Superman holds a special place in my heart. You see, growing up all alone in an old belfry, my first memory that of being belched into this world by an interdimensional portal, I had no sense of self, knowing only that others would run in fear from me when they saw me. The first word I ever learned was “monster.” And my only education on the way this world worked, was found in the flickering images coming from the black and white television that the kindly old groundskeeper set up for me in that belfry (it broke my heart to eat him shortly thereafter, but hey, a monster’s gotta eat). When I saw George Reeves play Superman, and then Adam West as Batman, and then the animated Super Friends battle the Legion of Doom, a completely new world opened up to me, and I learned what the purpose of my life was: to use my superior strength, reflexes and agility, combined with a gaudy costume to accentuate my frightful visage, in dealing out two-fisted justice to evildoers everywhere. In short, becoming a hero.
Now the truth is, avenging the innocent does not pay, and capes and masks cost money, which is why, like Clark Kent, I assumed the civilian guise of a mild-mannered online entertainment journalist. Writing about films and television and comics broadened my understanding of the super hero’s place in modern society, including the seedy underbelly of the business side of entertainment. But my true north has always been to administer justice from behind a mask, and I have Superman to thank for that.
Which is why bearing witness to the last three films starring Henry Cavill as the last son of Krypton have been a bitter pill to swallow, and why, especially, the news that the honorable Mr. Cavill is walking away from the role has filled my heart with despair. I briefly considered devouring both him and the embattled Ben Affleck, to put both out of their misery, but then realized I would have been eating my own emotions, and Justice is simply not achieved through emotional overeating.
The worst, most frustrating aspect of the announcement that Henry Cavill will no longer be playing Superman can be found in the last half hour of Justice League. After the provocative and divisive Man of Steel, and the full-on character assassination of Batman v Superman: Dawn of What Did I Just Watch?, Cavill managed, in spite of the infamous digital de-mustaching, to turn in a performance that got me excited, that made me exclaim, “THERE he is! THAT’S the Superman I’ve been waiting to see and he is utterly perfect!”
The truth is, from the beginning, Cavill was a perfect choice to play Kal-El, aka Clark Kent. Aside from having a ridiculous physique and granite-chiseled face, he possessed both the authority and the compassion of a guy acutely aware of the implications of his powers and the responsibility that comes with them. He played Clark as humble and forthright, concerned always with doing the right thing and often conflicted about what that meant. All this, in spite of Zack Snyder’s best efforts to cast him in the light of a remote, alienated messiah who flirts with the idea of hanging up the tights because it just ain’t worth the aggravation.
Unfortunately, personal tragedy was one reason that Snyder left production midway on Justice League. Joss Whedon took up the reigns in his absence, and in doing so, did his Joss Whedon thing of punching up the dialogue, humor and humanity of the characters. Now, you can list for me all the reasons Justice League is a terrible movie, and as far as the plot and story go, I’m not going to say you’re wrong; it was a deeply troubled production and the final film bears the scars of those problems. But you cannot tell me that Whedon did not, finally, free Superman from the sturm und drang he had endured over two previous films, and allow him to truly be the Superman that we all know and enjoy. And, to be clear, this is not a tepid impersonation of Christopher Reeve’s iconic portrayal. This is, without a doubt, Henry Cavill’s Superman, and it is glorious to behold.
But one cannot blame Cavill for his decision. Three attempts at box office gold as one of popular culture’s most famous characters, all of them falling short. He had to have figured, “Three strikes and you’re out.” He’s a working actor, with bills to pay and an entire career to consider, so yeah, he’s going to try to look out for Number One. And it’s not as though Superman is his only path to success. He also demonstrated his movie star chops in both The Man From UNCLE and, most recently, Mission Impossible: Fallout (about which he was almost the best thing, second only to walking goddess Angela Bassett). Dude’s going to be just fine.
But it stings, just a little, to know what could have been. And it only underscores the myriad problems that Warner Bros. has had in trying very hard to get a DC superheroes franchise off the ground. The past six years have seen a slew of questionable decisions driven by a combination of a wrong-headed creative vision, insecurity over the success of their main competitor and good old fashioned greed. Fun fact: you can pretty much map the deterioration of this would-be franchise by following the fiery tailspin that has become Ben Affleck’s personal life. Keep your head up, Big Ben; you were a great Batman. #batfleckforever
Of course not every DC film has been a failure. Wonder Woman is an amazing film, and the trailers for Aquaman and Shazam! both look promising. That modesty budgeted Joaquin Phoenix Joker movie just started filming, and is one tremendous question mark at this point. And director Matt Reeves, formerly of the recent Planet of the Apes franchise, is developing a new Batman film, so hopefully this whole thing can get turned around.
But today, it’s time to Monday morning quarterback this mess. I’ll outline the why for this franchise fiasco, after which I’ll display a breathtaking act of arrogance by suggesting the proper way to deploy a cinematic universe. You have been warned.
To the point: the artistic woes of the so-called DC cinematic universe begin with nervous, reactionary studio chiefs and end with Zack Snyder.
“Get that Marvel dollar!”
It kind of feels unproductive to criticize someone for doing something they literally always do – “Stupid water! Why does it gotta be so damned wet?!” – and yet I’m going to do it anyway. But I’ll try to be brief about it.
I’m no executive, and so I don’t know what it’s like to have both employees and investors to answer to. Money must get made; business is business, no matter the industry. I get that, and I respect it. However, watching, from a distance, the ways in which Warner Bros. made decisions regarding their comic book characters – they literally own DC Comics, in case you were unaware – reveals a real lack of awareness about the kind of business they are in, with regards to making a profitable film.
They have returned to Batman time and again because that property has, for the most part, proven fiscally reliable. But outside of the Caped Crusader, they had shown a remarkable lack of confidence in superheroes, even Superman. Superman Returns (2006) fizzled and Green Lantern (2011) tanked, so the corporate takeaway seemed to be that supers don’t sell unless they have black pointy ears on their cowls.
When The Avengers proved to be a massive hit, and Marvel’s “cinematic universe” showed no sign of slowing down, Warner Bros. reacted. Panicked, really. They listened to Christopher Nolan (“Dark Knight guy, made us money, so do what he says!“), who suggested Zack Snyder for Man of Steel. They greenlit Snyder’s take on Superman, likely figuring his “dark, gritty” take was different enough to distinguish them from the MCU, coupled with fact that Nolan’s “dark, gritty” Batman films made them boatloads of cash.
Then they saw that Marvel was going on seven, eight films now, with its interconnected films, and they wanted that Marvel money. “We only got the one Superman film! We gotta catch up to those jerks!” They panicked, again. Against all logic and common sense, and heedless of ANY creative considerations which go into making a movie, you know, GOOD, the brain trust at WB decreed that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Unwieldy Movie Titles would be the glowing, pulsing nexus that would birth the DC cinematic universe in one grand, majestic belch. Mashing together elements from classic comics like The Dark Knight Returns and The Death Of Superman, and sprinkling in DC Easter eggs throughout, hinting at a larger universe (“That’s what Marvel does, right?”), how could they possibly lose?
Well, to quote Alfred in The Dark Knight, “In their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.”
“Zack Snyder is Zod.”
Now I am willing to go out on a limb here and say that BvS:DoJ, at least the unedited, director’s cut of it, is a successful film. Why? Because it is exactly the story Zack Snyder set out to tell, told in exactly the way he set out to tell it. And he was not wrong when he defended the tone of the movie, insisting it was very faithful to the comics; at the time, DC Comics was deliberately publishing pretty edgy stuff. The Superman of DC Comics in 2012 was kind of a remote, conflicted little prick. And the truth is, ever since The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen both hit newsstands in 1986, revolutionizing how comic stories get told, DC’s comic stories have inched further and further away from their wholesome, cornball roots. Plus, you should see some of the direct-to-video animated movies they have released over the last decade. The content in some of those ‘toons will make you blush. So yeah, a three-hour R-rated superhero film was exactly what Snyder was going for, and he pulled it off.
And yes, I said “three-hour R-rated.” The two-hour, thirty-minute, PG-13 theatrical release had been trimmed down for time and a more family-friendly rating, and the result, as you may already know, is jumbled and just this side of incomprehensible. The “ultimate” director’s cut, released months later on the home market, makes a ton more sense on a story level. It also features a man getting knifed in prison, an innocent, terrified woman getting pushed in front of an oncoming subway, an off-color comment about Lois Lane and testicles, a more violent version of the massacre in Africa, and a big ol’ F-bomb.
The experience of filming Watchmen in 2008 undoubtedly had an effect on how Snyder chose to approach the DC characters. And for good reason: Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ 12-part graphic novel is a seminal, award-winning work of art that brutally deconstructs the tropes of the superhero genre. No mainstream comic since has approached that masterpiece in terms of maturity, and of its command of characters and theme, and that movie is, for the most part, a shot-for-shot reproduction of the comic, rather than its own thing. And it is plain to see that Snyder thought it would be the most obvious and natural thing in the world to apply that same iconoclastic spirit to the genre’s two biggest icons.
But here’s the thing about deconstruction in film: a genre, or a particular kind of film, ought to be well-established and a regular part of the cultural landscape before one seeks to take it apart and thoughtfully examine it. Westerns, romantic comedies, and horror films are all examples of film genres that have been well established over the course of decades, stretching back as far as a century or more, with a long, long list of titles within each category. And films like Unforgiven, I Love You, Man, and The Cabin In the Woods are great examples of looking at those respective genres in a fresh, novel way. Superhero films, on the other hand, are only now becoming an established genre in Hollywood, and it is fair to say that both the Dark Knight trilogy and the interconnected films of Marvel Studios have had a hand in that. It has only been a decade since both Iron Man and The Dark Knight took the world by storm. Just ten years. And as far as good superhero films, we have only gotten a consistent sampling of that from Marvel; outside of Wonder Woman, some of the Batman films and Christopher Reeve’s first two outings as Superman almost 40 years ago, DC has struggled with creating lasting, classic films based on their iconic comic characters (on television, however, they have had no problems at all, but that’s another article). Furthermore, not enough different visions and takes on the genre have taken hold; surely Marvel cannot be expected to do all the work, right? And what about the first great superhero movie that is not based on a comic book, but is rather an original, completely cinematic creation? That film still has yet to happen.
The point is, the superhero genre is far from being established, and certainly is not monolithic enough to warrant a so-called deconstruction, least of all one that takes aim at the two who first defined the concept. Batman and Superman had never crossed paths on the big screen before. Casual moviegoers had no idea what that would even look or sound like. And for the rabid comic book fans who had consumed decades of interaction between Mr. Wayne and Mr. Kent in print, there was expectation. The rapport between the two (at least when handled by talented writers) has been the stuff of legend; in comics, there truly is no odder couple than Batman and Superman. They are perfectly yin and yang, sometimes friends and sometimes frienemies, each critical of the other’s methods but always eventually earning each other’s begrudging respect. Batman v Superman was an opportunity to see such a unique dynamic play out for the first time on the big screen. Instead, Snyder took the opportunity to create a pessimistic, leering and altogether misanthropic meditation on the cruelty of life and on how no good deed goes unpunished. And he did it with an extra helping of his signature style of music video gloss and excessive green screens.
I said the film was a success, and for Snyder, indeed it was. For the rest of us, however, not so much. For the general moviegoer with fond (if vague) memories of Adam West, Super Friends, Christopher Reeve and Michael Keaton, the movie is a shocking and disorienting experience. For the fanboy and fangirl, who looked forward to such a movie event, it played out like a betrayal; for one friend of mine, the experience amounted to a humiliation, like watching two cherished friends get forcibly and publicly degraded. And if you were a parent, in either of these categories, taking the kids to watch this was, to say the least, awkward.
Snyder began filming Justice League within weeks after the release of BvS:DoJ, and Suicide Squad was in the midst of post-production, scheduled for release in a matter of months. In the wake of the unsurprising drubbing BvS:DoJ received, Warners again panicked, demanding Snyder do everything possible to make League lighter and less depressing, and also instructing Squad Director David Ayer to recut his movie in a way that emphasized the humor and character interactions. The results were hardly encouraging, as both films are choppy and tonally inconsistent, with Squad suffering from the same kind of incomprehensible story as BvS:DoJ.
“Now if I were running things . . .”
And now we get to the part of the story where I pretend to be someone who knows what he’s talking about. Below are a list of the films, listed in ideal order of release, which, IMHO, would have best benefited WarnerBros and DC in the execution of their super-franchise. Some of these are the existing films as-is, either already released or soon to be released, some have never happened, and others are my vastly improved take on films which already came and failed. In short, this is how you build the DC cinematic universe:
1. Man of Steel – Strictly speaking, there’s nothing flat-out wrong with this film. Say what you will, MOS distinguishes itself as something wholly different from the Richard Donner / Christopher Reeve aesthetic, and it definitely got people talking. As the starter to a “cinematic universe”, it’s a bold statement. And it bears repeating: Henry Cavill is Superman, period.
2. Wonder Woman – The generic, CG-drenched final battle between Diana and Ares notwithstanding, Patty Jenkins’ epic is a classic. Perfect as is.
3. The Batman – Since Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is still relatively fresh in the public consciousness – his origin, his showdown with the Joker, saving Gotham from the League of Shadows – this Batman tale should be a full on detective procedural, complete with Robin and as many of Batman’s rogues gallery as can fit into such a story. The story should take its inspiration from epic Jeph Loeb yarns like Hush or The Long Halloween. Matt Reeves is prepping this movie right now, probably without Ben Affleck, which is a shame.
4. Man of Steel 2 – A direct sequel to MOS would be a necessity; Superman made a number of regrettable decisions, and much of the world is leery of him, so a sequel about him proving himself and earning back the public’s trust would be a welcome change of tone. And battling one of his more outlandish foes like Mr. Mxyzptlyk, Parasite or Toy Man would go a long way toward setting that tone.
5. Batman v Superman – No awkward subtitle, no nihilism, no death of Supes, no Zack Snyder. The chemistry (and yes, humor) between these two heroes has always come from how very different they are, and that clash of sensibilities – vengeful versus hopeful – would need to be there. As for the source of conflict, it would be very simple: elaborate manipulation by both the Joker (played by Willem Dafoe) and Lex Luthor (played by Bryan F***ing Cranston because of course), who are also trying to double-cross each other as well. A fight between Harley Quinn and Mercy Graves would be a must. And with four films preceding this one, and a “universe” becoming more established, the teasing of additional League members now makes more sense.
6. Aquaman – In post-production now. The introduction of Arthur Curry, going up against both his half-brother Orm and the Black Manta. The trailer pitches this as Black Panther Under the Sea. We’ll see how smooth the waters are, come this December.
7. Wonder Woman 1984 – Filming right now, this will see Diana go up against her comic book arch-nemesis, the Cheetah.
8. The Flash – Your mileage may vary, but I thought Ezra Miller as Barry Allen was one of the best things about Justice League. Film would be a comprehensive primer on his world, including Iris, the speed force, and the beginnings of his distinctive rogues’ gallery.
9. The Batman 2 – Have the caped crusader go up against a relatively new opponent: the Court Of Owls.
10. Green Lantern – Basically the animated film, Green Lantern: First Flight, in live action form. Hal Jordan versus Sinestro. Think of it as Star Wars meets Training Day. Ryan who?
11. Justice League – Alright, no messing around. After 10 films, it’s the main event: the Justice League versus the Legion of Doom. Introduce Cyborg, J’onn J’onzz and a few new baddies, but your cast is, essentially, already set up. And yeah, I kinda would need Joss Whedon writing and directing this beast.
12. Shazam! – The trailer for this one promises something really different and goofy (though I would have included Black Adam be the villain in this one). And a palette cleanse, after the gigantic event of Justice League, would be in order.
13. Flashpoint – The epic where Barry Allen screws up everything by going back in time to prevent his mother’s murder. Introducing his nemesis Eobard Thawn. With Thomas Wayne (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) as Batman instead of Bruce, and worst of all, all-out war between Aquaman’s Atlantis and Wonder Woman’s Themyscira.
14. Birds of Prey – Batgirl, Huntress, Black Canary: the holy trinity of badass Gotham ladies. Pit them against Catwoman, Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, and you’re good to go. And have Detective Renee Montoya, aka the Question, as the BOP’s own Jim Gordon, their eyes and ears of the city.
15. Batman / Superman: Public Enemies – U.S. President Lex Luthor has declared both the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader to be enemies of democracy, framing both of them for terrorism and murder. And who is charged with bringing them in? The Justice League, led by Wonder Woman. Introduce a few new leaguers like Hawkman and the Atom.
16. Suicide Squad – This is the more appropriate moment, several films in, once you’ve already seen a lot of these baddies be bad, that a movie about super villains being heroic would be fresh and different, and make way more sense at this spot on the roster, instead of being just the third film going in.
17. Teen Titans – With Batman and Superman being wanted fugitives, and with the Justice League forcibly deputized and kept busy by President Luthor, Cyborg enlists Robin and a motley crew of young, inexperienced heroes to fill the vacuum left by their elder compatriots as a mysterious new threat rears its head. Introduces Raven, Beast Boy, Blue Beetle, and Starfire.
18. Green Lantern: In Darkest Night – Hal Jordan, John Stewart, Kilowog and the rest of the GL corps are forced to form an uneasy alliance with Sinestro’s fear-mongering Yellow Lanterns, as well as all other lantern corps across the emotional spectrum, to stem the oncoming threat of the nihilistic, death-worshipping Black Lanterns.
19. Plastic Man – Another palette-cleansing sorbet, as former small-time thug Eel O’Brian has a freak chemical accident and turns over a new leaf, becoming the elastic and irreverent superhero. Think of what a digitally de-aged Jim Carrey could do with such a role.
20. Justice League: Darkseid – Basically the film that the Snyder / Whedon Justice League was supposed to be. The League has to band together as never before, calling on the services of the Green Lantern Corps, the Teen Titans, Birds Of Prey, the forces of Atlanta and Themyscira, and even the Legion of Doom, to combat a full-blown planetary invasion by the merciless armies of Apokolips, led by sadistic warlord Darkseid. For an effort like this, hire only the best: Infinity War directors the Russo brothers and screenwriters Markus and McFeely.
. . . and so on and so forth. Sequel, new character, new team, sequel, new angle, you get the picture.
Look, I’m no marketing genius, but it doesn’t take much to recognize that: a) people recognize a shortcut when they see one, and BvS:DoJ was as egregious and sloppy a cinematic shortcut as they come; b) people steal from each other in Hollywood all the time, so as franchise strategies go, Warner Bros. could do much worse than copy Marvel’s playbook. And who’s to say that DC couldn’t improve upon that formula, and build out from there somehow? And c) all the marketing wizardry in the world will never compensate for a solid, well told story with fascinating characters. Believe me, I know that writing a story is one of the hardest things a creative person can do. I’ve written a lot of them, and I still have yet to get it right. It’s a slippery and complex process, but hey, if it was easy, everyone would do it and I would be out of a journalism gig and just continue my life of masked vigilante justice.
For now, if you are a depressed fan, well, get over it; show business is what it is, and Henry Cavill’s a grown man who can do whatever he wants. And if you know you can do better than the good folks at Warner / DC, prove it, roll up your sleeves, write something amazing and then get in the ring, because Hollywood is a madhouse. Make me proud by delivering the next great celluloid superhero.
But don’t forget to keep a good thought for Batfleck. He needs all the positive vibes he can get. Otherwise, I may be forced to make a meal out of the poor fellow.