Jul 22, 2019

Who Should Lead the DC Extended Universe?

With superhero movie season basically over  (yes, we know The Joker is coming up in October, but since it looks like a movie that started out as a non-superhero film that Warner Brothers decided to slap "The Joker" label on for marketability purposes, I've elected to ignore it), and with Marvel clearly again owning the year — and it looks like the next two years — it's time to look at counterprogramming. And the company with the best assets for it is, obviously, DC Comics. Though the DCEU started out with the questionable and much-maligned reboots of Superman and Batman that absolutely no one needed, it's bounced back (kinda) and has put together a string of impressive, if not game-changing, solo movies, in Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Shazam, and we're also gonna mention Harley Quinn's performance in Suicide Squad since she shined through in that movie despite it being objectively and critically not-at-all-good.

So the question for DC is, who takes the lead? The Marvel Cinematic Universe had Robert Downey Jr., followed by Chris Evans, as their figureheads. (For those thinking, where's Chris Hemsworth?, the answer is off to the side, being the perfect #3 guy, rounding everything out. If you watch basketball, you'll know what I mean.) Moving forward, they will have, in some order, Chadwick Boseman, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brie Larson. (My vote is on Boseman to take the lead.) So for DC, who's their equivalent of Robert Downey Jr.? Who can carry this universe in such a way that we'd be interested in their character arcs and overall progression, but we'd also connect with them offscreen? When Endgame hit, RDJ's social media feed was flooded with "I love you 3000." Which current DC actor can give us that type of reaction?

It's possible that that character/actor hasn't been introduced yet (ahem The Rock as Black Adam ahem), but we'll work with who we've got. We're  going to look at the four characters pictured above — Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, and Zachary Levi as Shazam — through a variety of categories, and we're gonna assign points to each.


A seemingly objective metric for how fans would flock to see a certain character/actor is just pure box office, so let's look at how each of their previous DC movies have done in that regard internationally:
  • Aquaman: $1,147,761,807
  • Wonder Woman:  $821,847,012
  • Suicide Squad: $746,846,894
  • Shazam:$362,764,530 (and counting)
It doesn't really look like Shazam is gonna reach the level of Suicide Squad, so there's a clear hierarchy of winners here:

4 points: Jason Momoa/Aquaman
3 points: Gal Gadot/Wonder Woman
2 points: Margot Robbie/Harley Quinn
1 point: Zachary Levi/Shazam


This is important, because we need to see how well an actor's ability can carry through an arc across a series of movies. We're gonna use a two-point scoring system here because actors are certainly talented enough individually, but sometimes there are actors who are great but make terrible choices in terms of movies they star in. My favorite actor of all time is Val Kilmer, and I think he's pretty amazing in virtually anything he's in. Unfortunately, he's starred in all of maybe five good movies despite his actual performance. So there is some correlation in that sense to an actor and the quality of the movie.

So here's what we're gonna do. First, we're gonna take each individual actor and look at their nominations and wins for the three major American movie awards (The Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the Screen Actors Guild). Each win gets them two points and each additional nomination is one point.

With that metric, neither Jason Momoa nor Gal Gadot has any nominations or wins. Zachary Levi has one Screen Actors Guild Award, for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series, for The Marvelous Mrs. Aisel. Margot Robbie has no wins but four nominations, three for I, Tonya. So Margot Robbie wins this one, followed by Levi, with the other two tied for third/fourth. If there has to be a tiebreaker, it goes to Gadot, because she's been nominated and won other awards.

Second, we're gonna take their Rotten Tomatoes scores (yes, I know the problem with using a review aggregator, but until you have a method of putting together reviews in an easier way, I will be using this) and taking the average out of all of their fictional movies (Levi has a couple of documentaries). Here's how that breaks down:
  • Jason Momoa: 42%
  • Gal Gadot: 54%
  • Zachary Levi: 56% (this already includes Thor: The Dark World, where he was a bit player, and Psych: The Movie, a two-hour TV special, which scored at 66% and 100%, respectively. Without them he'd go down to 51%.)
  • Margot Robbie: 63%
The winner is clear here, whichever metric you choose to run with.

4 points: Margot Robbie/Harley Quinn
3 points: Zachary Levi/Shazam
2 points: Gal Gadot/Wonder Woman
1 point: Jason Momoa/Aquaman


For true counterprogramming, you have to offer something the other company isn't. So which of these characters are the most unlike anything Marvel has to offer?

Let's see, Shazam has the whole "little boy turns into an adult superhero" thing, which of course no one in the MCU has. He is, however, a teenager in a superhero's body, so in that sense he does get some of the vibe of Spider-Man while his humor can even be matched by Ant-Man. Shazam does have a superhero family, however, and unless Cassie Lang turns into Stature to accompany Ant-Man and the Wasp, that's not gonna be matched for a while. Finally, Shazam is powered by magic lightning, and Marvel has Thor, who wields magic lightning.

Aquaman is set in Atlantis and until Namor the Sub-Mariner finally shows up in the MCU, that's a pretty great setting. Aquaman is also played by Jason Momoa, who guys wanna drink with and girls wanna be with, so that's a huge plus. Unfortunately, in the big scheme of things, I'm not sure how much Momoa can offer in addition to what he's already given, and I'm also not convinced Aquaman's trappings offer much that Marvel doesn't already have. It's basically a hidden kingdom. Marvel has already had two of those. One of them was Asgard, where Thor was. Thor was played by Chris Hemsworth, who guys wanna drink with and girls wanna be with.

Wonder Woman has a pretty big offering that Marvel can't match in one go: she's Wonder Woman, comics' primary female icon, the woman on the first-ever cover of Gloria Steinem's feminist Ms. Magazine, creation of the inventor of the lie detector, wielder of iconic weapons such as bullet-deflecting bracelets and a magic lasso. Unfortunately, the way she's been presented thus far hasn't been particularly unique. She hails from an island of warrior women, which Marvel has somewhat matched with the Dora Milaje in Wakanda. She makes her debut in World War I; Captain America made his debut in World War II. Captain America is named Steve Rogers and he had his Howling Commandos, a racially diverse group of soldiers; Wonder Woman has a boyfriend named Steve Trevor and they have their unnamed group of racially stereotypical soldiers. She also can be compared to Captain Marvel, as being the most powerful woman in their respective universes, and Diana of course plays heavily into mythology, as does — you guessed it — Thor.

Thor has shown up in all three comparisons, so can he make it a four for four? Well, like Thor, Harley Quinn has long luxurious hair... and that's it. The fact is, there is no character in the MCU that's even remotely like Harley Quinn. Hell, there's no character in Marvel or the rest of DC who's anything like Harley Quinn. The closest comparison is Deadpool, and that's... not really the same.

Harley Quinn wins this one. Obviously.

4 points: Margot Robbie/Harley Quinn
3 points: Zachary Levi/Shazam
2 points: Jason Momoa/Aquaman (he's getting the nod over Diana because of Atlantis.)
1 point: Gal Gadot/Wonder Woman


Another factor is, how long can one stretch out an arc? Robert Downey Jr. has a complete redemption arc in all the Iron Man and Avengers movies, and that spanned 10 years. Chris Hemsworth's Thor has one giant arc about learning how to deal with failure and humility from Thor all the way to Avengers: Endgame. Chris Evans' Captain America had virtually no character arc, but he was the perfect example of the type of character that could hold no arc and just have the world change around him. (For more info on this subject, please watch this interesting video by Just Write.)

How long can the DCEU heroes sustain their current arcs? One way is to look at the source material and see if we think the actors and the studio have the time and ability to pull off some key story beats. We don't have to get the exact story (Infinity War/Endgame isn't like Infinity Gauntlet, for example), just the essence and the overall atmosphere.

There's a clear loser here, and unfortunately it's Shazam. It's unfortunate because if we were to just look at the peak of the source material, his is actually the richest, a rogues' gallery that would rival Batman's, and ideas that would be great to see in a live action CGI-heavy movie. Unfortunately, there hasn't been a modern-day Shazam story that's had a long drawn-out saga with a full-on arc, nor has there ever been a version where Billy Batson, his human host, is an adult... which Asher Angel, who plays Billy Batson, will be in two movies' time. Renditions were the host body is an adult tend to be darker takes, such as Miracleman and Kingdom Come. That might be an interesting trajectory if done well, but Black Adam's imminent arrival makes me very doubtful that the focus will be kept on Shazam for very long, even in his own franchise.

Likely Aquaman's most famous story is the one where his son, Arthur Jr., is killed by Black Manta. There are other famous stories, notably ones where he loses his hand and it's replaced by a hook, or stories where Mera becomes a Red Lantern. The question is, does Jason Momoa have the range to pull off a long, drawn-out arc with multiple emotional shifts? Or is he content with making Aquaman the coolest dude in town? Time will tell.

Wonder Woman has the most landmark stories in her repertoire, dating back to 1941, and also an impressive rogues' gallery. She's got the George Perez run ("Challenge of the Gods", anyone?), the Greg Rucka run, the Phil Jimenez run, the Gail Simone run, the Brian Azzarrello/Cliff Chiang run... she's got a lot of mileage, and almost a century of backstory to fill in. Not to mention, with Superman and Batman gone, assuming the plan is still to build up the Justice League, Wonder Woman is the most natural figurehead, again, like a certain Spar-Spangled Man with a Plan over on the other side.

Then there's Harley Quinn, the only one of these characters created after 1991... and after 1941. As the newest member of the DC catalog of characters, you'd think she'd have the least in terms of source material. But Harley Quinn has already had a whole mythos built up around her, from being the Joker's abused girlfriend to her whole friendship with Poison Ivy to her whole romantic relationship with Poison Ivy, to her being a member of the Suicide Squad and the Gotham City Sirens... Batman may be off the table as far as the DCEU goes outside of a solo movie starring Twilight guy that everyone is freaking out over, but the gates to Gotham and its entire cast of characters remain open as long as Harley Quinn is around.

4 points: Gal Gadot/Wonder Woman
3 points: Margot Robbie/Harley Quinn
2 points: Jason Momoa/Aquaman 
1 point: Zachary Levi/Shazam


In an effort to measure crossover appeal objectively, I wanted to not count merchandise or merchandise sales because a huge part of that is an internal push by DC Entertainment. Obviously Wonder Woman will have more merchandise than Shazam. So I turned to the most objective measure of casual audience interest/curiosity: Google Trends, which shows how certain search terms trend over time.

Limiting it only to the past 5 years means we start on June 2014, two years before the release of Suicide Squad. The graph below shows the Web Search index, meaning how well they performed in relation to each other, for each superhero search term from June 2014 to June 2019. Wonder Woman is blue, Harley Quinn is red, Aquaman is yellow, and Shazam is green.

Web Search

Wonder Woman and Aquaman obviously had the highest peaks, followed by Shazam, with Harley coming in last. But look at their averages in that five-year span. Wonder Woman clearly leads, followed by Harley, then Aquaman and Shazam are tied. So while Wonder Woman is the clear winner in terms of people doing searches, it seems that both Aquaman and Shazam's movies spiked them to a point where their average still couldn't match up with Harley's.

Look at their YouTube Search Index:

YouTube Search Index

Harley once again comes in dead last in terms of peak, but is again second in terms of average. The takeaway is clear: the movies Aquaman and Shazam got more views than Suicide Squad, but on a long, sustainable level where there are no movies out, people are interested in Harley Quinn. (Also, Aquaman beats Shazam here.)

Now I know I said I wouldn't mention merchandise sales, and I won't mention sales per se, but how do these guys trend in terms of people wanting to buy stuff? We're looking here at Google Shopping, an aggregator of various marketplaces, annnnd....

Google Shopping Search Index

Harley clearly wins it. The highest point being right after Suicide Squad, but it's important to note that even down her next two peaks can't be matched by any of the others, even after Wonder Woman and Aquaman were released in theaters.

And finally, you know what, we're just gonna look at the Image Search Index:

Image Search Index

That's not even close.

And now we're going to look at the Web Search Index just for the actors. So now Gal Gadot is blue, Margot Robbie is red, Jason Momoa is yellow, and Zachary Levi is green.

Web Search Index

And once again, Gadot wins the peak, Robbie wins the average.

Now wait a minute, you say. Surely this is a flawed metric because it might just be the same people searching "Margot Robbie" again and again. That's true, but until we figure out how to deduplicate the people doing these search terms, we're pretty much stuck with this.

But how does it break down? Maybe the people searching for Harley Quinn and Margot Robbie are all repressed males in their mothers' basements? You might think that, given that Harley is a hypersexualized female character, but let's look at what happens when we add the word "cosplay" into each web search term.

Web search index

Once again, Harley is the runaway winner. And I think there's evidence in the real world here. I went to the outside of San Diego Comic-Con in 2015, and there were two characters I saw cosplayed by far and away ahead of every other character: Harley Quinn and Deadpool. Let's look at it the next year too:

Not bad for a movie that bombed, huh? As a fun aside, here's Tara Strong, voice of Harley in the Arkham games,  that same year:

I'm also gonna turn my attention over to a superhero-adjacent show, the WWE, where wrestlers are required to come up with their own gimmicks. While we've seen some wrestlers dress up in superhero-inspired gear from time to time, I don't think I've ever seen two women blatantly pattern their looks and characters after the same comic book character, until I saw Alexa Bliss (left) and Liv Morgan (right).

Wonder Woman is an icon and there's no question about what she means to women. She's aspirational, like Superman and Captain America. But it'd be a mistake to say Harley Quinn doesn't resonate with fans, including — and perhaps especially — women. There's something about her. It's not enough to put her over Wonder Woman here, but it's enough to justify putting her at number 2.

4 points: Gal Gadot/Wonder Woman
3 points: Margot Robbie/Harley Quinn
2 points: Jason Momoa/Aquaman 
1 point: Zachary Levi/Shazam


Warren Ellis once said:
“Any idiot could have wandered onto the Disney lot and said, ‘You’re not going to run John Carter against The Hunger Games. You’re insane, and let me explain to you why.’ […] If you’re taking something out as what they conceive a ‘four quadrant film’, and your plot is as follows: ‘white soldier wanders into a cave, falls asleep, wakes up on Mars, gets superpowers through putting out no effort of his own, beats leagues of strangely-colored monsters, gets the girl, wins, the end’ — if you think that’s going to play up against The Hunger Games, which is ‘poor girl from massively underprivileged society is threatened, coerced, menaced, and ultimately betrayed by authority while she fights for the right of her people to eat’ . . . it’s easier to find relevance in the present day.”
"I feel most of the more successful Marvel movies are the ones that have, whether overt or subtle, more sociocultural commentary riding along their waves. Iron Man was the perfect superhero for 2008, a weapons manufacturer having second thoughts in a post-9/11 world; a technological genius at a time when technology was moving faster than ever. Captain America: Winter Soldier was about freedom vs. security; Civil War, really, about the same thing. Thor: Ragnarok was about imperialism, and Black Panther was about a lot of sociocultural issues. Infinity War was the trolley problem brought to life full force, and Thanos was kind of an avatar for a lot of the reactionary politics going on today. Captain Marvel was an allegory for abuse. I could be wrong, but I don't feel there is any of that type of commentary in Endgame. Rather, the entirety of the movie is a big metacommentary on the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Marvel itself is the sociocultural event."
Why do I bring this up? It's because you can't isolate a piece of art from the times in which it's created. It'll resonate, however consciously or subconsciously that it does. Superman the Movie came at a time after Watergate, when the world was looking for heroes again. Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns captured the zeitgeist of that era, the paranoia of living at the end of The Cold War. Iron Man was the perfect superhero for 2008, a time of fast-moving technological advancement, and now that we're at an age where we're more and more skeptical of technology, Iron Man is out of the picture. Even the success of Aquaman, I believe, can't be extricated from the climate of the times. It's pure escapist fantasy at a time when the world is desperately looking for escapism.

I'm not so sure that Aquaman has anything to offer past pure escapism, least of all anything to offer that Marvel hasn't already covered (for example, tackling postcolonialism in Thor: Ragnarok or the idea of inaction vs. action at the risk of your people in Black Panther), and for that matter, I'm not so sure about Shazam either. I like Shazam's racially diverse family and cast, but feel like Black Adam can tap more into a culturally potent minefield for material.

Which leads us to the two women. Two icons that have, in some camps, been deemed as feminist role models, and in some other camps, been deemed as detrimental to feminism. My take on the whole thing, and completely checking my male privilege at the door: it's important for everyone to have their picks of role models. Some people find heroism in Captain America (aspirational); some find it in Iron Man (relatable). Some people find heroism in Superman (aspirational); some find it in Batman (those people are just nuts). And at first glance, you would think Wonder Woman wins this, because Harley Quinn is a villain... but is it really that cut and dried? Let's see. 

I'm fascinated at how many women love Harley Quinn, because she would seem to be the poster child for the exact opposite. Many times she's presented as a male fantasy. But she's by far the most cosplayed character I've seen for women in the past 10 or so years, and I wonder what exactly goes into that. I don't think it's just one thing.  My friend Kat has a point of view:

"I would think part of it is probably her ability to be unapologetically herself - whoever that might be on any given day. She feels completely free to be totally weird and crazy without giving a shit what society thinks. I think that idea of being totally unencumbered by society's expectations is, especially for a woman, empowering."

And my friend Matt also mentions, "She's also in a very abusive relationship, but also (in BTAS) gets to break free of that cycle for a little bit (with some minor kidnapping/shacking up with Poison Ivy)."

Back Issue Ben sums it up nicely: "You can see her in the video games or the movie and just want to be crazy sexy cool too. If you look at her origin as the bravery to break free of society and live as the truest version of yourself."

Wonder Woman is a role model for what one can aspire to be, and that's kind of intimidating sometimes, in a society where women are always told they should be one thing over another. But Harley Quinn — an LGBT+ woman in STEM who was trapped in an abusive relationship, with mental issues, who at least in the comics got out of it by moving on to Poison Ivy, someone who appreciated and truly cared for her — is a role model for those of us at our worst, showing that you can move past your worst and into something better. She's there to remind us of what things are, and that they can get better.

Now the difference between the two is that Harley's arc requires really deft execution, a redemption arc that ends with her completely independent and empowered, something that I think the Suicide Squad movie tried to do but failed at. Wonder Woman's arc or lack thereof just needs competent execution.

Still, you know what? I'm bold enough for this. I'm going here:

4 points: Margot Robbie/Harley Quinn
3 points: Gal Gadot/Wonder Woman
2 points: Jason Momoa/Aquaman 
1 point: Zachary Levi/Shazam


With all that, here's how the scores break down:

Zachary Levi/Shazam: 10 points
Jason Momoa/Aquaman: 13 points
Gal Gadot/Wonder Woman: 17 points
Margot Robbie/Harley Quinn: 20 points

Before anyone thinks I rigged this, keep in mind that I have never written about Harley Quinn. The Comics Cube has been around nine years, and it's just never happened. I'm not a fan of Batman; I'm not a fan of Harley Quinn. I have, in contrast, written a lot about Wonder Woman and Shazam.

I tried to do this as objectively as possible. Harley wins.

And it makes sense. Look, in 2008, Iron Man was in a questionable spot in the comics, to the point where at some turns he was acting villainous. He was a risk. A wild card. When his movie starts, he's an arms dealer, not caring much about the ethics of his actions. What followed was a ten-year redemption arc played by Robert Downey Jr., the MCU's best actor. In sports terms, he was the best player, and the best player gets the ball. And the best parts of his run, I would argue, came whenever he and Chris Evans' Captain America had a conflict, because they were such ideological opposites. And Evans didn't lack for screen time or presence either, because RDJ would constantly pass the ball back to him, because he trusted him.

Margot Robbie is the DCEU's best actor. In sports terms, she's their best player, and the best player gets the ball. The films are their own beast, inspired by but distinct from the comics, so can you imagine Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman playing a similar ideological conflict against Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn? I think that would be such a potent combination, with the potential to say so much about society and the world at large.

For the DCEU, it seems that the future is definitely female. Wonder Woman can be the leader of the Justice League, the character that the ones in-universe look up to. But in terms of who carries this universe for the audience watching, as unlikely as it may be, the ball should be in the hands of Margot Robbie, their best player, and Harley Quinn, their wild card.

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