In the world of comic books, it is always going to be dangerous to start off a post about DC by talking about Marvel, but that’s precisely what I am about to do. Not because I’m a Marvel lover or DC hater, but because when we look at the world of movies, I don’t think even the most hardened DC fan can argue that Marvel has taken quite a significant lead over the DC Extended Universe (DCEU)
When they started on their journey towards creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), in addition to bringing in some really great storytellers like Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh, Marvel decided to bring in Joss Whedon, a man who was probably known best to the masses for a TV show about a teenage vampire slayer in Buffy, and the failed cult classic Firefly.
Some might think that was a strange choice, but what they may not know is that while Whedon’s credits may make him an odd choice for Marvel to stake their entire cinematic success on, he was also a well-known and respected script doctor, with uncredited work on films like Speed and X-Men. He also co-wrote Toy Story, the film that really revolutionised animated movie making, and had also worked on a comic book line, the Astonishing X-Men.
In short, while his credentials may have looked slightly odd outside of the world of comic book and movie-making geekery, within the industry, it was an understandable choice.
The result of that bold but reasoned choice has been the proliferation of comic book/super hero movies and TV shows in recent years. The transition of Marvel from near bankruptcy in the mid-1990s to one of the biggest multimedia and cultural drivers of the mid-2010s with three films listed amongst the 10 highest grossing films of all time and the highest grossing franchise ever. But it isn’t just about the money.
While there have been some missteps, Whedon’s time overseeing the Marvel universe has led to the development and creation of an over-arching relatively coherent storyline throughout the MCU that allowed the studio to progress towards films like the Avengers in a coherent and natural manner before others took over control of the MCU.
Is that the perfect way to do things? Not necessarily. Is it the only way to succeed? Of course not. Is it better than DC’s current situation? Absolutely!
The partnership between Warner Bros and DC has had some success over the years with the various Batman and Superman films. But none of that matters anymore because all of that history and goodwill has been erased with the advent of the new DCEU.
Instead, the DC movie world starts with Man of Steel with the whole thing under the oversight of Zack Snyder…and therein lays the problem.
While Whedon began his career as a writer, developing stories, and working on scripts including those written by others, Snyder started out in commercials, and that difference really shows.
That isn’t to say you cannot make a transition between filming commercials or music videos, to producing substantive, character driven narratives, but between Snyder and Michael Bay, the evidence certainly doesn’t suggest that it will result in good films.
I’m not totally down on Snyder, and 300 and Watchmen, while not without faults, are decent watches, but two things are abundantly clear from Snyder’s back catalogue – he cannot develop characters ad he cannot develop complex storylines and plots. He claims to be a comic book fan, and seems to honestly believe he is making films that are accurate portrayals of the source material – and I completely believe that he genuinely does think that. The problem is not that he doesn’t want to make a good film, it is more that he has shown time and again that his particular type of filmmaking emphasises style over substance, and unfortunately that style is not something that translates well to the DC universe.
The tendency to interrupt interesting character development scenes with big, loud exploding CGI events was evident in Man of Steel, and became even more prevalent in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS:DoJ). Everything in the DCEU has to be bigger, the explosions, the noise, the spectacle…and it must all be viewed through an increasingly dark visual filters that drain the colour from every scene.
While perhaps not quite as bad as many critics claim, BvS:DoJ has no soul, no heart, and fundamentally, no coherent storyline. The film never really gets beyond a series of CGI laden action sequences interspersed with a series of commercial like product placements (while I understand the use of brands and products in films, some of these product placement in BvS:DoJ were just ridiculous!) and occasionally interlaced with all too fleeting pieces of dialogue.
As a DC fan, it was an incredibly frustrating film to watch. Even more so when you consider just how great some of the acting is. Even in Man of Steel, Henry Cavill showed that he had huge potential as Superman and Clark Kent, even if we hardly ever really see the latter. Gal Gadot puts in a great performance as Diana Prince and Wonder Woman, but again, this is all too brief, almost as if her inclusion was an afterthought during script development.
The standout performance in BvS:DoJ is Ben Affleck. Despite all the uproar and silly pre-emptive naysayers when he was first cast, Affleck is quite probably the best Batman/Bruce Wayne to have graced the screen, ably assisted by the great Jeremy Irons. Affleck’s Batman is the highlight of the film, and I have no doubt that a standalone Affleck Batman could not only be a box office success, but rival the Burton/Keaton films as the best cinematic Batman offering.
Without wanting to get bogged down in a full review of BvS:DoJ, I still think Amy Adams is miscast as Lois Lane, and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor feels like it belongs in a totally different film. Despite this, between the three central performances from Cavill, Gadot and Affleck, we are given glimpses at just what a fantastic movie this could and should have been. Sadly it went wildly off-course, bearing all the hallmarks of Snyder’s captaincy.
The film jumps around through reality and dream sequences, none of which are fully explored or developed. The plot skips along at times, with little attempt to engage with the audience in anything other than an entirely superficial nature. The film is incredibly dark, from a visual perspective, which makes the whole thing seem increasingly surreal rather than grounding it in reality – is there seriously never any sunlight in Metropolis or Gotham?!!?
Snyder has yet to realise that making an emotionally and thematically dark and gritty film doesn’t simply mean you make everything look darker. Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix is a great example of a dark and menacing setting but one in which not everything just looks black…and sometimes dark shades of grey. He also has yet to learn that CGI isn’t a magic fix all solution. It should supplement a film built around characters, dialogue and story rather than the other way around.
Snyder, and DC and Warner Bros by extension, have now shown over two films that they are more interested in having massive scenes of wilful and frankly needless destruction rather than developing characters and storylines to really engage with the audience. They would rather spend an hour smashing buildings and killing what I can only assume are thousands of unseen civilians than spend ten minutes with characters talking – I assume because of concerns that they may, heavens forbid, say something vaguely humorous!
DC has some of the best characters in the comic book universe. They are complex, detailed and engaging. In Affleck, Cavill and Gadot, DC also has actors who have proven that they can bring those characters to life in a way that could be both intriguing and enjoyable.
Unfortunately, in Snyder, they have put all that potential in the hands of someone who is increasingly becoming a Michael Bay-light – he has shown time and again that he cannot produce something that is both visually and narratively engaging. He never strays beyond the superficial, never explores the great DC characters and worlds, and insists on draining the colour out of every single shot just as he drains the hopes and dreams of DCEU fans watching the films.
BvS:DoJ took $424m worldwide in its opening weekend, of which $166m was in the US. But that figure fell significantly for its second weekend, when it took a total of $52.4m in the US, a fall of more than 68% week-on-week, with a record 81pc fall in Friday-to-Friday takings, indicating that much of the success from the opening weekend may well have come from pre-bookings.
No one can deny that BvS:DoJ has taken a lot of money, but just to put that in context, Fox’s Deadpool, the film that was almost never made about a character much less well-known than either Batman or Superman, took just over $152m in the US in its opening weekend. It then followed that by taking just over $56m in its second weekend to total $208m in its first two weekends…for an R rated film with a budget of $58m. BvS:DoJ took around $218m in its opening two weekends, and had a budget of $250m, and was a PG-13, so potentially had a much wider audience.
Beyond the monies
While I have no problem with Snyder making whatever non-DCEU films he likes (there is clearly an audience for them), I do wish DC hadn’t put the DCEU in his hands. I believe that Snyder is genuinely making the films to the best of his ability and is making films he thinks best reflect the source material. The problem is that his style of filmmaking doesn’t really suit the types of films DC need him to make if they are going to really make the DCEU successful. While initial box office numbers might look good, the lack of actual characters and coherent and detailed stories and plots mean that in the longer term, make the DCEU’s eventual failure all but inevitable.
tl;dr Snyder may be the director that DC deserves, but he is certainly not the one it, or the fans, needs right now.
Source: Box Office Mojo