After Ben Affleck revealed that he was stepping back from the job of directing The Batman, discussion immediately began as to who would replace him, with a variety of names big and small entering the ring as rumored favorites. Given Warner Bros.’ difficulties holding on to directors, with no fewer than four of them having dropped out of DC projects before production began, many are wondering which director will even want to take on the job.
Some DC fans feel they have found the perfect solution, and took to activism-focused petition website Change.org to share their plan. More than 6000 fans have joined forces to declare to Warner Bros. that Zack Snyder should continue his work with the DC universe and direct The Batman, proclaiming:
"Zack Snyder's commitment to source material, extraordinary visual style, and previous experience in the DCEU makes him the ideal candidate, especially when you factor in the influence Ben Affleck is still going to have on the film's story and dialogue."
This statement perplexed many, but stood out as particularly baffling given that another Change.org petition from DC fans asked Warner Bros. to remove Snyder from Justice League several months ago (that one so far has more than 18,000 signatures). A second petition from around the same time asked that Snyder be removed from the DC Universe entirely, although that petition has earned less than 3,000 signatures.
Judging fans by the actions of a minority is not advised, and nor is assuming that they all want the same thing from the object of their fandom, but the above petitions exemplify a growing problem with Warner Bros. and the DC Extended Universe. Snyder’s style as a filmmaker is easily definable and instantly recognizable to fans, but in particular he’s praised for his perceived faithfulness to the comics - described by his fans as being one of them, just another geek in the group. The pro-Snyder petition commends him for being:
"...Incredibly faithful to iconic source material. Many scenes in both films are panel-for-panel recreations of the graphic novel pages. He doesn't try to stick his two cents' worth in every movie, putting his own spin on things (they like to call it “artistic license” in the biz) just because he can."
While elements of the iconography may be faithful to their roots, much of what defines the DCU is inimitably the style of Snyder and Snyder alone. More than any other film-maker working in an established franchise, Snyder has been allowed to mold the DCEU to fit his specific tone, style and storytelling preferences. Originally, this must have seemed like a good idea to Warner Bros.: A director with some critical acclaim and fan support who had experience with big-money comic book adaptations, and a visual eye that was faithful to the material – if not outright replicating it – while remaining distinctive enough to differentiate from Marvel’s output.
Snyder can do visuals, but his establishing of the foundations of a multi-billion dollar extended franchise proved to be unsustainable. Man of Steel made money and received mixed reviews, but the backlash formed quickly, and by the time Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived in cinemas, it was clear that the carefully-planned mega-franchise wasn't living up to the hype. Many fans enjoyed the darker take on two of the most beloved characters in modern fiction, but that focus on grimness and destruction turned off enough moviegoers to make the final box office tally fall below the expectation of a billion-dollar theatrical run.
The problem with Snyder being allowed to define the DCEU in such a manner is that all other filmmakers must follow in his path with their own in-world efforts. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad bears all the markings of a Snyder film, albeit with a hastily added dash of neon to give the illusion of vibrant chaos; Aquaman’s design is a noted departure from the original comics to that of a boozing, muscular mariner; the color palate of battles scenes in the trailer for Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman are suitably muted and solemn. Serious was the name of the game for DC, until Batman V Superman failed to meet expectations, at which point the studio seemingly ordered an emergency dose of jokes - as evidenced by the stark difference in tone between the first and second trailers for Suicide Squad. The DCEU is constantly in flux, but struggles to emerge from Snyder’s shadow.
The Batman character has often been defined on screen by filmmakers molding the character to fit their preferred style: Tim Burton’s gothic cartoon; Nolan’s grounded realism; even Joel Schumacher’s technicolor camp, for better or worse. Snyder follows Nolan faithfully in many ways with his take on the DC characters (no surprise given that Nolan produced it and pitched the story). Nolan inspired incredible devotion amongst viewers thanks to the ways in which he legitimized the superhero genre through his own Batman trilogy, with The Dark Knight scoring an impressive array of Oscar nominations and even a couple of wins. While geek culture is now the bedrock of the entertainment industry and sold to the widest possible audience, many fans still feel that superhero franchises are ostracized by critics and the industry. Nolan and Snyder are seen as taking the genre “seriously," thus fans stick with their guy in the face of attacks against their fandom.
Ultimately, what keeps many fans coming back to Snyder and hoping for his involvement with The Batman is mutual loyalty. Snyder has been unflinching in his dedication to DC and its fans, and in doing so has helped to stir up the “Us Versus Them” mentality that has plagued the fan-base. He declared Batman and Superman to be "not just, like, the flavor of the week Ant-Man — not to be mean, but whatever it is. What is the next Blank-Man?” He shot down criticism of the changes he made to Superman by saying “If you knew the true canon, you know that I didn’t change Superman”. Even David Ayer got in on the fun by yelling “F**k Marvel” at an event (for which he promptly apologized). Many fans attacked critics for their perceived grudges against the DC universe, and some were even accused of being shills paid for by Marvel. As this escalated, the DC films and Zack Snyder suddenly, perplexingly, became the underdogs. The other side, as described by the pro-Snyder petition, were the “haters”.
As critics hammer the franchise further with increasingly scathing reviews, it can drive fans into defense mode, and with so many directors dropping out of the series, it’s not hard to see why so many are now turning back to the one guy who is sticking around - regardless of how much that might drive away other viewers. Even as the decisions driven by Snyder create issues for the DCEU, nobody else seems willing to step in to steer the ship. DC Comics CCO Geoff Johns signed on to co-run the movie universe in 2016, but he must take over a franchise that's already established its wobbly foundations.
Fan loyalty, however divided, can only take Snyder so far. He admitted in an interview following the Batman V Superman reviews that "the tone of Justice League has changed because of what the fans have said” and "There’s definitely room for more humor". Warner Bros. has been on the PR offensive for close to a year now, and signs of change have been incremental. Many DC fans may see Snyder as the figure of consistency to the universe, but fan loyalty can only carry him so far when billions of dollars and the next decade of a franchise are on the line.