The tone of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has always been a confusing one: Which direction are they really going for?
It started off with Man of Steel (2013) tackling societal themes of nature vs nurture as well as humanity’s innate fear of the unknown, then the heavily criticised Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) for its convoluted plot sprinkled with the unnecessary theological and political elements, before receiving some acclaim thanks to the lighter, funnier and simpler tone of Wonder Woman (2017), Aquaman (2018) and Shazam! (2019).
Most people would attribute this change of direction to the undeniably global impact of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), with their each and every installment being met with critical and commercial success like nobody’s business. It is a sensational achievement, I have to give them that.
But then we just found out that Joker (2019) — which actually isn’t part of the DCEU but still a Warner Bros. production — recently became the first R-rated movie to gross over $1 billion and the Oscar buzz generated for Joaquin Phoenix and Todd Phillips doesn’t seem to be dying out anytime soon either. If anything, we know that Joker is the opposite of fun and light.
This might leave the Warner Bros. executives scratching their heads: What does our audience really want?
Don’t try to be Marvel
I thank Todd and Joaquin so much for proving to the world, particularly Warner Bros. themselves, that movie audiences still show appreciation for the terror, the pain and the truth.
My biggest issue with the Warner Bros. executives handling the DCEU franchise is that they seem to think that there is a proven formula that they just have to adhere to in order to attain success, and that formula is none other than the lighthearted, jokes here and there, no-bats-no-rain setting that Marvel has created for all of their films.
However, the characters of DC have such different dynamics from each other that it’s almost impossible to place some of them in the same film without creating an inconsistency in tone. See Justice League (2017). Batman is not funny. Superman is not funny. Not even Wonder Woman is. If you think these characters are going to laugh at The Flash’s jokes, you might as well make a film with Spiderman and The Flash in it, that way at least it will be a good comedy.
These characters have different stories to tell. Sometimes they frighten us. Sometimes they cheer us up. Filmmakers need to honour their stories and give them a unique voice instead of forcing them to be happy all the time. I thank Todd and Joaquin so much for proving to the world, particularly Warner Bros. themselves, that movie audiences still show appreciation for the terror, the pain and the truth. In fact, Christopher Nolan had already done it before with the help of Christian Bale, Tom Hardy and of course, the legendary Heath Ledger. But perhaps because that was before MCU, Warner Bros. seems to have forgotten that.
Honour the characters, tell their stories
Batman is not funny. Superman is not funny. Not even Wonder Woman is. If you think these characters are going to laugh at The Flash’s jokes, you might as well make a film with Spiderman and The Flash in it, that way at least it will be a good comedy.
Like what I said earlier, the characters that exist within DC have very different dynamics and personalities. We obviously cannot make a psychological thriller out of Aquaman or Shazam. With Aquaman’s lighter tone, it has found success in the form of $1.14 billion. Shazam!, on the other hand, is one of the highest rated movies in DCEU (rated 90% on Rotten Tomatoes). Though grossing ‘only’ $346.6 million, it didn’t result as a loss for the studio in the way Justice League did and has been greenlit for a sequel.
Each of the directors handling these films has a vision for the protagonist they take under their wing. When James Wan and David F. Sandberg are given their freedom to play with their superheroes, the movies thrive. Similarly, what Warner Bros. should not have done is suffocate Zack Snyder’s initial vision by dragging Joss Whedon into the game and have Whedon diluting the Snyder voice. In fact, in light of the 2-year anniversary of Justice League, Jason Momoa, Ben Affleck, Ray Fisher and Gal Gadot have all supported the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut movement on social media just a few days prior to this article’s publication.
The future of DC
DC President Diane Nelson stated in 2017 that “Moving forward, you’ll see the DC movie universe being a universe, but one that comes from the heart of the filmmaker who’s creating them.” That indeed is wonderful news.
The success which comes from Joker has helped DC and Warner Bros. discover their direction. The movie is marketed as a standalone thriller which has no connection to the DCEU, yet the public didn’t find that to be a reason not to watch it. Contrary to Marvel, whose marketing is heavily emphatic on the singular direction and connectivity between films (see titles like Marvel Studios Presents Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios Presents Ant-Man), DC should instead release films as individual presentations meant to honour the protagonist and the protagonist only rather than an entire assembly of superheroes foreshadowing what each other will do in the final showdown.
In light of Nelson’s statement, if Warner sticks true to their vision, I can see the potential of DCEU thriving both critically and commercially much like Marvel, especially now that we live in a post-Joker era where Joaquin Phoenix has just introduced DC to the high arts. If Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson do their job right, I suppose the dark night of Gotham is only starting to reign over us.
Written by Isaac Tan
Cover photo credits: Digital Spy