Let's be honest about it: the DC Extended Universe, DC's response to Marvel's successful Cinematic Universe, has had a rocky start. DC had intended it to be launched by 2011's Green Lantern, but that film's failure meant they were forced to reconsider. Instead, 2013's Man of Steel became the birth of the DCEU, but even that film had its controversies, mostly rooted in director Zack Snyder's cinematic style and plot decisions. DC marked 2016 off as the year when things would get serious, with the Man of Steel sequel transforming into a massive multi-franchise collision - Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Unfortunately, #BatmanVSuperman proved even more controversial than Man of Steel. The film was haunted with constant doomsaying, with every decision criticised - from casting to the trailers, nothing seemed to satisfy the public. When the film was eventually released, critic responses were scathing, and fan reactions were mixed. Given Zack Snyder remains tremendously influential - he's assigned to the #JusticeLeague films too - the issues are likely to continue.
But there are positive signs.
1. DC are daring to try some offbeat ideas!
Although most of the world's attention has been fixed on superhero duels of the kind seen in Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War, 2016 also sees possibly the most off-the-wall superhero film ever. #SuicideSquad, released in August, is the story of a task-force of super-villains assembled to save the world. From the outset, the trailers have been tone-perfect, showing a film that rejoices in its own craziness.
The truth is, Marvel Studios were in Phase Two before they started taking risks of this scale. When they did so, the result was Guardians of the Galaxy. In contrast, the third film in the DCEU is a gamble. What's more, even before the film has been released, DC are planning sequels - and considering whether or not one of them should be R-rated. DC have an impressive amount of confidence in this product.
The latest news is that Margot Robbie pitched a spin-off of Suicide Squad - one featuring #HarleyQuinn and other female characters. With a sequel and a spin-off to Suicide Squad in the works, it's clear that this offbeat film isn't just a diversion for DC; it's a whole second string to their instrument.
2. DC are prepared to give the women a chance to shine!
Marvel Studios may have been playing the comic-book-based-universe game for longer, but there's one area where they've been sadly lacking: strong females in lead roles. The chief source of this problem has been Marvel's controversial CEO, Ike Perlmutter, who has a complete disdain for the marketing power of female superheroes. We've even learned that he had scripts rewritten so as to prevent the 'major villains' being female! Thankfully, last year's corporate restructure dramatically lessens Perlmutter's influence, so things look set to improve.
DC, in contrast, are already gearing up to push female characters to the forefront of their movies. #WonderWoman, portrayed by Gal Gadot, stole the show in Batman v Superman; her solo film is due out in 2017. What's more, this year's Suicide Squad clearly focuses in a lot on Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn, as the second trailer made clear.
Even better, the Suicide Squad spin-off reportedly features a number of female leads. We don't know much yet, but the smart money seems to be on Batgirl or the Birds of Prey.
3. DC are giving the films some love
It's pretty clear that Margot Robbie is having a blast with Suicide Squad. This spin-off was reportedly her idea, and she's actually going to be directing it! This is tremendously exciting; it shows an actor who's fallen in love with the character she's portraying.
But it shows more than just that. It shows DC as being willing to adapt their plans in order to allow Margot Robbie to work on a concept she loves. It would be tremendously easy for a studio to play the long game, to insist they had things planned out already; instead, they're being flexible. They've spotted an opportunity, recognised that they can make something truly unique here, and they're not willing to miss that chance.
This is the Deadpool lesson. As James Gunn, director of Guardians of the Galaxy, observed:
"Deadpool was its own thing. THAT’S what people are reacting to. It’s original, it’s damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn’t afraid to take risks."
When DC first announced the R-rated Batman v Superman Ultimate Edition, I confess that I feared they'd missed that. But this latest announcement? It proves they learned the right lesson from Deadpool.
4. They have the Batman
It's hard to believe that when DC announced Ben Affleck as their new #Batman, most people reacted with mockery. Batman v Superman showed a man so perfect at portraying both Bruce Wayne and Batman that even critics of the film are describing him as the best Batman to date.
DC clearly knew they were on to a winner from the start; Batman pops up in Suicide Squad, for example, and the trailers have increasingly emphasised this. But it didn't take long for DC to decide on a solo Batman film, with Ben Affleck heading it up as well as starring in it.
It's no coincidence that a lot of the focus is on Batman's world. Suicide Squad seems to have a central role for Harley Quinn, a Batman villain; the names being whispered around for Margot Robbie's spin-off are all Gotham women. Batman has always been the most popular of DC's superheroes, and this latest iteration is no different. The DCEU seems to be subtly reorienting itself around Batman, as proven by the fact that he will be the one to assemble the Justice League, not Superman.
Yes, DC got off to a rocky start, but I remain optimistic: to me, the DC Universe is so rich in potential that it can become one of the strongest cinematic experiences of the present day. The great thing is, these four signs show that there's a lot more to DC than the Justice League, and it's great to see the studios daring to take the risks associated with these other franchises.
Good luck to them!