by RYAN FITZGERALD//Staff Writer
When it comes to establishing an extended cinematic universe, Marvel rules all.
In 2008, Marvel Studios took a giant leap with its initial “Iron Man” film. An origin story about a second-rate superhero, fronted by a presumably past-his-prime, Robert Downey, Jr., which was to serve as the foundation and corner stone for Marvel Studio’s first phase of superhero films, including “Thor,” “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and lastly, “The Avengers ” – which would serve as the inceptive culmination of Marvel’s central core of comic book protagonists.
For Marvel Studios to go all-in financially, with hopes that audiences and film lovers across the world would fall in love with characters that were once graphically depicted in strips from books of yesteryear, was something unheard of in the modern movie business.
The success of Marvel Studios speaks for itself. To start, “Captain America: Civil War” was last year’s highest grossing film, bringing in $1.15 billion. Since 2012, Marvel has landed at least one movie among the top three highest grossing films for any given year. Last year, “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Ant-Man” each grossed more than $180 million, respectively.
Maybe you want to look past actual financial figures? In just 2016 alone, “Doctor Strange” and “Captain America: Civil War” both held Rotten Tomatoes ratings with favorability above 90 percent. Since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), no film has dropped below 65 percent.
Additionally, Marvel Studios continues to push the boundaries. This year, “Doctor Strange” garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Visual Effects, carrying on the expectations of mind-blowing graphics, as well as challenging make-up and costume design that originated with “Iron Man” (2008), and then spread to “Iron Man 2” (2010), “The Avengers” (2012), “Iron Man 3” (2013), “Captain America: Winter Soldier”(2014), and “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) – all of which also got Oscar nods for Best Visual Effects.
Marvel brings a sense of lighthearted, yet sincere, fun to the big screen. Audiences loved the interaction between Rocket and Groot in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “Ant-Man” was clever and brought out the best of Paul Rudd’s acting chops, which are rarely seen. Though the series of “Thor” films lack a bit of luster, viewers are introduced to “Loki,” one of the MCU’s most notorious villains.
All of this is what makes the MCU great. There seems to be a bit of formula to it, similar to that which originated with the original comics themselves – audiences are introduced to our protagonist, who most seemingly is fighting an internal moral or ethical battle, as they discover or are given some sort of superpower.
Then the audience meets the antagonist, who is fundamentally opposed to whatever optimistic outlook our heroes have. A battle ensues, and then, through insurmountable odds, our hero hails as victor over the villain, with the answer of whatever questions they’re contemplating about life coming full circle. Throw in a few quips, add witty banter, and you’ve got a Marvel movie. Is there anything wrong with this? No. It works as a narrative. Audiences can relate to strife and overcoming obstacles. Then mesh those characteristics with quality acting, writing and visuals, and you’ve got pure entertainment.
So what about DC Comics, Inc.? More specifically, what about DC Entertainment? You know, the folks that bring you the characters of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Green Arrow, but I digress – I could go on, but the point is made. Why is a discussion about “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” (Batman v Superman) such a polarizing topic?
Since opening in March of 2016, “Batman v Superman” – the film selected by Warner Brothers (WB) to set up the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), got fried by critics. One critic claimed that “Batman v Superman” was “a movie that beats you into submission and makes you wonder if the sun will ever come out again.” Others have called it “dismal,” “tiresome,” sloppy,” and “a blur of pretentious speeches about what lurks in the hearts of men and noisy fight scenes and nonsensical dream sequences.”
Something was off. Something was obviously missing. Rarely, if ever, are critics speaking of Marvel films in this same manner. Even “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” received a better Rotten Tomatoes score. “Batman v Superman” was supposed to bring us spectacle – fans finally get the throw down they’ve all been waiting for…Batman. Superman. Mano A Mano. They even brought Zack Snyder in to direct. That may not be saying much, but the man can film an outstanding action sequence – exactly what the movie needed.
For Warner Bros., the stakes were high for “Batman v Superman,” and with a slate of 11 superhero films on the roster for the next four years, this was not the time to re-think the company’s approach to this property.
Nonetheless, the tension at WB began to build after what studio executives considered nothing less than a disappointing showing for their film that originally had everything going for it. Studio Executives from WB sank nearly $400 million into the film, including the production budget and marketing, but only returned a profit of a little more than $320 million, domestically. Though not terrible numbers, the true tell is that the film fell nearly 70 percent on its second weekend, meaning new viewers and repeat movie-goers, weren’t showing up – the biggest drop ever, among the films in the big-budget comic book superhero genre.
The studio plunged further into chaos following another sub-par attempt at expanding the DCEU with “Suicide Squad” – a film clouted with talk of requiring reshoots to add more humor to brighten the film’s mood, all before rumors began circulating that there was a director-preferred, R-rated, extended cut of the movie which had contained more footage of the Joker, which fans were seemingly promised in the previews and trailers – all before it was cut from the film at the will of studio executives, against the wishes of director David Ayer.
Fallout from “Batman v Superman,” and even “Suicide Squad,” has rippled throughout Warner Bros. First, WB chose to bring in Geoff Johns to “co-run” their new DC film franchise with Jon Berg, who was already working on “Justice League” and “Wonder Woman.” As DC’s chief content officer, Johns found success helping launch the comic label’s birth in the television sphere with shows that have skyrocketed in popularity, such as The CW’s “Arrow,” “The Flash,” and its latest series, “Legends of Tomorrow.”
But chaos continued. “The Flash” has slowly become the film that may never be. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, writers of the original script, opted out of directing the film. Then, Seth Grahame Smith was to make his directorial debut with “The Flash,” in 2018, but left the film over “creative differences.” He was soon followed by Rick Famuyiwa, who also left the project under similar circumstances.
Then it was announced in January 2017, amidst all the director shake-ups, that the script was going to receive a page-one re-write, a bad sign for a film that is compiling its supporting cast with the expectation of hitting the pre-production stage in March 2017.
Though “The Flash” still does not have a director, Ezra Miller remains signed on to bring Barry Allen to the big screen. Following the “The Flash” fiasco, WB and DC Entertainment ran into the same problem with Michelle MacLaren, who walked away from “Wonder Woman,” citing “creative differences.”
Then there was light to be found at the end of the tunnel. News emerged that Ben Affleck, who portrayed Batman in “Batman v Superman,” would serve as an executive producer on “Justice League,” and would write, star in, direct and produce his solo superhero film, “The Batman.”
Affleck was by far the best part of “Batman v Superman,” giving a solid performance that brought a lot of promise to the new Dark Knight, along with hope for what is to come down the road in DC’s cinematic universe. He’s an Oscar-winning director, with several noteworthy performances. This was the reassurance fans needed to just hold course and look past all the reorganization and restructuring.
Then low and behold, Affleck announces that he’s exiting the director’s chair, won’t step behind the camera, and will let some other soul take the helm of what was his solo Batman film. All of this comes after rumors circulated that the project was having script issues, including Chris Terrio coincidentally turning in a re-write for a new version of a Batman solo movie that may lead the film in a different direction than what Affleck had originally intended.
This situation (though grim) is not the end all, be all. Leading a film that also requires your talent as a director and producer is a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time. Maybe Affleck bit off more than he could chew. All in all, it is an understandable situation.
However, more of the same seems to be in store for DC Entertainment. WB announced a couple weeks ago they were in negotiations with Matt Reeves as a replacement director, until those talks broke down a week later as things got heated between Reeves and studio executives.
Where does WB go from here? What can fans expect from the DCEU going forward? To start, “Aquaman,” fronted by Jason Momoa and directed by James Wan, who has seen tons of success with the “Fast and Furious” franchise, is still on schedule and has had few to no hiccups (all things considered). It is expected to hit theaters in October 2018. “Wonder Woman,” having overcome its own director re-shuffling, is already holding test screenings with plans to open nationwide in June 2017.
Inherently, the DC cinematic universe will always be compared to that of Marvel. Is that necessarily fair? No, but that’s just how it is. Marvel Studios has been at this game for almost a decade, and they’ve encountered nothing but success and praise along the way – quite a chip on the shoulder of Warner Bros. With this burden to bare, all the shake-ups, confusion, and lack of direction for the DC properties is explained. Fans have expectations; they have standards in mind, which are built on minimum expectations for superhero films set forth by Marvel, as viewers subconsciously compare every comic book film they see to their favorite Marvel production.
Yes, maybe DC wants to set itself apart and go a darker, more gruesome route than that set by Marvel. Maybe these movies are supposed to be more mature, and not directed toward a general audience. That’s a great philosophy, but it’s not exactly translating to success in the eyes of studio executives who are worried about profit margins and critical acclaim. Maybe all of this rigmarole will result in movies that are adored by fans and critics alike. Only time will tell, but the evidence suggests otherwise.