Further proving that we are living through the biggest week for superhero-movie news since last week and the week before, Warner Bros. just announced one of the most hilariously aggressive franchise-extension plans in movie history. Between now and 2020, WB plans to release a whopping 13 movies based on DC comic book characters–including two Justice League movies, the long-awaited Wonder Woman film, a movie starring the popular LEGO™ Batman character and a movie starring the somewhat less popular AFFLECK™ Batman character.
Now, it’s hard to know where this fits into the glorious history of Superhero Franchise announcements. Is this the second coming of Marvel’s 2008 “Phase One” plan, when they promised Thor and Captain America and even an Avengers movie that absolutely everyone agreed was going to be terrible? Or is this the 2014 model of Sony’s infamous “Brain Trust” plot, when they hired a squad of dynamic young writers to work on Amazing Spider-Man sequels and a Venom spinoff and a Sinister Six movie–plans which appear almost entirely scuttled in the wake of Amazing 2‘s so-so box office?
It’s absolutely okay to view the WB announcement with complete skepticism. The earliest movie in their Cinematic Universe is 18 months away. Every studio needs to pretend they have a blockbuster slate planned out through 2020. Half of these movies might not get made. But let’s assume that the only way to take this announcement is at face value. What needs to happen for these movies to be good? What are the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns that could ruin them?
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
What Could Go Right: It’s the first movie where one super-famous superhero fights another super-famous superhero–thus granting Warner Bros. the increasingly rare privilege of beating Marvel to some kind of punch. Lots of people loved Man of Steel–or anyhow, lots of people purchased tickets to Man of Steel–and the addition of Batman makes BvS: DoJ a must-see even for people who didn’t like Man of Steel. Ben Affleck has never been bigger than he is right now. Superhero sequels are almost always better than their predecessors.
What Could Go Wrong: Lots of people didn’t like Man of Steel. Residual Daredevil animosity may flare up, particularly if Affleck can’t immediately conjure up a Dark Knight that makes people forget about The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. is explicitly selling Batman v Superman as a movie designed to launch several different franchises. When Sony tried that, the result was the disappointing-in-every-way Amazing Spider-Man 2. Marvel’s sudden decision to turn Captain America 3 into Iron Man v Captain America feels like a full frontal assault on the DC universe.
Suicide Squad (2016)
What Could Go Right: David Goyer, writer of Blade II, immediately gives the DC Cinematic Universe a funkier-than-Marvel launchpad with this spinoff about supervillains forced into indentured heroism by the US government. Arriving the same year as Sony’s Sinister Six, it could kick off a whole new wave of superantihero movies.
What Could Go Wrong: David Goyer, director of Blade III, doubles down on the tough-bro aesthetic of Snyder’s Man of Steel, delivering a brutalist “badass” romp at the specific cultural moment when people are turning towards more lighthearted, colorful fare.
IMPORTANT ADDENDUM: As everyone has pointed out, the director of Suicide Squad is David Ayer, not David Goyer. EW regrets this mistake and would like to point out that End of Watch is great, and also that Sabotage is one of the most underrated movies of 2014, and is also basically Suicide Squad with action heroes instead of superheroes. Ipso facto, Suicide Squad will (hopefully) be great.
Wonder Woman (2017)
What Could Go Right: They’re finally making a Wonder Woman movie! Hell, they’re finally making another superhero movie starring a woman! The fact that the movies are apparently adopting the recent version of Wonder Woman’s origin story could imply that the solo film will take material from the Brian Azzarello/Cliff Chiang Wonder Woman run–one of the best story sequences in the character’s history. Gal Gadot stole scenes in Fast Five and had one of the best moments in Furious Six. Maybe they’ll hire a female director (Kathryn Bigelow?) Maybe they’ll turn Wonder Woman into a meditation on the troubled history of female characters in superhero movies.
What Could Go Wrong: It’s still unclear where Wonder Woman fits into Batman v Superman, and it’s possible that she could be a Gambit–by which I mean, she could be Taylor Kitsch in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a spinoff-baiting character who gets a starry introduction, adds nothing to the movie, and immediately kiboshes all hope of a spinoff.
Justice League Part One (2017)
What Could Go Right: It’s Avengers without the endless SHIELD interludes. The fact that Warner Bros. is explicitly pitching this as “Part One” could imply a greater plan for these DC movies–something that goes beyond the current Marvel plan to throw in a glowing cosmic stone every couple of movies. Many of the best versions of the Justice League focus on the idea that the DC characters are more godlike than the human-sized Marvel characters–a hyperbolic grandeur that might weirdly be the perfect tone for Snyder’s super-slow-mo aesthetic.
What Could Go Wrong: It’s Avengers without the wit, the charm, or Tom Hiddleston.
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
What Could Go Right: Bizarrely, this might be the least worrisome DC superhero movie. Batman in The LEGO Movie was essentially a studio-sponsored lacerating spoof of the Dark Knight series–and the film could expand that spoofery to look at our whole superhero-infested moment. By 2017, post-Batfleck, the culture might be even more ready for a lighthearted Batman movie.
What Could Go Wrong: Batman was a scene-stealing character in The LEGO Movie, and the history of spinning off scene-stealing characters into their own movie is not encouraging. (See: Elektra.)
The Flash (2018)
What Could Go Right: Four years into the run of popular CW series The Flash, Warner Bros. releases a bigscreen alternative that honors the source material while putting a distinctive (and more expensive) spin on it. The Flash mythology is weirdly rich with history and cosmic texture–it immediately makes more sense as a movie franchise than, say, Cyborg. Ezra Miller is younger and cooler and less biceppy than any of the superheroes in the Evans/Hemsworth/Jackman contingent.
What Could Go Wrong: Four years into the run of popular CW series The Flash, Warner Bros. releases a Flash movie starring a completely different Flash set in a completely different universe, angering fans of the TV series and confusing everyone else. “Running real fast” as a visual concept may have been perfected in the Quicksilver scene of Days of Future Past.
Untitled Batfleck Project (201X)
What Could Go Right: Warner Bros. continues the grand tradition of hiring bold young auteurs to helm their Batman movies, finding the Tim Burton/Christopher Nolan of the 2010s and giving them the Gotham toyset. Ben Affleck ages gracefully over the next few years, and gets to play a much older-wiser Batman. Because the film is explicitly set in a universe with superheroes, the new Batman movie embraces spectacular anti-Nolanist fantasy, reintroducing the Dark Knight’s more outlandish villains into the repertory. Someone does something interesting with the Riddler.
What Could Go Wrong: Batman fatigue evolves from a bloggy thinkpiece concept into an actual thing.
What Could Go Right: Everyone finally stops making Aquaman jokes after Warner Bros. delivers an epic take on the character, embracing the elaborate Game of Thrones Under the Sea history of the character. Further advancements in digital effects produce the most gorgeous underwater battle sequences since Avatar 2, a movie that will have been out for two years by this point. Aquaman is so awesome, you guys.
What Could Go Wrong: Jason Momoa brings his Conan game, not his Khal Drogo game.
Untitled Man of Steel Sequel (201x)
What Could Go Right: After an origin story, a Batman-starring spinoff, and a superteam ensemble movie, Henry Cavill finally gets to star in an actual honest-to-god Superman movie. The character’s decades-long history includes a whole host of villains and notions that have only barely been explored on the big screen.
What Could Go Wrong: Unclear to what extent anyone involved in the first Man of Steel actually cared about the character’s comic book history. Possibility of further investigations into Kryptonian technology could mean another weird science-fiction movie about people in exoskeletons fighting over a codex.
What Could Go Right: The movie is designed with purposeful distance from the other DC movies, allowing the filmmakers to put a distinctive spin on this very unusual hero. The possibility of a superpowered Big is encouraging, assuming Hollywood doesn’t reboot Big as a franchise in the next couple years. Casting Dwayne Johnson as the bad guy immediately gives Shazam an exciting antagonist. This could be the Guardians of the DC franchise: Goofy, eccentric.
What Could Go Wrong: Or it could be a cheap knockoff superhero movie, starring a character who kinda looks like Superman if you squint.
Justice League Part Two (2019)
What Could Go Right: Just in time for people to start getting disappointed by Marvel movies, DC unveils Part Two, the climax to half a decade of stories leading up to the Justice League’s cosmic showdown with, let’s say, Darkseid.
What Could Go Wrong: Right as Marvel’s decision to diversify their catalogue results in rave responses to Doctor Strange and Black Panther and Inhumans, DC releases a film starring only the stodgiest superheroes–thus transforming, over the course of five years, from the latecomer to Marvel’s party to the last person dancing at a party everyone else already left.
What Could Go Right: As of now, it’s the first time someone who isn’t another white person has headlined their own superhero tentpole blockbuster. Like a lot of lesser-known superheroes, Cyborg’s central story arc is actually more coherent than more popular superheroes–which could make for a much better film.
What Could Go Wrong: “Cyborg?” is the question that most people are asking themselves today. The character has at least three movies to pop, but there is the possibility that he could be the Hawkeye of Justice League. What do you think, Renner?
Green Lantern (2020)
What Could Go Right: Warner Bros. races away from any memories of 2011’s Green Lantern movie, casting Idris Elba as the John Stewart version of Green Lantern. Assuming our culture continues its fascination with space movies, GL is the superhero movie specifically designed to scratch the post-Gravity/Interstellar/Guardians/Star Wars itch.
What Could Go Wrong: It’s a movie called Green Lantern.
What DC movies are you excited about? What makes you skeptical? Email me your opinions at email@example.com, and I’ll respond in next week’s Entertainment Geekly Mailbag.