Last week, DC Entertainment CEO Geoff Johns addressed complaints from fans and critics about the thematic tone of the company’s cinematic universe. Johns acknowledged that the films were too dark and gritty, promising that the future of the universe, including director Zack Snyder’s upcoming Justice League film, was going to look a little brighter and more optimistic.
Here’s the problem: Snyder created the universe in which these superheroes exist, and he has no plans to go anywhere anytime soon. This is the challenge when you start with your biggest characters and branch out from there. Your tone is already set.
The reverse Avengers
It may not matter that Johns, Snyder and DC as a whole are finally ready to embrace a more lighthearted world where the heroes are a bit less dour, because the universe is already in motion.
At this point, how much can you change Batman or Superman’s character without making them feel like different people? The heartbroken, angry and revenge-seeking Bruce Wayne is the Batman modern DC audiences know, because that’s how he was introduced in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The isolated, confused and self-sacrificing Clark Kent is the Superman that we’ve seen in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman.
Not only that, but Snyder is now setting up a whole new series focused on seven heroes: The Justice League. This would be fine if DC approached its films the way Marvel did, but it hasn’t. It went the opposite way, and that's a problem.
Marvel introduced people to Iron Man in 2008, followed by Captain America and Thor. Prior to that, the Hulk had received a couple of films that, while not great, at least introduced movie audiences to a modern interpretation of character. The only new characters that Marvel introduced in 2012 with the first Avengers movie were Hawkeye and Black Widow.
Instead of having one director set up how each individual character would appear in the universe, Marvel let each character flourish under different directors and then brought them together. The tone of these films was all over the place, allowing Joss Whedon to a voice for the team that was a mixture of everything that came before. One director made some chocolate, another had made marshmallow, and then Whedon was able to look at everything and think “holy shit I can do S'mores with this!”
And lo, it was delicious.
Warner Bros. didn’t do that. In an attempt to catch up with Marvel, DC decided to introduce Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman before jumping right into Justice League. The most popular characters have already been introduced by Snyder, and they've already worked together, and the tone for the whole mess has been set. Snyder made a terrible sandwich and now Warner Bros. is trying to convince us that a new director will be able to make just the lettuce delicious.
Changing the tone of an entire universe is already a difficult process, but deciding to do that while giving the same director the keys to the entire kingdom is even more challenging. Not only do the upcoming standalone films have to come from the universe Snyder created in the first two movies, they're also ultimately going to have to fit into the team up that Snyder is also directing. The directors being brought in to “save” the tone of the DC franchise are stuck with grimdark both in front and behind them.
It may not be this bad
Now, to be fair to Snyder, the director claims otherwise. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the release of Batman v Superman, the director said that one of the reasons they wanted to bring more directors on board to help craft the DC cinematic universe was to ensure that each film felt different. Snyder told the magazine that there’s a “danger when you try to mimic things like tone” and they didn’t want every movie to feel like the same experience.
Executive producer Deborah Snyder added that it was very important to the studio that each movie had its own tone and that the filmmakers were given the creative freedom they needed to make the movies they wanted. While the studio would have final say over what idea for a character made it into the final script, and in turn, the film people would see, they wanted an amalgamation of talents.
Warner Bros. decided to bring out the big guns early in the cycle to kickstart The Justice League
Again, to their credit, both Snyders are aware of the issue facing the universe, but they’re not addressing the main problem. As long as Snyder is in charge of setting up universes for characters, there needs to be a bit of synchronization between directors to ensure it feels like it’s one world. That’s why there are moments in Suicide Squad that make the film feel like it’s attempting to be dark and gritty — most of them concerning Batman — while the rest of it tries to pack in as much absurdist story beats as possible. The weight of Snyder's vision is to going to be hard to escape.
Although the change in direction didn’t land with audiences as much as Warner Bros. wished it would have, it’s the first time since the DC cinematic universe began that something seemed different. Johns is set on making sure future movies aren’t as downright grim as Batman v Superman or Man of Steel, and Warner Bros. seems like it’s heading in a slightly more Marvel direction, although far from being that family friendly. For a split second, it almost feels like everyone has figured out how to diminish the criticism they receive time and time again while still appealing to fans.
The lingering question is whether that can happen at this point with so much of Snyder’s influence tied so heavily to the universe. Bringing more directors on board means there’s room for growth and exploration in the DC universe, but in order to remain as consistent and coherent as possible, Snyder’s original conception for the world will have to appear in every film in every way. Especially since these characters are being introduced on the path to The Justice League film.
Warner Bros. decided to bring out the big guns early in the cycle to kickstart The Justice League, but the films were critical disasters. Marvel plays it safe by making sure characters and tones can be removed or kept from the Avengers if they don't work out, but Warner Bros. doesn't have that safety valve; Snyder's vision and sensibilities are shot through these films on both sides. It was a risky gamble that didn't pay off.