Before the post begins, I feel it is important to direct readers toward Ismahawk’s reviews of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad on the HawkTalk Podcast. Some of what I say will be similar to their grievances and suggestions, and it feels disingenuous not to give them credit. They are extremely entertaining either way, I recommend comic book fans check the channel out for a good time.
“The DCEU.” This phrase sparks a wide range of emotions in superhero fans of all kinds, and for good reason. Up to this point, the three movies in the DC Extended Universe’s lineup have been met with a drastically mixed bag of reviews from fans and critics alike.
It started out with Man of Steel. Love or hate Superman, this movie attracted a torrent of attention, for the same reason as the Nolan Batman trilogy. Seven years since a Superman film, and Superman Returns had varying responses itself: is it any wonder people wanted to see how this movie would turn out? Even moreso with such a visually powerful director in Zack Snyder and a dead ringer for Clark Kent in Henry Cavill, this movie was set up for success.
The perfect formula was there. Man of Steel had the cast, the director, the trailers, and most importantly, it had the intrigue. Then 2013 came, and the movie was not universally praised, or even disparaged. Some people loved Man of Steel. Some people enjoyed it, without any strong emotion on either side of the spectrum. But the most significant group of people, while it is not necessarily the majority, is the very vocal group that hated Man of Steel with a passion.
Remember our vocal group, we will come back to them soon.
Shortly after Man of Steel’s debut, Warner Bros. announced Zack Snyder would be back for a Man of Steel sequel, and why not? Not everyone hated the first film, and it was successful enough that a second round could prove prosperous. The intrigue still was holding on. What would happen next? Could this movie unite the fans in a good way?
Come May of 2014, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is revealed as the title of the sequel film, and in October of the same year, nine films including Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were announced, with release dates. Now the intrigue was erupting. Batman getting rebooted starting with a film based on The Dark Knight Returns is an instant attention grabber and holder. Eight other films, one of which focuses on villains, and several of which featuring the entire Justice League in live action together? That is an incredible way to grab hold of general audiences and comic book fans hard.
Fast forward now to the current date. Both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad killed their opening weekend and had decent success throughout their run at the box office, Batman v Superman of course doing much better due to its starring characters. From a purely monetary standpoint, the DCEU has been very successful getting its feet off the ground. But from the review standpoint? These movies fell victim to our vocal group, and that group got bigger the more people saw these films. Most commonly cited for these being “bad” movies are the criminally low Rotten Tomatoes scores each received. Even so, many people, especially huge comic fans, loved or at the very least enjoyed the movies enough to be satisfied. So what went wrong?
As I stated, comic book fans seem to especially enjoy Batman v Superman, and Man of Steel to a lesser amount. Suicide Squad was enjoyed by comic book fans as well, but it was more mixed in demographics, so we’ll focus on the first two films for now. While Batman v Superman had a very linear story, Man of Steel was heavy on flashbacks between past and present. On the flip side, while Man of Steel had an easily understood conflict, Batman v Superman was all over the place and did not come off clearly to many (in the theatrical cut). Both of these movies had elements to them that made casual watchers, and even some fans, have trouble following the plot and becoming immersed in it. These are off-putting style choices that work in theory, but do not connect with general audiences in practice, unless done smoothly. Batman v Superman is definitely more guilty of not connecting with moviegoers in this way, but Man of Steel had its fair share of flubs in that regard. On top of this, both movies are heavily berated for their utterly joyless tones. In a Batman solo film, one can get away with dark, gritty, and humorless (to a point). With Superman, constant brooding and lack of levity is jarring. It takes a heavy toll in both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, especially when the latter emphasizes the differences in the two heroes so much as the conflict was built (“Black and blue, day versus night”) only to see Clark Kent being almost as mopey as Bruce Wayne. Tension is good, but a total absence of any light in the movie is detrimental.
Now that some of the primary issues with Man of Steel and Batman v Superman have been addressed, we’ll take a look at what went wrong with Suicide Squad. Suicide Squad happens to be my favorite movie of the three, but I can wholeheartedly see why this movie did not fully vibe with general audiences. Suicide Squad has a very awkward, specific cinematic style. It is a fun style, truly, but it also appeals to a niche of moviegoers. It could have connected more with an audience that was sold on the DCEU already, or if its tone was clear (we’ll get to that), but they were not sold yet, and the tone was not clear, and the movie suffered. By the tone not being clear, I mean that the movie seemed and was reported to be originally a dark, gritty film, like its predecessors, but Warner Bros. panicked after Batman v Superman was received poorly, and reacted by making David Ayer inject more humor and lightness into the movie. Granted, maybe this was not a studio move, but it certainly smells of studio intervention. In addition, with the reveal that a lot of material, particularly Joker-related material, was edited or flat out cut to make the movie more “bright” or “joyful,” the movie suffered hard due to trying to correct course too far into the direction they had chosen.
I have done a lot of talking about the issues with these movies, but here is where it all ties in: these movies do not appeal to general audiences. With generally solid dialogue, a powerful cast, brilliant visionary directors, and characters that such a huge amount of people love, all three movies had such potential to be the blockbuster titans Warner Bros. tried to make them. While each did quite well, save Suicide Squad doing good but not exceptional, none of them lived up to their expectations, whether it be just from a blockbuster standpoint or the more important longevity standpoint. These movies did well connecting with comic fans for the most part, but comic book fans were bound to connect with them regardless. Comic fans are not the ones these movies need to please, at least not first. These movies first need to make sure they can be watched by casual movie fans and not just fly over their heads or put them off. They need to be clean cut and coherent enough that critics won’t be inclined to tear them to shreds. Once those two groups are taken care of, you can add your fan service to the comic fans. But if the general audience leaves your movie disappointed or painfully whelmed, the future of the franchise is bleak.
To put this into perspective, look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nearly all of the movies in its lineup are easy to follow, have enough action in the right places to pump people up, establish strong emotional ties between the characters and the watchers, and still manage to put in plenty of service for the comic fans. Granted, there were a few mediocre films in the mix, but the good so drastically outweighs the bad that they can be easily overlooked. The reason Marvel is doing so well is because they took a simple formula with few risks and they stuck with it. Once the MCU was rolling, Marvel took no risks at all, because they didn’t have to. Even Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a risk despite its characters’ lower popularity before the movie, because the formula was there, and all they had to do was make the characters likeable and do them justice for the fans, and they were golden.
Now, here’s where the MCU is starting to have to take risks. People have picked up on the eerie similarities each film has to the last, the beats all hitting the same way. With some movies it’s easier to see than others, but many of the films you can see start to blur together. Ant-Man, while being one of the most fun movies in the lineup, has nearly the same plot structure as Iron Man, for example. And that’s why we see Doctor Strange being so different than any of the other films: People started to get burnt out, so Marvel is giving them something brand new in the same world.
Back on the DCEU side of things, there is a clear difference in strategy, and thus success. Whereas the MCU started taking few risks, hit their stride, and now is comfortable enough to go risky routes like Doctor Strange, the DCEU made very stylistically risky choices from the beginning, is having a lot of difficulty hitting its stride, and may never be comfortable to visit lesser known characters and try new concepts. Granted, this was before Geoff Johns became the overseer of the DCEU. Geoff Johns knows these characters, he knows how to make people love them, and he knows what decisions should be made. Wonder Woman will be an excellent film in all regards thanks to him, I have no doubt about that, but how many casual moviegoers don’t feel inclined to give it a shot now? How many comic fans who didn’t vibe with the style of the previous three films have no hope for this movie? How many critics have made up their minds to tear down the DCEU regardless of quality due to how poor they felt the movies so far have been?
The point I’m trying to make is: I think if not Justice League Part I, then The Flash will be DC’s last chance to reach general audiences before the movies crumble at their feet. People need to like these movies, from kids to adults, comic fans or not. Otherwise, there’s no chance that fans like myself will get to see the characters we love shine in live action. And there will be kids who grow up thinking Batman is terrible and scary, or even just boring. And one day people will look back at these movies and think of them the same way as Ghost Rider and Fantastic Four. I know DC doesn’t want that. I know most people who love DC like I do don’t want that. But it will happen if changes aren’t made.
There’s another little thing that is an issue within the DCEU, and actually inspired this whole post. This idea that releasing an Extended or “Ultimate” cut of a film fixes everything needs to stop right now. Just over a week ago, Suicide Squad Extended Edition was announced, which I think just about everyone expected. The Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman did clean the movie up, add in some great content, and improve the overall quality of the movie, and I’m positive Suicide Squad will do the same. However, making the right movie should be reserved for theaters, not for damage control after the fact. Cinema does not need DLC, make the complete film before it hits theaters, not after.
Now, here’s my disclaimer: These are certainly not bad movies. Man of Steel beautifully painted the Superman origin story and felt so right. The tone fit, because Superman was finding his place. And it fit in Batman v Superman, too. While Clark should have been able to smile or at the very least smirk a bit more, Superman did not need to and should not have been as jolly and quippy as people expected him in this movie. Half the world hated him, so when he takes of the glasses and puts on the cape, he has that on his shoulders again. While the theatrical cut of this film was muddy and weird in places, the Ultimate Edition was amazing, everything ran smoother, and it was a truly jaw-dropping experience. Suicide Squad also suffers from the problem of the theatrical release being off or awkward, and part of that has to do with the editing style, as I said before, but it also has to do with the studio’s decisions. Batman v Superman was the way it was in theaters for likely the same reasons, but different motives. I think that Suicide Squad will definitely improve with the Extended Edition’s release in November, but it still was not bad to begin with.
I want to add that people seemed, even before anyone knew Batman v Superman would be released, to always be keeping their eyes focused on DC, waiting to snap at their every move. This is part of the problem too. People expect every DC movie to be The Dark Knight, or a Marvel movie with DC characters in place of Cap and Iron Man. That attitude has such a negative impact on one’s experience with a film, and just breeds repeated hatred in people. Now that people expected one thing from DC and did not receive it, they pounce on everything Warner Bros./Ben Affleck/Zack Snyder/etc. release, finding anything, and I mean anything, to attack. When Batman’s tactical suit in Justice League Part I was unveiled, how little of how cool the armor and texture of the suit look, and how much “the goggles look stupid” was heard? (You can take goggles off, guys.) How many people are quick to say the Flash should never have any armor to his suit and should only have spandex, without considering the universe they are looking at, and understanding that some light armor might be practical when he’s going up against the likes of Darkseid? I’m not saying that we need to just let everything wrong with the movies go. Hell, I just spent several paragraphs talking about flaws in the DCEU. But nitpicking at every little detail is different from legitimate criticism. What I’m saying is that people should shed their biases and enter the movies with an open mind, and look at the bigger picture instead of minute parts of it.
In conclusion, the DC Extended Universe has had the tools for success, but the wrong execution, because too many risks have been taken in style and structure of the films. I think in the future the movies will improve and click with audiences everywhere, but it needs desperately to be the near future or the whole cinematic universe will crumble. The focus from here out needs to be on pleasing general audiences, and not on relying on comic book fan service or extended versions to save the movies. The DCEU could be just as big and loved as the MCU, all it needs to do is up its game, fix its strategy, and plan rather than reacting recklessly. In addition, hitting DC and Warner Bros. with unwarranted hatred is not fair to the movemakers, or those who watch them. An open mind is necessary for any film, and it’s only fair that DC is given that. I hope that we will see a more successful DCEU soon, because it deserves to be, and we all want it to be.
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