For better or worse, 2016 will go down as the year DC finally kicked off their cinematic universe. Despite being critical whimpers, both Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad were bona fide box-office bangs, opening to the tune of $166 million and $135 million, respectively. Critics be damned; Warner Bros. is the only franchise studio to see their films open above the $100 million mark. That includes Man of Steel. But success, of course, is measured in the long run. It remains to be seen what kind of legs Suicide Squad will have going into its second and third weekend. That, and the critical decline in DC films so far have put enormous pressure on the next film to be an even bigger hit. Seeing as how WB has been reactively and aggressively tinkering with its own films, perhaps the only thing that can stop the studio is the studio itself, which begs the question: is DC at risk of imploding?
There are plenty of lessons to be learned with Batman v Superman. Nearly a year ago, Den of Geek reported that there had been a private screening for the film that garnered a “standing ovation” from studio executives. Editor David Brenner stated that the original cut of BvS ran at a whopping 4 hours (God only knows what the assembly cut might’ve been). Whether this was the early cut that was screened is unknown. But Brenner clarified that the 4-hour cut contained every single plotline and mini-plotline in the script. Zack Snyder got it down to 3 hours, but unless you’re James Cameron or Peter Jackson, 3 hours just won’t do. Snyder eventually got it down to 2 and a half hours, which was the version released in theaters. Upon release, critics noted a plethora of problems, pacing and editing being among them.
While it’s true that not even the best editor in the world can save a movie from a bad script, an editor can at the very least make a film coherent. As noted in my own review, the extended cut clarifies what was happening in Nairomi, a sequence that turns out to be pivotal in understanding the global upheaval that puts Superman in question. Superman himself is finally given a role as he does some actual reporting, where he reintroduces us to this newly-revamped and wholly rage-driven Batman. Lois Lane, too, does more than just slip and fall. Her investigation into the shootout in Nairomi uncovers the conspiracy to implicate Superman, which gives us context as to how Luthor is manipulating everyone in play (all of these and more were nicked to provide a serviceable, if otherwise negligible, theatrical cut). The Ultimate Edition may not solve all of the movie’s inconsistencies, but it demonstrates a version of the film that works.
BvS made its final cumulative bow at $872 million. Hardly a disappointment. But the studio expected to make $1 billion, as is the standard for superhero movies, which is perhaps why Warner Bros. made some serious changes in the aftermath of BvS. Jon Berg and DC comics writer Geoff Johns are now co-running DC Films. Ben Affleck, too, was bumped up to an executive producing role going into the Justice League. This by no means is insinuating that those in prior positions were the ones to blame. Rather, it’s an attempt to manage DC’s burgeoning film slate, while also pooling together key creative minds and thus re-establishing DC Films as filmmaker-driven. Geoff Johns’ newly appointed role is a huge get in particular. The prolific comic book writer served as a mere creative consultant in the 2011 disaster that was Green Lantern, so his new title is surely to help steer the studio away from such missteps.
Yet that didn’t stop Warner Bros. from making a bold mistake: tinkering with Suicide Squad. The tepid response towards BvS sent the studio in a frenzy. Squad didn’t just have to be good; it had to be a runaway success, making up for the critical lashing that BvS took while realigning the public perception of their cinematic universe that everyone, too, felt was at risk. And so began an autopsy of Ayer’s creation.
Interest in Suicide Squad was unparalleled. The studio was so impressed with the reaction to the teaser that they hired the folks at Trailer Park to edit an alternate cut of the film. Because the film in question was nothing like the one teased in the trailers, that of a fun, jubilant roadhouse of a movie in the vein of The Dirty Dozen. Ayer’s take was decidedly more somber. After hearing the complaints that BvS was too dour and grim, the studio intervened. In May, a lighter version was screened next to Ayer’s darker take. The lighter, studio-fronted cut tested better with audiences, and so began the discussions to reach a compromise. The final product is the supposed middle ground, which Ayer has firmly stood by (“the released movie is my cut”). Still, I can’t help but wonder what the movie would’ve been had Warner Bros. put an overall emphasis on making the film better as opposed to making it the opposite of BvS.
The emphasis on filmmaking may have been the intention from the start (an inspired choice that began with Christopher Nolan), but these films are becoming increasingly more like studio-fronted ventures in the guise of being filmmaker-driven. The Hollywood Reporter shed light on the trials that beset Ayer from the very beginning. The director, who had signed on in September of 2014, had only six-weeks to write a script. Casting went underway in October leading all the way through April. A brief rehearsal period followed and filming went underway that same month. This is a staggering counterpoint to the studio’s intent. These films are no longer sole creative endeavors, but a harried production set to meet a premature release date.
Wherever you stand on Suicide Squad, the film’s success is undeniable, smashing the competition, besting a previous record-holder by a rival studio, and more. There’s not always a clear connection between movie reviews and box office success (see Transformers, or any Adam Sandler movie). One might say that the DC films are critic-proof, but that’s of course if you judge a film’s merit based on its Tomato-meter rating. Credit goes to a clever marketing campaign, which often begins as soon as the cameras start rolling (say what you will about Jared Leto’s bizzare behavior on set, those reports were practically free advertising). Credit also goes to the built-in fan base and the dedicated souls who line up for every one of these films (and line up at the forefront to defend said films against hypothetical conspiracies). Even if people went just to spite the critics or to “see what everyone’s talking about,” Squad had a hook going for it all around.
Squad‘s critical failure has put insurmountable pressure on Wonder Woman. As if the film wasn’t under enough pressure already. It remains to be seen what moves Warner Bros. will make to ensure its success. I suppose the studio is aiming for a critical darling at this point, but is that something worth aiming for? There will always be a bad review lurking somewhere. Universal praise is simply not worth fretting over because nothing can be done to secure it. All DC can do is focus on making the next film better. But wouldn’t that have been the focus regardless if prior films had done better or worse?
We can all agree on one thing: DC cast these roles perfectly. Ben Affleck may have gotten heat for being cast as the Caped Crusader, but he managed to win over the naysayers and continued to do so with his presence in Suicide Squad (I’d pay serious bucks just to see Batman rounding up villains all in one night). Fans also expressed prior concern over Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, but support for her is unanimous. Suicide Squad is part of the rule too with stars like Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Jared Leto. I may not be hot on the prospects of Squad 2, but I am looking forward to the Harley Quinn spinoff (and vying for a Deadshot movie). People want to see these actors play these characters. Their collective stardom is part of the allure. My thoughts on both films are pretty clear and quite complicated. But I, along with so many others, saw these movies regardless. That’s the bottom line. Warner Bros. should take that into consideration the next time they worry about trying to break even (there is still merchandising and Blu-ray/DVD sales to consider). I imagine a lot of people will be lining up to see Wonder Woman, and a hell of a lot more for the Justice League. DC may not know it, but they’ve got us. They’ve certainly got me.
Is DC’s cinematic prospects in question? Hardly. As for Warner Bros.’ strategy in moving forward? Most definitely.