"I don't even know what's happening anymore."
I and many others have uttered that sentence repeatedly over the course of the Next-Level WTF Experience™ that is otherwise known as 2017.
The last few days might have set a new record for that sentence, though, as reports say Warner Bros. plans a standalone Joker origin movie with a new actor in the lead role, possibly as a launchpad for a new set of non-continuity movies. And we're also apparently getting another Joker movie with Harley Quinn that may or may not replace Gotham City Sirens, depending on which outlet you read. Oh, and we're still not certain about Ben Affleck's Batman, much less the future of other developing DC movies.
Thanks to the Warner Bros. PR strategy of springing a leak, pivoting on the leak, correcting the leak with another leak, then pivoting again on that leak, I feel like I have a better handle on what's happening with the Russia investigation than with the #DCEU.
At least it's comforting to know that I'm not alone, as no one seems to know what's happening with WB and DC movies. Not fans, not other entertainment journalists, not even Warner Bros. itself—including The Batman director Matt Reeves, who said in July that the film was meant to be a standalone movie and not part of the extended universe. Those comments only gained traction this week, and Reeves backtracked and clarified those comments 24 hours after they blew up.
I'll give Reeves the benefit of the doubt here. He's a smart dude, and he successfully piloted the third installment of what I believe to be one of the most solid film trilogies of the modern era in War for the Planet of the Apes. It's certainly possible that Reeves' corrections are truly what he meant all along and he just badly misspoke. It's also possible that he put those tweets out there after a panicked Warner Bros. exec contacted him and asked him to do damage control.
Either way, it's a perfect example of the larger issue that plagues Warner Bros. when it comes to the DC Extended Universe: It's not the product that's the problem; it's public perception.
At best, Reeves' comments showed a director who has a deep disconnect from and understanding of the language used by the studio building the very cinematic universe of which he is an integral part. At worst, it's further proof that the studio's strategy for a franchise without a core identity is being blown up and rebuilt—again.
The most troubling part is how many of the rumors, speculation, and rushed news announcements have come because of leaks, not official planned statements. Rumors are the nature of the game now in the age of social media; leaks happen. But there is a marked difference between a leaked set photo and, say, leaked news that your director has quit, your franchise's star might walk, and you have no plan for how to stop the bleeding.
There's also a marked difference in how #WarnerBros has handled—or, more accurately, not handled—negative leaks in comparison to other studios. While I don't want this to turn into a straight comparison, it's impossible to talk about PR strategy without using Marvel Studios as a foil. An incident from 2015 perfectly illustrates the difference in how the two studios communicate with their audiences.
In October of 2014, the highly-anticipated first trailer for Avengers: Age of Ultron was planned to air during an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In a rare breach for Marvel, someone, likely a hapless intern at ABC, leaked the trailer early. Marvel's response was note perfect, quickly posting a tongue-in-cheek, relevant tweet...
And then quickly releasing the hi-def version on its own official channels within an hour. What could have been a stumble turned into a PR coup with a single funny tweet.
The following summer, something similar happened to Warner Bros. when the San Diego Comic-Con trailer for Suicide Squad leaked online, as footage from SDCC tends to do. The studio could have rolled with it, especially as the trailer got a largely positive reaction. Instead, it released an official statement that struck fans and journalists alike as being an overreaction:
"Warner Bros. Pictures and our anti-piracy team have worked tirelessly over the last 48 hours to contain the Suicide Squad footage that was pirated from Hall H on Saturday," said Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures. "We have been unable to achieve that goal. Today we will release the same footage that has been illegally circulating on the web, in the form it was created and high quality with which it was intended to be enjoyed. We regret this decision as it was our intention to keep the footage as a unique experience for the Comic Con crowd, but we cannot continue to allow the film to be represented by the poor quality of the pirated footage stolen from our presentation."
Instead of glossing over the situation, the studio only made it worse as the conversation quickly turned away from the well-received trailer and toward the bizarre press release and overly formal way of handling something that fell under the umbrella of "these things happen." An isolated incident, true, but one that's indicative of Warner Bros.' pattern of ineffective damage control after negative press.
But the bigger issue is its inability to stop that negative press from happening in the first place. It's not that other studios don't ever need to put out their own fires, it's that it happens much more infrequently for them than it does for WB. Firefighting has most certainly become part of the DCEU's narrative, and that's not good.
Say what you will about the famous "Marvel snipers," and the studio's secretive way of operating, but you have to give Marvel Studios credit: Whatever problems arise, they solve it in house and they work through it quietly enough so that its drama rarely makes it to the internet. The rule with any loving but diverse family is that you can fight like cats and dogs behind closed doors, but no matter what is happening internally, you present a united front to the public.
It works. Granted, part of that is due to the fact that Marvel Studios just functions more smoothly altogether. But part of that is also its PR strategy. It might have more NDAs to sign, but it also has more cohesion. Rare is the intern or executive that will leak internal drama to a journalist; the members of Team Marvel keep it zipped. They know the drill—you keep it in house, always. It says something that in its decade-long history the Marvel Cinematic Universe's greatest security threat has been not an executive or a disgruntled employee, but its enthusiastic Spider-Man, Tom Holland—and Marvel's already gotten smart enough to safeguard against his lack of filter.
Like the White House, however, Warner Bros. has sprung leaks everywhere and it seemingly has no idea where they're coming from or how to stop them. Having a clear and focused plan for the future of the DC Films label is obviously the number one priority and would greatly reduce the amount of damaging news and rumors in the first place.
In conjunction with that plan, Warner Bros. needs a top-down overhaul of how it handles public relations.
No more announcing projects in development until it's actually clear that project won't fall apart or be put on the backburner indefinitely. No more blabbing about every passing idea kicked around in the executive offices. No more making things so unclear internally that the people actually involved with those projects send mixed messages—or their relatives do. No more letting it slip when things go sideways and people walk, or let them control the initial narrative. No more being so slipshod with security that people in your own camp purposely leak damaging info.
Public perception is crucial and for too long, Warner Bros. has had a massive public perception problem.
The tweet is funny. It's also exactly what people think of the future of the DCEU right now—far too many people. If DC's fans and entertainment journalists are starting to jump ship, you can rest assured the general audience is already farther out to sea. Even the most loyal of fans can only take so much flip-flopping by a studio before their trust in that studio's integrity wanes and their interest in a studio's product fades. Incompetence isn't a PR strategy. Yet it's been Warner Bros.' in regard to its DC Films label for far too long. And now it's sinking the ship.