DC’s history with film has been an interesting one. And with their most recent installment of Wonder Woman 1984, their storied history has made me realize something.
When it comes to DC films, audiences don’t know what they want. And therefor, they should not be catered to.
A TIME ABOVE
Let’s a take a trip down memory lane. When was the last time a DC film was universally praised? This may be subjective and up to interpretation, but the film of most recent memory that comes to mind is 2017’s Wonder Woman. Being the first DC film directed by a woman in Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman’s first installment in the DC franchise couldn’t have been any better. Receiving over 90% of rotten tomatoes and making $822 million at the box office, Wonder Woman ranks high on most fans top DC films. And for good reason, its pretty dang good. Besides a controversial final battle, many forgave its few faults because it managed to capture the spirit of the character perfectly.
It was seen as a triumph for DC at the time. Many claiming it “saved” the franchise. But before that, DC films weren’t graced with that same response. A few rare cases being, Nolan’s Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, and the original superhero movie, Superman 78′.
Out of five decades, really only three films have captured the heart and souls of mass audiences, while the others remain cult classics and underrated fan favorites.
This isn’t a bad thing. I have always felt it doesn’t matter how much money a film makes or how many people like it. It’s the individual experience that matters most. But every now and then a fan will come along and say “DC should do this…”, and insinuate it’s the answer to their cinematic woes. But the truth is, it never is.
DC isn’t like Marvel. For better or for worse, DC films are held to a higher standard than most MCU films. Maybe it’s because its the quantity of films released per year or because DC has a more “prestigious” film history dating back to the 70’s, whereas Marvel is pretty recent. But I can’t help but notice that when a new DC film comes out, everyone becomes an expert in cinema and film criticism. Lobbing hot takes that presumably doesn’t cross their mind when Marvel movies are guilty of the same.
Why this is, I cant tell you. My current, ever evolving theory is that Marvel simply is the standard for modern audiences. And any deviation from the method they have implemented and made popular will be met with pushback because it’s “different”. No one likes change, at least not at first. So when DC came along with their plan, it couldn’t help but be compared to the way Marvel was doing things. And it’s not that Marvel was inherently better. But because Marvel planted their flag first, DC was seen as late to the party, forever trying to “catch up”.
The ironic thing is, DC at the time of the launch of their cinematic universe with Man Of Steel, was never trying to “catch up” or “copy Marvel”. Fans felt that way. Heck, even executives felt that way. But the creators behind the camera didn’t. Namely Zack Snyder. They were just making movies. No differently than they would have been doing if Marvel never started the MCU. But sometimes timing isn’t on your side. And there’s no better example of this than the man who directed what is now seen as a cult classic, Watchmen. Zack Snyder directed a film that was ahead of its time. And he later went on to usher in the DC cinematic universe with Man Of Steel and Batman V Superman. Which were also both ahead of their time.
I don’t say this because I love Snyder’s work, but because I have seen the change over the last decade when it comes to discussing Snyder’s filmography. Especially Watchmen and Man Of Steel. Being divisive at the time, both of those are now widely more praised than they ever have been.
Again, these are films that many had to warm up to. For some it took a few days, for others it took years. The subject matter of these films ask the audience to dig deeper. Not to find enjoyment, but to find appreciation for deeper themes at play. And quite frankly this isn’t the way most comic book films are.
Ever since DC changed Zack Snyder’s Justice League and changed the course of their DC films, DC has been venturing into more lighthearted films. Aquaman, Shazam!, and now Wonder Woman 1984 being proof of that. But even with this tonal shift of the “DCEU”, they’ve still managed to keep their unique flavor that they had before. Unlike Marvel where most of their recent films feel like they were made by the same director, DC’s films have kept the stamp of the individual directors in tact. Whether it’s James Wans’ Aquaman or Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey. DC is still (for the most part), putting their directors first.
And this isn’t necessarily the best business decision. This approach is a gamble. Shazam! made $366 million and Birds of Prey made $201 million. These aren’t very impressive. But the irony is both these films received somewhat opposite critical reception. Birds of Prey received okay reviews while Shazam! received widely positive reviews.
And if I’m a DC executive, I’m probably scratching my head right now. What’s the common denominator? What do fans want? How in the world did films like Aquaman and Joker even sniff a billion dollars? The frustrating part about all of this is that there is seemingly no answer.
And that’s just it. DC is at the point where there isn’t one specific formula that is working. Marvel has an established way of doing things and it works for them. Their films regularly cross a billion and receive critical praise on top of it all. Look no further than Captain Marvel and Spider-Man Far From Home. Films that are no better or worse than Wonder Woman 1984 in my opinion, but will receive a fraction of the intense scrutiny as that film did.
There’s something about DC films that fans take ownership of. Marvel films are like the wind. They come and go and the conversation around them is as fleeting as the films themselves are. But with DC, it’s like the films are held under a microscope. The films are subject to a different kind of expectation. Maybe it’s because the characters are more well known and audiences expect more of them, but I didn’t notice until now that the way certain audiences look at DC films is a bit unfair.
Given Wonder Woman 1984’s cheesy nature, I felt it would be a crowd pleaser, much like the recent MCU films. But much to my chagrin, it seems that it is just as divisive as Batman V Superman. Which is odd. Many wanted DC to step away from the darker tones and take a more Marvel-esk lighthearted approach, and now they’re singing a different tune. And I don’t wanna box all of the complaints into a simple black and white point of view, but it’s hard not to notice the intense and unfair criticism that the film is getting.
With DC films, it seems like the audience cant take what they’re given and judge it based on what it is. But instead the films are judged based on what people WANT them to be. This was true for Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. And now it seems to be true for Wonder Woman 1984.
So what’s the answer?
NOT A DAMN THING
With this new multiverse concept that DC is pursuing, DC is telling director driven stories. And with that they are no longer at the whim of the ever fickle requests and opinions of each fan. Everyone has a different idea of what these characters “should be” and it’s impossible to cater to that. But with the multiverse, you can count on a version of these characters coming along that you will like.
Even though it’s not perfect, I respect Wonder Woman 1984 because Patty Jenkins took a big swing. And I appreciate the hell out of it because I can see the heart and soul she put into it. And I can’t say the same about most other comic book movies in the genre.
Audiences don’t know what they want. But the directors do. So let them take us on a journey of what they feel these characters are. Lets not ascribe our own ideas onto their interpretations, but instead lets seek to understand their point of view. The point of movies is to feel an emotion. And it’s impossible to feel those emotions the director intends if we are constantly at war with what they’re trying to do before they even do it. Don’t go into Man Of Steel expecting a Wonder Woman 1984, and do go into Wonder Woman 1984 expecting a Man Of Steel. You’ll be greatly disappointed. Judge a film based on what a director aimed to do, not what it didn’t. It’s okay to not like or disagree with a vision, but the very least we can do is seek to understand that vision.
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