Why do DC keep on getting it so wrong with their movies? Having burned their two main tentpoles earlier this year with the unloved Batman V Superman, the comic-book behemoth was banking on the current Suicide Squad to restore its grand franchise fortunes. But now Suicide Squad has been roundly panned by the critics, leaving the grand plan for a decade-long cycle of crossover superhero movies (known as the DC Extended Universe, or DCEU) in tatters. DC’s arch-rivals Marvel continue to pull off the trick of making each new superhero movie feel like a breath of fresh air. Each new DC movie, by contrast, feels like a suffocating cloud of gloom. And each failure heaps even more expectation upon the next DC movie.
If you had to diagnose DC’s problems in two words, they would be “Zack Snyder”. Snyder is the film-maker Warner Bros entrusted with shaping the DCEU, and you have to wonder why. He rose to prominence a decade ago with Ancient Greek battle epic 300, best remembered for Gerard Butler yelling: “THIS! IS! SPARTA!” It was taken as a guiltily enjoyable exercise in camp excess, but in retrospect, Snyder wasn’t being ironic. Snyder doesn’t do irony, or humour, or subtlety. Another warning sign should have been 2011’s Sucker Punch, Snyder’s first original screenplay: a tale of female empowerment that felt closer to a glossy rape fantasy. Think nubile women in schoolgirl-stripper outfits with samurai swords leaping out of CGI fireballs in super-slow-mo. THIS! IS! SNYDER!
So putting him in charge of the DC “sandbox”, as Warners call it, was only ever going to end in tears and a lot of trashed sandcastles. His Superman reboot Man Of Steel buried the human element in a wearying, badly lit orgy of urban destruction (with no discernible human casualties). Batman V Superman continued to plough that gloomy, irony-free Snyderian furrow, even as it clumsily cued up the forthcoming Justice League team (remember that bit where Batman sits down and literally watches trailers for the next three DC movies?).
Snyder only executive produced Suicide Squad but it retains his trademarks of casual sexism, operatic violence, music-video montages and general teenage-boy fantasy. Reshoots were required to give the movie a life-saving humour transplant, but the negative reviews do not augur well for what’s to come. Nor does the fact that Snyder has producer roles on Wonder Woman, The Flash and Aquaman, and is directing Justice League, the two-part Avengers-style superhero movie that will supposedly pull it all together. After Snyder’s rampage in the sandbox, it will be less a matter of pulling it together than reconstructing it grain by grain.
People are starting to realise that Snyder is DC’s kryptonite. An online petition to boot him off Justice League gathered 17,000 signatures. And in May this year Warners put DC exec Geoff Johns in charge of the overall DCEU, in effect easing Snyder out of the sandbox. Going quietly does not seem to be in his nature. In fact, Snyder himself could be the perfect template for a DC supervillain: an all-powerful dictator defiling and devouring our cherished superheroes, leaving flattened cities, empty calories and crestfallen fans in his wake. Who will unite against this threat?