The Man At The Center Of DC's TV Multiverse

DC Entertainment's Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns reveals the strategy behind the company's sudden TV omnipresence, why secrecy isn't always the best policy when it comes to superheroes, and why they're doing things differently than Marvel.

"By Fans, For Fans" is the unofficial motto of DC Entertainment and the fans appear to be in excellent hands with Geoff Johns at the helm. Since being named chief creative officer of the just-formed DC Entertainment in 2010, the longtime comic book writer (Justice League, Superman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Teen Titans, and Justice Society of America) helped usher five DC Comics titles to television (Arrow in 2012, The Flash, Gotham, and Constantine in 2014, and iZombie — about a brains-eating zombie medical examiner — coming in 2015) and played an integral role in developing the company's upcoming slate of feature films (he produced 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice).

But more than a creative force, more than a producer, and more than a writer, Johns is first and foremost a superfan of the company he now helps run.

That fact became clear during a recent interview with the 41-year-old in his Burbank office about all things DC Entertainment. Surrounded by shelves lined with superhero action figures, walls covered in Batman movie posters, and a very notable Justice League drawing that identified all the major players, Johns spoke quickly — and passionately — to BuzzFeed News about every facet of the multiverse he's come to call home.

This is the biggest DC on TV push we've ever had and what DC has on the air right now is as interesting as the shows themselves. When you look back at development for this season, what was the strategy behind these shows at this time?

Geoff Johns: It started from the top. It started with Kevin Tsujihara [CEO of Warner Bros. Entertainment], Diane Nelson [President of DC Entertainment and President & Chief Content Officer of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment], and Peter Roth [Chief Executive of Warner Brothers Television] making DC a priority — and then finding shows that were all very different. They all had to be extremely different so we weren't just doing Arrow, Arrow, Arrow, Arrow-lite. Everything we talked about, even since, is about how the shows can be very different. Like we have Supergirl and Lucifer in development, and they're both very different than everything we're doing now. It's well past time there's a female superhero out there, both in film and on television, and it's awesome that we're on the forefront of that. It's super-great. We sat down with Warner Bros. Television, Peter Roth, and Susan Rovner [co-president of Warner Horizon Scripted Television] who we work with very closely and talked about the different shows. You had Gotham with Bruno [Heller, executive producer], you had Flash, you had Constantine, and iZombie. iZombie was like this dark horse than showed up because Susan and Rob Thomas had been talking about doing something new and we had been talking to Susan about iZombie, and she helped champion that. I give her a lot of credit for iZombie because that was a great surprise in that it's so different. But we were very conscious to make all the shows unique with unique worlds and unique visions. That's the most important thing because we can't just repeat what we're doing.

The DC model you've described stands diametrically opposed to Marvel's, where all their content exist in the same world. What is it about the separate world idea that benefits your brand?

GJ: Well, Arrow and Flash are the same universe, and we get a lot of great story out of that — especially when we have episodes that cross them over, but that's also where our superhero universe lives. We look at it as the multiverse. We have our TV universe and our film universe, but they all co-exist. For us, creatively, it's about allowing everyone to make the best possible product, to tell the best story, to do the best world. Everyone has a vision and you really want to let the visions shine through. I think the characters are iconic enough. I like [Marvel's Agents of] S.H.I.E.L.D. a lot. I love what Marvel does. I'm a huge fan. It's just a different approach.

Since you have to be aware of your competition, what have you learned — either in terms of what to do or not to do — from how Marvel has approached their brand?

GJ: I'll just say this on the Marvel side, and I have tons of friends who work there, I think we're [both] trying to embrace the material. We're just embracing ours in a different way. I think, in particular, when you do a superhero show like The Flash, he's putting on a red costume, he's fighting the Rogues, he's in Central City; it's full on. If you've read The Flash comic and see the show, it's not the exact same, but it's an adaptation that's celebrating it. I think that's the key word: celebration. If we can execute this emotionally, he can wear a red costume with little wings on his outfit and you'll buy into it.

Do you feel like by not sandboxing ideas — this belongs in a film, this belongs in a TV show — and embracing this multiverse, showrunners feel like they have more creative freedom at DC because there's nothing that's being reserved?

GJ: We don't want to be policemen. The last thing in the world that we want to do is say no to something. The best thing we can do is work with the producers and try to be additive and collaborative and try to figure out how to expand it. Firestorm's role in The Flash grew organically, but now it's become something big and great because we can get Firestorm out there and his Rogues and everything. The key for all of this is to expose more of the DC universe and the Vertigo books to people so they fall in love with them too. We share that love of these characters. So for us we'd rather expand than contract.

Was there ever a discussion of having all these film and television universes be linked?

GJ: There's been discussions over the years for both, obviously. You never say never. Maybe one day we'll link a show to a film if it makes sense, but the creative process we're going through right now is to let the stuff live and breathe and be its own thing and own it.

How important is it to have someone from the TV side be involved in conversations about the development of the feature films?

GJ: You have to have conversations about what's happening in TV and film between everybody because you don't want to do the same thing. That's super, super important.

Do you feel like announcing that Ezra Miller would star in The Flash movie while Grant Gustin is playing The Flash on television was an important moment in terms of letting the public know these would be two distinct worlds?

GJ: We had talked about it previously being distinct, but I can't really talk about the films. We haven't really gone into detail about what that stuff is so I don't want to get too detailed yet. The cool thing about what they're doing with Grant and Stephen [Amell] on Flash and Arrow, respectively, is both shows explore different parts of the DC universe, but there is limitless potential there.

Have there been discussions about storylines or characters you don't want on the shows?

GJ: The fact I'm even pausing to consider that means that we haven't had those discussions. No. Organically they're all growing. No pun intended, Flash is moving pretty quickly. There's been pictures of the Reverse Flash out there on the net...

How do you feel about spoilers?

GJ: That's so fine with me. We live in a day and age where you can't control that stuff from happening and so you just have to embrace the best part of it, and, for us, it's that people are interested and they care. If they get a picture of someone on set and they're talking about it, that's great, because they're excited. We can't get too upset about that stuff. You have to let the world evolve.

So, yeah, with Flash, we're moving pretty quickly, embracing all of that material and getting into his lore and the comic book side of it all while staying true to the emotional components of the characters and stories. I'm trying to think if there's anything we've said, like, "We don't want to go there." I don't think so ... I mean, Batman's not going to show up in Episode 2. We're not going to do that. It even feels wrong to say. But I can't think of something where we're flat out, "No. We'll never do that."

Most of the DC shows on right now have very direct comic book antecedents, how much do you want those shows to pull from comics and how much do you want them to be inventing new characters?

GJ: With The Flash and Arrow, [executive producers Greg] Berlanti, [Marc] Guggenheim, and [Andrew] Kreisberg are huge fans. They know this stuff backwards and forwards, so we have a shorthand where we can say, "Bring in Katana" or "Let's do Deathstroke."

We're trying to utilize as many characters as we possibly can, but there is a conscious effort to explore the DC universe. Like on Constantine, we already have Jim Corrigan, we put Dr. Fate's helmet in the pilot; that wasn't just a easter egg. I like the term easter egg, but I prefer all our easter eggs actually lead somewhere, that they're foreshadowing. So a lot of the things we've planted in these series are there to lead to and introduce new characters.

One of the great things about Smallville was that it introduced Green Arrow, so there was an awareness. And even though Arrow is a totally different character, there was some pre-awareness for the character that, I think, helped The CW get behind the show. The more we can get these characters out there, the more people are aware of them, and become inspired by them. There might be someone out there who sees Dr. Fate on an episode of Constantine and suddenly they love that character and they become a creator later on and tell me they have a great take for a Dr. Fate TV show. That's what we want to happen. We want to inspire people with this stuff. And we want to get it out there. Like, I can't believe Gorilla Grodd's gonna be in a Flash TV show. That's insane. Like, I say it out loud and I still think it's insane. But that's what we want to do; we want to break new ground. Like, Firestorm [Robbie Amell] is going to be seen in live-action! We're going to have a freakin' Justice League movie! How crazy exciting is that? To see all this stuff happen, it gets me really, really excited. Who ever thought we'd see an Ant-Man movie? Like, if you're a fan of superheroes or comic books, to see all this stuff coming to life — and done with skill and talent ... we never could have made a Flash show with effects like this a few years ago.

Agreed. When I watched The Flash pilot, I assumed all the effects were so amazing because you guys got tons of money to make the pilot and that Episode 2 would be Barry skipping down the street.

GJ: No way. Oh man, there's a sequence in Episode 4 that I'm partial to because I love Captain Cold [Wentworth Miller] — there's a sequence at the end that is so insane, that I'm like, "Are we actually going to be able to pull this off?" And they did. It feels like a movie.

All of the DC shows feel incredibly cinematic. There's a shot in Gotham's fourth episode of Barbara [Erin Richards] and Jim [Ben McKenzie] that was one of the most beautiful things I've seen on network TV in a while. When people talk about DC's TV shows versus movies, do you feel defensive because you're putting out movie-quality products on a weekly basis?

GJ: Not defensive. The best thing is they're talking about it. And there should be debates. You can't quell that debate. That's like saying, what's better: chocolate or vanilla? The debate should rage on, people should talk about it. I think Danny Cannon established a completely beautiful cinematic version of Gotham for Gotham. Same with David Nutter on The Flash and Arrow. The production values are just beautiful. Or, as Peter Roth says, "It's undeniable." That's what you really want to take away. Warner TV has been such a great partner and put so much into making these shows the best they can be and supporting them in every way. And you can see that because it's all on screen.

Gotham has been interesting in that it's not completely a superhero show but it's also not completely a procedural; it's really creating its own niche, which I think can take some time to gel. Where's your head at in terms of where Gotham is right now?

GJ: I'm a little ahead, but you guys saw Episode 5 this week, right?

Yes, "Viper."

GJ: Yeah, that was fun — a precursor to Venom. I love Robin [Lord Taylor]; Oswald Cobblepot is such a wonderful character and I think people will be really excited about where he goes. But when Bruno came in to image Gotham, he saw it more like an urban drama. It's not even a police drama, even though your main characters are cops; it really feels like more of an urban sprawl. We talked about Game of Thrones and how there are all these different factions going on, and it feels like Gotham City is that. The world will continue to grow as new characters are coming in, like Harvey Dent [Nicholas D'Agosto], and others get more to do, like [Edward] Nygma [Cory Michael Smith]. Gotham is this slowly rolling thing, slowly revealing this side of the city and these characters.

To have a show where the first episode lets you know you're in Gotham City but you'll likely never see Batman is kind of crazy. What excites you about working on a show that gives you Gotham but not the person who has represented Gotham in the comics for so long?

GJ: The great thing about the potential of Gotham is exploring characters like Oswald Cobblepot. The focus isn't on a guy in a Batman costume. Which is great. Everyone loves Batman, we want to see Batman — and you will on the big screen; Ben Affleck will be awesome. But you've got an opportunity to explore other characters that haven't gotten this kind of attention. You could have hours and hours of great television to explore how Oswald Cobblepot became The Penguin that we know. Or, how does Edward Nygma go from working forensics to become The Riddler? And so on. To see that city develop, and see Selina Kyle [Camren Bicondova] grow up, and see Bruce [David Mazouz] grow up, and Alfred [Sean Pertwee] — there's a bunch of stuff coming up with Alfred that Sean is just itching to do because he's a pretty physical guy, and it's exciting because you'll see a different side to Alfred than you've seen before. The exploration of these characters is what makes the show worthwhile. I think Oswald has already captured people's imaginations.

Oh, he's easily one of the best characters on TV right now.

GJ: Yeah, and, in retrospect, when I bought my Super Powers figures, he was the last one I wanted! The Penguin has always just been this hunk of plastic with an umbrella. Like, why would I want that! Where's Cyclotron? But Bruno hooked into Oswald, he just found him, said, "What's his origin?" To have Bruno delve into him that much and have Robin play him as he does, he becomes a totally different character and I don't think people will look at Penguin the same way when all is said and done.

The other cool thing that I've found about Gotham, as a viewer, is it allows you to come up with theories about where everything is going because it's telling a story you don't know. For example, my friend and I have a theory about what happens to Fish [Jada Pinkett Smith] and Penguin based on their names.

GJ: Fish Mooney is a great new character. I think Jada Pinkett Smith surprised everybody by delivering that performance and Fish has become such a good character. Like, all the publishers want to put her in the books now because she's so cool.

Do you want that screen-to-panel journey to be happening more?

GJ: When it makes sense. Like, Diggle is in the [Arrow] books now. Oliver Queen doesn't have a ton of supporting characters in the comics, so to suddenly have John Diggle is great. David Ramsey is an unbelievable actor, one of the most professional people I've ever worked with, and the character is written so well that Diggle just quickly became a permanent fixture on the show. I mean, you can't even imagine the series without him. But he wasn't really a huge part of the universe for the first few episodes. David made that character so amazing that when the [comic book] writers were working on Arrow, they were like, "Let's bring him in because we need more supporting characters and he's someone people know and love." Suddenly, he becomes part of the lore. So it does go the other way.

In terms of special effects, given the success you've had with The Flash, does it make you take a second look any at comic properties, ones that you previously considered unfilmable?

GJ: Yes.

Care to share which ones?

GJ: No. [laughs] I'll say this: Arrow was a step, Flash was a step, Supergirl is kind of the next step because she flies! Like, Supergirl flies! How can we do that on television? But, Greg's super confident in that. If we can make a guy run at superspeed and have a guy create a tornado, we can probably make somebody fly.

What show could Geoff Johns make today that would make Geoff Johns as a child the happiest?

GJ: The Flash. It's The Flash.

Then what does it mean to you to have come to a place in your career where you were able to successfully give that character a TV show?

GJ: One of the things I don't think people do enough, myself included, is just stop and really be grateful and happy and live in that moment. I couldn't be more grateful to be a part of DC or be here to see it happen because Flash was my favorite character as a kid. I have every issue of his comics, I collected it, I grew up watching the first series, so to be able to be a part of watching this show form — and seeing the reaction to it — has been really, really exciting.

When you look at DC on TV, what is the response you want your brand to evoke from audiences?

We work with the best studio in the world with Warner Bros. and the quality of the shows is the best it could possibly be, but you roll the dice on a lot of these things. A lot of shows get canceled, so the hope is that the shows and the characters capture an audience. We do this to expose these characters to people who already love them and to introduce them to new people who think The Flash is just a guy who runs fast.

We all love this stuff, we want to make as many episodes as we can. All of us working on it love it, and we work with people who love it. The goal is to celebrate and embrace it. Those are the two words: celebrate and embrace. This stuff means a lot to a lot of people and we're all working really, really hard to get it right ... and hopefully bring something new to it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Gotham airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on FOX, The Flash airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW, Arrow airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW, Constantine premieres Oct. 24 at 10 p.m. on NBC, and iZombie premieres on The CW in 2015.

Geoff Johns is not writing 2018's The Flash movie. An earlier version of this story stated that Geoff Johns is attached to the project as a writer.

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