Can Anything Save the DC Extended Universe From Itself?

“Hate” is probably not the best word for what I feel toward the DC Extended Universe, but it’s close. I’d say I’m really somewhere between searing disdain, deep frustration, and weary resignation, none of which are emotions any studio would want associated with their tentpole brand.

The problems with the DCEU are bigger than just three crappy movies. What failed in Man of Steel was repeated in Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad and will likely continue to fail in Wonder Woman and beyond. Warner Bros. knows they need to retool their format, but whether they can, and what shape it will take if they do, depends entirely on how much course-correcting new DC division co-runners Geoff Johns and Jon Berg can do between now and Diana’s solo film. They have an uphill battle, that’s for sure.

So let’s dig in to see where the DCEU went wrong and what, if anything, can be done to salvage it. Obviously, spoilers ahoy.

 

Batman v Superman: So many problems

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the DCEU. After Man of Steel, I avoided BvS like the plague. I refused to see it in theatres and instead reveled in the delicious schadenfreude of the blistering reviews. I finally caved with the release of the ultimate edition when many fans claimed the additional footage improved it. I can’t agree: the movie was wildly unfocused and both over- and undercooked. Until the infamous “Martha” scene, Lois was stuck in a government conspiracy thriller, Batman in a crime procedural, Superman in an alien invasion story, and Bruce and Diana in a romantic spy caper, while Lex was busy playing the villain in a 1960s James Bond movie.

Not a single second of the movie makes any damn sense. Why was Batman wearing a trench coat over his Batsuit in the desert? How is Clark a successful journalist at one of the nation’s largest newspapers yet doesn’t know who celebrity billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne is? Why did Lex design logos for the soon-to-be-Justice League? Lois knows Superman can hear her halfway around the world so why would she think he couldn’t hear her shouting to him from ten feet away? Why is she even dating him, anyway? He’s a terrible boyfriend who would rather sulk on a mountaintop than have an honest conversation. Why hasn’t Perry fired Clark for disappearing all the time? Which is worse: Batman adding nipples to the Batsuit or molding a furrowed brow onto his mask? Why did the mental hospital shave Lex’s head? Is he actually crazy now or just a melodramatic douchecanoe? How come the Batsuit is bulletproof and fireproof but not knife-proof? Why did Lex bother to manipulate Batman and Superman into battle when he was building Doomsday anyway? Why were there so many goddamn dream sequences? No, you know what? I don’t care enough to want answers.

BvS is a bleak slog through poor plotting, CGI theatrics, and inexplicable acting choices riddled with sexism, racism, and ableism. It wastes every intriguing premise it brings up and blunders through coherency as if it were an undesirable attribute. It’s a terrible franchise builder that fails to establish an adequate foundation or build upon it in any practical fashion. BvS was created by someone who despises Batman and Superman and everything they stand for, by a studio that seems to demand adoration from the audience without offering anything worth adoring, and by actors convinced they were in a far better film. It offends me as a reviewer, a movie-goer, a comic book fan, a woman, and a person of color. Its very existence hurts my soul. Never in my life have I shouted at a screen as much as I did during BvS, and I used to watch soap operas. My contempt for BvS is so deep that my hopes for a decent Wonder Woman movie are now dead and buried.

 

Sound and fury, signifying nothing

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All of Zack Snyder’s movies suffer from the same glitch: he doesn’t so much make a film as shoot a bunch of music videos and splice them together. In other words, he’s great at visuals and crap at telling a coherent story—I’d tell you to see Sucker Punch to prove my point, but I don’t hate you. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad (produced by Snyder) was not as dour as Snyder’s films but still used the same template, complete with the requisite cheesy music cues and casual sexism/racism.

There were 8,927 competing yet incomplete stories in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. The frenetic pace leads to chaos as character development is reduced to abrupt shifts in personality, leaving CGI-laden set pieces to carry the plot. In order to get Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman and the Suicide Squad to their respective Final Boss fights they must unite as teammates, but the intermediate steps are missing; the script jumps from internecine squabbles to BFF territory with little explanation. Unification should mark a powerful moment that leads to a visually thrilling battle, but the emotional underpinnings and bonding necessary to make the whole thing work are frustratingly and consistently absent. Compelling character development is crushed under the weight of an overly complicated and disjointed plot, with CGI doing frantic jazz hands to distract the audience from the glaring problems.

*mutters under breath* Not that you could see anything anyway, the movies are so frakking dark and muddy.

 

Freshman philosophy

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Snyder’s DCEU movies tend toward empty bombast, hollow self-importance, and meaningless philosophizing. The most glaring example of this was the piled-on religious subtext in BvS. Over and over again Snyder posits Superman as a modern-day Jesus. He’s alternately a god, a false god, and a savior. Snyder repeatedly frames him in messianic poses and with religious imagery. Yet Clark seems perpetually annoyed that he has to save anyone at all—he acts like helping people is a chore rather than an honor, something he has to do not something he wants to do. Ultimately, none of the symbolism even matters. Superman makes Batman feel weak so Bats brutalizes Gotham’s underclass to make himself feel powerful again. Lex Luthor sees Superman as a threat to his power so Luthor Frankensteins a monster to reassert his supremacy. Superman goes out of his way to shame, taunt, and punish anyone who challenges his authority. Dawn of Justice is a three-hour-long pissing contest between a trio of arrogant assholes with bruised egos.

David Ayer also leans into unnecessary subtext in Suicide Squad. There’s a lot of talk about who the bad guys really are, vicious scenes of prison brutality (with an implication that the guards were raping Harley), and political corruption, all of which amounts to…jack squat. There are no repercussions for those abusing the prisoners and the gang hardly complains about going back to the abusive status quo. Criminal justice corruption isn’t portrayed as a systemic failure but as the result of a couple of bad apples. Just like Snyder, Ayer undermines his own point.

 

Great Expectations

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A franchise works best when the primary motivation is to stand on its own, with supporting, expanding, and improving the larger arc existing as secondary concerns. MCU fans had five solo movies before the heroes united in The Avengers, so we knew how they’d work together and where they’d conflict. And when the team fell apart in Captain America: Civil War, we understood them thoroughly enough as individual characters to buy the divorce. The DCEU jumped right into dawning the hell out of the Justice League without establishing what kind of people Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lex are on an individual basis, making their clashes with each other and with Superman moot.

Ultimately, the problem stems from Man of Steel’s failure. Because Warner Bros. chose to skip the step of building a foundation with a stable of solo films, Batman v Superman had the herculean task of not only making a decent, profitable film but also establishing and re-establishing a vast cast of characters, emptying a dump truck full of world building all at once, AND setting up every movie for the next decade. No movie could manage that—especially not one with Zack Snyder left to run amok with his obnoxious teenage boy fantasies. Because of that failure, all of our expectations were shifted onto Suicide Squad with predictably the same results. And rinse and repeat with Wonder Woman.

Why did the Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman turn up in BvS? To set up the Justice League movie. Wonder Woman had slightly more to do but could’ve easily been excised with little detriment to the main arc. So why was she there? To set up her movie. Frankly, I’m surprised they didn’t shove the Joker in there to promote Suicide Squad. Warner Bros. set an overly ambitious film schedule then reverse-engineered movies to fit it, without allowing enough room to tinker with the formula or adjust for unexpected speedbumps.

 

Studio Meddling

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Look, I can’t fault the DCEU for opting for violent darkness as a counterbalance to the popcorn goofiness of the MCU, but if they were aiming for Christopher Nolan then they wildly missed the mark. A relentlessly grimdark tone, unpleasant characters, and gloomy plots in one film is a fixable error. Spreading them across every film in the franchise indicates issues at the studio level.

It’s not that the DCEU is trash and the MCU golden perfection. Both studios have a nasty habit of claiming diversity when they’re really just tokenizing and relying on overly-familiar tropes and stereotypes. The MCU has cranked out its share of jumbled rubbish, often balks at boundary-pushing directors, and has a harrowing studio process that’s unwelcoming to innovation. But I’ll give the MCU this: they know how to make an entertaining and enjoyable movie. Of course, both Marvel and Warner Bros. demand script changes against their director’s wishes and schedule reshoots based on focus group nattering…but Marvel certainly does not hire a company that makes trailers to edit their movie to undercut the director’s version, nor do they give their screenwriters only six weeks to write an $800 million blockbuster, both of which Warner Bros. did to Ayer’s Suicide Squad.

Solving a problem like the DCEU requires a multipronged approach. Simply removing Zack Snyder from the equation won’t solve the problem any more than somehow getting Warner Bros. to chill will—they still need a Kevin Feige, a person at the helm with the vision and perspective to keep things moving. Pairing up a couple of higher-ups from the two divisions—DC’s Geoff Johns and Warner Bros. exec Jon Berg—might work as a stopgap for some of the ongoing problems, but won’t necessarily foster an overarching creative vision.

Three mediocre- to-bad films is a hard precedent to break. The next movie released on their watch must undo Snyder’s damage while simultaneously crafting a creative shock-and-awe spectacle that passes the billion dollar profit mark. Wonder Woman could win an Oscar for Best Picture and rake in $4 billion and it still wouldn’t solve anything. Individual exceptionalism doesn’t cure a diseased system. From Wonder Woman on, every movie DC makes has to be great. In order to keep the waning fans they have and bring back the consumers they’ve lost, they need to prove they’ve righted the ship. Given that Snyder is a producer on Wonder Woman, The Flash, and Aquaman, as well as directing Justice League, I just can’t see that happening anytime soon.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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