This week I finally caught up with Justice League, the first pinnacle of the supposed epic and endless cinematic universe of DC Comic Books. The reason why it took me so long to catch up with the movie is simply because the movie was finally at the price point that I thought was worth my time and money (that price point being a VOD rental of $6.99 CAD). That fact alone should tell you a little bit of the sad state that this DC Extended Universe (DCEU) is in. The assemblage of earth’s mightiest heroes onscreen should have been the definition of an event movie that I, a comic book and movie fan, would’ve flocked to on opening weekend or shortly thereafter. It was meant to be the crown jewel in the multi-film franchise. Instead the movie came and went in the middle of November to the collective shrug of the moviegoing audience and failed to crack the top 10 of the box office for the year (heck, it wasn’t even Warner Bros. highest grossing movie that year). In fact, it is the lowest grossing movie in the DCEU which is absolutely shocking (It did worse than Suicide Squad. Let that sink in.)
And then there was the pure shock of seeing the movie on my TV. The movie had all the ambition of a TV pilot that would not have looked out of place as part the CW’s own DC lineup on TV. This is not a knock on those CW shows as they are extremely good superhero TV shows. But Justice League is a $300 million dollar blockubuster movie, it has no business stooping anywhere close to the level of a network television show. The special effects on this, one of the most expensive movies of all time, looks laughably cheap with whole scenes looking like they were obviously shot on green screen. It is an astonishing mystery how the heck anybody involved in this movie allow any of that to get past post-production (Superman’s weird facial de-moustaching is the least of the movie’s visual problems). And then there is the actual story itself which is less of a complete plot and more like a series of character introductions followed by a feature-length third act. It is an almighty mess, but not the kind where you can tell that the team threw everything they had at it. Instead, it is a movie in which DC looks like they threw in the towel.
This begs the question, how exactly did this happen? How does a comic book multi-film universe with the most iconic superheroes ever fail this badly? Now before I get a bunch of fanboys calling me a Marvel fan and therefore unqualified to judge DC movies, let me state for the record that my favourite superhero has and always will be Batman. And as a comic book fan, nothing would please me more than the emergence of DC as a second viable cinematic universe in Hollywood. Justice League and all that it represents is not just something I am indifferently judging, but is something whose failure I am actively angry about because it is such a wasted opportunity. So what exactly went wrong with the DCEU? I have some thoughts (which might obviously venture into some SPOILER territory so consider yourself warned):
THE CATCH-UP GAME PROBLEM
From the moment the DCEU was first announced with the release of Man of Steel in 2013 it was clear that DC Comics and Warner Bros. were playing a desperate catch-up game. In his book The Big Picture Ben Fritz details the rise of Marvel Studios and the concept of cinematic universe they pioneered in the previous decade and it is clear that every other studio in Hollywood was caught completely unawares by Marvel’s strategy. Everybody in the industry expected it to be a colossal mistake and when it didn’t studios were left scrambling for anything in their wheelhouse that could possibly compete with Marvel’s success.
This was certainly the case with Warner Bros. and DC Comics. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was clearly envisioned as a standalone movie, or at least as the start of a Superman movie series. Then The Avengers happened in 2012 and blew everybody’s expectations away. It was the ultimate proof-of-concept that a cinematic universe could work and a box-office phenomenon to boot. Suddenly a mere Superman movie series was just not going to cut it, and days before the release of Man of Steel Snyder and David Goyer were quickly resigned to fast-track a sequel and set-up DC’s own cinematic universe.
Unlike Marvel, which took four years and five standalone movies that were carefully plotted to develop the central characters of the universe enough to launch The Avengers, DC wanted their universe to be on a level playing field with Marvel as quickly as possible. And this is the central problem with what’s wrong with the DCEU.
The whole enterprise has reeked of trying to beat Marvel at its own game, and for the most part on Marvel’s terms. Batman vs. Superman (BVS), the second movie in the DCEU, was conceived from the get-go as a backdoor Justice League movie where, not merely content with already using a Superman movie to introduce Batman, they decided to shoehorn Wonder Woman too to jumpstart the universe. Later on when DC saw how much better the reception was for the relatively light-hearted Captain America: Civil War compared to their own dour BVS they scrambled to do some reshoots and retool their next picture Suicide Squad to make it jokier. Naturally that didn’t work. And Justice League is filled to the brim with painfully awkward banter as all the main characters of the universe attempt to “lighten up” in a blatant attempt to make the League more like the Avengers.
The movie that suffers the least from this problem is Wonder Woman and it is no coincidence that this is easily the best movie of the DCEU. You know what? Let’s just establish here and now that of the plethora of things that are wrong with the DCEU, Wonder Woman is most definitely not one of them. The movie’s critical and cultural success is so phenomenal that it underscores just how disappointing the rest of the DCEU has been. But for the rest of this article, just assume that I’m not talking about Wonder Woman.
THE “NO KEVIN FEIGE” PROBLEM
Take a look at most of the directors of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and one thing becomes obvious: many aren’t well known or prolific in the traditional sense. In addition there have been 13 different director (or director teams) which one might think would lend itself to a disjointed universe and yet there is remarkable cohesion amongst these movies even when their subject matters wildly differ. And this is because throughout all of those movies there has been one constant: Kevin Feige as producer.
He has somewhat amped up his role of producer in that he has strong editorial oversight over the direction of each individual movie. He also has a team of people whose primary job is to plot out the cinematic universe, making sure that the individual movies fit into the larger universe both in terms of continuity and tone. In this way he functions more like a traditional showrunner on a television show with each movie’s director functioning like directors of individual episodes on a TV show. While this has been stifling to some of the more creative directors (Joss Whedon complaining publicly about Avengers: Age of Ultron; Edgar Wright leaving Ant Man over creative differences), it is clear that Feige’s role has been instrumental in making sure that this enormous universe doesn’t go adrift.
When the DCEU started, they didn’t have a “Kevin Feige”-type producer to oversee the development of the shared universe. Instead they basically handed the universe over to Man of Steel’s director Zack Snyder (I will talk about the “Snyderfication” of the DC universe in just a second, but here I want to focus more on the structural problem such a move was). A director’s chief concern is, and should be, whatever film they are currently making. They should not be involved in any of the balcony level thinking involved in making sure the uber-franchise stays on track. And for the most part it seems that Snyder adhered to the more traditional role of a director, focusing on the movie right in front of him primarily and only secondarily thinking about where the DCEU would go next. While this is precisely what he should have done as a director as a result the DCEU painted itself into some unfortunate narrative corners that future movies would either try to pivot unconvincingly away from or double-down on to its further detriment.
THE “SNYDERFICATION” OF DC COMICS’ UNIVERSE
Zack Snyder has over the course of his career developed as remarkable visual director whose storytelling has often been let down by his unsubtle baroque style and his penchant for dwelling in unnecessarily “dark” themes. Watchmen (his best film in my opinion) was a fantastic visualization of Alan Moore’s dark seminal comic but its flaws are aplenty especially as most of its major narrative beats are hammered home by this same visual style to create movie “moments” in place of actual character development.
As you might suspect, Snyder carries his directorial style into the DCEU with similar aplomb. His first two movies Man of Steel and BVS were dark affairs with a similar dour colour palette as, like in Watchmen, Snyder seemed hell-bent on deconstructing the myths of Superman and Batman for contemporary audiences. While deconstruction of our myths can make for some fascinating storytelling, it should also be clearly obvious how deconstructing these superheroes might be counter-productive in helping to build a universe especially when said deconstruction is the first thing that happens in the DCEU.
Nowhere is the “Snyderfication” of the DCEU more problematic than Snyder’s fateful decision to have Superman kill Zod, and the resultant colossal collateral damage to Metropolis, at the end of Man of Steel. As you can see in this article here, Snyder has spent a lot of time defending this particular narrative choice. He has oscillated between it being the reason why Superman never kills again (because apparently unlike most of humanity, the Son of Krypton must somehow learn that killing is bad first-hand) to doubling down and calling all of us who have reservations about Superman killing being naive (“Of course Superman would kill, the only way he can be relevant in the 21st century is if he does kill”).
The problem of course, is that either one of those views are a fundamental betrayal of the character as he has been historically conceived. As I watched Man of Steel and the climactic battle with Zod I was reminded of the first time Superman battled Zod in Superman II (1980). There, though he had the upper hand against Zod (who also had Ursa and Non to back him up) in their battle in Metropolis, Superman willingly gives up when he realizes that the villainous trio intends to hurt civilians. Christopher Reeve’s Superman giving up is not seen as a sign of weakness on Superman’s part, but rather an admirable show of sacrifice. We admire Superman because although he has the power to rule with an iron fist, he chooses not to. Though he could destroy any enemy who stands in his way, he does not. Superman’s internal moral code, as much as it opens him up to ridicule for his naivety, is also exactly what makes him a compelling character worthy of our admiration. He has the power to defeat the forces of evil the easy way, but he chooses to do it the right way.
This is exactly what makes the wanton destruction of Metropolis so problematic for the DCEU. In the best light, it means Superman’s first fight was an act of pure amateurism, clumsy and careless as countless thousands of innocent lives were killed in the climactic battle. In the worst light, it means that the Superman of the DCEU is a despotic utilitarian, with little care for the lives of the people of Metropolis in his quest to defeat Zod. But in either case it strips Superman of the one quality that has made his myth endure for over eighty years: his admirable strength of character.
In BVS Snyder doubles down on the more utilitarian approach by unblinkingly making a Superman who has levelled Metropolis an unswervingly beloved figure by the population. The city’s memorial to the countless lost is literally a statue in his honour. And Batman, as the one who is suspicious of Superman and seeks to find ways to curtail it, is shown to be the slightly more villainous one of the two (in an especially troll-like move, Snyder has his version of Batman also be someone who unflinchingly kills villains).
Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say I would be opposed to stories about Superman and Batman where they are contrary to their historical characters. But as in comics like The Dark Knight Returns or Injustice or Superman: Red Son, the point (and appeal) of those stories is found in exploring just how much they can push those characters past their traditional breaking points. These stories are framed from the offset as not part of the established meta-narrative. And Snyder would be entirely justifiable if that was where he wanted to tell his story. But the DCEU is not an alternative retelling of DC Comic’s, it is set out to be the definitive one. And as such major deviations like ones done with Superman’s character in the first two movies are hard to swallow and hard to appeal to a larger audience who have a specific archetype of who Superman is and isn’t.
It is telling that in Justice League Superman’s character (post-ressurection) is suddenly cracking jokes with the crew and behaving above board. Unfortunately now the DCEU faces the problem that they have already established the dour and slightly vengeful Superman and it seems incongruous for us to accept his change of character now, even though it is closer to how he has been historically portrayed. The cat, or cape as you might say, has already been let out of the bag at this point.
THE KITCHEN SINK APPROACH
It took DCEU all of two movies to kill Superman in Batman vs. Superman. Let that sink in. The Death of Superman was THE comic book event of the 1990s (it was also severely overrated, but that is another story). And yet in only this second Superman movie of the DCEU (and the second movie overall) they decided to spring one of the biggest comic book stories in all of history.
This would not be a problem in itself except that they also decided to shoehorn a huge chunk of the basic elements of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns while they were at it (with a strong hint of A Death in the Family to boot). They also decided that BVS should be a backdoor pilot for the Justice League (the full title of the movie was Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and served as the first full introduction to the DCEU of such luminaries like Batman, Robin (R.I.P.), Alfred Pennyworth, Lex Luthor, Doomsday, AND Wonder Woman. Is it any wonder that the movie is a tiresome and overstuffed slog?
But besides this overstuffing problem (which Marvel is not immune to. *cough* Age of Ultron *cough*) the larger problem that BVS created was that it left the DCEU with an enormously large ceiling to try and top. Where do you go after you’ve killed the most powerful superhero in the world? The actual DC comic books had this exact same question as they struggled to fill the enormous void that Superman left behind. They eventually solved it by bringing Superman back a couple of years later and this is a move that the DCEU copied with Justice League. But these incredibly game-changing moves made so early in the game have the effect of leaving the DCEU with little place to go. Now that you’ve already killed Superman, you can’t legitimately dangle that as a threat again. And now that you’ve already established that a superhero can return from the dead, you similarly can’t expect us to believe the potential deaths of any other superhero for the next half-dozen movies or so.
And lest you think this is strictly a BVS problem rest assured that most of the DCEU struggles with this same problem. Suicide Squad introduces us to a bunch of iconic DC villains without ever introducing us to the superheroes who they fight against, resulting in a largely dissociative experience for non-comic book fans. It also has the audacity to tease the Joker, perhaps the greatest comic book villain ever, and use him strictly as a cameo appearance (granted, given Jared Leto’s bizarre acting choices in that role it might be for the best). Meanwhile Justice League stuffs the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg in the first third of the movie and expects us to fall in love with them instantly in order to make the group’s banter later on in the movie remotely believable.
Clearly being half a decade behind Marvel caused DC to feel like they needed to work overtime to catch-up. It is the only thing I can think as to why so much has gotten introduced to the DCEU in so short a time. But unfortunately in their rush to catch-up, they have cut corners especially in terms of actual character development. And as Justice League’s box-office numbers show, the audience has checked out.
THE FUTURE OF DCEU
As I said right from the top, Justice League feels more like an admission of failure rather than a bold step in a new direction. Even before the movie was released, news had broken that DC was officially taking a step back from building continuity in favour of focusing on standalone products from DC’s stable.
This is probably for the best. The fact that Wonder Woman is a standalone instalment in the DCEU that is also its biggest success naturally has a large role in this shift of focus. Of course DC shifting its focus after the success of one movie could be seen as another piece of evidence of how they have been largely reactionary rather than strategic in plotting out the DCEU. But there is reason to hope. The move seems mostly to be coming from a place of honest introspection as to what went wrong in the DCEU. In addition as Patty Jenkins showed with Wonder Woman and Christopher Nolan did with his Dark Knight trilogy, great things can come if you just allow good directors to place their own spin and play to their own strengths when adapting superhero movies (already the thought of a Martin Scorsese Joker movie is automatically one of the more intriguing future projects out there).
At the end of the day however it is hard not to be massively disappointed with the DCEU. In the scramble that studios made to try and get the next uber-franchise, Warner Bros. and DC Comics seemed to be the best primed to succeed. DC’s cavalcade of superheroes is arguably deeper than Marvel’s with their A-team superheroes being some of the most iconic of all time (by contrast, Marvel Comic’s two biggest series are the Avengers and the X-Men which operates on a strength-in-numbers principle). The DCEU should’ve worked and it should’ve worked easily. I cannot help but think that its failure has absolutely nothing to do with the intellectual property and everything to do with a lack of foresight, planning, and patience by Warner Bros.
Fortunately for comic book movie fans, the underwhelming box-office and critical drubbing does not mean that Warner Bros. is suddenly going to abandon making comic book movies like they did after Batman & Robin (1997). Instead there are currently at least five DC movies in production (Aquaman, Shazam, Wonder Woman 2, Cyborg, Green Lantern Corps) and about a dozen other projects in development. The DCEU is not going away. And with a shift away from continuity building to standalone projects it might also pave the way to being a more compelling cinematic universe. Standalone projects attract more interesting directors such as Ava Duvernay (The New Gods), Matt Reeves (The Batman), and James Wan (Aquaman) among others. These movies will also not have the enormous weight of fealty to continuity on its shoulders. There is a reason why both DC and Marvel comics have frequently engaged in rebooting projects because after awhile the universe becomes too unwieldy to attract new readers or tell compellingly accessible stories in them. This is a problem that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going to have to face and maneuver around soon as it enters its second decade of continuity building. The DCEU is explicitly avoiding that problem which may in the end be the more sustainable move even as it finds itself currently lost in the wilderness.