Dark vs Light: Thoughts on the Past, Present and Future of the DCEU

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The DC Extended Universe is currently at crossroads. We’re already four movies in, and only the latest one has been labeled as a ‘success’ all around. Commercially speaking, every one of the entries in the franchise has been a money maker including tickets, Blu-ray, digital releases and merchandising. The audience and critical reception on the other hand is another story.

Most reviewers haven’t been keen to exploration, deconstruction and experimentation with such classic comic book characters. The tone has often been criticized as being ‘too dark’ and lacking the ‘fun’ elements you can find in most other comic book adaptations. Audiences are split in a love-it or hate-it relationship. This mixed reaction has turned the DCEU into a controversial franchise, and unfortunately when it comes to most movie websites, the focus seems to be on the negative aspects of it.

But here’s the thing, considering the numbers the four released films in the DCEU have brought in it becomes clear that it is connecting with audiences worldwide, and perhaps more importantly it’s got people talking and engaging each other about the experience, about its themes and what it’s trying to say. Some people get it, some people don’t. Some people like, others wish it was different. In the end this movies aren’t just forgettable big budget blockbusters, and they will continue to be discussed for years to come.

Up until a few months ago Zack Snyder’s had been the main architect of DC’s shared universe on film. Taking a story conceived by Christopher Nolan and David Goyer and more than a few cues from The Dark Knight trilogy, and combining them with his own unique storytelling technique Snyder set out to update Superman for modern audiences, and in the process create a more relatable character who was both inspiring and flawed. Some people loved this new take while others didn’t because they felt it betrayed the image they always had for the character.

Despite the controversy it generated Man of Steel was a financial success and it cemented the birth of DCEU. The path towards this shared universe chosen by the studio and filmmakers involved was different than what Disney/Marvel Studios were doing in that instead of making standalone movies and tying them together at the end, the DCEU was going to grow gradually and naturally with each movie bringing new characters and adding depth to the overall mythology.

As such Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice needed not only to follow and address the aftermath of the events of Man of Steel, but at the same time introduce new elements to expand the universe to be developed in further movies. But despite Snyder and screenwriters Chris Terrio and David Goyer intention to elevate the movie above popcorn fare, it got an even harsher reception than the first film with critics pointing out the same ‘flaws’: it was too dark and not fun.

But a film about Superman and Batman fighting in the real world was never going to be a happy affair, and the darker tone is not only justifiable but more than adequate. Alas, when it comes to comic book adaptations there seems to be very little room for exploration in modern cinema, specially when it involves such iconic characters. There’s this idea that these kind of films should be done in one specific way without any pretense to a higher form of art or filmmaking. In the post-Avengers world, the more grounded and ambitious approach that turned Christopher Nolan into a beloved filmmaker seems to be not welcome anymore.

In the aftermath of Batman v Superman‘s reception there was a shift in the way these movies are approached and the next film in the franchise, Suicide Squad, was the first casualty. At the time of release director David Ayer declared that the film released was his director cut, but when you see it, it becomes clear there another set of hands that resulted in an uneven tone, a forced attempt to lighten things up and make it more ‘fun.’ Given Ayer’s previous work is hard to imagine the director would approach a movie about villains with lightheartedness and this is more evident when you compare the film’s more somber teaser to the final product.

During the production of Justice League producer Deborah Snyder elaborated that they learned audiences didn’t like to see their superheroes deconstructed, a very shallow and simplistic idea created by the public backlash Batman v Superman received. But what about the other side of the fandom and the audience? Is their opinion less important, or it seems to be the minority just because they aren’t given widespread attention?

The change of tone in Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman seemed like the confirmation the critics needed that the DCEU needs to be lighter and that Zack Snyder is the wrong man for the job. Nevertheless the foundation of the film itself was laid out by Snyder in both casting (he chose Gal Gadot himself) and character development (he’s co-credited with the story and also setup the character’s back story prior her appearance in Batman v Superman). Diana Prince’s arc is very different of that of Kal-El or Bruce Wayne. She wasn’t an orphan or raised in a strange place. She was trained as a warrior and her view of the world is naive and idealistic because she doesn’t know any better, and so it was logical for her movie to have lighter tone.

Thing with movie studios, even a filmmaker friendly studio like Warner Bros., is they like to follow the latest trend, and the message they got from Wonder Woman‘s reception is that people want more accessible movies. Prior to the film’s release Geoff Johns was appointed as co-chairman of DC Films to oversee the development of the DCEU. Apparently his aim is to take the universe out of its dark roots and ‘celebrate’ the characters rather than deconstructing them, an idea that sounds nice on paper, but it could rob the franchise from its unique aspirations in a world overstuffed with comic book adaptations.

To make things looks somber for the future of the DCEU, Zack Snyder and his wife Deborah left the production of Justice League following a family tragedy with Joss Whedon stepping in to finish the film. When the announcement came, it was said that Whedon’s task was simply to complete Snyder’s vision and direct some additional dialogue scenes he had written to flesh out the characters. A rough cut of the movie had already been completed by Snyder and so the required worked was minimal but as it turns out Whedon’s input on the film seems to be more than that.

The first red flag came when Junkie XL, who had been working on the score for the movie since the beginning, was fired and replaced with Whedon’s previous collaborator on Avengers: Age of Ultron Danny Elfman (curiously to replace some of Brian Tyler’s score, but at least both composers got credited). Nobody argues Elfman’s talent, but his appointment is a warning of a change in tone that might compromise Snyder’s original vision. I hope Elfman maintains the main themes and motifs already established for the characters and he elevates the music, but in all honesty I’m worried. A movie can change radically in the editing room and that’s where Whedon has currently the most power. One can only hope Snyder can exercise some approval of the final cut of the film.

Beyond Justice League though, it remains to be seen if Snyder will have any true influence in the world he’s created. The next scheduled movie is James Wan’s Aquaman set for Christmas 2018. That’s a big gap between movies, specially given the number of DCEU projects currently planned. Zack Snyder was originally attached to the Justice League sequel in 2019, but that got pushed to allow a slot for The Batman. David Ayer is supposedly working on an adaptation of Gotham City Sirens but the film hasn’t been formally announced yet.

If indeed Geoff Johns and Joss Whedon are going to take over the DCEU, I’m afraid it will devolve into generic superhero, popcorn friendly stuff. Is it really that hard for a comic book adaptation based on superheroes to try to achieve a higher level of art and be accepted? Logan was a well received R-rated film that was more about the characters and more meaningful than most other movies, but it had the luxury of a long running franchise and a character (and actor) with whom audiences have developed an attachment.

And no offense to Whedon, I think he’s a talented writer, but he’s got neither the visual artistry or the subtle storytelling skills that Snyder has displayed in his movies. I’m worried Justice League will devolve into a slightly better looking clone of The Avengers, which let’s be honest, it was a lot of fun but it was also very shallow, and let’s not even talk about its sequel.

In Greek mythology otherworldly characters and fantastic stories weren’t just told for fun, they spoke about fears, courage, evil, corruption, sacrifice and the very nature of what human beings are. Today those stories are regarded as art and an integral part of our history and culture that has transcended territories. Why can’t our own legendary characters aspire to something greater as well? Batman v Superman spoke a lot about our current world and analyzed things like xenophobia, sacrifice, responsibility, sacrifice, world politics and more, but all that stuff flew over many people who couldn’t see past the spandex origin of its central characters.

There’s still hope that Matt Reeves, who has built a career making movies about big ideas but with focus on the characters and their struggles, will be allowed to do his own thing in The Batman, (he actually declined the offer to direct the film until he was assured he’ll get full control) but beyond that the future is uncertain. It seems like every day a new controversy or rumor targeted at the DCEU pops up, and it’s getting hard to ignore it when behind the scenes we have no real idea about what is going on.

A new trailer debuted for Justice League last month at SDCC, and for a moment I was transported back to Zack Snyder’s world, with every frame recalling a comic book panel, a true work of art in motion, complimented by great dialogue and a perfect tone, and with Superman’s legacy felt throughout. This is the movie I want to see.

I’m still hoping that’s the movie we’re going to get this November.