The DCEU: A Post-Mortem

A recap, evaluation, and prediction going forward for the troubled cinematic universe.

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WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the movies in the DC Extended Universe, including Justice League

“The DCEU is dead. Bury it.”

That might be slight hyperbole, but let’s face it: Justice League has been a commercial disappointment and a critical disaster. Sporting a 41% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 46 on Metacritic, while limping to under $600M at the worldwide box office after three weeks, Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ first superhero team-up has not lived up to expectations.

The move has already caused some shuffling at Warner Bros., with Walter Hamada now named president of “DC-based film production at the studio,” according to Variety. Hamada is a veteran of The Conjuring universe, the surprisingly successful New Line/Warner Bros. franchise that has now spun-off into a genuinely successful cinematic universe. Furthermore, two of the DCEU’s next three movies will be directed by veterans of The Conjuring films: James Wan (Aquaman) and David F. Sandberg (Shazam).

The one saving grace would be the fans, whose support could rally a studio to save some face by resting assured that they at least satisfy their core base. But the DC Extended Universe has been divisive from the start, ever since Superman snapped Zod’s neck in 2013.

I take no pleasure in writing this, nor does anyone else here at Nerd It Here First. We’re comic book fans; we want good DC movies, we want to cheer the arrival of a new DCEU adventure, not treat it with morbid trepidation. Apart from Suicide Squad — a disastrous attempt by WB and DC to cash-in on Marvel’s success with Guardians of the Galaxy by putting together their ragtag group of scoundrels, though without any of Marvel’s charm or wit — this writer has enjoyed the DCEU quite a bit. Justice League was good fun; Wonder Woman was a solid origin story, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice’s extended cut is a movie that continues to reveal new things with each rewatch, and Man of Steel is low-key the best comic book movie of the 2010s.

But at this point, it’s clear that whatever Warner Bros. and DC are doing isn’t satisfying a broad enough audience for the audience popularity, critical acclaim and, more importantly, box office results they’re aspiring to. So what went wrong? Where does the franchise stand now? And where could — or should — it go shortly? Let’s dive in.

“THEY WILL STUMBLE, THEY WILL FALL”

The DCEU began in earnest as far back as 2010, when Zack Snyder was hired to bring Superman to the screen in a rebooted vision by David S. Goyer and an assist by Christopher Nolan, who was still in the midst of his Dark Knight trilogy. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with what Man of Steel did as far as the broader DCEU implications go.

In fact, it pretty much did what Iron Man did for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2008: it told a self-contained origin story that contained some small, relatively inconsequential “hooks” that could then be fodder for a more extensive cinematic universe should the opportunity arise. Just like we see Nick Fury after the credits of Iron Man, we see references to Lexcorp, Wayne Enterprises, and even Supergirl. But none of that bears any weight on the narrative of Man of Steel itself.

With a budget of $225M, Man of Steel ended up grossing $668M worldwide, making it profitable and paving the way for Warner Bros. and DC to forge ahead with their cinematic universe in the wake of the stunning success of Marvel’s The Avengers a year earlier. While audiences gave the film an A- on CinemaScore, critics were divided, awarding the film a score of 55 on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Performances, visuals, and Zimmer’s reinterpreted score for Superman earned praise.

But Snyder’s more grim and dour take on the character was polarizing, along with the ultra-violent (for a PG-13) action sequences, perceived narrative deficiencies, and of course, the controversial ending in which Superman saves the day by literally killing General Zod.

Yet these issues in and of themselves are not inherently a problem. What Man of Steel did for the DCEU is start it without a game plan. In today’s landscape, it’s easy to applaud a studio for making a self-contained movie and worrying about sequels and spin-offs later, which is what the studio did with Man of Steel.

However, without someone like Kevin Feige at the helm to steer the direction of potential sequels and universe-building, Man of Steel ended up being a one-off that retroactively had to shoulder the responsibility of birthing an entire franchise of characters and stories beyond just those of Superman.

By the end of the Man of Steel, we get some semblance of the prototypical Superman that we all know and love. Man of Steel is the journey from inexperienced Kal-El to the shining beacon of hope Superman. But for the DCEU’s next movie, it turns out Superman’s flight isn’t complete yet, and neither is that of another iconic superhero who gets introduced to the DCEU, arguably prematurely.

At San Diego Comic-Con 2014, Warner Bros. and DC announced – to much fanfare – that their next movie would pit Superman against Batman in an adaptation of the iconic fight between the two superheroes in “The Dark Knight Returns.” It would also introduce Lex Luthor to the fold, along with Wonder Woman, who would be set up for her appearance in the Justice League and her own solo origin story.

Ben Affleck signed on as an older, battle-hardened take on Batman; an excellent idea in principle, considering how it fits into the “Dark Knight Returns” take on the character while allowing the filmmakers to eschew the young and upstart take on Batman we’d just seen in the Nolan trilogy.

After a long audition process, Gal Gadot joined the project as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, a decision that was treated with skepticism at first but later turned out to be the best choice ever made about anything in the DCEU. And then, the most controversial casting announcement, possibly in the history of comic-book movies, happened when Jesse Eisenberg was hired to portray a new-age take on Lex Luthor.

Snyder was brought back to helm the movie, surrounding himself with a formidable cast of new and returning players. However, by bringing back Snyder, the DCEU signaled that it was doubling down on the more controversial elements introduced in Man of Steel. Snyder is not a populist filmmaker. He’s not someone to deliver crowd-pleasing movies, with the possible exception of his breakout hit, 300.

As his work on Watchmen showed us, he’s not interested in fully-formed, simpler versions of good heroes taking on evil villains. Snyder’s interested in deconstructing the idea of superheroes in a modern world, showing us what it takes to be good and bad in a world permeated by evil, and the sacrifices that must be made to achieve something for the greater good. The hero’s journey, in a Snyder world, is more internal than external and is manifested by brutal violence and stunning imagery.

Unfortunately for DC, we live in a post-MCU world. Snyder’s vision may have earned praise in the mid-2000s, but now its clear that audiences respond more positively to more fun, light-hearted fare with some stakes.

This isn’t a knock on Marvel; it’s just the truth. The reason certain darker movies like Logan have worked well is that we’ve spent 17 years with that character. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice did not have that luxury, especially when the studio decided to cut 30 minutes out of the movie just six weeks away from release. Despite reports that the studio gave the full version a standing ovation after a screening, and immediately signed Affleck to an extension upon seeing his performance.

BvS will go down in history as the most controversial and polarizing comic-book movie of all time, and a lynchpin moment not only for the genre but blockbuster filmmaking at large. While commercially successful with a worldwide gross o $873M, the movie underperformed relative to expectations. More importantly, it sank like a rock with critics — 27% on Rotten Tomatoes and 44 on Metacritic — and divided audiences, earning a relatively low B- on CinemaScore.

The argument goes back and forth. Yes, a movie featuring the Trinity on-screen for the first time should have made more money. But is BvS supposed to be more like The Avengers regarding financial expectations, or is it more of an Iron Man 2: a sequel to the first movie that happens to introduce new characters and sets up the inevitable team-up?

Additionally, while many fans lamented the lack of a proper origin story for Batman (and, at the time, Wonder Woman), keep in mind that we’re dealing with the most popular and well-known superheroes ever. Unlike Marvel, which had to do the legwork to catch people up on heroes like Thor and Ant-Man, another Batman origin story wasn’t all that necessary, even though we got one anyway.

Superman remained dark and struggled for screentime in his own movie. While audiences cheered Affleck’s performance, the more violent take on Batman drummed up anger by some who questioned his murderous streak shown in the film. Eisenberg’s take on Luthor — essentially combining Mark Zuckerberg with a psychopath — was widely derided. For comic book fans, the movie just tried to do too much too soon, giving us both “The Dark Knight Returns” with a Batman we barely knew, and “The Death of Superman” with a Superman we had only just gotten to know.

And then there’s “Martha,” the one word that will probably come to define the DCEU. Depending on who you ask, it’s the most misunderstood moment in the movie or the stupidest decision the filmmakers made. Regardless, it signaled yet another doubling-down by Snyder, Warner Bros., and DC that they weren’t interested in making easy, pat crowd-pleasers. Too bad that’s what people want.

BvS opened theatrically in March, and debuted on home video later that summer with an “Ultimate Edition,” adding back the 30 minutes that were excised just before its theatrical release. While the movie’s popularity remained largely unchanged, reviews seemed to indicate a slight reevaluation. The Ultimate Edition is considered an improvement, although with a consensus that essentially said: “if you already liked the movie, you’ll like it more, but if you hated the movie, it probably wouldn’t change your mind.”

In all honesty, a three-hour, R-rated Superman movie will always leave a bunch of people angry. To this end, in May 2016, Warnes Bros. and DC brought in Geoff Johns to help steer the DCEU going forward. A prolific and mostly well-liked comic book writer, Johns would essentially essay the role that Kevin Feige has been filling for the MCU. Or at least, that was the idea.

In August of 2016, Warner Bros. and DC dropped Suicide Squad, their blatant attempt to cash in on the success of Guardians of the Galaxy two years earlier: A colorfully marketed movie featuring mostly unknown characters who team up to fight a more substantial threat, released at the tail end of the summer.

And yet again, prior to release, reports surfaced that the studio got worried about the movie’s commercial viability and took it away from the hands of David Ayer, its writer/director most well-known for movies like End of Watch and Fury.

While fans ate up the marketing — and casual moviegoers were brought in by a cast including names like Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Jared Leto — the movie once again proved to be a critical and audience disappointment.

It scored 26% on Rotten Tomatoes and 40 on Metacritic, with particular criticism aimed at the nonsensical narrative, illogical editing, poor character development, and Leto’s take on the Joker – the first interpretation we’ve seen since Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning work in The Dark Knight.

Pre-release reports claimed that Ayer’s cut was not released and that the studio had the movie re-edited by Trailer Park, the company that cut the movie’s trailer together. While an extended cut of Suicide Squad was released on home video, adding about 12 minutes back into the movie, the movie did not undergo a re-apprisal similar to that of BvS. And while the marketing heavily featured The Joker, a lot of his material was missing in the theatrical cut, with only some of it added back to the extended edit.

Months later, Ayer wrote about the movie on social media, blaming himself for its shortcomings while absolving the studio of wrongdoing. However, he will not return to direct the upcoming sequel.

Nevertheless, the movie was a commercial success, grossing $746M off of a $175M production budget. That was enough to make it the 10th highest-grossing film worldwide in 2016. On top of that, it won the Academy Award for Best Hair and Makeup, making it the first movie in either the MCU, DCEU, or X-Men Cinematic Universe to win an Oscar.

In the summer of 2017, we got the penultimate piece of the Justice League puzzle: Wonder Woman. And finally, Warner Bros. and DC knocked it out of the park by any metric. The film grossed $822M worldwide off a $149M budget, scoring a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 76 on Metacritic, along with an “A” CinemaScore.

The first live-action film for a major female superhero — sorry, Catwoman and Elektra — was brought to the screen with aplomb by director Patty Jenkins, who puts a great touch on an iconic character. Gadot received acclaim for her performance, Chris Pine and the supporting cast were all lauded, and the film’s stunning production and costume design will likely get it into the Academy Awards conversation at the end of the year.

While some critics questioned the relatively derivative story and CGI-heavy finale, along with the typically weak villain, the positives aspects of the movie far outweighed the negatives in the eyes of audiences.

“YOU HAVE BEEN MY GREATEST LOVE. TODAY, YOU ARE MY GREATEST SORROW.”

With Wonder Woman released to such popularity mere months ahead of Justice League, the hope was that it would engender enough goodwill and enthusiasm to push the DCEU’s first team-up across the finish line into respectable critical and audience numbers. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out.

Zack Snyder directed principal photography on Justice League in 2016, ending in October. While pickups and reshoots had always been scheduled — a standard part of big-budget filmmaking these days — Snyder decided to step down from his role in May 2017 due to a family tragedy that required his attention.

The studio hired Joss Whedon, shepherd of The Avengers, to oversee reshoots during the summer of 2017. However, rather than merely reshoot the movie to fit into what Snyder had already envisioned, Whedon ended up using the opportunity to reshape the film into a more audience-friendly, lighter tone and style.

Whether this was a directive foisted upon him by the studio, or something he took the initiative on himself, remains unclear. But the fact remains that Justice League represents a significant departure from the Snyder we got in Man of Steel and BvS. And while Snyder said previously that Justice League would indeed always be lighter and more fun, the extent to which he had in mind will perhaps never be known.

Despite trying to service both critics and audiences by making the movie fit into a more Marvel mold, Justice League has ended up falling flat with both. With an estimated budget of $300M, the film has yet to hit $600M worldwide and only grossed $96M in North America — a far cry from the $208M grossed by The Avengers in its opening weekend back in May 2012.

The movie scored 41% on Rotten Tomatoes, 46 on Metacritic, and a “B+” on CinemaScore. Critics derided the choppy narrative, nonsensical villain, and blatant pandering to perceived audience expectations. Meanwhile, fans lamented the treatment of such iconic characters while laughing at what Warner Bros. was forced to do to erase Henry Cavill’s mustache.

With such a dismal performance, the state of the DCEU is now in flux. Where does such a large and important franchise go from here?

“THE WORLD ONLY MAKES SENSE IF YOU FORCE IT TO.”

As of now, James Wan’s Aquaman has wrapped principal photography and is sticking to its December 21, 2018, release date. There’s no canceling a movie that’s already in the can, but since there will be pickups and reshoots, WB has a chance to reshape the film. Wan has proven to be a filmmaker who can score consistently with critics and audiences, so conventional wisdom says he’ll end up making the movie he wants.

Following that is Shazam, scheduled for April 5, 2019. Written and directed by David F. Sandberg — who, like Wan, is another veteran of WB’s The Conjuring cinematic universe — the film will star Zachary Levi as the titular superhero. Black Adam, who Dwayne Johnson has been attached to play for years, will not appear in this movie. While Shazam may seem like an odd choice to get his own movie, a superhero adventure described as being influenced by Big might just be the light-hearted, fun movie that DC needs more than anything right now.

Undoubtedly, we’ll be getting a sequel to Wonder Woman. Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot are tentatively set to return, with the movie bowing on November 1, 2019. Details are currently sketchy, but rumors are that the film will take place in the 1980s and that Chris Pine may return in some capacity.

After these three movies, the future of the DCEU gets murkier. Currently, there’s a Cyborg standalone movie scheduled for 2020 and Green Lantern Corps is being developed for release the same year. We got glimpses of the latter in Justice League, so it’s safe to assume that there are some plans to bring one or more Lanterns into the fold at some point.

But casting details have been virtually nonexistent. Geoff Johns and David S. Goyer have reportedly submitted a story draft described as “Lethal Weapon in space,” but there’s no writer attached to pen a screenplay, let alone a director to bring it to the screen.

When Joss Whedon was brought into the DCEU to finish Justice League, he also announced a Batgirl movie. However, news on that seems to have cooled down, and with the reception of Justice League — along with Whedon’s Twitter antics and personal drama — there have been rumors that Batgirl may get canceled as it’s not a movie WB had much interest in making to begin with.

Suicide Squad 2 is apparently happening, with Gavin O’Connor (The Accountant, Warrior) hired to direct it, but details about casting and release date are vague. A very tantalizing rumor has Black Adam being featured in the movie in some capacity, perhaps tying into the eventual matchup between him and Shazam, should the latter’s solo movie perform to expectations.

Deathstroke was initially supposed to be the villain of Ben Affleck’s solo The Batman movie. But Affleck’s commitment to the franchise has been in a constant state of flux ever since the release of BvS in March 2016. Matt Reeves is now on board to write and direct the movie, and has given every indication that Affleck will be in it. But rumors continue to swirl, with the most recent whispers indicating that not only will The Batman be a prequel to Affleck’s incarnation, but that Jake Gyllenhaal is most likely to don the cape and cowl.

And then there’s Flashpoint. The fan-favorite story arc has already been turned into a solid animated movie, and a Flash solo movie has been discussed for years now. Robert Zemeckis, creator of the Back to the Future trilogy, has been courted to direct the film, indicating that time travel will feature heavily. Affleck has stated that if he leaves the role of Batman, he wants to do it in a way that is “cool,” lending more credence to the idea that he’ll hang around through Flashpoint.

But here’s my problem with this idea: Flashpoint only works if we’ve been with these characters for a long time. When certain characters get replaced by new versions following the events of Flashpoint, it holds no power if they’re characters we’re barely attached to. No, I don’t expect the Flashpoint movie to be a beat-for-beat adaptation of what we’ve seen in the comics or cartoon, but the idea of burdening what should be a Barry Allen-centric story with all sorts of other cinematic universe machinations reminds me of BvS. The studio needs to learn to focus on individual stories before setting up larger goals for the franchise.

“PEOPLE SAID THE AGE OF HEROES WOULD NEVER COME AGAIN… IT HAS TO.”

And that brings us to what seems to be the plan going forward. Flashpoint looks like a Civil War-type situation: a solo adventure in name, but one that brings together just about every hero in the DCEU. There is no Justice League 2 on the horizon. Warner Bros. and DC seem to be committed to focusing on largely isolated solo adventures with each of these characters, ditching the connective tissue among the heroes. And this is smart: build up credibility and popularity with audiences by focusing on solo adventures, and once everyone’s ready, bring them back together for a proper Justice League 2.

There may not be a quick-fix solution for the DCEU. Too many questionable decisions have already been made that will have lasting ramifications no matter what the studio decides to do in the future. What remains clear is that rebooting is not an option: Wonder Woman is too popular, Aquaman is coming whether people want it or not, and Shazam is well into development, although the plug could always be pulled if necessary. And frankly, I don’t think the DCEU should be rebooted. A lot of legwork has already been done.

There are ways to course-correct. There are ways to establish brand loyalty and get audiences excited about DC movies again. Focus on standalones, ditch the universe-building, and bring these heroes back together again when they’re ready, not when shareholders demand it. The DC Universe is made up of arguably the best characters to ever grace the pages of comic books. They deserve more love and respect than they’ve received on the big screen in recent years. Maybe things had to go bad before they could get better. Regardless of how choppy the waters have been thus far, the prospect of smooth sailing remains strong for the DCEU.

1 COMMENT

  1. I’m a huge fan of DC. Love the animated flicks & the Injustice video games. But at this point they’ve lost me. There’s no going back after the atrocities they’ve committed. Why care about a company’s product when they don’t care themselves. I transitioned to Marvel as I got older & found that I prefer them much more for the fact they have a more diverse line up. Since day one all DC offers is Batman & Superman. The MCU has completely won me over with its charisma, fun & diversity. The only way DC will win me back is if they are bold enough to make Batman into an African-American, but we all know that’ll never happen.

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