The other week, thanks to a particularly enterprising bootlegger, Warner Bros. was forced into an early reveal of the first trailer for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice—filmmaker Zack Snyder’s $200 million+ mega-blockbuster that pits Henry Cavill’s Superman against Ben Affleck’s cleft-chinned Batman.
But the early footage—the film isn’t due in theaters until March 25, 2016—served as yet another example of where DC Comics’ cinematic universe went wrong.
Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder’s formula of dark hues, baritone voices, and humorless, stoic heroes is no longer as innovative as it was way back in 2005 when Nolan’s Batman Begins hit theaters. At the time, the Batman franchise had been hijacked by Joel Schumacher, whose gaudy, oversaturated monstrosity Batman & Robin led star George Clooney to issue an apology to fans at last year’s Comic-Con: “I just met Adam West and I apologized to him. Sorry for the nipples on the suit.” Furthermore, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) hadn’t been established, leading to misguided efforts like the stinker Daredevil, Ang Lee’s over-edited Hulk, and the cartoonish Fantastic Four. Nolan’s dark, realistic take on Batman served as a welcome respite from the superhero fray—an iconic hero facing bullets, knives, and real-world situations.
Things changed with 2008’s Iron Man, the first film in the canonized MCU. Filmmaker Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr.’s spin on Tony Stark/Iron Man elegantly combined real-world commentary, huge action set pieces, and a wink-and-smile playfulness that set the template for future MCU entries, from Captain America: The First Avenger and Guardians of the Galaxy to this weekend’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. It struck just the right balance of seriousness and silliness, retaining that lighthearted comic book tone and allowing it to appeal to comic-consuming and superhero-loving fans of all ages.
The Batman v Superman trailer, however, exhibits that same gritty texture that is sure to envelope all current (and future) DC movies, and it’s more of a distraction. It’s an odd mélange of Nolan’s moody realness and Snyder’s wonky CGI—as exhibited in his Superman origin tale Man of Steel, featuring Russell Crowe’s Jor-El riding a dragon—with a huge heaping of self-seriousness. These films are devoid of any humanity and humor, the latter of which is typically supplied by helping hands like Michael Caine’s Alfred, Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox, or Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White. We don’t get the small, inward-looking moments. What’s it like, say, for Batman to patrol Gotham when there are no baddies around? How will Superman function in an office? Can he operate a Keurig, or will the machine just explode into a million pieces? Does he even have a job?
Look at the content of that Batman v Superman trailer. Everyone is so enshrouded in darkness you can barely see them. The characters look pained and miserable. There’s something to do with Superman being worshipped as a false idol, Bane-esque chanting, and melancholy to spare. “Fun” is probably the last word you’d use to describe this atmosphere.
The comic book world wasn’t amazing just because it gave us larger than life characters that saved the damsel in distress from planet-destroying villains at the end of every arc. Comic book superheroes are outsiders blending into and learning to protect and love a world that doesn’t understand them. So we need to know why they’ve fallen in love with this world in the first place.
It’s most evident in Joss Whedon’s Avengers. Each hero is presented with different internal issues and emotions. We have Iron Man, all ego and genius coated with a dense layer of loneliness and abandonment. Thor, daddy issues mixed with family drama and a lack of understanding concerning local culture that leads to many endearing moments of comic relief. Captain America, a man from a different time trying desperately to fit in while leading a team of equally dysfunctional people. These are just a few of the examples of flawed characters that Marvel has developed in ways DC could only dream of.
Marvel just gets it. They remember this key aspect of what makes superheroes special. In fact, they understand it so well that they’re willing to invest in extra scenes and Easter eggs that reinforce the gleeful humanity of their characters. Examples [spoilers, of course] abound, from the shawarma-eating after the intergalactic pow-wow in the first Avengers to Howard the Duck popping up in Guardians of the Galaxy. Hell, Marvel was able to make a dancing baby tree creature more charming and hilarious to the public in one minute than any Nolan or Snyder character.
All this is not to say that Nolan’s recent Batman trilogy was a failure. It was anything but, and made DC and Warner Bros. a ton of dough. But it should’ve acted as a standalone franchise—not the blueprint for an entire movie universe. The cloud of success that surrounded Batman Begins and its bat brethren convinced the DC/WB powers that be that the same formula would apply to Superman, or Green Lantern, or—judging by the latest marketing materials—Aquaman and Wonder Woman (and presumably the rest of the Justice League), who all resemble extras from Sucker Punch. Why not try different things? Instead of making all the different members of the Justice League come off as dark, depressed sociopaths, why not add some zest, color, and humor to them? Some… life?
There’s also the issue of behind the scenes talent. Thanks to the grand vision of honcho Kevin Feige, Marvel’s cultivated a rich network of filmmakers from the world of indie cinema and television—people who are more concerned with story over spectacle. Joss Whedon (The Avengers), the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), the list goes on. DC, on the other hand, opted for Snyder, who’d already struck out with what many consider the greatest graphic novel of all time, Watchmen. More importantly, the bulk of the superhero curation seems to be governed by the studio (Warner Bros.) instead of the comic book entity (DC)—unlike Disney subsidiary Marvel, who exercise a great deal more control over the way their valuable properties are cultivated.
And according to a report this week in The Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros. is struggling to iron out the rest of their movie universe. The piece claims that Warner Bros. hired five writers to compete for a job on 2017’s Wonder Woman, and that scripts from three writers were commissioned for 2018’s Aquaman, “one of whom followed the studio’s direction only to be told the rules governing the universe had changed and his work no longer was usable.” Meanwhile, the story says that Wonder Woman director Michelle MacLaren was forced to leave the project when her “vision contrasted sharply” with that of the film’s screenwriter, Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey).
“They just haven't been thorough about their whole world and how each character fits and how to get the most out of each writer's time by giving them direction,” a rep with knowledge of the process told THR. “Obviously, Marvel's very good at that.”
The jury, however, is still out. Warner Bros. is planning no less than 10 movies based on its stable of DC comic book characters through 2020, and there’s no doubting the richness of the source material, from Frank Miller’s classic series The Dark Knight Returns to All-Star Superman. All of these DC titles are imbued with a humanity and heart to them that makes you want to relate to their heroes’ myriad struggles. Why isn’t DC using this source material more effectively? Who knows. Maybe they’re buckling under the pressure. Or maybe they just don't feel they can due the characters justice. Or, and this is my favorite one, they simply don’t care enough about the characters and just see them as valuable commodities, and a way to replicate the over $7 billion in worldwide box office that Marvel’s reaped since Iron Man. Either way, Warner Bros. and DC need to churn out more layered, complex heroes fast. Otherwise, they risk being the punchline to a very costly joke.