With two more movies to add to the cancelled pile, we take a look at the graveyard of projects in the DCEU.
Spoilers for Zack Snyder’s Justice League, Green Lantern and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
As the legend goes, it all began with a round of golf. Flash back to 1961 and Timely Comics, the company that would one day become Marvel, was struggling to surf the new wave of superhero tales. It was a wave that would one day be regarded as the Silver Age, the greatest era of super-powered comic book storytelling.
Timely’s rival, a company named DC Comics however, was having no such problems. As the market leader, not only did it possess the world’s most recognisable superhero characters in the form of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Aquaman, but it’d also figured how to alchemise those properties into one monster supergroup, bigger even than The Beatles (who were still slumming it in Hamburg at that point). The book was called Justice League, and its meteoric success even surprised its publishers.
But back to that round of golf.
As the story goes, Timely’s founder, one Martin Goodman, played a few holes with the head of DC Comics, Jack Liebowitz, with the latter bragging to Goodman about the success DC was enjoying with the team-up concept of Justice League. When Goodman returned to the Timely offices, he instructed his wife’s cousin and editorial assistant, one Stan Lee, to form a rival superhero team.
Lee, who saw little interest in simply combining Timely’s biggest heroes (Captain America, Sub-Mariner, The Human Torch) instead (along with the legendary Jack Kirby,) created a family who doubled as a superhero outfit. They were named The Fantastic Four and their exploits, their squabbles and their problems became the blueprint for a new breed of superhero. Far from the mythic remoteness of DC’s ubermensch, Lee had discovered the core of what would ultimately become Marvel Comics: superheroes who felt real, who suffered and succeeded with a warmth and humanity that their growing readership recognised within themselves.
This entire story and so much more can be found in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, a fantastic book by Sean Howe that’s ripe for a 1960s Mad Men-style TV series. But what can we learn from this remarkable moment in comic book history, when DC seemingly held all of the cards, and yet somehow allowed a smaller company with lesser characters to become its equal?
Perhaps the lesson is that history is doomed to repeat itself. Flash-forward a little less than a half century and both companies were in a similar position. Marvel, having sold off the rights to its most recognisable characters to stave off bankruptcy in the 90s, was looking to launch a cinematic universe, but without any of their top-tier characters such as Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four or the hugely-popular X-Men. DC meanwhile, had access to all of its iconic heroes and what’s more, had already enjoyed far more cinematic success with them in the intervening decades.
So what happened?
Despite possessing all of the advantages, (including the corporate backing of a powerhouse studio like Warner Bros,) plus the benefit of hindsight with regards to the story above, how was DC unable to leverage its stronger cards into a winning hand? The success of Marvel Studios has more than a little to do with it, but that’s been covered heavily elsewhere. Yet with news breaking last week that another two highly-anticipated, long-in-the-works DC projects have been cancelled, once again throwing the company’s seeming lack of direction into sharp relief, let’s look instead at the cancelled projects of the DC Films era, focusing on how each one missed the opportunity to build the DC Extended Universe into a credible rival to the stellar success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Perhaps the most abortive character of the entire DCEU stable, the character of Green Lantern is still yet to make a noteworthy entrance into DC’s film canon, eight long years since its birth.
But this was not the plan. 2011’s Green Lantern film, featuring Ryan Reynolds, was earmarked to be the first entry into DC’s cinematic universe. With Man Of Steel set to follow in 2013, DC would have introduced multiple characters from an interconnected universe only two years behind Marvel Studios (who had debuted Thor and Captain America in 2011, joining Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and thus creating its own ‘shared universe.’)
Instead, it would take until 2015’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice for DC Films to release a second interconnected film, placing it further behind its rivals and presumably leading to the ill-fated decision to rewrite an already bloated Batman V Superman as a backdoor prequel for a planned Justice League film.
All of this was spawned by the limp critical and commercial response to Green Lantern, although had things gone to plan, that film’s mid-credit stinger – featuring the corruption of Sinestro – indicated who the planned sequel’s antagonist would be. Although it may have hastily been retconned out of the DCEU, at least 2011’s Green Lantern actually made it into being though, unlike the other DCEU project featuring the Emerald Knight, which has failed as yet to even make it into production.
Green Lantern Corps, a long-gestating DCEU film first announced back in 2014, was originally set for release way back in 2020. Although the project hasn’t been officially cancelled as yet, it’s been three years since we heard any updates on the project.
Green Lantern Corps is supposed to feature the characters of Hal Jordan and John Stewart but with the announcement of a Green Lantern TV show coming to HBO Max courtesy of Berlanti Productions, you have to wonder if Corps might be stuck permanently in development hell. The Green Lanterns set to feature in the small-screen version are reportedly Guy Gardner, Jessica Cruz and Alan Scott, meaning the ‘big two’ Lanterns, Jordan and Stewart, are still free in theory to make a film appearance.
There’s more woe in the abortive tale of the Green Lantern’s failure to make it to cinema screens too.
Whilst the theatrical cut of Justice League featured a brief appearance by Yalan Gur, and Snyder’s four-hour cut added a very brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from Kilowog, Snyder’s original plan for Justice League was reportedly far more focused on the Green Gladiator. According to Synder himself, the scene where the Martian Manhunter reveals himself to Batman at the film’s end, was supposed to be the first cinematic appearance of Green Lantern, John Stewart.
Furthermore, in Justice League’s planned third instalment, the character of Hal Jordan would have appeared to help the characters overcome the ‘Knightmare’ future shown in the Snyder Cut’s extended epilogue. Snyder reportedly wanted Ryan Reynolds to reprise his turn as Hal Jordan, although whether this would have retroactively retconned 2011’s Green Lantern back into DCEU continuity after being retconned out of continuity, (confused yet?) is unknown.
Let’s talk a little more about those cancelled Justice League films, because much like The Avengers – their direct counterpart in the MCU – the details we know about them offer the clearest view to what the DCEU would have looked like if Warner Bros hadn’t elected to move in a different direction following the disappointing critical response to Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The Knightmare sequences in Dawn Of Justice and the Snyder cut of Justice League give us the clearest look at what the follow-ups would have looked like, as Darkseid is able to use the anti-life equation to corrupt Superman. The Man of Steel would have certainly made for an imposing antagonist, much like the Injustice: Gods Among Us video games and comics, with (as with Injustice) the death of Lois Lane sparking his tyrannical reign.
However, by this point Warner Bros was beginning to cool on Snyder’s vision for the DCEU. Mixed reception to the films he’d already released, plus concern regarding his handling of certain characters was causing a level of creative friction that would culminate in Snyder leaving his role as the architect of the DCEU.
A couple of cases in point: Warner Bros’ refusal to allow the introduction of Green Lantern at the end of Justice League was presumably one of the many ‘battles’ Snyder referenced when he chose to walk away. Likewise for his intention to write a plot line that included Bruce Wayne and Lois Lane having a brief love affair, something the studio nixed as its confidence in Snyder waned.
Whilst there’s no doubt that Snyder is a gifted director, his storytelling instincts have come in over time for criticism. Happily, this is less of a problem in films like Watchmen where the story already exists via its original graphic novel, or in Zack Snyder’s Justice League where the filmmaker was given four hours to tell his tale. However, in a studio-mandated blockbuster where carte blanche is not applicable, Snyder has sometimes struggled. That, and it seems evident that the studio eventually began to lose faith in Snyder’s overarching vision for their cinematic universe.
The whole story is covered quite brilliantly, and in significantly more detail, in this Vanity Fair piece, should you be interested.
Although we’re finally getting a film called The Batman next year, it bears little resemblance to the original cancelled version of the project that was set to feature the in-universe incarnation of the Dark Knight – Ben Affleck – as Gotham’s cape and cowl-clad defender.
The original version of The Batman wasn’t part of Warner Bros’ original nine film slate back in 2014, following the 2013 DCEU launch of Man Of Steel. Instead, the film was announced in the wake of 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice.
Whilst divisive, Affleck’s portrayal of the the character resonated strongly at least with legions of loyal comic book fans, in part due to its faithful recreation of a older, grizzled, ultra-violent Batman straight out of the pages of the beloved graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns.
As studios know all too well, rabid fanbases such as these are the easiest to mobilise and can greatly increase a film’s chances of success. As such, a Batman solo film was quickly announced and would be set up in the closing moments of 2017’s theatrical version of Justice League.
Deathstroke, played by Joe Manganiello, who appears in a sequence alongside Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, is summoned to the yacht of Lex Luthor, with the newly-escaped nemesis of Superman scheming to destroy Batman following the Dark Knight’s role in foiling Luthor’s megalomaniacal plans.
Utilising this simple setup, the film, which was supposed to be co-written and directed by Affleck as well as featuring him as the star, would have seen Deathstroke – now in possession of the Dark Knight’s true identity of Bruce Wayne – systematically destroying the billionaire’s life in a warped quest for revenge.
It seems that Affleck was never fully happy with the script, co-written with Geoff Johns, and the actor eventually pulled the plug following the dismal response to 2017’s Justice League. In the years since though, Joe Manganiello has spoken about what the film would have looked like, offering some details as to what we could have expected.
“In the Batman script, Deathstroke loses his son and blamed Batman for it… I really, really didn’t want Deathstroke to have powers. I wanted him to be just a man who experienced a tragedy, and instead of becoming this altruistic utopian who believed that people could be better, and a better society, he was just this nihilistic killer, and there was a line in the sand between the tactics that he was willing to use and the ones that Bruce was willing to use”, he explained.
Manganiello also said that the film would have, in some form, revealed that both characters trained in the League of Assassins, but took very different paths.
Other details have surfaced in the intervening years too, including the film’s cinematographer, Robert Richardson, stating that the film was set to heavily feature Arkham Asylum. “He was going more into the insanity aspects, so I think you would’ve seen something a little darker than what we’ve seen in the past, and more into the individual, who’s inside Batman… He was entering into a little more of the Arkham, he’s going into where you keep everyone who’s bad, and everyone has shifted”, Richardson said.
Despite the promising nature of the story, Affleck ultimately passed on the project and once Matt Reeves took the hot seat, the film rapidly became something else, especially when it became apparent that Affleck was growing increasingly reluctant to portray the character again.
Once again though, it’s easy to see how behind the scenes just how reactive so much of the decision-making behind The Batman was. Rather than being conceived as a planned part of the DCEU, this was seemingly a project that was developed partly in response to fan feedback and then indirectly cancelled due to negative fan feedback. In comparison to the clearly-laid foundations of the MCU, it’s an approach that has characterised the chaotic style of the DCEU’s haphazard direction.
Deathstroke solo film
Ben Affleck hanging up the cape and the cowl (although rumours persist that he’ll return in FlashPoint, the solo Flash movie) had something of a knock-on effect too, ultimately meaning that an announced Deathstroke solo film would wither on the vine.
Planned to be directed by The Raid’s Gareth Evans and set to explore the character’s origins, the film lost priority with Warner Bros top brass as Affleck pondered quitting the role of Batman and executives began to question Zack Snyder’s stewardship of the DCEU.
The project was described by Evans as such: “the plan was, I wanted to tell something that would be a lean story, that would be kind of an origin of that character. Something that felt like it could be 100 minutes or 110 minutes long, max – not to go over the two hour period with it. Back then, I was massively influenced by the noir films coming out of South Korea, so that was my pitch. I was like, these films are amazing: the texture, and the tones of colours, the grit and the aggression of them is super interesting to use to tell Deathstroke‘s story.”
Unfortunately, Deathstroke’s visibility as a character relied largely on the aforementioned appearance in The Batman to introduce and establish the character as an antagonist worthy of a solo film. After all, 2016’s Suicide Squad had failed to impress despite featuring a hatful of bad guys and at that point, Jared Leto was struggling to get a solo movie into production with a character as renowned as the Joker.
When The Batman collapsed, so did the Deathstroke solo film.
Gotham City Sirens/Joker & Harley Quinn
Two other planned projects that were quietly shelved following tepid responses to key aspects of their ‘seed’ films were Gotham City Sirens and a Joker & Harley Quinn film.
Whilst the character of Harley Quinn, played by Margot Robbie, was one of the few bright spots to emerge from 2016’s Suicide Squad, her popularity wasn’t enough to force the two films – which were both set to feature Quinn – into production.
Gotham City Sirens, whilst not officially cancelled, suffered perhaps from its association with Suicide Squad, as Sirens was set to be director David Ayer’s follow-up to the critically-lamented 2016 film.
Meanwhile, the Joker & Harley Quinn film never happened because of the fan backlash to Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime in Suicide Squad. Robbie would instead go on to reprise her role as Quinn in 2020’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).
Cyborg solo film
If Zack Snyder’s Justice League cut made one thing apparent, it was that Ray Fisher’s Cyborg was always intended to have a much more fleshed-out character arc in Justice League. That was then supposed to translate into a full solo movie, three years after Justice League debuted and one year after the planned team-up sequel.
However, as with most of the films on this list, things did not go to plan.
Snyder himself has accepted some of the responsibility for a solo film featuring Cyborg not getting off the ground, stating “I’m very sad that I didn’t push harder to set up the Cyborg movie before we shot Justice League because I’d done a lot of work to set up Wonder Woman and Aquaman and to get those movies on their feet. And I really wish I had done that with Cyborg because he’s really on his feet at the end of the movie. He’s really ready to go. And I just thought, well, the truth is I just assumed that it was a no brainer that a Cyborg movie would be in the works. You know what I mean? It seems like so obvious.”
Matters were further complicated by the poor performance of Justice League and the high-profile fallout between star Ray Fisher and Warner Bros. Fisher would accuse Justice League’s replacement director Joss Whedon and several other key players at DC Films of ‘gross and abusive conduct’ whilst on the set of the 2017 film, following Zack Snyder’s departure.
The row would eventually intensify to the point where Fisher would vow never to work with Walter Hamada, the president of DC Films, again, effectively removing himself from contention for a Cyborg solo film or any further appearances in the DCEU. This would ultimately be confirmed with the character being written out of the upcoming Flash solo film, FlashPoint.
Again, whilst the MCU has seen its fair share of ‘creative differences’ over the years, disagreements of such a public nature are rare. Natalie Portman for example was reported to be particularly incensed when Marvel and Portman’s choice for the director’s chair, Patty Jenkins, parted ways ahead of 2011’s Thor: The Dark World. Even so, the disagreements remained private and although Portman left the MCU for a few years, a reconciliation is in the works with the actor starring in the upcoming Thor: Love And Thunder.
If DC Films had managed to handle its business internally, a Cyborg film may have ultimately happened, or if not, it may at least have saved itself some serious public embarrassment.
The Trench & New Gods
And so we move onto the two most recent cancelled DCEU films, The Trench and New Gods.
Despite having two highly-respected filmmakers behind them in the forms of James Wan and Ava DuVernay respectively, both projects have failed to materialise, despite being in development for years. The obvious reason here seems to be that (yet again) the DCEU is moving in a different direction. With the recent announcement that the ‘Snyder-verse’ is officially dead and that Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League will remain non-canon, it seems that DC Films may simply not be sure how to accommodate these planned films – both spinning off from Snyder’s universe – into its plans moving forwards.
There’s also the notion that both films are based on relatively obscure properties. Considering DC Film’s biggest successes to date have been with Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Joker – films based on members of the Justice League or the highest profile villain in their stable of characters – a punt on lesser-known characters may suddenly seem like resources better spent elsewhere. This is especially true when you consider that DC Films seems to be pointing its smaller properties in the direction of TV, such as The Suicide Squad spin-off, Peacemaker.
Warner Bros CEO Ann Sarnoff has confirmed that moving forwards, the DCEU will not be as tightly uniform as the MCU, with less crossover expected between films (although we’d still expect the planned FlashPoint film to buck that trend).
Whatever happens, it looks like the days of Zack Snyder or any creative impresario unifying the DCEU with an overarching creative vision, are gone, at least until the next U-turn. Sarnoff has said as much, stating “we want different voices in the mix. For certain fans that want singular voices, they may be disappointed, but we would ask them to be patient and see what we’ve got in store because perhaps the newer voices in the mix will have just as compelling stories to tell.”
It’s certainly an approach that runs counter to the success that Marvel Studios has enjoyed under Kevin Feige, but maybe this will be the different way forward that the DCEU needs to mark out a unique territory of its own in the hearts and minds of cinema-goers.
And hey, if it fails, somebody at DC Films could always try and get themselves an invitation to a round of golf with Kevin Feige. One slip of the tongue might even up the score there…
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