I could have been a contender; I could have had class; I could have been somebody.” So lamented Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, a movie about a dock worker who once aspired to be a prize fighter before taking a one-way ticket to Palookaville. It’s a distinct tragedy, yet it has a certain universality. It speaks for anyone who had greatness within reach—and then saw it slip away like so many Mother Boxes.
That last reference concerns a separate cinematic universe entirely: the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) which only a decade ago began with the highest ambitions and best of intentions. It would provide a grizzled and serious exploration of the DC Comics pantheon as if they were modern mythology; it would tell an interlocking story that spanned the cosmos and millennia of history; and, most importantly for Warner Bros. Pictures, it would contend with Marvel Studios and all that money being made over at the Mouse House. It was supposed to be somebody.
A decade later, the best laid plans have turned to ash. While some remnants of the so-called DCEU are being carried into the future under the rechristened “DC Universe,” which will be overseen by producers and DC Studios co-heads James Gunn and Peter Safran, the vibe accompanying the reception (and box office) of this year’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash, and Blue Beetle is that of a fire sale. Everything must go.
So as the curtain hastily comes down, we’re left to wonder about the roads not taken and the wasted potential. In 15 films released across 10 years (plus a few others still in post-production or in the vault), we’ve been introduced to upwards of a hundred major characters from DC mythos, with their various fates and backstories left in various stages of development. Some proved to be big players in a shared cinematic universe that never could make up its mind on what it was about, and others amounted to glorified cameos teasing roads that led to nowhere. Many left something to be desired. So without further ado, here are 15 of them who feel fairly wasted.
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- Jimmy Olsen
Yes, Jimmy Olsen was in the DCEU. But since knowing this is dependent on whether you’ve seen the extended director’s cut of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice or just the theatrical one belies what a bizarrely random choice it was to make Jimmy, Superman’s Pal, be the guy who took a bullet to the face in the movie’s first 1o minutes. He’s the cameraman who turns out to be a CIA agent tagging along with Lois Lane in a fictional African nation. Which means screenwriters Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder went out of their way to include the Olsen kid all so they could blow his brains out inside of a Metropolis minute. It’s so fascinatingly pointless a creative endeavor that it almost seems clever. Almost.
- Lex Luthor
Unlike Superman’s best friend, we got to spend plenty of time with his greatest nemesis in Batman v Superman. And at least on paper, it seemed like a welcome reimagining of the character. At last Lex would be the brilliant and evil CEO making the world a worse place instead of just a buffoon. Well, Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor is an evil CEO and (allegedly) brilliant, but he’s still a buffoon. He was obviously cast because Eisenberg was so disturbing in The Social Network, but Snyder and Terrio nonetheless guided the performance closer toward the realm of camp than anything Gene Hackman ever did. Frankly, Eisenberg’s Lex would be as much at home in Joel Schumacher’s Gotham City as he is Snyder’s.
When Hippolyta appeared in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman, she was magnificent. By providing a convincing regal air, Connie Nielsen brought more than an implicit Gladiator connection to the part. Unfortunately, Nielsen’s last scene in the movie is Hippolyta bidding farewell to her daughter, Wonder Woman, and acting like she’ll never see the child again… and then she didn’t? The scene obviously sets up the two being reunited at some point down the road, and the audience is left to wonder what Hippolyta would make of who Diana became in the world of man—one might even ponder if the Queen of the Amazons and her retinue might be convinced to return to that world—but we’ll never know, because other than flashback cameos in a few other flicks, we never really saw Hippolyta again.
- King Shark
It might not be fair to say King Shark was totally wasted. The man-eating, walking, talking anthropomorphic great white shark was, after all, pretty great in James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad. Voiced by Sylvester Stallone as essentially a sadder, more violent version of O.G. Groot thanks to Gunn’s writing and direction, King Shark was comic relief, but the really funny kind that seemed destined to be expanded upon. Alas, Gunn himself has confirmed there are no plans for further Suicide Squad movies, so it would seem we only got a nibble of the King’s greatness.
It turns out Zack Snyder was right. Between the two versions of Justice League, the better one features Jack Kirby’s seething space dictator sitting in a chair, dictating his plans, and scowling ominously. It ain’t much, but it’s better than only watching his middle management underling fight the League. Still, the film conceptually suffers from what made the similar Thanos also pretty ineffective before Infinity War: He’s the bad guy waiting in the wings for a sequel. One that, in Darkseid’s case, never came about.
Granted, this is the same dynamic between Darth Vader and the Emperor in the original Star Wars trilogy, but even in those flicks, George Lucas never felt bothered to emphasize the menace of the Emperor until two-thirds through the trilogy. He knew he needed to make Vader such a great villain that audiences would be eager to see who ruled over even him. By contrast, Darkseid is a guy who sits in a chair for four hours and then sets up a sequel by… standing up.
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- Martian Manhunter
Speaking of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the choice to randomly shoehorn Martian Manhunter into a post-credits scene of a four-hour movie never ceases to baffle. The creative decision even occurred years after the film was shot, with Snyder deciding he wanted to tease (like a comic book) something that would come next, even though his film would never have a sequel. It still seems like an only half-reasoned creative choice that makes for a head-scratching sequence where Ben Affleck is asked, in reshoots, to play it nonchalantly when a martian shows up to his door. Recall this is the same guy who tried to Pontius Pilate Superman only one movie ago for being an undocumented immigrant. The scene also undermines the only good scene Diane Lane had in the film when her Ma Kent comforted Lois Lane, and it turns out to be a gag (which was not the scene Lane or Amy Adams shot). Lulz, amirite?
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If one were to say anything about the amount of screen time Jared Leto’s Joker had in the first Suicide Squad and Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it would be that it was too much. If we never see a Joker with a “damaged” tat again, it’ll be too soon. Yet this also speaks to what a wasted opportunity this take on Mistah J was. The DCEU Joker was supposed to be one that at last unpacked the grotesque, toxic, and “mad” love story of Joker and Harley Quinn, as well as a version of the character who interacted with a wider array of folks than Batman and his associates. Instead we got James Franco from Spring Breakers with green hair.
- Harley Quinn
If we are to speak about the blown potential of Joker, we must also recognize what never materialized with Harley. This is by no means a knock at Margot Robbie, who became an A-list movie star for a reason after 2016’s Suicide Squad. And while her charisma was through the roof in that film, she really nailed the character’s manic energy and mercurial nature in her two subsequent appearances.
Even so, the DCEU never really embraced the character’s full potential. In fact, it’s fair to wonder if the studio was afraid of really traversing her most famous character arc in the comics: first by never truly exploring her relationship with Joker because Leto’s interpretation was so disastrous, and next by refusing to unpack how she moved on from that relationship, likely in part because WB feared any hints of LBTQ+ romance in Chinese and Middle Eastern markets…. So, the DCEU tapped danced around Harley’s character arc in those three films while letting the HBO Max animated series actually do it justice.
- Perry White
It’s become fashionable on the internet to revise the history of the DCEU and suggest everything was literate and high-minded before Justice League was taken away from Snyder. Yet if that were the case, how would one explain what happened to Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? Introduced as a slightly more grounded newsman and editor in Man of Steel (at least compared to previous attempts by Jackie Cooper and Frank Langella), the only thing of note Fishburne’s Perry got to do was save Jenny (Olsen?) from the rubble of a falling building in a sequence that echoed 9/11 to the point of tastelessness. Yet come BvS, this slightly more serious characterization was dropped for a glorified cameo where Fishburne constantly shouts at Clark Kent to cover a sports game. Maybe he was lucky they didn’t ask him back for JL?
In all honesty, the Bat-Family dynamic remains the one element of Batman mythos that hasn’t been seriously explored in live-action. His origins, relationships with Joker, Catwoman, and Superman, and even his Dark Knight Returns-like retirement have all been at least attempted in the last 20 years. But Robin, the surrogate son who fixes something broken in lonely Bruce Wayne? Never gets an appearance no matter how many times WB reboots the character. BvS changed that by revealing Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne had a Robin… and that he died violently off-screen. Which, dude, make him even darker. Yawn.