DC's "Extended Universe", and a Discussion on Tone
As we get closer to the premiere of not only Wonder Woman, but Justice League, I thought it might be interesting to discuss how Warner Bros' got to the point where so many people are on the edge of their seats for DCEU films not out of excitement because they know the films will be good, but out of concern that the films just might be terrible. To be fair, there are plenty of people who are in love with Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, and Suicide Squad, and that's okay: the cast and crew worked hard on all those films and it's good that they've developed a fanbase. This is really for everyone else--those who might be curious on why the DCEU just can't seem to nail their films. Follow me, brave reader, but I warn* you, however; this is quite the tangled clusterfuck of stupidity, and we're going to have to be careful about which cord we tug at first to unravel it all.
*Other warning: I'm not a fan of these movies, and I'm not exactly going to hold back my distaste on any of them.
To begin, we go back a little over a decade to the dawn of DC's modern superhero films in Batman Begins. First premiering in the summer of 2005, Batman Begins was the first time DC had tried a superhero film since 1997's farcical Batman and Robin. For its time, Begins was a huge success and is actually both one of my favorite films of all time and easily my favorite of the Nolan-verse trilogy. The movie perfectly encapsulated the feel of a Gotham overrun by organized crime, as it was in the comics before Batman arrived, and they managed to believably cover Bruce's journey from overwhelmed novice into pulling all the pieces together to be Batman. It told a fairly grounded (in a good way) story about Batman's first year, and even ended on a hopeful note: having successfully both saved Gotham from Ra's and taken out a fair deal of the city's mob bosses, it actually felt like Bruce had made a difference--something that's all too often even left out of the comics themselves. As someone who hadn't been a Batman fan in quite some time, I still walked out of the theater that June feeling pretty excited for the future of DC Comics in film.
Unfortunately, things went off the rails for them directly afterwards. At the time, Begins' immense success both critically and commercially had WB thinking about the potential of DC Comics characters as summer tentpole films. There was a rough plan of having Superman make his big re-appearance on the silver screen in 2006's Superman Returns, and there was talk of getting Wonder Woman into theaters by the following year. Just like that, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman would all find their way into films...and could Justice League be very far behind?
Of course, none of that happened. Superman Returns would start a trend that DC still hasn't shaken off ten years later--where their initial films make a decent amount of money but are so poorly received that turning them into franchises are be all but impossible. And with that failure, the Wonder Woman film would be put on hold for almost a decade, with the DC Universe choosing to rely on Nolan's Bat-verse while they put all their franchises in the shop.
Behind the scenes, Warner Bros had already started trying to figure out just what made Superman Returns fail at all. The answer seems obvious enough: a weak cast combined with a Superman that barely did anything for most of the film could only be seen as a disappointment to most, and that's before you get to the part where it's a continuation of a series that even by then was nearly two decades old. But that answer wasn't quite good enough, and the continued success of Batman with The Dark Knight would give WB an idea that would eventually lead to the DCEU's current troubled state.
As the story goes, the execs at DC believed that Batman was a success not because it was so true to the spirit of the character, but rather because of the dark, brooding air Batman tends to have. With its world of muted colors and its heavy focus on realism, the assumption was it was these factors that lead moviegoers to connect with the Batman franchise in a way that they never would with Superman. And so they decided to, and I quote, "go dark to the extent that the characters allow it".
By now you can see where I'm going with this. These talks are exactly what lead to Man of Steel in 2011 Superman's unfortunate return to the silver screen during the "universe building" era of movies: an overly serious, nearly joyless film. The success that WB would see with this film, despite being more polarizing than any film Marvel had released in five years would eventually lead to last year's Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, two more films that would make them exorbitant amounts of money while being critically questionable.
Certainly, there's something to be said for the way modern blockbusters can be truly stunning on a technical scale. Even as someone who vehemently dislikes Man of Steel, it featured some of the most impressive fight scenes I've ever witnessed; I always say Man of Steel's fight scenes could have made up part of a fantastic Dragon Ball Z film. Now combine that with the awe-inspiring beauty of Krypton and that alone is enough to convince many filmgoers of its worthiness as an addition to the Superman mythology. It's hard to argue with someone when there are absolutely elements to these films that are good, even if they fail at nailing the flavor of each character--which is something that's far more difficult to nail down to begin with.
Unfortunately, when you combine that with the fanboy wars that naturally come when you pit anything Marvel against anything DC, you end up with people attempting to defend DC by trashing Marvel. It's a nasty "in comparison" thing that has very little to do with the fact that on their own merits DC's films aren't terribly good. This is where you get the oft-made claim that "superheroes don't always have to be funny", a not-so-lowkey snipe at the fact that nearly every Marvel film is injected with a not insignificant amount of humor. It's a statement that is certainly accurate on its face; most superheroes don't have to be funny, and indeed in their source material outside of a handful of characters like Spider-Man, Nightwing, and a post-Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, most superheroes aren't terribly funny at all.
But there's a difference between wanting your films to be "funny" versus them carrying the appropriate tone based on the character each film is about, and that's why DC's films are all creative non-starters. Tone is part of the very foundation of telling your story, and if you don't have that right there's a fair chance you're going to muck up the rest. When you don't get the spirit of the character, even the storytelling decisions will often be the wrong ones. People often mistakenly describe this as hardline "rules": Batman doesn't use guns. Spider-Man doesn't kill. These are both true statements, but there's reasoning rooted in the character psychology of both that make those statements to be accurate. You can go against them, but you run the risk of not really writing the character you claim you are. All people are certainly capable of change, but most of us also have things about us that are immutable, that make us "us". It's not that we cannot change those aspects of ourselves, it's that we refuse to. And so it should be with these characters.
Admittedly, I'm looking at things from the most outsider perspective possible and playing the role of fanboy exec, but it just feels like DC never looks into what makes their characters tick in the first place. Though Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige got rid of them recently, for the majority of the MCU's existence there was a writer's trust of sorts in place--a collection of Marvel's best and brightest creators that were relied on to keep the scripts on track so that the characters always felt true. So far as we know, until Geoff Johns' got his most recent promotion, DC films haven't ever really had that. And that's why they thought it was acceptable to give Man of Steel the same mood and ambience of a Batman film, even though the characters are polar opposites.
No, Superman doesn't need to trade barbs with Batman like Robert Downey Jr. does with Chris Evans, and I wouldn't want that. But at the same time, the Man of Steel represents certain things the Dark Knight never has. A Superman film should capture the feeling of hope the character brings. The way he inspires those around him to do good. The unbridled joy of flying. He's meant to represent everything that is good and just about humanity, and though Batman is certainly a noble character, he's also a creature of tragedy and can't quite be about those same kinds of stories.
Similarly, Suicide Squad ran into the same issues. With the vast majority of people complaining about how dark and "not fun" Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman were, DC scrambled to inject some "humor" and "light" into Suicide Squad. Which is why all its trailed looked decidedly manic and can match up to Bohemian Rhapsody. The issue here is that Suicide Squad has no business being "light"; it's inherent in the name and more importantly in its base concept. Again, they're not trying to look at these properties individually and figure out what makes them tick--they added "humor" to the film as a reaction to what people complained about with the last film, ignoring the fact that the only thing Batman and Superman have in common with the Suicide Squad is that they occasionally all beat the crap out of each other.
The marketing of Suicide Squad alone made it obvious they don't "get" how these characters are supposed to work. They wasted far too much time trying to hammer home that this time the story's about "the bad guys" and getting away from the core idea of Suicide Squad, which is more in a grey area that believes "bad" and "good" are just titles. Deadshot helping the United States to rescue some captured hostages doesn't make him any less of a murderer. The US government sending out convicted felons on missions with incredibly low chances of success might be necessary, but it's certainly not a "good" thing, nor is the fact that should one of them survive enough missions they have their records expunged. Everything's meant to be drenched in shades of gray, and the neon-infused, Queen-inspired romp pictured in the trailers (and in the film itself) didn't really capture any of that.
The film itself isn't really any better. The source material inclines you to think you'd be seeing a story filled with espionage, shadowplay and secret societies--the Suicide Squad should be attacking (and introducing!) organizations like H.I.V.E. or Kobra, people the League wouldn't even know existed yet. People who their unique skills would make them suited to face. Instead we get a wannabe zombie army and a pair of ancient magicians that feel like they'd be better utilized in the upcoming Mummy reboot.
The unfortunate reality of all this though...is that it's not an issue. Not as long as Zack Snyder, the same guy who preferred Watchmen to "normal" heroes because people were having sex and killing each other, can squeeze enough 800-900 million out of his next film. And as Justice League actually looks half decent, it might break a billion.
Of course, it's not all bad. Everything I've seen from Wonder Woman tells me they understand what makes that character work--she's not some goddess of war, she's just a bad-ass well-trained by a group of women who would prefer peace but aren't afraid of war. Even the fact that it's a period piece tells me they're not afraid of getting out of their usual comfort zone, and I'll admit that I'm probably more excited to go see that than I am Marvel's Guardians Vol. 2. And while it definitely took way too long for a woman to get a solo film, I'm still pretty happy that the first one up is The First Lady of Comics.
If anything though, my real concern comes in how poor films affects superheroes over time. As DC gears up to finally take their "extended universe" seriously, we're rapidly approaching a point where we could see 5-6 superhero films a year. That's not an issue as long as the movies are even passably decent, but too many lazy duds in a row could prove dangerous to the sub-genre down the line. Which I guess is my long way of saying: help us, Geoff Johns! You're our only hope.
All jokes aside, while I don't think the new president of DC Entertainment is the "best writer of all time", he does possess an almost eerie level of understanding of even the most obscure characters, and can zero in on how and why they're cool and convey that to his readers. It's how he made Booster Gold and Aquaman cool, and how he took Green Lantern from a B-Lister at best to one of DC's biggest franchises for nearly ten years. Hopefully with him having far more control over the films coming up these next few years, things will look a little less like that fuck of clusters I mentioned almost 2000 words ago.