The Great Post-BvS Warner Brothers FLINCH
Or, Well If You Ask Marketing, the Marketing Wasn’t to Blame!
In the 2016 head-to-head of the super-hero team-ups—usually a proud and long-standing comic grandstanding tradition but in this case an unfair match-up of one universe’s Chapter 2 (Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice) versus another’s Chapter 13 (Captain America: Civil War)—Marvel Studios won with the box office and the critics both. But it was the critical drubbing of the former that seemed to drive WB’s top-down response, one that seemed to hone in on the issues reviewers had with the tone of the movie, rather than the issues audiences had with its story-line logic after Tsujihara’s own product-driven approach ensured the theatrical release was cut down to barely-sensible PG-13 bones.
Critical response to the theatrical release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was largely negative, and its box office haul was micro-analyzed in unfair direct comparison with Civil War. A good portion of blame for the critical panning of the movie lies at the feet of Warner Brothers themselves who mandated the two-and-a-half hour runtime, pushing for cuts until the resulting film made little sense, as I discussed in How Haste Hurt the Heroes. Not every criticism of the movie was focused on the its cut-to-shreds plot, but it certainly hurt the average score. Review aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic show summaries for the reviews of the theatrical release of movies, and no matter how well the Ultimate Edition may redeem the movie by revealing the complete story that made sense before the changes, its release can’t replace the first impression left by the theatrical release. Zack Snyder’s Justice League is fortunate to be tracked by these aggregators separately, and not face the same eternal review dilemma as Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Edition.
Reviewers kind of like plots that make logical sense, after all. BvS writer Chris Terrio knows it:
“If you took 30 minutes out of Argo, as they were from Batman/Superman, it would make zero sense at all. Critics would say, ‘what a lazy screenplay,’ because the characters don’t have motivations and it’s not coherent,” Terrio said. “And I would agree with them.”Chris Terrio – Vanity Fair Interview – April 8, 2021
In early 2016, BvS was also weighted with lofty expectations for its box office returns, associated to a massive marketing spend for the movie on behalf of the studio. I’d argue a great deal of that marketing spend was unnecessary, and perhaps even harmful to the movie. The third act of BvS unites the “Trinity” of classic DC heroes Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman against an adaptation of Doomsday, created by Lex Luthor via the Zod’s crashed Kryptonian ship’s genesis chamber, using Zod’s corpse. This is a “movie reality” way to bring about Doomsday unexpectedly using in-universe items already established, in this continuity. Doomsday’s appearance works as a ratcheting up of tension in the movie, but as an adaptation of the original comic book Death of Superman/Doomsday arc from the comics, it is greatly abbreviated. DC fans might even feel it is premature, since the DC Comics story of Doomsday proves his threat by having him defeat the entire Justice League before Superman finally sacrifices his life to stop him.
Can you imagine the surprise–and the associated word of mouth–if DC-savvy movie-goers showed up to a movie that had been advertised as a mutant Nu52 combo between The World’s Finest and The Dark Knight Returns, only to find the third act becomes an unexpected Death of Superman story?
Instead, Warner Brothers marketing—possibly trying to get ahead of online leaks of the development among super-fans—revealed the presence of Doomsday in the movie to general audiences with the second trailer, forever shifting expectations and blowing the movie’s one surprise development… since Gal Godot’s casting and presence in the movie as Wonder Woman had also already been revealed in the lead-up marketing, justifying the Dawn of Justice subtitle:
I did not name the script. In fact, I found out what the movie was called along with the rest of the world on the internet. I was not consulted on the title of the film, and I was as surprised as anyone. I would not have named it Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice...Chris Terrio – Vanity Fair Interview – April 8, 2021
I don’t know exactly who named it, but I suspect it was the studio and I suspect it was marketing, to be honest with you. It might have been the first step toward creating ill will for the film…
I heard it and I thought, It just sounds self-important and clueless in a way. Tone-deaf. The intention of the film was to do something interesting and dark and complex, not quite as Las Vegas, bust ’em up, WWE match as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
After the release of and response to BvS, Warner Brothers studio management, and particularly (apparently) Kevin Tsujihara clearly declined to take the opportunity for introspection about any of the caveats I’ve outlined: inflated expectations with their second chapter in their rebooted second effort to adapt an entire fictional comics universe, wasted money and impact replacing word-of-mouth marketing from exciting plot surprises with spoiler-filled trailers and excessive spending, lack of trust on behalf of an audience that they should invest concern in this ongoing on-screen story-line with so many news stories and leaks about the off-screen turmoil and the studio’s disappointment in results.
Instead, studio management would respond by doubling down and continuing to make the same mistakes.
The DC Aborted Universe
Nobody Likes a Novel Without a Through-Line
Amazingly, Warner Brothers flinched so hard in the weeks right after the release of BvS that they announced plans to make even less movies in the DC Universe, and overall. With the benefit of hindsight, we can directly pinpoint Tsujihara’s folly as the Hollywood Reporter write-up reveals his intentions to steer the studio to fewer releases from the internal studios, focused on the (then, briefly) tentpole franchises of DC Comics, the Lego movies (ouch!), and the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them series (oof!). The write-up would prove to be eerily accurate for the future course for the studio, including a flat-out as-we’re-doing-it denial of exactly what would wind up happening to the theatrical cut of Justice League:
Several sources say Warner Bros. executives were convinced they had the goods with BvS and were shocked when negative reviews began pouring in. Now, with DC movies dated through 2020, the outcome has led to a flurry of rumors that the studio will make adjustments — maybe add a new producer? — rather than allow BvS director Zack Snyder to proceed with the two-part Justice League. But sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation say the studio has no such plans. One says the filmmakers naturally will evaluate what went wrong with BvS, but when it comes to Justice League, “we’re not going to take a movie that’s supposed to be one thing and turn it into a copycat of something else.”Kim Masters, The Hollywood Reporter – Warner Bros. Mulls Releasing Fewer Films as ‘Batman v. Superman’ Stalls – April 6, 2016
True to the announced intentions after the freakout, Warner Brothers proceeded with an immediate pivot by cutting the originally intended two-part Justice League project down to one release, and assigning new production leadership to the slate of announced DC film adaptations, while overseeing the ongoing work more directly. And so the groundwork was laid for a return to the kind of pre-production studio interference with an active production not seen in DC Comics adaptations since its aborted chapter zero Green Lantern.
Further, in 2021 while promoting the eventual successful streaming-only release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a clearer view is given by Snyder on the conflict in an interview with SFX Magazine, written up by GamesRadar:
“I feel like the studio had this hatred for Batman v Superman,” he says, referring to his previous DC movie. “There was this pressure on me to divorce the movie from Batman v Superman, which I didn’t want to do, and which I didn’t do. Frankly, it’s a trilogy of movies, so it continues the story. The narrative is affected by the things that have gone before it and that way it’s able to realize this world that sets up the Darkseid invasion, for what was planned to be a five-movie arc. It definitely finishes with this version of the film, with our heroes having mended their personal wounds and joined together as a family.”Zack Snyder, SFX Magazine Interview – Zack Snyder: “The studio had this hatred for Batman v Superman” – March, 2021
The most satisfying distinction between between 2017’s Justice League and the recent Zack Snyder’s Justice League is that the latter continues the character arcs established in the first DCEU movies, and gives enough time to establish the new characters that weren’t established in their own movies the way Marvel Studios had done before the team-up of The Avengers. I’ll even go one step further: the biggest reason that DC fans insisted for years that Warner Brothers #ReleasetheSnyderCut was not just because of the rumored and perceived disparity in quality between the story, characters, coloring, dialog, and direction of the two versions, but also because the Snyder Cut actually promised to pick up on all the dangling plot threads established in the movie before it that had been summarily dropped by the theatrical release, like that of the Knightmare/Flash Time Travel scene from BvS.
Warner Brother failed to understand that the movie “sequel” game had changed: that cinema within franchises had slowly been transforming from an episodic to a serialized format. All the old lessons learned with the original Superman and Batman movies series were no longer true: that the first release was the biggest earner and every sequel after was diminishing returns. Marvel Studios proved it with their run of cumulative success that first climaxed with The Avengers and then later proved capable of even greater cumulative story-telling and box office success with the Infinity War saga.
Even the studios’ own darling Batman producer Christopher Nolan proved the new rules when he somehow secured unusually tenacious buy-in from the studio with The Dark Knight trilogy, taking a less-than-impressive haul for Batman Begins and tripling it for the follow-up The Dark Knight. Ironically, if you combine the box office hauls for the first two chapters of the Dark Knight trilogy, they come together to slightly less than the cumulative box office of the first two chapters of Zack Snyder’s DCEU Trilogy:
|MOVIE||GLOBAL BOX OFFICE||MOVIE||GLOBAL BOX OFFICE|
|Batman Begins||$374,218,673||Man of Steel||$668,045,518|
|The Dark Knight||$1,004,934,033||Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice||$873,634,919|
This seems so unusual that I feel like I’m still missing part of the story here. Did Batman Begins get limited international release or something?
Lacking any real financial complaint beyond the ones they manufactured themselves by comparing their second installment in a growing box-office enterprise to another franchise’s thirteenth, Warner Brothers proceeded anyway and reacted strongly (and quite obviously) to the online social media and critical response to Batman V Superman. Thus began the extended hand-wringing over the tone of the DCEU movies as established by the direction of Zack Snyder, something that, a scant few years earlier, was heralded by many (including myself) as a differentiator grounding the DC adaptations in a more “real-world” setting:
In retrospect, Green Lantern‘s mix of comedy and heroics, and Ryan Reynolds’ wisecracking-in-the-face-of-stress hero, appear all the more apparent, and all the more clearly influenced by the format and voice of Marvel’s output, now that we’ve seen the more grandiose, overblown and operatic offerings of Zack Snyder’s DC movies. It might not be a tone that’s to everyone’s tastes — especially in a market shaped by eight years of the competing product — but any differentiator feels like a plus.Graeme McMillan, Hollywood Reporter, “‘Green Lantern’ Revisited: The Last Time Warner Bros. Tried to Launch a Comic Book Universe“
Without any long-term story-line vision for the DC properties other than capitalizing on them, in the months after the release of BvS Warner Brothers would once again turn on their own creators and their output. The darker tone that served briefly as alternative to the work of Marvel Studios would once again be identified as liability; evoking flashbacks of the days of Tim Burton’s Batman Returns and the fabled conflict over that movie’s tone and its appropriateness for licensing into Happy Meal toys.
Warner Brothers leadership flinched so hard at the results of the 2016 match-up that they somehow completely leaked their massive disappointment, lost control of any way to spin results positively, and then reinforced that perception by immediately announcing they were bringing in a new pair of producers. Executive VP Jon Berg and Geoff Johns, DC Comic’s Chief Content Officer, were brought into the mix to oversee DC Comic adaptations under the banner of DC Films (that never saw life as a publicly-facing brand of its own beyond that Dawn of the Justice League special in the lead-up to the relase of BvS): .
Berg was already working on BvS, Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman and Justice League. He also is a conduit to Ben Affleck, having worked with the actor-filmmaker on Argo and Live by Night, the crime thriller Affleck recently wrapped as director, writer and star for the studio.
Comics writer-turned-exec Johns, meanwhile, was key in working with showrunner Greg Berlanti on the ascension of superhero shows such as Arrow, The Flash and Supergirl and is the writer behind DC’s upcoming Rebirth, the publishing side’s reboot of its titles that will play out over the summer months. He is not leaving DC, according to sources, but adding film to his portfolio.
Johns will still report to DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson, while Berg will report to Silverman.Borys Kit, The Hollywood Reporter – ‘Batman v. Superman’ Fallout: Warner Bros. Shakes Up Executive Roles (Exclusive) – May 7, 2016
These names will come up more a bit later, as along with Joss Whedon they became key players in the unmitigated disaster that is the $20 million re-shoot production for theatrical Justice League in 2017. For now, in 2016 as Warner Brothers twitches and fibrillates in the aftermath of their flinch, the influence of these new producers is felt on the long-term plans for the franchise: namely, they went away.
The unexpected negative critical response to the theatrical release of Batman V Superman initiated severe response at WB, throwing a metaphorical wrench into all the extended storyline plans laid out, after the results of one movie. What is revealed in a Vulture deep-dive into the studio’s plans by Abraham Reisman is that WB practically ran from the connected-universe serial-story-line concept entirely:
…DC and Warner have adopted a new strategy: Let’s rethink that whole universe thing. They’re not giving up on the idea of continuity, but they want to deemphasize the idea that all of these flicks are occupying the same space. “Our intention, certainly, moving forward is using the continuity to help make sure nothing is diverging in a way that doesn’t make sense, but there’s no insistence upon an overall story line or interconnectivity in that universe,” says [DC Entertainment president Diane] Nelson, drawing nods from the top brass around her.Abraham Resiman, Vulture – “DC Rethinks Its Universe” – July, 2017
For movie-goers and comic fans both who enjoyed the innovation in cinematic serial story-telling Marvel Studios had been bringing to film, this amounted to DC and WB admitting publicly they couldn’t get their act together enough to offer a competing product.
In the battle of the comic-book cinematic-universes, Marvel Studios proceeded with chapter after chapter in an extended story-line with more than a dozen movies of varying tone and box office success, using initial bread crumbs and post-credit scenes woven into interconnected serial story threads that culminated in big box office possibilities. In response, Warner Brothers fretted and interfered and overspent on their first attempt, abandoned that effort, got two chapters into another attempt with an intentionally different tone, freaked out at the blog posts about their nearly $900 million box office “failure,” and then proceeded to duck the serial story-line idea entirely, while returning to the tactic of fretting and interfering and overspending on the movies in production… to predictable results.
Storytellers must ask for a measure of investment from their audiences, particularly those trying to spin a serial story-line built from individually released episodes. The audience must believe there is some sort of plan—or at the very least intention—to conclude the plot threads and character stories in order to care about them. Yet two months before the theatrical release of Justice League, waves were made when an article was published revealing that the executives and employees at Warner Brothers didn’t use the term DCEU, or DC Extended Universe, to refer to the films internally and there was in fact no official brand for the connected universe of films:
“The writer of the article, Keith Staskiewicz, was hard to track down. Not on Twitter. No website,” Riesman wrote in a series of tweets. “Finally got him on Facebook and asked about the term. Turns out he just straight-up made it up as a joke.”
Staskiewicz explained to Riesman that the capitalization and trademark symbol he used in the piece, which all went toward making the moniker seem more official, were “sardonic” additions to a throwaway joke in the middle of the article. “Just seemed like the kind of thing they’d call it!” he said.
“Years later, it’s in use everywhere as though it’s official,” Riesman wrote. “The lesson: never make a joke, because no one gets jokes.”Reid Nakamura – The Wrap – ‘DC Extended Universe’ Started as a Joke Name Made Up by a Journalist (Moniker was coined by Entertainment Weekly’s Keith Staskiewicz) – Sept. 29, 2017
Rather than realizing the paradigm shift and drawing any inspiration a new entity in the form of the Marvel Cinematic Universe–a film series in which every cinematic chapter could be relied upon at the very least as a real chapter in an ongoing serial saga–Warner Brothers introduces the universe of 2017’s Justice League with no answer to an article one month before it’s release revealing that the DCEU was accidentally named, as a joke.
They’re not responsible for timing of the article: they’re just responsible for never seriously addressing a brand for the connected universe themselves.