Full Disclosure: I have yet to forgive Zack Snyder for destroying the core philosophy of Watchmen in his film adaptation, which I can only assume was written as a convenience to general audience members rather than out of dedication to fans of the revolutionary graphic novel. It’s a hard movie for me to watch given the material it is based on, even though the artistic achievement of the film is admittedly remarkable. This is a pattern seen throughout Snyder’s work and probably sums up his real MVP status as a filmmaker—he’s a better artist than he is a storyteller, which is why it’s great to have his vision on board, but in no way should he be left in charge. Evidence for this is seen throughout the guy’s career, especially since his best reviewed film as a director is a remake of a horror movie that scored a 58 on Metacritic. Perhaps the nicest thing that you can say based on that is, critically, Snyder is divisive. For this reason alone, it’s befuddling that Hollywood keeps trusting him with nice things. Multi-multi-multi-million dollar kinds of nice things.
But my struggle-bus with Snyder is not the point of this post. Like everyone else, I’m more curious to find out what happens to him in the DC film world at Warner Bros after the initial poor reception of Batman vs. Superman, especially in regards to the next ten (!) movies he’s slated to direct or produce for them.
To be clear, I feel it’s a little premature to be calling Batman vs. Superman a catastrophe on this side of opening weekend—I can see the audience potentially coming to the rescue of the film, especially since many die-hard fans care way more about the titular characters than a Rotten Tomatoes consensus. It will definitely win the weekend and, based on what looks like is coming out next weekend, could very likely win that week too. For these reasons, I’m betting WB is holding out on completely throwing in the towel on their “grand movieverse plan” until the %-drop in ticket sales between the first several weeks comes out, or if the Cinemascore is anything less than an A-. Another (sad) way of looking at it is, if we’re getting sequels to Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (FFS), anything is probably still possible, even if both of those films largely succeeded by carrying a young audience that it doesn’t sound like Batman vs. Superman is able to cater to given it’s allegedly grim tone.
We can all agree that things aren’t off to a great start though, and my “it could still be a hit!” bit is really (really really) optimistic. Things are definitely worse now that the early hype from fans who caught late night screenings is almost completely drowned out by a) “I told you it would suck” and b) “Marvel FTW” crowds. A lot of blame is already being placed on Snyder, and if this is news to you in any way, just get on Twitter—he’s been trending for nearly the whole day. Add in the rumors that he is now being edged out of his role as director of Justice League and he successfully tops Stacey Dash on my personal list of people I’m really glad I’m not. However, I argue that Snyder is only part of the problem with the DC movieverse. If we really want to point fingers as to what might implode the grand DC movie plan before it even really gets started, we have to look at whoever is in charge at WB because, let’s face it:
Warner Brothers’ “grand superhero movie plan” exhibits all the ambition of Marvel without any of the strategy, and banking TEN films on Man of Steel’s lukewarm reception and Batman vs. Superman’s even more lukewarm reception is not ballsy—it’s reckless. Their so-called “disjointed” execution noted by most critics of Batman vs. Superman seems more symptomatic of the studio’s frantic attempt to catch up on the ticking clock that is the superhero film craze than it is from just one director who was out of his depth. Again–you don’t trust unqualified people with nice things, much less hand them the possible fate of your entire movie studio, unless you are problematically optimistic or are just ready to shoot the odds out of hope it’ll land you at the front of the pack. Add all of this in with the fact they are basing the series in a decidedly dark tone that is markedly narrower than Marvel’s consistently winning ‘genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist’ approach and it makes me want to take whoever is running the DC movie plan at WB and shake them by the shoulders until it clicks that their long-term goal isn’t even possible with the strategy they’re using now.
Backing up a bit on how ridiculous WB’s multi-year multi-movie one-universe strategy is (as it currently stands), I feel that too many people have forgotten exactly what a H.U.G.E. risk Avengers was considered to be four years ago. Even Scarlett Johansson described a feeling shared by all the cast of “well, at least we will all go down together” before the script was passed around. Now it seems like short-sighted pessimism, but in reality it’s a very healthy apprehension to have with a 225 million dollar budget for a film designed to launch 15 more years’ worth of movies and merchandise. Any respect for the planning and process that Marvel took to successfully make it through “two phases” of films seems almost completely absent on WB’s end. Specifically, given the reported $410 million dollar production budget, WB must have made Batman vs. Superman with the expectation that it would automatically go on to be at least one of the top 25 highest grossing films of all time (since a 1 billion total haul is what it will need to break even), even though they don’t have any kind of previous track record to support it (that or Snyder ran away with the company credit card when they weren’t looking). This could still happen, but in the case that it doesn’t, would it be the craziest surprise? Man of Steel couldn’t clear 670 million globally, or even match the domestic haul of the first Iron Man movie. It’s like going all in with a pair of twos, the twos being Snyder and his CGI team.
About that ticking clock though–I think it’s impossible to ignore the shift in critic enthusiasm for the superhero film genre as a whole at this point. It’s like the smell of milk the day after its expiration date—not bad, but things could turn real fast. As a huge fan of the Marvel movies (and superhero stories in general) I am a little worried if some of the flack Batman vs. Superman is catching is more rooted in a growing disinterest in the genre overall, or even resentment from critics who admit to being frustrated that their opinion is almost entirely inconsequential when it comes to comic book blockbusters. I think Captain America: Civil War is coming at a critical time for Marvel, and I kind of hope the Captain America/Bucky/War Machine death rumors are true because it’s the kind of shake up the genre seems to need. That is—a twist, some unpredictability, and heightened stakes that, just because you know there will be an Infinity War in three years, it doesn’t mean that you can count on your favorite characters to be there. Unfortunately, WB is so behind in this battle, I wonder if there is even time for them to foster a strong enough investment from the general (non-fanboy) audience to carry them through ten (five? three?) movies before superhero fatigue sets in. As someone who loved DC comics as a kid, this thought is pretty disheartening to me, but it is what it is.
So–hypothetically–if Batman vs. Superman ends up disappointing commercially, can we really say it was Zack Snyder who destroyed WB’s entire Justice League film strategy? Not really. Not entirely. Right now, WB’s movie schedule feels like it’s based more in dreams than outcomes. Even if the film somehow ends up meeting the billion dollar mark (to break even), Snyder’s role in the series isn’t the only thing that could stand to be re-evaluated at this point in the game given the recurring critical backlash. That is, if the goal is to create critically and commercially acclaimed films of iconic superhero characters that engages both the existing fanbase and casual audience members, it doesn’t seem like WB’s biggest problem is Snyder, or even competition from Marvel. Instead, there seems to be a dissonance in their production team between the kind of success they want and the fundamental self-awareness needed to realistically attain it. Perhaps the more that such dissonance fades (hopefully), the better idea of what kind of director they need to complete their vision will emerge, other than just one who is a “step up” from the last.