The online world of superhero comic book blockbusters and the movie blogs and readers who follow them has become a strange place in recent years, especially for fans of DC Comics. Not long ago, the creation of the DC Extended Universe seemed a no-brainer: an interconnected slate of solo superhero films and Justice League team-ups following the path set by Marvel years earlier. Almost immediately, though, DC started to pursue a different route - one that, compared to Marvel's 'right' way of doing things was deemed, obviously, to be 'wrong.' That negativity spread to today, where Ben Affleck must want out of The Batman and Matthew Vaughn directing Man of Steel 2 is seen as "saving" a film before it's even made.
Now it's resulted in an atmosphere where the online discussion of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and any other DC film - no matter who is making it - is placed in a larger narrative of failure, critical and creative, at odds with the millions of people lining up to see and enjoy these movies. The studio's successes are given asterisks, Suicide Squad's Oscar winners are the subject of snide comments, and those who enjoy DC's explorations of criminal morality and xenophobia are made to feel like the minority. The problem, though, is that the numbers are nowhere near as divisive or, frankly, that exciting.
With three films released the DCEU has brought in close to $2.3 billion globally. And while critics have driven the oft-touted Rotten Tomatoes aggregate scores to new lows, the Audience Scores combine to give an average score of 3.67 out of 5. Not home runs, by any means, but an average that is... well, average (given the tone surrounding two of the three movies leading to their release, some might even call that a victory). The bottom line is: as voices throughout the movie blogosphere state with authority that critical response from actual critics must be addressed, immediately, and at the DCEU's peril... the box office dollars of the paying moviegoers is saying something different.
And when you consider the subject matter the DC is pursuing, the creative voices they're letting speak at the cost of broad appeal, and the growing rift between the films' critics and the audience, review scores may not be a way to judge its 'success' at all.
The DCEU Needs to Change... Into What, Exactly?
The answer here is obvious to anyone engaging in online discussions, since one studio is deemed more than any other to be doing it "right." So right that it was commonplace to see any review of a DC film be compared to a Marvel one, in the harshest cases claiming DC should take its opposition's lead. In short, they should copy Marvel's winning formula - a strategy that, depending on who you ask, is the greed-driven, creatively bankrupt, and 'rushed' formula that got DC into this mess to begin with... or the one they should follow to finally get them out of it. And the comparisons are hard to argue: Marvel films are fun for the entire family, easy to enjoy and even easier to want to see again. In other words, they've found a whole world of colorful characters capable of thrilling fans, and thrilling their shareholders, using that momentum to lead the industry and gain a top spot among global franchises.
In the shadow of that success, the DC films seem to fall short on each point: these films deal with dark, adult subject matter, show heroes as troubled and beaten down as the villains, and capture the darker costs of city-wide destruction. In essence, DC movies have failed to meet the audience's expectations of a fun, entertaining, and hopeful way for a family to escape the real world for a few hours at a time. That's the criteria that's been established in countless reviews and among large swaths of the audience: superhero blockbusters work best (at least when starting out) as less grim or gritty, thematically and morally clear, and above almost everything else, they never force the audience to ask hard questions of themselves or make them feel uncomfortable about their interaction with the film.
So if a standard, escapist, and entertaining superhero story in the DC Universe that presents heroes as the world knows them is your goal, you should never under any circumstances choose to do a handful of things.
- You should never have Superman be forced to kill his enemy.
- You should never have Batman harm criminals with little regard for their safety.
- You should never have Superman and Batman reflect current political issues charged with fear, paranoia, xenophobia, or national security.
- You should never make Wonder Woman's first mission be one she loses, witnessing atrocities that convince her our world isn't one worth saving.
- You should never make a group of incarcerated thieves, gangsters, and killers your heroes (and have them stay that way).
All of these choices, themes, and plots go against the pursuit of a traditional superhero story where the villains are bad, heroes are good, and the public interest is upheld above all else. So against that pursuit, in fact, that it seems a bit foolish to even compare them to films which seek to offer escapism.
As we've mentioned before, it's not a matter of content or morality, either: every superhero these days is a killer. But where Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, and Suicide Squad differed from the norm was in inviting the audience to dislike, to disagree, and dispel the idea that these films are meant to be enjoyed passively - an escape from the hard questions of the real world. A mature audience could see Batman brand a human trafficker and give a nod of approval by scratching a primal itch for mob justice... but Alfred questions the act, making those nods uncomfortable. Batman follows that thinking to an extreme, and they becomes more uncomfortable still. It's the kind of interaction all art seeks (or used to, at least), and the exact same question posed throughout American and world cinema.
But when you invite people to dislike a character, a theme, or a character's justification, hopefully holding a mirror to the real world in the process, there's a good chance they will - get this - dislike the experience, which is kind of the point. And a good portion of the audience did dislike it. But judging by the box office returns, the higher review scores awarded by the audience, and the amount of impassioned conversation that both preceded and followed these films, plenty liked it, too. Liked the questions being raised, if not the answers. And in Squad's case, perhaps liked the ethnicities of the people asking them, too.
Critics May Not Be Wrong, But The Perspective May Be
Criticism is always welcome and valid when it pertains to dialogue, cinematography, and the artistic execution of a film in relation to the creators' ambitions and intent. But as anyone can understand, criticism becomes infinitely less constructive or progressive when the ambitions and intents being executed upon are assumed. And when a critic deems that a film has totally and completely failed to execute upon its assumed intent to the extent that it fails in each and every respect, and even the motivations behind that intent are called into question, one must - and should - ask if the intention has been misunderstood. That's not a slight against critics or criticism, either - even great critics have (often famously) misunderstood great art. But as criticism escalates to extremes, it becomes even more important to ask the question: is there an intention or ambition that the film does succeed (to a greater degree) in exploring? And is there more evidence to support that intention than the assumed one that the film seems to completely ignore?
The refusal of some to believe that a director's choices are actually that - choices - and not a product of total obliviousness or misunderstanding is one we may never understand. But it's a simple idea: if Zack Snyder wanted audiences to believe Superman was infallible and above the moral dilemmas of our world, then he wouldn't have needed to kill Zod. If David Ayer wanted audiences to believe doing the right thing outweighed the mistakes of your past, then the Suicide Squad wouldn't have wound up back in their prison cells. And if Zack Snyder wanted audiences to think that good people are immune to being manipulated by paranoia and fear, Batman wouldn't have succumbed to it. If he had intended the audience to take comfort in the fact that waging war based on xenophobia and a 'greater good' can be undone, reversed, and made up for... Superman wouldn't wind up in a coffin.
And while some might criticize Patty Jenkins for having Wonder Woman's first adventure end with her inability to 'save the day' as disappointing or 'less fun,' we're hopeful. Hopeful that in 2017, an idealistic but powerful woman being outmatched by a male world bent on war and divisiveness can be judged as a purposeful reflection of the world in which it's made. All of these films - like their heroes, like their writers, like their directors - tell stories in which the hero doesn't save the day. They don't keep their hands clean. And being lowered to the problems, weakness, and faults of everyday people isn't a temporary fall from their natural, higher state of being.
That's not escapism, that's not idealistic, and it can often be more unsettling or 'political' than it is entertaining. But the idea that they should avoid being those things, asking those questions - avoid them entirely if a compromise raises more problems than it solves - when a massive audience is engaging in the conversation is unnecessary. Money talks, and if people are paying theirs just to take part, then the louder the conversation the better. Especially when changing the conversation wouldn't just homogenize the industry or genre, but would be... well, a violation of one of the most basic philosophies of any art, any artist, and any critic.
"We're Not Making Movies For The Critics"
It's a guarantee that this argument will be falling on deaf ears for some, since the question of whether or not Superman should ever take a life became evidence of Zack Snyder 'getting Superman wrong' - and not evidence that the conversation itself was the explicit intent. But many critics and audience members at the time (and to this day) so strongly dislike the conversation, and the question itself that they will go to the extent of stating that it should never have been asked. That asking the question is off-limits, and an insult to the audience, the source material, and the genre or medium in general. And it's at that point that things become a problem. Because as different as it may seem today, those people are taking their place among those who claimed poetry, not prose, was valuable. That Monet and Renoir's paintings were just 'Impressions' of real art. That comic superheroes were for children, devoid of merit.
Those critical audiences didn't fancy themselves to be on the wrong side of history at the time - and to be clear, the people who disliked or simply 'didn't get' Impressionist paintings weren't the problem. It was those who, believing themselves to be in the majority, spoke so disparagingly as it claim that it wasn't art, it wasn't valid, and that it was a laughable insult to real artists. Even the most charitable at the time could have recognized some talent at work, but that a lack of form, structure, or knowledge of accepted standards worsened the result. The underlying knowledge being a belief that there exists a 'right way' to do it... which then, as ever, simply meant the most popular way at that point in time. Critics who supported the view and, even out of good intentions, suggested those artists stick to what people like were thankfully ignored.
The artists were making their art, and if they were making it for anyone, it was the people who were responding to it. The people who were engaging with it in ways that established norms and genres couldn't (perhaps because the creative spark could no longer shine through the established forms).
Somehow, the modern idea that filmmakers are making films "for the fans, not the critics" has been tainted as a form of excuse, and not the same sentiment at play. That motto used to speak to the disconnect between the artist and the critic judging them; the fact that what the critic might think of it did not, and should not play a role in the art's creation. And when it comes to painting, poetry, prose, even short films or video games, the average enthusiast would agree that turning art into a product likely to reach the biggest audience is a BAD thing. Video game fans are famously adverse to the idea, seeing that very move as betraying those who connect with their pure expression, appreciate their innovation instead of imitation, and see such a change as 'selling out.'
But with blockbuster superhero films, for reasons we honestly can't quite figure, the opposite seems to be taking root. Those who call themselves passionate fans of Superman and Batman - and may very well be - mock and vilify the art that those heroes have inspired in filmmakers, their fellow fans. They see other characters star in family-friendly, entertaining adventures and ask why their favorites can't follow the same formula. Some even deride filmmakers for making the same political statements and raising the same tough questions as the creators who first showed comics were more than costumes and superpowers, to be enjoyed by children.
Some people believe that in this case, the critics recommending DC follow the industry standards - despite the millions responding to their approach - are objectively in the right.
Maybe it's a demonstration of just how strongly characters like Superman and Batman are valued by their audience, feeling a sense of ownership unlike most others. Maybe it's frustration that those characters are being used for the kind of creative expression they don't like, and can't ignore due to the restrictions of the modern Hollywood franchise. Maybe it's even a case of the political stances being taken on film being stances against those fans. Maybe it's a sign of just how many people view major studio films as products first, and 'art' second (or not at all). At this point, the nature of enthusiast press and the blurring lines between those reporting on the film industry and those evaluating it makes those conversations hard to start, and harder to keep on topic.
All we know, then, are the facts. The DC Extended Universe is regularly (and unfavorably) being compared to a shared universes it is making noticeable efforts to stand apart from. It's a cinematic enterprise that already boasts an array of diversity both in front of and behind the camera, with some of the industry's most respected talent continuing to join. With just three films released, it has brought in $2.3 billion worldwide. And their fourth film (in four years) will star a woman, and be directed by one.
If you ask us, those guiding the DCEU shouldn't change to address the loudest critics. They're doing just fine.
- Justice League (2017) release date: Nov 17, 2017