonged absence—one that allows characters, and viewers, to evolve at the same rate. If you want moviegoers to believe a man can fly, it helps to ground him for a while.
Plus, the more DC moves away from its flagship capers, the better their chances of finding weirdness in the margins. A few years ago, Marvel’s Ant-Man—a character whose exploits were were relegated to the three-for-a-dollar discount-boxes—became a household name. And the Guardians of the Galaxy were essentially cult heroes until the 2014 hit movie bearing their name. Similarly, DC's television efforts have found ways to make mainstream heroes out of lesser-known properties like Black Lightning, Firestorm, and Hawkgirl.
There are several other potentially compelling—possibly even fun?—DC characters that could work in movies (the Wachowskis were angling to make a Plastic Man film as far back as the mid-'90s). But for now, the strategy of an Aquaman here and a Supergirl there is far more sensible given the glut of superhero headlining acts that have put DC's characters in such dire straits (both on and off screen). Batman and Superman can afford to take some time off. There's plenty more to marvel at.
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