The DC filmography is largely controversial and critically panned. Financially they seem to perform below expectations and their general brand loses its appeal every year Marvel dominates the box office and the hearts of viewers everywhere. Why don’t they listen to the public? Was this always the case? Why don’t people just make good movies? Well, like all comic book related things, the answer is probably way more complicated than most people want to hear. I, like all comic book nerds, will still go out of my way to talk about it.
The truth is that DC films often are reactionary. They’ve always cared about public perception.
We’re going to go step by step and look at how DC (and by extension Warner Brothers and even just movie producers) alter the direction of their future films to curb the current criticism. It’s like physics and calculating trajectory, but in this case it’s me trying to figure out if the Aquaman film is going to be okay. This is harder than rocket science, everybody.
So despite Batman ’66 not being produced by Warner Brothers , we need to look at it critically because they’re culturally significant. It took a revolution of the mind to get people to think Batman wasn’t Adam West.
Camp as a cultural concept became synonymous with comics since probably day one. In Susan Sontag’s notes, she included Flash Gordon as an example of early camp. The Fox show and film approached the idea of a Batman adventure show with a devout deadpan comedy to it that tickled children and adults alike. Though ridiculous, the show was actually pretty faithful to the source material of the time.
Richard Donner’s Superman tried to be more than camp. Donner attempted to break concepts of what a blockbuster was and what “epic” adventures a film could cover. Ten Commandments? Please, Donner was able to fit three almost biblical tales within one film. Humor was mandated to be in it, however, and Superman saved his fair share of kittens from trees. He was still a boy scout, and when Donner was fired halfway through Superman II and replaced with Richard Lester, humor and camp also became the core tones. These films started to fail financially and started to be forgotten in the memories of the public. They remembered Christopher Reeve.
When Warner Brothers was approached with a script for a new Batman film that sought to completely erase the thought of Bat-shark repellent spray from our minds, they took a look. It helps that in the comics Batman finally claimed critical success with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In pre-production the film jumbled around a lot between comedy and what exactly it wanted to feature. It wanted Robin for a long time. When Tim Burton finally got a creative hold in the property, he was able to forge his gothic production design boner into an amazing visual structure for Batman. People don’t give this guy enough credit; giving the franchise a consistent art deco gothic aesthetic that permeates almost every image of the character is immense. You can talk about the animated series all day, but Burton was the one who created a visual outlet that was able to combine the ridiculous escapades of Batman with the dark, gritty sharpness that makes the character inherently appealing.
People LOVED it at the time. Maybe not comic fans because Michael Keaton is a weird choice and he most certainly had to have killed some guys, but everybody wanted him to make another Batman film. Batman Returns, ladies and gentleman, is what happens when you give a guy too much credit. In another universe somewhere, people aren’t complaining about Zack Snyder spearheading a DC Universe with his aesthetic; in that universe people are complaining Burton got to direct two Batman movies, made a Superman movie with Nic Cage, and probably made his own Batman v Superman. If Burton had his own cinematic universe, Wonder Woman would’ve been Helena Bonham Carter.
Returns scared people. Not just comic fans that had never seen Cobblepot like this before, but even the kids trying to buy a Penguin toy from McDonalds. This was unacceptable for Warner Brothers.
Joel Schumacher was given the creative lead for the next film, Batman Forever. The film is okay, it tries very hard to be a blockbuster version of the 60’s show. Val Kilmer gives a good performance, Jim Carey channels his inner Frank Gorshin, and Tommy Lee Jones realized he didn’t have to try. Between Kilmer and Carey’s flat topped off Seal’s Kiss From a Rose, it was probably the sexiest Batman movie we’ll ever see. Kids bought those toys, so they gave Schumacher another film.
Batman and Robin was a film that tried to do what the television show did, but without any love. If you want to see a cynical movie where nobody actually seems like they want to do their job except the Austrian bodybuilder, put your bat credit card in your wallet and save yourself a viewing. The camp of the show may have been more child friendly, but to a general audience it was unwatchable.
So what have we learned so far? These movies want your money. These movies want your money when you walk out of your theater and your kid wants to buy something. When something doesn’t work, they swing in the opposite direction. Batman and Robin may be one of the most misunderstood lessons for everyone involved. A fun tone isn’t the reason why the film tanked. The film tanked because nobody was having fun, including the audience.
The lesson they learned was that Batman is in safer territory when he’s hiding in shadows. Christopher Nolan provided a grounded, realistic take on Batman with Batman Begins. It differed from Burton’s approach from removing itself from the trappings of any comic loyalty and instead took concepts from the comics and deliberately transformed them for the sake of its own story. He borrowed from more serious comics, like Year One and O’Neil’s Batman run. Ninjas existed, but ninjas were about as colorful as it gets.
People loved it. I saw the film like four times in theaters. Superman Returns would come out a year later to nothing like this film’s praise. I’ll get to SR in a bit but the sequel to Begins, The Dark Knight, broke every expectation. Nolan probably looked at Begins and said to his brother (and co-writer) Jonathan, “People are right, the ninja plot was kinda dumb.” So The Dark Knight goes for realism. The fantastic that was seen in the comics is now reserved for the visceral. If it’s not a bombastic action moment, it’s a terrifying performance from Aaron Eckhart or the magnificent Heath Ledger.
They gave Nolan carte blanche to do whatever he wanted for a sequel, and he didn’t know what to do. He was scared to make a third one; he knew it wouldn’t be as good as the last. He went with Tom Hardy as Bane and went for a retired Batman plotline, and it worked. Somewhat. By this point the lack of the fantastic began to show. It worked for the Joker, who was malleable as a character. But this trilogy struggled to re-imagine villains beyond that. Bane retained his intelligence and forceful terror, but lost all sense of charisma for that. Hardy tried hard too, but in truth Batman isn’t meant for crime thrillers or weird political commentaries. Bane and the leftover ninjas from Begins don’t really fit with this tone. What Batman does in this film didn’t make sense with the rules established for this universe. Nolan created a machine that ran perfectly once, not one that was built to last.
So put a bookmark on that, because we gotta catch up with Superman. Bryan Singer was high off the successful X-Men franchise. He was a huge fan of the Donner work and decided to make a loving tribute film to Donner’s Superman. This meant multiple things: less comedy like in the sequels, and more character work. Only problem? The character work of Superman films rests heavily on casting. Brandon Routh (I’m going to be nice here) is a great actor but not the same caliber as Christopher Reeve. Kevin Spacey probably works Luthor better than Gene Hackman did, but Lois’s personality seems far removed from what audiences were familiar with. Most importantly? The lesser action made the plot confusing and underwhelming. Superman didn’t punch anything really, and audiences noticed. Saving CGI airplanes just doesn’t do it anymore, especially in contrast to Nolan’s creative contributions to Superman’s counterpart.
Remember what I said about Batman and Robin? Take that as what DC thought was the lesson for Superman, only this time the film didn’t even try to have fun either. This film is what killed the chances for a good Superman movie any time soon. Man of Steel was just the fallout from it.
Snyder’s Man of Steel is now the response to Superman Returns. See where all this is going? Because of Returns people thought Superman was over bearing, creepy, invincible except for a chunk of glowing plot device, and boring. Snyder and everyone involved decided to make a Superman film where his meekness translated to stoic expressions, his relationship with Lois would have no predication on lies, and he loved to punch to save people and look like he was getting whooped by Zod.
Like Lester’s hold on Superman, Snyder maintained his creative vision not just for Superman, but DC felt enabled enough to give him the keys to the entire cinematic universe. This doesn’t mean Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t one giant executive mess of notes because people complained in Man of Steel. No, some of the major problems of Man of Steel are now obnoxiously addressed and now there’s a pretense that it was all intentional. Like sections of an entire city devoid of people so they can destroy it.
Man of Steel had plenty of moments Snyder fans are glad to mention that properly characterize Superman as a hero. He saves people all the time and actively tries his best to take the fight away from the public. Why don’t people see it? It’s because tone is that important to a film. If you made a disaster movie or an alien invasion movie, if nobody was shown to die and maybe one building fell it would still be more tragic than a typical hero movie because the audience makes their own imaginary death tolls. They see the colors of the film, they see a Superman who doesn’t smile, and they know that’s more important than a line acknowledging how no innocents are going to die. The Marvel film Avengers also features an alien invasion, and there’s extensive time dedicated to property damage and threats to humanity, but it never crosses the line of trauma. The film was framed as comedic before the moment, the invasion was merely a final climax to challenge our heroes. Man of Steel framed the entire context of its reality and Superman’s character as an alien film. It’s like K-Pax until Mars Attacks happens. Only both of those are better movies, and that’s not a good thing.
They also built Man of Steel to house a universe. It probably could have, honestly. Neck snapping aside, I think if other directors were attached to projects sooner, a lot of this backlash could have been prevented. To tie this back into Batman, Man of Steel and by extension Batman v Superman were striving for a Batman tone because they thought the Donner tone had failed them. Batman is now utilized by Snyder (who is from what I can tell a HUGE Frank Miller fan) as a vicious takedown of Superman’s entire being. BvS struggles with an identity crisis between questioning Superman’s idealism (which it fails to convey properly) and a cathartic rebuke of that moral center by a nihilistic Batman. Also Doomsday shows up at the end and makes that even worse.
Now that Marvel has a cinematic universe that has every supporting character receive a movie annually, DC felt that BvS couldn’t contain just two heroes. This was the movie that had to nail every single major one for the upcoming Justice League. This was a bad idea even if they nailed it perfectly. Marvel took years of planning to build it up. They made solid movies with likable characters. People saw BvS and were just confused by what the Flash was doing half the time. It screamed “studio intervention” and made the film more of a mess than it already was.
Still, it was DC “hearing you”. People have wanted a Justice League movie for decades. They’ve wanted a Wonder Woman movie for decades. They didn’t care about doing it right, they just wanted the characters out there. BvS was a sure thing right? No matter how bad the film could be, people would still see it in droves, right? Right?
BvS was their afternoon wake up call. People want fun. This dark ugly mess doesn’t seem like a good movie to anybody except masochists. It was too late for the universe, however; Ayers had already been directing his Suicide Squad. So they go out of their way to basically fire Ayers and have the company that made one of the first trailers of the film (because EVERYBODY LOVED BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY) to help reshoots and editing. This created core problems, and I’m not even talking deleted character arcs and relationships, but even just the editing of the film. Having ten different songs introduce each character with a giant list of bullet points to read next to them is not how I want to spend my first fifteen minutes in the theater. A generic plot with a blue light destroying the city is not how I want to enjoy my action movie. Especially something creatively rich like the original John Ostrander Suicide Squad, which is basically a Dirty Dozen but with C-list DC villains because any of them could die at any point. No, instead we get some corporate family message to the film, because this wants to be Guardians of the Galaxy with more psychopaths.
Suicide Squad sold well. I don’t want to give too much credit to Warner Brothers; I’m pretty sure I’m going to give it all to Patty Jenkins’s team, but Wonder Woman probably redeemed the entire effort. It might have been a response to what came before, it might not have been. All I know is it was a fun movie that tried to give viewers something they haven’t seen. A feminist angle that even Marvel hasn’t explored let the film strut even a little more, and the movie isn’t even that good! It’s just good enough, and that’s what really matters here. DC never needed to make masterpieces to make fans happy, they just needed to make them “good enough”.
So Justice League happens. This film will be academically studied for eons for its troubled production, but here’s probably the most simple way to understand it properly: Snyder was directing Justice League, he had a tragedy in the family, DC saw an opportunity to reshoot the film just enough to make the tone more digestible for audiences. This made every special effect worse and even had to create new ones (I’ve had my mustache digitally altered for this review, and I bet you never noticed), this made scenes feel weird and out of place. It was clear that the Justice League seen in theaters was the product of Joss Whedon and Warner Brothers trying to salvage their wreck of a film.
Were the reshoots worth it? Yeah, probably. I think save for the CGI problems, what most people like about the film is clearly part of the reshoots. The jokes and banter between the team feels good sometimes, and this is probably the best Superman we’ve seen in a long time, and he’s only on screen for few precious minutes. People are clamoring on Twitter for a Snyder cut, and Snyder even feeds into that hype, but if my Nostradamus senses tingle in the ways I think they do I would hope the “Snyder cut” never receives the light of day. I don’t even think Snyder is that bad of a director, but I think his films are not what any major audience wants. Critical or otherwise. The mustache CGI was pretty bad though, so maybe I’m wrong.
So I’ve been saying a lot of stuff about the history of DC films and how they change in tone and direction, but what does this all mean really? What are you supposed to take away from this mad rambling?
DC films are conceptualized in every stage of production as a direct reaction to the current cultural climate.
They’re not good at understanding the criticism, nor do they apply it at appropriate times.
If something is failing, they will abandon it.
If something succeeded, they will run with it until it starts failing.
So what are my predictions and suggestions? We can see from the Aquaman and Shazam trailers that DC now wants to push “fun” down everyone’s throats. I think that’s going to work. I think Aquaman will be like Wonder Woman: good enough. Shazam was always pitched as a fun alternative, so I have faith the script was always strong and will probably be the best thing DC has made in over a decade. I don’t think they’re going to make another Superman film any time soon; I think they’ll make a Batman film as soon as they get everything sorted out. Suicide Squad 2 will happen whether we want it to or not, but I’d say expect something dramatically different.
What do I want from DC? Well, I’m about to see Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse this month, and I’m confident I’m going to like the film. It’s probably going to take characters I love and offer a unique experience I can’t get out of another Spider-Man film. It’s going to cultivate a different opinion about Spider-Man than what people are used to, and people would be more willing to see completely different interpretations of the character. Stuff like that is good. DC should try stuff like that. I’m not even saying do Elseworlds, just… DC should just make good movies and remind people why these characters are good. We know why Wonder Woman is good now. Stuff like Lego Batman and Teen Titans Go! tell children what’s great about this universe. It’s pretty easy. They should just throw away the history book.