We’re living in a world that many comic book fans could only dream of a few decades ago. Comic book properties are being adapted everywhere in movies and TV, story-lines, shared universes, bug budgets, you name it. Where once all we had were Superman and Batman, now we can enjoy characters as weird and definitely not kid-friendly such as Deadpool.
Just how long this current explosion in comic book properties will last is up to anyone’s guess. What is certain is that in order to survive this ‘genre,’ if you want to call it that, needs two things: interesting stories and characters, and guts. And by the latter I mean the will to push the envelope and leave the comfort zone of what a ‘comic book movie’ is expected to do and to be.
It is after all, that new way of seeing things that brought these properties from the comic pages of nerdy kids right into the mainstream. Blade, an R-rated adaptation of a somewhat obscure Marvel character, was the first truly successful movie not headlined by Batman or Superman and it led to more Marvel properties being adapted, including Bryan Singer’s X-Men which wisely ignored fanboy outcry and took away the colorful spandex costumes to focus on the things that truly mattered: characters and stories. It took those larger than life characters and put them into a world we could actually relate to, social issues and all.
Through hits and misses, this growing success eventually led Marvel back to life from almost bankruptcy, and with enough money to take a risk that paid off in a big way: the setup of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one big shared universe with interconnected plots and characters across film and TV shows.
But it was actually DC who was planning a shared universe of their own, on that was supposed to start with a Justice League movie which was being developed concurrently to The Dark Knight. That movie would exist on its own continuity, separate from Nolan’s celebrated trilogy, and the idea was to eventually make spin-off solo films for its members. A director and a cast were all set in place in place with the script almost finished, but the writers’ strike in 2007 eventually led to the cancellation of that ambitious project.
Following the end of The Dark Knight Trilogy, Warner/DC went back to the shared universe plan and discussions were in place to make the still in development Man of Steel the launchpad for it, if it turned out to be successful enough. It was, and at SDCC 2013 it was official: Batman would join Superman in the sequel, giving birth officially to what now is known as the DC Extended Universe.
But how differentiate yourself in crowded market? Most modern adaptations of DC (and DC’s banner Vertigo) characters stand in contrast to their Marvel counterparts. They’re usually edgy, grittier and more serious. Look no further than The Dark Knight Trilogy, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and you’ll find a variety of issues being tackled on and characters being deconstructed. Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel was built upon the success of the success of The Dark Knight Trilogy and it followed the premise of putting a larger-than-life character into a very real world, a world in which he has to deal with issues any outsider can relate to. Divisive at it was, it took risks and it was the perfect foundation to build a cinematic universe that could stand on its own.
Personally, one of the things I’ve always looked forward in any comic book adaptation is the answer to the question: how would its characters fit in the real world? A huge part of the reason I love The Dark Knight Trilogy so much it’s because it presented a world where Batman could actually exist, and where Bruce Wayne could feel pain, fear and anger. This is also the reason I love Man of Steel, and it is because of that love I was initially skeptic about a shared universe with other DC characters. It might look cool on paper, and it might work on comics, video games or as nerdy ‘what-if’s, but how could you build this thing and still keeping it serious and relatable?
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice answered that, taking away all my fears in the process. Superman was all-powerful, but for all his good intentions, there were consequences to his actions, both in his life and in the world at large. Batman was one of the victims of that world, and when the threat was too big for him to comprehend he turned to blind rage, vowing to stop who he saw as the enemy. Instead of being the action extravaganza many would have hoped for, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice aspired to be something else, to actually say something about its characters and our world, and it is too bad so many people did not want to see it. Zack Snyder defied convention and analyzed both heroes and their villain to their core, while painting a work of art around them, much like he had done with Watchmen and 300.
Some time after the release of the movie, Deborah Snyder, one of the producers of the DCEU, said on the set of Justice League that they had learned that people don’t like to see their heroes being deconstructed, hinting at a change of direction in the following films. It is worrisome that Internet outcry and a string of bad reviews from critics, who only like one flavor of a specific genre, might steer the direction the DCEU is taking. The main problem here, was not the different approach, but the way comic book characters, specially superheroes, are perceived in society. Most critics still see comics as lower level entertainment pieces directed towards children, thus like animated films, they think movies based on those should follow a pattern and be joyful, colorful and ‘fun.’ Some older comic book fans are also weary of changes made to the mythology they follow and are so attached to a particular version of the characters that they’ll raise their arms to anything they perceive as different, never mind that comics themselves have a history of reinventing those characters every so often.
In one way or another, it looks like Suicide Squad was affected by the aftermath of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and one has to wonder how much of the final film was director David Ayer’s vision and how much it was studio meddling. Luckily Suicide Squad managed to work as a standalone piece with its own style, while still connected to that larger universe. And yet, I can’t help but wonder what is it that we lost in those months, be it story or tone wise.
There’s an argument that Christopher Nolan also took a dark and serious approach to The Dark Knight Trilogy and did so with great success, thus the conceived failure of the DCEU so far is all Snyder’s fault. Such argument ignores the fact that Nolan’s trilogy arrived in that sweet spot between the serious and grounded X-Men movies and the rise of the MCU that reached its climax with The Avengers, and changed the landscape for comic book adaptations. And let’s not forget that after the camp neon-fest that Batman & Robin was, audiences were in need of a change. I’m sure that in a post-Avengers world and without the benefit of an already established and beloved series, Nolan’s approach would also be criticized for being ‘too dark and serious.’ Tim Burton’s Batman Returns was also accused of being too dark by critics and parents, the studio listened to that unfair criticism, and we got bat-nipples and neon lights.
On the plus side, once the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released, and people finally saw Zack Snyder’s complete vision that didn’t make it to theaters, most likely due to its length, many people started changing their opinions on the film. And while people who really hated the approach won’t change their minds, at least it speaks loudly about how underrated Zack Snyder is, and why he should be given free rein in the DCEU.
Coming up next are Wonder Woman in her solo film debut and the big team-up of Justice League. Zack Snyder is a producer on both, and is also directing Justice League. Ben Affleck has also joined as an executive producer and is set to direct his own solo Batman film. DC’s Chief Creative Office Geoff Johns is moving up the ranks to oversee the DCEU. All great names that should give anyone confidence for these and future films in the franchise, as long the studio heads don’t give in to the online hate.
Warner/DC has set up a unique path, and I believe it is important that they follow through. As much hate as the three released movies have received, there is also a lot of love that isn’t as widely reported and there is an audience that has invested in this universe, something that is key to long time success. Negative headlines are more tempting, drive more sells and get more clicks, but in time, and as long as there is a plan, a consistent approach, and there is love for these characters, and an attempt to makes us relate with their issues and conflicts, the DCEU will finally receive the praise it has already earned.