How Fan Obsession Threatens the New DC "Cinematic Universe"


In the wake of yesterday’s big reveal of a DC “cinematic universe” – the big slate of DC/Warner Bros. superhero films planned for the next six years – I came across a pretty insightful tweet from Ben Fritz, a Wall Street Journal reporter:

Ben Fritz tweet

Fritz was referring to the franchise-obsessed corporate culture in Hollywood; the atmosphere of cranking out overstuffed, expensive movies based on comic books and young-adult novels, with only a passing interest in the storytelling. In essence, Warner Bros. cares more about getting the stock markets excited about how much money the studio might make; getting audiences excited about the movies they want to make seems to be secondary.

But as astute as Fritz’s comment was, it only highlights part of the larger problem with the DC/Warner Bros. reveal. Sure, there’s plenty of evidence of Hollywood’s rabid (and some would say risky) fixation on franchises. But because Warner Bros. saw fit to treat their superhero line-up as a product launch schedule, it means fans now have more targets than ever for their fervent examination. Just like we’ve seen with most of the big tentpole releases over the past five years, fans can begin frantically pulling apart every aspect of the news about each title, evaluating the filmmakers’ and executives’ decisions as they go.

In short, DC and Warner Bros. have effectively invited anyone with a keyboard to spend six years analyzing each film on a molecular level – to the point that we won’t be able to enjoy the films when we finally see them.

By now, many of you have probably gobbled up most of the details of the announcement itself. In an earnings call with investors, Warner Bros. revealed a big slate of superhero movies (along with some Lego Movie sequels and Harry Potter spinoffs). According to the release, there will be a Suicide Squad film in 2016, a Wonder Woman solo entry in 2017, a Flash movie in 2018, and a two-part Justice League release in 2017 and 2019. There are also plans for new solo films about Aquaman, Cyborg and Green Lantern.

On the face of it all, it’s an ambitious line-up, and if it all plays out according to Warner Bros.’ scheme, a very profitable venture. For proof, just look at the series of films that DC is trying to catch up with: the original cinematic universe developed by Marvel Studios, safely nestled under Disney’s wing, which have grossed over $7 billion dollars since 2008. So far, DC has one film (Man of Steel) to Marvel’s ten, so it’s not surprising that DC’s partner Warner Bros. would want to lay out its strategy to release nine new films before 2020.

So, what else do we know about DC’s movies? Not much, outside of some sketchy cast and crew information. Zack Snyder will direct the Justice League movies, Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck would theoretically return as Superman and Batman, and Gal Gadot would play Wonder Woman in her solo film. Aside from that, Fury director David Ayer is currently attached to direct Suicide Squad, a young actor named Ezra Miller is set to play the Flash, and Game of Thrones actor Jason Momoa is confirmed as Aquaman.

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi

Naturally, even with these scraps of information, the rumour mill will really start churning. Fans will chase every lead about supporting cast members, storylines, costumes and shooting locations. The pressure on DC to deliver Marvel-quality superhero films will increase tenfold, and every tidbit that DC or Warner Bros. confirms about their planned titles has the ability to ignite a firestorm amongst fans.

It’s precisely that level of fan scrutiny that could doom these film projects before they’re even released. We see it all the time in other film genres – as fans tease out bits of info about a project, they jump to conclusions about the film, and then go into the movie screening with a set of expectations that the production could never meet. This behavior also leads them to nit-pick the movie once they see it, which might make fans feel clever, but ultimately distorts the film’s accomplishments.

Our hyper-awareness of movie production has gotten bad enough that filmmakers need to create policies to defend against it. Consider a director like J.J. Abrams, who gets his cast and crew to sign non-disclosure agreements and to wear cloaks when they move around on set, to conceal details about the film. He might claim it’s to avoid spoiling the film’s story ahead of release, but it also helps guard against people deciding whether they like the film before they see it.

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Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in the upcoming film 'Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice'

Take a look at some of the titles from the new DC slate. One that jumps out at me is Wonder Woman, which pundits are already touting as a win for DC, purely because it has a female lead, something Marvel hasn’t done yet.

Suddenly, we’ve injected gender politics into the discussion of a movie that we know precious little about, other than its star and its release date. From now on, every move that DC and Warner make with the film will be placed under the microscope. There will be much consternation over how empowering/liberating/equalizing the film will be.  I wouldn't be surprised if the Wonder Woman project stops feeling like a film and becomes something else entirely: a money-making, fan-enraging, blog-post-spawning monolith. Is it so hard to just watch a movie about a super-powered Amazonian with an invisible jet?

How about DC’s other victory, the fact that they’re going to feature persons of colour as superheroes, like Momoa as Aquaman or Ray Fisher (an African-American actor) as Cyborg? Immediately, everyone involved in the movie will have to live up to the task of producing a film that “correctly” handles race, alongside the usual challenges of making a movie with a nine-figure budget.

The important distinction to make here is that this kind of scrutiny usually doesn’t take place outside of the superhero, sci-fi or fantasy genres. We can have films with strong female leads (like Brie Larson in Short Term 12) or movies with compelling arguments about race (like Fruitvale Station) without dissecting everything that goes into them ahead of time. What do we really achieve by jumping on press releases like yesterday’s DC/Warner announcement, and proceeding to construct the films in our heads?

Movies like 'Short Term 12' aren't subject to the same scrutiny.

Granted, from a big-picture, warm-and-fuzzy point of view, it’s commendable that we can have such passionate discussions about an artistic medium. How much passion is too much, though? When we’re having arguments over how muscular Gal Gadot is as Wonder Woman, or screaming about plot holes and leaps of logic in movies based on comic books (not the gold standard for believability), it feels more like we’ve transitioned into some sort of bitterly divided political debate, where the real issues (the themes and characters of the film, in this case) aren’t even discussed.

It’s worth pointing out that I don’t work for either the corporate strategy or marketing teams at DC Entertainment or Warner Bros., and I don’t envy the challenge of handling all the production information for their new movies. But I can appeal to the more basic instincts of fans: is knowing and judging the minutiae of these projects that useful? What can you really deduce about the films from a call sheet or a spy photo? Leave the filmmaking to the experts, and focus on your real job: filling those movie theatres.


What did you think of the DC/Warner Bros. news? Did you lap it up like all the other fans, or are you trying to hold off until the movies hit theatres? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this article, share it with your friends and followers!