We’re three movies into the DC Extended Universe (we’re still not sure where the “extended” bit fits in, but they couldn’t just copy Marvel and call it their “Cinematic Universe”), and opinion is split. Before 2013’s Man of Steel, the prospect of a Superman reboot raised hopes that the character may finally get a big screen adaptation that reflected the more modern aspects of his persona (the Silver Age “classic” Superman having been pretty much nailed by Christopher Reeve). The reception, thanks to a muted colour palette, swathes of destruction and Superman’s decision to kill his enemy, was mixed. The news that the next movie would introduce more DC characters, specifically Batman, again upped the anticipation level – particularly when DC announced that a Justice League movie was finally greenlit as a result. Batman v Superman, through its lengthy running time, continuity heavy storyline, lack of action, jumbled finale and at times bizarre characterisation, again divided opinion. Hot on its heels was Suicide Squad, again eagerly awaited, for live action versions of classic characters like Harley Quinn, Deadshot and Amanda Waller. The final movie was again met with a lukewarm response, with poor acting performances, a lacklustre script and editing and lighting amongst the criticisms.
So what’s wrong? There are plenty of missteps that DC have made, but let’s also not forget some of the positives that have come from Marvel’s main challenger. Here we take a look at the things DC is knocking out of the park, but also where it probably requires second thoughts (The following contains spoilers for Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad)
Let’s not beat about the proverbial bush here – Ben Affleck’s Batman is probably the closest to the print incarnation that there’s ever been (notwithstanding his willingness to murder dozens of faceless henchmen – but we’ll get to that). Brutal, uncompromising, a mythical figure amongst the criminal underworld and feared by those who do see him, Batman here is not to be messed with. It helps that we’ve not actually seen any weaknesses yet – even in his fight with Superman he pretty much kicks Kal-El’s behind, and were it not for the daft “Martha” moment, could have killed him at the end of that scrap. His demolition of Lex Luthor’s henchmen in the warehouse scene in Dawn of Justice homages the Arkham games in its fluidity and violence, and his appearance in Suicide Squad in apprehending Harley and Deadshot shows him as both silent investigator and all action hero. Affleck plays a mean Bruce Wayne too – unafraid of his peers and challengers in social circles, and intimidating the unflinching Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad’s mid-credit scene. If it wasn’t for his penchant using guns and blowing away Luthor’s goons, you’d struggle to find fault.
Affleck’s success leads us to the next point. His announcement as Batman was met with widespread criticism. When Christian Bale had not long vacated the Batcave, and repainted The Dark Knight as a punching, armoured psychopath, the man who’d flopped in Daredevil and Gigli hardly seemed the right choice. Add to that Jesse Eisenberg’s jittery Lex Luthor (with hair no less), Gal Gadot’s physical attributes (or lackthereof) as Wonder Woman, Ezra Miller’s complete difference in looks to Grant Gustin’s version of Barry Allen, and Jared Leto’s tattooed, dentally challenged Joker, and the fan outrage was palpable. That said, when these people have eventually gotten into costume (with the possible exception of Eisenberg’s Luthor), they’ve received acclaim. Gadot’s Wonder Woman is not without issues, but she’s not as bad as first feared, and has, to her credit, captured the mythical nature and weariness of Diana Prince. Miller’s albeit brief turn in the Justice League trailer is a world away from his usual long haired, brooding looks. Leto’s Joker has come in for criticism, but when compared to the comic book incarnation by Scott Snyder, is more like his comic book counterpart than many would care to admit. Other, less controversial casting decisions have also proved successful. Margot Robbie has got Harley Quinn spot on, and Jason Momoa’s hulking Aquaman is the short tempered behemoth of the successful Justice League Animated Series.
Comic book style
Marvel has aimed for the mainstream with its movies. It always makes things a bit more relatable when it’s New York, London and Leipzig under threat, rather than Metropolis, Gotham and Midway City. But DC therefore has freedom to sculpt those surroundings into what they want. They can create geography that Marvel can’t, and they do. All of those cities have a distinct look – such a shame most of them are always in the dark (again, something else we’ll get to later). The real success though, is making movies that look like they’re straight from the printed page. The opening scene of Dawn of Justice, depicting the Wayne’s murder, is faithful to the book The Dark Knight Returns – as is the fight between the two titular characters. Suicide Squad’s introductory title cards reek of an art deco style reminiscent of 60’s books, and Man of Steel’s use of symbolism with Superman emerging from the Fortress of Solitude, before streaking through the air from a distance as a red and blue blur, could easily be a comic book panel.
Sense of scale
Say what you want about the level of destruction at the end of Man of Steel, but the fact that Metropolis, and as a result Earth, was under threat, was never in doubt. Superman was pushed to his limits, and as an inexperienced superhero, powerless to do anything to stop the levelling of the city around him. In Dawn of Justice, both Batman’s fight with Superman but moreso their scrap with Doomsday, shows both the hard edge to those scenes, but also the recognition that the enemy has to be stopped whatever the cost, and the scale of that threat plays into the need to see the hero succeed.
Marvel has done a fantastic job of making its lesser-known characters accessible to the wider genre audience – not many people who’d never read a Guardians of the Galaxy comic could have told you who Groot was prior to the 2014 film. Crucially though, they didn’t weave in that that storyline from 17 years ago and give you a nod to that book. DC though, thinks differently. Aside from the nods to the books mentioned above, the dream sequence in Dawn of Justice relates directly to both the Parademons in the employ of Darkseid (the League’s eventual big bad), and the alternate Injustice storyline where Superman flips and takes over the world. To the non DC Comics reader, they’re pretty confusing, but to the fan, these are fantastic little nuggets of knowledge. It’s often a double edged sword, but for the hardcore DC fan, they’re being served pretty well.
Where DC has got it right with Batman, it’s stumbling with the Last Son of Krypton. Maybe the grittier, more violent Dark Knight fits in with the darker world being created for this continuity, but that means it’s all the more difficult for Superman to find his place. A beacon of hope, optimism and idealism to Batman’s cynical pessimism, Superman has sadly become a dull, doubtful, insecure shadow of what he could be. Kal-El is an alien, but has adopted Earth as his home, but you never really get that feeling from him in either film he’s in. He veers between Christ-analogy to manic depressive, never smiling, greeting every obstacle with a grimace or pained stare. Superman should be a powerful leader, capable of inspiring others to do amazing things – that’s what marks him down as the de facto boss in the Justice League. It’s hard to imagine this incarnation of the Man of Steel being that figure.
Superman’s problems are not unique to him. While their casting may be great, sometimes how those actors are asked to play their roles is divisive. While many fans craved the traditional Lex Luthor – an older, scheming businessman at the height of his power, an intellectual superior to Superman and a challenging nemesis for Bruce Wayne and Batman – Zack Snyder asked Eisenberg to play him as a dot com frat boy, jittering his way through ill thought out schemes before his incarceration at the end. The rest of the Suicide Squad, other than Deadshot and Harley, barely have much flesh put on their bones, and become means to an end for the main stars. Killer Croc’s tragic backstory as an abused circus freak who defends the homeless is never mentioned, and Slipknot is just cannon fodder to show how ruthless Amanda Waller is. More could be accomplished with these characters.
Characters aren’t the only problems within the DC Extended Universe. Some of the greatest DC comic book stories of all time are based on simple premises: Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, Arkham Asylum, All Star Superman, Superman: Birthright, The Death of Superman and the JLA: The Tower of Babel all come to mind. Those wider arcing events that sit on perhaps an even greater footing – the Crisis events, Blackest Night and Flashpoint – require a huge knowledge of DC lore and history. To shoehorn as many of these into the movie continuity at such an early stage is perhaps too confusing for the moviegoers not as avid in their consumption of comics as the die hard readers. Man of Steel shoves in Birthright, Superman: Earth One, and the comic story of the same name from 1986. Batman v Superman features elements of The Dark Knight Returns, Injustice, Justice League: Origins from 2011, Trinity, Flashpoint, and finally The Death of Superman. Suicide Squad at least follows an original story per se, but the flashbacks and need to give all the lead actors enough screen time, plus the paper thin villains when The Joker would have made a much more compelling nemesis, combine to make an enjoyable but somewhat unfulfilling experience.
The old chestnut. DC is trying to do in two years what took Marvel five. Marvel took Iron Man’s success in 2008 and built on it, slowly crafting its less high profile characters in their own features, so they all had their moment in the sun and were rounded out by the time they teamed up in The Avengers. It could be argued that no one would have cared for a Thor solo movie if they didn’t know an ensemble piece was on the horizon. DC’s reverse approach, by taking Man of Steel’s relative success and then using it as a springboard to introduce Batman, Wonder Woman and the rest of the Justice League three years later, then barely twelve months after that, putting them into their own feature, is, bluntly, overwhelming. As excitable as it may seem for the DC fan, not everyone is going to get what they want from the Justice League film. Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg are not going to be characters you can invest in because the casual moviegoer doesn’t know enough about them. That means only DC fans, with their knowledge of each one, will truly get the most out of it (unless of course there’s an “Ultimate Edition” that’s four hours long already in the pipeline). There’s a real danger that in its rush to catch up with its rivals, DC may try to run before it can walk – then fall.
The last argument is a trivial, but important one. No one laughs in the DC Extended Universe. Even Gal Gadot’s smirk when chopping up Doomsday in Dawn of Justice wasn’t in the script – because no one is allowed to smile. Man of Steel set the trend somewhat, with a Superman who didn’t have the twinkle in his eye that many moviegoers are familiar with. Zack Snyder’s grim style doesn’t lend itself to an audience that has now learned to perceive superhero movies as films that have an element of self parody about them. Marvel movies have been around a lot longer – and therefore people who will make the movie a success, expect much the same. Tony Stark has a wry sense of humour, Captain America his man out of time references, Thor’s fish out of water comedy and Bruce Banner’s sense of irony are all something people can identify with. DC’s heroes (and villains) so far, haven’t even cracked a smile. The odd smirk that arises normally comes from references to the established mythology (“Maybe it’s the Gotham City in me, we just have a bad history of freaks dressed like clowns”). It requires people to have a knowledge of nearly 70 years of comic backstory. Not everyone is going to get that. Marvel has used humour to make it’s less established characters more accessible – Guardians of the Galaxy is a great example – DC has focused more on the grim weight of the world resting on the shoulders of its metahumans, giving them burdens that we could never hope to identify with, and no way of dealing with them – that makes for a pretty gruelling experience.
In conclusion, the biggest question is why DC’s movies haven’t been as well received as their Marvel counterparts. The factors above address that somewhat, but the key point remains that, as things stand, despite heavyweight casts, impressive effects, fine acting performances and references to the printed page, audiences just haven’t connected with them – yet. It’s not to say they can’t – one of the finest superhero movies of recent years is a DC one. The Dark Knight managed to be grim and gritty, but injected enough realism into the Batman formula that people could identify with. In their haste to create a shared continuity, DC has given audiences too much to deal with. Warner Brothers and DC have to their credit, taken a different approach to their Disney backed counterparts, and in doing so have created something Marvel hasn’t – they’ve turned comic book movies into an art form. The imagery and music that is used to create the films DC has crafted is wonderful, because it makes them more than just summer blockbusters – they require thought and an appreciation of what a comic book panel means. In doing so, they’ve marginalised the amount of people who can enjoy their movies, and that will continue to be a problem as long as they stick to their current formula.