There can only be one leader of DC Films, and recent reports claim more strongly than ever that Geoff Johns has taken the reins away from Zack Snyder (before the latter's Justice League was even finished). While the report has been accused of blurring the line between the ideas expressed behind DC's highest executives and the larger narrative or failure, internal restructuring, and dislike for Snyder's style, it raised an interesting point. Geoff Johns may be the leader of DC Films from the comic side of things... but most of the following controversy seems to assume that one person must be steering DC's Movie Universe.
When Marvel Studios began to make it known that their shared cinematic universe was a plan cooked up by producer Kevin Feige, it didn't take long for that approach to be seen as not just the first, but the only way to make it work. That fact has come to heavily color the industry's perception of DC Films - with recent coverage suggesting Geoff Johns has effectively overruled Zack Snyder's vision for Justice League and beyond. Bringing in Joss Whedon without Snyder's invitation, among other moves more expected of incredibly shrewd, veteran producers.
It's a tempting assumption to make, especially given how quickly Marvel surpassed the idea that any one character or franchise was a single writer or director's creation. Creative storytelling may be sought after, but if the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe precede and outlast individual filmmakers, SOMEONE's vision must rule. Entrusting it to one supervisor may have worked for Marvel, but assuming that's the plan being followed by Johns at DC Films means ignoring a big part of why Johns is so respected in the first place.
The art of filmmaking can be a passionate, painful, and trying process for even the most gifted writers and directors. Which is why so many rumors about internal conflict and unrest at DC Films have taken off, citing harsh critical reception as a reason to put studio heads into panic mode - in some cases, rumors started by those who gave the criticism in the first place. James Wan wanted out of Aquaman, Ben Affleck wants out of Batman, and of course, DC Films wants... Zack Snyder out of DC Films.
Yet there's one part of the reporting and rumors that continues to ring false for anyone familiar with Geoff Johns's career. It may be true that the strong creative visions of both Johns and Snyder led to conflict, instead of collaboration. But if that's the case, and not the assumption of a "room for only one at the top" way of thinking, then it goes against the very reason Johns became a writer, and not a director in the first place. Here's how Johns described his shift from a prospective film director or comic book artist to a writer instead:
I went to Michigan State and I studied directing, and in my first directing class I wrote my own ten minute movie and shot it. And my friend said 'I have an idea but I can't write, can you write it?' I said 'sure,' and then everyone in the class said 'hey, can you write my idea too?' And I ended up becoming a writer, and I really love working with a director. It was fun, it was really fun. It's kind of like working with an artist.
I love the collaboration of storytelling. We're both trying to do this, we're all trying to tell this great story. We all love this character and the story. So I got into writing almost accidentally, but once I realized that I loved it, that's all I did.
I work with so many talented people. So there’s people that love it, and understand it, and embrace it, and then there’s people that don’t know that and you want to help them learn it, and you want to tell them why a certain storyline for a certain character might not work. Or why a take on a character might not work, or what Superman really should be. But you bring the same kind of passion...
There's going to be people that question what you do - and I say this to all of you who are out there in the creative world - take the feedback in. It's great to have constructive feedback. But you also have to hold onto what you believe in, and what story you're trying to tell, what you're trying to say. Because nobody else is going to say it but you. And what you like, and what you think will be a story worth telling... I think taking chances on what you believe in-- that's what I believe in.
For obvious reasons, this description of the merits of collaboration - with the acceptance that it's the director's vision ultimately being served (at least, that's what made Johns take to writing to begin with) - stands at odds with the conduct being reported. The fact that many of those reports seem based on a narrative of DCEU rumors repeated ad nauseam should also be considered, since Snyder previously confirmed and praised collaborating with Geoff Johns on BvS and Wonder Woman. And after stepping down due to family tragedy, Snyder's Justice League cast maintains they're all committed to seeing his vision through.
Of course, they may all be lying. Johns may have also strayed completely from his belief in collaboration, dedication to unique visions, and artists respecting one another's ambitions. DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson, when telling a Vulture reporter that fans should expect "a DC movie universe... that comes from the heart of the filmmaker who’s creating them," may also be lying, understating the studio-mandated control. Either way, Ben Affleck teaming up with Matt Reeves for Batman showed that "collaboration" has become a dirty word where DC is concerned: a sign of weakness and failure.
Not, in any way, the kind of valuable and passionate process promoted by Johns just weeks after Snyder stepped away from Justice League. Not the kind of generosity of time and storytelling authority that he showed leading countless creative teams in the acclaimed launch of DC's Rebirth. And not the kind of generosity expressed by Snyder, Jenkins, Affleck, or any other DC filmmakers with whom he has so far collaborated. Given all that evidence, it's hard to believe that anything has really changed under his leadership. After all, he's already said nothing needs changing with DC's movie characters.
If people believe a film is shaped by one person, and a "universe" MUST travel in one direction, then yes, it is time to worry. But Geoff Johns doesn't seem to feel that way. In fact, he became a comic book icon while endlessly praising - like almost all comic book writers - the artists who made his ideas and words real. It's possible that has all changed now that he's been given a promotion... but as we said at the start: for those who know Johns, things are probably more stable and promising than DC detractors care to accept.