In defence of the DCEU: Why the Justice League universe is more ambitious than the Avengers
As we prepare for Justice League, let’s attempt to address one of the most Biblical rivalries in modern cinema: The DC Extended Universe vs the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To understand the DC Extended Universe’s place in this world, we must look into the future. It is a world in which the unprecedented success of the rival Marvel Cinematic Universe has meant that we, as an audience, live under constant threat of similar shared franchises being hurled at us on what seems like a monthly basis. To some, that may well sound like the world they dreamt of as children, when superheroes were relegated to cheap toys and cheaper cartoons, and being a fan of the Incredible Hulk meant having to be a Lou Ferrigno fan too.
In a few years, when the superhero boom has died down, and these films have inevitably gone the way of the Western – as Steven Spielberg astutely predicted – how will we look back on them? Will we remember how they essentially revolutionised the movie business? Will we admire the phenomenal records they’ve set? Or will we appreciate the cultural movement they inspired in what was – in what is – a tumultuous time in world history?
As a quick experiment, try thinking about the films you remember – not love or hate, mind you, but remember. Chances are they’re the movies that have spoken to you personally, regardless of how they performed at the box office or with the critics. The point being, essentially, that no one dreams about mediocrity; people remember either towering achievements or epic failures.
There’s an interesting story about this concept that involves directors Joel Schumacher and Woody Allen – so bear with me. Upon getting absolutely annihilated by the world press after the release of 1997’s Batman & Robin, director Joel Schumacher, distraught at how poorly his movie was being received, is said to have come knocking on the door of his friend, Woody Allen. “They’re saying I made the worst film ever,” he cried, to which Allen shot back, “Making the worst film ever would be an achievement – you haven’t even done that.”
And neither has Marvel or DC. They haven’t made the worst films ever – despite what you think about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – but they have made at least one movie that could, 20 years down the line, be counted among the best.
Only one of them, however, is guilty of mediocrity. Over the course of 17 movies (and other offshoots too bland to mention here), Marvel Studios has achieved greatness. They’ve single-handedly altered the way films are made – having essentially removed control from the directors and pooled all the power in the hands of producer Kevin Feige – and the gamble has paid off. But they’ve also made an alarming number of instantly forgettable movies.
Say what you will about the four films thus far in the DCEU – I am on record as having disliked two of them – you cannot fault them for lack of vision. And vision is what the MCU does not have. Unless, of course, we’re talking about the TV writers room model that Feige brings. Traditionally, it’s a director’s job to bring a strong vision to a movie. It’s no coincidence that the outstanding movies in Marvel’s roster – The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man 3, Thor: Ragnarok – are all united in their excellence by the unmistakable stamp left by their directors. The rest, unfortunately, follow a tried and tested template to a fault – to reduce it unfairly: Underdog hero takes on evil version of himself (never herself) in a loud CGI slugfest.
While it may not have always worked for DC, their films are anything but cookie cutter. I’d be willing to wager that in this hypothetical future that we speak of, chances of you remembering anything about Thor: The Dark World (much less who the villain was) would be less likely than you remembering, say, the Martha scene from BvS, or Jesse Eisenberg’s bizarre performance, or Zack Snyder’s upsetting take on Superman. You’d remember Jared Leto’s performance as the Joker in Suicide Squad – despite it being nothing more than a glorified cameo – before you remember any of the Marvel villains, who are, inexplicably, meh.
And there’s a reason behind these controversial decisions that DC – or more precisely, Zack Snyder seems to enjoy making. The DCEU is always going to play second fiddle to the MCU simply because it was conceived after Marvel had already debuted films on Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. But while the MCU was laying the foundation for their decade-long plan, DC was floundering in the darkness, clueless as to how to proceed. So they placed the safest bet they could – paired ironically with the riskiest take on these iconic characters in years. With the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy fresh in their minds, the bosses at DC commissioned a darker, more grounded take for their movies – a satisfactory differentiating factor, they felt, from the more upbeat movies in the MCU.
So they brought in Zack Snyder, a filmmaker known for his keen sense of visual storytelling, often at the expense of story. Continuing the uniquely mythical take on comic book characters that he brought to 300 and Watchmen – he thinks of them as modern gods – Snyder retooled the DCEU to fit his vision. He asked questions not many DC fans were keen on asking – why does Superman not kill (because he killed once and didn’t particularly like it, of course), what makes Batman continue his crusade (he’s a jaded psychopath, duh), and why do they need the idealism of Wonder Woman to balance the trinity (because they’d kill each other).
The problems with DCEU movies are easily identified – and by extension, easily solved. Take for example, Snyder’s director’s cut of BvS – it proves that there was a larger, more coherent story at play, and for whatever reason (studio meddling), it was shelved in favour of something (the studio believed to be) more palatable to mass audiences.
The DCEU suffers not from a lack of ambition, but from a lack of direction. Warner Bros does not understand the sheer immensity of the characters they’re dealing with, and the movies the filmmakers they’ve hired have made. It’s a trend that has, unfortunately, carried on to Justice League. They’ve become trapped in an endless cycle of course-correction, aimlessness, and in all this confusion, they’ve lost sight of what matters most: The characters.
But if there’s one theme that Justice League is emblematic of, it’s hope. Hope for this series, hope for these characters, hope for us, and hope for the future – where we’re going to have to endure the inevitable Emoji Movie universe together.