Editorial: Warner Bros Needs to Expand the DCEU Beyond Batman
by Dan Marcus
January 10, 2017
At the climax of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman has literally fallen into the arms of his love, Lois Lane. The ending is far from romantic, however, as Batman and Wonder Woman stand beside the slain hero, heads bowed mournfully. Who knew this downer of an ending would signify more than just defeated heroes, it also acts as an analogy for the entire trajectory of DC Comics on film. By the time Suicide Squad rolled around, you could argue the DC Extended Universe had been put on suicide watch. For Ben Affleck, what started as a co-starring role has morphed into possibly being the DCEU's only saving grace.
If this seems melodramatic – as melodramatic as killing off your title character in the second movie of your new cinematic universe – imagine how it must feel for Ben Affleck. Here's a guy coming off of winning a Best Picture Oscar for Argo and then starring in one of the most critically derisive comic-book movies of the last 10 years. Actually, scratch that. Spider-Man 3, which came out 10 years ago this year, scored better with critics. The critical backlash was so bad it spawned one of the best YouTube video sensations of last year:
Seriously, the last time Ben Affleck donned a superhero costume for 2003's Daredevil, despite the general mediocre reaction from audiences, it actually scored better with critics. So you can understand why Affleck, who also appeared in Suicide Squad (which fared even worse), would be hesitant about jumping back in the Batmobile for another outing in a solo movie he's supposed to write, star in and direct - title The Batman.
If you've been following his comments on The Batman over the last several months, he's gone from being noncommittal ("we still have to get a screenplay and get it together") to unsure ("I'm not going to write and direct anything that I don't think is good enough to be made") to saying the film is on track to shoot in 2017 ("we're on the right track… and everything is coming together") to noncommittal again ("it's not a set thing and there's no script… if it doesn't come together in a way I think is really great I'm not going to do it").
If that's not enough, a new report from the site Batman News suggests production on The Batman has been delayed until summer, most likely to accommodate Affleck while he (continues to) fine tune the script. The report also says Justice League is a "mess", while other sources seem to back up this claim. It is entirely possible Justice League is in rough shape, but that's also common for a movie that likely only has a very rough cut at this point. Given the negative press Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad endured, you can be guaranteed Warner Bros will do everything in their power to make sure Justice League delivers. If the reports are true, you can bet reshoots are in the film's future. In a response to the rumors of a delay, Affleck assuaged concerns, saying most recently "the script is great, it just needs to get better". If a delay will help get the script in a better shape, then a delay is actually great news indeed.
Here's an idea, film journalists: Stop asking Ben Affleck when he's going to do The Batman! This is a man who has directed three films that have ratings in the mid-90s on Rotten Tomatoes. He has proven to be an extremely capable writer, actor and director. When he decides he's ready to make The Batman, he'll make it. Hopefully. It is quite possible his most recent comments are either taken out of context or he's backtracking to squeeze more pressure from Warner Bros, which all but dumped his last directorial effort, Live By Night. Even with that film's floundering reviews, Affleck is still a Hollywood heavyweight.
It is also possible Affleck is sweating bullets over suddenly being posed to be the only saving grace of the DC Extended Universe. When he was initially approached to star as the Caped Crusader in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman, he was there to add gravitas to the character. Affleck didn't just leave it at co-starring, though. When he had concerns about the script, he brought on Argo writer Chris Terrio to polish up the screenplay. He was naturally invested in the film's success, which is why he evidently took the film's critical failure so hard. It also explains Affleck's increased role on Justice League, joining the film's producing team as an executive producer. There's even more pressure now for Justice League to succeed. After Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad tanked with critics, WB needs a surefire hit to regenerate the DCEU brand.
Of course, those movies were financial hits, generating a combined $2.3 billion at the box office, but WB clearly took the critical bludgeoning hard. They swiftly made adjustments, calling it a "course correction", including promoting comic guru Geoff Johns as co-president of DC Films & downgrading producer Charles Roven. If Wonder Woman and Justice League under-perform, the entire future of the DCEU is in jeopardy.
Which explains why Affleck would be nervous about outright committing to The Batman just yet. It is clear Warner Bros is hedging a lot of bets on the film, going as far as delaying Justice League 2 from its June 2019 release date in favor of The Batman. However, if there's anything WB needs to change, they should stop focusing solely on Batman and start focusing on the other heroes in the DC universe. There's a reason why, according to fans, Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman movie is more anticipated than Justice League.
I'm the biggest Batman fan around, but at this point even I'm ready for the Justice League's other members to get their time in the limelight. Yes, we're finally getting solo movies for Wonder Woman, Aquaman and The Flash over the next few years, but it hasn't been an easy road to the silver screen for any of those guys. Wonder Woman lost her original director (Michelle MacLaren) before Patty Jenkins took charge. The Flash has had two directors depart the project since entering pre-production last year, and is currently stuck.
Batman is a consistent major moneymaker for the studio, so it makes sense WB would focus so heavily on the World's Greatest Detective in their big screen strategy. That doesn't mean Wonder Woman or The Flash can't earn that title as well with the right amount of attention and respect. The more WB leans on The Batman to salvage the DCEU, the more Affleck will likely get cold feet. If WB wants to develop a diverse universe of enigmatic films, it needs to start trusting its filmmakers and its characters. Which means giving up depending on Batman like a crutch, even if that seems like a risky move (in terms of potential earnings).
Warner Bros thought that by adding the Dark Knight back into the mix again after Man of Steel under-performed it would help Batman v Superman reach $1 billion. Well, that strategy failed. It proved even adding in a psychotic Batman won't make a film an astronomical success, even if Batman v Superman earned more than Man of Steel. If The Batman does not live up to expectations, it could prove that even WB's flagship superhero may not be able to save the day for the studio.
When Ben Affleck talks about the film, he doesn't mention the previous DCEU films. He constantly brings up Christopher Nolan's trilogy which set the bar remarkably high for what a Batman movie could be. "Christopher Nolan did an incredible job," Affleck has stated. "I go into [The Batman] with a tremendous amount of respect for the people who came before me." It is clear Affleck doesn't want to make a mediocre Batman movie. "There's not enough money in the world to make a mediocre version of Batman worth it."
If The Batman were to fail, WB's entire house of superhero trading cards would fall in on itself. Affleck is probably waiting to see how Justice League performs before committing to The Batman, which could also make-it-or-break-it for the studio. Even if that film disappoints, there's still an entire litany of other heroes WB can draw upon. The best case scenario is that Wonder Woman lassos a win for the studio, showing that DC characters that aren't Batman can work on the big screen. There's a lot more riding on that film's success than Justice League. If that team-up movie fails, they could still reboot the universe a couple years down the road. If Wonder Woman fails, it may prove disastrous for the studio and for the other members of the Justice League idly waiting for their turn to shine.
Imagine how groundbreaking and exciting a good Aquaman movie could be, talking fish jokes aside. James Cameron has talked about exploring underwater depths in Avatar 2 (if and when he ever finishing making that), but Aquaman could conceivably explore a whole new world that has heretofore never been shown cinematically before. WIth Furious 7's James Wan at the helm, it's a promising start for the character. Wan has proved he can consistently produce good results with The Conjuring movies. If you mix that with the sensibilities he brought to Furious 7, Aquaman could be a real game changer not only for the DCEU, but for superhero movies period. Most important of all, Wan said Aquaman will have a lighter tone and be fun.
In a discussion about Aquaman, Wan explained: "I just think it's fun to actually show a really different, cool, badass side to this character. But the same time, let's not forget to have fun with it." Indeed.
That last statement could act as a slogan for WB's entire superhero slate from this point onward. Batman v Superman was a very glum affair, and WB's (over)reaction to that was to lighten up Suicide Squad to rather mixed results. WB needs to stop being reactionary, and start opening up its comic book universe for all it has to offer. Have fun with some of these characters. Be true to who they are, and you'll be surprised at what they can do. It may finally make WB batty over someone other than Batman for a change.
So what do you think? Do you agree WB needs to stop relying on Batman so much?