A Few Thoughts On: Keeping the DC Cinematic Universe Together Going Forward

In the interest of keeping my productivity up and because Suicide Squad still has me just a little bit on the hot side, I want to turn to a subject I’ve been chatting about quite a bit recently. That being where does the DC Cinematic Universe go from here, given that they’re now on their third Rotten film in as many years. There’s not a lot of critical love which doesn’t necessarily matter given that

AS LONG AS THE MOVIES ARE SUCCESSFUL, QUALITY WON’T MATTER TOO MUCH.

Here’s the cold, hard facts. Suicide Squad looks to (for the moment) a hit, and Warner Brothers is going to count it as a win for now. Objectively, Batman v Superman was also rather successful, even if it didn’t hit the billion-plus target that Warner Brothers was hoping for.

Look at the Transformers franchise. It’s one of the least critically successful franchises of all-times and has a popular reputation as the gold standard of shitty blockbuster filmmaking, yet they continue to make money time and time again. There’s no motivation to change for those films because blockbuster filmmaking is a business first, and if business is good? Who cares?

Except I want to argue that to some degree, it does matter. First because the Transformers series is an abnormal case, and sequels to poorly-received but successful films tend to do significantly worse than the original.

The other reason is that

IT ISN’T A GOOD LOOK FOR DC TO KEEP GETTING IT’S SOCKS KNOCKED OFF BY MARVEL. MARVEL DOESN’T WANT THAT EITHER.

If DC Films wants to in any way improve its reputation in the fan community, they can’t keep being the red-headed step-child to Marvel Studios. Marvel Studios has had a string of consistently high-quality crowd pleasers that are faithful to the characters yet still work for general audiences. It’s hard to build enthusiasm when your competition keeps doing what you do but better. DC Films wants to be able to be looked at as successful on its own merits and carving its own path. It can’t do that when its tentpole release pretty much was beaten at its own game two months later (Batman v Superman to Civil War) or its secondary release is pretty much playing the Marvel game (Suicide Squad is to a large part emulating the storytelling style of Marvel Studios, especially Guardians of the Galaxy). 

But there’s a flip-side to this. Marvel doesn’t want DC to keep having this quality-lagging either. For the general public, there is little distinction between Marvel and DC. It’s all just superhero pictures. A good one builds goodwill for the others and a bad one brings negativity to the others. The success of one heralds good tidings for everyone, and Marvel and any other superhero film producers desperately want these DC films to start bringing the goodwill.

So, now we get to the fundamental question, which is how do we do that? The good news is that

DC ALREADY HAS THE ELEMENTS OF SUCCESSFUL MODERN FRANCHISE FILMMAKING.

I would argue that we build out modern franchises closer to TV than we do traditional blockbuster film. Rather than building around stories or stars, we build now around characters and the performances that fill them out. These characters and the performances (Absolutely linked. We love RDJ as Iron Man. We’re less hot about RDJ as Sherlock Holmes) become the bedrock that everything is built on, we’ll come back year after year to see Iron Man and Cap and Rey and Katniss more than we’ll necessarily come back to see The Avengers or Star Wars or The Hunger Games.

The good news for DC is that they have performers who really fill out iconic characters. Will Smith’s Deadshot is the first demonstrably heroic character of the DC Universe and bringing him back should be first on Ben Affleck’s list for The Batman. Gal Gadot has a certain charisma even in her brief time as Wonder Woman and we’re soon to see how much she can carry a film with next year’s Wonder Woman. Viola Davis’ Amanda Waller could easily be the terrifying flipside to Nick Fury. And I’m honestly dying to see more of Jai Courtney’s scumbag performance as Boomerang in a film where he’s given more room to flex.

Top of the list though is Affleck’s Batman. His brief scenes in Suicide Squad reminded me how much presence he has and how much weight his character holds. Batfleck really is the fundamental core of this universe right now, the most interesting thing in it as a presence by a mile. Affleck is acting his ASS off in this character and even if he’s weighed down by unfortunate story decisions, it’s okay because

THE PROBLEMS OF THE DC UNIVERSE ARE ABSOLUTELY FIXABLE FROM A STORY PERSPECTIVE.

As much as I hated it, the ending of Batman v Superman did give one of the most convenient ways for the universe to do a soft reboot.

The way I see it, the fundamental problem for me from a storytelling perspective is that story decisions have driven our DC characters into their most fundamentally unlikeable versions. A murderous Batman, a Wonder Woman who has turned her back on the world, and a Superman that is aloof and distant from humanity and disenchanted with the weight of the task upon him.

Fortunately, the death of Superman can change all that. We’re able to essentially use his death as a way to reverse the decisions that have been made with the characters. Batman can be inspired to go back to his no-killing ways to honor him. Wonder Woman re-engages with her mission of peace because she sees a humanity willing to be human again. Most importantly, Superman gets a new lease on life and comes back like Gandalf the White, ready to rebuild and be a symbol of pure hope.

Hell, you could even fix Luthor. Apokaliptian tampering with his brain was heavily implied, remove that and he becomes cold and calculating, less the twitchy Riddler he was.

Ironically, it may be the death of Superman that could easily breathe life back into things. Now, that’s as long as

WARNER BROTHERS DOESN’T FREAK OUT AND FUCK THESE FILMS ALL UP.

I think I’m starting to really understand what’s happening with these movies as more and more press comes out about them after the fact. Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad both had troubled production histories, with conflicting ideas of each movie running well into post-production and beyond. Both reek of after-the-fact tampering. While this isn’t to excuse some truly poor decisions made, especially in Batman v SupermanSuicide Squad especially suffers from a lot of last minute welding.

The pop soundtracking and some removal of more controversial elements (including a lot of material with the Joker) has the stink of desperation, a studio unsure of committing to the vision they were presented, contradicting the idea of a “filmmaker-driven” model.

More than just backtracking, Warner Brother needs to allow things to continue forward. Wonder Woman is their first chance to just let post-production happen, and not freak out and trying to heavily alter the film in the hopes of a more positive reception and forcing the film to be choppy and disconnected and confused like both of the films in the DC Universe proper have been.

In the future, we also have to let the script be king. Suicide Squad was rushed to meet release date, and it shows. Get the script right first, let the story be ready, and everything else will fall into place. Also, we need to

ALLOW THESE FILMS TO HAVE THEIR OWN IDENTITY

This is something I’m just mildly concerned about seeing Wonder Woman and Suicide Squad. The vibe I got off Suicide Squad is 100% dark and gritty Guardians of the Galaxy and I’m worried that Wonder Woman will end up around darker Captain America: The First Avenger. 

This isn’t saying that these films don’t have their own identity, to stave off the yelling. In fact, this is more aimed at the studio looking to try to imitate the same space rather than allow these characters to exist in the interpretations that work for them.

Play to the unique aspects. Wonder Woman should emphasize the mythology and the peace. Flash should be utilizing his impressive rogues gallery as well as the youth of its star. Aquaman could play the Game of Thrones way better than Thor ever tried to. The Batman could be the first legitimate noir flick of the superhero era and Affleck is the kind of director who could knock that out of the park.

And I hope against hope that Justice League plays up the iconography, the hope, the humanity wrapped in the gods. The Avengers are the Greek heroes, but the Justice League are the Greek Gods. Relatable at their core, but who are capable of things so far beyond human power having adventures at the limits of human imaginations.

More importantly,

DC NEEDS TO GET WHY THESE CHARACTERS HAVE ENDURED. 

Let’s go back to the beginning. I said that modern franchises are built on character work and there’s decades and decades of character-based material. Right now, the problem is that DC Films seem to building their own versions to mixed success. To that I ask why?

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t always be room for uniqueness. RDJ’s Iron Man is so little like his comic book counterpart. But I think he still gets at the core of what works about that character, someone who has no reason to be a hero (who also doesn’t act like) putting on his costume and doing good because there’s a fundamental core of good within him.

So, then I ask, why ignore the core? Why have this Batman sink into the depths of despair and turn violent? His no-killing rule is rooted in the concept that he rose above his tragedy, and that his trauma does not define him, rather that it shaped him. That he’s better than what created him.

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Why have Superman feel the weight of the world? The idea is that he is intensely human. A young man from Kansas raised by two kindly farmers. That intensely human man was able to take the weight of world on his shoulders and rise above us all. That his superpower more than anything else is that he has been among us and that he understands who we are. That our ultimate savior is us.

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These characters are not powerful because of their abilities. They’re not powerful because they have cultural weight. Those are all in retrospect.

DC characters are powerful because they represent the best of us. Our ability to rise above and to become something more. To save the world because of who we are deep down.

If Warner Brothers can get that and start putting it into these movies, we have finally have a universe that won’t lead to dread every time the review embargo comes up.

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