STATE OF THE COMIC BOOK FILM: Are We Heading To An Endgame? Part Two

SPOILER WARNING: This article will be talking about plot elements of many recent comic book films. If you are not up to speed on your comic book film watching – And really, who can blame you? – you might want to proceed with caution.

2022 was a tumultuous year for the comic book film. In this four part series, William Gatevackes takes a look at the past, present and possible future of the genre. You can read Part One here.

DC

While Marvel has been dominating the box office with films based on their properties, DC has been having a rougher time of it. But that is all going to change! James Gunn and Peter Safran are now in charge of the DC Films slate! Put on a happy face! Grey skies are going to clear up!

Or maybe not. Because while Zack Snyder will be gone, Warner Brothers will still be around.

I’m going to say something that will cause all the Snyder Bros. who have accused me of being on Marvel’s payroll to be shocked: Zack Snyder is not solely to blame for DC’s problems getting a successful film slate. As a matter of fact, the majority of the blame lies with Warner Brothers themselves. Because Warner’s problems with their DC films started way before Zack Snyder was hired and I fear will continue well after he is gone.

Warner Brothers is a great movie studio. They have made a lot of great films, Oscar Winners. And not in the 1930s or 1940s, recently. Films like Argo, Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven, The Departed. They can make great films, legendary films if they want to. But they have a terminal blind spot for films they adapt from the DC Comics subsidiary.

You can track Warner’s bungling of their DC franchises all the way back to the 1970s. The Richard Donner Superman films and the Tim Burton Batman films are viewed as classics. When they left their respective projects, the franchises devolved into campy awfulness. But the heavy hand of Warners on the DC Comics films really started to become known during modern times, when the Internet would report gossip and innuendo far quicker than it did back in the 1970s and 1980s.

Image via Warner Brothers

Take 2010’s Jonah Hex. That film was supposed to be directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor from their own script. However, the duo got into creative difficulties with Warners (apparently star Josh Brolin wanted script changes, the pair wanted to keep the script as is, and Warners sided with the star) and were replaced by Jimmy Heyward as director.

But the studio wasn’t satisfied with the job Heyward did and ordered 66 pages of reshoots in 12 days. Taking into consideration that one page supposedly equals one minute of screen time, and the Jonah Hex was only 81 minutes long, that means they reshot 75% of the film. Which means the dopey idea to give Hex superpowers more than likely came from the studio, along with most of what else made the film such a turgid bore.

Then there is Green Lantern. The concept should have been a sure-fire winner. A space cop who fights crime with a ring that allows him to make whatever he can imagine? Sign me up. But the films flopped and flopped badly. Both director Martin Campbell and star Ryan Reynolds seemed to point the finger at Warners over the flop, the former listing the fights he had with the studio over the film’s direction, the latter listing Warner’s not knowing what to do with the property.

Reynold’s opinion was backed up by then-Warner’s film group president Jeff Robinov, who said in a post-mortem that the then-planned Green Lantern sequel would be “darker and edgier.”

I’ve come back to this quote a lot in the 12 years since it was made. Because that quote left me believing that Warner Brothers have no idea what makes the DC Comics IP great and couldn’t be bothered to learn. The Batman films were dark and edgy, they were comic book films, they made billions of dollars, so all comic book films should be dark and edgy.  That is so short-sided that it boggles the mind.

But this is the attitude that was passed on to Zack Snyder when he took the reins of the DC films and tried to make the DC Extended Universe. Yes, he should take blame for excessive use of slow motion, putting the Amazons in leather bikinis and the lingering shots of Gal Gadot’s ass, but Jonathan Kent advising his son to just let his classmates die, Superman snapping Zod’s neck and Batman killing indiscriminately all comes from the “darker and edgier” maxim.

Of course, it didn’t work. Because while the Warner Brothers’ executives didn’t have any idea what made their DC Comics characters tick, moviegoers did. Marvel might arguably have more interesting characters, but DC’s characters have become part of the world culture and the global consciousness. There is an anecdote that tribesmen that lived in the remote part of Africa were able to identify Superman on site.

So, it’s not just comic fans who know who Superman is, it is practically everyone. And they want to see an overgrown boy scout who fights for truth, justice and a better tomorrow. They don’t want to see an angst-ridden emo goth who debates about being a hero at all. But that’s what the studio thought they wanted so that’s what they got.

But studio interference didn’t end during the Zack Snyder era, mainly because it all coincided with Geoff Johns rise in the company. This website lists much of the turmoil in the company, and definitely seems to be pro-Snyder and painted Johns as a villain of the battles, so it should be taken with a huge grain of salt. But it seems to lay everything from the first Suicide Squad being recut to the third act of Wonder Woman devolving into CGI slugfest to Snyder being forced to leave Justice League on Johns’ feet. I will also say in counterpoint that two of the best DCEU films, Aquaman and Shazam!, came out during or as a result of Johns’ tenure, so it wasn’t all bad.

Justice League
Image via Warner Brothers

That Justice League debacle, a $600 grossing film that managed to lose money, acted like a neutron bomb to this era of DC films. Snyder got his cut shown on HBOMax and then was promptly forgotten about. Johns was ousted and went back to writing comic books.

Walter Hamada took over after Johns (and partner Jon Berg) were ousted. Most of Hamada’s tenure was made up of films from other regimes–AquamanShazam! and even Black Adam, was a carryover from the Johns/Berg era. .

How do I know? Because of the Justice Society of America. Black Adam is an example of how individual egos can hamper a DCEU film. The film is supposed to take place in the shared DCEU. That’s a pretty non-controversial statement. In the film, Black Adam appears. Amanda Waller, concerned about this, sends her favorite superpowered team into the fray–The JSA.

Yes, the JSA. Not the Suicide Squad who, in the 2016 film that bears their name, Waller explicitly creates to handle problems like Black Adam in the DCEU. There were loads of screen time devoted to explaining this reason of being to the audience. So, you have to ask, why did Waller use the JSA in Black Adam instead of the Suicide Squad? Also, why did she need to create the Suicide Squad at all if she had the JSA at her beck and call?

The answer is, and this is just a theory of mine, is because Geoff Johns really loves the JSA. He made his name in comics writing the team, he introduced Black Adam into their history, so, when the JSA showed up in Black Adam, I immediately thought “Yep, that’s Geoff Johns doing.”

Then there is the “Shazam!” incident. Black Adam debut as a Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Shazam!, villain. He only made one appearance in the Captain Marvel’s Golden Age run, but when the Big Red Cheese was revived in the 1970s, Black Adam made more frequent appearances, most likely because he was the evil opposite of Captain Marvel.

Over the years, the character became more of an anti-hero then a villain, but he still retained the shared origin with Captain Marvel. So, you’d think that since there was already a Shazam! film, and another one coming five months after Black Adam, that there would be some sort of cameo between the two films.

You might think that, but Dwayne Johnson didn’t. He vetoed any cameos between the characters in either film. Now, this rumor comes from Umberto Gonzalez, the man former known as El Mayimbe. We became familiar with him over a decade ago when he came out with a series of unabashedly wrong rumors about a number of comic book films. But this one appears to have been verified by Shazam! The Fury of the Gods’ Zachary Levi.

Black Adam Dwayne Johnson
Image via Warner Brothers.

Johnson also nixed the JSA appearing in the Shazam! sequel, but actually fought for the Superman cameo in the mid-credits scene (Waller calls in Superman, which also ask why she needs either the JSA or Suicide Squad if she had Superman doing favors for her).  I guess Johnson thought that Captain Marvel was too much of a roody poo, candy ass to take on Black Adam, and instead wanted Adam to go one-on-one with the great one, Superman.

That’s great an all, but this is still a shared universe that Black Adam shares with Captain Marvel and the latter guy has a similar costume and power set to the former. There should have been some kind of throwaway line to link the two. But the needs of DCEU came in second to The Rock wanting to play a badass.

But I digress. Hamada also green lit some movies that started moving away from the DCEU, JokerThe Batman, and The Suicide Squad. That last approval might have been one that Hamada came to regret, because it was written and directed by James Gunn and produced by Peter Safran, the men the studio tapped to replace Hamada and take over the reins on the DC films.

I present all of this to illustrate that 95% of Warner Brothers’ problems getting a slate of DC Comics films up and running lie with the studio itself and the people running it. And the studio isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it is getting worse under new owners Discovery.

The new regime seems focused on cost cutting measures, looking for the cheap way out. They even went so far as to cancel the nearly completed Batgirl film to take a tax write off. Yes, they say that it was because the film was so bad that it was not releasable, but don’t forget that this is the studio that released SteelCatwoman and Jonah Hex, so that never stopped them before.

And does it feel strange Safran goes out of his way saying that he was willing to work with the creators again in that article linked above? “Yes, the last thing you made for us was absolutely crap and it would be embarrassing to release for public consumption. Can’t wait to work with you again!” I don’t believe that was said by any successful company ever.

Don’t get me wrong, James Gunn is comic book literate and a great filmmaker. His soft reboot, The Suicide Squad, was one of the best comic book films released in the last ten years. And he has come up from the Troma school of filmmaking, so he is skilled at making good movies on lower budgets than Warner Brothers Discovery might actually give them. If given carte blanche to make whatever he wanted, we might have a slate of DC films that would compete with Marvel.

However, I have zero faith that the powers that be at Warner Brothers Discovery won’t meddle in Gunn’s affairs, up to and including firing Gunn before his ten-year plan reaches its end if the films don’t make as much money as WBD hopes. As they have proven over the decades, it’s just in their nature.

But even if Gunn was able to avoid corporate influence, he might have a tough row to hoe in getting people to buy into his vision. He raised a bit of controversy by giving Henry Cavill his walking papers, letting him know his services were no longer needed as Superman. Gunn is deciding to go with a new, younger version of Superman in his slate of films, leading to another reboot of the character that might not have been necessary. Then there was the cancellation of Wonder Woman 3, which led to rumors of Gunn and Safran alienating director Patty Jenkins.

In addition to that, we are getting yet another Batman in Gunn’s line up of projects. This will be a new Batman, not the version that appears in Matt Reeves’ films. That Batman will still exist, though, with a new film coming out in 2025, which means Warners will have competing Batman films squaring off against each other. I can’t see how that will be a good thing. Hardcore comic fans will probably see both versions, but the casual moviegoer might either be confused or reject one for the other.

Shazam Fury of the Gods
Image via Warner Brothers

But before Gunn’s reign begins, we have four lame duck films to get through first–Shazam! Fury of the Gods, The Flash (06/16/23), Blue Beetle (8/18/23) and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom (12/25/23). We are pretty sure that, unlike Batgirl, all four will hit theaters. Shazam! has already have been released, albeit with a global box office of $65.5 million, $20 million short of expectations, which has some outlets already calling it a bomb. Trailers for the Flash have already been airing. The last two films were produced by co-CEO Peter Safran, so I can’t see him canceling them.

But maybe they should. I mean, will Zachary Levi’s Captain Marvel and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman have a place in James Gunn’s ten-year plan, considering most things up to this point seem to have him taking a ‘new broom sweep clean’ approach to the DC films? Same goes for Blue Beetle. How well will his film have to do to allow him to stay alive in Gunn’s line up of properties?

And if Shazam! Fury of the Gods does turn out to be as big of a bomb as pundits think it would be, will the skinflints at Warner Brothers Discovery go the tax write off route with the rest of the pre-James Gunn films?

Then there’s The Flash. The film has a major problem, and the problem is named Ezra Miller. The actor has led a rather controversial life outside of the DC films. If you want to be generous, you can say that he has issues. If you are not so generous, you can say he is a scumbag of the highest order. He has generated so much controversy that the numerous director changes and release date shifts, things that would normally dominate the narrative surrounding the film, seems all but forgotten.

How bad is Ezra Miller? Let us count the ways:

  1. April 2020: Video appears online of Miller choking a woman outside a bar in Reykjavik, Iceland. No charges appear to have been filed.
  2. March 28, 2022: Miller is charged with disorderly conduct and harassment after the actor shouted obscenities at a woman performing karaoke and lunged at a man playing darts while at a bar in Hawaii. Miller plead no contest and was fined $500.
  3. March 29, 2022: Miller gets a restraining order placed on them (Miller uses they/them pronouns) by a Hilo, Hiawaii couple whose bedroom the actor broke into. Allegedly, Miller threatened their lives, stole some personal items, before leaving. The couple dropped the restraining order two weeks later.
  4. April 19, 2022: Miller’s eventful spring continues as the actor is arrested on a second-degree assault charge after throwing a chair at a woman after being asked to leave a private party in Hawaii. I cannot find anything online about how this charge was resolved other than the investigation still being ongoing from May of 2022.
  5. June 7, 2022: The parents of Tokata Iron Eyes file court protective order documents accusing Miller of grooming their daughter since the age of 12, accusing the actor of using manipulative, cult-like behavior towards Tokata. Tokota, who goes by Gibson, later releases a statement defending Miller and downplaying their parent’s concerns.
  6. June 15, 2022: Inspired by the Tokota Iron Eyes case, a Massachusetts woman files a protective order against Miller as well, stemming from a February 2, 2022 incident at a get together where the actor came to the house and started to be abusive to the adults present–at one point brandishing a gun–before making advances towards the woman’s 11-year old daughter.
  7. August 8, 2022: Miller is charged with felony burglary in Vermont stemming from a May 1, 2022 incident when they broke into a neighbor’s home when they weren’t there to steal several bottles of alcohol. They plead guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge on January 13, 2023 and is sentenced to one year of probation.
  8. August 12-13, 2022: Vermont State Police visit Miller’s farm to deliver a protective care order to remove three young children from the home. Miller was supposedly providing a safe haven for the woman and her children to protect them from an abusive ex. However, the woman’s ex-husband was concerned for his children’s welfare due to the number of guns and amount of marijuana easily accessible in Miller’s home. Miller said that the woman and her children had not lived there for two months.

Whew. Calls were made to remove Miller from the Flash film. He wasn’t the only superhero film actor to receive such calls. People wanted to replace Teresa Wright and Evangeline Lilly from their MCU roles, due to their anti-vaccine stances and Amber Heard was called to be removed from her role as Mera due to what was revealed in Johnny Depp’s lawsuit against her. But holding an ill-informed opinion or having your dog poop on a bed is one thing, felony burglary and grooming pre-teen girls are another.

So, why is Ezra Miller still the Flash? Money. When most of his scandals hit, principal filming was completed. Miller is in almost every scene of the film, and, as the trailer reveals, he is playing two parts. That is a lot of scenes, most featuring heavy CGI, that would have to be reshot if they hired another actor. It wasn’t cost effective to cancel Ezra Miller.

So, Warners made Miller issue an apology, agree to head to therapy, and hoped for the best. And that is where we are now.

Will Miller’s sociopathic behavior keep people away? Who knows? I’m still up in the air about this. I should be psyched about the film, if only to see Michael Keaton back as Batman. But I’m really not looking forward to Miller playing the adorkable Barry Allen for two hours or more of screen time considering what he is accused off screen. I have a 13-year-old daughter. I don’t know if I want to spend money supporting an actor accused of preying on children her age.

Worse for Warners is that The Flash is supposed to be the doorway that leads into James Gunn’s ten-year plan. What if a boycott douses any excitement for Gunn’s plans? What happens then?

Then there’s their “Elseworlds” slate of films. The Batman 2 and Joker: Folie A Deux. Both film’s first movies made a lot of money for Warners, so it might be fair to expect the same here.  As I said above, Robert Pattison will have competition from James Gunn’s version of Batman. And the Joker sequel is going to be a musical, with Lady Gaga cast as Harley Quinn. Neither will have as easy sledding this time around.

Conclusion

On paper, Warners should be the strongest going forward. They seem to have a solid plan being led by creators that really care for the characters. However, as I have mentioned above, their future is anything but certain. Studios interference was the bane of the DCEU. If they start meddling with Gunn’s creative process, it could be just more of the same.

Next

We take a look at Sony. Poor, misbegotten Sony. Read Part Three here.

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About Bill Gatevackes 2029 Articles
William is cursed with the shared love of comic books and of films. Luckily, this is a great time for him to be alive. His writing has been featured on Broken Frontier.com, PopMatters.com and in Comics Foundry magazine.
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