Once upon a time, Warner Bros ruled the superhero movie genre with its DC Comics lynchpin characters Superman and Batman.
21st Century Fox’s X-Men movie (2000) heralded a new age of superhero movies that challenged Warner Bros but Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2005 – 2012) restored dominance to Warner Bros, earning $2.5 billion at the box office worldwide and garnering critical acclaim for its dark, realistic take on the genre.
Nolan was interested to create a superhero story that resonated as a real life crime drama, influenced to some degree by the darker tones of 1980s deconstructionist versions of superheroes in ground-breaking comics like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns
Then in 2008 – the same year Nolan’s The Dark Knight topped the worldwide box office with over $1 billion earnings, Marvel Studios released its maiden effort – Iron Man – which earned a respectable $585 million and ushered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Nobody – certainly not Warner Bros – could have imagined the tables turning in the years ahead. While Marvel Studios slowly built up its cinematic universe under the stewardship of Kevin Feige, Warner Bros flushed with the achievements with its Batman movies, now looked to emulate that success with Superman.
2006’s Superman Returns – directed by Bryan Singer – was a flop with Warner Bros reading its failure as a rejection of the classic 70s version of Superman, and were now interested in a reboot of Superman in a new superhero movie environment.
Before the Superman reboot, Warner Bros also tested the ground with a Green Lantern movie – starring Ryan Reynolds – which introduced the character to movie goers in light-hearted fashion. It bombed, perhaps cementing Warner Bros’ view that the dark, realistic superhero take that Nolan had delivered with much acclaim was the way to go.
Thus, Warner Bros turned to Nolan and writer David S. Goyer (both of whom were credited with the story for The Dark Knight) for their own version of Superman. Once Warner Bros were satisfied with the direction of its Superman reboot, it searched for a suitable director to take the helm and decided on Zack Snyder.
In 2010, Snyder was best known for two well-received comic book adaptations viz. Frank Miller’s 300 and the aforementioned Watchmen. While Watchmen did not impress at the box office, Snyder had demonstrated that he was suited to produce a superhero movie that would reflect the darker, realistic tone of the Nolan-Goyer treatment.
By the time, The Dark Knight Rises was released in 2012, the tide had already begun to turn against Warner Bros DC characters. That year, Marvel’s The Avengers topped the worldwide box office with $1.5 million, whereas The Dark Knight Rises was third, grossing one billion. Although its commercial success was due mostly to the goodwill of its predecessor, critically the movie was not as well-received and it was clear that it was now Marvel, with its wise-cracking, feel good comedic plots and characters , that set the template for the superhero movie genre.
A year later, Snyder’s Man of Steel introduced the new Superman – consistent with the tone set in Nolan’s Batman trilogy – to a new audience of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fans who saw fit to pick the movie apart. While diehard DC comic book fans in general liked the movie, the critics and the casual movie goers gave Man of Steel the thumbs down.
The key objection was the darker portrayal of Superman – consistent with the contemporaneous comic books – which were in the minds of casual movie goers (and critics) conflicting with the 70s era Superman.
Warner Bros had seriously miscalculated here. It believed that after the failures of Superman Returns and Green Lantern, Man of Steel would be what audiences wanted but they were dead wrong. The movie was enough of a financial success though for Warner Bros to green light a sequel with Snyder in June 2013.
Though Man of Steel was presented very much as standalone movie, Warner Bros saw it as the opening film of a new DC Extended Universe (DCEU) and pushed Snyder not only to include a rebooted Batman into the movie, but also to introduce Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg i.e. the Justice League.
The movie thus morphed into something other than a Man of Steel sequel, becoming the rather unwieldy Batman v Superman : Dawn of Justice! After all, Warner Bros had already announced at least TWO Justice League films to follow, along with a slew of films that would make up the DCEU. Ironically, that was the beginning of the end for the DCEU!
Instead of introducing the new characters movie by movie – like in Phase 1 of the MCU – Warner Bros directed Snyder to include so many plot elements in the movie that it was no surprise that it collapsed from the weight of expectation.
Warner Bros clearly wanted to catch up with Marvel Studios as quickly as it could. While from the perspective of many hardcore DC fans, B v S was an excellent film – despite its over-reaching scope – like Man of Steel, it was disliked by casual fans and critics.
Although B v S was ready for a 2015 release, Warner Bros mysteriously delayed its release for a year to May 2016, allowing Marvel Studios to subsequently announce the similarly themed Captain America : Civil War on the same date!
Crucially, Warner Bros blinked, bringing the B v S release date forward to March, signalling the lack of confidence it had in the direction it was taking with its DCEU franchise. The savaging of the movie by the critics and the resultant ill-will caused Warner Bros to re-think its strategy.
This new outlook was emphasised by the next two DCEU movies – Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman – the former was critically reviled and the latter was a cultural phenomenon! It was the difference between dark and light almost, and the Warner Bros suits had been converted into the Marvel way.
Unfortunately, Snyder was already shooting Justice League by this time, and Warner Bros was now between a rock and a hard place.
Snyder was replaced by Avengers director Joss Whedon when Snyder lost his teenaged daughter in a tragic suicide. Though, most insiders insist that that was a cover story and the fact is Snyder was sacked by Warner Bros as the very thing he was signed up to do was no longer what Warner Bros wanted.
The engagement of Whedon was particularly telling – basically, Warner Bros needed to turn Snyder’s Justice League into a Marvel movie. This clash of tone and style – despite three months of reshoots – resulted in a travesty of a film which the critics hated and movie goers ignored.
The film grossed $657 million worldwide up against a break-even point of $750 million becoming a box office bomb and losing the studio approximately $60 million.
And that was the end of the DCEU. Where could Warner Bros go now with its DC characters?
Well, what is the opposite of a shared universe? How about a series of movies that had no connection to each other, that demonstrated that DC characters existed in different realities and voilà! The Worlds of DC was born!
But that’s another story altogether…
… still there’s more …