By Eric Hanes
In preparation for the impending release of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and an absolute madman, I think it’s reasonable to consider what is at stake here for DC comics, and the state (corner) that it has found itself in recently.
There’s no easy way around it: The DC Comics Cinematic Universe has been an unmitigated disaster. It has failed to meet expectations critically and financially, with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Batman v Superman receiving generally negative reviews and not making the money that an intellectual property of that notoriety should be. This isn’t even taking into consideration the Green Lantern flop, which leading man Ryan Reynolds made up for with the massively successful Deadpool, a property of DC’s arch-nemesis Marvel comics (even though FOX owns the film rights). DC comics has been around for the better part of a century, and has managed to create some of the most iconic characters in popular culture, so why the fuck can’t they produce a solid cinematic universe?
It’s actually very simple: they rushed into this concept because they wanted a slice of the pie that Marvel had been baking for eight years, beginning with the first Iron Man flick, but had apparently forgotten to preheat the oven. Marvel set up most of its key characters with their own feature films, and though the quality of them can be debated, the success of the formula cannot be; the films are generally well received and are a guaranteed box office draw. After Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal trilogy of Batman films, DC admittedly had given themselves a tough act to follow, and instead of taking their time and establishing a universe slowly, they decided that they would lead with a Superman film in the same vein as their previous endeavors, and that’s where it all goes to shit.
The Dark Knight Effect
DC had succeeded with a dark tone because Batman’s character was inherently very brooding and emotionally driven. He is a broken man and his perseverance and ingenuity are what keep him relatable and entertaining, but the same just cannot be said of Superman. Clark Kent is a kind country boy with a heart of gold and the will to never give in to evil temptations. He watches over humanity and saves them from any given threat, in a not-so-subtle allusion to Jesus. But perhaps the greatest thing about Space Jesus that separates him from Batman is the fact that everyone wants to become more like Superman. He inspires hope and goodness in humanity, and his presence serves as a comforting reminder that we can all be better people.
So making his movie as dark and brooding as Batman’s both visually and narratively is a surefire way to lose all of that magic of the character and write yourself into a corner. The entire cinematic universe is forced into a specific visual style and the actual characters involved in the narrative are muted and broken (except Batman, who was like that anyway) to the point that they no longer evoke the sense of heroism that they had at one point represented so powerfully. The Dark Knight Trilogy, while incredibly well made and popular, simply did not provide a suitable template for the company’s many franchises, despite being perfect for Batman alone.
Batman v Superman: The Ensemble Problem
Because of the gritty Superman problem, DC decided that rushing into ensemble films starring multiple heroes was the best way to guarantee box office success and kickstart the cinematic universe. Basically, they decided that the only company to have created a comprehensive cinematic universe in the past ten years had taken unnecessary steps, and that it could all be done in a couple of films.
Batman v Superman was a messy film as a result of this. The only character that had been previously established was Superman, and he had very little screen time. SPOILERS This made his death, which is completely reversible and meaningless, not have any real weight within the film. Batman became the main focus of the film, and though he was enjoyable enough, he was still stuck in a movie that was doing too much to set up sequels and not enough to support the film itself. His character’s motivations were so muddled because they existed only to set up the plot for the next film, instead of putting together a cohesive series of events for Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. Wonder Woman’s time on screen seemed to outweigh Superman’s, despite her character not being explored at all, which probably says more about how dull Superman was in this film.
Essentially, the studio did not take time to develop characters before throwing them into a feature that required an investment into all of them in order to have any emotional payoff. Now, they’ve got a Wonder Woman solo movie, a Justice League ensemble, and Suicide Squad on the horizon, and only one of these seems to promise actual exploration of a single character to create a deeper arc within the ensuing major ensemble release.
After all of the criticism that the previous films have received, Suicide Squad is already having a rough time on the review tour, as its score on Rotten Tomatoes steadily falls from the mid 30s. Suicide Squad did attempt to move away from the grit and realism that prior films had infused into its characters, but it creates a whole new set of problems by targeting what is essentially the “Hot Topic” audience of scene kids and would-be Harley Quinns, and unashamedly trotting out another ensemble cast (one with even more starpower, considering Margot Robbie, Will Smith, and Jared Leto all star in the film) and begging them to make some money.
If this fails to become a critical and commercial success, then the company risks not being able to justify any future films past the two that are already in production: Wonder Woman and The Justice League. This means that it is very possible that we are looking at a scenario in which Wonder Woman becomes DC’s last glimmer of hope for a successful cinematic universe, as its release and reception will undoubtedly decide whether or not people decide to flock to the theaters for the Justice League film. At a certain point, fans and moviegoers will have had enough and refuse to continue supporting films that don’t do the characters justice, and instead exist as a means to cash in on a trend that they once were good enough to survive without due to the quality filmmaking of a visionary director.