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The problem with the DCEU and how it can be fixed

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Feb 26, 2020, 3:48 PM EST (Updated)

After many years of turmoil, it seems as if Warner Bros. may finally be treading on calmer waters with its most ambitious project, the DC Expanded Universe. What was intended to be a franchise on an epic scale comparable to that of Marvel’s wildly successful saga has made several major stumbles along the way. Executives and directors have come and gone, reshoots after reshoots have driven up budgets, box office numbers have disappointed, and Ben Affleck has spent a lot of time looking quite sad. Think pieces galore have been written about the problems with the DCEU, and there are many to discuss, but the heart of the problem lies at the top: Who runs the DCEU?

The job of producer is a tough one to describe in succinct terms. It’s not like an actor or writer or director, where general audiences can give at least a brief definition of what that job entails. Culturally, depictions of producers tend to be largely negative, painting such figures as money-hungry suits with no interest in art. This stereotype is unhelpful when it comes to discussing film, but especially so regarding our current blockbuster age. Figures like Marvel’s Kevin Feige and Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy certainly play a role in defining the narratives of their respective franchises, but where their power is at its most potent is in helping these lofty ambitions navigate both the creative and business sides of cinema. The DCEU has been sorely lacking on that front.

One major area where the DCEU went wrong was in allowing a director and a comic book writer to so heavily define the aesthetic and long-term plan of a multi-billion dollar franchise. Zack Snyder was given an immense amount of freedom to shape what the DCEU looked and felt like, and critics weren’t delighted with the results. The chances are this wasn’t a deliberate move on the part of Warner Bros. Man of Steel did well, so it may have simply been the best decision to make at the time. Snyder was a celebrated director who had expertise in the realm of adapting comic books to the big screen thanks to his take on Watchmen.

Bringing lauded comic book writer Geoff Johns on board was another idea perhaps better in an abstract sense than one of pure practicality. Johns is credited as one of the great creative minds in the current generation of DC Comics and is seen as the main figure behind the rebirth of Green Lantern Corps. It’s hard to deny Johns’s influence on comics, so bringing him on board at Warner Bros. in an executive producer role had promise. What better way to ground these huge movies in their comic roots than by having someone who helped that renaissance happen at the top?

Of course, there is a major difference between running a comics division and running a movie franchise, not least of which is the cost. These films are hard to make, and when endless reshoots are added on top of it all, it's no wonder the budgets spiraled past nine figures. As cynical as it sounds, sometimes you just need that sturdy producer at the helm, one whose focus is not exclusively on the art. Attempts to please everyone have satisfied very few.

Between Snyder, Johns and the ever-changing roster of executives at DC’s film branch, the DCEU has fought hard to establish itself as something audiences need to see in a very busy market. Positioning this universe as a grittier alternative to Marvel, one with its roots firmly in real-life parallels and a style ripped from the pages of Frank Miller and Scott Snyder, seemed like a great idea. There’s certainly a market for that, and at a time when superheroes are mostly family friendly fare, the successes of works like Deadpool and Logan highlight the fascinating storytelling opportunities available in more mature approaches.

There are many very dedicated fans of the films created by Snyder and Johns, that can’t be denied, but it’s also hard to declare the franchise an unmitigated success. Justice League cost $300 million to make and only made $657 million, giving it a projected loss of about $60 million. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice failed to make $1 billion worldwide, something that seemed all but assured given the might of its premise. Wonder Woman was a major hit, commercially and critically, but one out of four in as many years isn’t the best track record DC could ask for. The dark visuals and tone didn’t gel for many, and DC’s attempts to change track with reshoots — think the added comedy and neon overlay of Suicide Squad or the color correction to the cinematography for Justice League — didn’t help. When your incredibly expensive franchise not only has to keep up with the biggest saga in modern film but must work quickly to try and fix what audiences dislike during post-production, to stumble feels inevitable.

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Nobody wants the DCEU to fail. It’s ridiculous to claim that people can only be fans of one thing, be it Marvel, DC, Star Wars or whatever is the hot geek property of the day. Audiences and fans alike benefit greatly from a wide array of choice in pop culture and the DC mythos is just too damn good to write off. It survived Joel Schumacher; it can survive anything. Fortunately, change is on the horizon.

Walter Hamada is the new President of DC-based film production at Warner Bros., which essentially makes him the DCEU's new Kevin Feige. Hamada is an executive producer on The Conjuring franchise, making him an experienced figure in the world of expanded universes on-screen (albeit on a way smaller scale). While he has inherited something sprawling and tough to control, there are glimmers of something brighter in the future. The first images from Wonder Woman 1984, including a gloriously 1980s Steve Trevor, sent fans into a frenzy; the first released images for Aquaman were divisive but at least it looks like nothing else in the superhero genre right now; the very unusual Shazam! has fans intrigued for a lighter approach to the classic mold of the DC hero; Cathy Yan’s hiring as the Birds of Prey director made her the first Asian female director of a superhero film; and the Hollywood Reporter recently said that production of a Joker spin-off movie, produced by none other than the legendary Martin Scorsese, would begin shooting later this fall. Although there remains the issue of The Batman. Rumors have been swirling for months that Ben Affleck doesn’t want to keep playing Bruce Wayne anymore, and such talk has only increased with the Hollywood Reporter’s claim that Matt Reeves’s solo movie for the dark knight will focus on a younger Bruce.

At first glance, this slate seems like an odd mish-mash of ideas and strategies. It kind of is, but therein lies a much more interesting path forward for the DCEU. There’s less concern about sticking to an obsessively detailed slate of future releases — smartly, The Batman does not yet have a release date, so Reeves won’t have to rush through production — and the narrative isn’t solely focused on connecting every story strand to one another. The comic books seldom stick to one strictly monitored storyline so why should the films? It’s already been hinted at that the future Flash movie will introduce Flashpoint, thus opening up the world to alternate timelines, which would be a true thrill to see on the big screen. But before that, DC are already taking the step of going off-road with a Joker movie. It’s got a prestigious cast and crew, will have an R-rating and lower budget, and will be something that their competitors aren’t doing: imbuing mainstream with arthouse for the superhero age. The best thing the DCEU can do now is emphasize what makes it unique in a heavily saturated market of blockbusters, and this seems like the right way to go. Even the idea of Affleck stepping down has its perks, with the possibility of a cleaner slate for the franchise to kickstart its new stage.

Steve Trevor Wonder Woman 2

Source: Patty Jenkins

The big problem with the DCEU was that it tried to rush forward with major ambitious ideas without ever giving them room to breathe. They wanted an auteur-esque approach to the genre but didn’t see the downside to letting such a creative force wholly define a multi-billion dollar property that was intended to appeal to the widest audiences possible. They implemented celebrated creators in top roles but didn’t consider the cold hard necessity of a producer who knows how movie making works. They wanted a deeply complex, interconnecting universe of stories, but their true strengths lie in one-offs that allow for a greater variety in style and tone. None of these problems are permanent, nor are they impossible to fix. Indeed, Warner Bros. have made a positive step forward by bringing on board an executive who has experience in dealing with franchises.

There are still so many tales to tell in the DCEU, and tons we’re crying out to see. What about the stories of Catwoman, Nightwing, the New Gods, Batwoman, Batgirl, and way too many more to mention? The creative potential is endless and audiences are hungry for it, but getting to that stage requires more than ambition and interesting ideas.

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