A Modified, Limited Defense of the DCEU

The DC Comics Extended Universe (DCEU), a Modified, Limited Defense

An analogy:

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Marvel shoots at targets 50 yards away and hits the inner rings consistently. DC started out shooting at a target a hundred yards away and hit the outer rings.

With that out of the way, let me jump into what I consider to be an imperfect, but worthwhile franchise that gets less respect that I think it deserves. It’s a franchise that started out by taking some wild chances, became more tame and less successful as it went along, and suffered in comparison to Marvel because Marvel was less risky but more competent and more fun, providing experiences that people expected from comic book movies.

Instead of going for the obvious, crowd-pleasing route out of the gate, Warner Brothers and Zach Snyder decided to try to extend the more grounded and realistic aesthetic of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but by giving it a much grander scale, going for what Snyder called mythic in scope. It has more ambition than Marvel ever had, but the movies are simply not written as well.

Man of Steel

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Where else to start except at the beginning?

Like every movie in the DCEU, Man of Steel needed at least one more rewrite before it went to production. It’s got some loopy dialogue sprinkled throughout and the big emotional kick at the end falls flat because it involves some faceless family we’ve never seen before.

However, with that said, I love the scope and scale of the movie. I love the design of Krypton. I love General Zod (even though he has some of the loopiest dialogue). The use of the world engine to terraform Earth to Krypton is unique for superhero movies, and the scale of destruction that the plot brings forth is much larger than anything else I’d seen from the genre. Essentially flattening several blocks of central Manhattan to dust is big.

There’s also a propulsiveness to the movie that pushes it through the two and a half hour running time that I find kind of infectious. It’s constantly moving.

Still, it’s shakier than it should be despite so much of the movie that I genuine appreciate.

Snyder really tried to make a movie about two gods coming to blows in a modern day environment. Imagine Poseidon and Hermes coming to blows in Ancient Greece, they would form new mountains and oceans in their wake. That level of power is what Snyder was trying to sell visually in Man of Steel, and I think it succeeds quite well.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

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I must preface this with a quick note: I’ve never seen the Theatrical Cut, only the Ultimate Cut. I’ve read that the Theatrical Cut is a muddle mess, especially the opening in Africa that makes little sense.

That being said, I also really like Batman V Superman, but it also needed at least one (probably two) more drafts to iron some stuff out. The plot has a few too many twists that are really unnecessary. The dialogue needed a polish. And that Martha bit is embarrassing (more on that in a bit).

That being said, there’s a lot in this film that I love. Again, the scale is great. I also think Ben Affleck makes a fantastic Batman here. In particular, I love his reasons for being against Superman.

His reasons are purely emotional (and a bit of a retcon from Man of Steel). He watched the fight between Superman and Zod from the ground. He saw the destruction. He ran into it to try and help save people. People he knew died. His hatred and distrust of Superman are born from passion, not reason. Alfred tries to reason with him. Superman tries, especially at the beginning of their fight. He’s blind to everything but his own rage. And that’s where the Martha bit comes in.

The Martha moment is terribly executed, but the idea behind it is surprisingly solid. Batman was never going to be reasoned into appreciating Superman. It had to be an emotional shock that took him out of his rage. Using the coincidence of both Superman and Batman having mothers with the same first name feels like a placeholder in a first draft for a better idea to come later, except that no other drafts got written. They rushed into production so they couldn’t iron out the overly complex plot, improve some of the terrible dialogue, or replace the Martha moment with something that did the same thing but better.

Still, I love Batman’s admonition of Superman, “You’re not brave. Men are brave.” From Batman’s perspective, it’s why he’s fighting. Superman has unlimited power and can do whatever he wills without any real fear, but Batman goes out every night knowing he could die. Facing Superman, even with all of his toys, is the bravest thing Batman ever did. Superman just showed up, ready to squash a bug. The fight itself is an extension of the battle of the gods in Man of Steel, except now it’s a battle between a god and a titan. Zeus against Chronos.

Suicide Squad

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And….the DCEU went completely off the rails. I’m going to spend no time on this because Suicide Squad is probably the most inept and unwatchable major motion picture from a major studio I’ve ever seen. It’s stupid, unfocused, ugly to look at, and a jumble of nonsense. I don’t hate many movies, but I hate Suicide Squad.

Wonder Woman

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Many people hold Wonder Woman up as the best of the DCEU, and I would agree save one flaw that I think mars the movie pretty badly. Before I get to that, though, the movie is again a bit of a mixed bag, but I think it balances towards the good.

Themyscira feels half-thought out to me. The warrior culture that hasn’t developed since Ancient 
Greece and has a surprisingly hard time when a small group of German soldiers from The Great War outside shows up feels poorly developed. The accents of everyone because Gal Gadot can’t drop her Israeli accent feels weird. The Victorian treatment of women in World War I era England feels off. And the bad guys are all uninteresting.

However, Wonder Woman herself is actually quite enjoyable. She’s optimistic and wants to act in the name of good, which is nice to see from a protagonist. The action is solid. The visual aesthetic that embraces World War I is actually quite nice to look at, especially when contrasted with the bright colors of Wonder Woman’s getup. Chris Pine is also fun as Wonder Woman’s foil, and his sacrifice at the end is surprisingly emotional.

If that were it, I’d rate Wonder Woman higher than I do, but the millstone is Aries. To understand why I dislike Aries so much in this movie, you need to know about how his reality is revealed and where. Wonder Woman spent most of the movie thinking that Danny Huston was Aries. She kills him, thinking that his death will stop the war. As she looks out from the tower where she killed the German general, she’s flummoxed. The war is continuing. Men are still loading bombs into planes. Killing Aries was supposed to be the deathblow to war itself. It’s this realization that kills her naiveté about men and violence that should have led to her understanding that fighting evil isn’t about killing one man and seeing everything turn out well in the end.

And then Aries reveals himself.

Ugh.

And then it turns into an ugly CGI slugfest with the worst dialogue in the movie. I hate this part so much, not just because it’s poorly executed, but because it undermines the movie’s thematic point, and I end up knocking the movie down a peg for it.

Justice League

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Here we have the most disappointing movie in the entirety of the DCEU. Suicide Squad is significantly worse, but I was expecting very little from it from the beginning. Justice Leagueis everything people warned DC that would result from its business strategy. Zach Snyder (and then Joss Whedon) were tasked with the impossible.

The narrative objective of the movie is to re-introduce two characters (Batman and Wonder Woman), introduce three brand new heroes (Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg), introduce a big bad guy (Steppenwolf), and bring back Superman. And, the movie had to do all of this and tell a story with a beginning middle and end in two hours or less (per the contract).

Even if the execution had been perfect, the movie probably wouldn’t have worked. It’s first half is a hodgepodge of random scenes cut together in seemingly random order. The introductions to the new heroes are all half-done and way overshoot their emotional abilities (especially Cyborg).

However, the movie’s not worthless. I like Flash. I still like Ben Affleck as Batman (although I prefer his angry version in Batman V Superman). The last half of the movie, having gotten beyond the poorly executed first half, is kind of fun in a surface level Michael Bay sort of way. That balance doesn’t end up creating a good movie, but neither does it create a disaster. It’s very middle of the road, which is not what one would expect from DC’s big team up movie.

In Conclusion

Why talk about this?

Well, for one, I think the DCEU is a little (a little, mind you) unfairly maligned. Its ambition in the early films is admirable and I actually quite like the execution of quite a bit of it. The problem was really two-fold.

The first problem is that they didn’t spend enough time on the writing. Warner Brothers rushed every single movie to production without giving the scripts a few extra months (sometimes only just weeks) to polish the scripts to something better. The second is what people had been accusing Warner Brothers of doing from the beginning: Rushing the whole project of the cinematic universe to try and catch up with Marvel. They shoved way too much way too early, and there never seemed to be a guiding hand at the wheel of the whole enterprise. They lurched from one project to another, always reactive instead of proactive. They needed their own Kevin Feige at the helm to understand the source material, the storytelling, and the overall plan. They didn’t need to mimic Marvel in terms of style, but they did need to mimic it in terms of its business model. They thought they were mimicking it, but they were really just parodying it.

Which is a disappointment because I think that it started out with such great potential, just to watch it descend to mediocrity at best.

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Re-published with permission. Originally published at the Ace of Spades blog, here.

Check out David’s latest book, ‘The Battle of Lake Erie, One Young Man’s Adventure in the War of 1812’ on Amazon here.

David Vining

I am a fiction writer living in Charleston, SC. I've had a variety of jobs, but nothing compared to what Heinlein had. I don't think that time I got hired to slay the wild and terrifying jack rabbit of Surrey counts since I actually only took out the mild mannered hedgehog of Suffolk. Let's just say that it doesn't go on the resume. Lover (but not, you know...lover) of movies. Married to the single most beautiful woman on Earth with a single son who shall rule after my death.