The Mistake Was Treating Snyder's Elseworlds Take As The DCEU Canon
But the situation is more complicated, and not really the fault of anybody involved on the creative side of these character interpretations. In truth, everything that went wrong for Batman and Superman hinges on one key, unavoidable fact that has come to define the entirety of DC Films' ongoing output: Zack Snyder's DCEU shouldn't have been the DCEU.
Man of Steel was not meant to be DC's Iron Man. It was the Justice League's Batman Begins, the start of a planned five-movie arc from "visionary director" Zack Snyder that took Superman on a journey alongside the various members of the League. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And as the product of "visionary director" Zack Snyder, it wasn't aiming to be the definitive or enduring take on the characters, but his stylised take in the vein of 300 or Watchmen. It was, like Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy before it, an Elseworlds retelling. You can see this in the radical redesign of Superman, and even more pointedly in how the nearest calling card to Ben Affleck's Batman is The Dark Knight Returns, one of the most famous Elseworld stories. This is why those characters are so different from expectations (and, as a result, so divisive for a shared universe).
But that was just the set-up. Based on what's know of this five-movie story (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, a two-part Justice League, and a fifth film), it would eventually bring these contemporary, off-kilter redesigns in line with their more classic iterations. Batman would be redeemed from his dark past, Superman would emerge a new hero, and the rest of the proto-Justice League would gain their mantles. Elements of this are present in the films we got - this December's Aquaman, for example, will see Arthur Curry gain the trident and comic-accurate costume - and there's evidence of where Snyder would have taken the story, but most of it has been washed away.
Between Man of Steel's greenlight and its release, The Avengers made $1.5 billion ($500 million more than the same year's The Dark Knight Rises) and suddenly shared universes became the only game in town. What DC had tried multiple times before (there's a litany of failed Batman/Superman and Justice League films) was here, and they had to act fast. This meant Snyder's Man of Steel retroactively became the DC cinematic universe launchpad, with a slate of planned movies announced in 2014 (note that these five-movie plans weren't stated, opting for the "wait and see approach"), Batman v Superman turned into Dawn of Justice, and when that proved not as wide-appeal, a watered down Justice League (now one part) attempted to consolidate and open doors.
A five-movie plan transformed into an extended universe, and two alternate takes on Batman and Superman suddenly became its noble core. The whole confusion over the DCEU is rooted in trying to fit something so apart from the norm into the Marvel mold, and Bats and Supes took most of the flack - from their controversial introductions to subsequent neutering. None of this is to defend Snyder's vision. Man of Steel's Superman was divisive and Batman v Superman's additions and developments even more so, and no amount of later promise for something more traditional can excuse that.
The ultimate irony is that DC is now embracing the Elseworlds idea as it begins to normalize out the DCEU. Shazam!, a movie that frames Superman as a beacon of hope, and the brightly-colored Wonder Woman 1984 will release in 2019 alongside Joker, a continuity-removed origin story for the Clown Prince of Crime, played by Joaquin Phoenix with no relation to Jared Leto. If only they'd reached this mindset sooner, the Snyderverse could have been kept as it was meant to be, apart from any longer-term plans.
Hopefully, whether it's via Matt Reeves increasingly disconnected The Batman or a brand-new take on Superman, the World's Finest can be redeemed. After all, if there's one comic rule the movies can't escape, it's that nothing stays dead forever.
- Aquaman (2018) release date: Dec 21, 2018
- Shazam! (2019) release date: Apr 05, 2019
- Joker (2019) release date: Oct 04, 2019
- Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) release date: Jun 05, 2020