When newly installed studio chief Kevin Tsujihara first announced what would become “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” at Comic-Con 2013, you could almost hear him say, “Take that, Marvel!”
Two years later at the Warner Bros. Comic-Con 2015 panel, the studio wowed Hall H with a dramatic three-panel display running down the sides of the massive space showcasing not only “Batman v. Superman” (March 25) but some of the 10 DC titles in the pipeline through 2020: “Suicide Squad” (August 2016), “Wonder Woman” (June 2017), “Justice League” 1 (November 2017) and 2 (June 2019), “The Flash” (March 2018), “Aquaman” (July 2018) and “Cyborg” (April 2020).
Marvel, indeed. Tsuijihara sent a message to Wall Street and his rival studios—especially Disney, with its mighty Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm labels—that Warners is still strong and powerful.
The studio threw its best and brightest at the film. Building on the 2013 Zack Snyder/David S. Goyer “Superman” reboot “Man of Steel” ($668 million worldwide), it merged a returning cast of Metropolitans—Henry Cavill (Superman/Clark Kent), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Laurence Fishburne (Perry White), and Diane Lane (Martha Kent)— with a new batch of Gothamites—beefed-up Ben Affleck as moody The Dark Knight and Brit stalwart Jeremy Irons replacing Michael Caine as Wayne Manor butler Alfred.
Jesse Eisenberg turns up his trademark intensity as creepy Superman villain Lex Luthor (“the red capes are coming!”) in Tony Stark weapons-mogul mode. And athletic Israeli ex-soldier Gal Gadot steals the show as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, holding her own with Bruce Wayne, going to battle against alien monster Doomsday, and leaving us wanting more. It took 75 years for testosterone-driven Hollywood to put this DC superhero on the big screen. “Wonder Woman has the strength of a superhero,” she said at Comic-Con, “and she’s sophisticated and loving and has emotional intelligence.” Thank you.
The actors carry their roles, but the overwrought movie—accompanied by an over-the-top Hans Zimmer chorale-laden soundtrack — strains to carry the weight of all that it has to accomplish. This week, a Warner spokeswoman as well as a videotaped Zack Snyder begged the media crowd at the Universal City IMAX screening room to avoid spoilers. Warners is expected to open the movie to some $160 million in three days. It’s what happens later that is keeping Tsujihara and his studio production head Greg Silverman —who suffered a tough year packed with disappointments, from “Jupiter Ascending” and Cavill-starrer “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to “Pan” and “In the Heart of the Sea”—up at night.
“Batman v. Superman” is the tentpole they have to get right. One crucial Wonder Woman photo in “Batman v. Superman” couldn’t be inserted into the movie until the sequence was shot in Patty Jenkins’ upcoming “Wonder Woman” origin movie (June 2017), also starring Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen, which will set up, Marvel-style, Wonder Woman’s appearance in November in “Justice League,” which is teased in “Dawn of Justice” in a rather inexplicable computer video surge of meta-humans, with glimpses of Ezra Miller as The Flash, Ray Fisher as Cyborg, and Jason Mamoa as Aquaman. Snyder calls it a “giant Easter Egg.”
Warner Bros. has been through many iterations of DC’s Batman, from Tim Burton and Michael Keaton through Val Kilmer, George Clooney and finally, the winning Chris Nolan trilogy starring Christian Bale. Now Affleck takes on the role of an older Dark Knight (influenced by Frank Miller’s angst-ridden take on the character) who decides to get back into his Batgear in order to set his vigilante sights on too-powerful evil alien Superman.
READ MORE: How They Finally
Created a Shared DC Universe in ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’
While Diane Nelson is supervising the DC universe, she isn’t running the creative on the movies the way Marvel producer Kevin Feige does. (DC exec Geoff Johns, a comics geek, is working with Warners on the production side.) Marvel’s long-term strategy under Feige is so successful—carefully establishing major comic characters in one consistently high-quality movie after another that eventually yielded a unified world in which they could meet in “The Avengers” and its sequel “Ultron”— that even Sony pulled them into their new “Spider-Man” movies.
Under veteran Warner motion pictures’ chief Jeff Robinov, who knew his comics, Warner never got its DC act together. Over the years each project changed and evolved under different directors, from Burton to Nolan to Snyder. “Green Lantern” was a bust. (As Ryan Reynolds pointed out at Comic-Con 2015’s Marvel “Deadpool” panel, putting the guy in an animated green suit was a bad idea.) And 2006 reboot “Superman Returns,” directed by Bryan Singer, which paid homage to the Richard Donner Superman movies without completely updating the franchise the way Christopher Nolan did with “Batman Begins,” grossed $391 million worldwide off strong reviews for a genre sequel. But it cost more than $232 million. Warners felt it could have performed better with more action and a powerful villain—and no Superman kid. So WB abandoned Singer’s carefully constructed world and started over from scratch. Which took years. And after chafing under Tsujihara, who used to run DC, Robinov moved to Sony with his own label.
Thus Tsujihara lacks an executive with Robinov’s experience to run the studio. He relies instead on production chief Silverman (who has a close relationship with Nolan, Snyder, and Goyer) and global marketing/distribution head Sue Kroll to run Warner Bros., while Toby Emmerich oversees the New Line Cinema label. While Warners isn’t looking at a $200 million write-off on “Batman v. Superman” like Disney’s “John Carter,” which was the result of rookie movie execs in charge of a major studio, it’s clear that Snyder’s epic spectacle cost far more than the official $250 million, not to mention worldwide marketing costs. Which is why “Dawn of Justice” has to keep performing and pulling repeat business all over the world to make back its costs and support the franchise entries already in the pipeline. $800 million is the benchmark for “BvS” to meet if it’s going to actually be a blockbuster that returns some profits to the studio.
Tsuijihara made the call to lean on Snyder’s vision of Batman and Superman sharing the same world in a film, as they have in many comics. And when he signed on, Affleck brought in “Argo” Oscar-winning writer Chris Terrio to collaborate with Goyer to concoct a complex and technologically sophisticated world. While the writers labor to establish why Bruce Wayne is so upset by the collateral damage wreaked on Metropolis and his own Wayne Industries headquarters (which crashes down in a cloud of ash like a 9/11 World Trade Center tower) by the climactic battle between Superman and General Zod’s forces at the end of “Man of Steel,” I don’t buy the premise of why these two superheroes are at loggerheads. Alfred keeps trying to pull Batman back from his vigilante war against Superman, who supposedly has too much uncontrolled power—and doesn’t understand how to manage his celebrity—while Luthor manipulates the situation to his own nefarious ends.
This rather humorless two and a half hour movie tackles the roles of God, hero, and vigilante, as well as touching on our fear-mongering political zeitgeist. The filmmakers try to manage the Superman Problem: he’s an idealistic “Big Blue Boy Scout” from the ’30s who no more belongs in the 21st century than Marvel’s Captain America. And yes, many of us root for good-guy Superman, who also has a soft spot for intrepid reporter Lois Lane, who is yet another cinematic working woman who trips into action sequences on Very High Heels, while Batman is consumed by anger and resentment.
Under Snyder’s direction, both “Man of Steel” and “Batman v. Superman” push the pendulum too far toward endless noisy mayhem and indecipherable, pixelated CG action sequences. Snyder’s strong suit is visuals, and there are some arresting images, from the opening Batman origin myth sequence in which young Bruce Wayne, after the 1981 murder of his parents, falls down a well and is lifted up from the bottom to the light by thousands of swirling bats, and iconic shots of Superman dragging a frozen ship across an ice cap and walking up the Capitol steps, to an astonishing moment as a Day of the Dead crowd reach out their hands to touch the mighty alien after one of his miraculous saves.
Oscar-winner Affleck has said that he was amazed and impressed by Snyder’s camera set-ups. He might come back to not only star but direct his own “Batman” movie. That’s what I want to see.
There’s no denying that it’s satisfying when Superman is challenged to unleash his mighty powers. And upsetting when we see him bleed. It helps to give Superman a powerful antagonist in Doomsday, an alien immortal who can smash human Batman, said Snyder at Comic-Con, “like a pinata.” Batman has enhanced bulk-armor that protects him and “buys him some time.” The superheroes do fight each other in the DC comics, but this movie concoction is what the filmmakers wanted to see: the world’s greatest gladiator match, the fight between black and blue, day vs. night.
So far the critics are harsh. (The NYTimes’ A.O.Scott delivers a derisive pan.) Whether audiences go along for the ride over time will determine which creative players—from studio execs to filmmakers— will be in charge in the years ahead.