Friday, April 1, 2016

The DC Problem (And It’s Not Just Zack Snyder)

If you’re a human that has any basic exposure to the media, you’re probably aware that a movie called Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice came out last weekend, and you might also be aware that it has already made over 400 million dollars worldwide. You might therefore be thinking that this movie is successful. But you’d be wrong. DC, the comic book company that owns and publishes the Batman and Superman families of titles, has had a problematic relationship with the notion of success over the last decade, and the current Batman v Superman debacle is the latest example of that. It also could be the tipping point that kills DC for the foreseeable future.

The surface evidence of this problem is easy to identify. BvS currently sits at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes and has a Metacritic score of 44, so to say the critical community disliked the film is a bit of an undersell. That, in and of itself, isn’t a huge problem. What the audience thought of the movie, however, is definitely looking like a huge problem. The movie made 166 million dollars at the domestic box office it’s opening weekend, which you may have heard is a March record. That sounds good, right? Well, in the immortal words of Pulp Fiction, let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks quite yet. First of all, March is a month where Hollywood traditionally only releases bad movies that the studios have little hopes for, so that record means nothing. Secondly—and this is particularly fascinating—that 166 million dollar figure is actually less than was originally reported. The initial reports on Sunday suggested the opening weekend grosses were a little over 170 million, but that number then had to be corrected on Monday because BvS had the biggest Friday-to-Sunday box office drop-off ever. To put it simply, that means people thought the movie sucked.

There are essentially two types of people that see a blockbuster on opening weekend: the people who absolutely have to see it on Friday or Saturday, and the people that would rather wait until Sunday when they don’t have to deal with crowds and can comfortably put their feet up on the seat in front of them (Note: this is me pointing to myself). Because these two groups relate to one another in very predictable ratios, studios generally announce opening weekend grosses on Sunday morning, knowing that what happens at the Sunday box office is already a safe bet based on Friday and Saturday numbers. But when you see a Monday correction of nearly five million dollars, that’s when you know something weird happened. In this case, that “something weird” was rancid word of mouth, which accounted for the record-setting 55% drop-off from the Friday to Sunday numbers. The closest any high budget movie in recent memory has come to that eye-popping number is last August’s Fantastic Four reboot, which is un-fondly regarded as one of the biggest flops of the decade.

But wait, there’s more: CinemaScore, which tracks what audiences thought of a movie upon leaving the theater, currently has BvS at a B rating. That’s not bad, right? Again, no. Most mass audiences love and overrate most wide-release movies they see, which is why the vast majority of CinemaScore grades end up being an A or A-. In that context, a B is practically an F. It’s a bit like when you’ve just seen a concert, or had sex with someone new—the only two ratings you tend to give are “AMAZING!” or “Yeah, that was pretty good.” Audiences have just given the dreaded “pretty good” rating to BvS, which is not so good. And as if that weren’t worrisome enough for DC, they have some traumatic recent history with a B CinemaScore: it’s the same rating earned by both Green Lantern and Catwoman.

The most easily identifiable culprit in this whole fiasco is the director of BvS, Zack Snyder, who has, quite simply, never made a good movie. Here are the Metacritic scores for Snyder’s previous six films, chronologically: 59, 52, 56, 53, 33, and 55. By comparison, the last four Marvel movies scored 64, 65, 76, and 70, so this isn’t merely critical bias against comic book movies at work. Snyder got this gig by first directing 2013’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel, which was also a bit of a fiasco, though it’s 56% Rotten Tomatoes score seems envious in retrospect. Personally, I thought Man of Steel was unwatchable, but you at least wouldn’t be lying if you called the reviews “mixed.” The reviews of BvS are decidedly not mixed.

Snyder’s take on Superman in Man of Steel was not ideal. When Superman was created in 1938 by two Cleveland Jews named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, they envisioned a colorful, aspirational hero of the people for a time when the country was still in the throes of economic depression and on the verge of war. In 1978, when Superman first appeared on the big screen, it was with the famous tagline “You’ll believe a man can fly.” For most of his existence as a pop culture icon, Superman has been a character of wonder, provoking people to excitedly look to the sky. But three years ago, Zach Snyder portrayed him absolutely decimating an American city and then murdering his enemy.

While Man of Steel had a myriad of problems that I won’t go into here, the biggest one was undoubtedly that it just felt like it got the character all wrong, and that’s why the decision for DC and Warner Brothers (DC’s parent company and film studio) to bring Snyder back for another try felt immediately problematic and misguided. But you can’t really blame Zack Snyder for that. After all, he also entirely missed the point of the original works when he adapted Dawn of the Dead, 300, and Watchmen. Missing the point is just kind of what he does. He’s simply making Zack Snyder movies, which is presumably what one should expect him to do upon hiring him, in much the same way you might reasonably expect Kinks songs and a Bill Murray appearance if you hire Wes Anderson.

The real culprit here is DC, and their recent history of doubling down on bad bets.

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We see this in sports all the time—a General Manager makes a personnel mistake, but instead of admitting or correcting that mistake, they double down on it for the sake of their own job preservation, and proceed to ruin a team’s immediate future. In the 2012 NBA Draft the Cleveland Cavaliers used the fourth pick to select Dion Waiters, a shooting guard from Syracuse that didn’t even start on his college team. Waiters did not have a good rookie season, and the following summer, the Cavs found themselves with the number one selection in the 2013 NBA Draft. Most pundits believed the safest bet in the draft was IU shooting guard Victor Oladipo, but the Cavs didn’t want him because they already took Waiters the previous year, and they were afraid to tacitly admit that he might not have been a great pick. Cleveland selected UNLV power forward Anthony Bennett instead. So how did that all play out? Less than three years later, Bennett is already out of the league, Waiters was peddled off to another team just to get him the hell away, Oladipo is a burgeoning star after getting selected by Orlando with the second pick, and the current LeBron-led Cavs squad’s biggest area of need is at shooting guard, where Oladipo would probably fit in quite well. All that, just because the Cavs GM couldn’t admit a year later that Waiters might not have been a great pick.

The exact same thing is happening with DC, Warner Brothers, and the potentially catastrophic decision to stick with Zack Snyder instead of admitting his style isn’t working out and course correcting. But DC and WB had already made their beds when they scheduled Snyder’s follow-up, The Justice League Part One, to begin shooting just two weeks after BvS opened. That’s right, Justice League begins shooting a week from Monday, which leaves virtually no time to re-tool the script and style of the movie (based on BvS criticisms), and especially leaves no time to hire another director entirely. With DC, this is officially a trend.

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I’ve been a comic book–reader for nearly 25 years, and for more than half of that time, DC was my favorite company. To understand why that is, you have to understand the fundamental difference between DC and Marvel: Simply put, Marvel has better characters. Marvel’s top characters have better human characteristics and flaws, more interesting origins, and they’re more relatable to readers. Not-so-coincidentally, this is why they translate to movies much more easily. But there’s a downside to that, and it’s what Marvel impresario Stan Lee always referred to as creating “the illusion of change.” Because the core essences of Marvel’s top characters were so great, there was only so much you could really do with them. Sure, you can mix things up here and there, but there was to be no reinventing of the wheel, and there really never could be. Though it took them 20 years to figure it out, DC didn’t have this problem.

Starting in the mid-1980s, a little over two decades after Marvel first began challenging (and then routinely slaughtering) DC in sales and popularity, DC figured out that having mostly secondary characters meant they weren’t bound to keeping them as they were. DC didn’t have to merely give their readers “the illusion of change,” they could give them actual change. DC killed the Flash and Supergirl, not as mere stunts and with no intention of bringing them back. They had former sidekicks like Robin and Kid Flash assume new, permanent identities as adults, and they crippled Batgirl and reinvented her as a super-hacker. They rebooted their entire universe, and launched the first mature readers line of comics. They initiated bringing over writers from England, some of whom proved to be arguably the best in the history of comics. And, perhaps most importantly, they lured away Marvel’s two most popular creators, Frank Miller and John Byrne, by offering them greater creative autonomy. Within a few years, DC was producing comics like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sandman, which are still widely regarded as the three greatest works in the history of the medium. The fact that they were all published by DC between 1986 and 1989 is not a coincidence. That became the clear dividing line between the companies for the next two decades: Marvel had the best characters and properties, but DC had the universe that could actually change and the creators that could really do what they wanted.

Sadly, all of that changed in 2005, when two people named Dan Didio and Geoff Johns began their takeover of DC with a series called Green Lantern: Rebirth. At the time, Didio had been a fast-rising editor and executive in the company, while Johns had quickly turned into one of their most popular writers. The idea behind Green Lantern: Rebirth was that it would return Hal Jordan, a character who had been turned into a villain in 1994 and then killed off two years later, to his “rightful” place as Green Lantern. This involved a far-fetched ret-con (retroactive continuity) where readers were asked to believe that it wasn’t really Hal Jordan that had become a villain, but that a yellow fear-demon living inside his ring was actually the cause. Because, comics! Unfortunately, Rebirth became a smash success, and Didio and Johns promptly used it as evidence for why everything in the DCU should revert back to how it was in the ‘70s, over a series of mega-events. At a time when Marvel was really trying new things to shake up their universe, such as Civil War and House of M (both of which I dislike, but that’s beside the point), DC had Johns write both a sequel to 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, as well as The Flash: Rebirth, which restored a character that had been dead for over 20 years.

By the end of the ‘00s, DC had a serious problem. They’d done just about all of the restorations and events they could—culminating in something called Brightest Day, which brought virtually every other dead major character back to life—and the readers were disappearing. The huge events and eye-popping rebirths that Didio and Johns had orchestrated were successful individually, but led to a line of comics that readers weren’t interested in. It also led to so many editorial mandates in what stories had to be told that almost all of DC’s best creators left the company. Suddenly, the changing universe and creative autonomy that had really defined DC for over twenty years was completely gone, and DC was forced to compete with Marvel purely on the strength of their characters—a fight they’d never be able to win. And it didn’t help that this was around the time Marvel first began to dominate the box office with their initial Iron Man movies.

So DC doubled down on their bad bets by letting Didio and Johns restart the entire universe with 2011’s New 52.

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By 2011, I hadn’t bought a new comic in over ten years. At the time, I was mostly reading collections at Borders (RIP) and the library, buying sets on eBay, and vaguely following the industry over the Internet, but buying new issues was something I never thought I’d go back to. But DC (whose problems I really wasn’t privy to at the time) brought me back in with the New 52. They were cancelling all of their titles and re-booting the entire line from scratch, with 52 new series starting with first issues. One of the stated goals with the New 52 was to get “lapsed readers” back into comics via this fresh start, and I fell for it. The New 52 was a huge initial success, selling out virtually every first issue (many of which went to third, fourth, and even fifth printings), and for the first few months, they even topped Marvel’s market share for the first time in decades.

By the end of that first year, though, the New 52 stood revealed as what it really was: a gimmick. It was a Hail Mary to try and recreate reader interest, but it was executed with absolutely no plan for sustainability. The new titles were all created by the same crop of mostly-bad writers that DC was left with, following the exodus of their top creators in the preceding years. Bob Harras was hired to be the new Editor in Chief, but he’s the same guy who presided over Marvel’s X-Men titles in 1992 when the artists all left in disgust to create their own company (Image Comics), and he’s also the guy that was running Marvel in 1996 when they declared for bankruptcy at the end of that year (Harras is the very definition of failing upward). Many of the New 52 titles were hugely rushed off the ground, without enough time for planning. Some of the new titles and character iterations were frankly sexist, and the new continuity was ill conceived and made absolutely no sense. By the end of the first year, DC’s market share had gone back down, several of the titles had already been cancelled, numerous writers and artists had been fired or replaced, and another creator exodus was starting. And hilariously, I stopped reading all of the DC titles and switched over to Marvel. That’s right, I was a lapsed reader that DC brought back into comics, and then they promptly pushed me to their competition.

Since then, two major thing shave happened. First, Marvel has started giving their creators even more autonomy, such that almost every Marvel title feels like is has a totally unique voice. This means that not only is DC trying (and failing) to beat Marvel at its own game, but also that Marvel has picked up the slack on what used to set DC apart. They were now beating DC in every conceivable way, which led to the second development: DC started doubling down again. First, in 2015, they started the “DC You” initiative, which was essentially meant to be a new concentration on the reader experience (basically, a pseudo-admission that the New 52 didn’t care about the readers), and now, less than a year later, they’ve announced that this coming summer will be DC: Rebirth, where, you guessed it, the entire line will be having a Rebirth where all of the series will be starting over again, with some returns to pre-New 52 status quos. 

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Nearly every major decision DC has made over the last decade is about chasing the initial dollar, without a real thought to consequence. Green Lantern: Rebirth and Flash: Rebirth both made a huge splash, but they turned DC into a company that was fighting Marvel on the wrong battlefield. The New 52 made an even bigger splash, but was filled with terrible products that readers quickly fled from. 2011’s Green Lantern movie, which Geoff Johns co-produced, was just a complete miscalculation in what audiences want from a super-hero movie. But DC learned the wrong lessons, and thought that Green Lantern’s problem was that it wasn't dark and mature enough, and should have been more like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. So with that aesthetic in mind, they hired Zack Snyder to make Man of Steel, except that Snyder is qualitatively the polar opposite of Nolan as a filmmaker, and Man of Steel was wretched. So, naturally, DC went even darker with BvS, which Johns executive produced.

When DC revitalized the industry in the late ‘80s with Watchmen, Sandman, and the Dark Knight Returns, it happened because three of the most talented writers the industry has ever seen (Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Frank Miller) were given total creative control of their product and allowed to craft comics for adults. But, shockingly, DC has learned the wrong lesson from those works. DC erroneously believes the love and acclaim lavished upon those works stems from their violence and dark realism, so DC has tried to become the company of violence and dark realism. While Marvel’s movies are light-hearted and often almost comedic in tone, DC infamously mandated that their movies wouldn’t have jokes. (Though that already appears to be a thing of the past, as it was just announced that August’s upcoming Suicide Squad will be going through some expensive reshoots to make it more fun.)

DC is officially at the tipping point of how long they can do this, and what happens from here will be fascinating. With virtually all of the comics Didio and Johns have presided over, the initial sales splash mattered far more than the consequences of the subsequent reader backlash. Then they combatted those backlashes by going for more sales splashes. Sadly, Warner Brothers, under much creative guidance and influence from DC (especially Johns), is doing the same thing with their line of DC movies. Batman v Superman made a huge splash, but it’s also widely hated. It’s not too late to stop the bleeding and re-strategize what these movies should be, but because WB scheduled The Justice League Part One to begin shooting almost immediately after BvS hit theaters, they’re doubling down on Snyder and plowing full steam ahead. The Justice League is also highly likely to be terrible, but that won’t matter, and it’ll probably make a huge splash, too.

But the time for DC and Warner Brothers to halt this direction before their bubble bursts in a massive and catastrophic way is right now. They have another nine movies already on the release calendar between now and 2020, and that doesn’t even include more Batman or Superman installments, which are sure to be added. It’s not too late to save these movies and give them a chance, but that involves recognizing the problems instead of just swerving into them. Sadly, the first thing they’d have to do is fire Snyder and admit he wasn’t the right choice to guide their movies, but that’s just not the DC way under Dan Didio and Geoff Johns.


  1. I agree overall, but would suggest that DC and Marvel are closer in character quality than you seem to believe. At bottom, they are all the same assortment of mutants, aliens and two-fisted vigilantes. Very few strips have a solid enough architecture that creators are totally fungible.

    In addition, the name Eddie Berganza needs mentioning along with Dan DiDio, Bob Harras, and Geoff Johns as a real shaper of the aesthetic that DC keeps foisting on the market only to have the market reject it over AND over AND over. Johns hands are a bit cleaner than the rest in that he has found some success with partners willing to let him lighten up a bit.

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