8 years ago, I wrote a blog piece to discuss the reasons why Warner Bros. would not be successful in bringing DC Comics’ Justice League to the big screen. Man of Steel was released that summer in what would be the start of a DC cinematic universe that WB was desperate to compete with Marvel’s cinematic universe over at Disney. Fast forward to 2021 with the release of “the Snyder cut” of director Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max. It was four hours of what could have been DC on film heading in the right direction after more missteps on the part of studio executives as well as a revolving door of creatives chosen to oversee these characters from the comics. Though the fan response has been overwhelmingly positive, it appears WB’s agenda is unfocused which makes for a much chaotic future that I fear.
Cutting through the noise of social media and speculation, I am going to look at the DC cinematic universe issues from a personal perspective as a moviegoer.
MAN OF STEEL (2013)
This was the first true attempt to reimagine Superman without the overall tongue-in-cheek tone of the original Richard Donner film from 1978. Henry Cavill was impressive in his first appearance in the title role and Zack Snyder in some ways toned down his visual style to make a more textured take on the Superman mythology. Though it was well cast and there were far more action sequences here than the usual Superman saving people from freak accidents, many fans complained about certain pivotal moments in the story (i.e., the death of Jonathan Kent) as well as the chaotic third act which saw Metropolis nearly turned to full rubble due to the Superman/Zod fight. It was the film’s final moment where Superman did the most uncharacteristic action of killing a man that made fans uproar. Despite the issues, Man of Steel was still a tolerable start for a cinematic universe.
BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016)
My understanding of WB’s original DCEU plans was to do a straight Man of Steel sequel with Lex Luthor as the main villain before opening to the rest of the Justice League characters; however, Man of Steel failing to crack a billion dollars worldwide resulted in the studio taking the drastic measure of making the next film include Batman. WB had been salivating for this on-screen battle for years and Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy had only ended a year prior to Man of Steel when this project was announced that summer at San Diego Comic Con. The casting of Ben Affleck created the same divisive reaction as Michael Keaton in 1989. But for me, the biggest issue I had going in was the news of several cameos from other characters such as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, etc. Why not call it Justice League if we are distracting from the main battle? Most fans had high expectations for this film from the time footage was released of Affleck in the armored Batman suit. Industry insiders saw this film to be as highly anticipated as Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When it finally hit screens that year, the knives came out. Critics trashed it. Audiences despised the grim tone. For me, I felt it was a studio throwing everything including the kitchen sink into this picture and thought they had a billion-dollar hit. Instead, we got a poorly written, hastily edited film that was trying to be more Batman-centric than a balanced team-up story. There were still bright spots though: Affleck’s performance, Gal Gadot’s first impressions as Wonder Woman, and once again Zack Snyder’s approach to the action scenes. My understanding is that the director’s cut is far superior to the theatrical one. But this goes to show you how WB’s piss poor decisions only make their plans worse.
SUICIDE SQUAD (2016)
Released 5 months after Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad suffered the first backlash from the previous film’s reception. David Ayer who is primarily known for his cop movies was brought in to make an anti-Justice League film with the look of The Walking Dead and the feel of The Dirty Dozen. Though it was headlined by the likes of Will Smith as Deadshot and Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn, all the hype was surrounding Oscar winner Jared Leto as the Joker in what was the first portrayal of the character following the tragic passing of Heath Ledger in 2008. The film was already in the can when Batman v Superman was released. The negative reception caused WB to demand reshoots to lighten the tone and the hiring of a trailer company to re-edit the film as a Guardians of the Galaxy-style comedy. What we got was another steaming pile of studio-meddled poo. Joker fans I saw at my local theater were disappointed by his lack of screen time as well as his James Cagney/Kayne West-like portrayal which proved that Leto was trying too hard to be creepy. Margot Robbie (and to some extent Jay Hernandez as El Diablo) was clearly the shining star. But the Ghostbusters-style premise was forgettable, and the overuse of pop music became more of an annoyance than a cool feature of the film. Money was made here, but respect was not earned.
WONDER WOMAN (2017)
By this time, I was already losing faith in DC on film. Creative hands behind the scenes had changed dramatically with Zack Snyder being told to step back as the driving force of the DCEU and now Geoff Johns, Jon Berg, and Ben Affleck were calling the shots. Not much was said about Wonder Woman behind the scenes prior to its release. So, I went into it with low expectations only to find myself overjoyed. Patty Jenkins broke away from the grim tone of previous DC films and decided to return to the verisimilitude that made Richard Donner’s Superman so successful. This was not a feminist movie by any means. For all of Wonder Woman’s humility and strength on display, Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor adds the right balance as love interest and hero partner without having any abilities. Was it perfect? Many complain it was ripping off Captain America: The First Avenger with the World War I era setting. But this film delivered big, and it kicked the doors open for more female-centric superhero movies. This film alone knocked Batman off his throne as Wonder Woman became WB’s top priority going forward.
JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017)
Just like in wrestling, when you have something good going on with a character or a storyline, the bookers always find a way to sabotage it. Justice League went into production only a month after Batman v Superman was released. WB essentially handcuffed Snyder into making the film they wanted: More hope and humor. Less darkness and even less Superman. To his credit, Snyder played ball and pulled back the grim direction of his past films to give established heroes growth, new characters (i.e., Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg) getting their backstories told efficiently, and setting up the bigger threat that is coming to them via Darkseid and the nightmare future. Snyder gave the studio his movie only for them to be left unsatisfied with the result. The pressures of cutting his 4-hour cut down to a manageable 2 hours along with the tragic suicide of his daughter caused Snyder to step back from the film almost completely. But WB, still hell bent on getting to Marvel’s level, decided to bring in Joss Whedon to “finish” Snyder’s vision. He was said to be an advisor in public. However, Whedon was brought in to reshoot and rewrite the film. As we now know, Whedon’s involvement resulted in conflicts with the cast, bad writing, poor Henry Cavill having his mouth covered in bad CGI due to the mustache he could not cut for Mission: Impossible Fallout, and dorky Marvel humor that just did not work. The film’s failure at the box office had a serious ripple effect to those involved. Affleck, struggling to get his stand-alone Batman movie off the ground, grew world-weary from the studio politics and ultimately dropped out of the role. Johns and Berg were kicked off the creative side and Conjuring producer Walter Hamada took over. Then Cavill dropped out of Superman, Flash was delayed, Ray Fisher cried abuse by people in power, and the fans demanded Snyder’s full cut. The latter would hit our screens nearly 4 years later.
From here on, DC on film became a mixed bag. WB chose to abandon its universe building plans in favor of simple stand-alone projects that do not connect with each other. 2018’s Aquaman was the first test in which the Jason Momoa feature was treated as an origin story and bypassing the Justice League events for an entirely new story. That paid off big in a non-competitive holiday season with many female fans buying up tickets to see a shirtless Momoa on the big screen. 2019’s Shazam was essentially the movie Big except it’s a superhero. As a totally lighter film than anything DC had put out, this one was clearly made for kids and it was a crowd pleaser. But it was 2019’s Joker with Joaquin Phoenix that once again broke the barriers. Todd Philips did not set out to make a franchise movie. Instead, he went all out in making the ultimate Martin Scorsese love letter with a hard R-rating and no Batman to save the day. Joker got everyone on edge with fears of potential violence at theaters across the country which never really played out. It would go on to make that billion dollar mark that WB was desperate to reach and won Phoenix the Oscar for Best Actor.
2020 would be the most challenging for the DCEU. The Harley Quinn-centric Birds of Prey flopped on release. Many blame the “woke” direction of the picture while others feared another Suicide Squad mess. Wonder Woman 1984 was heavily hyped and moved its release date several times due to the pandemic. When we finally got it on HBO Max on Christmas Day, the love from the first film was gone. The fans hated the overall direction of the story and the 80s setting was pointless without much context or pop music of the time. But if there was one highlight that year, it was the DC Fandome online event in which DC’s plans were laid out: A multiverse. With inspiration from the Crisis on Infinite Earths premise from the comics which was the basis of a 5-part arch in the Arrowverse on TV, WB realized they did not need to have the Avengers level build up. They can just make ALL their films cannon and have characters like The Flash cross into these alternate universes where he can meet Michael Keaton’s Batman or Grant Gustin’s Flash and so on. Some love it. Others believe it will make a messy situation into a nightmare.
Now with the critical praise of the Snyder cut of Justice League, it has become an all-out messaging war at WB. Fans want to see Snyder’s vision continue either in theaters or HBO Max with Affleck’s Batman movie as well as a full nightmare future film. The Walter Hamada camp, however, wants to stay the course with solo movies as Matt Reeves’ The Batman, James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad, and The Rock’s Black Adam are on the way in addition to the upcoming productions of The Flash and sequels to Aquaman, Shazam, and Wonder Woman. They even want more obscure characters to get the big screen treatment: Zartana, Hourman, black Superman under J.J. Abrams’ direction, Supergirl, etc. There is clearly no direct plan unless they are looking to do a multiverse crossover that could easily blow up in their faces if it is not done well. What I have laid out here is what I predicted in 2013 and it has come to fruition in some unexpected ways.