The Beginnings and the Snyder Era

A Post-Mortem for the DCEU, Part 1

With the release of Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom we now officially have the end of the DC Extended UniverseStarted as DC Comics' answer to the MCU, the early films in the franchise stumbled out of the gates, often mired in grim-dark storytelling and the rushed need to get this franchise started. Eventually, though, the films began to even out, becoming better as they went along. Still, this franchise has a long way to go before it's true completion for Marvel's universe.. It’s true that this isn’t the end of DC’s ambitions to make their own cinematic universe of superhero films (although with the way that the Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. is currently struggling, it’s entirely possible that we could see large superhero franchises go dormant eventually), but their next step will be to remake the universe into the DC Universe, spearheaded by James Gunn and Peter Safran, with a whole new slate of actors playing the classic comic book characters. What started 11 years ago with Man of Steel has now come to an end and whatever we get next, starting with Creature Commandos on MaxThe oldest and longer-running cable subscription service, HBO provides entertainment in the force of licensed movies along with a huge slate of original programming, giving it the luster of the premiere cable service. Now known primarily for its streaming service, Max. in late 2004 and then Superman: Legacy in 2005, will be a different universe (in most respects).

With the universe at a close, it’s the perfect time to look back and see the rise, drop, and long-running fall of the second most successful (which isn’t really all that successful at all) cinematic universe.

How It Started

To trace the rise of the DCEU we actually have to go back further, to where it all began. In 1989, DC and Warner Bros. released Batman, the Tim Burton-directed, Michael Keaton-starring film that went on to become a monster hit. That film was a massive success, both in terms of its own Box Office ($411.6 Mil against a $46 Mil budget) as well as all the merchandise DC was able to sell on the back of the film. Most reports state that more money was made on other materials than the film itself, which is impressive.

With Batman, DC’s filmic ambitions were sealed. More successful than Superman: The Movie, Batman illustrated to DC just how successful they could be with the right film. Follow-up movies weren’t as successful, mind you, with Batman Returns being a touch of a misfire with fans (if still moderately successful at the Box Office), and while Batman Forever did do decent ticket numbers (and sold a lot of merch), the final film of that set, Batman & Robin, was generally reviled by everyone. Even still, DC wanted more.

For years they tried to get other works up and running. A Superman follow-up, The Death and Return of Superman, went through several rewrites (including, famously, a turn from Kevin Smith) before eventually morphing into Superman Returns (which also failed to set the world on fire). A long gestating Superman / Batman movie kept almost happening and then failing to get into production. George Miller worked on a Justice League movie for a time, before that too was thrown in the trash can by DC. The only films we got were poorly conceived fare, like Catwoman and Steel, and no one wants to think about those movies.

That was until Batman Begins. Like with Superman, DC had wanted a solid follow-up to Batman as well. A Batman Beyond movie was bandied about, while a fifth film in the Batman ‘89 series was roundly rejected. It was Christopher Nolan who had the right vision, and the right pitch, and he was able to get a grounded, serious take on the Caped Crusader to work. While Batman Begins was a sleeper hit (it’s take of “just” $373.7 Mil against a $150 Mil budget would b e considered a failure today, but in the era when DVD sales helped buoy a film after it left theaters, often times doubling the take for the studios on the back end, it was quite the success… eventually), it’s sequel, The Dark Knight, blew the doors open. That film made over $1 Bil in 2008, a record for superhero films at the time, and it gave DC the gold standard superhero film they wanted. Sure, the final film of the trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, wasn’t as well liked but it was just as successful, and DC knew what they wanted: “more of that, please.”

Although Nolan wasn’t interested in doing a Superman film, he and his brother, Johnathan, did have ideas they could funnel off to the next person. And that was good because, without the solid, grounded approach, DC couldn’t quite get their ambitions off the ground (see 2011’s Green Lantern, which was meant to start DC’s cinematic universe right up until it face-planted). The production team talked to Zack Snyder, and, with a script by David S. Goyer, based on a story from Goyer and Nolan, Snyder was able to bring this new vision of the DC’s cinematic universe to life.

The Rise of the DCEU

Snyder was… an interesting choice, to be sure. He has a certain cinematic flair to his works, and sometimes he can find a certain kind of slow-motion brilliance. If we’re being kind, Snyder is an acquired taste (and if we’re being unkind, he’s a hack). Thing is, though, that he had found success adapting comic works to the big screen. He found huge success with his super-stylized, seemingly ripped right from the pages adaptation of 300, which pulled in $456 Mil against a budget of only $46 Mil. And then he got to play with one of DC’s side properties, Watchmen, and while that film wasn’t anywhere near as successful (only making $187 Mil), it did get him the contacts with DC for the studio heads to be willing to take a chance on the director.

And, in fairness to Snyder, his first film in the burgeoning DCEU was a success. Man of Steel was able to pull in a solid $668 Mil. While that isn’t anywhere near the heights eventually reached by the MCU, for the era it came out $668 was respectable. It shows that DC had what it took to compete with Marvel on their level, to go toe to toe with their biggest rival and competitor. Whether the film was meant to be the start of a cinematic universe or now (and some reports go one way or the other on it probably because, behind the scenes, DC was hedging their bets just in case they had another Green Lantern on their hands) it did well enough to become that standard bearer.

So from one perspective, making Man of Steel the start of the cinematic universe was a good idea. From another, though, it meant that DC’s ambitions started off on a bad foot. Snyder has a specific vision and, deep down, he really doesn’t understand SupermanThe first big superhero from DC Comics, Superman has survived any number of pretenders to the throne, besting not only other comic titans but even Wolrd War II to remain one of only three comics to continue publishing since the 1940s.. While Synder’s film is flashy and glossy and full of the kinds of action Snyder fans love, he doesn’t really give us Superman. He has a guy in a blue and red suit with a big “S” on his chest, yes. His character comes from Krypton, sure. Superman, though, is supposed to be a beacon of hope, someone the world rallies around. The Big, Blue Boy Scout. Snyder’s Superman, no matter how well portrayed by Henry Cavill, was not that character. He was dark, morose, with conflicting messages told to (and about) the hero of “hide your powers because humanity can‘t be trusted” and “you don’t owe them anything, Clark.” It just doesn’t work.

And yet that was where we started, and Snyder was then allowed to continue. Three years later we then got Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that proved Snyder didn’t understand DC’s heroes at all. Not only is Superman not a beacon of hope (and the few times the film tries to nod towards him inspiring people it undercuts it by making him into a literal Jesus allegory), the film also bungles BatmanOne of the longest running, consistently in-print superheroes ever (matched only by Superman and Wonder Woman), Batman has been a force in entertainment for nearly as long as there's been an entertainment industry. It only makes sense, then that he is also the most regularly adapted, and consistently successful, superhero to grace the Silver Screen.. Here he’s a murderous, rage filled psychopath who terrorizes Gotham. It’s like Synder saw a few episodes of Batman: The Animated Series but didn’t internalize anything that Batman was actually about. “Oh, he’s cool and he fights crime dressed like a bat.” His Batman has more in common with the Comedian in Watchmen than the hero we actually know.

Of course, the real issue with the story is that it was predicated on a need to have Batman and Superman fight. This was the big selling point, and it was the focus of every Superman / Batman film that DC had bandied about for years. “We can’t just have them be hero buddies. They aren’t Super Friends. The need to fight!” The film feels like it was written backwards from that goal, getting Batman to beat the shit out of Superman, and then everything in the first two hours goes to filling that. And then Superman says, “Martha”, and suddenly their buds. It’s stupid.

The film was financially successful, pulling in $874.4 Mil, but it was lambasted by critics. While fans of Snyder defend it, most people generally ignore the film now because, for all its flash and combat, there’s very little meat that actually works in the film. And it ends so randomly: Wonder Woman shows up to help, Superman suddenly has to fight Doomsday, and the heroes wander off, weepy, knowing that Superman gave his life because… reasons? But he’ll rise again, of course, just like Jesus. Again, it’s stupid.

The critical drubbing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice received did cause DC some fits. On the one hand, they had a successful movie. At the same time, maybe it could have been more successful if it wasn’t just Snyder’s id distilled into cinematic form. To test whether their films could be more successful if DC brought in a stronger hand they decided to fuck around with Suicide Squad. This wasn’t a Snyder film, but instead was written and directed by David Ayer. In fairness to DC there’s no proof that his version of the film, before the studio suits meddled, would have been better (the “Ayer Cut” has never been released), but it’s certainly true that it couldn’t have been much worse.

The issue with Suicide Squad is that it desperately wants to be all things to all people. It wants to be a gritty, grim-dark film about a bunch of criminals forced into service to fight metahuman threats (or die trying). It also wants to be a buddy comedy about a bunch of goofballs having a grand old time (while fighting metahuman threats). It wants to be edgy and violent and hard-as-nails but also friendly and candy-colored with mass appeal. It went through three edits over the course of its production, and the final version feels like three films slapped together without any rhyme or reason.

When you watch it you’re left wondering what the vision was going to be. How much of this mess was Ayer’s fault? How much came about due to reshoots? Where is the line in this frankensteined monster of a film and what could have been for all these characters with a single, cohesive vision. We won’t really ever know, but audiences certainly didn’t enjoy the film they got. Despite it $749.2 Mil at the Box Office (a solid amount at the time for superhero films), it too was dragged by critics and audiences, and it remains one of the least loved films in the DCEU.

It’s also worth noting that this whole situation – Man of Steel into Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice into Suicide Squad – left the universe feeling rushed and weirdly bloated from the outset. Marvel spent time building their cinematic universe, slowly developing each hero before finally having them all crossover in The Avengers four years after their ambitions started. DC, though, went right from a solo film into a big crossover and then introduced a bunch of villains free of the context of the heroes that were supposed to fight them, and just expected fans to keep up. It was confusing and weird and it lacked the care Marvel had put in. DC wanted to compete and they didn’t want to wait. This was, of course, the wrong move.

Still, one (financial) success after another did leave DC with building momentum. Audiences might have dragged the films after seeing them, but they were seeing them. So the train kept rolling. The next film on the docket was Wonder Woman which would mark the first time the Amazonian princess would ever get her own film on the big screen (she had been in made-for-TV movies, TV shows, and animated films, though). This was a huge moment since DC would actually beat Marvel to the punch. Instead of trying to play catch up, rushing their cinematic universe into existence, they would finally be able to say, “we did this first!” And that first was having a female-led superhero movie in their universe.

I am a fan of Wonder Woman because it is two-thirds of a good movie. The opening act sees the origin story for Diana, her life on Themyscira, and then the arrival of ace fighter pilot Steve Trevor. The two leads, Diana and Steve, are great and there’s so much care put into this act. It’s involving and interesting and everything the previous three films were not. While those movies clearly didn’t understand any of their characters, Wonder Woman perfectly nails Diana and Steve in this first act.

The second act is even better as it sees Steve and Diana head to England to join the war effort. The Great War is raging across Europe and Diana wants to help. She goes with Steve to the front line to help try and stop a German general and his insane mad scientist who have plans to destroy the allies with poison gas. And then Diana rises up as a hero and proves she can really be a beacon of hope, the best of us. Her fight in the “No Man’s Land” is a showstopper and, in any other movie, would have been the climax of the film.

Sadly, this wasn’t any other film and where other movies would have had the sense to get out right there, Wonder Woman has a tacked on third act that ruins all the charm of the film. What was a solid character piece with grounded action becomes a bloated, CGI-filled mess with Diana taking on the god of war, Ares. It’s at this point that most viewers in the audience tune out and the film just kind of sputters along to its ending. It doesn’t entirely ruin the film, but it’s not the big climax the film actually needed. It’s a bit tragic. Still, of the four released up til then, Wonder Woman was the best of the set, and its Box Office ($824 Mil) reflected that.

And then, that same year, we saw the end of the Snyder era for the DCEU. By this point reports were that even DC was getting tired of Snyder’s influence on their franchise. He made them money but audiences weren’t digging his vibe. As the lead of their cinematic universe (their version of Marvel’s Kevin Feige) he wasn’t cutting it. There had been talks about moving on from Snyder for their future films, they just had to get through Justice League, the last of the films he was contracted to make (even if he had plans for two more volumes in his grand series that he wanted to make) to do it.

Well, until Synder had to step down as director of the project midway into production. Tragically his daughter committed suicide and the director couldn’t deal with that and the stress of the studio production so near the end of his filming he left and DC brought in Joss Wheddon, who had be the guy that made The Avengers into a $1.5 Bil hit for Marvel, to take over on the film. They gave him carte blanche to remake the film, to rewrite, reshoot, edit, and do whatever he could to salvage the movie and make it something, well, less Zack Snyder.

The resulting film was, well, not good. It felt like two films fighting from control of the screen, one a grim-dark adventure about seeming anti-heroes doing vigilante work and the other a lighter, happier film about super friends. The seams of the film were clear, and while fans hadn’t necessarily enjoyed all aspects of Snyder’s aesthetic, they absolutely hated what Wheddon did to the film. What was supposed to be the grand crossover of the heroes, DC’s answer to Marvel’s The Avengers, ended up making only $661.3 Mil against a bloated budget of $300 Mil, rating it as an absolute failure in the eyes of DC. Every Marvel movie released the same year, 2017, made at least $200 Mil more and none of them were big, crossover films that had been in development for half a decade.

DC was left floundering and they had to figure out where to go from there. Someplace new, someplace different, someplace that didn’t involve either Zack Synder or Joss Wheddon… And we’ll cover that in part two of this feature (as this article has already gotten massively long).