In 2008, Iron Man debuted and quickly became the flagship which changed the way comic book movies were received in two important ways. First, it was awesome. It may very well be one of the best comic book movies of the era it served to kick off. More importantly, however, was the gears that began turning with the (now staple) post credits scene. Shrouded in darkness, after briefly mocking Tony Stark for his off script press conference spectacle, Samuel L. Jackson continues with what might be the most game-changing line in recent cinematic history: “You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” Aimed at Mr. Stark, this line also served as a promise to the fans, as much as it was a challenge issued to Marvel’s main competitor, DC Comics. All eyes were now on DC and Warner Bros. to see if they would attempt the same monumental feat that Marvel had endeavored to accomplish. A unified comic book cinematic universe.
Fast forward to June of 2013. The first Avengers film has been out for a year, Iron Man has just rounded out its trilogy of films, and Man of Steel lands in theaters. The movie is relatively well received by most. With a story that shows the makings of the superhero, beginning with his self-inflicted exile and apprehension about actually fulfilling his role as a hero. While many enjoyed the movie, primarily because it’s Superman, the movie also falls flat in a lot of ways. The story is dull and one-tracked, not to mention slow moving. In terms of production value, the action was hit or miss. Up close, the fights played well. The aerial combat, which was fairly unique to this film, was painfully CGI. Not even close to believable. And, of course, by now, we’ve all probably seen the VideoLab presentation where they restore the vibrant colors that were dimmed and dulled in post production. The final cut was so dark, Superman’s suit looks black. I wouldn’t be surprised if it triggered Seasonal Affective Disorder in some viewers who are more sensitive to gloomy days. Was Man of Steel the worst comic book movie ever? No. Was it a strong foundation for kicking off a Justice League franchise and establishing what has come to be known as the DC Extended Universe? Also no. A better argument could possibly be made for why Green Lantern would have been a better starting point. It was a more lighthearted film, with a more charismatic protagonist (and lead actor). If the movie put as much effort into establishing the DCEU as they did further installments that would never happen, DC would be running right in line with Marvel today. Nevertheless, Man of Steel is where we begin, and with rumors swirling about a push for a unified DC movie franchise, starting with the final (and equally contentious) installment in The Dark Knight trilogy, it would be another three years following Man of Steel before these rumors would finally come to fruition.
Now that the Justice League series is underway, DC needs to have a solid, feasible plan that they can stick to and move forward with at a steady pace. So how are they doing so far? In the year plus since Batman vs Superman has been released, we have seen two other installments within the DCEU. Suicide Squad came first, followed by Wonder Woman this summer. Of the four films released thus far in the franchise, Wonder Woman has been arguably the most well received, as it was also the most well executed. Without going too far into detail, BvS was a messy collection of scenes, and the heroes were barely heroes. Suicide Squad presented so well in trailers, and seemed like such a fantastic concept, but the execution felt more like a caricatured knockoff of what they were trying to accomplish. With Wonder Woman being the most recent of these films, one could argue that DC is learning from their mistakes and call it good. However, a number of recent news surrounding the upcoming installments may possibly spell disaster for the franchise as a whole.
Let’s start with Flashpoint. As this is the film we know probably the least about, this should be quick. DC has decided to pursue a storyline for the Flash which served as a major turning point in the DC universe, and a major upset with the fanbase. The basis of this story revolves around Flash traveling back in time and interfering with his own timeline, which, as we all know, tends to create paradoxes and ultimately changing the course of established history. The question is, will Flashpoint remain a storyline isolated within its own film, or will the repercussions of time meddling create changes or complications for the other characters, as well? I feel it’s important to note, however, that I highly approve of their casting choice and character writing for Flash, from what I’ve seen so far. He’s a sort of sardonic dweeb who seems like he will provide a grounding factor for the rest of the larger than life characters.
Moving along, we have The Batman. This movie is the primary source for my apprehension moving forward with this franchise. Beginning with Ben Affleck stepping down from directing the film, passing off the reins to Matt Reeves. Shortly before Comicon this year, we also began hearing that the script that Affleck had prepared was being all but cast aside, with reassurance from Reeves that the story they have prepared will be “really cool”. Add to that, rumors that Ben Affleck himself had to debunk, suggesting that he would not be able to fulfill his duty as Batman in too many more films, and the skepticism begins to swirl. Ultimately, the starting point for Batman in the DCEU may not have been the strongest option to begin with. While DC may have had only two basic options for introducing Batman to this universe, either pursue another origin story, which would have set the entire series back a few years further, or get both feet wet with an already established Caped Crusader. While the latter options better serves the time constraints, is it possible that they have chosen to start with a Batman who is too far along in his career to make it through however many movies DC wishes to produce? We know from BvS that Batman has already lost a Robin to the Joker. In the latest Justice League trailer, Alfred quips that “One misses the days when one’s biggest concerns were exploding, wind-up penguins.” While these two details do not necessarily solidify an over-the-hill Dark Knight, it does make one wonder how much is left in the days ahead that could, in the very least, take him by surprise. Or, might they eventually try to explore his adventures prior to BvS, and attempt to keep Affleck looking as young and spry as possible for as long as they can? One (likely futile) hope from fans, including myself, is that this will give way to a Batman Beyond movie in the near future. However, as far as DC seems to be straying from the central, classic comic tales that most fans are already familiar with, we are probably about as likely to see a Batman who is not Bruce Wayne on the big screen as we are a Spider-Man who isn’t Peter Parker.
Finally, let’s talk about the Justice League movie. As the most imminent release, which will also help to establish the remainder of the primary characters we will be seeing in the franchise, this movie will ultimately tell us whether or not DC can get their act together. So how is it going so far? Expected in November, the movie is currently in post production, and recent reports claim that the re-shoots, which started as routine, typical of virtually any major motion picture, have reportedly continued far beyond precedent, further complicated by other scheduling obligations by major players in the film. While this is certainly bad form from an industry standpoint, it is not necessarily a damning move as far as the fans are concerned. The probable reason for the extended re-shoots taking so long is due to the deeper role Joss Whedon is expected to take in finalizing the film. Brought onboard in March, Whedon was originally expected to simply oversee post production in rounding out the film that Zack Snyder already had in mind and well underway. However, recent reports suggest that Whedon is now being tasked to “punch up the dialogue” and try to weave in some “connective tissue”. This sounds like they are trying to correct one of my greatest complaints with BvS, in making it more cohesive. If Whedon is allowed to truly work his magic, this spells good things for the new film. However, that is assuming that the bulk of what has already been shot is enough for him to work with. Experience tells me to have faith in Joss, but it also tells me to keep low expectations for DC. Maybe this will prove to be just the right balance of cautious optimism that will allow me to walk into the theater in just the right state of mind. I just hope that they’ve pulled a better final battle out of whatever bag of tricks they’ve been using, because I’m not sure I can sit through another swirling cloud of rubble and dust, blacking out virtually everything but the Big Bad and our valiant heroes.
One of the greatest problems with the relative failure of the DCEU is that, whether the movie is a flop or a monument of modern storytelling, it will still be a smashing success at the box office. Virtually every major comic book film will be, which is why almost every one that gets released sets a new sales record. Comic book fans will see it if they expect it to be great, or if they expect it to spark unfathomable nerd rage. Unfortunately, this cannot be stopped, and therefore will fail to be a reliable metric for how well made the movies are. This is likely why DC managed to get this far, and is only now starting to backpedal on the tone of their films.
So what’s the consensus? Will Joss be able to save Justice League? Does the franchise have any chance of redemption, or will they continue to limp along with hit or miss, but ultimately underwhelming installments for the foreseeable future? Feel free to give your two cents in the comments. I would love to hear how others view the franchise as a whole.