It's no big secret that DC Comics and Warner Bros. have had trouble in imitating the success of Marvel Studios in building a cinematic shared universe. Marvel was starting to weave together separate franchises into a unified whole back when DC/WB was still hanging its collective hat on standalone franchises like The Dark Knight Trilogy, or shared universe false starts like Green Lantern.
Things didn't get much better since director Zack Snyder tried to launch a DC shared universe on the back of his Superman reboot Man of Steel - nor did his sophomore effort in establishing an official DC Extended Universe, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that was plagued by "controversy" and negative fan reaction all through casting and production. Now director David Ayer is being rolled on, for what some (many?) see as a mishandled attempt to sell us on the DCEU villain world via a lackluster Suicide Squad movie. In short: it's not easy being in the DCEU.
Of course, things have been shifting as of late: DC Comics/DCEU creative head Geoff Johns has spearheaded a big initiative to push both the comics and the movies back toward what he sees as the lighter and more hopeful vision of superheroism that he grew up with. That initiative includes "DC Rebirth," a new direction for the comics - as well as a new approach to the film side of things. The only question is: will the turnaround in strategy happen in time?
Bad Times Still Ahead?
Up next on the DCEU release slate in 2017 comes the one-two punch of Wonder Woman and Justice League, both of which generated major buzz at the 2016 San Diego Comic-Con by releasing big first-look trailers that were - generally speaking - well-received by fans. However, seeds of doubt in both films were recently sewn by the writer of an anonymous letter to Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara. The author claimed to be a former employee of WB who saw first hand how the studio's mismanagement of film properties resulted in the type viewer backlash and box office disappointment that cost lower-level studio employees their jobs - while directors like Zack Snyder and the executives he answers to were all given fresh chances after failure. The letter ended with the assertion that director Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman movie is already causing studio concerns similar to those surrounding both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad before their respective releases.
Neither the letter nor its author have been authenticated, but as it goes on the Interwebs, one mention of anything from an unidentified or unverified source is enough to start a veritable wildfire of rumor - and this latest one is saying that Wonder Woman will be another casualty of bad DCEU management. Director Patty Jenkins has denied the claims, but it's arguably too little, too late; the Internet trolls are already circling, taking the negative reactions some had to Suicide Squad - plus this latest anonymous letter - as an official death knell for the DCEU.
How Bad Is It (Really)?
If you read around the Interwebs you would think that the DCEU is a day away from collapsing, but it does bear to ask: how bad is the situation, really?
Obviously from a branding perspective, DC Entertainment and Warner Bros. aren't yet where they want to be, given how divided fan perception still is. From a box office perspective, despite the 'love or hate it' nature of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and now Suicide Squad, the DCEU films have still done okay for themselves, to the tune of $668M, $872M, and almost $500M, respectively (at the time of writing this). It's clear that the DCEU films aren't yet making Marvel movie monies (that coveted billion-dollar benchmark), but it's not exactly a doomsday scenario - especially when you factor in the merchandising profits that WB makes from DC properties.
So what we're left with is a question of brand perception, and its possible impact on future DCEU films. Which still begs the original question: whose fault is it that things have gotten to this point?
The Blame Game
The point of the anonymous letter to Kevin Tsujihara was this: WB's films have underperformed, and the brunt of those failures have fallen on the employees of the studio who have lost their jobs in cutbacks, while the executives making the decisions, and the directors in charge of the films (read: Zack Snyder) have not had to suffer much at all. The writer clearly feels that the blame game has not been played fairly over at Warner Bros. - but even if the author is everything he says he is, is his point valid?
As has become the routine, Zack Snyder is the focal point for DCEU backlash. Those fans who think Snyder screwed up Superman in Man of Steel, and then screwed up the most epic superhero team-up of all time in Batman v Superman, see the director now helming Justice League, and wonder why WB is going for a trifecta of the same mistakes. WB has tried to get ahead of that negative impression: the studio already invited journalists to the Justice League set to see what Sndyer and Co. are up to, and the collective impression was that there is more oversight and collaboration on the project in order to steer it in a better direction. Elements like more humor are being added to help the film escape the negative impression of being another Snyder-controlled gloom-fest, but clearly there's a lot of PR work still to be done.
The executives and creative heads over at Warner Bros. have clearly seen the fan response and understand that their brand needs a turnaround. As stated, that turnaround is being handled by Geoff Johns, who is taking the comic books and films in a different direction. The question many have is when will "the Johns effect" actually take effect? Will Wonder Woman feel that influence? Or will Justice League and the films that come after it truly represent the new tone of the DCEU?
People are quick to forget that Marvel has been down this same bumpy road in its own Phase I stumbles. The first wave of Marvel solo character films were all director driven (Jon Favreau's Iron Man 1&2, Kenneth Branagh's Thor, Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger, Louis Leterrier's Incredible Hulk) - and in a about half of those cases, the films did okay at the box office (only Iron Man crossed the $500 million mark), but the creative visions of those veteran directors quickly hit the wall of Marvel's ambitious new plan for a shared universe, and there was heavy fallout. Only Favreau made it to a sequel, and then dropped out as well; Joss Whedon made it through two phases of directing - but even he, Marvel's geek golden child, got tired of being in the machine.
It was only halfway into Phase Two (after the creative mess that was Thor: The Dark World), that Marvel's lessons from early troubles started to take effect in the MCU. We got the Russo Bros., who were able to change the Captain America franchise from one of the least valued in the MCU to being the new MCU leader. The studio also learned that it could take bigger creative risks (at least on more obscure properties), resulting in James Gunn being given a creative freedom that helped Guardians of the Galaxy make over half a billion dollars its first time out of the gate.
With the exception of Whedon, no other Marvel movie directors made it out of Phase I - but that didn't stop the Marvel Cinematic Universe from refining its gameplan, finding greater success from those revisions. That's all to say: Given the winding road Marvel took to its great branding win, who's to say that the DCEU can't do the same?
Suicide Squad is now in theaters; Wonder Woman is coming on June 2, 2017; followed by Justice League on November 17, 2017; The Flash on March 16, 2018; Aquaman on July 27, 2018; Shazam on April 5, 2019; Justice League 2 on June 14, 2019; Cyborg on April 3, 2020; and Green Lantern Corps on July 24, 2020.
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