Thoughts on the DC Extended Universe, Live Action and Animated
The previous week saw the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) Flash film lose another director and go to a page 1 rewrite of the script and as of Feb 9th we are now hearing that Batman is getting the same treatment. With such a massive change happening it seems unlikely that we'll see the Flash movie by its promised 2018 release date. On the flip side of this, the DC animated film Justice League Dark was released. Chronicling the alliance of magic users led by Constantine the film is the latest offering from the animated movie universe that has so far been a commercial and critical success despite being relegated to DVD sales exclusively. Today we are going to compare the two universes DC has ongoing and what seems to be working for and against them respectively.
The DCEU has had a spotty history so far. Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad were all examples of good ideas very poorly executed. Through all of it we've heard reports of studio executives interfering with how they envision the films going forward and how best to market them. Other reviews have already gone into these issues with some depth. My concern is the patterns that these films, and news about the upcoming Flash, have revealed. Initial trailers always look awesome and no one can deny that even the finished products are visually spectacular. The problem is almost everything else. Lazy writing, unchanging or unbelievable character arcs, nonsensical stories. The same could well hold true for both Wonder Woman and Justice League and really, from what we've already seen, that seems the safer bet. Consider, if Flash requires a rewrite of the entire script the one they were working with must have had some serious issues. This seems to be a common problem with the DC films, the scripts always seem to be quite weak.
DC Animated isn't precisely perfection either. From a strong start with stand alone films like Under the Red Hood and All Star Superman the animated films eventually moved away from these arcs and came together in Justice League War. Rather than tying the existing films together the DC Animated Universe just went ahead with nary a nod to what films came before. The continuity of the pre-Justice League War films into that run is a little shaky. That being said the animated films never spend overly long explaining what is happening or why certain members of the league have changed around. There always seems to be a disjointed feeling between them and often various members of the League are given cameo's just to remind the viewer that this is all still taking place in the same continuity. Batman's films have maintained a clearly ordered story line but even here there remains the vexing problems from the live action films. Namely that characters don't change and the story structures aren't very well put together. It's really a shame when you consider just how strong the initial DC animated films used to be.
Films like Green Lantern Emerald Knights and Wonder Woman set a high standard that DC animated continually met. Really the last DCA film that really stood out was Flashpoint and from there we had the New 52 reset that took us into Justice League War and forward. Herein lies what I believe to be the secret to the success DC continually misses. They need to stop trying to serialize their movies.
The most successful films, both live action and animated, have stood apart and on their own from other films. In the live action front we have the Nolan Batman series. Both a financial and critical success, the film's take character notes from the comics but not story line beats. None of the narratives are directly based on any comic and able to develop organically within the medium of film. Additionally, because the Nolan Trilogy doesn't tie in with nor make mention of a wider mythology it isn't subjected to the shackles that inherently come with that.
Between both the animated films and the live action movies we have seen time and again that when DC goes for a wider level of world building and I think the reason behind that is because in both the animated films as well as the live action ones, it never feels like we are building to something.
DC animated has already done one off films about major threats like Braniac and Doomsday. Justice League War took care of Darkseid already and we've had nothing to indicate a build up to something like Trinity War or Anti-Monitor. Similarly the live action films have already scratched Doomsday off the list and Darkseid is next on the list with no confirmation of his particular arc going further than the upcoming Justice League film. If you spend the big guns early how do you keep interest and build again? This is important because it actually fixes the biggest problem DC has had, scripting. Flash goes to a full re-write and Ben Affleck announces he isn't directing the next Batman film after he had stated that he would only direct the film if it had a solid script. By having a big-baddie on the horizon your story telling gains a focus and a level of coherency that simply isn't there right now for any branch of DC.
Don't get me wrong. I like the idea of exploring the different characters and embracing the world building but it needs a direction. And none of this is to say that both animated and live action DC aren't themselves enjoyable as they are now. I loved the risks and ideas that DC was willing to take and put forward in Batman V Superman even if a lot of it fell flat. I love that DC animated barely bothers with character intros. If you are watching this, you're already a fan and will know who these characters are and what they are about. But in order to keep things going there needs to be a greater level of oversight to maintain cohesion (as you see on the CW television series) and there needs to be something both universes are building towards. The total re-writes for Flash and Batman may well spell the last chance of DC creating a universe that works, or they could be the largest indicator that DC has lost control.