With DC’s movie franchise a mess, every way forward comes with challenges. The first Iron Man, which launched the MCU, shows how they’re boxed in.
Whatever people’s feelings are on the DCEU, it’s clear that things aren’t going according to plan. The grand “reboot” that supposedly began with Black Adam was aborted by the film’s middling box office reception, leading to a recent series of contradictory reports that leaves the entire saga in limbo. A Dec. 7 article in The Hollywood Reporter stated that a third Wonder Woman movie was on hold, just one day after star Gal Gadot tweeted how she “can’t wait to share her next chapter” with fans. The Flash movie arrives in 2023, complete with the troubling baggage of star Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill’s return as Superman is in active doubt, and Bruce Wayne quite literally jumped ship to another universe with The Batman earlier in the year.
Whatever way forward James Gunn and Peter Safran determine for the franchise, there are no easy ways out of the mess they inherited. The elephant in the room regarding the DCEU is simple: they’ve been chasing the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) from the beginning and learning all the wrong lessons along the way. Fashioning a coherent and compelling narrative arc out of the current jumble of characters and scenarios is difficult enough. While a Crisis-style reboot essentially resets everything at zero, it’s still 15 years behind the MCU, which began with the first Iron Man film. Even with a clean slate, the problems pile up for reasons that Iron Man aptly demonstrates.
Iron Man Had Never Been Properly Adapted Before Robert Downey, Jr.
The first Iron Man is a comparatively humble effort compared to how the MCU has developed since then. It focuses on only one superhero and dedicates itself solely to telling a good origin story that will keep people entertained. Beyond S.H.I.E.L.D.’s basic appearance and the now-legendary Easter egg with Samuel L. Jackson, it makes no reference to a larger universe and saddles itself with no initial expectations beyond perhaps a sequel or two. Indeed, as big as the MCU has become, its progenitor was largely regarded as the runner-up in 2008’s superhero crop, with The Dark Knight and Heath Ledger’s Joker taking up the limelight.
Repeating Iron Man’s feat — over-performing in the face of relatively modest expectations — may be impossible in today’s environment. More importantly, however, Tony Stark had never received a proper live-action adaption before then. His appearances outside the comics have been limited solely to animated series, which could deliver the hero more elegantly than a clunky practical suit of armor. That gave the first Iron Man film a truly clean slate to work with. The combination of a strong story, CGI being able to properly conjure the character, and the impeccable casting of Robert Downey, Jr as Tony Stark, also allowed the film to make the most of the opportunity.
The other two members of the MCU’s “Big Three” — Thor and Captain America — similarly had little competition from previous incarnations. The same was true of Hawkeye and Black Widow. The foundation of the MCU was thus built without creators looking over their shoulders. Among the other benefits, it allowed Marvel Studios to integrate characters like Spider-Man and The Hulk — who had successful live-action adaptations in their past — organically, without having to pin everything on their standing from either Tobey Maguire or Lou Ferrigno.
The serendipity of the MCU’s genesis simply isn’t an option for DC. The Trinity’s various origin stories have been adapted multiple times, both recently and in the more distant past. It’s certainly possible — The Batman‘s success proved it — but it would mean competing with recent efforts like Man of Steel and Wonder Woman, which complicates matters. Recasting Kal-El and Diana would be a colossal mistake, with Cavill and Gadot both fan favorites who earned copious praise for their performances. Yet, leaving them in place means dragging the DCEU’s ragged collection of half-baked plotlines with them. A movie detailing their respective origins yet again enhances the creative exhaustion DC is fighting.
Starting a new DC movie universe with characters besides the Trinity becomes tough too, particularly with The Flash and Aquaman both due for DCEU movies next year. Black Adam proved that Warner Bros. Discovery can’t simply plug a character in and expect the results to support an entire franchise. Yet, most well-known DC figures have multiple well-regarded previous incarnations to compete with. The further one goes down the chain of high-profile heroes, the shakier the prospects of hanging an entire movie universe becomes. Breaking out of that conundrum will prove far more difficult than the MCU’s comparatively easy beginnings where they simply had to make a good Iron Man movie.
Gunn and Safran do have options. A Crisis-style story, for instance, could cut the Gordian knot and allow them to reestablish a foundation from which to build. But it’s no longer enough to simply start again. Whatever they decide will still put the DC movie franchise years behind the MCU, and even starting from scratch won’t help it catch up. The window has closed for what Iron Man accomplished and may never open again. That’s the reality that Gunn, Safran, and DC movies as a whole now find themselves facing.