The long-lived superhero zeitgeist is one of the twenty-first century’s defining cinematic movements. Marvel’s announcement of a five-year ‘Phase Three’ plan and Warner Bros’s announcement of a further ten DC films following Man of Steel both occurred in October 2014; the long-feared comics fatigue, however, is yet to set in. On the contrary, this year saw Wonder Woman smashing both records and the patriarchy, and four Marvel films – three Disney, one Sony – meeting with wide acclaim. With DC’s Justice League out this week, superhero fans are spoilt for choice.
However, despite this hungry market, DC have struggled to get off the ground – Wonder Woman being its notable exception – and three years into developing the DCEU, it still seems to be playing catch-up. While Man of Steel was a solid, if overlong and overloud debut, the dullness (and arguable unpleasantness) of Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad promptly and solid set the franchise well behind its competitors. This track record does not bode well for Justice League’s impending release: will we see a repeat of DC’s previous superhero team outings?
In the DCEU’s defence, the shadows cast by the MCU (with its five-year head start) and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy are long. This may explain why DC almost immediately launched into the superhero team-ups without building its characters (and its audiences’ consequent devotion to them) first; Marvel’s timeline saw four years and five films elapse between its debut and its first team effort; DC leapt into the fray after two years and one film. Had Man of Steel been followed by pieces introducing the majority of the Justice League players separately, there may be more investment in and depth to its current work.
Marvel needs little explanation – the franchise giant has a surprisingly strong hit ratio for its plentiful output, and when it stumbles it bounces back. Only The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and possibly Avengers: Age of Ultron are dire, with Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man being underwhelming but also tremendous fun.
Both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and last month’s Thor: Ragnarok – two vastly different films that happen to feature superheroes – are Marvel on top form. The former is both a meditation on ethics crossed with a spy thriller, the latter a tightly-constructed and irreverent romp, yet both have engrossing narratives, sympathetic characters, and consequent critical and commercial success.
By contrast, the DCEU’s stylistic trademarks are not the most engaging: overly stylised sequences, plodding pacing, cynical worldviews, and a gritty aesthetic. Comparing the MCU and DCEU is not completely fair to either in terms of content – while both based on beloved comics, the heroes and tones vary and Marvel has had more time to establish itself – but it is illuminating in terms of attracting their shared market and audience.
Similarly, Nolan’s films are more self-contained than any cinematic universe and therefore are not applicable to a direct comparison. He uses the comics and characters as a backdrop for his signature non-linear cinematic style, keeping the focus on the heroic/antiheroic humans within; however, the Batman he and Christian Bale created is nonetheless ingrained in today’s superhero psyche – strengthened by the release of The Dark Knight in the same year as the MCU’s debut Iron Man and The Dark Knight Rises in the same year as the Avengers first assembled. The DCEU echoes Nolan’s trilogy in the sense that its films are tonally similar, in contrast to Marvel’s continual genre experimentation, but Nolan’s psychological bent justifies his angst in ways that the DCEU has not yet mastered.
Directors may be another area in which DC are going astray, perhaps also explaining its monotonal issues. Zack Snyder rose to fame with his stylised, if unironic and self-indulgent, graphic novel renditions; however, while his strong association with comics culture may have made him an obvious choice, his penchant for taking himself far too seriously in his gritty, dark (literally and figuratively) on-screen worldview has kept the DCEU mired in gloom, angst, and pacing problems. His two DCEU directorial pieces to date – Man of Steel and Batman Vs. Superman – have been middling to poor; this does not bode well for Justice League. Additionally, while Suicide Squad was directed by David Ayer, Snyder’s Sucker Punch legacy is evident in it.
Marvel, on the other hand, has largely hired directors known for quality genre film and television work, whether in the comics sphere or no. The sci-fi/horror rogue James Gunn, Shakespearian legend-wannabe Kenneth Branagh, cult sci-fi king Joss Whedon, indie comedy darling Taika Waititi, and the small-screen superstar Russo Brothers have brought their admired signature flair to their respective superhero blockbusters. In contrast to Snyder’s unrelenting seriousness, the directorial visions that Marvel champions are more tongue-in-cheek: the caped and spandexed heroes might be saving the world, but there is always time for a witty aside. Even Alan Taylor, nondescript director of the poorly-written Thor: The Dark World, had the studio’s blessing to err on the side of levity and hijinks – much more fun than gloom in a mediocre film.
All this said, Wonder Woman’s tremendous success deserves special note. Director Patty Jenkins delivers a film that entertains, engrosses, and inspires, and its feminist outlook – while imperfect and Eurocentric – has yet to be rivalled in comics-based cinematics. While the pacing is uneven in its first half, this is no worse than in the average blockbuster. The film’s sincerity is supported by excellent performances, directing, and moments of human comedy – keeping it from sentimentality.
Additionally, while making the occasional nod to the Synder-esque DCEU house style of slo-mo fight scenes and dark colours, we are treated to lively dialogue and a colourful opening in Themyscira. While Snyder was attached as a producer – as he is for the upcoming Aquaman and The Flash – it may be a sign that his influence is lessening. Additionally, allowing the intelligent, courageous, optimistic Diana Prince (a breath of fresh air after Batfleck) to be the only superhero on screen keep audience loyalties and affections engaged.
There is still some hope for Justice League; with Zack Snyder sadly leaving the final stages of post-production and pick-ups due to a family tragedy, there is hope that Joss Whedon may bring a touch of his Avengers Assemble magic to the proceedings (or, at the very least, keep the slow-motion sequences – especially any which repeat shots – to a minimum). Additionally, the wondrous successes of Wonder Woman, including its break from Snyder’s trademark grittiness through Jenkins’s directorial vision, may revitalise the cinematic universe and keep fresh ideas and outlooks streaming in. 2017 might see DC come into its own, out of the shadow of a single directorial vision and the franchises that came before.