During the apparently endless post-mortem discussions around Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad this year, fans and critics have tried to find an explanation for why the DCEU — Warner Bros.' attempt at an MCU-rivalling superhero-populated universe — has so far been received as a series of disappointments. I'm not talking mild disappointment, either, the kind you feel when you realize your favorite Calvin Kleins are in the washing machine — I'm talking crushing disappointment, like when you go to Starbucks on hot-stranger-Tuesdays and hot stranger inexplicably isn't there.
It wasn't until I saw Marvel's Doctor Strange, and the way that people reacted to it, that it truly hit home exactly where DC have been going wrong. I don't believe Doctor Strange has a story or performances any better than Batman v Superman, but despite packing countless plot holes, this is a movie which finds a crowd-pleasing tone and sticks to it. The jokes are beige, but inoffensive and frequent enough to keep the audience laughing. The movie begins and ends firmly in Marvel's familiar lane, and doesn't try anything too ambitious to jeopardize that familiarity.
The problem for DC is that it doesn't have a lane. Zack Snyder in particular has tried to recreate the brooding, operatic feel of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, but his formulaic storytelling makes all the tears and the angst and the rainy skies feel comical. But we know this already. I want to talk about the future of the DCEU, a universe which still has considerable potential to make money while pleasing critics and giving Marvel something to worry about.
It has been suggested that there are four "pillars" of the DCEU, four characters who can be relied upon to draw in audiences the way Captain America and Iron Man do for Marvel. I prefer to take the view that DC in fact has two pillar characters, Batman and Wonder Woman, and that by the end of 2017 we'll know for sure whether or not audiences agree — and whether or not the DCEU can truly become the beast every DC fan on the planet really wants it to be.
The First Pillar: The Bat of Gotham
The good news: Despite having made several major mistakes so far with the DCEU, the big bosses at Warner Bros. clearly understand that Batman is their most potent money-making weapon. That's why his role in Suicide Squad, actually minimal, was presented in the trailers as something bigger, and why he was shoehorned into a Man of Steel sequel even though pitting Batman against Superman didn't really make any sense at all.
Okay, so Warner Bros. hasn't deployed Batman quite right just yet, but the upshot to his omnipresence in the DCEU — it looks like he has a small role in Wonder Woman, too — is that audiences have quickly warmed to Ben Affleck's portrayal of the Caped Crusader. As Bruce Wayne, Affleck is still unproven (a little too dopey to convince as the world's so-called greatest detective, perhaps), but when the cape and cowl are on, he's possibly the best big-screen Batman we've ever had.
By bringing Affleck, not just a great, likeable actor but a serious and seriously talented director, into the creative core of the DCEU, Warner Bros. has a chance to do something Marvel has no intention of doing — to create a movie which stands alone as something great, while also representing a piece of a bigger puzzle, just as at least two thirds of Nolan's Batman trilogy did.
Affleck recently told People that he "had been in a state of watching old movies and feeling nostalgic for old Hollywood" when he began work on his gangster flick Live By Night, which hits theaters in January. What Marvel do (and do stunningly well) could be called New Hollywood, movies which exist to tease the next instalment, and the next, and please audiences without giving them much to think about.
The DCEU seeks to find a balance between those two types of Hollywood, and also between light and dark. If Batman is always more likely to be a dark character (you would be too if you saw your parents get murdered, like, seven times on screen), it's his fellow Justice Leaguer who exists at the other end of the spectrum.
The Second Pillar: Wonder Woman of The Amazons
In many ways, Wonder Woman is everything Batman is not: she has no singular iconic origin story demanding repetitious retellings, from what we've seen of her so far in the DCEU, she doesn't take herself too seriously. Perhaps the most important aspect, though, is the fact that DC's first and most popular superheroine has never appeared in a live-action movie, which gives Gal Gadot almost complete freedom to shape her character without the weight of expectation.
If that freedom is creatively liberating for an actor, Gadot is using it to create something special, possibly even unique within both the DCEU and MCU. Marvel in particular has struggled with female heroes — the few they have are all more or less the same character, an Action Girl who kicks ass and is generally emotionally guarded and tomboy-ish, as if to suggest male audiences will go easier on female heroes more if they act like one of the boys. Fourteen movies in, the studio still hasn't found a heroine distinct enough to carry her own movie.
Captain Marvel might be the change Marvel need on that score, but DC will get there first when Wonder Woman arrives next summer. Even with just a small role in Batman v Superman and two trailers for her solo movie to draw conclusions from, indications are that Gal Gadot's take on the Amazonian warrior is already the most rounded, 3D portrayal of a female superhero in years, if not ever.
While Scarlett Johansson never convincingly makes a human out of the tetchy, morally ambiguous Black Widow, it's almost shocking how instantly believable Gadot is as a woman excelling in a playing field populated by men. Hope and justice are at the core of her character, and even when doing battle in the dismal trenches of World War I, Wonder Woman exudes those qualities.
When it comes to making a successful comic book movie, half of the battle is translating a hero's personality from page to screen. DC is lucky to have that half sorted, and that's why Diana Prince, alongside Bruce Wayne, will be instrumental in making a success of the DCEU — and also why Superman, whose personality has disappeared into a bluey-grey filter of misery, has proven such a miss.
This time next year, we'll know whether or not the DCEU can ever become anything more than a financially successful but highly-polarizing source of controversy. In Wonder Woman and Batman, it has the tools to bring the fight squarely to Marvel — but if Wonder Woman is another case of great marketing, terrible movie, and if Justice League isn't a crowd-pleaser, that dream will die somewhere between the lens of Zack Snyder's camera and a gloomy Instagram filter. For now, we wait.
Wonder Woman hits theaters June 2, 2017. Justice League arrives November 17.
Can Batman and Wonder Woman collude to create the DCEU we deserve?