“There Were Perfect Things..” – The Birth of the DCEU
The earlier 2010s were a time of flourishing for Warner Bros.—Harry Potter was wrapping up its incredible franchise and Christopher Nolan was on the cusp of releasing the finale of the iconic Dark Knight trilogy. On Nolan’s push, Zack Snyder was hired to take the reins of the most iconic superhero of all time, and in January 2011, Man of Steel was announced. It was time for Superman to re-emerge and they found the perfect actor for the job in Henry Cavill. Across the pond, Marvel was gearing up for The Avengers, subsequently changing the culture of comic book films for years to come.
Flash forward to 2013 and Man of Steel releases and the DCEU is born. Snyder, seeing how Nolan just wrapped up his Batman story, had a vision not just for Superman, but for the entire DC Universe. Zack spoke on the need for DC to stay on its own path and trajectory, to let Marvel be the juggernaut that it is, while DC builds its own legacy, adhering to its own characters.
Man of Steel quickly became the highest grossing Superman film to date. The film took an honest look at the character of Superman, putting him in a post-9/11 context—society is more fearful of the unknown, and society looked to be more exclusive to protect themselves from the unknown. Dropping Superman in that context was a divisive move, but it worked. The film started off the universe in the most intimate of ways, with a character study of the most iconic fictional character of all time. Unfortunately, the film was met with a lukewarm reception from contemporary critics. A quick glance at the film’s Rotten Tomatoes page shows critics upset that the film was such tonal departure from Donner’s interpretation. While personally speaking, I feel the film was a successor to those films, it can be saved for a different conversation. WB felt that Man of Steel was successful enough to stay on course with their original plan; After all, it made almost double what Superman Returns and Batman Begins did. Later that year, the announcement that will change the future of the DCEU was made—Batman v Superman is announced and Ben Affleck is cast as Batman.
If Man of Steel was Zack Snyder’s heart, Batman v Superman was surely his soul. The film brought the director back to his roots, bringing his own team, mainly Larry Fong, with him to take on the project. The film was the second part of a five-arc story. Following the Heroes Journey in many ways, the second leg of the journey is always the darkest and hardest. The film took the World’s Finest and deconstructed them through the lens of today’s society. The result was a political thriller wrapped around stories of the immigrant and stories of redemption all being expressed through iconic pop culture characters. When I use the word pop culture, it undervalues what Zack thought of these characters. They were mythological icons and needed to be treated with a sense of care. Unfortunately, not only was this film poorly received, it was lambasted by critics. Most of them expressed a disdain for Snyder doubling down on everything they didn’t appreciate about Man of Steel. It was here, at that moment, that the DCEU as we knew it would cease to come to fruition.
“But Things Fall”- The First Mistake
Warner Bros. wavered at the response at Batman v Superman; They were afraid that their film only reached $860 million and stopping just $140m short of the Big Billion. The film remained divisive yet on top of all social conversations that year, outpacing all other blockbusters. The film became a pop culture icon in itself—everyone was talking about it for good or ill. The film’s reputation became bigger than the film itself, changing the rhetoric around it.
WB decided it was time to make the change, a big one. Right around that time, David Ayer was hard at work on Suicide Squad. Those who attend test screenings of original cuts expressed how great the film is. Unfortunately, WB had other plans, with the film going to the editing chamber for a Guardians of the Galaxy makeover. The final product was messy at best. While the film once again found success at the box office, it was lamented by critics as being another step down for the DCEU. WB felt it had no choice, and it hit the proverbial big red button and decided to soft reboot the franchise. More on that in a bit, because in-between an editing fiasco and the final demise came a gem by the name of Wonder Woman.
Patty Jenkins was hired by WB to take the reins of Wonder Woman. After being one of the universal highlights in Batman v Superman, the world was ready to see Wonder Woman in a solo adventure. Not only did she change the landscape of comic book films, but gave WB the first true “win” in their eyes since The Dark Knight. Wonder Woman became the most critically well received film in the franchise. Even still, Wonder Woman perfectly fit in the original DCEU plan. The idea was for a DC Saga akin to Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. There is a “main story” which follows Zack Snyder’s Superman arc and multiple spin offs that adhere to the sandbox that was the DCEU. Directors like Patty Jenkins, James Wan, and David Ayer all were hired to operate in this young but vibrant world. Patty Jenkins created one of the most special comic book films of all time with Wonder Woman and deservingly was given the keys to the character for Wonder Woman 1984.
“And what falls…is fallen.” – The Death of the Original DCEU
Remember the proverbial big red button? WB felt it was time to be pressed. The next film on the slate was Justice League. Zack Snyder’s third film in the DCEU and, according to Campbell’s Heroes Journey, the Death and Rebirth stage of the arc. This is poetically fitting as Superman is currently dead at the start of the film and Justice League would see his rebirth. The film was at the offset more hopeful than Batman v Superman in tone and was intended bring the greatest threat to the forefront. Unfortunately, the only threat greater than Darkseid was WB itself. After a horrible tragedy overtook the Snyder family, WB decided to clean house and redo the film. Bringing in Joss Whedon, the idea was for him to throw out 70% of the film, reduce to the runtime to a brief 2 hours and add in teenage humor, a couple of smiles, and a bubblegum-flavored finish. The result was probably one of the greatest flops in comic book history. With reshoots added in, the budget for Justice League ballooned into becoming the highest in recent memory, yet it only brought in 600 million, the lowest in the franchise. With the original vision thrown into the garbage and the soft reboot in place, WB was expecting new directors to pick up their “cleaned up” Superman and Batman. Unfortunately, this move by WB was the ultimate backfire. Everyone involved in the project took a hit, people were fired, others were given reduced roles and actors found themselves in limbo with their specific roles.
Across the pond again, Marvel was gearing up for Avengers: Infinity War, a culmination that saw all of their heroes come together in a fantastic film. Sadly, DC was almost there with Snyder’s cut of the film. So, who is to blame? Well mostly everyone in the decision making process. Speaking with Clay Enos, Larry Fong, and Jay Oliva taught us one thing about the internal politics at WB: no one had their hands clean in the aftermath of Batman v Superman and Justice League. Is it worth pointing names or sending hate their way? Of course not. At the end of the day, Hollywood is a business and everyone is looking out for themselves and their own careers. WB wanted the success of Disney and caved, executives were under the pressure to deliver on the magic and made rash decisions to reach it. At the end of the day, the only real victims are the directors that had their vision tampered or destroyed. Along this entire time, rumors swelled about Ben Affleck leaving the role of Batman, WB closing the door on Henry Cavill as Superman, and Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher stuck in perpetual limbo. All seems lost for this franchise right? Well, not just yet.
For many fans, Justice League was the breaking point of the franchise. So much negativity clouded the franchise and so many rumors persisted that it seemed that the DCEU just couldn’t get a win anymore. In comes James Wan and Jason Momoa with Aquaman.
Aquaman was in development for years and James Wan had been attached to the project since 2015, one year before Batman v Superman. Wan operated under the original blueprint, with minor adjustments from WB. Wan mostly kept his vision for the character at the forefront but much like Patty Jenkins, also went to Zack as a resource for help. Wan spoke on showing his cut of the film to Zack Snyder right as the film was going into post-production and even made sure to make sure their visions were aligned for the Aquaman character. Flash forward to late 2018 and Aquaman took the world by a hurricane. Amassing an incredible $1.1 billion and becoming the highest grossing DC film of all time, this was a categorical win for the DCEU. While the original five movie arc was gone, Aquaman’s success was a consolation prize for fans as it still showed that there are gems to be found in the universe.
One month after Aquaman, we get the final confirmation of Ben Affleck leaving the role of Batman in the DCEU. Affleck, who is still attached to produce the film, confirmed it with a simple tweet and with that, an era ended. Ben Affleck’s Batman was special in the same way Keaton and Bale were special. They were all meant to service a particular story and vision. While some fans wanted Ben to stay as Batman in the same way RDJ stayed as Iron Man, the contract Affleck signed was only for four films, with one of them being an optional solo. Meaning, he was only really scheduled to appear in Batman v Superman, Justice League and Justice League 2, with an optional solo film and a few cameos thrown in for good measure. Overall, a solid run as the character in line with any other actor. More than anything, Affleck was sold with Snyder’s vision for the character. A character that is brutal, fierce, yet heroic and on a story of redemption and promise.
Unfortunately, WB’s big red button impacted his tenure as Batman as well. Coming off a caricature in the theatrical Justice League, we never truly got to see his brilliance outside of BvS and SS. An excited Affleck showed off costume footage of Deathstoke, and his film, according to Jay Oliva speaking on our podcast, was nothing short of brilliant. In January of 2017, Ben announced he would step down from the directing chair and Matt Reeves was quickly brought in to direct The Batman. Reeves is a film-making genius and the excitement to see him and Ben work together was high. Flash forward to January of 2019, Affleck has exited the role and Reeves will create a new Batman story for the next generation.
“A Beautiful Lie” – The Original Vision
The current state of the DCEU can be explained by two phrases said by Bruce Wayne in Batman v Superman:
A Beautiful Lie. Diamond Absolutes.
Today the DCEU is a far cry from what it once was. Zack Snyder, the original architect for the DCEU and the curator of the epic DC saga that never came to be, is now working with Netflix on Army of the Dead. Ben Affleck, the Batman who never truly got his fair chance to shine, has left the role. Henry Cavill, the actor who started it all in Man of Steel, is almost certainly to never return as Superman. Ezra Miller and Ray Fisher, characters who never had a chance to come into their own are in limbo, with Fisher almost certainty done as Cyborg as well. All that is left of Zack Snyder legacy are his existing films and his brilliant casting and director choosing for Aquaman and Wonder Woman. Both Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa are examples of the brilliance that was in the DCEU and their legacies are now in the hands of strong directors like Patty Jenkins and James Wan. Yet, the original vision still lingers.
Zack Snyder’s original vision will always have a looming effect on the DCEU. His original plan was a Superman-focused DC saga that takes the characters on layered and complex arcs and touched on multiple iconic DC moments in history while also speaking to society at large. The films put Superman on the journey of the immigrant while also keeping him at the center of all the entire universe. It took a grizzled and veteran Batman at the end of his journey and breathed new life and redemption into him, ultimately leading to his own sacrifice. It took Wonder Woman and displayed her in all her might and power as a true cornerstone of the universe. It had the joy and optimism that we all feel in our heroes through The Flash while also making him the driving force for change. The films would have made Cyborg into a superstar hero in pop culture, showing off his power and inspiring nature. Finally, it would make family the forefront of it all. Lois Lane, Martha Kent, Alfred, and so many others would have had hugely important roles in the total picture. When you lose lightning in a bottle, you can never find it again. Unfortunatly, WB lost the lightning in a bottle that was the original DCEU. A tight, focused DC Saga that had multiple spin-offs complementing and layering the characters is now gone, and much of the creative talent left with it. So is the DCEU dead? Or are there still diamond absolutes that remain?
“Diamond Absolutes” – The Future of the DCEU
Hope. The word that acted as the thesis point on 2013’s Man of Steel remains. Is the original DCEU gone? Yes. It is safe to say that unless we see Zack Snyder’s cut of Justice League, all that remains of the original DCEU is gone outside of Wonder Woman and Aquaman. Yet, at the same time, WB seems to slowly be shifting to a direction again, which is better than no direction these past two years. WB has abandoned Snyder’s vision for the DCEU, but it also abandoned its first soft reboot, and realized that they made a mistake messing with Suicide Squad and Justice League. Their new approach? Give the control back to the director again, but this time, with even more power. Patty Jenkins, James Wan, David Sandberg, Cathy Yan, and Matt Reeves have been give something unfortunately previous directors couldn’t get: control. They get to make the films, trilogies, arcs they want with their specific characters with no true adherence to a shared universe. While it is not the preferred plan that fans wanted, at least the franchise is picking itself up with a new game plan. At the end of the day, it is important to contextualize it all. After all, the characters have existed long before any of our favorite versions and they will continue to have an impact long after us. It is unfortunate that Zack Snyder’s vision did not come to pass and the same goes to Ben Affleck leaving Batman and the eventual goodbyes we will have to give to other actors and their roles. The DCEU we were promised ended up being a beautiful lie, yet we can always cherish the diamond absolutes that were Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman. As fans, we can hope that the new directors holding the baton with these characters can deliver on gems as well. After all, much like DCEU’s Superman, we can still have hope.