The DC Snyderverse was actually successful
It’s official. The DC Cinematic Universe is finished. Hardly two months after Henry Cavill returned as Superman in the post-credits sequence for Black Adam, the actor is officially done with the iconic character. The news may surprise to more casual entertainment news readers, not because they wanted to see Black Adam fighting Superman. It’s more because, as far as most people are concerned, the DC Cinematic Universe died with all the drama of Warner Brothers forcing Zack Snyder off of Justice League some five years ago.
Warner Brothers Discovery has very helpfully given us exactly eleven movies of the DC Cinematic Universe, five and a half pre-Snyder, and five and a half post-Snyder (Justice League is the half), making it very easy to see whether Warner Brothers made the right decision in canning him. And looking at the box office data…they quite clearly did not. The five Snyderverse concept films sit atop the rankings, and the five post-Snyderverse concept films at the bottom, the Snyderverse films pulling in three times as much revenue. How in the world did this happen, when Zack Snyder was supposedly ruining the franchise?
Zack Snyder had a tall order to begin with–make a DC Cinematic Universe that could go toe-to-toe with its Marvel equivalents, despite Marvel having several years worth of a head start. By any reasonable definition it’s amazing he did as well as he did. Batman Vs. Superman was only the second film in the franchise, and fell short of Captain America: Civil War, the thirteenth Marvel film, by about eighty million dollars at the box office. The movies even had similar legs, making about half their revenue from opening weekend.
You’d never be able to guess this from the way the entertainment press savaged Batman Vs. Superman while praising Captain America: Civil War, the former lampooned as a disaster with the latter praised as all our favorite brands together at last. The Snyderverse has always suffered principally from a tone problem. Man of Steel, Snyder’s first movie, before the Snyderverse even clearly took shape, had a very mixed reception because it featured Superman in a relatively realistic world, not too different from our own, having to defend it from cataclysmic disaster by other Kryptonians leveling entire cityscapes.
In stark contrast to Captain America: Civil War, which reduced the inherently destructive nature of superheroes to a disingenuous and petty personal grudge, Batman Vs. Superman was all about consequences. Batman takes on the ambiguous role of hero/villain because he correctly sees Superman as an apocalyptic threat. Batman Vs. Superman delivers on its promise of an actual fight to the death, even as Captain America: Civil War had its big setpiece eventually retconned to Captain America fighting with kid gloves (because Spider-Man is still just a kid).
These statements aren’t praise or criticism of either movie. They’re simply objective fact. Captain America: Civil War and Batman Vs. Superman had radically different tones. And this was good for Warner Brothers, because it gave DC superhero movies a niche by which they could credibly argue, hey, DC superheroes are totally distinct from Marvel superheroes. It’s a different experience, so you should give it a try.
But Warner Brothers executives didn’t see that angle. Looking at the Snyderverse like the goose that laid the golden egg, all they saw that they hadn’t beaten Marvel overnight, and that everyone in the entertainment press kept saying these movies were awful and it was Zack Snyder’s fault. Notably, these criticisms did not extend to Wonder Woman or Aquaman, which, while not Snyder’s directly, still developed under his concept of a serious, semi-realistic world with brutal destruction and long-term consequences.
And so they canned Snyder . And with him, the tone of the DC cinematic universe changed dramatically. Shazam! just remade Big with a superhero. Wonder Woman 1984 had…a villain who makes wishes come true? Black Adam just shoved as many brand-name characters as it could onscreen at once in the hopes that at least one of them would be popular. There were two Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn vehicles, both of which were surprisingly forgettable.
I write “surprisingly” because Margot Robbie’s turn as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad is a strong contender for most iconic character of the teens, despite that movie’s poor reviews. But see, here’s the problem with just expecting her to be able to make that magic work again outside the Snyderverse. Robbie’s whole psychotic juggalo-inspired daddy’s little monster shtick works because she exists in a sick, sad world where Batman menaces children, Superman is dead, and the government accidentally destroys an entire city by cynically attempting to use an all-powerful ancient God to run petty errands against Iran. This is a world where a person like Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn could plausibly exist.
And what does she do in her subsequent pseudo-sequels? Well, in Birds of Prey, she gets on the bad guy’s revenge list by voting for Bernie Sanders. Then in The Suicide Squad (which Snyder’s successor, James Gunn, directed, she ditches her child-killing boyfriend to rejoin her friends in the government’s Bay of Pigs-style invasion force. Without the grim, realistic backdrop, Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is little more than self-parody.
That’s pretty much the problem with all the post-Snyderverse DC Cinematic Universe movies. They’re trying to run self-parody when their Marvel equivalent already has that angle totally locked down. But the real remarkable thing is that despite considerably worse returns than what doomed Snyder, Warner Brothers Discovery is continuing to let James Gunn run the show, betting that his new, younger, hipper Superman will succeed where these previous projects failed just by the power of the Superman brand name alone.
It’s hard to guess how reasonable this assumption is. Certainly COVID-19 got the post-Snyder DC Cinematic Universe off on the wrong foot. That doesn’t explain Black Adam’s underwhelming performance. It’s also easy to forget how without Snyder’s insistence it’s doubtful they would have made Wonder Woman and Aquaman at all. Hollywood had long assumed Wonder Woman to be unworthy of a film just for being, well, a woman, and the idea of an Aquaman movie was so absurd that Entourage parodied it decades ago. And don’t forget that the second Suicide Squad appears to be a deliberate effort to just be a good version of the first one without the Snyderverse tone. And it succeeded in that. If you listen to the critics. The box office tells a very different story–and this will probably be the one Warner Brothers Discovery should be listening to going forward.