[Editor's Note: This is a re-post of the last entry in this series. As I prepared for the latest installment, I realized that- through some sort of bizarre technical glitch- this post has disappeared from LRM Online. The other four remained in place, but this one somehow vanished. I'm preparing Column #6 for later today, so you can reread this in the meantime.]
Welcome back to a special ongoing look at Warner Bros. and how it's handled its DC Comics properties. It's going to be a weekly, ongoing miniseries here at LRM.
It's suggested that you read the previous entries in the series, as they all build upon one another:
Last week, we left off with the arrival of Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. The film that began its first real rounds in the cinematic pop culture lexicon way back in 2002, and which gave birth to Batman Begins and Superman Returns– despite the fact neither of those films ended up factoring into the final evolution of the project- finally arrived on March 25, 2016.
The film, based on a story by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy) and a final script by Chris Terrio (Argo), was directed by Zack Snyder (Man Of Steel). The film's story included major nods to some of the most popular graphic novels of all time. It drew it's largest bit of inspiration from Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, while also touching on The Death Of Superman, and throwing in nods to books like Batman: A Death In The Family. Beyond a title that featured Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill), the film also revealed in its trailers that it would include the big screen debuts of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and Doomsday.
On top of that, ardent fans were made aware of the fact that the film was going to lay down the groundwork for a Justice League film- with appearances by The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher).
The movie seemed poised to be an all-time smash for Warner Bros when you factored in how loaded it was with bankable elements. During its opening weekend, Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice had a heroic showing at the box office.
The film opened to a record-breaking $166 million dollars domestically, and $254 million overseas, for a combined $420 million worldwide. That haul made it the #1 opening for any DC Comics movie, the best March launch ever, and the fourth best global opener of all time. The film had an interesting strategy in terms of its release, where it actually opened in every major market around the world at once. By contrast, their closest competitor (Marvel Studios) tends to spread out their film's releases, in essence giving them someplace to go and to allow for a film's hype to build up steam as it bounces around the globe. Warner Bros opted to open the movie everywhere simultaneously, and that resulted in a gigantic weekend.
While all was fine and dandy on the monetary front, Batman V Superman didn't do so well with audiences and critics. The film received a mediocre B CinemaScore from audiences (the same score they gave Green Lantern, a film mentioned earlier in this series), and critics were even less impressed. On the aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, only 95 out of 252 professional film critics gave it a "Fresh" review, meaning the film would end up saddled with only a 27% approval rating.
The critics consensus for Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice [Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes]:
"Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice smothers a potentially powerful story — and some of America's most iconic superheroes — in a grim whirlwind of effects-driven action."
The film's detractors argued that the pacing was too uneven, the editing too shoddy, the tone too grim, and that the central feud between the heroes lacked any real sense of logic or emotional investment. More fanboy-driven complaints included the fact that people found Jesse Eisenberg's turn as Lex Luthor to be grating, they found that the film squandered Doomsday (and the Death of Superman arc), and many were upset that this new version of Batman seemed quite comfortable with shooting guns and killing people- two things that lots of fans see as a "No No" for The Dark Knight.
In the days following the film's release, after the dust cleared, and the hype surrounding its box office performance subsided, the questions became: Would the perceived poor quality of the film have an effect on the film's longterm viability at the box office? Or would the novelty of this superhero showdown, coupled with the powerful imagery in its promotional materials, be enough to power the film across the $1 billion mark that Christopher Nolan's last two Dark Knight films had crossed?
Those questions saw their first real answers when the totals for Batman V Superman's second weekend tally came in. The movie suffered a free-fall of 68% in its second frame. That drop was about on-par with the 2009 20th Century Fox dud X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And since the film's release was so front-loaded, there wasn't much reason to think it would get much of a boost in the weeks to come. The biggest foreign market (China) had already weighed in, and the $57 million it had made there in its first weekend was a far cry from the $156 million they'd awarded to Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron.
When all was said and done, Batman V Superman fell over $100 million short of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises had each made, but surpassed Man Of Steel as it finished up its theatrical run with $873,260,194. As recently as November 20, 2016, box office analysts from Deadline were still questioning whether that figure was really a win for the studio's profit margins. With a reported budget of $250 million, plus an additional $150 million for marketing, most analysts claimed the film would have to make $800+ just to break even. With all of the expenses involved, and ancillary costs factored in, it's unclear if the pricey film made the kind of dent Warner Bros had hoped for.
One surefire indication of how the studio felt, though, was how quickly it moved to change directions with its DC films in the wake of Batman V Superman's performance. The studio hastily shifted its focus away from the film it had spent 14 years trying to make, and put all of its energy into getting people excited about Suicide Squad. The film, which had wrapped quite a while ago at that point and was in post-production when BvS came out, was set to come out on August 5.
Reports began to ring out that the film underwent some serious reshooting, and that the editing process had actually been taken out of director David Ayer's hands. Following the drubbing that BvS took from fans and critics, there was talk that Warner Bros. wanted to tweak the tone of SS; Make it lighter, funnier, and more of a crowdpleaser. While the official reason given was that they wanted to give Ayer another action sequence to play with, the murmurs that became unavoidable were that the film was getting the "too many cooks in the kitchen" treatment in order to increase its odds of scoring with audiences.
In the meantime, as part of the studio's ambitious plans, they had set up Justice League to enter production mere weeks after Batman V Superman premiered. This meant that the film, which would once again come from a script by Terrio and the direction of Snyder, would have no time to make the kinds of alterations that many felt it would need after BvS riled crowds up.
In an attempt to get people excited about Justice League despite some of the reservations that were voiced about BvS, Warner Bros. did something fairly unorthodox. They invited a bunch of members of the press to visit the the London set of the film in June (which is customary), and they actually allowed them to post all of their impressions and interviews as soon as they returned home (not customary at all) in order to put positive buzz out there. Traditionally, studios place an embargo on set visit reports and don't allow members of the press to share what they saw until several months later.
After that strong gesture, Warner Bros. was still in a situation where they were trying to put a facelift on Suicide Squad, while making sure Justice League was a better movie, and also dealing with the fact that audiences had seemingly rejected the vision of the man they had entrusted with the entire DC Cinematic Universe: Zack Snyder.
How could they fix all this?
For starters, they decided to move away from Snyder. While he was already signed on to direct Justice League and the production timeline for that was too tight for navel-gazing, they announced on July 28 that longtime DC Comics writer Geoff Johns was promoted to the position DC President and Chief Creative Officer. From that point forward, he became the man that the industry referred to when discussing who was steering the DCEU ship.
What was notable about that, as well as the reports regarding the post-production on Suicide Squad, and the fact that the studio instantly began promoting a Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice- Ultimate Edition because of apparent tampering with Snyder's theatrical cut of the film, was the fact that the once "filmmaker-driven" studio was suddenly becoming extremely hands-on. The actions of the 2016 Warner Bros. braintrust stood in stark contrast to the way the studio had handled their first DC movie, Superman: The Movie, back in the 70s, where they basically just signed the checks. Now they were firmly in the "We want a hand in the final product, and we're going to be involved with shaping the final cut of your movie" camp.
On August 5, all eyes were once again transfixed on DC as Suicide Squad opened. Were the rumors of a tumultuous post-production true? Would the film end up uneven and divisive?
In short: Yes.
Suicide Squad received an even worse rating on Rotten Tomatoes than Batman V Superman did, with critics awarding it a 26% approval rating, and fans gave it a marginally better B+ CinemaScore.
The critics consensus for Suicide Squad [Courtesy of Rotten Tomatoes]:
"Suicide Squad boasts a talented cast and a little more humor than previous DCEU efforts, but they aren't enough to save the disappointing end result from a muddled plot, thinly written characters, and choppy directing."
Financially-speaking, the film opened to a fantastic $134 million domestically, and $133 million overseas, for a worldwide opening weekend cume of $267 million.
In the end, in terms of finances, Suicide Squad ended up being considered more of a win for Warner Bros. than BvS was. Working in its favor was the fact that it had a lower price tag ($175 million) and much lower expectations than Batman V Superman, since it centered on a ragtag group of B and C level DC rogues and not two of the most iconic fictional comic book characters of all time. And Warner Bros. also hadn't spent a decade and a half hoping to get the film off the ground.
Suicide Squad finished up its theatrical run with $745,600,054.
The earlier reports about the film's post-production bore fruit after the movie was released. It came to light that there were several cuts of Suicide Squad floating around and that, ultimately, director David Ayer didn't have the final say on the cut that made it into theaters. Actor Jared Leto, who played The Joker in the film, even went so far as to publicly chastise the studio for gutting his performance. To his credit, Ayer was a team player and would only say that he was happy to collaborate with the studio because he knows these kinds of things are a team effort.
In all, 2016 was a pivotal year for Warner Bros. and their DC Extended Universe. It was the year that finally saw the arrival of their Batman/Superman movie, launched a shared universe, and demonstrated their intent to explore all kinds of corners within the DC mythology- as they did with Suicide Squad.
While both films were maligned by critics, and given only so-so endorsements from fans, they made a combined $1.6 billion, proving that the DC brand was strong enough on its own to find success even with lackluster films.
Be sure to come back next week when the sixth column- which will introduce a new title for the series- arrives, with its sights set on the future. How does the future of the DCEU look? What changes does Johns seem to be implementing? What's the current state of that 10-film slate Warner Bros. announced way back when? We'll discuss next week, right here on LRM Online.
Thanks for reading!