As I have been busy working on a piece about Zack Snyder’s Justice League (which hopefully you’ll be able to see over at CLAPPER at some point), I have inadvertently found myself following down the rabbit hole of fan theories, interview snippets, off-handed comments posted on social media by people associated with the production and a whole lot more pointing out just how much of a mess it was at the time. And still remains to this day, to be completely frank.
It’s an open secret that WB has been completely mistreating its DC properties for a number of years now and – with a few notable exceptions – their output in this department has not been well-received at all. And a good chunk of the reason why that might be could be associated with the studio’s ambition to create their own version of what Disney/Marvel have: a self-sustaining cinematic universe which generates continuous high profit and ensures a devoted fanbase. However, they have not been able to make it happen (and they likely won’t be, at this point). I have touched upon this when I appeared recently on ClapperCast, but I think this point is worth reiterating: WB is operating using a combination of force feedback and looking at Marvel’s endgame position (pun not intended), which basically means they willingly and knowingly put themselves in a position of playing catch-up with their competition.
This may also have something to do with the way they have historically allowed filmmakers associated with DC-related properties (Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, Christopher Nolan) a fair degree of creative freedom and control over these projects, which arguably yielded net positive results. To this day Tim Burton’s Batman movies are loved by many, while Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy has been considered iconic by the vast majority of fans. In fact, It was Nolan’s take on the DC universe that shaped the initial guise of what the DC cinematic universe was supposed to look like. There is a reason why Man of Steel looks the way it looks and that Zack Snyder was considered a perfect fit to formulate the artistic toolbox for any future films within this universe. WB moguls explicitly wanted (a) to capitalize on the clout generated by Nolan’s movies and (b) to differentiate themselves from Marvel, who were already cashing in on their painstaking and financially risky strategy of building up towards the Avengers tentpole in 2012. In contrast to Marvel, who were driven by their own long-term vision, WB was basing their entire strategy around a reactionary postulate of being not like them.
After Man of Steel brought satisfactory financial results and generated a considerable fan appeal, I distinctly remember the studio was vindicated in their strategy of differentiation and went on record as stating that any future DC movies would be dark, gritty and serious. This coincided with them giving Snyder a bit more freedom to do ‘his thing’, which is exactly what happened after Burton’s Batman became a hit and WB allowed him to go nuts with Batman Returns. This partially explains why the follow-up BvS became what it became: more stylized, denser and more messy (though somewhat loveable). Now, I don’t want this to turn into a historical account of how WB has conducted itself, though some of it may feature in that other piece I am working on, but I do want to point out what happened next. Because BvS was poorly received, WB moguls immediately changed tack and imposed drastic changes in their upcoming features currently in production: Justice League and Suicide Squad, a yet another example of reactionary thinking dictated by nothing more than short-term crisis management as opposed to calculated long-term strategic planning.
Da liegt der Hund begraben, as Germans would say. This is where the problem is. Although I have never considered myself a fan of what Marvel is doing with their idea of terraforming the blockbuster landscape, it has to be acknowledged that what they are doing is clearly working and generates immense profits. And it is most likely thanks to their central planning. Kevin Feige doesn’t hire directors and screenwriters to allow them any latitude to ‘do their thing’. He hires them to do a job and execute on the overarching vision which has been pre-planned, pre-written, and pre-visualised. There is very little room for individuality in the marvel blob (you can read more about it in my piece on WandaVision here) which is a philosophy big studios used to adopt prior to the New Hollywood era. They oversaw their project and retained the last word on anything, which is exactly what Marvel is doing now.
On the other hand, what happens in WB looks completely different because the studio would like to generate the same results while still leading their filmmakers to believe they have something to say about the direction of the projects they are hired to helm. However, when their approach doesn’t seem to work, they blatantly interfere. They don’t oversee. They meddle. Naturally, they probably have every right to do so, as I would imagine the contracts they sign with filmmakers are structured in such a way that allows them to step in at any point in time. Unfortunately, they do not have the CCP-esque three-decade plan that Marvel has, so when they do end up stepping in, they behave like a bull in a china shop. And that’s why we are here now with two Justice League films out there, David Ayer openly complaining his movie was taken away from him, Cathy Yan admitting she was locked out of the editing room and Wonder Woman 1984 looking like an ersatz Marvel production with its tacked-on sense of humour.
At this point it’s probably a good idea to ask yourself what you like more: a unified army of clones controlled by the iron fist of an autocratic studio oversight, or a colourful cacophony of styles resulting from a band of misfits being brought together under a collective umbrella of working towards the same goal. I personally prefer the latter even at the cost of the DC universe never materializing into a coherent vision capable of sustaining an overarching narrative stretched over a dozen movies. And I would like for WB to stop meddling with their projects or at least refrain from doing so until they formulate a vision for what they want to achieve. Though, at this point – judging how Zack Snyder’s Justice League performs vis-à-vis the theatrical cut, the fans would rather have the filmmakers at the helm instead.