Thursday, May 3, 2018

Hey, Warner Brothers, Let’s Talk about that DCU

By Jerry Chandler

I don’t want to seem like I’m rubbing salt into an open wound. I don’t want you to think I’m a Marvel Zombie or a newer era MCU fan trying to gloat. I’m not. What I am is someone who can see that you’re in desperate need of an intervention, and I think you need to recognize this fact as well. 

I’ve been a fan of the DC characters for almost as long as I’ve been alive. I grew up on the live action Batman television show and cartoon versions of the solo adventures of Flash, Aquaman, and Green Lantern as well as various Batman and Super Friends shows on Saturday mornings. I was there and watching when Wonder Woman made her television debut facing off against Ricardo Montalban. Then I was there and watching when she came back with Linda Carter in the role. Yeah, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Captain America as well as others were in the mix, but it was the DC characters I returned to more often than not when I wanted my superhero fix. I wasn’t just doing that with the television adventures.


Early on, I was listening to the adventures of the DC superheroes. Batman facing off against a werewolf, Superman having to deal with the greatest cop in the Bottled City of Kandor deciding he was going to clean up the streets outside of Kandor, and even some of the more obscure characters having adventures in mono and early stereo sound. Then there was, of course, the comics.

Yeah, I was a Marvel fan, but I was also a huge DC fan. I was even loving the stories of Adam Strange and Hawkman when most of my friends had no idea who I was talking about. In the 1980s, when the biggest comic books in the world seemed to be about Marvel’s Merry Mutants, I was having more fun in the DC Universe. I loved the big guns of the DC comic universe, and I loved the crazier characters like Blue Devil just as much. Even in the 1990s when the Mutant books were everywhere, and I did read some of them, I was still buying more DC books by far in any given month.


I and others wanted DC ventures into the live action realm to succeed. When Superman left the four color world and launched into a big screen franchise, I and others were more than willing to embrace everything that was great about those films and overlook their failings for as long as we could. Some of us stood by Superman until well past the bitter end of the franchise, even suffering on the opening weekend the Cannon Films attempt at a big screen version of the Man of Steel. Why did we do it? Because we loved the character, and we wanted to see Superman succeed on the big screen well past the point that we should have known the films were falling apart. Some of us were even there when Supergirl took flight in her own movie.


We were there for Batman becoming a serious character on the big screen. We overlooked a lot of failings in a movie to embrace what was good in it and make Batman one of the biggest pop culture success stories in cinema as the 1980s closed out. And, much as we did with Superman, we stuck around for more films than we likely should have as the film franchise faltered and collapsed under studio mismanagement. We did it because it was Batman, and we had lifelong attachments to him and his world and a desire to see him at his best on the big screen that maybe pushed us past the common sense quitting point.

I and others were there for the bad stuff way more times than we should have been. Sure, even as DC films were failing on the big screen, the idea of Marvel even launching a film was becoming something of a joke. James Cameron seemed like he was in development hell with Spider-Man for longer than some people’s marriages lasted. Names like Namor Hulk, Fantastic Four, and Avengers were getting thrown around in the pages of Comic Scene, Wizard, Hero Illustrated, Comic Shop News, and CBG as the hot new properties that were going to be in theaters at literally any minute for longer than most of those publications lasted. The whole time these properties were dying slow, lingering deaths in development hell, DC was getting characters into theaters. The movies may have started to fall apart, but we were there. Okay, maybe not for Steel. But, with most of them, we knew that these characters could be huge if the right creators got paired up with the right characters. It may have taken a while, but, eventually, that faith was rewarded in a big way.


Batman’s return to the big screen was something I doubt few of us could have predicted the success of. The first of his three films was successful, sure, but the second film’s success was insane. Batman and his adversaries were living and breathing on the big screen, and then, more than ever before, the film’s quality and, well, power made it cool to like a superhero, comic book movie. That was you, DC and Warner Brothers. You did that.

That may be what has made the years since The Dark Knight hit theaters seem so frustrating. You hit the magic formula and saw results. You paired up the right creators with the right characters, showed you understood what the characters were and needed to be on film, and watched the world flock to the box office to live inside of the DCU for a few hours. But then you just seemed to lose it.

I’m not even going to get into Watchmen. Beyond the fact that so many in fandom seem divided on it, it was a standalone universe concept. It wasn’t the actual DCU, so it wasn’t really a DC film for many who didn’t grow up on the comic.

But the other attempts? Green Lantern becomes an overgrown frat boy who gets a power ring? Still, that seemed to be a better concept than some of what was coming out of the Hollywood rumor mills.

Then it happened. Then the MCU really got going. Sure, they had success with Iron Man, but Hulk was almost forgotten as soon as it happened, Thor was talked about as good but not great, and, as much as I loved it, fandom was seemingly lukewarm on Captain America: The First Avenger. They were successful, especially Iron Man, but they weren’t over the moon successful. But then The Avengers hit theaters and was not only bigger hit than The Dark Knight, but fandom lost it over seeing the culmination of the building of a shared cinematic universe leading to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes standing together to save the world. The Avengers well and truly changed the game, and a lot of studios, not just you, took notice. Everyone wanted their shared universe on the big screen.

But not everyone was Marvel. The funny thing was, DC was the closest thing to Marvel. A part of what made the MCU work was the history of the characters. There was a lot there to draw from and build on, and the fans were willing to give a few things a pass for the thrill of seeing characters they knew showing up in this shared universe and teasing bigger things to come. As one example, it may not have been the Hawkeye we all knew and loved from the comics, but everyone took notice when Hawkeye appeared in Thor because we knew him and knew this was another piece in the shared universe puzzle.

DC could have done that on the big screen. DC has an even longer history than Marvel does, and the characters in many cases have richer histories to draw from. Done right, the characters, as Marvel did in the MCU, could even be changed up from their traditional portrayals and still be successful. Certainly, the CW DCAU proved this quite well.


But you seemed to want to do everything the television universe did right as wrong as possible on the big screen. Then you compounded that mistake when you took the lesson of the MCU’s building of a shared universe and decided you just wanted to look at the CliffsNotes version of their playbook before diving in.

Marvel may have made changes to their characters, but they tried to capture their essence. You launched your shared universe attempt with a Superman that felt like the lesson you took from The Dark Knight was go grim and dark rather than match the right creator to the right character in order to tell a story that felt true to the character and made the character feel true to itself. You gave us the Dark Superman Returns, and that wasn’t a great launching point concept.

But then you seemingly decided to double down. You decided to introduce Batman into this new, shared DC movie universe as a character who had been there for far longer than anything in Man of Steel made it seem Batman would have been in there. You also gave us Wonder Woman as a known quantity that was somehow forgotten. You also ignored the idea of telling several stories across several films in order to lead to the bigger development and crammed way too many classic DC comic stories into one film. Oh, and you gave us a Lex that may have actually been Lex Jr., and thus established a longer implied DCU history than Man of Steel allowed. You teased new characters. Then, on top of everything else, we get future Flash warning Bruce about something that still isn’t as clear as it should have been and then more hints about more heroes to come. The result was a movie that was a hot mess, but we lined up for it because we wanted to see a DCU on the big screen.

Wonder Woman should have been a clue. Wonder Woman should have been a big clue. You have great characters. Give them a good film of their own helmed by a good creator that establishes their backstory and prepares them to launch into the wider DCU. That was the way to go, and Wonder Woman was a huge success story because of that. Write off what you had, regroup and tell great stories with great characters and build your universe towards a Justice League film in the same basic way the MCU built towards giving us the Avengers on the big screen. But you decided to plow ahead, and plow ahead through several shakeups that only made things more convoluted, and throw everything at the wall while praying something stuck.

That brings us to today.


When Justice League hit the big screen, I wanted it to succeed. I wanted it to be great. At its best, it was good. At its worst, it was a hot mess.

You had some of the most well known and most loved comic book characters in the world under your control, and them joining together to form the Justice League on the big screen should have been a no brainer, billion-dollar box office winner. It wasn’t.

But you know what should be a huge clue to you to slow down, take stock, regroup, and actually plan out a well-structured connected universe with characters that actually feel like they should feel to the fans sitting in theaters? Justice League was in theaters for just around a four-month run. Marvel just released Avengers: Infinity War into theaters. In four days, Avengers: Infinity War outpaced Justice League in every way; whether that was with financial success, with fan reception, or with anything else you’d care to look at.

Avengers: Infinity War wasn’t a perfect movie. It had some big flaws. But it felt like a bigger, better movie because so much work has been put into building towards it. It wasn’t just a film that got seen and judged as a standalone film. It was a payoff moment. It was the culmination of ten years of careful, patient universe building and placing various universe building pieces into place. For many, what flaws there were could be easily overlooked because it felt like an amazing event of a film; and it was. It was in fact something we’d never seen before, and it was done right.

Justice League was done wrong. You tried to do what the MCU took ten years to do in half that time. You tried to do it in five years if we’re generous and consider Man of Steel as a fully planned launch point, but not even close to even that if we count Batman v Superman the very likely real launch point.  You can’t try to build a shared universe that haphazardly, that clumsily, and expect it to be a success. The fact that we’re likely about to see a second weekend total take for the culmination of the MCU’s hard work make the take of what should have been the culmination of years of hard work on the DCU look like chump change by comparison should be a huge clue to even you that you’re doing it wrong on every level and need to pull back and rethink your approach.

I want to see you succeed. I want to support you. Why? Because I and millions of others love these characters. We’ve been literally waiting our entire lives to see them portrayed well on the big screen as the Justice League. If you had put the work and thought into it that the DCU deserved, we would have been there in the types of numbers that the MCU is seeing now.

It's time to take that break and regroup. It may also be time to let go of what you’ve been doing and let someone else come in and take over.

Someone else said to me that maybe it’s time for a visionary like Bruce Timm to take over. That’s actually not a bad idea. If not Bruce Timm, someone who understands the DC Universe like he has shown he does. If not Bruce Timm, someone who knows how to make the characters what they need to be in the way he does.

Damn it, I grew up being a bigger fan of some of the DC characters than I did some of the Marvel characters. It almost hurts to see you screwing up this badly when the cinematic world is proving that now more than ever before it wants to see comic book heroes succeed on the big screen. But the fact that you are fumbling this badly and just trying to force your way through the rest of the process rather than admit you have a problem, recognize the problem, and fix the problem before proceeding further may indicate that you are not the caretakers of these characters to bring them that success.

Avengers: Infinity War should still be just starting to begin gaining ground on a Justice League movie, not leaving it in the box office dust. Avengers: Infinity War should be getting held to the high standards of a Justice League movie, not becoming the example of how you did almost everything wrong building towards a Justice League movie.

You have a problem. It’s time to face it and fix it. Some of the oldest and most beloved comic book heroes we have deserve way better than what you’re doing with them.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Nerdy Laser. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.

1 comment:

  1. Good write up! I don't hate the DCEU films, but you'e write: Good, fun movies is about the most you can say for the majority of them. Here's what I always think is possibly the difficulty of a DCEU: The tone typically established by Batman films and books just doesn't match the tone of the DC Universe overall. The Nolan Trilogy is one of my favorite takes on the Batman mythos overall but it's really hard to imagine that film series ever having given way to a shared universe. Personally, I often feel that even DC comics can benefit from a wall between the Gotham side of the DC Universe and the DC Universe as a whole. Moving forward for films, I'd love to see Warner/ DC handle the Batman Universe as a separate property from the DC Universe. I know that sounds crazy, but it seems like it might help give the other characters their own chance to stand on their own. Maybe once everyone is established then Batman can enter the films of the other characters. Personally, I like your decision of having someone like Bruce Timm handle things. Someone needs to be steering the ship and directing films at mass audiences.

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