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With Ben Affleck out, James Gunn in, the future of the DCEU looks bright

We now live in a world where Aquaman is more popular than Batman.

If that notion gives you the bends, take heart: The Caped Crusader is returning to the big screen in just two short years to reclaim his rightful place atop the mantle of DC film characters. And next time, it won’t be Ben Affleck behind the cowl.

According to a new report from Deadline, The Batman will open on June 25, 2021. Writer-director Matt Reeves and Warner Bros. are reportedly looking for a younger Batman for the film, which apparently has Affleck’s full blessing.

That wasn’t the only news out of the DCEU this week. According to The Hollywood Reporter, culture war casualty James Gunn – who was abruptly booted from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 following social media outrage over decade-old tweets – is stepping into the director’s chair for The Suicide Squad, which is being billed as a “relaunch” rather than a sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad. Gunn, who is also writing the film, is taking the franchise “in a new direction with a mostly all-new cast of characters and actors,” according to a THR source.

Both of these DCEU developments are great news. For all of its issues, Matt Reeve’s breakout movie Cloverfield helped spur the subgenre of “found footage” movies (as well as its own quasi-franchise). Reeves also directed the last two Planet of the Apes prequels, which proved to be the rare trilogy in which each entry was better than the last.

As for Gunn, his talent for creating a charming film out of an odd ensemble of morally complicated characters was on full display in both Guardians films. Throw in the subversive tenacity of Gunn’s early movies like Slither and Super, and it appears that Suicide Squad is a near-perfect match for his sensibilities (it also can’t hurt that he’s learned a thing or two about being a misunderstood outcast over the past several months).

The end of the DCEU?

What’s doubly exciting about these projects is that, along with Ava Duvernay’s The New Gods and Todd Phillips’ upcoming Joker origin story with Joaquin Phoenix, DC appears to be giving up on building a carefully interconnected film universe like the MCU.

“Warners believes they don’t have to try to develop a giant slate that has to have all the plans for how it’s going to connect,” Reeves recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “What they need to try and do is make good movies with these characters.”

This is precisely where many of the past DCEU movies veered off course. Rather than build compelling characters around sturdy stories, movies like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were preoccupied with cameos and Easter eggs meant to pay off down the line. Instead of accoutrements, they became the main course; Consider the cringeworthy exposition introducing the various characters at the beginning of Suicide Squad, or the spray painted Robin costume, which was spotted all the way back when the Batman v Superman trailer was released and never amounted to anything.

In his Planet of the Apes films, Reeves took the opposite approach. Realistic-looking talking monkeys may have been the base appeal, but his films are first and foremost centered around the richly drawn character of Caesar, a leader forced to make difficult decisions. When elements of the original Apes make their way into the story, like humans going mute, it’s unforced, a natural extension of the story rather than a shoehorned reference.

In that same Hollywood Reporter interview, Reeves says that his upcoming movie is “more Batman in his detective mode than we’ve seen in the films.”

“I’d love this to be one where when we go on that journey of tracking down the criminals and trying to solve a crime, it’s going to allow his character to have an arc so that he can go through a transformation.” That sounds like basic drama but given how wrong they went trying to go big on Justice League, smaller scale Batman could be a good course correction.

After all, if Batman is going to steal the box office crown back from Arthur Curry, he’ll need to go stealth.