CS Soapbox: DCEU fans really just want their own Kevin Feige
So the time finally came for a certain group of fans of the DC Extended Universe to get their long-cried-out-for director’s cut of the crossover blockbuster Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which saw Warner Bros. and HBO Max provide the filmmaker with the resources needed to reinstate his original, four-hour vision for the film. Though the film wasn’t a critical darling akin to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s team-up The Avengers, it has been generally better received by critics and delivered solid numbers for the WarnerMedia streaming platform, both leading to the creation of a new social movement crying out for the studio to restore the “SnyderVerse,” the narrative universe in which the DCEU was supposed to be connected in.
Much to fans’ dismay — and disbelief — WarnerMedia Studios CEO Ann Sarnoff confirmed that the studio will not move forward with the universe, instead treating ZSJL as the conclusion to the filmmaker’s trilogy and choosing to keep moving in the direction they started down after the theatrical Justice League‘s disappointment. While some fans will continue to argue and cry out that they want Snyder to come back as the creative head for the franchise, it’s really more that they just want a singular creative voice guiding everything forward. Basically, a DC equivalent to Marvel’s Kevin Feige.
Now before you go getting on my case to remind me that studio intervention nearly derailed the MCU early into its lifecycle or calling me a Marvel fanboy, let’s just take a look at the simple facts regarding both franchises. Marvel has made it to 23 released films, and while there’s some debate amongst fans over which are worthwhile and which are worth skipping, it’s generally agreed by critics and audiences alike there’s only two or three of the bunch that proved to be lackluster, but yet even those brought in big bucks for the studio to which they could learn from their mistakes while moving forward with their overall plan.
If you count both versions of Justice League as one film — for story purposes, not quality — DC is currently sitting at nine films on their resume, with a critical average of 60.8 percent from critics on review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes and an estimated $5.6 billion against a combined $1.75 billion budget. While it could be argued that RT is a sometimes flawed system and critical voices aren’t the ones that matter when it comes to comic book films, neither negate the fact that DC films thus far have generally been critical flops with modest commercial numbers, all of which stems from two key issues:
DC & WB Spent Too Much Time Trying to Play Catch Up
If to look at the timeline of how long it took for both Marvel and DC to arrive at their team-up films, they do technically fall on the same path, with four years passing between the start of the franchise and the crossover title, but the problem lies in how the latter utilized those four years. Marvel took the time between the first Iron Man and Avengers films to introduce every character that would be essential to the latter film’s plot, except it did so by allowing every main hero to have their own solo outings to familiarize audiences with them before putting them together to battle a big bad and slowly introduced the elements for the team-up film’s conflict. With DC, they gave Superman his own movie in the aptly-titled and relatively entertaining Man of Steel, also giving audiences a sense of the newer tone they could expect from either Snyder’s entries or from the franchise as a whole. But rather than giving Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash and Cyborg their own movies, they shoved them all into one with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and the result was a nightmare.
The film went from being a simple MoS sequel to one that would introduce the Dark Knight into the universe then to the decision to make it the heroes facing off (despite co-writer David S. Goyer having addressed in the past that’s where the franchise should go when on its last legs). The chaotic nature of not knowing where to take the second film in the franchise and landing on throwing all of the characters into one film was indicative of how anxious the studio was to recreate the $1.5 million box office numbers of the first Avengers. The problem was they were already four years behind that film and even a year behind its sequel by the time BVS finally hit theaters and planted the seeds for the Justice League film.
Following said film’s so-so performance at the box office in comparison to its budget and the similar storied MCU counterpart Captain America: Civil War, which nearly matched its numbers in its opening weekend, WB decided to create a separate studio (DC Films) and elect DC’s Chief Creative Office Geoff Johns (who also had a big hand in the early development of The CW’s Arrowverse) and WB Executive Vice President Jon Berg as its heads in an effort to create a more cohesive thread between the films. What were their follow-ups? Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad, one of which netted the highest box office gross thus far and received rave reviews and was shockingly overlooked come awards season, the other of which was poorly received yet set box office records at the time and won an Oscar.
What those two did have in common, however, was that they served very little purpose to the story put forward in BVS. Though generally jumping around in tones, the release schedule for Marvel titles has always contributed to keeping the overarching narrative thread continually moving forward, with the two sole exceptions being Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp, which took steps back from the jaw-dropping cliffhangers of their predecessors for their own purposes.
With Wonder Woman having been set during World War I and Suicide Squad focusing on actual villains — all of whom should have been introduced as smaller in hero films à la Andy Serkis’ Ulysses Klaue — neither film’s story aids in progressing the overarching plot but instead make cheeky references to what audiences already know or can presume. The problem now with this approach is that without a clean narrative thread tying everything together, the shift to individual films stems more from a lack of vision than desire to allot creative freedom to its filmmakers, almost as if….
There’s Still No One Voice Driving Everything Forward
On the heels of the theatrical Justice League‘s failings, Berg and Johns were fired from their jobs and replaced by Walter Hamada, who’s kept his job for three years thus far and helped guide the franchise towards successful individual films, with WB CEO Kevin Tsujihara stating the future plans for the DCEU will follow this model for a while thanks to the box office success of Aquaman. While one could argue this is a step in the right direction for the series, given that BVS and JL‘s biggest problems were its hurried attempts at building an interconnected web, the problem is it also pigeonholes the films into feeling simultaneously distinct and disparate.
Every film since JL has found ways to dance around their problematic predecessors. Aquaman felt like a soft reboot with its bright color palette, completely different depiction of Atlantis and a non-British-accented Mera. Shazam! made numerous references to the whole team but had to shoot an essentially-headless Superman cameo due to scheduling conflicts and uncertainty regarding his future in the role. Birds of Prey utilized archive footage from Suicide Squad and animated renditions of the Joker to avoid bringing back Jared Leto.
Though they were all far better films than what came before JL — except maybe the overstuffed mess that was Wonder Woman 1984 — the problem was their loose threads connecting one another are simply that. They’re so loose that this no longer feels like a franchise, but rather the era of the late ’90s and early ’00s when comic book movies were still getting off the ground. No longer do the films feel like they’re trying to set up events for each other like the MCU, but instead feel like isolated stories with no future ambitions outside of their own series, much like the days when Wesley Snipes was remarking that some motherf***ers are always trying to ice skate up hill, or Thomas Jane was warning people not to play with knives.
For those arguing DCEU films would become the same with a figurehead akin to Feige, a central voice guiding film development and universe connections doesn’t have to factor into tone or individuality. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok were the most self-deprecating and uncaring films in the series in regards to the overarching Infinity War and yet they’re some of the most beloved titles in the franchise and offer just enough key plot points to keep the narrative rolling for both their own series and everyone else’s. The Paul Rudd-led Ant-Man films have the lowest stakes of the series but not so disparate that they don’t belong in the MCU. This makes Scott Lang’s appearances in other stories all the more exhilarating.
Since he essentially jumpstarted the franchise, it’s easy to latch on to Snyder and believe he should be the central voice behind the connected universe, but the truth is he’s really much better off as a filmmaker than as a studio figurehead like Feige. When given free reign, we got the narratively messy/overstuffed/overlong MoS and BVS and while ZSJL was undoubtedly an improvement and exemplified the best sense of grip on storytelling he’s shown in his career, it still suffered from the same problems as its predecessors. Should there have been a Feige-like figure to help him rein some things in, trim the fat and better develop the universe ahead of time, Snyder could have been the DCEU equivalent of the Russo Brothers, but alas that didn’t come to be.
Threats of studio boycotts and cries for the reinstatement of the SnyderVerse are not invalid, but rather are misguided projections of frustration over the lack of a clear direction for the DCEU that would come from having a driving sole voice akin to Feige. Though he’s gearing up to begin filming on the highly-anticipated third installment in his GotG series, Gunn clearly enjoyed his time stepping into the world of DC with The Suicide Squad. He’s now creating and writing all eight episodes of the film’s spin-off series Peacemaker centered on John Cena’s character from the film and helming a few episodes. There’s even word he may be involved in another DC project and some rumors (and I mean rumors) circulating that he’s been tapped to help get the DCEU back on track, maybe fans should call for him to become the DCEU’s Russo brothers, if not its Feige.
(Photo Credits: Getty Images)