Batman and Superman are down another boss.
DC Entertainment’s top creative executive, Geoff Johns, is leaving his position, in the latest shake-up for the storied Warner Bros.-owned comic book publisher.
The studio on Monday said Johns — who has served as chief creative officer of DC Entertainment since 2010 and helped develop the studio’s film and TV superhero strategy — wanted to return his focus to writing. Johns will become a full-time writer and producer for Warner Bros. and DC films and television shows, the company said.
The comics giant has endured a series of management changes in the wake of a disappointing run of DC Comics-based films, including last year’s “Justice League.” Johns’ departure comes less than a week after DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson stepped down from her job following a two-month leave of absence.
DC films triggered an overhaul at the Time Warner Inc.-owned studio several months ago. Former New Line Cinema executive Walter Hamada was put in charge of the DC movies in January after the exit of Jon Berg, Warner Bros. Pictures' then-co-president of production.
Warner Bros. executives declined to comment.
The latest executive shuffle, first reported by the Hollywood Reporter, comes as much larger corporate changes loom. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Washington is expected to rule on AT&T Inc.’s $85-billion bid for Time Warner, which has been awaiting government approval.
Superhero movies are a key pillar of the studio’s strategy, along with the Harry Potter and animated Lego film franchises. DC’s decades-old library of such enduring characters as Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash fuels productions across multiple Warner Bros. businesses, including TV, video games and consumer products.
But in the theatrical film business, the imprint has struggled to compete with the success of Disney’s Marvel Studios in recent years.
Other than last summer’s hit “Wonder Woman,” starring Gal Gadot, Warner’s superhero movies have under-performed compared with their Disney rivals in the Marvel Cinematic Universe led by Kevin Feige.
“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad” made money but were pilloried by critics. “Justice League,” directed by Zack Snyder, was a commercial disappointment, grossing $658 million worldwide. Marvel’s latest film, “Avengers: Infinity War,” meanwhile, has collected about $2 billion in worldwide receipts.
Detractors have criticized the DC movies for employing an overly dark and broody tone, after Christopher Nolan’s gritty sensibility and auteur approach to the Batman storyline made his “Dark Knight” trilogy a success at the box office. In contrast to Marvel, DC lacks a single executive overseeing the creative vision of its films with a deep understanding of the comics universe.
Johns, 45, was arguably the person who most closely fit that bill. A respected comic book writer, he has been a key figure in Warner’s brain trust that plots the course of the films and TV shows. But that expertise didn’t translate to winning films. Johns also clashed with Nelson, according to people familiar with the matter who were not authorized to comment.
With Johns and Nelson gone, DC and Warner must contend with a leadership vacuum. Warner’s digital and business development leader, Thomas Gewecke, will oversee the unit for now but is not expected to run it permanently. DC Entertainment Publisher Jim Lee will expand his role to include Johns’ responsibilities as chief creative officer, but his expertise is in publishing, not film and TV.
“They need a Yoda, or an Obi-Wan, who can see the future and know what strings to pull,” said Jeff Bock, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations. “That's very difficult to find.”
Warner Bros. has enjoyed a successful run from DC-based television efforts, such as “Arrow,” “Black Lightning,” “The Flash” and “Supergirl” on the CW Network. The company is also planning adaptations of “Doom Patrol” and “Titans” for its upcoming DC Universe streaming service.
Still, revitalizing the DC movie business will be a crucial task for Warner Bros. Entertainment Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara and Warner Bros. Pictures’ Toby Emmerich, who was named chairman of the film studio in January. That move coincided with the exit of marketing head Sue Kroll.
Johns is launching a production company called Mad Ghost Productions, which has a deal with Warner Bros., and is already working on multiple DC projects. Johns co-wrote the upcoming “Aquaman” movie, which comes out Dec. 21 and is the only live-action DC movie set for release this year. He also is working on the “Wonder Woman” sequel, expected to hit theaters in November 2019.
One of the first projects under his new deal will be Warner Bros Pictures’ “Green Lantern Corps,” based on a graphic novel series he wrote.
“I took on a role at DCE because I love the characters and this universe more than anything,” Johns said in a statement. “But, I want to spend my days writing and on set.”