DC Comics’ Biggest Box Office Hits Have Wildly Changed Things

Following the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), DC Comics launched its own interconnected franchise in the mid-2010s. The DC Extended Universe (DCEU), however, hasn’t seen nearly the consistent success of the competition. Controversies like the recent cancellation of Batgirl have stood in the way. And even the biggest DC Comics movies tell a different story than the one Warner Bros. has been seemingly building toward with the DCEU.

‘Joker’ was the wild card that changed everything for DC 

Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Joker’ (Courtesy Warner Bros.)

Although most of the DCEU movies have become hits, only one release has managed to cross the $1 billion benchmark that studios covet for their global blockbusters: 2018’s Aquaman. Movies starring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and the rest of the Justice League all fell short of James Wan’s underwater adventure. But the very next year changed things forever.

In 2019, Warner Bros. released Joker, an ultraviolent, R-rated psychological thriller based on the DC Comics super-villain and wholly disconnected from the DCEU. The film earned two Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. And most importantly, it earned nearly as much as Aquaman on a budget roughly one-quarter as much.

‘The Batman’ cemented the lack of a shared DC movie universe

With the success of Joker, Warner Bros. saw that perhaps building up the DCEU isn’t necessarily the top priority. And so, The Batman – which was once earmarked to be Ben Affleck’s solo movie – became something entirely different. Co-writer/director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) reworked the project for Robert Pattinson’s Batman debut.

And even during the COVID-19 pandemic, The Batman – buoyed by positive reviews – became a runaway blockbuster. While pandemic-era movies Birds of Prey and Wonder Woman 1984 underperformed, The Batman made more money than Shazam!, Justice League, and Suicide Squad. Altogether, The Batman earned $771 million worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo.  

‘Black Adam’ could split the difference in a surprising way

In recent years, movies like Joker and The Batman demonstrate that Warner Bros.’ biggest DC Comics success stories often come when the studio isn’t worried about a shared universe. In fact, even the films within the DCEU that have resonated with audiences the most (Aquaman, Wonder Woman) do so mostly on their own terms with little reference to the larger story. This leaves the future of DC – particularly under the new ownership of Warner Bros. Discovery – very much uncertain. 

On the one hand, several upcoming DC movies are very much tied to what’s come before. But then there’s Black Adam. The Dwayne Johnson movie could either cement the DCEU’s place in the canon or push Warner Bros. to truly start fresh. At this moment, that film looks to be another standalone adventure. But will it lead to an embrace of the larger DCEU or be the final nail in its coffin? The cancellation of Batgirl seems to indicate the latter is closer than fans might think.

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