PUBLISHED 7 DEC 2017
JUSTICE LEAGUE (Zack Synder 2017), the culmination of the DC Extended Universe so far, has finally arrived in cinemas. The comic book adaptation forces Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) together in the wake of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) death and in order to protect the world from an extra-terrestrial threat. With Wonder Woman and Batman leading the team, they face off against Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), who is searching for three sources of infinite power: Motherboxes. In spite of the promise of this set up, what follows is an disorganised mess of character introductions, world-building plot points and overused CGI. Both critics and fans alike have been split about their opinions on the film. While it has been praised for its lighter tone and the dynamic between comedic characters, the lacklustre plot alongside the stereotypical CGI villain arguably contributed to the film failing to meet the $110 million target Warner Brothers were aiming for on the opening weekend. Alongside the $300 million budget, $150 million of which was used for marketing, Warner Brothers are already on track to lose up to $100 million.
After the tragic death of Zack Snyder’s daughter, the director’s chair was passed over to Joss Whedon. After helming AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (2012) and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015), many assumed that JUSTICE LEAGUE would be in safe hands. But the result was a film with radically different styles, scenes, dialogue and characters that pointed to indecisive direction. We simply have to look at the anticipation that JUSTICE LEAGUE generated amongst fans compared to the upcoming AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR to see that audiences are heavily invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, more so than DC. Although the age-old Marvel vs DC debate simply comes down to personal preference, fan reception is very telling. When the trailer for JUSTICE LEAGUE was released, the majority were holding their breath because of the several missteps that the franchise had made before. Many were anticipating another poor entry. But when the AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR trailer was released at the end of November, fans were in a frenzy because it promised the culmination of complex narrative structures spanning ten years. Marvel have put the work into crafting an intricate universe that immerses the audience in different cultures, genres and heroes. Instead of investing in and cultivating individual characters, DC, by comparison, were playing catch up.
Terence McSweeney, author of the upcoming academic monograph AVENGERS ASSEMBLE: CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES ON THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE, spoke to us about the disappointment of JUSTICE LEAGUE and what DC should do to capitalise on the strong Avengers fan base. While the author speculated that JUSTICE LEAGUE’s poor reception will have a negative impact on DC, he considers it unlikely to have an immediate impact on the comic book movie more generally and believes Marvel will continue to “thunder on like a juggernaut” and the genre will continue to define what “blockbuster” means for some time. To put the superhero film in context, McSweeney considers such films in relation to how the western, which was “at the apex” of classical Hollywood, ultimately went into decline. “Genres do fall out of favour with audiences when they stop being relevant”, the superhero scholar noted, “but as long as people keep going to see them they will continue to be made”. For McSweeney, the superhero film is the western’s successor and has “incorporated much of the genre’s influence into its own cape-wearing DNA”. It is a fascinating comparison. Has John Wayne’s Duke has been replaced by Bruce Wayne’s Batmobile?
as long as people keep going to see them they will continue to be made
“A lot of the success of the superhero genre”, McSweeney goes on, “is due to how malleable it is despite people often calling it formulaic”. How it has navigated developments in technology is crucial in this regard, meaning “creators have been able to, finally, put the comic book hero onscreen the way writers like Stan Lee envisioned 60 years before for the first time”. Perhaps DC can learn from Marvel’s use of wild and fantastic characters in films like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (James Gunn 2014) and THOR (Kenneth Branagh 2011)? “DC need to make good films, first and foremost”, McSweeney states. It is not so much whether they focus on fantasy “as long as the films are compelling” and deciding on “a coherent vision or tone moving forward” is crucial.
So how do DC establish that coherent vision? Ben Affleck is rumoured to be disenchanted with his Batman role, to the extent that he wants to leave. How is the audience expected to connect and relate to a stalwart character when the man behind the mask does not want to be wearing it? Michael Keaton’s Batman in Tim Burton’s films (BATMAN 1989 and BATMAN RETURNS 1992) set a certain expectation for a live action Dark Knight. His Batman proved that a comic book adaptation could embrace the sillier elements of the character while still maintaining a dark tone. Christian Bale’s incarnation in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy (BATMAN BEGINS 2005, THE DARK KNIGHT 2008, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES 2012) grounded the hero in a world not dissimilar from our own. This realistic take, arming him with military grade armour and weapons, has become equally iconic. Not only has Affleck become the butt of internet jokes because of his performance as Bruce Wayne, a petition calling to remove him from the role garnered almost 100,000 signatures.
DC had previously expressed interest in giving The Flash his own solo movie, tentatively titled FLASHPOINT. That storyline in the comics sees a complete reboot of the DC continuity, allowing for perspectives, history and characters to be changed. The studio should examine what compels the audience to keep returning to the comic book genre and use FLASHPOINT as a new beginning. With JUSTICE LEAGUE, the clear fan favourites were The Flash and Aquaman, largely down to the comedic writing of the two characters as well as their dynamic in relation to the rest of the team Combined with the incredible critical and commercial success of WONDER WOMAN (Patty Jenkins 2017), the studio would do well to capitalise on this trio.
President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige has been steering the Marvel ship for many years and under his guide it has flourished and pushed the boundaries for the genre. DC need to use the talent they already have - including their President and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns - to make a much needed course correction. Johns has proved he can work wonders with the world of comics with his recent reboot of DC Comics with the “Rebirth” issue, reinventing the DC Universe from the ground up to correct the many confusing timelines and character backstories. But does Johns have Feige’s level of direction? McSweeney thinks not. “There is no such person for DC as much as they say there is”.
Marvel have the balance almost right
But that does not mean it has been plain sailing for Marvel. They have have had “some issues”, McSweeney notes, referring to the previous departures of Edgar Wright from ANT-MAN (Peyton Reed 2015) and Patty Jenkins from THOR: THE DARK WORLD (Alan Taylor 2013), “and I have real problems with their representation of women and race”. But creative decisions to hire the likes of Shane Black, James Gunn, Taiki Waititi and the Russo Brothers suggest “they have the balance almost right” compared to DC’s “missteps” of which the hiring of Snyder is a key one. McSweeney is emphatic that “nothing he had done previously would have led me to think that he was the right person to direct three of those films given their importance to the fan community and genre”.
A cinematic rebirth is needed to bring us the films that these characters deserve There is certainly potential in the FLASHPOINT storyline; McSweeney is eager for Wonder Woman to move ahead and to see what potential is offered in AQUAMAN. “But it is too messy as of yet to see where it is going given that they have rushed into an extended universe far, far too quickly”.
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