Lessons James Gunn's DC Studios Can Learn From the Arrowverse
Just as Peter Safran and James Gunn begin to build their new DC Universe across TV, film, animation, and video games, Warner Bros. and DC are retiring the Arrowverse. An interconnected web of shows that aired (mostly) on The CW, the Arrowverse is the colloquial term for a multiverse of series executive produced by Greg Berlanti, Sarah Schechter, and a variety of showrunners. It features hundreds of hours of content over a half dozen shows, eclipsing even the Marvel Cinematic Universe for total overall screen time, and it managed the most ambitious superhero crossover in TV history with Crisis on Infinite Earths in 2019 and 2020.
The Arrowverse has been slowly crumbling since Crisis, with Arrow ending just weeks later, followed by a cancellation for Black Lightning and a failed Green Arrow and the Canaries pilot. Supergirl ended next, followed by Batwoman and DC's Legends of Tomorrow, leaving just The Flash on the air -- a series that will end in 2023.
There are a lot of answers for what worked about the Arrowverse, and while there are legitimate criticisms to be made of the series, many DC fans would argue that the world created by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and company is as close as we have ever come to a live-action representation of the DC Universe seen in the pages of the comics. From crossover events and Easter eggs to tone and lore, the Arrowverse capitalized on a lot of what makes DC's comics multiverse exciting on the page.
With a new DC Universe on the horizon and the Arrowverse coming to a close, it's worth asking: what made the Arrowverse work, that could also be applied to the new universe as it's being built?
Reinvention Is Not Toxic
The root of many of Zack Snyder's problems with critics and fans, was the fact that Man of Steel didn't feel like all the previous Superman movies. But it also set his movies apart in a way that will make them endure.
The Arrowverse did this too. Green Arrow in Arrow was often nothing like the Green Arrow of the comics. He ended up with Felicity Smoak instead of Dinah Lance because the actors had better chemistry. The Flash had a complicated family dynamic that also contributed to a season 1 obstacle to his relationship with Iris. The Reverse-Flash turned out to secretly be Barry's hero. And Legends is full of characters who are either radical reinventions of existing characters, or entirely new things.
And virtually all of these choices paid off creatively. There's no need to clone the comics 1:1. In fact, often when you just fill your movie with a bunch of seemingly random fan service, it doesn't really pay off and feels like none of it mattered. Just ask all the familiar Marvel names that popped up as generic Extremis soldiers in Iron Man 3.prevnext
Casting is Key
This one is kind of a no-brainer for any filmmaker, and Gunn has proven that he has a handle on it in the past, but it's certainly worth driving home.
The Arrowverse would not have worked nearly as well, if it wasn't for the remarkable casting by David Rappaport and his company. Stephen Amell, Grant Gustin, Melissa Benoist, and Cress Williams were pitch-perfect choices for the solo series leads. The Legends was a super-team of also-rans...made up of some of the most talented actors on TV. Even supporting characters like Lyla Michaels (Audrey Marie Anderson) and The Monitor (LaMonica Garrett) killed it every time.
Particularly with superheroes, who are often larger than life and sometimes don't get a lot of character development outside of the tights, it's important to get the right person to put those tights on.prevnext
Comics Are Weird.
Comics are weird. Lean into it.
The DC films of the last decade have often flirted with the wildly creative ideas at the heart of DC's comics, but blinked at the last minute and did something different.
A post-credits scene featuring Mr. Mind, one of the weirdest and coolest villains in Shazam's rogues gallery, turned out to be nothing. The New Gods didn't get to build their mythology beyond two or three heavy hitters, who were treated basically like any other powerful alien invader. And it took a three-year wait for a director's cut to see The Flash interacting with the Speed Force and using his powers in cool, creative ways instead of just zooming around real quick.
These all feel like decisions that were made in order to keep the DC brand as safe as possible, but none of them paid off. Being "safe" often means feeling generic, and one of the things that we have seen in the post-Guardians of the Galaxy Marvel Universe is that the weirder the project, the bigger the payoff can be in a lot of cases.
Even looking the other way: one of Marvel's biggest failures was Eternals -- a movie with a great director, a terrific cast...and absolutely none of the color, fun, or wild energy of Jack Kirby's comics.prevnext
Diversity is a Good Thing
Diversity is a good word. And we aren't just talking about having a Latino Blue Beetle.
Diversity of content is important, preventing DC from feeling too stale and same-y. Diversity both in front of and behind the cameras is equally important in order to tell stories from a wide variety of viewpoints.
The Arrowverse did this well, providing platforms for a wide variety of characters, played by a diverse group of creatives and generally written by writers rooms that were as diverse as you get in Hollywood (which is...not very, but still). It allowed for those unique voices we talked about before to shine through, and it gave the Arrowverse a number of firsts, expanding representation for groups who had never seen themselves depicted (particularly in a positive light) in superhero media before.
DC can't win if it's viewed as being stodgy old white guys still clinging to the formula established by Richard Donner and Tim Burton.prevnext
Don't Ignore the Multiverse
But don't get too hung up on it, either.
While Marvel's forays into the multiverse so far have yielded a lot of misery for the characters, and not much else, DC's multiverse has long been a key part of their storytelling.
With The Flash opening the doors to the multiverse onscreen (just the character did in comics and on TV), it's plausible that DC already has a multiverse plan in mind. After all, Gunn said that they are developing Elseworlds projects!
But it seems less and less likely that the fallout from The Flash will play into the wider DC Universe at this point. Will Supergirl hang around if Superman is aged down significantly? Why would they keep Michael Keaton but cancel development on Batman Beyond?
While those are sad losses, it doesn't have to spell the end for DC's multiverse. Why not wait a few years and then introduce an Earth-2 where Batman and Superman are Affleck and Cavill, former members of the Justice Society and battlers of Black Adam? It could work.prevnext
Honor What Came Before
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had a decade-long winning streak, DC has something else: decades of history on the big and small screens.
The Arrowverse capitalized on this beautifully, featuring everyone from Burt Ward and Amanda Pays to Dean Cain and Helen Slater in episodes. In some cases, they even gave actors like Smallville's Erica Durance and The Flash's John Wesley Shipp key roles in the series that succeeded theirs.
This is more than just simple fanservice; it created a sense of community and it allowed fans to quickly and easily fall in love with characters who were destined not to have a ton of screen time. Even before and outside of the Arrowverse, DC has traditionally been good with this, giving people like Mark McClure, Adam West, and Christopher Reeve roles in later iterations of the DC Universe. So this maybe isn't exclusively an Arrowverse thing...but there will be other items on this list that are important outside of just the Arrowverse too. That doesn't change that the Arrowverse did it well -- arguably better than anybody in the comics-to-screen space.prevnext
Allow Distinct Creative Voices
There was something of a house style for the Arrowverse (mostly due to budgetary constraints), but each show had a distinct voice and tone. You would be hard-pressed to turn on an episode of Supergirl and mistake it for Arrow, even if both characters were appearing onscreen together.
This is a key to the success of the Arrowverse. When The Flash first dropped, its bright color palette and cheerful lead characters were so wildly different from the dark and brooding Arrow that fans of both shows didn't feel like they were just watching the same thing for two hours a week. And people who didn't care for one or the other, could still have a DC show they loved.
This is backed up by the fact that the most distinctive creative voices in the Arrowverse often had some of the best reviewed and most passionately-loved shows. Three different seasons of DC's Legends of Tomorrow clocked in at 98% or better on Rotten Tomatoes, and that show went completely off the rails...just as those review scores skyrocketed.prev