Ever since Justice League crashed and burned at the box office, fans have been wondering what Warner Bros.' plan was to move forward with the DC Films division. Stand-alone movies like Joker and The Batman have been big box office draws, and James Gunn's Peacemaker became a huge hit for HBO Max, but the lack of a coherent vision for the brand has been baffling and sometimes kind of shocking. Now, with two movies coming within just months of each other, it seems like Warner Bros. and DC have an opportunity to rebrand in a dramatic way -- with one of the biggest movie stars in the world along for the ride.
Last night's news that Batgirl will not receive a release in theaters or on HBO Max was a shock to fans, and the latest sign that DC appears to be a brand in crisis. Coming a day after news that The Flash would end its nine-season run, which in turn closes the book on the fan-favorite Arrowverse, the Batgirl cancellation makes it seem like Black Adam, Shazam!: Fury of the Gods, and Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom likely need to do huge numbers in order to keep DC's head above water.
During our interview with him at Comic Con International in San Diego, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson seemed confident that they would -- but more than that, he sounded like a man with a much bigger plan and a more "widescreen" look at the DC film universe's future.
"How can we create a movie that hopefully can create a shift, and change in the DC Universe?" Johnson asked ComicBook's Brandon Davis. "Yes, I've been saying in the hierarchy of power, but just where you can feel a shift in, 'Oh, this is a new era in the DC universe -- of tone, and sensibility, and violence, and walking that fine line between 'is he a bad guy? Is he a good guy? Do you understand? Do you agree? Do you empathize?'"
That had us wondering at the time whether Johnson and director Jaume Collet-Serra might have a little more insight -- and possibly a little more creative control -- than previously assumed when it came to shaping that "shift."
That's not new: Warner Bros. and DC have been playing catch-up to Marvel Studios for years, and once their comics rival was bought up by Disney, the scale and frequency of Marvel's projects only got bigger. Much of the credit for Marvel's success has been attributed to executive producer Kevin Feige, who runs Marvel Studios and has always had a holistic approach to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Feige seems to have all the puzzle pieces figured out before he starts putting them on the table, and Warner Bros. has never quite cracked that code.
Following the massive commercial success of The Dark Knight, DC tapped Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer to figure out a path forward for their whole superhero universe. That turned into the Goyer-written Man of Steel, directed by Zack Snyder, whose 300 was a visually dynamic comic book adaptation that turned a huge profit for Warners in 2007. Nolan wasn't really interested in doing more superheroes after The Dark Knight Rises, so the role of "showrunner" for DC's movies went to Snyder.
After the disappointing performance of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (it only made like $900 million, guys, come on!), executives inside of Warner Bros. seemingly micromanaged Snyder's Justice League to a spectacular degree. The filmmaker, who had suffered a death in the family during production, elected to walk away from the movie rather than continue to fight with executives who were hell-bent on putting out a very different movie than Snyder had pictured.
Back in 2017, it seemed like Warner's hope was that Joss Whedon's reworked Justice League would be a big hit, everyone would embrace Whedon, and he could be the "new" Zack Snyder, leading years of DC movies. Instead, Justice League was a disaster, and Whedon's on-set behavior made him a pariah in Hollywood, leading to what now appears to be a long-overdue reckoning. But without Whedon, who would step in to help shape DC's future?
The question, as it turns out...never quite got answered. James Gunn's The Suicide Squad was a critical favorite, and its Peacemaker spinoff connected with audiences in a big way, but it lost money at the box office. Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman 1984 wasn't exactly a winner with anybody, and even if it was, she remains so in-demand that the idea of her working for DC full time never seemed like a realistic possibility. And do you really need one person to take point on your shared universe? Maybe, maybe not -- but the fact that DC has continually underperformed relative to Marvel obviously irks Warner Bros. -- and Marvel has a very public figurehead in the form of Kevin Feige.
So -- could Dwayne Johnson be that guy? He's been a huge success at everything he has ever tried, from wrestling to acting to producing. With a sitcom under his belt and numerous franchises in his quiver, it's clear audiences can't get enough of the guy -- and the way he talks about Black Adam seems to suggest he has a real passion for the character, and for the DC Universe at large. It would be a big gamble to put someone best known for acting in any kind of managerial role over one of the biggest franchises in the world...but right about now, Warner Bros. may be thinking it's the safest gamble they've got.