How Warner Bros Might Be the Biggest Enemy of DC Entertainment
by Dan Marcus
November 29, 2016
DC's biggest heroes have been facing an adversary even bigger than Doomsday or Kryponite as of late: their own studio, Warner Bros. It was last month when it was revealed that director Rick Famuyiwa dropped out of directing The Flash, citing creative differences. This was a sizable loss for the film, as Famuyiwa's hiring was considered a major coup. His departure hints at trouble for DC on film, who has stumbled out of the gate when their films should be leaping over tall buildings in a single bound. Along with countless mixed to negative critical reactions to their last two offerings, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, it's become clear Warner Bros is struggling to bring DC's finest to the big screen. But why?
To the executives at Warner Bros: you were once considered a studio that was filmmaker-driven, but as of late you have short-sighted your directors at almost every whim. You need to start trusting your filmmakers to let them tell the story they were hired to tell, not the story you think audiences might like or that will make the most money at the box office. DC isn't Marvel and it's never going to be Marvel. Stop trying to mimic the formula they have created. Create your own formula. Create your own universe. Be true to DC Comics and be true to your filmmakers.
From cutting down Zack Snyder's original version of Batman v Superman – resulting in a rather lackluster theatrical cut – to reshooting, reshaping and ultimately gutting David Ayer's Suicide Squad, Warner Bros is consistently undermining their filmmakers. The end results are obvious: The films are suffering. The fans are disgruntled. Now, Warner Bros is literally driving talented filmmakers away. Famuyiwa's departure wasn't the first sign of trouble for the Scarlet Speedster on film. It was just one latest blow after the film's first director, Seth Grahame-Smith, bowed out months before. This wasn't even the first time a director has dropped out of a DC Comics project recently. Michele McLaren dropped out of directing Wonder Woman last year, before Patty Jenkins stepped in to take over the reigns. So why is this happening?
First of all, we don't know what was happening behind-the-scenes on The Flash. Seth Grahame-Smith has never directed a major motion picture before, much less a giant tentpole superhero epic, so his departure wasn't all that surprising. Famuyiwa's departure was a little more surprising, though. He seemed like the perfect choice, after recently directing the indie hit Dope. Famuyiwa has a unique and singular voice, a voice that could have greatly benefited Ezra Miller's first standalone outing. All we know for sure is that Famuyiwa left the film due to creative differences, but we don't know what those differences are. Perhaps Famuyiwa had some truly controversial ideas that just didn't meld with what Warner Bros is trying to do with the character, but contemplate this. If Warner Bros did not approve of what Famuyiwa was creating, then why hire him to re-write the script and direct the film in the first place? Did they even see Dope?
When Warner Bros were starting out with their (modern) superhero films, they prided themselves on being filmmaker-driven. They were going to let the filmmakers bring their vision to fruition, even if it resulted in not so popular choices – such as Ben Affleck's Batman being considerably darker than even Christopher Nolan's interpretation, or Jared Leto's The Joker having a totally different look than what we've come to expect from the character, tattoos and all. Perhaps it was a reaction to the negative reviews Zack Snyder received for Batman v Superman, which forced Warner Bros to be more critical of the creative control they gave to David Ayer on Suicide Squad. Ayer had never done a blockbuster film on the scale of Suicide Squad before, but then again neither did Christopher Nolan before Batman Begins or Bryan Singer before X-Men.
From behind-the-scenes speculation, it seemed like they pushed a certain type of lighter, more fun vibe for Suicide Squad in the marketing and when that fun vibe was embraced, they decided to go all in. In a way, that makes sense. If you look at some of the negative reviews for Batman v Superman, critics complained the film was too dark and morose. However, I'm going to offer a different opinion. I don't think being dark and bleak is what made Batman v Superman a bad movie. I think Warner Bros, instead of looking at the bigger picture, saw specific complaints ("The film is too dark!" "There's not enough humor!") and assumed what Suicide Squad needed was just less darkness and more fun. If you've seen the early Comic-Con preview footage for Justice League, that seems to be the general consensus: "Let's just make the film more fun, add some jokes and that'll do the trick." Trust me when I say that's not looking at the intricacies of why Batman v Superman was not well-received by audiences or critic.
Look at the critical reaction to Suicide Squad. That film was "fun", with bright and vibrant colors, and it got an even lower Rotten Tomatoes rating. Bottom-line, Warner Bros: Stop being concerned with the broad criticisms of your movies, and instead focus on just telling good stories above all else.
Another big problem Warner Bros seems to be struggling with is tone. At first, I thought this was specific to Zack Snyder. However, after seeing Suicide Squad, I think this might be a larger issue. Yes, Batman v Superman is a dark film, but so was The Dark Knight. So why did Batman v Superman get ripped for being so dark? Well, for starters, you can have a dark tone while still maintaining a sense of hope and optimism. If you look at the ending of The Dark Knight – while also being incredibly minimalist in comparison, but I'll get to that later – the film grapples with some big moral quandaries. The Joker was trying to prove that everyone in Gotham can be broken down and have the worst brought out in themselves, which is why he pushed Harvey Dent over the edge. The bombs on the ferries were also about a moral choice.
However, the citizens of Gotham proved to The Joker that, even when pushed, they are still inherently good people. On the ferry with the Arkham inmates, it's a prisoner that is the first to throw away the detonator, not a Gotham City citizen. It's a powerful and ultimately poignant moment, showing even the worst of Gotham's citizens can still make good decisions. In a film where Bruce Wayne's love interest dies and Harvey Dent falls from grace, the ending is ultimately hopeful.
While Batman v Superman tries to convey an uplifting message, it doesn't come across as succinctly. Yes, Bruce Wayne has a renewed sense of hope for humanity, but it comes in the last ten minutes of the theatrical cut. The film's ending itself is heavy-handed, with the death of Superman coming after a plodding finale. We know Superman will come back for Justice League, which robs us of any emotional investment in the character's demise. More importantly, the film's editing undermines the film's attempt at a hopeful message. If you watched the Theatrical Cut, you miss a lot of crucial plot information that helps sell Bruce Wayne's eventual transformation. While his transformation works more solidly in the "Ultimate Edition" version of the film, it still gets lost in a film that's tonally misshapen.
What I think might've worked better is a stronger contrast between Henry Cavill's Superman and Ben Affleck's Batman. There's a reason why some fans point out Chris Evans' Captain America as a more definitive, modern update of the Superman character. What makes Captain America work in those films is how unflinching he is in his heroism and his beliefs. He's a character with 1930's morals ("I don't like bullies") thrust into a modern society where those morals are tested. As Superman is a character that was created in the 30's, Batman v Superman would have been a perfect opportunity to show him resilient and resolute in his moralistic beliefs. Instead, we got a version of the character where he doubted himself at every turn, and even doubted his heroism. I have always been confused as to why Batman v Superman – the film about DC's greatest trinity of superheroes – received the dark and bleak treatment, while Suicide Squad – a film about DC's greatest villains – was made to be fun and full of vibrant, neon colors.
The answer is that Warner Bros. is being reactionary when they need to be constant.
I believe hiring Geoff Johns and Jon Berg to oversee "DC Films" is a smart decision that will ultimately lead to strong results. However, Warner Bros needs to be cognizant not to push away the very filmmakers they are trying to entice. I'm still cautiously optimistic about Justice League even after seeing the trailer. I don't think the film suddenly having more fun and humor is necessarily going to make it any better. Tone is important, but also understanding why these characters work is even more important. Superman is a fundamentally different character than Batman, and thus requires a different approach. The success of the Nolan Batman movies told WB one thing: audiences want everything to be dark and gritty. However, as The Amazing Spider-Man and Man of Steel proved, that approach doesn't necessarily work for every superhero or character. I think it's very telling people are now bemoaning "dark and gritty" as a term for scorn, with Paramount already developing a "dark and gritty" Green Hornet reboot to much chagrin.
There might also be a larger issue here, one that supersedes Warner Bros' recent handling of their biggest on-screen heroes. If we look back to The Dark Knight, let's also remember why it was such an outstanding movie. As mentioned earlier, it wasn't because it was dark and gritty. It was good because it was a well-made movie that intrinsically understood the Batman character. The film's ending is surprisingly minimalist by today's superhero standards. If you look at most of the superhero films that are being made today, they almost always end with a portal and someone trying to shut the damn portal off. Now, I don't blame Warner Bros for this, as I believe this trend started with Marvel's The Avengers.
However, I do think it's becoming an unfortunate trend. If you look at the ending for Suicide Squad, it ends with the film's main antagonist, The Enchantress, trying to open up a portal while the members of Task Force X must stop it before all of humanity is annihilated. While the ending for Batman v Superman trades a genocidal portal for a very large monster, the concept is still the same. Our heroes must stop this deadly beast before he kills life as we know it. Now, the film's ending is surprisingly more intimate than the city blocks worth of destruction that occurred in Man of Steel, but remember when superhero movies had more intimate endings?
Green Goblin gave Spider-Man a simple choice in the last act of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, but the main confrontation was personal and hard-hitting. It was a personal vendetta that drove Batman and the Joker's relationship and confrontation in the ending for Tim Burton's original Batman. Even though half of New York was at risk, the stakes never felt higher than when Spider-Man confronted Doc Ock at the end of Raimi's Spider-Man 2. He was not only trying to save Mary Jane, but also reach a former mentor. There were stakes to these endings, but not "end of the world" stakes. There were stakes because we cared about these characters. Look at some of the endings for superhero movies today.
Ask yourself: What are the personal stakes for Iron Man at the end of Iron Man 2? What about Thor in any of the Thor movies? What are Superman's personal stakes at the end of Man of Steel? At least in The Winter Soldier, Cap is trying to appeal to Bucky and save him from himself. I think the more intimate the ending, the higher the stakes are for our superheroes.
Speaking of intimacy, the very last scene in The Dark Knight is driven by an emotional confrontation between Batman, Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, Gordon, and his family. The stakes are high not because the fate of the world rests on their shoulders, but because Dent has a gun leveled at Gordon's family. Every single character, in one form or another, has lost someone or something. Batman has lost Rachel, Gordon feels like he has betrayed Harvey and Harvey himself feels like he has lost everything. It is a very depressing ending, but made hopeful by Batman's sacrifice: not just by pushing Harvey off the edge and saving Gordon's boy, but by taking the rap for Harvey's murders. We can save the debate about the logic behind that decision for another editorial, but let's look at the emotional simplicity of that scene. The film's ending works because we care about these characters, and we care what happens to them. It's intimate, emotional and ultimately effective for the sacrifices the characters made and will make by the story's end.
If there's one last warning I hope not only Warner Bros, but all other movie studios, heed as well, it's this: Executives and filmmakers need to start realizing that "less is more" when it comes to the action-studded finales of these movies.
This is less a condemnation of the studio, and more so some guidance for how to proceed. This may be difficult for a few of the people reading this to believe, but I'm a huge fan of DC and Warner Bros. I really do want the DCEU to flourish. I didn't go into Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad wanting those movies to fail. I actually believe the Ultimate Edition of Batman v Superman is a good and ambitious, if not flawed, movie. It is clear Warner Bros is trying to navigate sometimes uncertain waters, building this new cinematic universe while also trying to appease moviegoers and fans alike. Yes, the movies are so far box office hits, but even some of the studio higher-ups have admitted they would prefer better reviews for their DC offerings. There are ways to make commercially successful DC movies while also appealing to a wider, less judgmental demographic – even though you won't please everybody, and that's okay.
Utmost and foremost, you need to understand not every character can be treated the same. You need to stay true to your filmmakers' visions. Most importantly, you need to stay true to what makes DC characters… so super. Do you agree? Do you think Warner Bros is becoming the DCEU's biggest enemy?