Way back in 2012, months before Warner Brothers was set to go down a new road with their DC Comics films with Man of Steel, I wrote a post here called Top Ten Mistakes Warners Has Made With DC Comics Films. I meant it as a cautionary tale to temper the optimism the new direction was getting. Warners was a studio that likes to make the same mistakes again and again, and I wanted to point that out.
Now, over six years later, Warner’s DC Comics film franchise is in disarray. Projects are often delayed. Box office returns are often disappointing. Talent seems hesitant to sign on to direct their films. Critics lambaste pretty much all they have to offer. It seems their future is in worst shape than it was six years ago.
How can this happen? Well, because Warner Brothers made a whole bunch of new mistakes, big ones, that may well jeopardize the health of the franchise for years to come. Here are just the Top Ten new mistake that they made.
10. Choosing Zack Snyder as creative shepherd
For Man of Steel, Warners tapped two of the people who made the latest grim and gritty Dark Knight series a success, Christopher Nolan and David Goyer. However, Nolan would only serve as a producer and would co-write the story with Goyer. For director, they searched far and wide before settling on Zack Snyder.
Snyder burst on the scene with his work on the Dawn of the Dead remake at Universal, and brought a big hit to Warners with his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 and was finally able to bring the long in development Watchmen film to the big screen for the studio. However, Watchmen is where his faults as a director started to show.
It showed that Snyder was not a subtle or nuanced director. You want him to direct a film with running zombies or a catchphrase spouting Spartan, then he’s your man. Anything with subtext or running themes, that substance gets lost in his pursuit of style.
He created a DCEU that was filtered through a grey filter and where slow motion was used instead of emotional depth. Points he wanted the audience to pick up on, be they big (Superman as Christ metaphor) or small (the battles in Batman v. Superman taking place in abandoned area), he’d hammer through. But he was more concerned with creating big moments than surrounding them with a cohesive narrative to hold them together. These are not good traits to have when starting up a shared universe.
Regardless, he was a favorite of Warners, and the studio would come to lean on their favorites when it came to their superhero films. By making Snyder the creative force, they were behind even before they began.
9. Hiring Chris Terrio as writer
When Chris Terrio was brought in to rewrite David Goyer’s script for Batman v Superman, comic fans were probably ecstatic. An Academy Award Winning screenwriter writing a comic book film? That was going to be awesome!
We should have looked closer. Argo was only Terrio’s second feature film as a writer. His first, The Heights, was a smaller movie he also directed. And Argo was based on real events with colorful characters, high drama and strong conflict already build in. So Terrio wasn’t a seasoned, veteran screenwriter who finally got a Oscar after years of great work. He was a novice screenwriter who lucked into a great project his second time out. And his inexperience shows in his work Batman v Superman.
Granted, the failure of that film isn’t all Terrio’s fault. I’m sure the studio and Zack Snyder had a lot of say in his script, and who knew how much of Goyer’s take made it into the final product. And the differences between the Extended Cut and the Theatrical version show that the editors did no one any favors. But the script of the film is one of its biggest problems and it is Terrio’s name in the credits, so at the end of the day, blame should go to him.
I could be here for days going into everything that is wrong with the script for the film. The plot is way too convoluted, giving the impression that they were going for intelligent and complex but hit confusing and nonsensical. There are plot holes you could drive a truck through. Characters are either ill-defined or change to whatever the plot needs at that point. Motivations aren’t fully fleshed out. And the decision to introduce Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg through found footage was especially deadly for a film meant to jump start a shared universe. They offered really no enticement for the audience to become interested in the characters and want to see them again.
In other words, the script is a mess. It’s very telling that when people defend the film, they add motivations that were not supplied by the film itself. When fans have to write scenes in their head to explain what is happening on the screen, that’s the sign of a bad script.
8. Making Batman old
This will not be an opportunity to dump on Ben Affleck as Batman. I think he did a fine job in the role, especially considering what he was given. But this is more about choosing a late-in-career Batman for this incarnation of the character.
I can see why Warner Brothers went in this direction. There have been a lot of different versions of the character in films and TV, and they were looking for an interpretation that audiences would find fresh. Why not go with the version that echoes one of the best comic book stories featuring the character: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns?
Why not? Because that story is a nihilistic tale set at the end of the age of heroes and features an old, retired Batman coming back for one last attempt to save Gotham. Taking that character and placing him as they did in BvS at the dawn of heroes will not work as well. It might have worked better if they presented him as the wise, old hand there to teach the next generation of heroes how its done. Instead, they introduce him as a man who makes a colossal error in wanting to kill Superman, then makes him the butt of the joke in Justice League. That kind a treatment would have worked with a novice Batman, but it makes the experienced Batman look weak and silly.
Another flaw in using a older Batman this time around is that it hampers his place in the DCEU. Batman films have made a lot of money for Warners, and it seems reasonable that they would want one with Batfleck. But the problem with that is that with an older Batman, all his best stories are behind him. His first meeting with the Joker, Penguin and Two-Face happened years ago. His training of Robin and losing him when he died was in the past. His gathering of allies like Commissioner Gordon and Batgirl also already happened. That makes writing a film for Affleck’s Batman a tough job, and probably a reason why Matt Reeves’ film will focus on a younger incarnation of the character.
7. Wasting Henry Cavill
Henry Cavill is a decent actor, with enough charm and charisma to make a good Superman. He had the potential to be one of the best Supermen of all time. But bad choices made in constructing the DCEU has not allowed him to reach his full potential.
Man of Steel presented a Superman who was a gloomy, tortured character who was pulled by outside forces and inner doubt that kept him from fulfilling his Christ -like destiny to protect the Earth. This wouldn’t be bad if the series built on the ending of that film, where he seemed to over come that and readily accept his role as savior. But, no, outside of a pissing contest with Batman, Superman in Batman V Superman was once again a gloomy, tortured character who was pulled by outside forces and inner doubt that kept him from fulfilling his Christ -like destiny to protect the Earth. There was no growth and very little challenge for Cavill as an actor.
Then came Justice League, and even though Cavill’s Superman was only in half the movie, he was a more upbeat Superman more in line with the conventional portrayals of the character. Cavill seemed to be having fun playing Superman, and I, for one, was looking forward to the next Superman film.
Cut to September, 12, 2018, a day that will live in infamy. Henry Cavill went from being done as Superman, to still being Superman, to maybe still being Superman–but maybe not, all in the span of a few hours. There has been nothing concrete from Warner Brothers, but rumors since then have leaned more towards him–and Ben Affleck–being gone.
And that would be a shame. We were on the cusp of seeing what Cavill’s take would be on the traditional version of Superman. Now, we are going back to start over, once again with an unconventional take on the character (Michael B. Jordan, anyone?). It’s a shame that we are not going to see what Cavill could really do.
6. Thinking BATMAN v. SUPERMAN & JUSTICE LEAGUE would be a guaranteed $1 billion box office champs
Warner probably looked at the grosses for The Avengers, and thought Batman V Superman was a mortal lock to clear $1 billion. Granted, there wasn’t a slew of films leading up to it like Marvel had, but the meeting of global icons Superman and Batman on the field of battle with Wonder Woman making her film debut for good measure was bound to make Man of Steel‘s $668 million gross look paltry in comparison. Since that big payday was guaranteed, why not spend $250 million on making it and another $150 million to promote it? Why not just let Zack Snyder & Chris Terrio unfettered to focus on self-importance in lieu of clarity. Warners was playing with house money. It had nothing to lose.
When BvS didn’t break the $1 billion dollar plateau, only making $873 million at the box office, it was considered a disappointment. Forget the fact most studios would kill for that amount of money for a March film, and even with the amount Warners sunk into it it would have made at least a small profit. It was a problem that Warners would fix with its next $1 billion candidate, Justice League—by throwing more money at the production.
A small amount of credit should be given to Warners for realizing that part of the reason for BvS‘s poor grosses had to do with lack of repeat business. The film made almost a quarter of its final gross in its opening weekend before experiencing a deadly 69.3% drop the next week. That means the story was not enough to compel audiences to come back again and again.
When Snyder delivered a rough cut that was pretty much unwatchable, Warners sprung into action. They hired Joss Whedon to write some new scenes to punch the film up and then take over directing when Snyder had to step down due to a family emergency. Whedon’s salary, the cost of reshoots and a new round of CGI (including some to remove Henry Cavill’s infamous mustache of doom) pushed the budget up into the $300-$400 million dollar range. When you take in to consideration added promotional cost, the film had to make a billion dollars just to even have a chance of making a profit.
It didn’t make a billion dollars. Its $657 million take wasn’t enough to cover its cost to make. It was a flop.
This habit of throwing money at films they mistakenly believe will crack the $1 billion ceiling is a major reason why their DCEU slate is in trouble.
And, as contrast, the two films they didn’t have as much faith in, Suicide Squad (featuring characters the mainstream public are not familiar with) and Wonder Woman (action films with female leads don’t sell), had more reasonable budgets of $175 million and $149 million before promotional costs. Both turned out to be sequel-generating hits.
5. Greenlighting a FLASH and SUPERGIRL film while their TV shows are on the air
There was supposed to be a Flash film back in March of this year. Obviously, there wasn’t. The release date Warner Brothers idealistically gave back in 2014 fell by the wayside as a revolving door of directors and writers exiled the film into development hell. The studio is still working on the script, and hopes to have production begin in late 2019 with a release date now scheduled tentatively in 2021.
It was obvious to everyone (well, everyone except those making the decisions at Warner Brothers) that they would have trouble bring Flash to the big screen. Because they would be competing with themselves. As we frequently mention, there is a quite popular, very well done Flash TV series on the CW. Any film would have to work to capture what makes Flash a great character yet make it fundamentally different than the version they can see for free each week. They need to up the spectacle to a level that cannot be attained on a TV show’s budget, but not to such a point that it damaged the show’s ratings.
This requires a delicate balancing act, and as we have read in this article, Warners is not good at balancing acts. But despite that fact, the studio decides to stubbornly give us a second version of the Flash instead of any of the thousands of other characters they could make into film.
Not only that, they are developing a Supergirl film, and are so behind it that they are willing to put another Superman film on hold to focus on it. Of course, there is also a quite popular, very well done Supergirl TV series on the CW. But Warners has a solution for that–they are going to focus on her time on Krypton. That would be great if: A) the TV show didn’t already cover Supergirl’s life on Krypton already, and B) there isn’t another TV show on the SyFy network, Krypton, that covers life on the planet. So Warners no only managed to make the same mistake again, but this time they compounded it.
Any time you have two versions of the same characters competing with each other, it is never good. Which is an excellent segue to…
4. Going deep into Joker and Harley Quinn as a course correction
You get the feeling that when the Justice League debacle broke down and the DCEU was thrown into chaos, a Warners executive decided to go to a comic book convention to get some inspiration. There he saw dozens of cosplayers dressed up as the Joker and Harley Quinn through out their various incarnations throughout the years. That must have given our nameless executive an revelation. “Hey, Joker and Harley Quinn are really popular! Let’s make 500 films with them!!!”
Let’s count them down. First there is Joker, a Taxi Driver-esque origin story by Todd Phillips starring Joaquin Phoenix in the title role. This is a different version of the character than the one introduced in Suicide Squad and played by Jared Leto, but don’t worry, that version will also gets its own standalone film and also star in a crime romance with Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.
Did I mention Harley? Yes, she will be in that film, and Birds of Prey, and will be in a Gotham City Sirens from Suicide Squad director David Ayer and be in the Suicide Squad sequel. One hopes that there is a secret standalone Harley Quinn solo movie being discussed, because it doesn’t seem fair that Joker gets two with two different actors and Harley only gets buddy films.
We are quickly approaching mass Joker and Harley Quinn density. Too much of a good thing could lead to burn out and having two different Joker films in play dilutes the brand and causes confusion. Of course, just because these projects are being put into development, it doesn’t mean they will see the light of day. The filing cabinets at Warner Brothers are littered with unproduced DCEU scripts dating back to before there was a DCEU. Yet, these are the characters whose films get rushed into development and production while others linger in development Hell. Pushing Joker and Harley Quinn hard will not save the DCEU in the long run, it will cause it to burn out faster.
3. Mismanaging the shared universe
Warners had a tough road in building its shared universe, essentially starting with Justice League and working its way out. And not all of it was bad. The films showed a deeper sense of interconnection than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I thought was a good thing. But, Warners being Warners, they couldn’t build on the good decisions and kept making bad decisions.
The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg needed to be established with a bang. They were introduced with a whimper. We already spoke about the lackluster introduction the characters got in BvS, but their full reveal in Justice League wasn’t much better. We were told–and not shown–only what we needed of their back stories for them to be in the film. The rest of their origin and history was being saved for their solo films. If that’s the case, why didn’t they go with the solo films first?
Then there’s Darkseid. Darkseid is the big bad of the DC Universe. He is to DC Comics what Thanos is to Marvel Comics. Rumors said that Darkseid would be the bad guy for Justice League, and the hinted as much in BvS with the “Knightmare” and Luthor’s rant at the end. But who did we get as the villain in that film? Steppenwolf, a character with a connection to Darkseid in the comics but only a hint of a one in the film. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the post-credits scene in Justice League teased the next villains as being the Injustice League, not Darkseid. Why’d Warners get cold feet? Regardless of the reason, not fulfilling on your promises is one sure way to kill a shared universe.
But not as much as replacing the two most important members of the shared universe so far. Henry Cavill’s Superman started the DCEU off, his death led to the creation of the Justice League, and his return gave the heroes and the world hope. And Ben Affleck’s Batman has been the DCEU’s connective tissue, either appearing or being mentioned in every film to date. Replacing these two actors won’t be as easy as Marvel’s replacing of Terrence Howard or Edward Norton was. It’s not hyperbole to think that the DCEU could survive Cavill and Affleck being replaced, especially if Affleck is replaced by a younger actor. Warners seems to know this and doen’t seem to care. That would be a thumb of the nose towards fans who have been invested in the DCEU over the last several years.
2. Stupid Studio Interference
This is a carry over from the last list, because Warners just loves meddling in their DC films. And the disappointing performance of Batman v. Superman sent them into interference overdrive.
Suicide Squad was the first to experience this treatment. David Ayer’s cut of the film was deemed to dark for the studio, who wanted a lighter film that more in line with its first trailers. The studio ordered $10 million in reshoots for the film to add more humor, and presented their lighter version against Ayer’s more gritty one. Test audiences were split on which film was better, so Warners stitched both together into what we saw in theaters, using a team of editors to get the final version done by the film’s scheduled release date. Of course, one of the prevailing criticisms of the film was that its tone made it look like two separate films sewn together.
The tone was not the only change the studio made to the film. We recently found out that Justice League villain Steppenwolf was the original main bad guy for Suicide Squad. When the character was instead made the villain in Justice League, the Suicide Squad baddie was made into Incubus.
One has to wonder if the original use of Steppenwolf here was to further set up Darkseid in Justice League. But, regardless, the powers that be were lazy in their switch over. In essence, they replaced a giant, extra-dimensional CGI bad guy in black armor who wants to remake the world in his own image with another giant, extra-dimensional CGI bad guy in black armor who wants to remake the world in his own image. The fact that both villains have almost the same motivation wasn’t lost on some fans and critics, only made worse by Wonder Woman‘s Ares also wanting to destroy humanity to make Earth a paradise of his own choosing. The only difference is that Ares was in a film that was actually good.
But its with Justice League where Warners went into interference overdrive. When executives saw a rough cut of the film, they went into panic mode. Rumor had that they found Snyder’s version of the film to be “unwatchable.” Most rumors point to the tone, which was more like the dour tone of Snyder’s other DCEU films, a grim and gritty style the studio was trying to move away from.
As a result, Warners brought in a panel of writers to offer suggestions on how to punch the film up. Joss Whedon’s suggestions seems to resonate with the studio, because he was hired to do the rewrites, eventually taking over as director when Snyder stepped down due to a family emergency.
But even though Whedon had to reshoot 1/5th of the film, he didn’t get 1/5th of the time Snyder had. Warners, like with Suicide Squad, was hellbent on not changing the announced 11/17/2017 release date. Yes, if you wondered why on Earth did they let Henry Cavill look like a Muppet made of human flesh due to a rush CGI mustache removal, it’s because Warners thought missing a release date was more embarrassing than releasing a crappy product on time.
Warners didn’t get the desired result for all of their meddling. While it got better reviews than either Suicide Squad or Batman v. Superman, it was still lambasted by critics for its patchwork nature and pencil-thin characters. And audiences stayed away in droves, making it the lowest grossing film of the DCEU.
1. Getting rid of Geoff Johns
You might notice that we did not mention Wonder Woman in the piece much. There’s a reason for it–it was pretty much mistake free. It was a great film with great characterization that captured the spirit of Wonder Woman. Part of the thanks for that should go to Geoff Johns, and part of Warner Brothers saying “thank you” was his being forced out of a position where he could help any other DCEU films.
Johns had been advising DC Films as part of his position as DC Comics’ Chief Content Officer, but his advice would routinely be ignore by the studio. That should have all changed in 2016 when Johns was named head of DC Films with Jon Berg. His job would be to oversee the DCEU films to make sure they keep true to the comics.
Wonder Woman was the first full film he worked, going over the script with Allan Heinberg. It is hard to see how much he contributed, but the fact that the first film he worked on was a hit with audiences and at the box offices should have gave him the power to do whatever he saw fit.
However, it didn’t. He tried to do rewrites on Justice League, but was met by push back by Chris Terrio. Apparently, the crabby snarkiness of an Oscar winning writer outweighs an actual appointed executive doing the job he was hired for. Terrio poisoned the well with his complains, and, as I spoke of above, Joss Whedon was brought in to do his own rewrites.
When Justice League bombed, everyone knew heads were going to roll. Johns success with Wonder Woman could only stay his execution so he was the last person pushed out the door. His exit from the Warners hierarchy to start up his own production company was presented as with a positive spin, but having it leaked that he was fighting with Terrio and that Warners was not satisfied with his work on Justice League on the same day pretty much sold the story as an ouster than a upward career move.
And that is a shame. In Geoff Johns, Warners could have had their Kevin Feige, a man with love and knowledge of comic books that would have worked to insure the quality of DCEU films for years to come. Now that future is in the hands of suits who have proven they have no idea how comic book films work.
In closing, there are reasons to have optimism. The last films of the Johns era–Aquaman, Shazam! and Wonder Woman 1984 look good. Aquaman opened to better than average reviews and has made almost three times its rumored $200 million budget back in its first weekend. And Warners is doing a deep dive into their catalog with movies based on Blue Beetle and Plastic Man in development. But the reason why the DCEU is such a mess is because Warners keeps making mistake after mistake with the franchise. That only leads to wasted optimism. Warners might never get the DCEU right.