Opinion - In the Shadow of the Bat: How DC Films and Warner Bros Have Learned Nothing Since the Succ
[Buckle up folks, this is gonna be a long one. - Ed.]
I found myself watching Green Lantern the other night, mostly because I was kind of shocked to hear from my mom that her significant other was interested in seeing the film. Given that he’s got a distaste for most things pertaining to comic books and science fiction…as well as the film’s reputation and critical reception…well, I think it’s pretty safe to say he’s not going to like it. Still, all of this brought to mind the behind-the-scenes drama that went on during the production of Green Lantern: having an opening date before having a completed script (as star Ryan Reynolds is quick to point out), all sorts of script drama once said script was completed, a change in directors, uneven CG (including the controversial costumes) and so forth. And yet, The Dark Knight Rises, released a year later (and was likely in production at the same time as GL) raked in money hand-over-fist. Sure, it had a better lead in with the stellar The Dark Knight, but why did Batman flourish while GL flopped. And even after GL, the following DC Cinematic Universe, of which GL had been supposed to kick-start but due to its complete failure that task was handed to Man of Steel, well, it never really found its footing either…culminating in a Justice League film that suffered from script problems, a change in directors, uneven CG and so forth. Sound familiar? All of which brings me to a singular point: I don’t think Warner Bros has learned a single thing since Green Lantern failed.
What makes Batman films so popular? Well, of course, yes, even I have to confess part of it is due to the popularity of the character himself. And film producers take notice of that: a bankable IP that’s always going to provide some return. If you’re a Marvel fan, see Wolverine. And yet, Batman films have failed at the box office. That’s why there’s an eight year gap between Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. But here’s the thing: at the beginning, 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns, Warners took a hands-off approach toward Tim Burton…well…mostly. It was only after Batman Returns where corporate sponsors such as McDonalds and toy companies like Kenner threatened to pull back from licensing the property unless the films could appeal to the demographics they catered to…children. Burton was axed…Schumacher was in. Something to keep in mind here is the fact that, like Superman before, Burton, like Donner, had an emotional connection to the character he was bringing to the screen…whereas with some of the lines Schumacher would use on set (“Remember everyone, this is just a comic book!”), no matter what he might say then or now, it was clearly just a job for him. When Christopher Nolan brought Batman back to the big screen, again, it was hands-off. Sure, Mattel still had toys out there, but to be fair, the toy market had changed at this point and wasn’t solely aimed at children anymore…there was now a collector’s market. So in some ways, that might have helped Nolan’s more mature take on the character gain some traction. Companies were buying the license for Batman…period. And with that hands-off approach, well, look at what Nolan’s trilogy did: 2 films with worldwide box office totals exceeding a billion dollars each and, so far, the only comic book film to win an Oscar in something that wasn’t a ‘technical’ category…Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor win for his turn as the Joker.
With Marvel’s Cinematic Universe taking off in 2008’s Iron Man and with Phase 1 of their films reaching their culmination with 2012’s The Avengers opening two months prior to the final act of Nolan’s trilogy, Warners, knowing they owned Marvel’s chief rival in the superhero business, DC, were salivating over the money to be made by putting out a competing universe of films. Rewind a bit, I’m getting ahead of myself. You see, Green Lantern had actually been under development for the cinematic treatment since 1997. [Thank whatever deity you pray to that the Jack Black starring vehicle version never saw the light of day…just sayin’. – Ed.] Greg Berlanti was brought in to get the project moving in 2007, both as writer and director. At this point, Berlanti was a bit of an unknown quantity. Sure, he’d directed an independent film that premiered at Sundance, but he was mostly known for his TV work, most notably Dawson’s Creek. Of course now, he’s better known as the figurehead of DC’s successful Arrow-verse TV shows…and if you look up his original GL script on the interwebs, most folks give it a thumbs-up…many even suggesting it might be one of those ‘greatest scripts never put to film’. I personally haven’t read it, so I can’t make a comment one way or the other, but what I can say is this: look at his current successes with Arrow, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl and now Black Lightning and compare this to the fact that the best in superhero media, be it a cartoon, TV show or feature film, they’re all captained by someone that has a passion for the material they’re working with. It’s in this context that, sure hindsight being 20/20, we can see that Berlanti would have been a perfect shepherd to usher GL to movie screens. But again, at this point in his career, he hadn’t been proven and CERTAINLY hadn’t been proven to be able to helm a multi-million dollar tentpole film that Warners needed to compete with the growing MCU. Berlanti was removed from the director’s chair in 2009 and replaced by Martin Campbell. And on the surface, that seems like a good move, right? Martin Campbell’s a seasoned director and a known quantity, having helmed two successful relaunches of James Bond as well as a re-invention of Zorro. But for one director, this would have been a passion project and for the other…just a job.
In a rare moment of possible foresight…okay, maybe that’s giving them a little too much credit as we’ll see in a bit…Warners appeared to have a back-up plan in case Green Lantern didn’t catch on. It would only appear as such from the point of view of someone that doesn’t follow the history of superhero films…and DC’s in particular. You see, there’s a unique cinematic relationship between Superman and Batman: when one franchise is doing well, they try to use the team responsible for that to take on the other. For example, when Superman took off in the late 70s/early 80s, Warners tried to put Tom Mankiewicz on Batman. That never took off. In the 90s, Warners famously tried to put Tim Burton on Superman. Yeah, that didn’t work either. And so, with the success of his Dark Knight trilogy, Chris Nolan was approached to put his take on Superman. While he would step away and fill the role of producer, David S Goyer, writer of Batman Begins and story credit on the remaining two acts of the trilogy, would in fact take a crack at the Man of Steel. In the director’s chair, Nolan would recruit Zack Snyder who had already helmed two other comic adaptations for Warners, 300 and Watchmen and was a self-proclaimed Superman fan. Once again, things get a bit interesting here as Snyder was mostly left alone to create his own version of Superman. Audience reaction was mixed, but it might be worthwhile to take a look at this in context. Snyder’s intent was to follow in Nolan’s footsteps in some ways…to create a more grounded, realistic take on everyone’s favorite Kryptonian. This take may have been doomed to failure on the outset, as by this point, Marvel’s lighter tone had already been established and, in some way, is what audiences were expecting from ALL comic book movies now. This could lead me down a bit of a rabbit hole, but I’ve already made that rant, so let’s move on. Critical reception aside, let’s take a look at sheer box office: Man of Steel topped out with a domestic take of a little over $290 million and a worldwide of just a hair over $668 million. If you compare that to Marvel’s Phase 1 films, Superman ends up beating Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America domestically and all Marvel Phase 1 films except for Avengers worldwide. THAT’S NOT BAD! At all! And remember, when it comes to comic book movies, sure, the origin story’s cool and all, but it’s usually the sequel, now that the rules have been established in the first film, that typically kicks ass. Naturally, there are exceptions…but even just comparing the box office from Marvel Phase 1, when moviegoers were new to this shared-universe concept, to Phase 2 where the Marvel brand has been established…and you see a universal increase in box office across all films. A high tide raises all ships. But here’s the thing: Superman didn’t pull down Avengers-type money. Superman didn’t hit Nolan’s Batman-type money. What they failed to realize is that while Superman is indeed one of the most recognizable characters in the world…neck and neck or just behind Batman (depending on who you ask)…he’s just not as popular. His ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ is out of fashion. Also, you have to take a look at this even within the context of Nolan’s Batman. Batman Begins only had a domestic take of around $205 million with a worldwide box of around $374 million. And Man of Steel exceeded both of those figures. The real money, as shown both in Marvel Phase 2 and the remaining chapters of Nolan’s trilogy, is in the follow up…the sequels. Also, sequels are where you tweak what didn’t work in the original film and incorporate audience/critical feedback. This would not be as it’s from here that what would have been Man of Steel 2 made a drastic shift and became Batman V Superman. On the one hand, you can see Warners’ logic: Man of Steel didn’t meet their expectations…nor critics/audiences (half of ‘em anyway) and Batman had regained his position of being a bankable, known quantity. Adding the Bat would no doubt bring in the cash…but also there’s the fact that there’s now a game of catch-up to be played as not only had Avengers crossed $1 billion worldwide, but so had Iron Man 3 which came out about a month before Man of Steel. I think it’s obvious why the first entry into a cinematic universe shouldn’t be compared to the third film of a particular character and the seventh film in that particular universe…so I won’t go into that debate here, but apparently, this was not the mindset of Warners. The meddling would begin.
Even once the title of the film was finally released to the public, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I can recall the internet recoiling some. Wasn’t that a bit…much? Sure, maybe…but let’s face it, once we got the Avengers it was only a matter of time before we got the League too…so for me it wasn’t a big deal that Warners advertised their intent. My problem, and maybe this belongs in the previous paragraph, was that Warners had no faith in the Superman character on his own to allow a conflict with Batman to grow out of a Man of Steel sequel and/or a solo Batman film before having the two meet in a film. But whatever, let’s talk about the film itself…as there’s certainly plenty to talk about, with BvS proving to be the turning point in DC films. Given their release dates, it should be a given that Suicide Squad was in production at approximately the same time. The big takeaway from Man of Steel was the so-called ‘destruction-porn’ during the film’s final battle…and all of the citizens of Metropolis who found themselves in danger. Sure, you could argue, again, more realistic, but you’ll be shouted down by about 90% of the internet. But, again, Snyder was left mostly alone...once Batman was forced into the picture that is…at least from what I can recall. The scuttlebutt that stands out most in my memory was the fact that the picture was screened for WB execs and it received a standing ovation. In the light of retrospect, it’s pretty safe to assume that they must have seen what we would come to know as the Ultimate Edition…Snyder’s 3-hour cut…and not the theatrical cut. In fact…it’s this theatrical cut that showed Warners’ reticence with regards to the film: it was good for them as execs…but would it be good in the eyes of the audience? For critics? And so…the scissors came out.
When you view the Ultimate Edition, it’s a more balanced film…as we follow Batman’s side of the conflict and Superman’s side of the conflict. Now, some of the inherent problems for some fans are still present. With the theatrical cut, yeah, I still enjoyed it, but it favored Batman more. On the one hand, that’s fine, he’s the new character so of course he should get extra screen time…Superman had a whole film prior to this to establish himself while Batman needs at least a little heavy lifting, so to speak. And while I didn’t see this as an issue, audiences and critics felt the film to be disjointed. Imagine that…a film with 30 minutes yanked out being disjointed? Get right out of town. The thing is…the Ultimate Edition managed to convert some who had been critical of the theatrical release. To be fair, these were people/critics that were generally on the negative side of middle ground and there was enough improvement to tip the balance in the other direction. But in some ways, the damage had already been done: many were so disgusted by the theatrical cut that they would never revisit the film to see this new, more balanced yet longer cut. Here’s where we enter into speculation: what would the difference have been had Warners ran with Snyder’s initial vision/version? I’d argue that it couldn’t have been any worse, given the 27% Rotten Tomatoes score and the acceptable attitude on the internet to bash the film whenever one even remotely or tangentially gets the chance. Good reception or not, the theatrical cut did prove to be a hit for Warners, but again falling short of expectations. Warners wanted this to join the billion-dollar club…and it fell short pulling in around $330 million domestically and totaling short of $874 million worldwide. Again, if you compare that to anything Marvel did in Phase 1, it beats everything except the Avengers. And again, Warners’ expectations were too much. Avengers was the culmination of FIVE preceding films while this was only DC’s second. On top of that, while all the Phase 1 films were met with mostly positive reactions (The Incredible Hulk being the only one to receive a more lukewarm reception), Man of Steel proved to be divisive with a slight leaning toward the positive. While I understand that Warners may have wanted to build their universe in a different way from how Marvel did it…it really does feel like an instance of wanting too much too soon.
Five months later, Suicide Squad would get its release…and…hooo boy. While trailers were received fairly positively, particularly for the humor that, according to the popular consensus, had been missing from the previous two entries in DC’s new universe. [I tend to disagree with that. Sure, they weren’t as jokey as Marvel’s stuff but there were occasional quips to break the tension at appropriate moments. – Ed.] But with the Squad…we started to hear…more. Stories of the cast members tattooing each other or Jared Leto’s method antics as the Joker while cameras were and were not rolling seemed to be expected as just the typical backstage antics usually associated with productions in general. But it was the news of friction between director David Ayer and the studio, competing scripts and edits of the film along with stories of retakes and reshoots as well as hints at the Joker’s dwindling screen time and…well…you could sense a storm in the air…or perhaps blood in the water might be a more appropriate analogy because after the critical failure of the theatrical cut of BvS, critics were like sharks on this one, having already torn up one corpse and hungry for more. However, there’s a big difference here between Suicide Squad and BvS: although the latter would get a director’s cut, the Squad only got an extended cut…and that extended cut DID NOT have input from the director. Nothing was put forward as to whether or not there would even be a director’s cut. Even now, Ayer isn’t hesitant to air his regrets about the film and how he could’ve done it better…but he almost seems too clear that it’s in the past tense. That’s a shame, given how much footage with the Joker has been reported to be shot and yet may never see the light of day. The one thing Warners was pretty quick to leak out though? Even during production? Batman would have a cameo in the film. Of course he would…because by this point, we now have 2 DC films that show Warners’ lack of confidence in anything that doesn’t have Batman in it and the need to shoehorn him into any other character’s spotlight…potentially for no other reason than to secure an audience and squeeze out a little extra cash out of them. Look, even with my Bat-fatigue I’ll admit that having him in Suicide Squad is a nice little extra…some connective tissue that helps to attach this film to the others because it very easily could’ve been a pure stand-alone film. But given that the plot is springboarded by the fact that this team is formed in the absence of a now-dead Superman…that alone tethers it to this fledgling universe. To get back on topic, even though he (Ayer) claimed the theatrical cut as his director’s cut, word leaked out that actually, two cuts of the film were made, one by the studio and one by Ayer and the resulting theatrical release was an amalgamation of the two. And given the critical response, well, we see how well that turned out.
At this point in the construction of the DCEU, as it would be come to be known, let’s pause and reflect on what we’ve seen so far and, again, draw in some parallels from Marvel’s Phase 1. We’re three films in and at this point, have only had two directors shaping the tone of the universe, Snyder and Ayer. And that lines up really well with Marvel at this point with only Jon Favreau and Louis Leterrier. Plus, you have to remember that not everything was hunky-dory over at Marvel during this beginning either: there was behind-the-scenes drama on the set of The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton trying his best to take over the picture entirely away from Leterrier and while opinions on the merits (or lack thereof) of Iron Man 2 are certainly up for discussion, most can agree that it was the charm of the cast that helped to push it past the finish line…almost like a whiskey that isn’t quite to your taste: the initial impulse is to wince against it but the warm finish and the kick-in of the alcohol ends up leading to probably at least one more shot of the stuff. [See Iron Man 3. – Ed.] And yes, there were stories of studio interference there too…particularly on Iron Man 2…so much so that while many speculated it was a done deal that the upcoming Avengers film would be under the watch of Favreau, it turns out that whatever happened on the set of Shellhead’s sequel would end up ending Favreau’s relationship with Marvel (but not Disney) and many filmgoers and reviewers suspect that his next film after that, Chef, was a straight-up criticism of what he’d experienced while making Iron Man 2. And strangely, the parallels don’t end there because for both franchises, for their fourth film, they’d both turn to an Oscar winner. [Not the same one. – Ed.]
Patty Jenkins was not Warners’ first choice. Instead, it was Michelle MacLaren who was initially tapped to direct Wonder Woman. And given her geek cred on such TV shows as The X-Files, The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones…the last two series there having budgets that wouldn’t be too far off from that of a tentpole motion picture…this may not have been a bad choice. But then the old ‘creative differences’ beast reared its ugly head. [We’ll see this a lot more later. – Ed.] Patty Jenkins was then brought in…maaaaybe because she had been initially tapped to direct Thor by Marvel only to opt out due to her own creative differences? Because otherwise, there’s not a lot to go on here that makes her name scream for consideration. Yes, she won an Oscar for Monster, her film about serial killer Aileen Wuornos back in 2003 and while I have not seen that film at the time of this writing, I’d imagine that there’s nothing about that film that says ‘high-adventure superheroine film’. At the same time, looking back at Richard Donner’s career prior to the first Superman film, well, there wasn’t anything that indicated he’d be a fit for that either…and look at how that turned out? No, instead, what you have here is another instance of a director who is passionate about the material. I don’t recall much kerfuffle during the production, which again, could mean that the studio was mostly hands off or, at the very least, Jenkins knew how to keep them at bay. That’s unusual, as we’ve seen from above, plus the fact that the internet wasn’t completely sold on Gal Gadot in the role. Yes, she’d impressed most in her brief appearance in BvS, but she proved to be yet another unknown in a movie full of them: Were audiences ready for a superheroine? Could Gadot carry the weight of a summer blockbuster on her own shoulders? Could Jenkins handle this type of big-budget production? All of these questions received their answer in June of 2017…and they were all met with a resounding ‘yes’. Most importantly, it gave Warners what they needed…not only a financial hit, but a critical one as well. A fair number of critics held this film in direct comparison to the much loved Donner-helmed original Superman film and the film, like its lead, proved to have some serious legs. To date, it still proves to be the biggest success domestically of the DCEU films, pulling in over $412 million but falling short of BvS’ worldwide total at just shy of $822 million…that likely due to the fact that some countries would not screen the film given that Gadot is Israeli. Comparing it to Marvel’s Phase 1, the film itself seems like a combination of Thor and Captain America…and hell, actually pulled in more money than if you combined the box office figures of those two films! Sure, I could complain that yes, there is a hint of Batman…as the photo that sparks the film (an extended flashback) is handled by folks employed by Wayne Enterprises and there is indeed a note from Bruce to go along with it…but there’s no ACTUAL appearance or voice, so I’ll give it a pass. Potentially, this could be the launch pad that Warners had been hoping for had they actually learned anything from this film and its success.
But instead, they pissed it all away.
As we get into our discussion on Justice League, we once again first have to orient ourselves in the context surrounding the film. To be very clear, no matter what your stance is on the films leading up to it, you have to understand that Justice League was designed to be the final act of a Superman trilogy as he completes the mythological cycle of Birth-Death-Rebirth. Seeds for Justice League were planted in BvS…sure, the introduction of future Leaguers via Lex Luthor’s encrypted files may have felt forced to some viewers…but the other big thread that was to move forward was the “Knightmare” sequence. Although Man of Steel may not have been constructed in such a way that makes BvS an organic sequel, it’s much more clear that the link between BvS and Justice League WAS and in being that final act, Justice League was also intended to be the ‘big bang’ for the DCEU: through the establishment of Superman at the conclusion of his trilogy, it is then that the DCEU springs forth…with the individual characters that have not been explored yet (like Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman and Green Lantern) springing forth in their own individual films and, as such, establishing a universe in a different way than what Marvel had done before. Sounds good in theory, right? The thing is…with the change in director and the heavy rewrites, much of the plot elements intended for Justice League (when initially conceived to be two parts) aside from the major beat, the resurrection of Superman, were completely ignored. [*Cough*Darkseid*Cough* - Ed.] The root of this particular problem ends up being two-fold: first, how the first two parts of this trilogy, Man of Steel and BvS, were received and second how Warners handled Justice League in light of that. Okay, so that’s the context of where Justice League was intended to go as a story and an entryway into a larger DCEU…now let’s look at Warners’ mindset. After pulling down over $1.5 billion, of course Warners wanted their own Avengers…and sure enough, they had it in the Justice League. At least that’s what they thought. Without any eye for the context we’ve already discussed at the start of this paragraph, it almost seemed like they were thinking a team of superheroes, assembled and led by Batman and bolstered by the recently very successful Wonder Woman, this should hit the billion mark easy. Something else that may have colored their perception was that while Avengers was a culmination…it’s also its own story. The Marvel heroes are brought together to fight off an alien invasion ushered to Earth by Loki. The previous films serve as backstories but are generally stand-alones…with only a narrative thread or two really moving forward:
Iron Man: The introduction of the Avengers Initiative/the fact that there is a larger ‘universe’ out there.
The Incredible Hulk: We’re putting a team together.
Iron Man 2: Establishing SHIELD’s role in this universe.
Thor: Loki and the cosmic powers in play.
Captain America: The threat of those cosmic powers in human hands.
None of those movies mention even a breath of the Chitauri or Thanos…no hints at an impending invasion. Instead, the focus of those films was to establish their characters before bringing them all together…that way the Avengers film doesn’t have to fill in any gaps, the story can start as soon as the director’s credit fades away from the opening credits. We’re looking at a structure very significantly different here…and it’s one that I don’t think Warners had any intention paying attention to, blinded by the potential colossal payday. [The lengths and depths of that we’ll look at in a little bit. – Ed.] Although, to be fair to Warners, I’m not sure how many in the audience recognized this vital structural difference either. Now, don’t worry, I still plan to explore WB’s mindset here, but first, let’s take one last pertinent detour…into Star Wars. While critics universally praised the saga’s most recent entry, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, the film proved to be very divisive amongst fans…leading to speculation on the order of ‘what would reception to The Empire Strikes Back had been like had the internet existed back in 1980?’. Thankfully, some folks have already done the legwork, and if the letters columns in publications back in the day like Starlog are any indication, yes, a similar blowback existed. But given the distance of time and the follow-up Return of the Jedi, most look back on Empire now as not only the best film of the series, but one of the best films ever made. Where am I going with this? Well, now imagine that after catching wind of this blowback, Fox approached George Lucas and demanded a shift in his story and if he didn’t provide it, he’d be fired and another writer and director would be brought in for rewrites and reshoots until it fit with a more safe and sanitized vision held by the studio. [Yeah, yeah, I know, that scenario is impossible for a number of reasons…c’mon, just roll with me here. – Ed.] But this is in some ways what befell Zack Snyder on Justice League. This isn’t to say his vision was going to be comparable to the original Star Wars Trilogy…who can say, after all, reports from a viewing from a nearly completed Zack Snyder cut of Justice League for WB execs claimed his version of the film to be ‘unwatchable’. But you have to wonder whether or not that sentiment was genuine. See, Warners wasn’t happy BvS ‘underperformed’. There was talk then of firing Snyder, but by that point production of Justice League spun up right after BvS wrapped…so he was left in place. At least, until WB could find a reason to let him go. And a lot of reports are surfacing now that it was that screening that provided them the ammunition they needed. Although the announcement of Snyder’s departure waited until the news of his daughter’s tragic suicide emerged, a lot of evidence is now pointing to the fact that he’d been removed from the film at least weeks prior to that.
Enter Joss Whedon.
Not exactly into Justice League…not at first anyway. No, the initial news was that Whedon had signed on for Batgirl. However, after the announcement of Snyder’s departure due to his daughter’s suicide and his need to focus on family matters, it was unveiled that his replacement would indeed be Whedon. Now, whether you’re a studio exec or a comic-book movie fan, to know that the guy who brought us Avengers was going to take over and finish Justice League…this seems like good news, right? Helping matters, or harming…depending on your perspective, was the constant reassurances that Justice League would “remain Zack’s film”. However, with word leaking out about extensive rewrites and reshoots, many wondered whether or not that’d be the case. To wrap up this particular narrative thread, Joss left the DC stable once Justice League’s short theatrical run was completed…saying he’d quit his work on Batgirl because he ‘couldn’t crack the story’. But, taking everything in context…the reason for the departure was quite clear, he was unable to turn Justice League into a billion dollar film the way he had Avengers and with that failure, he was shown the door. That’s not to say he didn’t try…oh no, as stories have also leaked out on Joss’ own fights with WB suits…and his losses to those suits. And, in all fairness, there’s one thing we haven’t looked at here yet.
In 2017, it was announced that AT&T would buy Time Warner. At the time of this writing, this merger remains in limbo as the Trump administration is very much opposed to it occurring and is using every trick in the Justice Department to prevent it from occurring. Honestly, I have no opinion on this. But in these type of mergers, well, the heads of the acquired company, in this instance Time Warner…their futures tend to be pretty uncertain. Sure, some get invited to stay on but for the most part? Well, it’s like changing the general manager of a sports team…there’s a 90% chance that the current head coach is going to be fired and replaced with the new GM’s preferred guy. So how does this affect Justice League? Well, if the stories are to be believed…let’s follow the chain of events starting with the firing of Snyder and the bringing in of Whedon. With the rewrites and reshoots Warner execs felt the film needed, the logical response would be to push back Justice League’s opening date…right? This way, more time can be taken in re-crafting the story, getting the necessary reshoots and giving post production and effects houses plenty of time to work on creating as seamless a film as possible. But the story that was shipped around during the time when the reason for Snyder’s exit was still believed to be the death of his daughter was that Snyder was offered the chance to put JL on hold but instead stepped aside, allowing for the old Hollywood mantra of “The Show Must Go On” and embracing Whedon as his successor on the film. But if the initial premise is shown to be a façade (we’re being nice here)…then does it not stand to reason that the remainder of the statement may also be untrue? The reason speculated as to why JL was forced into a very condensed post-production was because if Justice League was completed and hit theaters in 2017, success or bomb, Warner execs would still receive their annual bonuses associated with the performance of the company as a whole. And if Justice League had been successful, given that WB already posted a pretty successful year…well, that’d’ve made for a heck of a bonus. Even if it wasn’t though, it’d still factor into said bonus. However, if the film was pushed back into 2018…and the merger went through…then any potential bonus might not make it into the mitts of the current WB suits…as they might be out on their butts due to new management. In standard businessman fashion, better to take the money and run, right? And, again, if the tale is true, that’s what may have happened: Justice League was given a hard release date of November 18th and post production careened at a break-neck pace to meet it.
It shows…whether it’s the rough looking CGI, such as Steppenwolf or ‘mustache-gate’, or the uneven tone of the film (more time would have allowed for a potentially more refined and smoother narrative). Many of these things were present on the internet throughout the time leading up to the film’s release…shaking any confidence fans might have had in the film. That’s saying something given the rebound that Wonder Woman provided the DCEU. By the time Justice League was released, you could argue that the damage was already done. Personally, I adhere in some respects to the Observer Effect occurring here: Observing the experiment alters the end result of that experiment. The difficulty in approaching Justice League objectively or even within the context it was originally intended to be taken in was made even more complicated that we essentially had a running play-by-play of the production problems and woes. That, combined with the overall generally negative perception of DC’s still-establishing universe, it would have been nearly impossible for Justice League to come out of this positively.
And it didn’t. It failed both commercially and critically. It has proved to be the lowest grossing of all the current wave of DC films with a domestic take barely cracking $229 million and a worldwide take of Just under $658 million. If we compare that to Marvel Phase 1 films, it beats Iron Man worldwide but not domestically, smashes The Incredible Hulk [Still not getting the hate for that film. – Ed.], beats Iron Man 2 worldwide but not domestically and exceeds both the first Thor and Captain America films. Even going into Phase 2, JL did better than Thor 2 and Ant-Man…but I think by bringing those up I’m delving into damning with faint praise. But critically, all of those films were received better than Justice League: yes, even Incredible Hulk and Thor 2.
Lastly, let’s take a moment to address ‘the plan’…and by that I mean the roadmap that Warners was plugging for their DC films at the time just before the release of BvS. And here again, they would follow in Marvel’s footsteps, as they tend to do this when announcing their “Phases”. BvS would be followed by Suicide Squad in 2016. Wonder Woman was slated for summer 2017 while Justice League (part 1 at the time) for autumn of that year. The Flash’s solo movie was scheduled for 2018 as was Aquaman. 2019 would see Shazam and Justice League part 2 while Cyborg and Green Lantern Corps brought up the rear in 2020. This roadmap also left room for as then (and still) unannounced Superman and Batman films. After the critical double-whammy of BvS and Suicide Squad, as you’d expect, Warners panicked and things started to fall apart right away. The “parts” were scrapped for Justice League…although it (once ‘part 1’ was now the only part) remained on the schedule for late 2017. Flash started running into ‘creative differences’…first with initial writer/director Seth Grahame-Smith and then with his replacement Rick Famuyiwa. Now, just recently in March of 2018, it was announced that Spider-Man Homecoming writers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein were on board to direct an adaptation of Flashpoint. For those of you that haven’t read the mini-series or watched the actually-better-than-the-source-material animated feature, the Flash goes back in time to prevent the death of his mom and that plays holy hell with the timeline. DC used this story to reboot their comics continuity into the New 52. And while this may indeed be reading too much into things, it looks like once again, Warners is going to their go-to…as…well…you want to know who else was a prominent character in that storyline? Batman. Regardless, that’s definitely not going to make its initial projected opening of this year…in fact, there’s no word as to when we can expect it…only the speculation that Ben Affleck’s Batman will be in it and it will be his last appearance in the role. Aquaman remains on track for the end of this year and Shazam looks to make its date also, while any talk of Justice League 2, Cyborg solo or Green Lantern Corps is all relegated to the realm of rumor. Circling back to Aquaman, while word coming out of preview screenings are mixed, some reports say it’s great while others say it’s a mess, the problem is that having a full year between DC films…especially when a) Marvel is releasing three this year (Black Panther, Avengers Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp), just under its own label…to say nothing of Deadpool 2 from Fox and b) DC’s Justice League proved to be…I hate to type this…a failure, with the studio once again in need for a rebound, well, consumer memories are limited. And hey, that might actually work to Warners’ benefit. Maybe they’ll forget Justice League. That’s doubtful. Instead, it may simply be an instance where without this consistent presence of an ‘other’…an option away from Marvel’s dominant tone on comic book movies, audiences are more likely to forget that comic book movies can (and should) be different from just what Marvel/Disney provides us.
How does this all tie in to my main point…introduced waaaaay back in the opening paragraph? While it may seem that I’m proposing WB take a complete hands-off philosophy toward their DC slate, I’m not. The best films have a studio/producers that are able to rein in their directors when they start going a bit too far [Where oh where was this mythological being the instant George Lucas thought Jar Jar was going to be a good idea? – Ed.] all the while not interfering with the director’s overall vision for the project. It’s director-led with studio support. And the most successful DC films have that: Nolan’s Bat-Trilogy and Wonder Woman. [Though there are instances where that has failed…Superman Returns, we’re looking at you. Although that falls outside of the film slate we’re looking at here. – Ed.] You might be able to argue Man of Steel also, for those that liked the film…but the fact that there’s almost an equal contingent that didn’t makes it a bit more of a difficult case. The DC films that failed critically: BvS (Theatrical), Suicide Squad and Justice League are all rife with stories of studio interference. Just like Green Lantern from 2011. The studio’s solution up to this point has been to rotate people through as the head(s) of DC Films. In some ways, Zack Snyder filled this role in everything but name for Man of Steel, BvS and Suicide Squad…but given the reception to BvS and the Squad, Warners course corrected and handed the reins to Jon Berg and Geoff Johns. The next film up, Wonder Woman, wouldn’t be an indication of how these two handled things given that production wrapped within a few months of them getting their new titles. While you could label them as Co-Captains of the Titanic, that’s not really fair given that such a label would imply they had a degree of control which…looking at the drama…it’s pretty clear they did not. The interference in the production came from above them…and, like any corporate pecking order, naturally they were the victims of the higher-ups’, well, for lack of better terms, either incompetence or greed (pick which one you feel is more pertinent). Now, Walter Hamada and Chantal Nong find themselves in the hot seat. How will that turn out is the $250,000 question.
Most comic book film fanboys, even the professionals, are asking the same question: Why doesn’t DC/WB find their own Kevin Feige? And for all of you asking that question, again, you’re missing the context of the situation. For much of his run as head of Marvel Studios, Feige has never really had anyone to answer to. He’s been allowed to run the ship with no notes coming down from first Paramount and now Disney. Yes, he did but heads with Marvel head-honcho Ike Perlmutter, but those were battles that Feige ultimately won…so much so that he was granted his independence. The way WB has been handling their DC properties is very different. Any Feige at WB would be subject to notes from on high, and as I’ve gone on to illustrate throughout this opinion piece, those notes are the source of the problem. If a Kevin Feige were to land at WB, he’d be fired immediately after the first failure…which Vegas odds would have it being caused not by him, but the studio notes that created drama in the production which leaked to the internet which shook viewer and critic confidence and ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy: poor critical reception and poor box office. It’s a shame that a Justice League movie has to one of sadly many sacrificial lambs on that altar. And it’s the same thing that did in Green Lantern. It’s the same thing that helped to kill BvS. It’s the same thing that damaged Suicide Squad.
There are two sayings that apply here: ‘those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ and ‘doing the same thing over and over again and getting the same results all the while expecting a different outcome each time is the very definition of insanity’. Until WB recognizes that what may work for other films under their banner may not work for comic book movies and relents from what appears to be excessive meddling, the DC Cinematic Universe is never going to be able to take off…much less even compete with their Marvelous competition.
And as a fan of DC films…it really hurts to type that.