During the Spring of 2017, the DC Extended Universe suffered the family tragedy of Zack Snyder, the Batman v. Superman director suffered a tragic loss of his daughter to suicide and the departure of Zack Snyder from the Justice League film in the process of reshoots, parting ways definitively from the DC Extended Universe. Upon his departure, Joss Whedon was brought onboard the project for reshoots.
The DC Extended Universe
In 2016, Zack Snyder laid out his vision for the DC Extended Universe, a loose term for the connection of shared stories told by the director and Warner Bros. since Man of Steel. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was released during that time with great anticipation. Early box office was a $422 million opening debut though the movie would go on earning $855 million, a mild success despite its one-year promotion and marketing.
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is loosely inspired by The Dark Knight Returns, a grim comic book alternate continuity classic written by Frank Miller that sees the Dark Knight come out of retirement to solve crime in Gotham City. Batman finds himself in conflict with the government, and Superman is brought in to take him down. A vicious battle ensues during which Batman emerges victorious though with a twist.
The basis of Zack Snyder’s approach is to introduce the audience to a more modern take on iconic superheroes of the DC Extended Universe, including Batman and Superman. Referring to the comic book in question, Zack Snyder states:
“When I read that comic book series, you know, in ‘86 I was floored by it because I felt like it promised me something. It challenged…my fundamental notions about Batman. It sort of inspired me to reconnect with Batman the character and comic book in general.”
— BlackTree TV Interview
The DC Extended Universe was planned by its godfathers around the notion of deconstructing the myth of iconic DC characters in favor of a more grounded approach. Zack Snyder’s first installment in the DCEU, Man of Steel (2013) reads very much like a science-fiction alien invasion film as opposed to simply a DC comic book movie. It presents with important themes of alienation and xenophobia, free choice and predestination, inter-species conflict and immigration. Superman is presented as veritably alien, different from humans, and one who despite his good nature, his upbringing, and his protection is unable to fit in. There are deep issues of anxiety, angst, deep-seated frustration and visceral distrust at a world that does not accept him. It is very much a film compared to the comic book Superman: Birthright.
Philosophical analysis of Zack Snyder movies is replete with symbolism, mythological references, comic book Easter eggs and numerous action poses straight from the comic books. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice reads like a political thriller, and from alien invader Superman figures as a messiah, a Christ-like figure that the world has come to embrace passionately or reject dispassionately and with intensity. The religious symbolism commenced in Man of Steel is taken to its extreme end with Superman’s sacrifice at the hands of Doomsday, a Kryptonian monster-mutant who is bent solely on the destruction of Superman and everything he stands for, engineering by the Kryptonian scout ship and Lex Luthor.
Criticism was mounted at the fact that Superman’s story ends abruptly only within two movies, before the audience can fully invest in the character. Batman, here, figures as a tragic figure, tortured by paranoia to the point of insanity and time travel in the forms of dream and Knightmare. Part of it is inspired from the popular Injustice: Gods Among Us series that sees the fear of a Superman tyrant here due to having succumbed to the Omega symbol.
The DC Extended Universe created by Zack Snyder has proven very divisive among critics and fans alike. Despite its superstar talent, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice garnered a “rotten” score of 28% on Rotten Tomatoes. For all its ambition and its attempt, at soaring its characters “in the sun”, Snyder’s vision has proven to many critics as too somber, depressive, angst-ridden, lacking heart and characterized by poor storytelling. The main critique mounted against Snyder’s work has been that the characters are not faithful to their authentic iconic representations; rather, they are deconstruction mythos of DC archetypes.
Justice League released in 2017 and was originally meant to follow Snyder’s formula introducing a two-part Justice League story featuring Steppenwolf invasion of Earth and Darkseid’s attempt to impose the Anti-Life Equation on Earth. The DC Extended Universe is at heart a Superman story, which the director meant to tell in a five-part storyline. Darkseid was meant to appear at the end of Justice League in Zack Snyder’s original 3-hour long plan before Joss Whedon stepped in for reshoots upon the family tragedy. This was to be the set-up for Justice League 2 and a potential Justice League 3 which would essentially recount the story according to the events of Final Crisis.
Warner Bros. Steps In
Upon the family tragedy, Zack Snyder’s unpopular and unsuccessful vision led Warner Bros. to part ways with the director and embrace Joss Whedon’s vision for Justice League. WB indicated its difference of vision from Snyder’s more somber tone and wanted to emphasize a more lighthearted approach to its characters and actually make Superman “smile” in Justice League. In that regard, Justice League was a success though it under-performed at the box office, because it featured a superhero team-up that convincingly set the stage for the rest of the shared universe.
Wonder Woman released in June 2017, 5 months before Justice League. To date, it presents as the DCEU’s most successful cinematic adaptation and the most well received among audiences. This proves that audiences are able to react positively to DC characters when they are portrayed according to their iconic portrayals in comic books and media. Wonder Woman was particularly powerful for its portrayal of love, of Wonder Woman’s decision to choose love over Olympian power and the false dream of a utopia presented by Ares at the end of the movie. It is in a sense, a coming-of-age movie that sees the transformation of nubile Diana Prince into the fierce princess warrior Wonder Woman.
The DC Extended Universe is the product of a brain-trust of Zack Snyder, Deborah Snyder, Geoff Johns and Christopher Nolan. In many respects, its passing marks the passing of a great experiment in tragedy, conflict, drama, and cinematic production the likes of which frankly attempt to transcend the superhero genre into mythology. That the DC Extended Universe attempted to separate itself from its main competitor, Marvel, by presenting its characters in a shared universe in single films such as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League, before spearheading their solo films, shows their attempt at difference and at providing a distinctive voice.
For all the criticism mounted at Zack Snyder’s films, the films took some creative chances that it can be safe to say may stand the test of time despite being “dark and gritty”. Zack Snyder may yet prove to be the sage, the ground-breaking director of our time who spearheads a complete cultural re-consideration of our cherished icons, heroes and super heroes and forces to look into mythology with new fresh eyes, with eyes of wonder but tragedy, drama but heroism, passion but ferocity. Zack Snyder, has been described as a visual director and a comic book fan though, he seldom respects the source material in the DCEU in the proper way.
In the end, the current direction of the DC cinematic universe is one of hope and optimism, which moves away from the plan of a shared universe and prefers separated solo film story outings with the recent Aquaman film, which was well received. The future is bright for the DC cinematic universe, only if Warner Bros. and its executives are willing to look at signs of hope and present authentic representations of the characters that are timeless and strong.