The DC Extended Universe—the film series colloquially known as the DCEU, featuring superhero characters from DC Comics, including Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman—spent its tenth anniversary year releasing a record four features in a 12-month span, culminating just before Christmas with the debut of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, a direct sequel to their biggest-ever hit. During that same 12 months, audiences largely rejected all four movies, executives turned their attention to a full reboot commencing in 2025, and DC’s parent company Warner Bros. Discovery shunted most of its DCEU catalog titles off the Max streaming service and temporarily licensed them to Netflix. Congratulations, everyone! Go home and wait for James Gunn’s Superman: Legacy!

This will strike many as the perfect ending to the DCEU, long regarded as the gang that couldn’t punch straight compared to their rivals over at Marvel, which until recently maintained a near-perfect record of critically appreciated (or at least tolerated) commercial hits. Yet before the pandemic, the DCEU’s own track record wasn’t especially shabby, at least in terms of producing big box-office numbers. Yes, Justice League did about half the business it was supposed to, and at least a couple other big titles became instant punchlines. But 2018’s Aquaman—a standalone undersea fantasy about a burly fish-man, to be clear—made a billion dollars worldwide. Wonder Woman was a beloved smash, the biggest domestic grosser of its year. Hell, Suicide Squad may not be anyone’s favorite antihero romp recut by a trailer company, but its grosses landed right between Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: Homecoming. This is a film series that ran for a full decade and produced 15 features. Until this year, most of them were hits, or good movies, and sometimes both. By most non-Marvel standards, this should constitute a success.

So what went wrong? Was it Warner’s early decision to cede so much control to Zack Snyder (300), who set up an anguished version of Superman in Man of Steel and then pitted him against a particularly aggro incarnation of the Caped Crusader in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice? Or was it their panicked subsequent decision to wrest back that control after Batman v. Superman failed to become an Avengers-level touchstone, resulting in a “lighter,” Joss Whedon-rewritten Justice League movie at war with itself? Was it any or all of the scattered decisions that followed, as DC movies avoided the clean progression of the various Marvel sub-series that seemed to form mini-trilogies and all-star team-ups like magic? Did the existence of wholly unrelated, auteur-y DC projects like Todd Phillips’ Joker and Matt Reeves’ The Batman—movies that take place in entirely different universes from both the main-line DCEU projects and each other—undermine the more interconnected projects?

Yes and no, on all counts. It’s impossible to fully extricate the went-wrongs from the went-rights in DC’s last decade of movies—because the whole series, as it turns out, is a tribute to the messy impossibility of building a better superhero movie.

The oft-remarked difference between the DCEU movies and their Marvel equivalents is that Marvel movies tend to be about characters wrestling with the question of how best to use their amazing abilities to help people, while DC’s heroes are more concerned with whether or not to bother with superpowered heroism at all. That’s most pronounced in the early, Snyder-driven movies, which—in true Snyder fashion—play like deconstructions of what hasn’t actually been constructed yet. In Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) agonizes over whether to reveal himself to the world, with his father urging him to keep his powers a secret for his own safety; in Batman v. Superman, Batman (Ben Affleck) agonizes over whether his campaign against disorder has been successful, and takes out his frustrations on criminals and also Superman, who he attempts to murder. (In retrospect, Affleck as a rich guy attempting to modulate his self-disgust is pretty killer casting.)

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