I think I’m on record now as disliking the recent offerings from the DC Expanded Universe (DCEU), from Man of Steel through to Suicide Squad, I think they’ve ranged from tedious to plain shitty.
But when did the, admittedly subjective, ‘rot’ set in? Well, I have a bold hypothesis which is going to annoy a lot of people.
I think Christopher Nolan, the auteur director behind such films as The Prestige, Inception and The Dark Knight Trilogy ruined the DCEU.
Now before you light up the Batfan sign and summon a swarm of rabid fans to take me to Arkham Asylum for the Critically Insane I should clarify that I love Nolan’s Batman series.
The first two films are pure genius and the third, while flawed, is still far better than an awful lot of other superhero films. I’d even go so far as to that The Dark Knight is possibly the greatest superhero movie ever made.
So why do I think that Nolan ruined DC? Well the devil’s in the detail my friends and involves a look at DC movie history and some hypothesising on my part. You see while Nolan may have created one of the greatest superhero movies ever, it’s not the best comic book movies
Nolan set out to create a world where it was both believable that a billionaire would dress up like a Bat and fight crime but also feel real and grounded. And despite how ludicrous it sounds, he succeeded.
When Nolan introduced the world to his interpretation of Bruce Wayne in 2004 audiences were stunned. This was a dark, gritty and believable superhero film that fans and critics loved.
Then DC attempted to resurrect another classic franchise, Superman, and when he returned in 2006 it wasn’t to rapturous applause but indifferent shrugs of, ‘he’s alright that Superman’.
Hardly the rapturous applause of their next effort, The Dark Knight, which as I say has been lauded as one of the greatest films ever made and is one of the few superhero films to have any success at The Oscars when the late Heath Ledger won the Best Supporting gong.
Those in charge at Warner Bros must have been on cloud nine but there was some red and gold trouble on the horizon.
In 2008 Marvel Studios used a box of scraps to put together the first entry in their cinematic universe Iron Man and it was a modest success, not that this was a worry to DC.
In 2008 The Hulk smashed into cinemas, then in 2010 Iron Man 2 and finally in 2011 Thor and Captain America. Meanwhile DC had only released one other superhero film Green Lantern the same year and it had bombed – hard!
While Superman Returns had been a modest success Green Lantern barely earned back its budget and was a critical bomb nearly ruining Ryan Reynold’s career.
But DC had an ace up their sleeve the final instalment in The Dark Knight trilogy and they would rise!
Or at least that was the plan. Unfortunately for them they’d lost a lot of ground to their distinguished competition over at Marvel Studios who’s since been acquired by Warner Bros. eternal rival Disney… and they were building a cinematic universe.
DC – rather arrogantly if I’m honest – dismissed the concept of the cinematic universe, and put all their efforts into the final Nolan Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises.
Unfortunately they were beaten again and Marvel released their seminal film The Avengers in 2o12 the same year as the Dark Knight was suppose to rise again.
While both films were very successful it was The Avengers that went on to become the highest grossing film that year while The Dark Knight Rises had to settle for third place.
Worse than that they were about to lose their trump card, Christopher Nolan who’d always been the critic’s darling boy. With him gone how could they compete with Marvel?
Well, and this is my own hypothesis, I speculate they decided that if Nolan wouldn’t make more films they’d replicate his dark gritty style while also setting up their own cinematic universe.
Why do I think this? Well you have to remember that film making is a business and business men are at heart conservative people. If they think they’ve got a winning formula they’ll stick to it.
Nolan had proven with his gritty and grounded movies that superhero films could be both artistic and earn butt-loads of money. Meanwhile their efforts to make something more comicbooky, Superman Returns and Green Lantern had failed.
Marvel meanwhile had proven that people would pay to see a cinematic universe, so why not combine Nolan’s grim and gritty world with a cinematic universe? Surely it would be a license to print money?
The answer is yes… and no.
In 2013 Warner Bros released The Man of Steel, a film that was intended to launch their own cinematic universe and the stylish director behind 300 and Watchmen, Zack Snyder was behind it.
Unfortunately the reception to the film was mixed with critics alike believing that the big blue boy scout’s first outing should have been a lighter and frothier affair than we got.
Fans seemed to agree and voted with their wallets, preferring Shane Black’s out of the box Iron Man 3 and Man of steel finished fifth in worldwide box office 2013, two places behind rivals Marvel.
Of course this was by no means a massive disaster and convinced DC that Snyder, for good and bad, was the man to build their cinematic universe. Unfortunately DC seemed determined to cling on to Nolan’s dark vision of the DCEU and it showed.
Why? Well I speculate that Nolan loved Batman and had something to say with his realistic approach to the characters about escalating conflict and the nature of obsession. Zack Snyder on the other hand either has nothing to say or isn’t competent enough of a story teller to weave the narrative he thinks he is.
The next two films in the DCEU Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad both followed the pattern and were dour, sombre messes of films that felt like an abortive attempt at rushing an expanded universe fully developed feature in its own right and critics hated them citing obvious studio interference as the main reason the films failed to impress.
Zack Snyder and the studio see the superficial elements of The Dark Knight Trilogy and thinks they’re what made it succeed with audiences not that they were great stories that just happened to involve Batman.
Still DC’s films have all earned money (just about) and those conservative business men who we spoke about earlier love money so they continue to think their universe building is working, but is it?
In my, admittedly limited, experience patience is wearing thin with the DCEU with many friends and colleagues telling me they’re not interested in Wonder Woman or Justice League after being burnt by DC too many times.
Only time will tell whether Wonder Woman will make or break the franchise, but you can guarantee Warners will be keeping a close eye on the movie.
Is it too late for the DCEU? Well, maybe and maybe not. In recent months directors have left projects over purported differences in vision for the future of the franchise but their have been positive steps taken as well.
Geoff Johns has been brought on-board as a Kevin Feige type to steer the DCEU ship and recent productions seem to be moving ahead nicely with Wonder Woman’s early screenings getting a positive reaction.
In conclusion the reason that Nolan ruined the DC-verse was he had his own unique vision that the studio has attempted to replicate without any understanding for why his films worked.
Here’s hoping Wonder Woman and the Justice League can rescue us all from this mediocrity.