In 2013, when Man of Steel was released, I wrote about the challenges of adapting Superman for modern audiences. After a mixed bag of movies, it seems like Warner Bros is ready to cut bait and move on from this iteration of Krypton’s most famous son. Or maybe not? Now, Ben Affleck is apparently looking to bail as well. Who knows. The fact of the matter is, the DCEU is a dumpster fire.
Which is unfortunate because, unlike the MCU, Warner Bros actually owns all the IP rights to the DC characters. It should’ve been them leading the way of the shared cinematic universe, not Marvel, who didn’t even own the rights to Spider-Man when this whole trend got going. The MCU built perhaps the biggest box office juggernaut in Hollywood history off the backs of second-tier characters. What the hell happened?
We can talk about the shortcomings of Zack Snyder, Superman’s CGI mustache, or getting a trailer company to edit Suicide Squad, but, ultimately, it all comes down to storytelling. The mistake studios have made trying to ape the MCU is to think that a shared cinematic universe is a substitute for storytelling. The reason why we enjoy watching Thor and Hulk fight is because we care about the characters. The MCU released five movies before The Avengers, giving each character the opportunity to establish an arc and grow.
The DCEU tried to skip all that hard work by going from Man of Steel right into Batman v Superman, where they not only re-booted Batman but also introduced Wonder Woman and teased the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. It was too much, too soon and painfully sloppy.
The worst offender for this, however, is Universal’s Dark Universe. They just went right for it in the first (and last?) movie, The Mummy. I mean, who are these characters? Why do I care? Why is Dr. Jekyll talking about the Knights Templar and the Bride of Frankenstein. It’s like going on a first date with a Tinder match and before you have drink they’re all ready talking about a guest-list for your wedding.
Say what you will about the MCU and how it’s the ruination of cinema, blah blah blah, but they certainly earned their universe by going through the proper steps. By and large, the MCU really gets that a shared cinematic universe is a means towards the end of great storytelling.
Nerdwriter did a great video addressing this problem of elevating universe building over storytelling. He calls it “weaponized intertextuality” wherein movies make references to other movies, characters, significant objects, etc. to achieve a certain “frisson” in the audience. Basically, instead of trying to tell a story it’s just a bunch of “whoa, sick reference, bro!” Consequently, you end up with something like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 where it’s just a bunch of teasing for a movie that never comes. Or, worse, Ready Player One. But the less said about that the better.
These problems continue to exacerbate as the epidemic of cinematic universes continues. And we’re seeing more diminished returns from audiences. Solo was the first financial failure of the Star Wars films. Why? Probably because instead of telling us a story about Han Solo, we got a bunch of wink, wink, nudge, nudge. “Hey that’s the Kessel Run! Hey that’s the costume Lando wore while infiltrating Jabba the Hut’s palace! Holy shit, Darth Maul!” And on, and on, and on.
It all feels so cynical. And what’s worse is that these are beloved characters. I often resent the possessiveness fandoms show over their favourite characters, and I’m certainly not naive about the relationship between capitalism and film, but at a certain point you have to say enough is enough. I love the Star Wars universe. I’d watch an origin story about Bib Fortuna so long as the story was good.
And that’s the problem with the DCEU. With the exception of Wonder Woman (which I loved), the emphasis always seems to be “How can we build this universe?” I’d like to believe that the creative team have their hearts in the right places; I can imagine many non-commercial reasons why you’d mistake universe building for storytelling. Nonetheless, if you want to avoid your cinematic universe from collapsing into a Big Crunch then you’d better rise above “sick reference, bro!”