The DC Cinematic Universe is currently a rather fragmented and sketchy collection. With 3 releases to date, something vital seems to be absent from each film. One can’t help but compare to it’s main competitor, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel has not only undercut DC by 5 years, but has undoubtedly achieved something of a consistent quality over 9 years and 14 releases. The MCU hit the ground running with 2008’s acclaimed Iron Man and since then has released box office shattering and highly praised features such as The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016). There are many great moments to enjoy and get excited about in each of the 3 DC releases, however all in every case they are constantly battling against mediocre or in some cases poor elements and there’s a contention between good ideas and substandard execution. Consequently the end result is something of an uneven and ultimately unfulfilling experience.
So, let’s go back to square 1:
Man of Steel (2013)
The “taking off” point for the DC Cinematic Universe was a revamp of one of the oldest and most iconic superheros of all time. It had been 7 years since we had seen Superman on the big screen. After Superman Returns had failed to capture the imagination of fans and critics back in 2006, the superhero had been in hiatus. I actually really liked Superman Returns and thought Bryan Singer did a much better job than he is given credit for. Anyway, Superman was back, this time in the form of Henry Cavill. Dawn of the Dead, 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder was behind the camera and was given the task of launching the DCCU into infamy. We are now 3 films into the series and that has yet to happen. I felt completely buzzed and psyched about the release of Superman Returns (perhaps because it was the first Superman film to be released in my life time), and the same feeling just wasn’t replicated when it came to the release of Man of Steel. After seeing the trailers and reading up on it, my thought process was more like, “Who’s Henry Cavill?”
“Zack Snyder? Well… He’s okay I guess. Watchmen was a bit baggy… Sucker Punch? What was that all about?”
“Oh man. The trailer for Iron Man 3 looks AMAZING.”
That seemed to be where I was at in 2013. The thing that also set alarm bells ringing was, ‘produced by Chris Nolan.’ After his seminal work with the Dark Knight trilogy, he had completely altered my mindset as to what a dark comic book movie should be. Completely (ish) grounded in reality, the films are played out more like art-house dramas than blockbuster superhero movies. That’s what he had given the DC audience a taste for, and that is something you can’t achieve with a character as fantastical as Superman. Also, with the switch to producer it reminded me of Tim Burton. After his 2 Batman films, he stepped back from directing Batman Forever and became the producer, leaving the creative side of things to Joel Schumacher. And we all know how that turned out.
So all of this was going through my head, and as a consequence I didn’t particularly have any expectations for Man of Steel.
The film isn’t bad.
It’s good, but it’s not great.
There’s bits about it that I really like, but with a 2 hour and 23 minute running time, someone should have gone into that editing room with a machete and trimmed it down to a neat 1 hr 45. Firstly, Henry Cavill is excellent. I wasn’t familiar with his work prior to Man of Steel but within a few minutes of him being on screen, I though, “Yep. That’s Superman. He looks like Superman. He sounds like Superman. He carries himself like Superman. Great casting.” The casting choices are actually pretty solid across the board. Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane and Michael Shannon, all give sound performances. Nothing really to fault. However, for me, it’s Kevin Costner that steals the show as Jonathan Kent. The scenes with he’s in with Clark are the standout moments of the film for me. That’s what I wanted much more of, but ultimately the movie just descends into a mess of special effects and chaos as Superman and Zod more or less destroy Metropolis.
The reason I describe it as “a mess” of special effects, is because, when compared to a film such as Rogue One that I’ve seen recently, there’s just nothing in the last section of the film that kept me engaged. In the final act of Rogue One, as the heist mission turns into full blown warfare, there are laser guns being fired everywhere. Spaceships whizzing around. Buildings blowing up. Explosions, deaths, entire cities being destroyed etc. But the way it’s edited together and the way the characters interact during it all makes you actually care about them. It keeps you engaged as well as excited by the spectacle. This is something that’s missing from Man of Steel. Whilst all of these huge action set pieces are happening, I found it all just a tad boring. Which has been one of the main problems across all of the DCCU films. Empathy towards the characters. If you can’t empathise with them or get emotionally involved with them then why would you care what happens to them?
Which is why for me, the quieter moments in the film, such as the Jonathan Kent scenes, or the scenes with Amy Adams are definite highlights. As they disregarded any of the previous films and revamped the character from scratch, as a fresh origins story, it fails to completely hit the mark. I do like the film, but I don’t love it. And for a film of this nature, the debut release to showcase the new direction of the DC Universe, it needed to be the best Superman film that’s ever been made. And it isn’t.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
Now, you can’t give us a title like that and not deliver the greatest superhero crossover film of all time right? Right? Guys?
Unlike Man of Steel, I actually fell for the hype this time around. Feeling equally underwhelmed yet satisfied (which is an odd feeling) by MOS, I assumed BvS would be the film where it all came together. I was right behind Ben Affleck as Batman from day 1. The trailers looked great. Henry Cavill had already won me over as Superman. I was excited to see Lex Luthor as the main antagonist. And after Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight series, I was enthusiastic to see a different take on the character. I assumed that Zack Snyder would have taken on board any Man of Steel related criticisms and taken a slightly different approach with BvS to bring us something new, fresh and most importantly coherent. Firstly, the positives. As predicted, Ben Affleck is a great Bruce Wayne and Jeremy Irons is terrifically cast as Alfred. Similarly to Man of Steel, I think the quieter moments between Alfred and Bruce are some of the best bit of the film. I love what they did with Batman. I love the look, the casting choice and certain action scenes, such as Batman taking out an entire military troop in the desert are possibly some of the greatest action set-pieces I’ve seen in any Batman film. Again, there are individual moments that are breathtaking and really well orchestrated, but as a whole, the film is just very baggy.
I know it appeared in many critics “worst films of 2016” lists, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as some people have stated, and there is marginal improvement from Man of Steel. I must say I did enjoy myself while watching the film. Then again, I enjoy eating a Pot Noodle, but I would hardly describe it as a gourmet meal. I didn’t have any issues with the dream sequences, that had previously been criticised for being unnecessary and confusing. I didn’t find myself lost during any point of the film, but the finished product is big mess of ideas. Zack Snyder tried to juggle 3 main protagonists, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and a number of different plot threads. You’ve got a court case involving Superman. The Batman and Alfred side story. The introduction of Lex Luthor. Lois Lane and the Daily Planet segments, and a number of surreal dream sequences interspersed for good measure. With all of this going on, the film never really finds a rhythm, aimlessly flitting between scenes and binding them all together haphazardly, with nothing edited down and a script that is severely lacking in humour and buoyancy. When compared to Joss Whedon’s Avengers, Whedon managed to juggle around 9 or 10 main characters effortlessly and keep the whole piece tight, engaging and witty. It’s hardly surprising that the trailer for Justice League has showcased an awful lot of humour and wry one liners, as BvS did really need to lighten itself up a little bit. I just hope they can manage to salvage something of the Lex Luthor character. He is one of the most iconic super villains in the history of comic books and I think Jesse Eisenberg is a great actor, but the way he approached Luthor in BvS was just cringe-worthy. I actually couldn’t wait for him to get off the screen.
It’s a shame really. Batman V Superman is probably my favourite of the DCCU releases so far, but at the same time it’s the one I am most disappointed by. It’s the one I invested the most optimism in, and therefore it was the biggest let down. At the same time, there were some really enjoyable moments in the film, which is why it left me feeling confusingly frustrated.
Suicide Squad (2016)
The latest DCCU release is the “lets get the ragtag gang of misfit baddies together” to fight a super baddie film, Suicide Squad. After getting my fingers (not burned but) singed by the last 2 films I didn’t go in to this with any expectations. I wasn’t overly familiar with all the characters it was focusing on and the only film I had seen by the director David Ayer was the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick Sabotage. I didn’t particularly enjoy Sabotage and thought the whole thing was just a bit… dirty. All the characters were just greasy, grubby and grimey and I felt the urge to shower immediately after watching it. So I wasn’t particularly fussed about the director, the characters or a continuation of the franchise. Now, I’ve only seen this film once at the cinema so I’ve not digested it as thoroughly as the previous 2, but in all honesty, I haven’t had an overwhelming urge to revisit it since. Similarly to the other DCCU movies, it’s just all over the place and a mess of ideas.
Firstly, the soundtrack is pretty annoying. I’m a big music fan and obviously I love Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Queen and The Rolling Stones. But the song’s are just so blatantly crowbar’d in. It’s like the producers had watched Guardians of the Galaxy and thought, “Wow, that retro pop soundtrack works really well over this comic book film about a team of misfits. We’ll just do that.” But it’s explained in Guardians as to why that soundtrack exists and the songs don’t irreverently comment on the narrative like they do in Suicide Squad. For example in SS they do a long shot of a prison. Cue, House of the Rising Sun. Introduce someone who is notoriously bad, Sympathy for the Devil. Show someone displaying paranoia, Paranoid. It just feels really banal and unnecessary, and whereas I love all the songs, I don’t like them being used in this way. It’s almost as if the director is just ticking them off a list or something.
The Joker. This isn’t my Joker. And based on all the reviews I’ve read, Jared Leto’s Joker doesn’t appear to be too popular with anyone. I remember when the first preview image of Leto’s joker appeared. I was more or less completely uninterested. The whole cyberpunk angle didn’t do it for me at all. I do like Jared Leto however and thought I’d give the character a chance, but he didn’t appear to do anything original. It was like Heath Ledger-Lite. Complete style over substance and his plot strand seemed rather unwarranted in the main narrative of the film. As introductory appearances go, they appear to have fumbled the ball on 2 of the biggest super villains in the entire DC Universe. At the moment I’m just totally uninterested in their version of the Joker and Lex Luthor, and I wouldn’t be devastated if we never saw either of them again. That really isn’t how I wanted to be feeling about these characters so early on into the franchise. I really hope the filmmakers take on board the less than favourable critique of both characters and do something satisfactory with them. They have 2 perfectly capable actors at their disposal and they’re being wasted.
My only other main gripe about Suicide Squad is Will Smith. I love Will Smith. I think he’s brilliant. But for this film, he just turns up to be Will Smith. I’m not too familiar with the character Deadshot, and I honestly have never been critical of the way any filmmaker wants to present a character. Even to the extent of Joel Schumacher’s Mr. Freeze or Deadpool in X-Men Origins. I don’t think there is a definitive way any comic book character should be reproduced on screen, as there are usually many varying interpretations in graphic novels alone. Granted I wasn’t thrilled with Lex Luthor and Leto’s Joker, but I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be portrayed in that way. There’s no set blueprint for either character, but in this case, what they did didn’t work for me. With Deadshot though, it’s almost as if the filmmakers rewrote the script once Will Smith had signed up for the project. I felt like you could just take him out of the costume and the DC world, pop him in another completely unrelated action film and give him the same comical one-liners and asides and all the other Will Smithisms and they would stand up perfectly well. In the comic book movie world. You see Hugh Jackman – He’s Wolverine. You see Chris Hemsworth – He’s Thor. You see Christopher Reeve – He’s Superman. You see Will Smith – He’s Will Smith.
On the plus side, I thought Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was thoroughly enjoyable. I know the characterisation got generally slammed by comic book fans, but I’ve never really had any pre-existing devotion to the character in any medium. Purely assessing her performance in the film. I thought she was great. She left herself at home for the role. Will Smith didn’t. All in all, the filmmakers did try and lighten the franchise up a bit with comic moments, a more pop oriented soundtrack and it did seem to zip along a lot more rapidly than the previous films. Not terrible, but largely disposable.
With Wonder Woman and Justice League due for release this year the franchise can’t afford another lukewarm production. I feel it’s make or break and unless the 2017 releases are massive box office and critical successes, I don’t think they are going to be able to pull it back. I can tell from the trailer that they’ve definitely tried to inject a bit of drollness into Justice League and it already looks a lot more lively and bright than BvS. Although, I’m not entirely convinced Zack Snyder is a great visionary director to be at the forefront of this movie empire.
I’m much more intrigued by Wonder Woman. A period piece set around the First World War, with a fresh director in the form of Patty Jenkins and an all new supporting cast. If anything, DC have actually beat Marvel to the punch by releasing a film with a heroine as the lead character. I’ve love the Wonder Woman character and her influence on popular culture, so I’m really hoping they can, essentially, save the franchise with this release.
I’m also very excited for an Aquaman feature. Again, I really love the character, and I already have a feeling that, despite my reservations, Justice League could potentially be the best film that Zack Snyder has ever directed. After 3 mediocre films that, when compared to Marvel, fail to completely hit the mark, the producers must have listened to some of the comments, concerns and the feedback, and “the only way is up.”
They’ve tested the water with a lot of the main characters in the franchise, and now it’s time to hone them. I think, if Wonder Woman and Justice League blow away the fans, the DC Universe is going to be unstoppable. If not, they are really going to struggle to find an audience for Aquaman, The Flash, Shazam and Green Lantern.