"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."
- Charles Dickens, "A Tale of Two Cities"
In 2012, Warner Bros. found itself in a uniquely Dickensian situation. On the one hand, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES had just concluded the finest series of films based on their DC property since in 1989’s BATMAN. They were riding high, enjoying the glow of Christopher Nolan’s work in making high-minded, mature, and often fascinating movies out of comic book characters, while also enjoying the love of fans, critics, and paying customers alike. Yet on the other hand, there’s the whole matter of that series concluding.
Warner Bros. prides itself on the freedom it gives it directors, and has worked hard over the years to make itself the premiere big studio for filmmakers that don’t want a bunch of executives calling the shots and second-guessing them. So when Nolan made a conscious effort, post-BATMAN BEGINS, to make sure that his films were completely separate of any other DC project they may be cooking up, they allowed him to make that call. Yet that’s not how Hollywood typically works, is it? You don’t build a franchise that has sequels that make billions of dollars each, then just decide, “Ok, we’re done with that. Let’s start from scratch again.”
The last time Warner Bros. rebooted Batman, it was out of necessity. 1997’s had tarnished the brand so badly that the studio had no choice but to hit the Reset Button in 2005 with BEGINS. But this time around, they had to reboot Batman because of the whims of one Christopher Nolan.
He wasn’t completely deaf to the studio’s needs, though. While he all but slammed the door on any sequels getting made for his Bat flicks, he did agree to help them with another nagging problem of theirs: Superman.
See, SUPERMAN RETURNS had come out in 2006 and didn’t do what they’d hoped; It didn’t “position the character” the way they’d wanted, according to then WB honcho Jeff Robinov. Remember, all this business about Batman Beginning and Superman Returning began because WB/DC was hoping to have a crossover cinematic event between the two- long before any rival studios had launched their own “Cinematic Universes.” “Had 'Superman' worked in 2006, we would have had a movie for Christmas of this year or 2009," Robinov said in 2008. "But now the plan is just to reintroduce Superman without regard to a BATMAN AND SUPERMAN movie at all.”
But that’s not all…
Warner Bros. and DC Comics were also facing an intense legal battle regarding Superman. The grandchildren of Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster had brought a lawsuit against Warner Bros., who owns DC, arguing that their grandfathers had been suckered into taking “sweetheart deals” that meant they’d never get a true taste of the prosperity that their creation generated, and neither would their heirs. How did this lawsuit factor into the WB’s movie plans for Superman? Well, back in 2008 a federal court had ruled that not only might the rights to the character revert back to Siegel/Shuster, but that if Warner Bros. didn’t get a Superman movie into production by 2011 that they’d have the right to file another lawsuit against the company for lost revenue.
This put a real premium on Warner Bros. figuring out how to get Superman off the ground and back into the sky where he belongs, and that’s where Nolan stepped in. While he refused to introduce the possibility of a flying alien in his own films, he did agree to serve as a producer, consultant, and overall “Godfather” for a new Superman film. He’d heard a pitch from his writers while working on the DARK KNIGHT movies, brought it to the executives at Warner Bros., and soon he and David S. Goyer were hard at work on MAN OF STEEL.
Who would they tap to direct this reboot “from the men who brought you THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY”? Zack Snyder. Snyder rose to fame thanks to his remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD and then made his mark on comic book fans with his faithful adaptations of Frank Miller’s 300 and Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN. As far as track records go, though, his qualifications were a little slim. While DEAD and 300 had turned extremely healthy profits at the box office, WATCHMEN- which he directed for Warner Bros.- was something of a disappointment, which is notable because it was also his largest production to date. The $130 Million film only made $185 Million worldwide. Worse still, SUCKER PUNCH, which was also for Warner Bros. and was the first film Snyder directed entirely written by himself, only made $8 Million more than it’s somewhat modest budget when it came out in 2011 while also getting ravaged by critics. It should be noted that Snyder’s relationship with critics has never been particularly strong, with the 75% DAWN OF THE DEAD scored on Rotten Tomatoes being the best he’s ever done.
Still, the prevailing theory seemed to be that Snyder had an eye for taking comic book iconography and translating it beautifully to the screen. So if you paired him with the writers who helped make the BATMAN movies so great, you’d have a match made in heaven.
For the role of Superman, the filmmakers tapped Henry Cavill, someone who’d already come close to snagging the role a decade earlier when McG and Brett Ratner took turns developing SUPERMAN: FLYBY. Similar to what Nolan had done, and Richard Donner had done before him, they surrounded the relatively unknown actor with an incredible supporting cast. Laurence Fishburne, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Russell Crowe all signed onto the prestigious Nolan production.
MAN OF STEEL aimed to take a more science-fiction approach towards the source material, and wanted to ask intriguing questions about how the people of earth would actually react if a flying alien with godlike powers suddenly appeared. It had a grounded, gritty aesthetic similar to what Nolan had created for his Batman films, but with the added visual flare that Snyder was known for. The film opened in June of 2013, and the results were somewhat varied.
The film opened to a muscular $117 Million domestically, more than doubling what SUPERMAN RETURNS had done seven years prior. But the reaction from fans and critics was quick and clear to see: MAN OF STEEL was a divisive film, similar to RETURNS. Far from the love fest that the Dark Knight films had received, MOS garnered a rotten 56%. Amongst fans the action-packed reboot faired far better with an A- CinemaScore, yet online communities, message boards and Comments Sections lit up with fans arguing about the film. Just as RETURNS had riled up fans with some of its liberties, MOS had some people very upset about a few key things:
- They didn’t like that this Superman was so sullen
- They didn’t like the somewhat cavalier attitude he displayed towards the collateral damage of his final battle against Zod and his Kryptonian forces
- They were outraged that Superman snapped Zod’s neck
- Pa Kent’s implication that Clark maybe should have let his peers drown on a bus that was sinking into a river created a small uproar
Less fanboy-driven critiques were things like the pacing being all over the place, the story being too disjointed, the inclusion of a convoluted MacGuffin that didn’t end up adding a whole lot to the story, and a general robotic soullessness. When all was said and done, in terms of fans, the CinemaScore awarded to MOS was only one notch better than the B+ they gave SUPERMAN RETURNS.
Also, remember that great opening weekend tally I mentioned earlier? There’s something worth mentioning about that:
While the film more than doubled SR’s opening weekend haul domestically, the final stateside total for MOS- when adjusted for inflation- was only a mere $36 Million improvement over Bryan Singer’s film at home, which is where studios get the biggest cut of the profits. $36 million. That's it.
So, once again, Warner Bros. found itself in an interesting situation.
MAN OF STEEL, despite being the kind of action-heavy superhero smackdown fans seemed to crave, despite putting the Golden Goose known as Christopher Nolan’s name and fingerprints all over the project, and despite that fact that the $225 Million they poured into it was actually more than the actual amount spent on SUPERMAN RETURNS, they had a movie on their hands that had only one clear leg up over the 2006 film: International box office receipts. That was the only area where MOS scored a clear and decisive victory over SR, by making $377 Million in foreign markets as opposed to the $191 Million that Singer’s film made overseas.
Would that be enough for WB/DC to finally move forward on building a shared world where both BATMAN and SUPERMAN could play together- something they’d been trying to get off of the ground since 2002?
Somehow the studio, now run by Kevin Tsujihara, decided to not only proceed, but to double down on Snyder. To an outsider, and as Forbes once observed, it appeared that the studio was willing to chalk up most of MAN OF STEEL’s deficiencies to the character of Superman, himself, and not Snyder’s movie. So their answer was to run with Snyder's idea of adding Batman to the sequel- since they viewed that character as far more bankable than Superman after both SR and MOS failed to do astronomical numbers.
What came next was truly breathtaking, as Warner Bros. decided to make Snyder the de facto architect of their entire DC Extended Universe.
They gave him the green-light to finally make the kind of BATMAN/SUPERMAN crossover event that they'd been wanting to make since 2002. They gave him the reins to DC's cinematic future, since his film, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice would serve as the launchpad for an entire slate of 10 films. This means that Snyder had a hand in casting and designing every major player for Justice League- which was another of the studio's big bets. Snyder not only shaped what the modern day Superman looks/acts like, but now he'd get to create Batman, The Flash, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Cyborg as he saw fit.
Actors like Ezra Miller and Jason Momoa have recently described what the casting process was like, with Snyder not even auditioning them- or warning them that they were on his radar. Miller got an unsolicited call while on vacation in Costa Rica, offering him the part of Barry Allan, aka The Flash. Momoa got a call to come in for a meeting, and he assumed he was being considered for either Lobo or a villain, only to find out that Snyder wanted him to sign on to be Aquaman.
The super-sized sequel, initially simply titled BATMAN VS SUPERMAN, was announced at San Diego Comic-Con in 2013.
That was in July of 2013. The following month, Ben Affleck was announced as the new cinematic Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. By October of that year, Snyder had begun filming with a football sequence for the film. In December, Chris Terrio (ARGO) was brought on to do some extensive rewrites. The film was going to open on July 17, 2015.
But then, in January of 2014, Warner Bros. halted production of the film. Here's an excerpt from the original press release by studio:
"Warner Bros. Pictures announced today that the release of Zack Snyder’s untitled Superman/Batman film has been moved to May 6, 2016, allowing the filmmakers time to realize fully their vision, given the complex visual nature of the story. The decision was made following the shift of the start of production to second quarter of this year."
It's rumored that the extra time was mainly so that Snyder and the writers could figure out exactly how to make the film set up Justice League and get all the balls in play, and so that Terrio could finish up his retooling of the script.
But the May 6 date didn't stick either, as it was a date that rival Marvel Studios had already staked a claim to. When Warner Bros moved to that date, despite knowing full well that their chief rival had already announced a film TBD for that day, many saw it as a high-stakes game of Chicken. Marvel fired back by revealing that May 6, 2016 would be the release date for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR.
WB/DC responded by shifting BATMAN V SUPERMAN a second time. This time, the film was set to open on March 25, 2016.
Principal photography for BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE wrapped on December 5, 2014, giving Snyder and his crew 14 months to edit the movie, and for an extensive post-production period.
After that point, not much news would come out of the production until February of 2016 when murmurs about test screenings started to surface online. The consensus seemed to be that the film wasn't going to be a crowd-pleaser. Whispers about Warner Bros starting to grow concerned about Snyder's film came out of those screenings, where people seemed to think it wasn't for everybody. The studio had invested somewhere in the neighborhood of $400 million in the film when all of the production and promotional costs were accounted for, and they were hoping for a film that would appeal to a wide audience and make north of $1 billion worldwide.
This movie didn't seem to have the right elements to make that happen.
Join me next week when we take a long, hard look at how BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE turned out for Warner Bros., and how its follow-up SUICIDE SQUAD would be directly affected by it. We'll also look at how the studio handled itself after its dream project finally came out on March 25, 2016- some 14 years after they first considered it.