It still boggles my mind that Justice League is considered a flop for a couple of reasons. It’s a movie that had DC’s biggest superheroes in it. It had Superman. It had Batman. It had Wonder Woman. It had Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg. These are some of DC’s most prominent characters and I wanted to see them all on the big screen when I was growing up. Justice League also technically made a lot of money. It grossed over $650 million worldwide. That’s no chump change any way you slice it!
Even so, Justice League is still thought of as a major disappointment. It had a budget of $750 million at least, meaning that it managed to lose Warner Bros money. It was also critically panned for the most part. This was a film that would’ve easily made at least a billion dollars worldwide if it was released 10 years ago. Yet Justice League was essentially the nail in the coffin for the DC Extended Universe. DC and Warner Bros. soon called it quits with their “shared universe,” a formula that Marvel popularized and perfected. They’re now focusing on more standalone films, foregoing the need for their films to be interconnected.
So, what happened? Well, a big part of it had to deal with Marvel’s success with their Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I’ve already discussed. But now, I’ll be getting into the nitty-gritty of where DC and Warner Bros. went wrong.
Prior to Marvel dominating the box office, DC was actually doing alright for themselves. Okay, maybe that’s overstating things. After all, this was the time when DC and Warner Bros were greenlighting such gems as Watchmen (a film that I actually was okay with but I felt the comic was leagues better), Jonah Hex (because making superhero Westerns was a stroke of genius?), Green Lantern (because they had to try to destroy Ryan Reynolds before he made Deadpool) and Catwoman (which has nothing to do with the character and oh God, is this movie so bad that it’s almost good. Almost.).
That’s not to say that all of DC’s superhero films were bad though. They did produce a few hits during this period. There was Superman Returns, which was an “alternative” third film from the original Richard Donner films featuring the Man of Steel. I didn’t like it all that much but most critics did give it a thumbs up and made almost doubled the take of what it took to produce. There was also 300, which I loved! While technically not a superhero film, it was based off a comic book series produced by DC and made Warner Bros. a ton of money.
Those films all pale in comparison to DC and Warner Bros’ greatest superhero trilogy: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series. While I was personally okay with the first film, Batman Begins, and sort of disappointed with The Dark Knight Rises, I can’t really say they were bad films. On the contrary! They were, and are still, enjoyable movies. But the best movie in the trilogy is undoubtedly The Dark Knight.
The Dark Knight did everything right. The tone was on point. The story was gripping. While not comic accurate, the character’s essence and personalities were captured. They had a smashing success with The Dark Knight and it looked like they had a working superhero movie formula.
By the time Christopher Nolan wrapped the Dark Knight trilogy, Marvel was in the throngs of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, both The Dark Knight Rises and the first Avengers film was released on the same year of 2012! While Marvel had continuously enjoyed huge box office returns since their debut movie, Iron Man, DC and Warner Bros. didn’t. Only The Dark Knight trilogy were their big superhero moneymaker. But this meant they had a working formula of their own… or so they thought.
Seeing Marvel’s success, DC soon greenlit the so-called DC Extended Universe. Mind you, this isn’t the official name; no one in DC or Warner Bros. actually called their “shared universe” by that name. So, where does the name come from? Surprisingly, it all stems from a joke that was taken out of context. I’m mentioning this for a reason but I’ll explain later.
The first thing DC had to do was, of course, rebuild everything from the ground up. They’ve already made movies based on Superman and Batman (a couple of times, in fact) but, if they were going to be like Marvel and have them inhabit the same universe, they just couldn’t reuse those versions anymore. They had to adapt them, especially Superman, for a more modern audience. And for that, they needed a director who knew comics… which is why they hired Zach Snyder to direct Man of Steel.
On paper, it looks like Zach Snyder was an excellent choice by DC. He’s the man behind 300 and Watchmen, two films based on DC comic properties, after all! He should know his comic books, right?
Well, it turns out he doesn’t. Not the comics we’re familiar with anyway. He wasn’t the geeky kid who liked reading about superheroes. It just didn’t do it for him. What he really liked were the more “adult” comics, like Heavy Metal. I actually wrote an entire piece about how Zach Snyder wasn’t a good fit for the DC Extended Universe way back when. In fact, he even says that Christopher Nolan movies aren’t dark. If he were to direct a Batman film, he might actually have The Caped Crusader raped in prison. No, I’m not joking. That’s what he actually said during an interview long ago!
Everyone had high hopes for Man of Steel. Zach Snyder was at the helm and he knows superheroes (or so we thought)! It was also being produced by Christopher Nolan who made The Dark Knight Trilogy! He knows comics! Well, he actually knows dark and gritty tales, which just so happened to work with Batman.
Then Man of Steel is finally released. I actually remember watching it and being entertained but I couldn’t help but feel something was off. I didn’t realize it at the time but Man of Steel’s biggest issue is that Superman didn’t feel all that heroic. He wasn’t the beacon of hope or the guy who always had time for you in your hour of need. You never saw his kindness or his humanity, despite being the one of the strongest beings in the universe.
I can’t exactly blame Zach Snyder for this change in Superman’s character. This was the script given to him… by Christopher Nolan! Both Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer wanted to tell their version of Superman. It was a more brooding and somber version of The Last Son of Krypton. It was the story of an alien with great powers and unsure if he should use these strengths or keep them secret.
Man of Steel, for better or worse, set the tone for each and every film that was to be produced for the DC Extended Universe. It was going to be that way no matter what since Zach Snyder was hired to direct most of the subsequent films anyway. Love or hate the tone of Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and even Justice League; you gotta give DC and Warner Bros some credit for sticking with Zach Snyder for so long as well as making sure the tone remained that consistent “grimdark” weighty feel. This did lead to a lot of audiences not liking the DC Extended Universe films and demise of their “shared universe.”
So, what went wrong exactly? Only a small portion of the blame falls on Zach Snyder, in my opinion. Yes, he may be the architect of the DC Extended Universe and he laid the groundwork with Man of Steel. He’s definitely the guy who made everything so sad and glum with all of the early DC Extended Universe movies. He’s the main reason why the movies’ DNA had “grimdark” infused in most of them.
But can you really blame Zach Snyder for making the films the way he knows how? “Grimdark” is just his style! His trademark, if you will. If Michael Bay is known for slo-mo shots and over-the-top explosions, Zach Snyder is the guy who wants tortured heroes. Remember: he’s the guy who directed a “grimdark” film… but with CGI owls. CGI owls!
Most of the blame, in my eyes anyway, fall on the executives over at DC and Warner Bros and their eagerness to copy and catch up to Marvel’s success. They wanted the money the Marvel Cinematic Universe was raking in but they didn’t know how to duplicate it. They gave all the franchise building to the hands of Zach Snyder and made him do most of the heavy lifting.
It also doesn’t help that the bigwigs at both DC and Warner Bros. interfere with the films. Now, studio executives do this on a regular basis. Even Marvel has done it before, which is why Edgar Wright left Ant-Man. The problem is that it seems like they interfere with the production on a whim.
The best example I can think of is Suicide Squad. When the first trailer was released, fans thought that DC had changed their ways. Suicide Squad looked fun! The tone was more lighthearted. It looked bright and colorful. Maybe this was the movie that was going to break the DC Extended Universe out of its funk!
This was all a lie. The director’s original vision for Suicide Squad was still dark and grim. But, since the trailer was full of happy jokes and bright lights, DC and Warner Bros. demanded that the film be changed to mimic the tone of the trailer! This led to Suicide Squad overall tone being a mishmash of “grimdark” and forced humor as well as going overbudget to facilitate reshoots!
But the biggest mistake they made was not establishing a long term plan. They didn’t have a guy like Marvel had with Kevin Feige working behind the scenes and forming a long-term strategy. They had this kind of flying by the seat of their pants feel and tried to cram as many movies in a short span of time. This wouldn’t be a bad move in itself but, without a destination or even an outline of the big picture, the DC Extended Universe was doomed to fail.
Why do I say that DC and Warner Bros. didn’t have a plan? Remember when I remarked that the DC Extended Universe was just an unofficial name given to the franchise as a joke? Well, this shows that DC and Warner Bros. didn’t even see fit to give their “cinematic universe” an official name! Legendary Pictures has the Monsterverse with Godzilla and King Kong. The Conjuring series has the unimaginative Conjuring Universe name (it even has an official logo according to Wikipedia). Even the failed Universal monsters franchise had the failed Dark Universe tag! But DC and Warner Bros. couldn’t be bothered to even give their major crossover franchise that was supposed to make them tons of money an official title? They couldn’t even bite the bullet when they had the chance to call it “Worlds of DC,” which is a much better name!
Ultimately, the DC Extended Universe shot itself in the foot way before Man of Steel even began production because, while they knew what they wanted (a “cinematic universe” that’ll make them boatloads of money) but they had no roadmap to follow. They essentially lost their way even before taking the first steps on their “cinematic universe” journey.
That’s a shame, really. Imagine if the DC Extended Universe pulled off hit after hit and they became as critically acclaimed and financially successful as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Everyone would have to step up their game and all superhero movies would be made with all the love and attention necessary to make them fantastic instead of just cash grabs. Alas, that wasn’t meant to be.
But that doesn’t mean that this will be the status quo. DC already said that they are foregoing the entire “shared universe” path and following the old tried and true path of producing standalone superhero films. Honestly, that’s the best thing for DC and Warner Bros. to do right now. Unfortunately, this post is already running long as it is. So I guess I’ll end things here and explain why DC’s future is looking much brighter with the death of the DC Extended Universe.
What do you think went wrong with the DC Extended Universe? Let me know in the comments section below!