The internet is currently in arms (again) because a movie based on a DC-property didn’t life up to the hype (again) and now everyone is accusing each other of bias (again). I am tired of this sh… And apparently the general audience is too, if the numbers for the opening week-end of Justice League are any indication. And it would be a lie to claim that I am in any way surprised. In fact, I think the DCEU was pretty much still-born, for multiple reasons.
I’ll be honest: To a certain degree I am satisfied by this development. Not because I hate DC, I really don’t, I cheer whenever they create something I like and I respect them for a lot of movies and shows I don’t like, but in which I see value on a “this is just not for me” basis. No, I am satisfied, because I predicted that this would happen, and like most people, I like to be proven right, even in situations in which I would have preferred to be wrong. There is a lingering sadness because I would have loved to see a strong and popular Wonder Woman without her being dragged down by the mess which is the DCEU. But I am also glad that Warner Bros. did get the reaction those movies deserved.
So, why did I predict this would happen? Well, let’s go back when The Avengers was released and became an instant phenomenon. What happened back then is exactly what happens every time when a movie is financial successful: Executives from all studios tried to pinpoint the reason why this particular movie resonated with audiences. And as it is often the case, their answer was incomplete.
I suspect their line of thought went something like this: The Avengers has a number of popular IP’s in one movie, this movie is connected with other movies featuring those IP’s so we only need to make movies featuring popular IP’s meeting each other and we will make the big money. Eh….nope.
They weren’t even the only ones who thought that way. There were a couple of comic book fans which were dead-sure that Justice League was an automatic candidate for a billion dollar box office just because it featured the most well-known DC characters. But the executives and all those fans, they forget one important thing: The general audience doesn’t care about those comic books.
Shocking, I know, but nevertheless the truth. Do you really think that many people even knew who Ironman was back in 2008? Hell, one of the reasons it was so difficult to get Ironman off the ground was because a lot of directors, writers and actors feared for their career taking a project like this about a minor comic book character. The Avengers wasn’t so successful because the audience was full of comic book fans who wanted to see their favourite characters on screen. It was so successful because the general audience had already fallen in love with this particular incarnation of Ironman and Captain America and to a lesser degree Thor and wanted to see more of them on. Plus, it was a great movie. I think it is easy to forget that The Avengers beat all box office predictions and showed true staying power. It wasn’t an automatic success because of the IP’s featured, it was a success because it was the perfect conclusion to a four year long project.
Marvel earned its success with The Avengers, by taking financial and narrative risks, but above all by taking its time to carefully cultivate an audience for their brand. And now Warner Bros. and Universal (and whoever else was suddenly announcing some kind of universe) thought that they could just throw some well-known IP’s together and have the same kind of success? Yeah, I don’t think so. But with Warner Bros. there were a number of additional factors which made a success unlikely.
One is the structure of the studio. Warner Bros. follows traditionally a director driven approach, meaning they look for talents and then allow them to go creative with their own projects. That is very different to Disney/Pixar/Marvel Studios habit to focus on producer-driven projects. Walt Disney, John Lassiter, Kevin Feige, it has served the company very well because it turned the names of the studios into brands. They don’t need name recognition based on directors or actors because the audience trust the studio itself to deliver quality no matter what, and they have a pretty good idea what kind of movie they can expect based on the brand. Warner Bros. doesn’t have that. Usually this has the advantage that it can delve into whatever project strikes them fancy without worrying too much about audience expectations. For an overreaching universe though, there was no way that this would work.
The MCU is basically the principle of a TV series adjusted for the big screen. And every series needs a show runner, someone, who has a clear vision concerning the direction in which the story will go. That doesn’t mean that a series has to be planned out from start to finish, but you need a goal and some bullet points along the way. Most show-runners plan their series from season to season (though the best shows are usually those for which someone thought way further ahead), Marvel plans their movies from phase to phase with a pretty good idea what might be good options for the future. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they have scripts lying around even for properties they currently don’t own just in case the rights revert back for some reason. But Warner Bros. waited until after the box office disappointment of Batman vs. Superman to create an own division for the DC-based movies. At this point it was too late, because the DCEU had already written itself into a corner.
Another reason why I didn’t think that the DCEU could succeed was Warner Bros. attitude towards Superhero movie. I’ll now say something which will most likely be very controversial: I don’t think that there has been ANY good live-action Superhero movie based on a DC property since the first two Superman movies. And before someone tries to bring up the Batman movies, hear me out: Those are arguably good movies, but they are not good Superhero movies. They are Burton’s take on Batman and Nolan’s take on Batman. And all those takes (and the majority of comic book movies pre-MCU btw) have one thing in common: they are theme driven. None of them are actually about the comics, instead the comics are just the backdrop for whatever theme the director wanted to discuss – or an excuse for nifty set-designs. And don’t get me wrong, a theme driven approach is not necessarily a bad one, but the MCU is entirely character driven. It is way easier to make the audience invested in characters than in themes.
Speaking of audience, I also didn’t think that Warner Bros. had any idea who their audience actually was. That is something I realized when I saw Watchmen. I know I risk even more nerd rage when I say this but: Watchmen will always be a movie with a niche following, because this movie is utterly inaccessible for the general audience. For someone who is not already familiar with comic book lore it is a very uncomfortable movie to watch, partly because Snyder is unable to shot a brutal murder as anything other than a cool event, but above all because there is a constant sense of the movie referencing something without having any idea what this is about. Just the vague feeling of missing something big there.
Nerd culture has taken over the internet and consequently created a bubble in which it seems as if there is a huge community of comic book readers out there. This is not the case, especially not once one bothers to look past the US border. I keep describing myself as a non-comic book reader, but what I am actually mean by that is that I didn’t grew up with specifically Superhero comics. The comics of my childhood were called Asterix, Tintin and Lucky Luke (well, mostly Asterix), with a lot of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (mostly by Italian or Scandinavian writers) thrown in for good measures. Europe has its own comic culture, as has Asia. And, btw, Mangas are way more accessible for foreigners than Superhero comics are, because they tend to be concluded series instead of a giant construct which makes it practically impossible for an outsider to find a starting point.
Yes, most people in the world has at least an idea who Batman, Superman, Spider-man and to a lesser degree Wonder Woman are. But that has nothing to do with the comics, and everything to do with those characters having been present on TV for decades. Batman fans might hate the Adam West show, but without it, there won’t be any Burton movie, or a ground-breaking animated series. Spiderman had so many cartoon shows, there is one for every generation out there. And thanks to all those adaptations, there is a basic knowledge a studio can expect from the audience, but it is not as extensive than some people might think. How Batman’s parents died, what the deal with Superman is or the fate of Uncle Ben, those are things which are pretty well established by now. But don’t expect the general audience to know about The Killing Joke, the fate of the various Robins or how Gwen Stacy died. Comic book readers know this. People who have just watched a Comic book based TV show once in a while don’t (unless they have observed comic book media related discussions as long as I did). Marvel either understood that or never even thought about it due to using lesser known characters. They build their universe under the assumption that the majority of the audience wouldn’t know anything about their characters, hence making it accessible for everyone.
Marvel understood also that what the nerd soul demands is not necessarily what it needs. It is always important to pay attention to your fans, but that doesn’t mean that you should follow every suggestion they make.
A good studio listens to its fans and then figures out what they actually want.
To summon this up: I doubted that Warner Bros. would succeed because I thought that the structure of the studio wasn’t suitable for a project like this, because they had already shown that they didn’t really know the audience for Comic book based movies and because their approach to comic books in the past displayed a dismissive attitude towards the source material. And once I saw Man of Steel, I no longer just doubted, I was sure that I was watching a slow moving trainwreck.
Picking Snyder for a Superman movie has to be the most puzzling decision Warner Bros ever made. Oh, I get the thought behind it. Gritty Batman worked, Superman Returns didn’t, so let’s go gritty with Superman. Plus, thanks to 300 and Watchmen, Snyder had a lot of credibility with comic book fans. But, as I pointed out above, comic book fans don’t equal the general audience. Who the hell thought that Snyder’s cynical point of view would be a good fit for Superman, even for a gritty version of him? Though what really turned Man of Steel into a terrible movie – yes, it is terrible, I don’t care that it has its defenders – is not even the tone and the cynicism, though neither help. The main problem with it is that it spends long stretches of the narrative to make clear that this is supposed to be a different Superman, but then throws in scenes and expect them to resonate with the audience based on prior knowledge of those characters. The killing of Zod is the prime example for that. If comic book Superman did that, the “Noooooo” would resonate because Superman usually doesn’t kill. If the Man of Steel does it, it fits perfectly to his actions through the whole movie, leaving the “Nooooo” without any context.
But even though Man of Steel confirmed a lot of my fears, I didn’t expect what followed then. After all, there was still time for Warner Bros. to rethink their strategy, wasn’t it? Instead they doubled down on it! Why was Snyder kept on the project not just as one director, but as the director who set the tone for the whole universe? Remember what Marvel did? Marvel build on the successful movies which resonated with the audience and quietly shoved The Incredible Hulk into the darkest shadow available.
Marvel also created a baseline for their universe, but it was very careful to not lock the directors too tightly into a specific aesthetic or the writers into a specific storyline. They did the whole setting up the next movie thing exactly once in Phase 1, during the production of Ironman 2, and remember the movie which resulted out of those decisions – a rushed production, an unfocussed script, and a construct in which three Marvel movies were supposed to overlap – is to this day considered one of the weakest of the MCU. Which is why Warner Bros. approach is so puzzling. Marvel had already demonstrated what worked and what didn’t. Dropping Easter eggs and subtle connections? Works great! Using huge chunks of a movie to advertise the next instalment? Nope, don’t do this! And yet Warner Bros went and created a whole movie which is nothing but set-up with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.
But the biggest mistake in all this might have been the stories Warner Bros. picked for adaptation. Look, I get it, The Dark Knight Returns and The Death of Superman are very popular comic books, but there is a reason why Captain America: Civil War is movie 13 of the MCU and not movie 2. Those kind of stories can only work if the audience has already established a relationship to the characters and the world in question, and, as I already pointed out, a studio shouldn’t just assume that such a relationship automatically exist due to earlier adaptations, especially not if the incarnations shown are so distinctively different from prior versions of them.
While we are at it, Flashpoint won’t work as a first Flash Stand-alone story either. This year a lot of people joked that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. did Flashpoint better than CW’s The Flash did. And the reason why the take of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was so much better received boils down to one word: patience. The Flash did this particular plot point in its second season, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.waited nearly four years before it confronted its characters with a possible alternate existence and had therefore way more material to build on. There is no way that Warner Bros. can do it in the very first instalment of the Flash.
On top of this, Warner Bros. or Snyder or Goyer or whoever else was involved in the mess which was Batman vs. Superman, none of them seem to understand why those comics were so popular in the first place. Even I know that the most iconic moments of The Death of Superman are not whatever happens with Doomsday, it is the images of Lois holding his broken body and the whole Justice League attending his funeral. It is not the death in itself which is interesting, it is how the world reacts to it after having been protected and inspired by Superman for so long. It is the worst story one could pick as follow up of a movie in which Superman wrecks both Smallville and Metropolis in his first big public outing.
So, to recap: On top of the very basic hurdles Warner Bros. was facing, they also made a number of mistakes from the get go. They didn’t took care to avoid the missteps Marvel already made. They picked the wrong director for the wrong reasons and allowed him to dictate the look of the universe even after his first movie ended up controversial. And they didn’t understand why the comic books they picked as inspiration were totally unsuitable for the start of a new universe.
Here is what they should have done: First of all, they needed to discard Man of Steel and instead go for a proper franchise starter. Naturally not Superman, because they had just tried that, and not Batman, because everyone was still salivating over the Nolan trilogy. Plus, DC needed to show that they have more to offer than Batman. What they needed was a hero with name recognition, preferable one with a rich history and a reputation untarnished by bad adaptations. Mmm…which DC hero fits the bill?
Yeah, you guessed it, they should have started with Wonder Woman, and not just because she is the third part of the Trinity and was decades overdue for a movie of her own. From a marketing point of view, a female lead Superhero movie is something Marvel Studio still hasn’t done, and Warner Bros. had the best known Superheroine in the world at their hands. Wonder Woman might have less outings than her male counterpart, but her TV series raised her to a feminist icon which in turn gave her a staying power even decades of neglect couldn’t destroy. It was crazy not to use this immediately because of the irrational believe that female lead Superhero movies can’t be successful. Obviously they can, even while weighted down by a deeply unpopular cinematic universe. And from a storytelling point of view picking Wonder Woman would have meant starting at the very beginning, laying some groundwork for what will come later on, but without fixing too many aspects to a point of no return due to her origin story being set so far in the past.
For what is worth, I think Warner Bros did a lot of things right with Wonder Woman. I am not as enthusiastic as others about the movie as whole, but I think the basic concept of setting it in WWI instead of WWII and making it a movie about the futility of war was sound. But I won’t go into how this movie could have been improved from “okay” to “outstanding”, the important point is that Warner Bros had a perfectly good option for a strong start and didn’t use it because they stupidly though that the general audience would rather see a second outing of a deeply controversial version of Superman encountering yet another Batman than the first take on Wonder Woman. I think that the box office result for the Wonder Woman movie which they eventually did showed how wrong they were.
Not that I would have kept either Batman or Superman out of the picture, the next step would have been a movie in which Wonder Woman encounters either of them. Because this is the one thing in which the Warner Bros was in principle right: We don’t need another origin movie for Batman – nor did we need one for Superman. One can easily make a movie in which Wonder Woman meets Batman or Superman without the need to explain their whole backstory the same way the MCU can just throw Spider-man into the mix without long explanations. As long as the version on screen follows the core of the various incarnations of the character, the audience will just assume that the basic rules are still intact the same way nobody has to explain “Bond, James Bond” to anyone.
But I keep talking about what Warner Bros. should have done. The more important question is what they should do now that they have burned their most popular characters and stories for a failing franchise. The most popular opinion in the nerd bubble seems to be that Justice League was a step in the right direction and Warner Bros. should double down on those changes in order to eventually win back the audience with better movies. I disagree. Batman vs Superman not only created a confusing mess of a universe, it also blocked practically blocked the writers from a huge chunk of comic book lore by alluding that a number of events already happened at one point in the past. No matter how strong a movie is, if you build it on a foundation that weak, it will always sink at least partly into the mud.
I think it is high time to regroup. They naturally can’t stop Aquaman now, and it might be worth to do a sequel to Wonder Woman, but in the meantime, they should scratch their whole slate, put together a team for some brainstorming and then start anew, but without a big announcement. Just put someone competent in charge (meaning someone who has hands-on experience as producer but a sense for storytelling), hire a team of writers and then create a couple or stand-alone movies with the potential to turn them into a big crossover-event later on – just like Marvel did it.
All this won’t help, though, if Warner Bros. doesn’t make some basic changes – not just in personnel but above all in mind-set. Otherwise they will just run into the same problems. I have therefore decided to put together a couple of ideas how to approach this project. Let’s call it the DCTU . Yep, DCTU. Because DCCU sounds awkward and DCEU just stupid. Extended from what? Therefore DCTU, DC Theatrical Universe.
Step 1: Embrace the Differences
As I pointed out above, Warner Bros. should study Marvel’s approach and learn from their mistakes. But that doesn’t mean that they should just copy the MCU. Marvel and DC are similar in a lot of ways – no wonder, after all even the artists and writers switch from one company to the other once in a while – but there are also some fundamental differences between their respective comic book verses. Marvel stories are set in the real world, preferable in New York. DC stories are usually set in Gotham, Metropolis or Central City. Marvel stories tend to feature normal humans who suddenly acquire the power to change the world – even the comic book version of Thor spend time as a human, unaware of his godly powers. DC stories on the other hand tend to feature god-like beings who mingle with humanity. Even Batman, maybe the most human of the DC heroes, is still incredible rich and is labelled the “greatest detective”.
As a general rule, it is easier for a writer to make Marvel’s heroes relatable, exactly because they tend to deal with very human struggles. It is way more difficult to make the audience sympathise with someone whose powers are off the charts, though. And no, adding flaws to the character doesn’t help. A flawed human is relatable. But a flawed god is above all terrifying. That doesn’t mean that the characters have to be perfect in every way, but if I had to create the DCTU, I would focus less on flaws and more on the kind of struggles a superpowerful Being faces. For example, how does Superman decide which people he should rescue and which not? Yes, he is faster than a speeding bullet, but even Superman can’t be everywhere at once. So does he decide to block out petty crimes believing that the police can deal with it on its own and only jumps in for the big events? Superman is supposed to be a symbol of hope, and seeing him struggling with this responsibility and how the world reacts to such a paragon of virtue is a way more engaging story than him trying to figuring out what moral actually is.
Wonder Woman is a way more interesting character than most give her credit for. She is a warrior, but the idea is also that she fights for peace. This contradiction alone could deliver material for multiple movies about the battles she picks and the weapon of choice. After all, words are often more effective than a sword to solve a conflict. Especially when the words are forced out by a powerful lasso.
But then, we can’t start the DCTU by focussing on either of them. Or on Batman or any other of the Justice League – if for no other reason than another movie headlining Batman or Superman underperforming might destroy the brand. We need to approach this through the backdoor. So let’s not start with the characters. Or with the themes.
Step 2: Start with the World
The DCEU’s approach to world-building has been confusing to say the least. It tries to start at the beginning with Superman, but in medias res with Batman, various villains and Wonder Woman. It destroys Metropolis only to have it rebuilt one scene later. On top of this it keeps alluding to events which I guess happened in the comics, but mean nothing to general audience. I don’t get the impression that Warner Bros actually knows what “res” actually looks like. It is a very confusing hodgepodge of Superman being a revelation for the world, but somehow Batman was already catching villains for decades and there are other Meta-humans around but somehow in hiding, yet their rogues gallery is in prison – nothing fits together smoothly. It is like Warner Bros just assumes that the audience has read every comic which was ever popular and somehow magical knows which pieces of them are part of the DCEU canon and which aren’t.
The MCU solved the world building problem by basically taking our world and then carefully inserting heroes in our history. And it has found an easy solution how to insert heroes before Ironman into the timeline by just claiming that S.h.i.e.l.d. (and others) covered up a lot, and that, aside from Captain America, heroes or powered beings simply worked secret until the Battle of New York revealed their existence (and the existence of aliens) to the world.
This approach wouldn’t work for the DCTU because, as I pointed out above, most heroes operate in fictional cities. Which sounds like a drawback, but is actually a huge advantage. The DCTU needs something which will distinguish it from the MCU and the Fox movies and whoever else finds or invents a Superhero property to adapt. And the thing which sticks out the most is how the city tends to reflect the hero living in them. Or the hero reflects the city. This is especially true regarding Batman and Superman. Nothing expresses this as well as this image:
The day and the night, the prosperity and the poverty, the art deco and the gothic. One thing which made especially the Burton movies and Batman TAS so appealing was the stylized setting. It is a concept so simple that before the DCEU, it was kind of a given. Even Gotham (the TV show) has a distinctive style and a sense of place. The CW show do the same light vs dark contrast with their take on Central vs Star(ling) City. But in Batman vs Superman there is no obvious difference between Metropolis and Gotham. Most of the time I am not even sure in which part of the city the movie is set.
Focussing on the place has also the advantage that the viewer will actually care if a particular landmark or city block gets destroyed. And it solves a lot of problems, too, because it gives the writers the freedom to write the rules themselves. Who cares if nowadays newspapers are struggling to keep their readership? If the writers decide that the Daily Planet is still the top authority in investigative journalism, than this is the reality of Metropolis. Who cares that the whole concept of Arcum Asylum is kind of silly? In Gotham city it can exist and maybe even function as an exploration of the concept of cities in which the majority of the population is working for the prison system. And that is just Gotham and Metropolis. There is so much a creative mind could do with the various fictional DC locations. Central City for example could be some sort of silicon valley for science, contrasting sharply with the close-bye and distinctively blue collar Keystone city in which what is thought up in Central City is built. Because in the DCTU America still has a strong production base. And Star City could really lean into its status as a port city, where the yachts of the rich are replacing the quaint fisher boats.
But world building is about more than just locations. So the next step which needs to be done for my DCTU to work is:
Step 3: Figure out the timeline
I am not talking about a timeline in the sense of putting definite dates on what is shown on screen. I am talking about the need to actually have an idea at which point in their life your characters are. See, the idea of starting in medias res with Batman was a sound one. Batman has been on screen so many times, nobody needs or wants an origin movie about him. But why starting the universe with him at the very end of his career as a crime fighter while Superman just arrived? That is a puzzling decision, especially when one thinks long-term. It blocks the writers from exploring a number of potential angles regarding Batman and his supporting cast by suggesting that the majority of them are already dead or gone.
I would pick a starting point along the line of: Those heroes have been active for a while already and are established enough that the world has gotten used to their presence. But they haven’t meet each other yet, nor is their support network of allies complete. Basically, no need to do another origin story (most of the DC ones are pretty boring or convoluted anyway), but still enough options to develop a character in one direction or another.
This doesn’t even have to be particularly precise. The MCU went for a tightly knit continuity, but there is no need for the DCTU to copy that method, nor would it make much sense. The cities are fictional anyway, so instead of confusing the audience with the question how this reality fits in our reality, let’s turn the DCTU in the best escapist fantasy possible! There should be a little bit more care put into how the movies relate to each other than Fox bothered to employ with their X-men franchise, but in principle, a looser connection would fit the usual modus operandi in Warner Bros. much better, because this would allow the writers and directors way more freedom. Though there is one important rule they should follow:
Step 4: Start small
It seems like Warner Bros. thinks that a comic book movies needs four things: A hero with some sort of issue to overcome, a flashy villain, an expendable love interest to rescue and a earth-destroying event. It is a template which has been used in countless Superhero movies, and Warner Bros. uses it in every single one of its DCEU movies! But it’s no longer the early 2000s, nowadays the audience expects a little bit more than that. And with more I don’t mean necessarily the flashy elements, I mean moments which draw them in on an emotional level. Ironman didn’t work so well because everyone wanted to see a bunch of metal suits crashing into each other – in fact I think that those kind of fight scenes tend to be the weakest moments in the franchise – it worked because the audience really felt for Tony Stark getting a wake up call and then struggling to make better decisions.
What Warner Bros really needs to understand that a bigger budget doesn’t necessarily make a more successful movie. Sometimes it is necessary – for example if you have to pay a number of highly prolific actors so that they will all appear in the big event movie you plan as finale for a ten-year long saga – but the budget should serve the story instead of the other way around. Plus, if you start your universe with a world destroying event, there is no room for escalation. Which brings me to
Step 5: Move slowly and earn your moments
I have alluded to this multiple times already, but one of the biggest problem with the DCEU is that it feels so rushed. And I get it, Warner Bros. has to keep the shareholders happy, so they need their big success immediately. At the same time there is this fear that Superhero movies will go out of fashion soon. God knows that there are more than enough articles about “Superhero fatigue” and Superhero movies going the way of the Western.
But all of this doesn’t change the fact that you need to earn the success Marvel had with their movies. I am well aware that a lot of the more popular and/or well known DC titles are either event comics or Elseworlds stories. Warner Bros. needs to accept that it shouldn’t do either before establishing a proper baseline for its universe.
In addition, while Marvel had great results with reinterpretations of well-known comic book titles and storylines, some of it biggest successes had no direct comic book counterpart. Guardians of the Galaxy for example is basically a complete rewrite of the original comic books (which used to be very obscure), and if there has been ever a Spider-man comic called Homecoming, this is not a title which is particularly well-known. Even Disney had great success with Big Hero 6, not that the movie bore a lot of resemblance to the comics, which next to nobody read anyway.
The truth is that while it is always a good thing to get the actual comic book fans excited for a movie, the general audience doesn’t care one bit if the costume in the trailer looks exactly like something out of a specific comic book. It is also unlikely to recognize specific title or having knowledge what those titles are about. The general audience only cares about two things: Marketing and Word of Mouth. The marketing is needed to create a basic interest in the movie, the word of mouth convinces people to actually spend the money.
And yes, it is possible that the interest in Superhero movies will eventually fade. But it is on the studios to keep the genre fresh, and so far Warner Bros. is the only studio which hasn’t quite grasped the concept yet. Well, them and maybe Sony, but the judgement is still out on that one.
Step 6: Copy Marvel’s genre approach
Honestly, even Fox has caught on by now. The Superhero genre is incredible versatile. Romance, horror, detective story, everything is possible, there is no need to follow the same patterns again and again and again. Just look at the most successful Comic book movies of the last years: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller, Guardians of the Galaxy is a Space Opera, Civil War is a Revenge Play and Fox managed to tap into this formula by turning Logan into a gritty western and Deadpool into a raunchy romantic comedy. No, I am not kidding, Deadpool has a very basic rom-com plot mixed with Superhero elements and a lot of self-awareness. Meanwhile the movies which follow a more basic hero plot, like X-Men: Apocalypse or Suicide Squad, they don’t really resonate with the audience anymore – if they ever did in the first place.
Marvel has raised the standards of what a Superhero movie has to deliver considerably. But Marvel and Fox have also broadened the definition of what such a movie can look like. The opportunities are countless. What Warner Bros. shouldn’t do, though, is chasing the latest trend.
Step 7: Figure out the draw of the property
One of the biggest problem with the recent DC movies is how they tried to force concept which worked elsewhere on properties which aren’t meant for this kind of story. Granted, that Batman vs. Superman hit plot points which were similar to Civil War, that one was mostly incidental considering that both movies were in production around the same time. But, as I already pointed out, Man of Steel basically used the Nolan approach which worked so well with Batman, even though the main draw of Superman is how different he is from Batman. Green Lantern was a thinly veiled attempt to do a version of Ironman, complete with an irresponsible main character and Amanda Waller taking the role of Nick Fury, even though the property lends itself way more to a crazy space adventure. You know, the kind of movie Marvel did successfully a few years later with Guardians of the Galaxy, so successful that Warner Bros. decided to model Suicide Squad after it, even though Suicide Squad should have been a gritty heist movie. Even Wonder Woman is at its weakest whenever elements of Captain America: The First Avenger creep into it. Hold your horses, I am not saying that Wonder Woman is a copy of Captain America: The First Avenger. But Steve Trevor’s multinational team (which is, as far as I know, not from the comics) is suspiciously similar to the Howling Commandos, and Steve Trevor’s sacrifice is way, way too similar to Steve Roger’s sacrifice.
See, this is why Marvel is winning. For all the claims that the “play it safe”, they are not afraid to shake things up and allow comic book properties to be something different. They are not afraid to go out in space (at least not anymore…The Dark World is another movie which was tied back to earth for no reason at all) or the mystical world and they are not afraid to do a smaller story which doesn’t involve the fate of the whole world in the climax. Warner Bros keeps chasing after the latest trend, no matter if it actually fits the property they are dealing with, and more often then not they change the direction of the movie mid-production.
What they should do instead is trying to figure out why a particular comic book property resonated. With some of them, this isn’t really that difficult. Ask a random comic book fan what Superman stands for and the answer will most likely be “Hope”. Ask what Wonder Woman stand for and the answer will be either “Truth” or “Peace”. Ask what Batman stands for and the answer will be “Justice”. And everyone who ever bothered to look up Green Lantern knows that the green stands for will as opposed to fear (yellow), rage (red), greed (orange), death (black), live (white), hope (blue), compassion (purple) and love (pink).
Not every hero is helpfully labelled or colour coded, but one really doesn’t need to be a genius to recognize that a Suicide Squad story should be about a gritty wet work suicide mission, and not about a bunch of villains suddenly becoming anti-heroes and rescuing the world from a beam into the sky. One also doesn’t need to be a genius to recognize that beams into the sky as well as evil clouds should be avoided at all cost unless one has a really, really good idea how to utilize them.
Secret identities on the other hand is something most DC heroes should have. Marvel doing away with them was a great idea because for most of them, they were a useless element anyway. But even Marvel allowed Daredevil and Spider-man to keep on their masks, because in their case the secret identity isn’t optional but an important part of their stories. DC heroes tend to be vigilantes, therefore they need their masks, and they should reveal themselves to pretty much every person they know. In fact, the love triangle between Lois, Superman and Clark is one of the most essential themes in the Comic book.
Speaking of which: Nobody really cares why nobody recognizes Superman once he wears a pair of glasses. Yes, there have been jokes about this since pretty much forever, but Christopher Reeves managed to make the notion believable simply by hunching and adjusting the mannerism of Clark Kent. I am sure about this because nobody but me ever seems to wonder how it can be that in Disney’s Aladdin every character is apparently face-blind, because none of them is able to recognize Aladdin just because he changed his clothes. As long as the story enthrals the audience, it doesn’t really matter that a pair of glasses are a very basic disguise. Likewise nobody cares about Batman’s voice either. If anything, the Batman voice should be naturally threatening while Bruce Wayne should sound different simply by being more mild-mannered and speaking less forceful.
But I digress. The point is that while the group of actual comic book readers within the audience is pretty small, they are still serving as a great test group. A concept which resonated with them will most likely resonate on a larger scale, too. The actual difficulty is to figure out what part of the concept resonated. In the case of Superman, it was certainly not the costume or the quality of his disguise, but the notion of someone standing up for ideals and being powerful enough to enforce them.
Step 8: Focus on the villain
While I do think that Marvel’s so called villain problem is grossly overstated, there is no denying that DC has a huge advantage in this regard. Marvel’s most prolific villains are owned by Sony or Fox, while Warner Bros. has full access to all Batman villains, all Flash villains and all Superman villains.
Plus, on a more practical level, if you have a hero who has only limited room for character development, the most obvious solution for that problem is to create a flashy villain. Disney used to do this all the time and one can’t argue with the results. Consider this: What were the best episodes of Batman TAS actually about? Most of them were about the villains. Why do people like The Dark Knight so much? Certainly not because of Batman’s gravely voice but because of Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker.
One of the most frustrating aspects about the DCEU is how shockingly bad the villains have been so far. I am pretty dispassionate when it comes to Lex Luther’s general mannerism or motivations, but there is no excuse whatsoever for him to be stupid enough to follow through with a plan which will result in him ending up either dead or in prison for sure. I admit, I have no idea what Comic book Ares is like, but if there is anything Xena has proven than how engaging the notion of a Being thriving on human unrest can be, plus, everything would have been better than a giant CGI something with a moustache. Suicide Squad has the first depiction of the Joker ever which didn’t resonate with the fans at all, and the less said about Enchantress “hypnotic” dance the better. Zod comes the closest to being a kind of interesting villain except that his motivation for acting the way he does – having been genetically designed that way – isn’t really explained until the very end of the movie, plus, it makes less sense the more you think about the notion.
Granted, a number of the villains in DC’s rogues gallery should be put on the backburner for now. I think the audience really needs a break from the Joker and without him, ushering in a new version of Harley Quinn wouldn’t really work either. There have been already two versions of Two-Face, one of them in the widely acclaimed The Dark Knight, so this is another villain which should be used further down the line. But I do think that the Riddler, Poison Ivy and Mr. Freeze all deserve redemption for their depiction in the Schumacher movies and while Batman Begins is a more acclaimed movie, I don’t think that anyone would mind a version of the Ra’s a Ghul or Scarcrow which is less grounded. Or of a the Penguin who doesn’t randomly bites off noses.
There are some other Batman villains which might be worth exploring, but have never graced the big screen. Hush for example is especially interesting, because he is not just an enemy of Batman, but also insanely jealous of Bruce Wayne. Warner Bros. would also have free run (pun intended) of the Flash’s rogue gallery. Yes, most of them have turned up in CW’s The Flash, but, to be frank, the main reason why the various Superhero shows on CW are still on air is because CW is satisfied with way lower ratings than the bigger networks like ABC or CBS expect. Meaning the exposure to the general audience is not as high as some might believe. For the same reason Deathstroke and Sinestro are certainly still an option for a fresh take.
The only property where the villain question is kind of problematic is Superman. Oh, there are quite a few Superman villains which never made it to the big screen, like Brainiac, Bizarro or Vandal Savage. But Metropolis without Lex Luther that just feels wrong on so many levels. But then, the last iteration of him was so terrible, I have the feeling that the fans wouldn’t complain to finally see a take which is closer to the animated version of the character, just to get rid of the lingering bad taste.
All this said, step 7 isn’t really a hard rule, while it is certainly worth remembering that Villains are one of DC’s strength, there are storylines in which the villain should be a background element. Which brings me to what might be the most important element.
Step 9: Pick talented writers
As much credit as directors tend to get for their work, I am convinced that the foundation for a good movie is a solid screenplay. It is not a guarantee for success, because a bad director is perfectly able to ruin a great script, but I can’t think of any movie in which a terrible script was somehow turned into a great movie. And no, Ironman doesn’t count, that was a case of shooting with no fixed script at all, which can work out if the people on set are flexible and creative enough.
Anyway, one should keep in mind that one of the reasons why the Captain America franchise feels way more like a coherent story-arc than the other MCU franchises do is that all three movies have been written by the same writing team (and I certainly look forward to what they will come up with in Infinity war). Case to point between all the DCEU movies so far, there is exactly one in which Goyer wasn’t involved in, which wasn’t written in less than a month or penned by two writers with completely opposite styles, and that is Wonder Woman. That screenplay was written by Allan Heinberg, who also happens to be a comic book writer. Gosh, who would have expected that an actual comic book writer would have an understanding for comic book characters?
I am not quite sure how Marvel picks their writers – apparently they are actively developing new talents – but it works. Well, most of the time. I don’t know what they were thinking when they hired the writers for Doctor Strange. Their record wasn’t exactly stellar.
Anyway, even though Warner Bros. is a director driven studio, they should be aware of the importance of writers and allow them the necessary time to develop a solid script.
Step 10: Change the narrative
And this time I am not talking about the actual plot of the movies, but about the bad press which is surrounding them. And the only way to do this is to hold of any announcements as long as possible and to divorce itself from the DCEU as fast as soon as Aquaman had its run (Wonder Woman 2 will draw the audience in even if it is officially the last outing of the character). I know that a lot of people won’t be happy about the notion. But there is no way that Warner Bros. can satisfy both the “grim and gritty” fans who will defend the DCEU to their last breath as well as those, who desperately want a new direction. Even more important, the general audience will shy away from the DCEU, due to its terrible reputation.
At this point, Warner Bros. needs to show that it has learned its lesson. And that will only work by releasing a few high quality movies which can be marketed as stand alone projects in every sense of the word. None of the Snyder style, none of the grey colours, just a fun looking Superhero movie.
Well, so far, so good. But naturally this is just a very basic concept, and I am certainly not so arrogant to think that this the one and only solution for Warner Bros. If for no other reason that even the best concept can fail if it isn’t realized with good scripts, the right directors and the fitting actors. Still, to end this article, here some thoughts about which movie Warner Bros. is already considering would be a good fit for the reboot as well as a couple of very vague ideas which might work for the DCTU.
Of all the movies Warner Bros. has currently in planning stages, Shazam and the Green Lantern Corps are the only ones I would keep on the slate. Granted, I am not so sure about what I have heard about Shazam so far, but as a comic book property, it is in a lot of ways perfect for a restart. The notion of a child being able to turn into an adult hero hasn’t been explored in any movie so far, Black Adam is certainly one of the better DC villains (that doesn’t mean that a movie just about him would be a good idea, though) and Fawcett City might not be the worst place to start some world building.
It might be a little bit early to revisit Green Lantern, but then if they start proper pre-production now it will be almost ten years since the last movie, and just keeping it in Space would allow some colourful trailers. Just, please, remove Goyer from the project! Please! His track record for writing Superhero movies is frankly terrible.
But what then? What is the right approach to re-establish Gotham and Metropolis and to create Central City and Star City for the first time on the big screen?
I would start with Gotham. And yes, I am aware that I complained at length about Warner Bros. relying way too much on Batman, but there is one element which has never been properly explored on the big screen, and which would be a perfect draw for the audience: The Bat Family! After all this years the only movies which even tried were the Schumacher ones, and they had zero understanding for why it is interesting to sadly a loner like Batman with a supporting cast.
So let’s start with Robin. I know that some people think that Robin can’t work on the big screen because Batman would look irresponsible if he would allow a child to fight violent criminals. It is a reasonable argument – as a general rule, animation has an easier time to get away with stuff like this – but I still think that this is just a question of the right approach.
First of all, there is no need to make Robin an outright child, just cast an actor who is around 14 (or can pass as being that age). That is just old enough that he has a certain degree of agency, but young enough that he still needs guidance. And I would make the movie about the events surrounding Dick Grayson loosing his parents.
Yes, I am aware that this story has been done multiple times in animation already and once on the big screen. But I don’t think that any of those adaptations have ever taken proper advantage of the notion. Think about it, a boy who grew up in the circus suddenly trapped with a millionaire he barely knows in some giant mansion. The whole movie could be told from his perspective, meaning that the audience would get to know Bruce Wayne and Gotham through the eyes of Dick (or Rich, if the writers are too worried about the immaturity of the audience). The story could focus on him trying to find the murderer of his parents (it was naturally Zucco, but it turns out that he was working for the Penguin), clashing into Batman during his investigation, eventually figuring out that the kind of closed off millionaire he has just started to trust actually is Batman, and eventually convincing Batman that it is better if he allows him to accompany him than risking him to run into danger on his own. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Robin has to be in the thick of things btw. After all, the main reason why Robin was invented for the Comics was that Batman needed someone to talk to, so Robin can just as easily be on look out for Batman instead of personally hitting criminals. At least not until he is older.
There are a number of storylines and conflicts related to Robin and the Bat Family which could be explored. The audience already knows the brooding Batman. But what about a Batman who initially gets used to having Robin around but then had a wake-up call when Robin nearly gets killed on one mission and he has to realize that the villains he has to deal with have become steadily more and more crazy and dangerous? What about a Batman who is suddenly confronted with a second crime-fighter donning a costume very similar to his? What about the whole Court of Owls story-arc? There is so much which has never been explored on film simply because the various directors weren’t really interesting in Batman’s non-romantic relationships and saw Robin at best as an opportunity to sell more toys. Delving into this part of the lore might bring a number of fans back on board, especially casual fans who know Robin mostly from his Teen Titans career.
The same way the Batman movies have never shown much interest in Batman’s supporting cast or detective skills, the Superman movies have always treated the Daily Planet as some sort of backdrop for Clark to hang around waiting for the next catastrophe to happen. Why not start at a point at which Lois Lane is still relatively new reporter, looking for her big break, who sees Clark Kent initially as an annoying rival for the job she seeks? One could build a whole storyline around Lois going undercover to reveal some big scheme while Clark, being aware of the risk she takes, keeps an ear out on her, but eventually doesn’t have to rescue her (for a change), but the people who are in danger because of the scheme. While he is busy, Lois manages to secure proof for the scheme, but since everyone is more interested in the heroics of Superman, Clark and Jimmy Olson are initially getting all the credit for the story. In order to make up for this injustice, Superman offers to give his first press conference ever during which he reveals that he would have never been there on time if not for Lois Lane making him aware of what was going on. And yes, I know, all this sounds like a very simple story and I am sure that the writers would need to embellish this with excuses for additional action scenes, but this way Lois has a reason to be in love with Superman aside from him being so powerful, and he has a reason to feel resentful towards Clark without her looking like a bully. And it would be a good way to cover a lot of Metropolis without destroying buildings left and right. Later instalments could focus on Superman’s status as alien and last of his kind (at least until Supergirl turns up) and him trying to find something to pin on Lex Luther (once he figures out his true nature).
Central City would naturally be introduced with a Flash story. I freely admit that I have no concrete idea for that one, but just like I would lean onto Batman’s detective skills and Clark being a reporter, I would use the fact that Barry Allen is a forensic scientist. After all, the Flash doesn’t have superhearing, in order to be at the right place he still needs to figure out where the big crime will go down, no matter how fast he is.
And yes, establishing Star City would require the introduction of the Green Arrow, but why not? Even starting with the whole story about him coming back after having been marooned on an island might be a good idea. Yes, the CW show already did that, but I think another take on the same story with a Green Arrow who is less Batman like and more the modern Robin Hood and liberal crusader might be worth it. Another option would be a movie exploring the Clock King, whose backstory isn’t just truly tragic, but might resonate with an American audience considering how much of a topic health care currently is, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
I even have an idea for a team up movie down the line. Forget the “a world ending danger brings everyone together” storyline. Why not built on the notion of a competition between various powered heroes instead, which serves as a backdrop for a larger plan. See, the whole “who will win in a fight” discussions fans like to have, they are actually not that interesting because the answer to it is obvious: Whoever the writer wants to win. A more interesting question is: Under which circumstances would which hero have an advantage. I can actually imagine a story about a charity event which involves Superman, The Flash and Wonder Woman having to race each other through some sort of obstacle course, with Bruce Wayne and Oliver Queen both being sponsors of the event, which is naturally organized by Lex Luther who wants to figure out the weaknesses of the various heroes and if one of them can challenge Superman. Naturally there is an even larger plan by another villain in play, which leads to the racer having to work together to survive while Batman and Green Arrow figure out and take down the culprit.
But I think it is time to finish this. After all, what started out as some quick thoughts about the predictable downfall of the DCEU ended up in an article with close to 10,000 words. Currently Warner Bros. seems to lean towards blaming Snyder, but, for the record, as much as I dislike the decisions he made for DCEU, it was Warner Bros. who put him in charge, it was Warner Bros. who wanted to rush in the universe and it was Warner Bros. who was overly confident in the draw of the characters they own. Consequently it is Warner Bros. who needs to do better and not Zack Snyder – not that I would want him anywhere near more comic book properties unless they happen to fit his very specific aesthetic. But it is Warner Bros. who needs to rethink its approach, and I really, really hope that this will happen and the executives draw the right conclusion for a change. Because I truly want them to succeed – if they actually put the necessary work in it.