There has been growing debate among fans regarding what direction Warner Bros. should take its DC Extended Universe of superhero films. While upcoming movies set in the DCEU like Aquaman and possibly Shazam! have either wrapped or are currently in the process of filming, development continues on non-DECEU continuity films featuring a Joker origin story and a possible Batman tale that would take place outside of the Extended Universe.
Every month seems to bring a new project announcement or a director stepping down, so it can be hard to gauge exactly what Warner Bros.' overall plans are. Fans certainly have their opinions, with a large majority wanting to see their favorite heroes sharing screen time together, similar to the stars of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
However, the best avenue of success for Warner Bros.' superhero films could come from molding how it approaches projects like the Joker film after a recently announced imprint from DC Comics, called DC Black Label. The imprint will feature out-of-continuity stories from an all-star lineup of creators, including Frank Miller, John Romita Jr., the fan-favorite Batman team of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, and Bitch Planet co-creator Kelly Sue DeConnick, who trams with artist Phil Jimenez in her first major work for DC Comics since a three-issue stint on Supergirl in 2011.
“Many of our perennially best-selling, critically acclaimed books were produced when we unleashed our top talent on standalone, often out-of-continuity projects featuring our most iconic characters, a prime example being Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns,” DC Co-Publisher Jim Lee said. “Creating DC Black Label doubles down on our commitment to working with all-star talent and trusting them to tell epic, moving stories that only they can tell with the highest levels of creative freedom.”
DC has found success in launching different and unique imprints with a focus on creators, both historically and in recent years. Examples include the long-running Vertigo lineup, the Hanna-Barbera line of comics, Young Animal (curated by Gerard Way) and Warren Ellis' The Wild Storm, with writer Brian Michael Bendis bringing his Jinxworld imprint to the publisher as well. Of the newer publishing lines, the only one to tie into the greater DC Universe (so far) is The New Age of DC heroes, an imprint that is located somewhat on the fringes of the DCU-proper as it establishes itself with new heroes and titles.
The announcement of DC Black Label shows how gathering an all-star creative team and allowing them to tell out-of-continuity stories can garner excitement from the fanbase, and is an example of the process that the DCEU should adopt. This way, a director like Zack Snyder can still make his Man of Steel while another director can come along and do another Superman film that is totally different -- and they both can coexist equally. The same approach would work for Batman, Wonder Woman and the other stars of the DC Universe.
Nowadays, movie and comic book fans share many of the same traits when it comes to choosing which product to devote their time and money to. They each have their list of favorite creators/directors/producers because of their track record of making a quality product, and follow them from project to project. Kelly Sue DeConnick is widely known for raising Captain Marvel's profile as the writer of her ongoing series from 2012-2015, while also helping to establish the "Carol Corps" legion of Carol Danver fans. Her loyal fanbase then followed her to Image Comics, where she became the co-creator of Pretty Deadly and Bitch Planet, and will more than likely do the same for her Wonder Woman story at DC Black Label.
There has to be a group of directors that have a love for many of the heroes in the DC Universe, but would rather not play in a shared universe sandbox. After Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy of films, wouldn't it be great to see him craft another set of movies with a DC character like Constantine or Green Arrow without having to worry how the film would tie into an ensemble affair like Justice League? Other filmmakers such as Lexi Alexander, Ava DuVernay or Jordan Peele are equivalent to the DeConnicks and Greg Ruckas of the comic world, and may find the type of creative freedom found at DC Black Label liberating on the big screen.
Just because Marvel Studios has found success with a shared superhero universe, doesn't mean Warner Bros. has to follow the same path. Each property and company is different, and that should come with different ideas and techniques for entertaining. Instead of the constant comparisons to its competition, Warner Bros. has the potential to be the pioneer in standalone superhero moviemaking, thereby launching a string of copycats. DC Black Label is mapping out the blueprint in the comics; the DCEU would be wise to pay close attention to the execution.