If we learned anything from watching Suicide Squad crash and burn with critics while nevertheless breaking box office records with a $135.1 million opening (followed by a drop-off worse than Batman v Superman—ouch), it’s that Warner Bros. will get the hell in in its own way in its desperation to catch up to Disney’s Marvelverse. But the road ahead marks a crucial time for WB’s megafranchise aspirations. And they’d really, really better not fuck up Wonder Woman.
Where once there was hope and benefit of the doubt that WB had a vision and a plan in place to chart a DC Comics franchise to rival the competition, the battle of the Burbank studios has become woefully one-sided. The proof, as one might say, is in the puddin’. Even the most rabid fanatics are finally being forced to reckon with the truth that WB is running out of runway, and if they intend on making it to 11 DCU movies by 2020 with the audience’s faith intact they’ve really got to tighten up.
Over at Disney, Kevin Feige’s Marvel machine for the most part has its formula down pat, although even the MCU is coming up on a new, unproven phase of inclusivity. It’s had a crucial head start on earning audience goodwill through one solid hit after another built around an Avengers clubhouse of mechanized and superpowered heroes. But WB and DC have now stumbled thrice in a row to varying degrees while racing toward a Justice League future.
It began with a whimper, and then a thud. After making an utterly boring launch film (Man of Steel), WB and DC managed to disappoint with the clashing of not just the two biggest names in the DC stable, but the two most iconic heroes in comic book history: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. With last week’s Suicide Squad they bungled what should have been a much-needed shot in the arm for the DC Extended Universe into a jumbled hot mess that landed at 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and saw a steep 41 percent Friday-to-Saturday drop-off in ticket sales.
On top of being incomprehensible in purely cinematic terms, the hotly anticipated antihero team-up also managed to sell out women and minorities and do its best character, Harley Quinn, dirtier than The Joker. And when your number one most popular character is driving fans to the merch aisles at Hot Topic, leading cosplay trends at Comic-Con, and maybe even getting her own spin-off movie, you’d really better be working to preserve and capitalize off that heat, not extinguish it.
Armchair quarterbacks can blame a litany of reasons for Suicide Squad’s failures: writer-director David Ayer, producer and DCU shepherd Zack Snyder, a WB machine that kicked the franchise into gear and onto the release calendar before it plotted a workable roadmap, and of course my favorite, the vast and insidious media conspiracy that delusional fanboys are convinced has been sabotaging the DC movies from the start.
But a widely-cited Hollywood Reporter autopsy by Kim Masters lasered in on behind the scenes turmoil that would undo any project—a reportedly insanely short six-week scripting window, major studio-filmmaker disagreements over tone, a competing edit that lightened the tone to match its infectious trailers and won out over Ayer’s darker, maybe more complete vision. Ultimately Masters fingered the real culprit, invoking Fox’s catastrophic Fantastic Four to point out just how dire the situation at WB is/was/might still be: filmmaking by committee.
Such realities are givens of studio moviemaking, where pre-existing IP is a commodity and $175 million-$250 million production budgets are major fiscal investments that, with added marketing costs, are expected to be recouped—and then some. To think otherwise would be naïve. Occasionally you get a situation in which the auteur seems more firmly in control—hence the bountiful Christopher Nolan years, which brought riches and prestige and even award season accolades to WB, Batman, and the superhero genre at large.
WB clearly hoped they had a new Nolan in Snyder, who directed both Man of Steel and BvS and has become the de facto creative face of the DCU. Alas, Snyder’s sensibilities haven’t made for as perfect a match, to say the least. The grim darkness of DC’s heroes and villains worked in Nolan’s moody nightmares, but not so much Snyder’s grandiose nerdbro operas. It’s a longstanding approach he vocalized himself in an illuminating 2008 interview with EW, in which he traced his love of comics to the cool-bombastic works of Frank Frazetta, Heavy Metal, and Watchmen.
“My mother saw I was into this comic called Heavy Metal magazine, so she got me a subscription,” Snyder said on the promo trail for his Watchmen adaptation. “You could call it ‘high-brow’ comics, but to me, that comic book was just pretty sexy! I had a buddy who tried getting me into ‘normal’ comic books, but I was all like, ‘No one is having sex or killing each other. This isn’t really doing it for me.’”
“Everyone says that about Batman Begins. ‘Batman’s dark.’ I’m like, okay, ‘No, Batman’s cool.’ He gets to go to a Tibetan monastery and be trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie. If you want to talk about dark, that’s how that would go.”
Chopping Suicide Squad into a “fun” chaotic jumble to match the tone of a popular trailer is one thing, but WB’s next DC title has a lot more riding on it. Wonder Woman is the first female superhero movie we’ll see in our brave new era of comic book cinema, starring Gal Gadot as DC’s iconic Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. It’s also the first DC or Marvel movie to be directed by a woman in Patty Jenkins, who helmed Charlize Theron to an Oscar in Monster. The social responsibility alone places a greater spotlight on WB and Jenkins to deliver a Wonder Woman that does justice to the character while moving superhero cinema forward. So what does it say that Jenkins tweeted a rave review of Suicide Squad?
Just a few weeks ago the DC future seemed so promising. Gadot stole every precious scene of BvS she was in earlier this spring, introducing her enigmatic Wonder Woman in the middle of Superman and Batman’s bickering. But when she and Jenkins took the stage last month at Comic-Con—a Comic-Con that saw huge displays of fan love for Harley Quinn and progress for inclusion in the genre—they stole DC’s entire panel and scored an important win with an impressive trailer that delivered a richly textured Wonder Woman fans are hungry for: strong, powerful, compassionate, wise, and confident, with a welcome dash of feminism to counterbalance decades of male-dominated heroism.
Unfortunately, the disservice that Suicide Squad does to Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, a lovable but extremely complicated character whose depths and agency were apparently left on the cutting room floor, makes one wonder if the same fate could befall Gadot’s Wonder Woman in the ten months before her big screen debut. That’s also why, after sorting through the carnage of Suicide Squad’s behind the scenes tumult, it’s easy to wonder if the rest of the franchise will suffer from similar chaos, creative discord, and/or panicky WB execs big-timing the talents fueling their “filmmaker-driven” DCU.
Optimists, however, say the course is being corrected—yet again—as the studio redirects the power to a Feige of its own.
DC’s chief creative content officer Geoff Johns ascended to Feige status in May, after the epic fail of BvS sent WB careening for a fix. Johns, who launched DC’s successful television empire with Arrow and The Flash, is now in charge of DC Films with WB EVP Jon Berg. The two officially come on as producers for 2017’s Justice League but Johns, who was an executive producer on BvS and Suicide Squad, also shares a writing credit on Wonder Woman and came aboard to co-script James Wan’s Aquaman and Ben Affleck’s Batman standalone.
“The Geoff Johns era begins with Wonder Woman,” The Wrap’s film reporter Umberto Gonzalez told The Daily Beast. Earlier this week, he reported that Man of Steel 2 is now in active development at WB according to a source, a move that will be read by hopeful fans as a mark of the studio’s faith in the franchise’s reinvigorated future.
“They’ve got their Feige. According to my sources, Patty Jenkins asked him to come aboard and help write the screenplay. He’s got his fingerprints all over Wonder Woman, all over Justice League. He’s going to be the savior; the golden boy.”
If Johns is able to save WB’s DC interests, it will have to be by avoiding the mistakes of the past three films as Wonder Woman leads into Justice League, and Justice League in turn leads into standalones for characters that have yet to prove they even deserve a solo shot at the big screen. Rolling out an extended universe of team-ups and standalones worked for Marvel because the risk that was Iron Man paid off, audiences loved Robert Downey Jr., and the movie was actually good (at 94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s still the best-reviewed entry in the MCU). Everything else grew out of that momentum, lending an Avengers bump to the subsequent standalone films that followed. Can DC still pull itself out of the three-film hole it’s dug?
The “wannasee” for the three upcoming linchpin tentpoles is still strong for WB and DC. Justice League’s been bolstered by a tonal correction that seems to have been balanced in part by the levity of Ezra Miller’s Flash, the next DC hero in line for his own movie and the only Justice League member besides Affleck’s Batman who gets a cameo in Suicide Squad. But if Wonder Woman falters, and if Justice League fails, there’s nothing but long, hard road ahead for the studio that’s already invested in 2-3 pricey DC blockbusters each year through 2020. And by the time Batfleck’s still-undated standalone hits theaters with Oscar-winner and Justice League exec producer Affleck directing, co-writing, and starring—the strongest bona fides at the helm in the DCU to date—it might be too little, too late.