A Guide To The DC Cinematic Multiverse

As we prepare for the first in a long line of tightly-integrated films based on popular DC characters, this seems like a good time to take a look at the current state of DC Comics foray into television and movies. In this post, we’ll take a look at the history, and the current status, of the DC Cinematic Multiverse (a term I just made up.) That is, we’re going to look at all of DC’s movie and television adaptations, and see how they are (or aren’t) related.

A quick note: I’m intentionally excluding animated shows from this discussion. While I’m a huge fan of DC’s animated work, for the most part these shows played by a much looser set of rules (Batman and Robin meet Scooby Doo, for example), which tend to muddy the waters. For our purposes here, we’re going to define cinematic as meaning live-action adaptations only.

With that out of the way, let’s start with…

A Brief History Of DC Cinematic Media

Classic DC Cinematic Multiverse
Classic DC Cinematic Multiverse

Prior to the the year 2012, the landscape of DC’s cinematic adaptations was extremely fragmented. Every live action TV show or movie series existed within it’s own independent continuity, and in most cases, focused on only a single major DC character. There were a few exceptions: Birds of Prey featured a trio of supporting Batman heroines, and Smallville introduced a number of other DC superheros during its run. Even in those cases, however, these characters existed within the self-contained world of a single show. There was no concept of crossing over from one movie or show to the next.

The earliest movies and TV shows from the DC lineup were, not surprisingly, based on Superman and Batman (12 of the first 14 live action movies and the first two live-action TV shows). Prior to 1989, the rights for these characters were spread out among a number of different production companies; for example, 20th Century Fox produced the early Batman material, while Warner Bros produced the Superman movies. All that ended in 1989, when Warner Communications (who had owned DC comics since the late 60s) merged with Time Inc., to form Time Warner. Warner Bros studio has produced every movie, and been directly involved in every television show, since then.

The first film released under this new in-house production process was 1989’s Batman, which was a runaway success. Since then, WB has brought Batman to the big screen 7 times, more than any other DC character. Unfortunately, their attempts to launch franchises based on other characters to the big screen have been less successful, resulting in such failures as The Green Lantern or Constantine. One thing that remained constant, however, is that each hero existed in isolation: there was no Batman in The Green Lantern, no Flash in The Dark Knight.

The DC Cinematic Multiverse

Starting with the then-unassuming release of Arrow in 2012, the landscape of DC’s video productions started to change. DC began producing multiple television properties simultaneously, in addition to their reboot of the Superman franchise with Man of Steel. With the decision by CW networks to pick up the Arrow spin off The Flash in 2014, we had our first official DC crossover, and the start of the modern DC multiverse. The current picture of the DC Cinematic Multiverse looks like this:

DCCM Modern
Modern DC Cinematic Multiverse

While there’s still clearly a lot of fragmentation here, it’s significantly more consolidated than before, and all indications are the things will continue to move in that direction.

The DC Extended Universe

The single most important shift in DC’s approach to cinematic adaptations is the unification of their movie franchises.  In response to the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC has decided that all future movies (for the foreseeable future) will take place in a single continuity, which has officially been branded the DC Extended Universe. Man of Steel was retroactively made the first movie to take place in this universe, with the upcoming release of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice marking the first time two — let alone four — of DCs big name heroes have featured in the same movie.

The four heroes that appear in Dawn of Justice, namely: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Aquaman, are ones that don’t appear in any currently airing TV show. That will soon change however, with future planned releases such as Justice League and Suicide Squad. These movies will features characters that have appeared in DC’s other major unified continuity, including superheros The Green Arrow and The Flash, and villains like Deadshot and Harley Quinn. These characters will have no relation to their TV counterparts (indeed, the TV studios have been forced to write those villains out of their shows), but will represent a wholly separate universe.

The Arrowverse

As mentioned above, DC’s other significant continuity is the one unofficially known as the Arrowverse. This is a series of shows that are all produced and written by the same team of people, and all (currently) airing on the same CW network. The characters from these shows routinely refer to each other, and have made appearances in each others programs on multiple occasions.

Indeed, the appearance of Arrow‘s Oliver Queen on the premiere episode of The Flash is likely the first time any two DC media properties have ever crossed over; since then, the Arrowverse has gotten a second spin-off (Legends of Tomorrow), and has absorbed the now-cancelled Constantine, with more shows likely to be added in the future.

The Arrowverse has also been the home to a number of related media, including comic books based on Arrow, as well as an animated web series called Vixen which is found on the CW Seed web site (and therefore, may end up becoming a live action show itself.)

The Rest

At the moment, the remaining slate of DC-based TV properties exist within their own stand-alone continuity. Gotham, for example, represents a sort of alternate-universe version of Batman, which is unlikely to ever intersect anything else. Similarly, the iZombie universe and the upcoming Lucifer universe are based on Vertigo comics, which largely stand apart from the rest of the DC universe, and there’s no indication that it will ever meet up with the others. (Though, in fairness, Constantine was also a Vertigo series, and it has since joined the Arrowverse).

Unlike the movies, WB farms out the actual production work to third parties, and most of these properties are produced by separate production companies. This means the likelihood of any of these shows crossing over with each other is slim, for business reasons if nothing else. There are, however, two major exceptions:

  • Supergirl, which is aired on CBS and produced by the same team that produces the shows in the Arrowverse. Though there are no current plans for these shows to intersect, both CW and CBS are on-record as stating that any decision to cross over would be up to the show’s producers. (Since CBS partly owns CW, there’s much less inter-network politics to deal with.) Unfortunately, it’s not clear at the moment how this might work, given the level of fame Superman has in Supergirl yet being seemingly unknown in the Arrowverse.
  • Krypton is a show in its early stages of development by David S. Goyer, the screenwriter for Man of Steel. He has described the show as a “prequel” to Man of Steel, set several hundred years prior to the movie. Though nothing has been confirmed (including if the show will actually get made), there’s every indication that it would be part of the DCEU.

The DC Animated Universe

In this post, I focused exclusively on live-action movies/shows, primarily ones that are still on the air. DC has a long history of producing animated adaptations of their properties, but I’ve ignored them here because there are just too many DC animated adaptations to keep track of, and some of them got downright silly. However, the DC Animated Universe deserves special mention for predating both the Arrowverse and the DC Extended Universe by a decade. This is a series of 8 highly acclaimed animated shows and 4 animated movies, airing between 1992 and 2006, primarily on the WB or Cartoon Network. These shows are famous for existing in a very well thought out shared universe, and the writers/producers enforced a very strict continuity.

Unfortunately, the final episode of Justice League Unlimited saw the end of this shared universe, as WB has no plans to produce any more shows set in the DCAU.


5 thoughts on “A Guide To The DC Cinematic Multiverse

  1. Man of Steel was retroactively made the first movie to take place in this universe”

    I think this may be a mistake. Man of Steel wasn’t retroactively made anything – it is simply the first film in the DCEU, both to be a released and (so far) chronologically.

    • To my knowledge, there were no statements from DC or WB about Man of Steel being part of a shared universe until at least one year after its release, when they started talking about the sequel.

  2. Hey guys,

    Let’s remember this was a gift from a writer who shared his time and efforts with us. Thank you @MichaelEdenfield for taking the time out to write this great document.

    I was trying to write something similar but I couldn’t figure out the best way to compare DC’s approach to media vs Marvel’s. Marvel owns the movie industry but to me has never been able to touch DC in the animated arena where younger minds were moved and shaped.

    Lately Marvel has been catching up in that arena but they still have a long way to go.

    I thought your graphics were both well designed and easy to understand. I will have to do something similar for my blog.

    Great work and now you give me something to shoot for when I submit something here.

  3. @Thaddeus Thanks!

    The idea for the graphics actually came from me doing one of the MCU post I plan to write, when I noticed that just at a glance the “isolated islands” look of the DCCU was a stark contrast to the “web” look of the MCU.

    Also, I considered trying to include the animated universe but the scope of that, especially on the DC side, is just too huge.

  4. It’s worth noting that since the time of this blog post’s writing, Supergirl has officially become part of the Arrowverse. There has been a single crossover, with Flash appearing on Supergirl. And now with Supergirl moving to the CW, it is likely that crossovers will become more frequent. Within the newly-expanded Arrowverse, Supergirl takes place in a parallel universe from the other shows, thus addressing the author’s concern about how to deal with Superman’s popularity in one show and unknown status in the others.

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