As the new CEOs of DC Studios, James Gunn and Peter Safran are hard at work crafting a long-term plan for the DC Cinematic Universe. The goal is clearly to bring some much-needed stability and a sense of strategy to a studio that has spent years struggling to match Marvel’s success. And while Gunn won’t be making any major announcements for another couple of months, he has hinted at an important component of that new strategy. Everything, from movies to series, through animation series and video games, will be connected in the future.
This marks a major shift from DC’s recent emphasis on indie films and a multiverse of heroes who only occasionally cross paths. One thing becomes clear when Gunn previews the future of DC Films. DC is no longer trying to simply replicate the model of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They’re betting on the Star Wars approach.
The Star Wars Focus on Storytelling
The Star Wars franchise is quite unique in the entertainment landscape in that it exists as a single universe in which all stories coexist and interconnect. The Skywalker saga films laid the foundation, and all spin-off films, live-action and animated series, comics, novels, and games are based on that framework. Disney has even created the Lucasfilm Story Group in an attempt to maintain continuity between all of these disparate projects.
It’s true that many old books and games from the pre-Disney days are now referred to as “Legends” stories, but Lucasfilm doesn’t really treat Legends as an ongoing concern. Those stories are relegated to a kind of museum. They are relics from an earlier time that no longer fit into the official Star Wars tapestry, but can occasionally be used as story fodder when the opportunity presents itself. Every Star Wars project released since 2014 has existed as part of a singular, unified Star Wars canon.
There aren’t many other entertainment properties that follow this singular narrative approach, and certainly none on the scale of Star Wars. Halo used to be one example, as all the comics and novels have been extensions of the games, but that changed in 2022 with the debut of Paramount’s Halo series and its standalone timeline. The closest comparison right now might be Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed universe.since all the comics and even the 2016 movie are connected to the games.
There aren’t many other entertainment properties that follow this singular narrative approach, and certainly none on the scale of Star Wars.
Not even Marvel tries to replicate the Star Wars model. The Marvel comic line has its own 80-year continuity, completely separate from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The MCU itself boasts a number of animated and live-action series, but that still leaves the occasional exception like X-Men ’97. And while recent games like Marvel’s Spider-Man and Marvel’s Avengers draw heavily from the MCU, they exist in their own universes.
Until now, DC’s approach to building a cinematic universe has been very similar to Marvel’s. Most of the live-action movies released since 2013’s Man of Steel exist in the same continuity, as does the recent Peacemaker series. But there have been a handful of movies (2019’s Joker, 2022’s The Batman) and a large number of series that aren’t tied to the DCEU. There are also no video games like Gotham Knights or the upcoming Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League that are set in the DCEU.
It is clear that Gunn and Safran want to change this approach. In the future, everything is going to be related to the DCEU. Not only live action movies and series, but even animated series and games. While DC’s editorial line will likely continue to be left to its own devices, the rest of the company is pivoting in a much more continuity-driven and interconnected direction.
The failures of the Star Wars model
Modeling the revamped DCU after Star Wars is certainly one way to distinguish DC’s line from Marvel’s. And for a studio that has constantly changed strategy over the years, having a well-defined and consistent roadmap would be a welcome change of pace. But That’s not to say the Star Wars model doesn’t have some major drawbacks..
Total media synergy may sound great on paper, but it can also get in the way of actual storytelling. This has been the case with Star Wars in recent years, in which games and, above all, comics and novels have become second-class citizens in a galaxy far, far away.
At the height of the Expanded Universe, writers had a free hand in reshaping the fabric of the post-Return of the Jedi timeline. Dark Empire from 1991 resurrected Emperor Palpatine. Vector Prime, from 1999, caused a sensation by killing Chewbacca. Legacy of the Force: Invincible, from 2008, ended with the children of Han and Leia dueling to the death.
It’s hard to imagine big plot twists like those taking place anywhere other than a live-action movie or series today. Today’s comics and books are much more limited in scope and tend to settle for dancing in the raindrops of the Star Wars movies. Even major games like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and the Battlefront saga have had relatively little impact on the Star Wars timeline.
And that’s not to mention the problems that the line of Star Wars films has faced in recent years. Despite the influence of Lucasfilm’s Story Group, few could argue that the sequel trilogy followed a cohesive roadmap. Now, three years after the release of The Rise of Skywalker, Disney doesn’t seem any closer to starting production on a new movie. Instead, it seems like every new movie that’s announced is subsequently canceled (like David Benioff and DB Weiss’s Old Republic movies) or delayed indefinitely (Patty Jenkins’ Rogue Squadron, Rian Johnson’s spin-offs…) .
For all the great Star Wars content we’ve seen in this Disney era (Andor being the latest and arguably the best example), it’s clear that there’s a lot of creative dysfunction and indecision going on behind the scenes. The last thing DC Studios needs is to fall into those same traps.. They can’t afford to go years without new movies hitting theaters. No one wants a new Justice League series marred by the competing creative visions we saw in the Star Wars sequels. And what’s the point of connecting the games to the larger cinematic universe if that’s going to limit what characters can appear and what stories can be told? DC needs a clear vision of its cinematic universe, but it also needs to be a studio willing to step back and let the storytellers tell their stories.
The DC Multiverse vs. the Star Wars Galaxy
Even though DC is moving towards a similar approach to Star Wars in the coming years, has an important weapon in his arsenal that Lucasfilm does not have. They have a multiverse.
As we have already discussed, Lucasfilm focuses on a single Star Wars timeline that unites all the movies, series, books, and games. Star Wars rarely delves into concepts like time travel and alternate universes, so there’s no room for alternate versions of heroes like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. D.C., on the other hand, has always celebrated the fact that there is a multiverse filled with endless variations of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman. Sometimes these different versions even cross over, hence the massive fanservice spectacle that was 2019’s Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover.
The hope is that the multiverse is the secret ingredient that allows DC Studios to channel the success of Star Wars while avoiding the franchise’s persistent mistakes. DC needs a coherent strategy for its cinematic universe. It needs to be able to grow and evolve its characters in a way that hasn’t been possible with the relatively standalone, non-continuous films of the post-Justice League era. But at the same time, there’s no reason for the new DCU to be limited to just one universe and one version of these characters.
There are already indications that the multiverse is part of DC’s overall strategy. For one, Joker: Folie à Deux is still set in its own universe. And while Michael Keaton seems set to replace Ben Affleck as the DCU’s main Batman, there’s an entirely different Dark Knight roaming the world of Matt Reeves’ The Batman. That universe is expanding in several directions in the coming years, including a Penguin series starring Colin Farrell and a sequel to The Batman.
Those two versions of Batman can easily coexist. Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is the veteran who mentors younger heroes like the Flash. Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson’s Batman is there for fans who just want standalone stories about a young Dark Knight and his villains. If DC wants a new Batman game tied to one of its cinematic universes, it probably makes more sense to focus on Pattinson’s brooding detective than the one famous for being unable to turn his head in combat.
That’s the balance DC needs to find going forward.. There is much to be gained by streamlining the DC brand and building iconic versions of these characters that can appear in all media. Keaton’s return to the role of Batman is significant precisely because he plays into the decades-long connection fans have with the character. The same goes for all those cameos in Crisis. It’s not that different from that powerful moment when Han Solo and Chewbacca climb back into the Millennium Falcon in The Force Awakens. When there is a story to be drawn from, and when everything is a piece of a larger tapestry, every story matters.
But at the same time, there’s no reason to arbitrarily stick to one universe and force every writer, filmmaker, and designer to play in that sandbox. There’s nothing to lose by allowing darker, more idiosyncratic movies like Joker and The Batman to coexist with traditional superhero movies set in the core of the DCU. DC has a chance to have their cake and eat it too. You can build a cinematic universe with a scope that rivals Star Wars, while also making room for stories that play out in your own creative niches. All it takes is developing a plan and finally sticking to it. We remain optimistic and believe Gunn is the right man for the job.