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From Joker to FanDome: How DC reinvented itself as a legitimate contender to Marvel

(Image credit: DC/Warner Bros.)

So much can change in a year. In mid-2019, Marvel was coming off the back of an unparalleled one-two-three combo of Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and Kevin Feige’s wave of SDCC announcements that teased everything from Black Panther 2 to X-Men in the MCU. By contrast, DC had little in the pipeline; the company’s slate was directionless, save for the gamble of an R-rated Joker movie and a Wonder Woman sequel that would later be beset by delays.

Fast forward 12 months and it’s DC and Warner Bros. who have navigated the choppy waters of the COVID-19-mandated shutdown with aplomb. Whisper it, but DC has never been in a better position to overtake the all-conquering Marvel, if not at the box office then at least in the hearts and minds of fans. 

How? Joker was the start. While making a billion dollars and picking up Oscar nominations certainly helped, it was director Todd Phillips’ stubborn position to make a standalone movie that only required a surface-level understanding of the character that proved its crucial selling point.

Marvel connecting every MCU instalment to each other in a mega-tapestry may be a genius marketing tactic, though it comes with an increasingly impenetrable entry point. With Joker, DC showed they were willing to embrace ‘one-shot’ movies that do not plant seeds for future franchises. It was one and done (for now…) and everyone can see Joker  – regardless of whether they had watched Man of Steel, Wonder Woman, or Suicide Squad.

Joker and DC’s “Black Label” series of standalones now offers filmmakers carte blanche to, when needed, open up a different well of ideas. Working alongside the burgeoning DCEU, it’s hard to see this scenario as anything other than a resounding success – one that allows creators to either play in DC’s own sandpit or build another.

It’s worth noting, too, that the DCEU has increased exponentially. With Marvel already unveiling its slate and then being forced into practically radio silence thanks to the coronavirus shutting down, DC has had a free run at building itself back up again.

And build itself it has. We now have release dates for Aquaman 2, Shazam 2, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, Black Adam, The Flash, and news of a third Wonder Woman movie. It all amounts to a DCEU that, well, finally adds the ‘U’. This is a varied universe filled with surefire box office successes (Aquaman), auteur-led adventures (The Suicide Squad), genuine megastars (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Black Adam), and even possible nostalgia brownie points (Michael Keaton’s Batman return in The Flash).

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

However, it’s the curious case of the Snyder Cut that perhaps best proves DC is changing with the turbulent times far better than its competition. Not only is the do-over – a director’s cut of Justice League that will be very different to Joss Whedon’s 2017 version – a well-measured mea culpa, it proves that fans, not executives, are making decisions. It may, cynically, have been a way for the studio to add a killer movie (or show, depending on the outcome) to the new HBO Max streaming service, but it also garnered a lot of goodwill from a vocal minority. The importance of that moving forward, as well as capturing another, older demographic with the return of Keaton’s Batman, cannot be understated.

These series of smart movies, forward-thinking, and fan-pleasing decisions have all built up to a crescendo: DC’s FanDome.

Described as “the ultimate 24-hour experience,” FanDome will virtually present a slate of its upcoming projects across film, TV, comics, and games. Not only will it have separate areas to showcase fan work, but it’s also a culmination of DC’s new cultivated, inclusive spirit.

This is for the fans and, unlike this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, carries with it a real ‘FOMO’ that will only intensify as the event draws ever closer. Would a DC event have been unmissable a year ago? Probably not. But since its resurgence, bolstered by concrete box-office results and the hard to pin down, even harder to measure, theoretical anticipation for what’s to come, DC has now become the hot ticket in town with a broad church that covers all bases.

The response from Marvel? For now, silence. Black Widow may yet break a billion in turbulent times, but a lot could be said for Phase 4 kicking off with a prequel-of-sorts and then taking a risk – a calculated one, but still a risk – on the likes of Shang-Chi and The Eternals. DC is instead being proactive, building on its successes. Could it be primed to reverse its fortunes? Potentially – at the very least, Marvel suddenly has far fiercer competition.

GamesRadar+'s Entertainment Writer. Lover of all things Nintendo, in a tortured love/hate relationship with Crystal Palace, and also possesses an unhealthy knowledge of The Simpsons (which is of no use at parties).