Why DC Is Right to Go Back to Basics

Dark and gritty seems like the way to go.

While the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) has some avid supporters who truly love the recent installments to the franchise, it is safe to say that the general public has not shared this adoration.

Where Marvel Studios has produced an astonishing nine films that have grossed over $1 billion – including two which have reached the $2 billion mark, with one becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time – DCEU films have managed the same feat only once, with 2018’s Aquaman bringing in just over $1.1 billion worldwide. What’s more, these films have generally been poorly-received by audiences and critics alike, with 2017’s Justice League, for example, achieving an unimpressive score of 6.4 on IMDb, and an even more dismal Tomatometer rating of 40%.

So, what is the reason for DC’s poor performances in comparison to the might of Marvel? Well, I think it is quite simple – DC saw their main competitors develop an incredibly successful model and tried to copy it, failing to do so in a structured and intelligent manner. Where executives at Marvel, led by Kevin Feige, devised a detailed and meticulous plan for the development of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), decision-makers at DC were guilty of rushing into competition, allowing themselves to be sucked into a game of catch-up against the backdrop of The Avengers’ groundbreaking success in 2012.

This was most clear in DC’s decision to bring forward their collaborative movies. Where the MCU saw five individual movies before any of their four key characters were seen on screen together, the DC universe saw only Man of Steel on the big screen before 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Furthermore, of the big hitters in Justice League, only Superman and Wonder Woman had received a solo film, whereas each of the Avengers’ four main superheroes were introduced in their own individual movies (albeit to varying degrees of success). This lack of commitment and patience towards developing groundwork for these big crossover movies arguably led to a lack of interest from the audience in these characters and their eventual collaboration.

The DCEU has also arguably adopted the MCU’s more light-hearted approach, with movies such as Suicide Squad and Justice League showing greater resemblance to Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers than the gritty, dark world crafted by Christopher Nolan in his Dark Knight trilogy. While this may make sense on the surface, helping to develop an undoubtedly greater appeal for younger audiences, it seems naive of DC to take on Marvel at their own game – a game they have mastered over the last 11 years.

As such, upcoming DC movies such as Joker, Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) and The Batman represent a shift back to basics, and perhaps to a darker, grittier world once more. This is welcome news, as the characters in the DC universe are arguably more suited to such storytelling, and the introduction of relatively unfamiliar, but certainly talented, directors such as Cathy Yan (Dead Pigs) and Matt Reeves (War for the Planet of the Apes) to tell these stories suggests DC executives are more willing to relinquish creative control to the actual creators.

Joker is the most imminent of these three exciting installments, and also promises to be the darkest of this trilogy – even if the choice of director, Todd Phillips (The Hangover, Due Date) may suggest otherwise. Phillips’ promise of a deep, intricate and personal character study of one of the most complex individuals in comic book storytelling was met with uncertainty by some, but has the potential to revive the fortunes of DC films going forward.

I truly fell in love with the character after Heath Ledger’s iconic performance in The Dark Knight. In the 11 years since, the Joker has become an increasingly significant presence in popular culture, with Ledger cementing the character as many people’s archetype of what constitutes a truly relentless, but equally intoxicating and complex, villain – and DC’s decision to deep-dive into the possible explanations for this complexity could prove to be genius. For those who are worried that Ledger’s performance may be undermined, especially after Jared Leto’s less-than-celebrated take on the character in Suicide Squad, there are few actors on earth who could better encapsulate the eccentricity and absurdity of the character than Joaquin Phoenix.

Birds of Prey presents the opportunity for Margot Robbie to reach her full potential as Harley Quinn. I don’t think it’s too controversial to suggest that the introduction of Harley Quinn was the greatest positive to come from Suicide Squad, with Robbie’s performance being deemed by many as the main highlight of the movie – and the character of Quinn inspiring Halloween costumes around the globe ever since. Cathy Yan’s promise of a dark-humoured story, and the fact that Quinn is free from the shackles of Leto’s aforementioned Joker, should enable Robbie to be at her mischievous best; the confirmation of Harley Quinn as the titular character also suggests she will have greater freedom to run riot than in 2016.

Finally, Matt Reeves’ promise that The Batman will have the feel of a detective movie indicates a clear shift away from the explosive, apocalyptic stakes of movies such as Justice League towards the more small-scale, gritty focus of The Dark Knight. The addition of Robert Pattinson is brave, but certainly admirable, with Pattinson’s recent experience with low-budget, personal and artistic independent movies showing his ability to front more story-driven, understated productions. Reeves’ handling of the Planet of the Apes films demonstrates his ability to give blockbuster movies a more intimate feel; this directorial style, combined with Pattinson’s experience (and cracking jawline) seems to be a match made in heaven. Emotional, suspenseful and doubtlessly brutal heaven.

While DC’s cinematic fortunes have certainly been mixed in recent years, their decision to strip things back to basics seems to demonstrate a much-needed stroke of genius. Showing unwavering trust in its more low-key artistic talent, through providing near-full creative control to its directors, should prevent the messy, arduous production issues of films such as Suicide Squad and Justice League. The shift back to a grittier, darker tone will provide a unique selling point compared to the PG-13, light-hearted feel of the MCU. And the introduction of incredible acting talent with the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Robert Pattinson ensures that the portrayal of these characters should make a big impact, even if on a smaller budget. The future of DC films looks bright, in its own dark, morose way.

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