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?
Reader Feedback - 27 Comments
I very much agree with this article. It seems like Warner Bros and DC are putting the cart before the horse when it comes to making their live action films. Too much focus on setting things up and making money, and not enough focus on making them good or coherent. Hopefully, Wonder Woman will be the first home run in the DCEU, but given their track record so far, I'm not holding my breath.
justin riley on Nov 29, 2016
Solid read, thank you. I really like 90% of the direction they are going but the execution Is lacking.
Jon Odishaw on Nov 29, 2016
It is frustrating to see the potential of the DC/WB films and have them under perform. Shame Nolan seems to not want to partake in the DC U. I think he could really do some good for comic adaptations.
DAVIDPD on Nov 29, 2016
He's too good to just limit himself to those movies.
Kenobi on Nov 29, 2016
Agreed as much as I wanna see him come back I want to see more of his work in other passion projects
Christopher Lira on Nov 29, 2016
I disagree. The DC U is immensely complicated and full of creative potential.
DAVIDPD on Nov 30, 2016
Even the most simple and well known of rules for their characters have been immediately scrapped whenever they think it will make a good fight. Superman kills, not only that but right in his first movie(rebooted of course), Then Batman does as well. His heroism thrown out the window, I just can't watch Superman be so un-super anymore.
Mark on Nov 29, 2016
Superman has killed before...heck he killed Zod in Superman 2. I love people who invent rules about comic book characters.
Kenobi on Nov 29, 2016
Um. I'm not making up rules. Many years ago, Superman did kill 3 Phantom Zone criminals and it was a huge deal (and massively necessary) that stood as canon for over 20 years. This only cemented his unwillingness to kill ever again. Otherwise, he has only killed Doomsday, who I don't think many readers consider a "person". This is the comic character that all these movies are using, and this is a prime rule of the character. Rebooting Supes and immediately having him kill is one of the dumbest decisions on the long list of poor choices they've made. That's why fans were so upset by that single moment more that most any other part of that wreck of a reboot. (I'm not necessarily a huge fan of Superman, but I'd sure like him to get a proper portrayal).
Mark on Nov 29, 2016
I agree with you and stand with that it is cannon that Superman kills. However I respectfully disagree with you and believe in my opinion it was the right thing to have Superman kill Zoe not only because of the situation he was in but also because you can tell it affected him where he ultimately descides he can't use he's power to kill. Again just my opinion I understand why a lot people where upset with it and just truly believe for me it worked in the film. Then again I'm one of those who really love man of steel and consider it one of the best comic book films we have
Christopher Lira on Nov 29, 2016
Totally agree about Suicide Squad. I mean.. Assault on Arkham asylum is so good, why fuck it up with a shitty live loose adaptation?
ErrorSapiens on Nov 29, 2016
In no universe is BvS "utter trash".
Kenobi on Nov 29, 2016
Exactly right! BvS was a great movie for multiple reasons. Sure some things could have been tweaked, but overall a great movie.
Cyberdine on Nov 29, 2016
I have to agree. I mean even if you didn't like the movie, I can't understand how anyone couldn't at least applaud the effort put forth to do as much as they did. No one can say they just phoned it in. I thought they at least tried, granted they didn't necessarily succeed in everything they tried. Maybe if they didn't have a release date before they finish writing a script, these movies would be thought of better.
eris on Nov 29, 2016
It's the chances that they totally screwed up Still you're tryna get it out your brain It's the trick you saw when you didn't figure out It's the paradox you're dying to change It's all the money that you're cheated While the good life passes by It's all the swanks that never came true ‘Cause they're too damn pride to face
Flidais on Nov 29, 2016
I see the pattern here. I think you enjoyed BvS, for whatever reason, and you're defending it. That's fine, you certainly get your own opinion,. However if you ask any 10 people their thoughts on the film, you're going to get at least 5 that would agree it's awful. On a good day.
Mark on Nov 29, 2016
5 people also voted for Trump...people are stupid
Kenobi on Nov 29, 2016
Well written article! Thank you. I agree WB is not doing the right things here that are needed for DC movies to flourish. News flash WB - DC movies will produce the numbers you're looking for when you take a step back and allow your Directors/Screen writers to take the reigns and produce these movies that do justice to the comic! Plain and simple! Comics didn't stick around this long just because they have great pop-ups. There is great literature written in those comics with great stories with great imagination and creation. All you have to do is let it transfer over. Adding more "fun and humor" is the absolute last thing they need to do to fix this issue.
Cyberdine on Nov 29, 2016
Yeah i guess they are dangerously trying to take this to unprecedented extreme popcorn levels, hope they turn it down a bit
wylles on Nov 29, 2016
Once again another outstanding well writen article by Dan marcus. I agree with you that they can't approach every character the same way. They need to be be true to each character separately and above all worry about telling a great story first.
Christopher Lira on Nov 29, 2016
I think it's cute that everyone thinks Geoff Johns is going to improve the DC movies. He's a wonderful dude, smart, capable of writing great comic books like Stars and S. T. R. I. P. E. and JSA, but some of that potential gets lost in an inexplicable desire to turn the whole DC Universe into Hardcore Super Friends. He brings back boring and dull characters like Barry Allen and Hal Jordan because they were on Super Friends. He tears down Martian Manhunter and Steel to make place for Cyborg, because he was on Super Friends. He does his best to restore villains that had tons of character growth back to their portrayal from Super Friends. And then he rips everybody's arms off, has teenagers eaten alive and destroys the universe over and over. He has been DC's Chief Creative Officer for years. He was one of the factors responsible for the Green Lantern movie. And he was involved with Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. Thinking that it might get better is the wrong kind of hope the DCEU needs.
Michael Heide on Nov 29, 2016
Blame Zack Snider the king of style-over-substance.
tarek on Nov 30, 2016
I agree. I wish I didn't agree but I do. I have been a DC fan since I was a child. I remember being so excited when I heard they were making another superman. I must of watched the trailer 100 times. I loved MOS but hate the latest movies that came out. Im scared for DC.
timnimbus on Nov 30, 2016
Such a good and level headed article. I love both DC and Marvel and ANY fan of either side should be able to accept when someone doesn't like a certain element of the film universe both are making. It's just DC and WB are trying to do all these things that took Marvel multiple films to get through before doing such grand films like The Avengers. DC and WB need to realize that people don't want to see a super hero film just because it has super heroes in it. What works in the good Marvel and DC films is that you don't just see heroes, but you see characters and they take advantage of that. They make characters with super powers or advance tech likable and understandable. It always doesn't work out, but still. BvS just felt like it was trying to do so much when it could have waited or cut out plot elements and use them for future films. Also killing off Superman and using Doomsday so early takes potential weight and drama in the future films. What can they exactly do to top "supes just came back from dying"? Doomsday is one of the biggest threats in the DC universe. He is nearly invincible with how strong he is. Why use him so early? Why couldn't the film be just about Batman fighting Superman? I wouldn't have minded, but they throw in all this stuff when really, people just wanted to see Bats fight Supes. Yes, it wasn't super strong to begin with, but if they took out a lot of the plot elements, then they would have more time to give a reason for both of them to fight one another. Marvel did this well by having filler films (not always great filler mind you....) to build up to such grand events. You get why Cap would be concerned and stand against what happens in Civil War due to the previous events of the films. They took their time and made sure to build up the world and the characters involved. Now granted, the Marvel formula is started to show its flaws like they need to stop having filler villains, they need to know how to make in between films better and more consistent, the music needs to be better, the visual aspect of the films shouldn't be so inconsistent in quality, and they need to be more careful how stories and characters are developed in all of their projects so we don't have a Luke Cage situation or a Dardevil season 2 situation where elements feel rushed or there is too much going on because they want to build up to other shows and of course, the big Defenders piece.
Cameron Ward on Nov 30, 2016
I'm always confused about most comic to film adaptations. They have GREAT source material. When I say that I mean GREAT artists have written, drawn, inked, colored, conceptualized, story boarded, etc all of these GREAT comics... yet they mess with success. JJ Abrams didn't reinvent Star Trek or Star Wars. He took the best, the Color, Music, Writing, Tone, Ambiance, Fan Obsessions, and added to or spun it into modern classics. My point is there is more to the success of a Comic and it's characters then just the writing. GREAT Artists poured heart and soul into DC's best comics and they are ignoring 80% of that talent. They will always fail because of this.
Mike Phang on Nov 30, 2016
I agree with a lot of the points in this article, however, I don't place all of the blame on WB. They entrusted Zack Snyder with B v. S and there were several HUGE misteps throughout, because Zack Snyder was allowed to be Zack Snyder. How many times must Bruce Wayne's story be re-told? I mean, if you're going into these movies, and still don't know his backstory...that would amaze me. How many meaningless dream sequences does he have to insert into these movies? The only one that held some relevance was the Flash "premonition". I think WB entrusted Zack Snyder to win them a franchise, and instead, he insulted the audience by spelling everything out and treated them like they don't know the content they're watching. The story is already written in 1,000's of comic books! It's not hard to adapt that. Marvel is proof positive that it can be done. And the WB isn't following the Marvel formula. They put out ONE introductory movie for Superman (which I actually enjoyed aside from the friggin shakey-cam) and then immediately forced a team-up movie with B v S. Marvel established Iron Man, Thor and Captain America prior to their first team up with the Avengers. I don't fault for WB being gun shy because they entrusted Zack Snyder to deliver, and he failed. It's amazing he's even being give Justice League at this point. My hope is Geoff Johns asserts his influence over the characters he SHOULD know so well, and works together with the directors and WB Execs to provide the BEST damn DC movies that will restore this and every fans confidence.
RAW_D on Dec 1, 2016
I blame Warner Bros. for hiring Zack Snyder in the first place. I've never been a fan of his work and I honestly am surprised each time he gets handed a major property. "300" was financially successful but even "Watchmen" wasn't commercially profitable or critically well-received, although I think the Ultimate Cut (like the Ultimate Edition for "Batman v Superman") is rather good. If you look at the last two movies Snyder directed before "Man of Steel" ("Sucker Punch" and "Legend of the Guardians") both were tepidly received at best. It was always a mystery to me why Snyder was chosen to direct "Man of Steel", as so many other better choices (Matt Reeves, Darren Aronofsky, Duncan Jones, etc.) were floating around at the time. I get Snyder has a relationship with WB, but his track record doesn't quite support that in my opinion. Even if you go along with Snyder, I think it was a rash idea to shove Batman into the narrative for "Batman v Superman". I think if WB exhibited a bit of patience - perhaps introduced Bruce Wayne, not Batman, as an adversarial supporting character in "Man of Steel 2" - then "Batman v Superman" might not have felt as rushed or overstuffed as it ultimately did. That's just my take, though. I think WB was eschewing the Marvel formula when they decided to do "Batman v Superman" and introduce all of these heroes in one movie. Although, by making "Suicide Squad" all fun and light, I think they were trying to appeal to some of the fun that Marvel movies have had. I think it is telling the film was reshot and reshaped far after filming had been completed, once "Batman v Superman" opened and was critically hounded by both fans and critics alike. So, in one respect, I do agree Snyder deserves some of the blame. However, WB should have known better than to trust Snyder with these characters. In my opinion, anyway.
Dan Marcus on Dec 2, 2016
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