Is Justice League – and the rest of the DC Extended Universe – doomed?

In June, DC Entertainment president Geoff Johns pledged that future entries in the increasingly expanding DC Universe of comic book adaptations would follow the lead of the critical and commercial smash Wonder Woman. Forthcoming DC movies will “get to the essence of the character and make the movies fun,” John promised, “[and] make sure that the characters have heart, humour, hope, heroics, and optimism at the base.”

His comments were cause for optimism, particularly in light of Wonder Woman’s ability to rewrite the narrative that had built up around the Marvel-aping universe of interconnected films based on DC comic books. From the miserable Superman reboot Man of Steel, to the drudgery of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, to the fresh hell that was Suicide Squad, DC had embarked on one colossal disappointment after another.

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But Wonder Woman seemed to mark a sea change, its acclaim, box office success and aversion to things that could enrage or offend marking a firm departure from its DC predecessors. But that was June, and just two months later DC has once again been plunged into what could be considered cinematic disarray.

With random new spin-offs being announced with alarmingly regularity, unexpected scandals emerging from the personal lives of its on and off-camera talent, and existing projects appearing to slowly sink into the ether, the DC cinematic universe all of a sudden seems less like a scrappy underdog on the road to success, and more like the victim of some sort of witch’s curse.

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman Credit: Warner Bros.

Not that they seem at all blameless in their cratering, thanks in part to their refusal to learn from the lessons that Wonder Woman seemed to impart. Where that film had an acclaimed female filmmaker behind it in Patty Jenkins, who has gone on to become something of a celebrity in her own right since the film’s release, Warner Bros. has since sourced much of its behind-the-scenes talent from in-house contacts… and kept them resolutely male.

Likewise, the winning move to position a female superhero centre stage hasn’t yet inspired follow-up projects led by any of DC’s enormous roll call of iconic female characters.

It didn’t always seem this way. On the heels of Suicide Squad, DC appeared to immediately capitalise on Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, one of the film’s sole redeeming factors and a rare DC hit when it comes to comic book fans. Announced almost immediately was a Robbie-led spin-off project, one that was initially speculated to team her up with the female superhero ensemble Birds of Prey (comprised of Black Canary, Oracle and The Huntress), and scripted by Christina Hodson.

Margot Robbie in Suicide Squad Credit: Warner Bros.

But that seemed to fall apart quickly, the project subsequently confirmed to be titled Gotham City Sirens and positioning Harley Quinn centre stage alongside the likes of Catwoman and Poison Ivy. Suicide Squad director David Ayer was attached to that one, with Geneva Robertson-Dworet (screenwriter of the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot) pegged to write.

A year later, development on Gotham City Sirens seemed to go quiet, the title not appearing on a list of forthcoming release dates announced during July’s San Diego Comic Con. As of last week, it was speculated to have been canned all-together, with DC announcing that rather than being supported by some of DC’s leading ladies, Harley would instead co-lead a film revolving around her abusive relationship with The Joker.

Dubbed by insiders as “When Harry Met Sally on Benzedrine”, this new project will reunite Robbie with Suicide Squad’s incredibly polarising Jared Leto, and is being brought to the screen by Warner Bros. regulars Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose credits include Crazy, Stupid, Love the hit TV show This Is Us, and the Margot Robbie projects Focus and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

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But it’s this sort of project whiplash, with spin-offs seeming to come and go in such short bursts of time, that has led many to become concerned at the overall direction of the DC Extended Universe. That Robbie’s Harley Quinn, a cheery diamond stuck inside the mountain of sewage that was Suicide Squad, is returning to the big-screen alongside her abusive lover, in a film scripted by two men no less, has so far been met with disdain.

Likewise that Jared Leto’s Joker was largely one of Suicide Squad’s least popular presences, not helped by Leto’s consistently annoying tales of method character-developing on set, yet DC seems reluctant to step away from him. News of the Joker/Harley project arrived in the same week as another Joker project was announced, with Martin Scorsese tapped to produce a “gritty and hard-boiled crime story” about the clown prince of crime to be directed by The Hangover’s Todd Phillips.

Jared Leto in Suicide Squad Credit: Warner Bros.

The second Joker project would reportedly be part of a new line of self-contained DC films, which would tell small-scale, auteur-driven stories revolving around iconic DC characters, somewhat along the lines of the aborted X-Men Origins franchise. That Fox franchise, proposed in 2008, had lined up one-shot projects about Ian McKellen’s Magneto and Halle Berry’s Storm before the under-performing of X-Men Origins: Wolverine forced the studio to rethink.

As a respite from the expansive, interconnected Marvel Universe, this new DC agenda doesn’t sound like a particularly bad one. But that DC are still actively attempting to figure out what exactly it wants to do with its comic book properties should be cause for concern. Even in light of Wonder Woman, DC’s various in-development projects seem permanently magnetised to chaos.

Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher and Jason Momoa at July’s San Diego Comic Con Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Justice League, which hits cinemas in less than two months, has partly been beset by problems outside of anyone’s control. When director Zack Snyder was forced to back out midway through filming due to family tragedy, Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, was roped in to finish the job, having already provided rewrites for the film’s script. But Whedon’s arrival coincided with suggestions that Warner Bros. were already unhappy with the film, Variety reporting that they were investing a further $25 million in the project, some of which was being used to digitally remove a mustache Henry Cavill grew for Mission: Impossible 6, and which he was legally required to keep intact.

Whedon’s reshoots have also involved emergency retooling for the character of Cyborg, arguably the ensemble’s least-known presence, and played by an actor with the most minimal of experience. Ray Fisher, an American theatre actor, has no other film credits to his name.

The suddenly scandalous Joss Whedon Credit: AP/Remy de la Mauviniere

But while Joss Whedon’s immersion in the DC fold was initially met with praise, as was the announcement that he was to write and direct a Batgirl movie in the near future, his recent run-in with scandal has enormously dented his reputation within the industry.

On the heels of an essay written by his ex-wife Kai Cole that claimed Whedon had multiple affairs during their marriage and emotionally abused her, exploiting his reputation as a feminist author to win favour in the process, DC had no comment as to whether Whedon would still be part of the Batgirl project, or help promote Justice League upon its release.

At the same time as Justice League’s behind-the-scenes drama, Ben Affleck’s tenure as Batman has similarly been subject to much discussion. This time last year Affleck’s status in the role appeared to be solid, particularly with the star signed up to write, direct and star in the next Batman solo vehicle, titled The Batman.

But that quickly fell apart, Affleck dropping out from behind the camera in January, replaced by Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves, who later indicated that he was tossing much of Affleck’s original script. Then came a bombshell report in Hollywood Reporter which suggested DC were attempting to “gracefully usher Affleck out” in advance of The Batman, a claim Warner Bros. were quick to deny.

But Affleck appeared uncertain of his Batman future at July’s Comic Con, stating “I’ve always intended to do a third [movie]… if the Batphone rings, I’ll answer.” But Affleck’s brother Casey poured cold water on that claim two weeks ago, saying in a radio interview that “he’s not going to do [The Batman], I don’t think. Sorry to say.”

Ezra Miller as The Flash in Justice League Credit: YouTube/Screengrab

Representatives for both actors subsequently released statements claiming Affleck’s comment was not based in fact. But the statement from Ben Affleck’s publicist was peculiarly worded, hinting that the truth of Affleck’s Batman future is out of his hands: “He’ll continue to be Batman as long as the studio will have him.”

What the studio actually wants, however, is frequently in dispute. A film centred on Ezra Miller’s The Flash was due for release in March 2018, but has been indefinitely delayed following the departures of two of its directors. Dope director Rick Famuyiwa oversaw the casting of actors including Billy Crudup and Kiersey Clemons, but departed the film in October 2016 citing “creative differences” with Warner Bros. The Flash, recently renamed Flashpoint, remains on the hunt for a director.

Dwayne Johnson remains attached to the forthcoming Shazam Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards

A Suicide Squad sequel is also in the midst of a director hunt, following the departure of original filmmaker David Ayer and the decision by The Shallows director Jaume Collet-Serra to drop out from negotiations and instead make an Indiana Jones-style adventure movie with Dwayne Johnson.

That move also potentially throws a spanner in the works for Shazam, the next DC movie scheduled for production, which has long had Johnson attached to play super-villain Black Adam and is scheduled to shoot at the same time next spring. But Shazam at least has a director confirmed, with Annabelle: Creation’s David F. Sandberg signed up in July to shepherd the project.

On less sturdy ground are a spin-off revolving around Cyborg, a Man of Steel sequel and a Justice League Part 2 that was delayed in favour of The Batman… which itself is currently devoid of a scheduled release date. A film based on Justice League Dark, a comic book series built around DC’s supernatural characters, is also in question, following news that it is being retooled following director presentations that reportedly left DC bosses “underwhelmed”.

Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Credit: Warner Bros.

In news that will likely soften any panic currently afflicting fans, however, there appears to be little drama stemming from the set of 2018’s Aquaman, which is currently in production in Australia with cast members including Nicole Kidman, Amber Heard and Willem Dafoe, while Wonder Woman 2 has staked out a release date in 2019. Patty Jenkins is also in final negotiations to return as director, following months of concern that she was to be replaced with somebody else.

But both projects are in a decided minority when it comes to the burgeoning DC Extended Universe, which has consistently appeared uncertain as to its agenda and long-term goals, and inherently reluctant to lesson-learning.

In this metaphorical Batmobile, it seems that nearly everyone is asleep at the wheel.

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