One quick scan of Metacritic and it is easy to see that the most honest thing one could say about Zack Snyder’s work is that it is divisive. The love/hate always seems to boil down to this: He isn’t a good storyteller, but he has tremendous artistic vision. This makes him an invaluable asset to a production team, but provides no evidence that a studio should leave him in charge of a film with anything more than a mid-range budget and moderate critical expectations. This is why–to me–it makes no sense that studios keep trusting him with nicer (more expensive) things than his body of work tells them they should. The studio and project in hot water now: WB, the new DC movieverse, and the next ten (!) mega-budget films Snyder has been slated to direct or produce, all resting on his latest effort, the looming Batman vs. Superman.
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 seeing the percentage-drop in ticket sales next week or if the Cinemascore is anything less than an A-. Another way of looking at it is, if we are getting sequels to Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, anything is probably still possible, even if both of those films largely succeeded by carrying a young audience that Batman vs. Superman isn’t 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 likely too optimistic. Things are definitely worse now that the early hype is almost completely drowned out by sour Twitter reactions, many by self-described Marvel fans who seem to insist that only one superhero franchise can or should succeed. 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, and not just because of the rumors that he is already being edged out of his role as director of Justice League. However, 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. The so-called “disjointed” execution noted by most critics of Batman vs. Superman thus far 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. Add all of this in with the fact they are basing the series in a dark tone that is markedly narrower than Marvel’s consistently winning “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” approach and it makes me want to shake the WB/DC studio execs behind this self-destruct plan in Airplane!-mode until it clicks that their long-term goal of superhero success 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 HUGE risk Marvel’s 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 rumored $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 (with or without Zack Snyder) to support it. 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 WB is going all-in with a pair of twos, the twos being Snyder and his CGI team.
There is a point about that ticking clock, however; it is 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. 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 is 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 does not 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 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 they need to realistically attain it. Perhaps the more that such dissonance (hopefully) fades, 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.