The Detective Comics pantheon has been a pillar of excellence in entertainment for almost a century now. If you were to ask everyone of all ages and origins on Earth to name two superheroes, the most common response would likely be Batman and Superman. And in a matter of weeks, we all get to watch those two fight for the first time, at least of this cinematic scale, in film history. The buildup to this movie should be nothing but celebratory. But in today’s world, anticipation invites criticism. And it’s very difficult for a film of this stature to please everyone. Even Star Wars: The Force Awakens, an almost universal success, has novels of criticism built up from die-hard fans throughout online forums. The Internet can be a nitpicky place in that sense, and I intend to be a part of that problem for years to come as I rant about movies that don’t exist yet.
DC’s new cinematic universe, despite being all of one movie deep at the moment, has already hosted an unprecedented amount of polarizing hype. But as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I think it’s safe to say that they’ve done a number of things well thus far, and a roughly equal number of things not so well. Marvel’s rise to power wasn’t perfect. They had to overcome an Iron Man 2 letdown and recover from a potentially disastrous recasting of Bruce Banner. So there’s a sizable argument to be made that, despite their few question marks, the DC universe is going to be just fine. One could also argue that they’ve tanked this effort before it could even get started. There’s room for both interpretations, and we’re here to sort out everything right from everything wrong with the DCU.
Let’s start on a high note. When you start a connected universe, you need the perfect actor for the job in your first role. He or she serves as the franchise’s nucleus, and everyone else can gather around him as the world expands. Robert Downey Jr. is more or less exactly what you want to happen. And I believe Henry Cavill is that guy. The movie clearly wasn’t as well received, but Cavill is as close to Superman as we’ll ever get from our planet’s limited candidates. He has the heroic face, and is nothing if not impressive. So much of Superman’s coolness comes from his sheer presence. He doesn’t need armor, gadgets or even a weapon. And that’s not just because he’s strong enough without them to defeat his enemies and save the world. It’s because he’s also cool and interesting enough to star in comic book stories. Cavill’s physicality and subtle charisma bring Superman to life. Not to mention he’s the first Superman on screen who I don’t secretly think I could beat in a fight. His predecessors brought the humanity and likability, but this is also the strongest being in the universe we’re talking about. We should fear him a little.
Unfortunately, for every positive action taken by the DCU, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Man of Steel itself did not do justice (pun intended of course) to the character’s nature and what Cavill was ready to bring to the table. Many people did like this movie, and they had plenty of reason to. But if every superhero movie is going to be nitpicked for the sake of judging them the way we would an Oscar nominee, Man of Steel is a feast for the skeptics. I didn’t mind the extended Krypton opening at all, but they reminded us just how monumentally stupid it is to send your villains into a space prison moments before a planetary destruction that you are 100% aware of. Send yourselves on up there, leave Zod at home, and boom species saved. Now I understand this is a part of Zod’s comic book origin, but today’s movies have a chance to fine-tune these stories. They felt the need to stay true to the source material there, but they’re not afraid to make Lex Luthor a stringy millennial? We can save that for another paragraph. Dawn of Justice is wise to use Metropolis’ senseless destruction as a plot device, but we can’t pretend that was their master plan from day one. It’s a bit of skillful backpedaling to explain away one of the film’s bigger mistakes. And let’s mix up the color pallet already. Why is a Superman movie grey? Why does the entire DC universe look like a gloomy Instagram filter? I can accept that Gotham’s never seen a sunrise, but this universe should be figuring out ways to blend the tones of their heroes to create a world with some aesthetic variety.
This is an underrated positive, but DC has their entire playbook to choose from. One of the few outright downsides of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the fact that they don’t even have the rights to some of their best characters. The X-Men are over at FOX, hiding the Fantastic Four somewhere in the basement. It took almost a decade to lock down Spider-Man, the single most popular character in Marvel history. And now they run the risk of him being shoehorned into Civil War. They’ve achieved a remarkable amount of success with the equivalent of a heavily injured lineup. DC, on the other hand, has a top to bottom universe at their fingertips. We will never have to speculate over connections or crossovers, and no idea on their plate is too crazy or bound by logistics. This makes it much easier for every corner of their franchise to be on the same screen, and on the same page.
Only they’re not on the same page, at all. DC may have the their contracts in order, but it takes a lot more than permission to create a super-team. They struck some unexpected gold with season one of Arrow, which came way out of left field to become the CW’s leading property. If the filmmakers had any foresight, they would have been looking for ways to incorporate their new hit into a universe that Man of Steel could set up. Stephen Amell’s Green Arrow would likely be a supporting role, but that’s perfect for the character’s nature. The Green Arrow isn’t Batman (despite what the show would have you believe), and successfully crossing that bridge would’ve scored some major points with the DC faithful. Dreams of that bridge died the second Barry Allen appeared during season two. Grant Gustin and his show are excellent. But the Flash is way too major a character to come from a television series. Whether or not there was ever a chance, that moment more or less put the nail in the coffin for the ultimate, all-inclusive DCU. Imagine if the television side kept the scale smaller and focused on turning B-list heroes into household names that could later appear in the movies. Marvel’s Jessica Jones, for example. Now imagine if HBO utilized their Warner Brothers affiliation and became what Netflix has become for Marvel. Imagine an R-rated Gotham series that served as DC’s Agent Carter, a meaningful prequel that added depth to the universe and prioritized hard-hitting crime drama over silly fan service.
There are certainly some missed opportunities in this growing world already. But there is also endless potential ahead. Suicide Squad just released a very promising trailer. If they don’t make any terrible decisions and at some point get Harley Quinn in the black and red, that’ll at least be a win for them, at most a huge success. There’s your Guardians of the Galaxy sleeper hit. They’re wise to keep the Green Lantern in their back pocket so we can continue to wash the taste of Ryan Reynolds’ other superhero movie out of our mouths. Jason Momoa is a fun choice that can introduce the world to this generation’s Aquaman, who is quietly among the toughest heroes in existence. Gal Gadot received her share of criticism for being a relatively dainty Wonder Woman, but has been believable and impressive throughout the limited footage we’ve been able to see. The Ben Affleck decision took some getting used to, but with the right direction (his own direction, once his solo film comes around) he could be a truer Batman to the comics than we’ve ever seen in a live action film. Dwayne Johnson will make an excellent Black Adam. If they cast a quality Shazam and stop exploiting the Dwayne Johnson name, that’s another hit waiting to happen. The Justice League has always had a more consistent and recognizable roster than the Avengers. If these heroes are brought together with the proper time and care, this will be a more traditional team with better chemistry that will inspire audiences.
As a fan, I would be able to overlook almost every doubt that I have if not for one demoralizing one-two punch. Sure, the tattoos and grills on Leto’s Joker fit for a Hot Topic interview were a concern. But in the latest trailer, he seemed to have the right personality and they brought the clothing back a bit to what you’d like to see from the Joker. Margot Robbie’s Harley looks like a thirteen year old girl snuck out to an EDM festival. But she’s the perfect actress to play the part and, if Suicide Squad does it right, it’ll be a sort of origin story for her and she’ll be looking like herself in no time. I can talk myself into being optimistic until I settle on the matter of Lex Luthor. Jesse Eisenberg is a very talented actor who, when cast appropriately, elevates the quality of an entire film. This just isn’t that role. I blame whoever cast him. I love Samuel L. Jackson, but if I cast him as Spider-Man I’d be the one to blame for Peter Parker cursing out his high school teachers before he even met a spider.
This new wave billionaire, Lex Luthorberg as I’m calling him, is an active disservice on several levels to one of the greatest villains in history. His moments in the trailers stick out like sore thumbs and pull me right out of the moment. “The red capes are coming.” Stop it. I’m still waiting for a bald Jon Hamm (my personal pick) to walk out during that dinner party scene saying “Oh Lex Junior, go back to your room.” And Jesse replies. “You don’t understand me, dad. No one understands me.” End scene. I really hope I look back and read this, years from now, laughing at how stupid I look. There’s an old article buzzing around the internet from a guy who went on a long rant against Cam Newton just after he was drafted, saying he was among the worst picks in NFL history. I want to be that guy. But even if they nail this character, it’ll be a different character. Even if he’s great, he’s not Lex Luthor. Lex Luthor is so impressive because you know he can’t take Superman in a fight, but he can look him straight in the eye and be just as intimidating. You need someone who could rally support, even run for public office, and in a weird way you believe in him. But you know the whole time that something’s not right. That type of person is my Lex Luthor, as well as everyone’s Lex Luthor up until about a year ago.
Secondly, it seems Doomsday is in this movie. He’s more Frankenstein’s monster than Doomsday, judging by the fact that Luthorberg appears to create him using the deceased General Zod’s DNA. Doomsday is so terrifying because he isn't a reconstructed mulligan from another villain. He’s a completely unique bringer of death and destruction with one purpose. Killing him is pointless because he’ll just be back, angrier than before. I imagine if you dispose of Luthorberg’s monster he’ll just, go away? I don’t know. This should’ve been a Justice League movie villain, and he should’ve appeared by more natural means to introduce the concept of otherworldly threats beyond Superman. That opens the door to pretty much any enemy in Justice League history. And then they throw in the team-up shot after Wonder Woman comes out of left field just to remind you that the first half of this film’s title is pointless. This movie is Dawn of Justice; I wanted to see Batman vs. Superman. We all know they’re going to work together eventually, but at least piece together a trailer that makes us doubt the very friendship/rivalry we grew up with.
Doomsday represents a larger issue as well, the issue of one horrendously overcrowded movie. Bringing in Batman as the de facto villain is great. We all remember how crazy people went seeing that Batman logo consume the Superman logo at Comic-Con. Then I like having a Lex Luthor (a different one) in there as the figure who can believably turn these two heroes against each other. And that’s where I cut it: two character introductions. Maybe small roles for Alfred or briefly introduce Nightwing, but we should not be assembling the Justice League in this movie. Have you ever seen a commercial that says “But wait, there’s more!” that’s actually selling a quality product? Because there are two or three of those shameless moments in the full-length trailer. The DCU is only one movie old and there’s already a laundry list of heroes fighting one of the universe’s most powerful villains.
The apparent reason for this rushed setup would be to catch up to and keep pace with Marvel’s dynasty. But Marvel took almost a decade and a dozen movies to climb to where they are today. It wasn’t built overnight, and even they have a handful of mediocre movies. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 tried to set up three movies without remembering to make one. Now there’s no more Amazing Spider-verse. The sheer star power of the Justice League roster will likely prevent this kind of collapse, but they are nonetheless in danger of throwing ten decent at best movies at us instead of taking the time to let one develop, naturally guiding us towards the next project. If anything, the bloated and, in many ways, underwhelming Age of Ultron revived our appreciation for smaller superhero stories. I mean that quite literally, looking at Ant-Man’s hugely positive reception. Fans don’t need much more than a great Superman movie, and they certainly don’t need anything more than Batman showing up.
The most passionate fans have been the most critical, most likely because we so desperately want this franchise to be all it can be. One wrong move too many, and it’ll be at least a decade before we get another shot at this. It’s been a great eight years for comic book movies, probably the best stretch in the genre’s history. And we’ve reached this point with one hand tied behind our back, without even waking up an extended DC universe. If I could somehow influence the movie gods and guarantee the critical success of one movie in all of 2016, this would be it. We can only come together as fans and hope that Zack Snyder and his Snyder-verse deliver.