Ever since Marvel’s epic gamble, taking a number of its B-list superheroes and putting them all in one big cinematic universe, paid off in genuinely epic fashion, pretty much every film studio out there has been searching through their assorted properties, looking for something that they can use to assemble their own shared universe, in a quest to try to ensnare audiences in a money-making machine that’ll pay out handsomely for years to come. Some seem pretty workable – 20th Century Fox, for example, have the rights to Marvel’s X-Men comics and have been milking them, with varying degrees of success, for years. Universal are looking at the classic Hammer Horror monsters, with this year’s The Mummy as the first entry, backed up by already scheduled movies for the Invisible Man and the Wolf Man and no doubt others to come. Columbia appear to be looking at their Ghostbusters franchise, although it remains to be seen whether those plans remain intact after the iffy box office performance of the recent reboot. Warner Bros, in addition to returning to their previous box office juggernaut, the Harry Potter films with Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, are looking at their recent Godzilla movie, producing more movies set around other giant monsters who can, at some point, meet up and beat the living daylights out of each other. This is why Kong, in trailers for the upcoming Kong: Skull Island, is, not to put too fine a point on it, frakking enormous, to put him closer in size to Godzilla.
The jewel in the Warner Bros crown, however, is their direct competitor to Marvel’s output, their DC Comics-based movies, featuring such luminaries as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and, on this front, I have to confess, I’m a bit concerned.
We’re now three films into the DC Extended Universe, as they’re calling it, and it’s safe to say that things have not gone as smoothly as they might like. Man of Steel, the revamped Superman origin story that started things off, was greeted with rather mixed reviews by both critics and fans alike. Some loved it, others decried the rather grim tone of the film or what they perceived as serious liberties being taken with the iconic character, pointing to the sheer level of destruction in the final act of the film and the slaying of the film’s antagonist as things that the classic Superman character simply would not have done. Personally, I rather like the film; while unquestionably flawed, I think it generally does more things right than it gets wrong, and it was moderately successful commercially, setting things up for the next entry in the series.
It’s probably not an understatement that people were quite excited for the follow-up when it was announced. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would be pitting the two most iconic superheroes ever against each other, would bring in a new version of Superman’s nearly-as-iconic nemesis Lex Luthor and, particularly notable, would feature the cinematic debut of Wonder Woman, pretty much the only female superhero with a genuine claim to iconic status. The studio assured the waiting public that they would learn from the mistakes of Man of Steel and, despite the presence of divisive director Zack Snyder at the helm, there was a certain expectation that what was coming really could be something special.
What we got really, well… wasn’t.
Batman v Superman does have its moments, but they’re quite few and far between. Honestly, it really seemed like they took the flaws that many complained about in Man of Steel and, instead of addressing them, took them to a whole new level. The film is almost unremittingly bleak and, while Superman may arguably be closer to his iconic characterisation, Lex Luthor’s depiction is just plain weird and Batman’s borders on unrecognisable. The film made a decent profit, although ultimately took far less than it should have done given the iconic nature of the characters that it had to work with, but was pretty much panned critically.
The critical failure of BvS may well not have helped the third entry in the series, Suicide Squad. There is considerable evidence that, amid the fallout of the critical mauling that BvS got, worried studio executives ordered significant reshoots, presumably to attempt to resolve any issues that they felt the film might share with its predecessor. While late reshoots don’t necessarily indicate a problem – most major films do some – it doesn’t seem like they did Suicide Squad any favours, resulting in a movie that was wildly inconsistent in tone, presumably as the studio-mandated new scenes clashed badly with those already shot. Like BvS, the film did reasonably good box office, but also failed to receive much appreciation critically.
I probably know what some of you are thinking right now – if they’re bringing in the money, should the studios even care about what the critics think? It’s a fair point, can’t deny it. Certainly the Transformers series of movies have conclusively proved that critical acclaim and strong box office don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. But, ultimately, it is fair to say that making a better movie will certainly not do any harm to the box office and can be decidedly positive, as a better movie will generate more repeat viewing. Better movies are also likely to help with the box office on later movies. It’s well established that, while a poor entry in a franchise may still do well, whatever follows it up, no matter how good it might be, often (but, to be fair, not always) ends up with a considerably lower take. DC are three movies in to their shared universe and, so far, all three of those films are, at best, divisive. That’s going to have an impact; there’s going to be less audience excitement for the next movie in the franchise, which isn’t a situation any company is going to be happy about.
What worries me the most, though, is that I genuinely don’t know if Warner Bros actually has a proper plan. Because it seems to change on an uncomfortably frequent basis. To be fair, on a very basic level, there is a plan that seems to be reasonably set at this point. 2017 will see the arrival of the Wonder Woman solo film, as well as their first big team-up movie, Justice League, featuring the first non-cameo appearances by the Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg, which is all well and good. All three will then get solo films, with The Flash and Aquaman appearing in 2018 and poor old Cyborg forced to wait until 2020, which he’ll share with a Green Lantern reboot, after Shazam and a Justice League sequel in 2019. A Batman solo film is, understandably, something of a no-brainer and is reportedly joining the 2018 lineup under the title of The Batman. What worries me is that they seem to keep announcing additional movies, with no indication that they have any real idea where they’re going to fit in. For example, after Suicide Squad came out, they announced three additional movies – spin-offs Deadshot, starring Will Smith’s character and Gotham City Sirens, starring Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn and other female characters, plus a direct sequel. Now they’re suddenly announcing that, in addition to the Shazam film, they’ll also be doing a companion film, allegedly to come out around the same time, focusing on Dwayne Johnson’s villain character, Black Adam. They also have films, all reportedly solidly into development, based on the Justice League Dark team (featuring various magically inclined characters from the DC Universe), alien bounty hunter Lobo and a sequel to Man of Steel, something that you’d think they’d give a bit more prominence to, somehow. And, needless to say, while undiscussed for the moment, they will look to continue with the solo movies for their main characters, so assume sequels will be in the pipeline for all the aforementioned Justice League members.
That’s sixteen films, all of which are in active development and appear to be intended to come out in the next few years. For a shared universe franchise that, so far, has been struggling to find its feet, one would have to say that that could just be overly ambitious.
It seems to me that, really, Warners need to step back, take a deep breath and calm down a little. They need to be doing a little thinking about quality right now, not quantity. Stick to their basic plan, their central character lineup, put out a couple of movies a year and just take the time to get those right. Get the viewing audience excited about their DC movies again, earn themselves some goodwill, then hit them with the obscurer stuff, because, otherwise, the only people who are going to see these properties that nobody’s really heard of are the die-hard comic book fans. And there just aren’t enough of those to support a big-budget franchise.
DC, you’ve got some great characters, who I really want to see kicking some serious posterior on the big screen in the near future. I’m looking forward to it, truly. All I ask, right now, is that you take a bit of time to do it right, even if that means putting some of your plans on the back-burner, or even cancelling a few of them altogether. Trust me, in the end, it will pay off…