In less than a month, Warner Bros. and subsidiary DC Comics will launch the DC Cinematic Universe, the long-awaited, fully-integrated movie universe that will at last unite Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and all the rest of the DC roster together in one continuous, glorious live-action film series.
Well, hopefully glorious, anyway. Time will tell, though no one can deny the DCCU has some enormous obstacles to overcome, and not all of them bad or even related to the new movies themselves. So, before justice dawns, here’s a look at the biggest hurdles the DCCU must overcome to succeed, and how, if at all, a group of ambitious filmmakers and executives can see their superheroes take flight.
10. The Legacy
DC might have gotten a late start when it comes to the superhero movie explosion, but wise readers will recall when the party actually started: 1979. That year Richard Donner’s triumphant Superman hit screens with groundbreaking visual effects and storytelling tropes that have since become standard for the genre. Donner took the material seriously, and sought to make a real film about real people living in the world of Superman. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan subsequently took the same approach with the Batman films.
In short, the new DCCU heroes have some pretty big tights to fill if they hope to make an impression on the audience. The first two Superman films and the Dark Knight trilogy helped define the modern superhero movie concept, and, as the glut of superhero films has somewhat proven, making a movie that can stand along those giants isn’t easy.
9. The TV Problem
While Marvel movies have ruled the box office, DC properties have taken over the small screen. Arrow, Gotham, The Flash, Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow have all scored huge ratings and devoted fan followings. Those same fans may not willingly accept alternate versions of their favorite characters with ease.
The same issue plagued Superman Returns in 2007: while that movie had other problems, the popularity of the TV show Smallville might have hurt its box office potential. Though the production value and especially the acting quality of that show were sub-par, fans loved the soapy approach the show took to the material. That contrasted hard with the nostalgic tone of Returns and may have disappointed fans just wanting to see another episode.
8. Mixed Beginning
The integrated DCCU actually began in 2013 with Man of Steel, a Superman reboot which debuted to a mixed reception. While the new cast and production value earned almost universal praise, the mature approach to the Superman character as well as the level of violence of the film shocked viewers. That reception, in a way, hastened the creation of the DCCU–rather than proceed with a direct Man of Steel sequel which would focus only on Superman, Warner Bros. decided to introduce Batman to buoy the franchise and provide the start of the broader universe. The move betrays some trepidation that the studio has over their comfort level with Man of Steel and in the public sphere, seemed to affirm the desperation of the studio. Which brings me to…
7. Nasty Internet
…the Internet. What did the world do before this digital echo chamber provided an outlet for anyone to share an opinion, no matter how ridiculous or uninformed? Had the ‘net existed in 1989, God knows what fate would have befallen the original Batman, which had comedian Michael Keaton in the lead, and a director of weird comedy in Tim Burton at the helm. While the movie is far from perfect, Burton’s esoteric vision and Keaton’s quiet intensity made Gotham City credible, and the movie became one of the biggest hits in history. Had fan skepticism and outrage had the internet to fuel and feed into itself at the time, the movie might never have been finished! The same negativity swarms Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and not just over having the worst title in history. In that respect, it’s not enough that the movie sell tickets, it has to be indisputably good enough to silence its preliminary detractors.
6. Mythic Beginnings
When considering an adaptation of any DC character to the big screen, remember: the characters come from a different time. Marvel first emerged in the 1960s, and their heroes reflect the social crises and storytelling styles of the time. By contrast, the DC characters emerged over a much longer period, and have their roots in a very different storytelling style: pulp fiction.
Oft-branded as cheap, campy and disposable, the DC heroes were not initially given real pathos–that came later as younger writers updated the characters to new eras. Some, like Batman, transition well. A character like Superman–for all practical purposes, an invulnerable alien god–creates a problem for writers, since he can do just about anything. That hasn’t stopped comic writers, or even TV scribes from telling cartoony stories over the years, but it does illustrate the limitations of the character: he can only be a cartoon.
Lovers of the MCU have a great time shaming DC fans since the publisher and parent studio can’t “get it together” to do an integrated movie universe despite less legal restrictions and licensing hang ups. They’d do well to remember that the DC heroes have fundamental differences from the Marvel roster.
For one thing, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the majority of the Marvel titles in the 1960s as part of an integrated universe. Not so with the DC heroes, who were created to exist in their own universes and not crossover ones. DC of course integrated their comic heroes decades ago, but the publisher has never overcome the absurdity of a human vigilante, a magical goddess and an alien juggernaut all occupying the same frame. A live action film poses an issue, then, because the characters are no longer drawings on a page–they’re real people, who suddenly seem really ridiculous standing next to each other.
4. Tonal Shift
And therein lies the other big problem of an integrated universe: tone. While Wonder Woman comics could indulge in old-school sword and sorcery tales, mixing her in with the sci-fi stylings of Superman or Green Lantern, or the brooding mysteries of Batman creates a kind of schizoid tone, not to mention plot hurdles. How can Batman pose a threat to a Superman villain like Brainiac? If Wonder Woman’s deity origins are so powerful, why do they not restore Krypton or bring Bruce Wayne’s parents back to life? Exactly what is the appropriate style for a mix of magic, sci-fi and mystery?
If the previous cinematic outings of Batman and Superman have proven one thing, it’s that translating a comic book character to the screen isn’t easy. Assimilating two into the same universe despite their tonal contrasts would be even harder, but all three, with more heroes to come? What story could hold all of them together without seeming ridiculous?
3. The Marvel Juggernaut
Marvel has made a killing at the box office since 2008 and no doubt the company’s success hastened the development of a DCCU. The Marvel movies also have set another precedent: people liked them. While the Marvel canon is more uneven than fans want to acknowledge–movies like the Iron Man sequels bludgeoned the audience, while The Incredible Hulk remains forgotten–on the whole, the movies have pleased viewers, due in part to an increasingly formulaic and boring approach. Still, in the beginning, the Marvel movies had more defined identity, and a more director-driven approach. It was not until the release of The Avengers that every Marvel movie essentially had to be a clone of, and advertisement for, what came before and after.
Warner Bros. has taken a huge gamble by lumping the entire DCCU into one film, rather than taking time to cultivate each hero into a successful film and then combine them. Should Batman v. Superman flop, it could weigh down the entire slate of DC films.
2. The Green Lantern Debacle
Let’s not forget that Warner Bros. and DC tried to jumpstart their integrated universe years ago with Green Lantern. The unfortunate few who suffered through that mess will recall (or not, if they were lucky enough to block it from memory) that the character Amanda Waller appeared in the movie as embodied by Angela Bassett. The intention of the studio was to use the character much like the Marvel films use Samuel L. Jackson‘s Nick Fury–as a go-between uniting all the different characters. The box office failure of Green Lantern iced Warners intentions, though they would try again.
1. The Letter R
And then came Deadpool! While the film scored mixed reviews, audience enthusiasm propelled the film to record-breaking box office tallies. In the reactionary world of Hollywood, the success of the film creates a mandate: people want R-rated superhero movies. It took no time at all for Fox to announce the next Wolverine film would carry an R-rating, and Warners immediately announced a more violent, adult-themed cut of Batman v. Superman would see release, possibly even in theatres.
For a business model trying to copy the disposable, Saturday Morning Cartoon appeal of the MCU, that’s bad news: families will avoid the film, which will, in turn, hurt tie-in merchandise and cross promotion. Older fans may not mind the muted publicity blitz, but given the exorbitant cost of producing superhero movies, the studio bosses might scoff. An R-rating trend puts the DCCU in an almost impossible position: keep cranking out PG-13 movies and look behind the times, or shoot harder content. Should the studio select the latter option, it again will face an impossible choice: edit the movies down for theatres, which will then feel incomplete, and release harder cuts on Blu-Ray, which will simultaneously seem like a money grab or put R-rated cuts in cinemas, and risk alienating a large audience demographic.
DC Comics propagated the myth of the superman. They’ll need real superhuman stamina to overcome their box office hurdles.