How to make a DC universe movie franchise

Marvel has always been my favorite of the two major comic book producers, and I think part of the reason for it’s success at the theaters has been related to why I liked them best – their characters and stories had more gray areas than DC’s “lawful good” pantheon – post Frank Miller Batman not withstanding.  But DC does have a good slate of heroes to create a franchise around, if you  prune around their history of rather goofy universe-building errors.

The thing I think of when I think about DC superheroes, after I get past the Superman-Batman-Wonder Woman troika, is that they are heavily team centric.  The best concepts are anchored by their best teams – Justice League, Justice Society, Legion of Superheroes, and the Watchmen.  Leading with a team is a recipe for disaster, but those four teams, connected by a time and dimension traveling thread are a powerful concoction of character, plot, epic, and spectacle that can be the backdrop for a compelling narrative about Power, Justice, Truth, and all the great “with a capital letter” virtues of the human experience.  By embracing the struggle mankind has with itself, you can make a lawful good heroic universe be human enough to be both moving and thrilling.

I’d love a story that simply ignores the continuity (or lack thereof) and does a full “theatrical reboot” so that you get the liberty to use the characters without the baggage of decades of shitty writing and continuity choices (including some of the New 52 choices).  In a thumbnail, It might look like this:


  • Earth is not alone in it’s universe.
  • There are multiple universes and realities.
  • There are super powers, forces, and beings.
  • Time and inter-dimensional travel are possible.
  • Evil exists and it is really evil.
  • Super heroes are not robots (except when they are) – just like the Gods and Titans and heroes of old, they have their failures, foibles, and faults.

Focal character is one who can accompany us on a journey that includes stops in golden era 1940s, dystopian 1970s, cynical 2010s, and a 3090s that is the culmination of all of these divergent pasts.  For that character, you need a plucky human with cleverness but not necessarily super powers or immortality – you really want the DC equivalent of Amy Pond or Olivia Dunham or Helena G. Wells, who is, of course, Lois Lane, if Joss Whedon wrote Lois Lane.

Once you have your narrative focus, you can piece together the outlines of a plot – one that is both apocalyptic to the world as we know it and formative to the 3090s, because you need a conflict that will shape all of the creative tension throughout the entire saga.  And for that you need incredible power in the hands of a super villain that is willing and able to use it.  Either someone like Lex Luthor with an artifact like the Spear of Destiny (or some similar McGuffin) or someone with inherently universe altering power, like Darkseid or Mordru.  I like Mordru as a behind the scenes schemer manipulating Lex Luthor and several other “typical” DC bad guys like a Greek God meddling in the affairs of men.

The fundamental plot then becomes, “The villain is trying to alter the universe and is having trouble doing it because the heroes keep stopping him.”  That’s right, the villain is the protagonist and the hero is the antagonist, and we’re going to tell that epic story arch through the eyes of our narrative lens (Lois a la Whedon) over the course of nine movies where we will:

  • Introduce our top line heroes (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern) as “the heroes you already know” in a modern 2010s cynical post-industrial, post-baby boom world – that just happens to have (and be comfortable with) a long history of superheroes.  The narrative is about integrity, fighting for what is right in a infinitely gray world, and being nuanced instead of absolutists.  This is the anti-Tea Party, anti-Either With Us or Against Us statement of what Justice is in a world where justice is scarce and fleeting.  This is Enlightenment natural philosophy grinding against Classical thought, lubricated by ibn Rushd and Confucious.
  • Travel back in time to the 1940s where a World War II era Justice Society is operating as the “Mystery Men” in FDR’s White House fighting Nazis, Imperialists, and Communists.  We can make sideways references to J. Edgar Hoover and Nazi Occultism.  The narrative, like all golden age narratives, is about right versus wrong, good versus evil, “making the hard choices”, and how heroes are heroic 24/7/365 because war is hell.  It is a lovely little period piece with epic lines; War and Peace meets Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in Dante’s Inferno.
  • Experience the 1980’s dystopian world where Nixon didn’t get caught, the US wins the Viet Nam war, the hippie counter culture failed, and the Watchmen are moving on after the events of Alan Moore’s books.  Frank Miller’s Dark Knight and Mike Grell’s Longbow Hunter live here too.  The narrative, like all dystopian narratives, is modeled on Plato’s Republic and Shakespeare’s King Lear and deals with power, corruption, and how to be virtuous in a world without virtue.  Noir meets Socrates.
  • Leap forward to the 3090s where we discover what the stakes really are, meet the Legion of Super Heroes, get a nice dose of retrospective evaluation of humanities choices, and discover that Lois Lane isn’t just a plucky reporter from Metropolis with a crush on an illegal alien – she has a universe-altering role to play.  But everything isn’t as it seams – we’re going through the looking glass and back before we realize what is really going on.  Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass and Oedipus at Colonus as told by Robin Goodfellow.
  • Culminating in a battle across four realities in four times against our big bad with three of those realities actually fighting for their own annihilation – because they must sacrifice themselves so that the future can exist.  This is the Illiad, right down to the cautionary tale of what happens when a hero succumbs to rage.
  • And in the epilogue we suffer loss, characters we love die, and we realize that no matter how great the sacrifices, the world keeps on turning, sometimes the bad guys really do get away, and that the real heroes aren’t super, they are just like us.