Editorial: Is The DC Expanded Universe Failing?

Unless you've had your head situated firmly under a rock for the last year you will no doubt be aware of the DC Expanded Universe (or DCEU for short). It is a cinematic universe based around superhero movies featuring the heroes and villains of Detective Comics. You will also be aware that it has some major problems. Critical mauling's, lower than expected box office returns and production strife have all been noticeably prevalent. But has the expanded universe failed?

That is a difficult thing to judge. In a vacuum, not taking into account critical perceptions or performances of other films in comparison, then there is no doubt that the DCEU isn't exactly where Warner Bros. would like it to be. However, Man of Steel is the highest grossing Superman solo film, making $668 million at the box office from a $225 million budget. It is also the second highest grossing reboot of all time, its opening day gross was the 20th highest of all time and the 2nd highest for a non-sequel, so to start with the DCEU wasn't much of a failure financially. And Suicide Squad grossed respectably for such a niche property, making $471 million from a $175 million budget. However, the biggest problem here is Batman vs. Superman. It did not perform poorly by any means, no-one in their right mind could say that $872.7 million gross from a $250 million budget is a bad return, but it was expected to make over $1 billion by Warner Bros. and most other people and that was a target it fell very short on, embarrassingly so for Warner Bros. Both BvS and Suicide Squad had another problem financially as well, the attendance drop off was almost catastrophic. BvS had the worst opening weekend drop off for a superhero film in history of 58%, beating the Fantastic Four reboot by 6%, and the second week drop off was around 81%, placing it in the top 100 for worst second week audience drop off in history. Suicide Squad faired little better, dropping 41% of its audience over its opening weekend and 79% by its second weekend. Those figures can't be comforting to the Warner Bros. executives, even if the films made profit.

And if we look at the films outside of that vacuum, things get worse. If you look at the critical reviews, Man Of Steel does very averagely, earning an accumulative score on Rotten Tomatoes of 55%. Meanwhile both Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad got savaged, both earning 27%, putting them in the same sort of leagues as films like 2003's Hulk and Daredevil. Fan response was more favourable, with non of the films getting below a B grade on CinemaScore's audience surveys (Man of Steel getting an A-, BvS getting a B and Suicide Squad getting a B+), so that gives some credence to the line "It's for the fans not the critics".

And what if we compare the financial and critical success to the Marvel Cinematic Universe? As much as DC and Warner Bros. do not want to have comparisons drawn between what they are doing and what Marvel are doing, it is inevitable as they are generally perceived as direct competitors and Marvel were the ones to start the cinematic universe craze with their superhero movie universe.

Well, if we look at how the first 3 films of the DCEU stack up against the first 3 films of the MCU, it actually comes out looking much better for DC. Overall, they grossed more from their first 3 films than Marvel did and their first two films out grossed the first 2 films Marvel released (Man of Steel- $668 million to Iron Man's $585 million, Batman vs Superman's $872.7 million to The Incredible Hulk's $263.4 million, with Suicide Squad grossing $471 million to Iron Man 2's $623.9 million). However, on a critical level DC don't do so well. Iron Man garnered an impressive 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes, whilst Hulk received 67% and Iron Man 2 hit 72%, meaning even the lowest reviewed of the first MCU films got a better critical reception than the best DCEU film. And you also have to consider that both Iron Man and Hulk were done on budgets less than Suicide Squad (the lowest budget DCEU film to date) and Iron Man 2 only had a budget that was $25 million more than Suicide Squad, but made $150 million more profit at the box office.

And things get worse for DC and Warner Bros. when you take into account that the first 3 Marvel films came out 5 or so years before the first DCEU film came out. If we compare the financial and critical success of the DCEU films to the Marvel films that were released the same year, the story is drastically different. Man of Steel was released in 2013, the same year as Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. Bearing in mind Man of Steel grossed $668 million from a $225 million budget and had a RT score of 55%, Thor 2 grossed $644.6 million from a $170 million budget and had a RT score of 66%. This is the film that is widely regarded as the worst MCU film yet it still made more profit for its budget and was higher rated by the critics than Man of Steel. Then if you take Iron Man 3, which made $1.215 billion from a $200 million budget and had a 79% RT rating, comprehensively beating Man of Steel. Then if we look at the direct competitors to Batman vs Superman and Suicide Squad, so far Marvel have only released Captain America: Civil War this year, but it has grossed $1.152 billion from a 250 million budget and received a 90% rating from RT, meaning that, yes when taken together the DCEU films have out-grossed Marvel so far this year, but Marvel still have another film to release this year, whilst DC do not.

But what about the future of the DCEU? Wonder Woman and Justice League are still on the horizon, there could conceivably be some salvation. Trailers for both films have been met with favourable reactions so far, but then, so were the trailers for Suicide Squad. Wonder Woman looks the more promising from the critical perspective, given that the screenplay is being written by Geoff Johns and Allan Heinberg, both of whom are respected comics writers and have experience writing for Justice League characters, and directed by Patty Jenkins, most famous for her 2003 film Monster and having directing credits from TV shows such as Arrested Development and Entourage. However, it is more likely that Justice League will be the big success, despite not having a build up in the same way as The Avengers. Warner Bros. should expect to make at least $1 billion gross at the box office from Justice League, if not challenge the $1.5 billion that The Avengers made in 2012. At this point it may be to early to say that the DCEU has failed, but if Justice League does not hit its expected target, then it would be quite safe to assume that the nails are in the coffin.

JR19759

About JR19759

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9 Responses to Editorial: Is The DC Expanded Universe Failing?

  1. I cannot say that the DCEU has failed, not in the global sense. There is obviously a market for what they are selling, but what I will say is that on the whole I neither care about, nor care for what they are producing.

    Man of Steel was a very mixed bag for me. There were some interesting cuts on the Superman mythos, but they cam with three or maybe four things that I actually hated about the movie: the handling of the death of Jonathan Kent, the handling of the defeat of Zod, the monster film destruction of Metropolis and the horrible dark and colorless cinematography which reflected the dark, grim and gritty interpretation of the film, which was seemingly copied from the Dark Knight trilogy where it was more appropriate. The last may be too general to be “a thing that i hated”.

    The best that I can say for BvS is that given everything I hated about Man of Steel, and their choice to use my least favorite version of Batman, the Miller Dark Knight, they did a credible job, and the movie had Wonder Woman, whom I loved. In fact, Wonder Woman was the only reason I went to see it, literally.

    As for Suicide quad, every teaser, trailer and article I saw about it made me want to see it less,not more. When It came out I had no intention of seeing it, but I figured I could be wrong, so I asked the collective wisdom of my Facebook feed if I was wrong, and if there was a reason I should go see it. Literally the only positive thing anyone said was that Margot Robbie is cute. But I’d just seen her in Tarzan, which I really enjoyed and she was good in it, but not merely for her looks. I gave it a pass.

    I want to see the Wonder Woman movie, a lot. I haven’t been paying attention to Justice League. I suppose I’ll see it. I don’t really care.

    One of the reasons that I don’t care about JLA is the competition, both from Marvel—I’m a big fan of the MCU movies—and the CW/CBS DC TV universe, the “Arrowverse”, if you will. They have done spectacularly well, and I love all four series. To me, it represents the really live action interpretation of the DC universe. The DCEU is just a peripheral failed attempt to transform the characters from the DC universe into movie fare. It’s like the current JJverse version of “Star Trek”. The movies are called “Star Trek”, and the characters all have the same names, but it doesn’t feel like “real” Star Trek. It feels like an attempt to transform the characters from the franchise into movie spectacular fare. Either the DCEU or ST trilogies could be considered disaster films or been Transformer or Monster films. They didn’t capture superheroes or the search for new life and new civilizations.

    The MCU, the DC TV shows, even Tarzan, they all capture what I see as the heart of their source material, stay true to it and interpret it for the big screen. That makes them something that I care about. The DCEU, excepting Wonder Woman is about characters with the names of characters from the DC universe, but without their character, without their story. Superman isn’t about atoning for his failures and the destruction that he has caused. Batman isn’t about stopping alien threats to the world. Suicide Squad wasn’t a significant part of the DC universe and was very far from one of its successes or even typical features.

    DCEU, bleh. Who cares? But boy, I can’t wait until the CW seasons begin. Woot! Supergirl and Superman integrated in! How the heck do they deal with Flashpoint? The JSA? In the Arrowverse? How does that work, and who and how many? How is Olly going to pull team arrow back together, or is he about to build the JLA to replace it? What is this year’s crossover threat? Do we see more of the multiverse than Earth’s 1, 2, S, and a hint of 3? Does Flashpoint affect the other shows? Is it related to the JSA showing up, and the time loop that Hourman introduces? Will the multiverse collapse so that Supergirl is on Earth 1? Jay? Do we finally see the other speedsters, and do we get to keep them?

  2. The Atomic Punk

    JR, you should get a job with a Hollywood studio! If not a producer, then at least an accountant. Very spot on analysis of the DCEU. Myself, I don’t go to first run movies very often. So I’m always behind when it comes to how things are going.

    Which is one thing that annoys me about “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Marvel assumes that everyone who watches the show has also seen every MCU movie. So plenty of “when did that happen” and “hey, spoiler alert!”

    I feel that the DCEU is run by bean counters with little imagination and even less respect for the fans. Which is not too late to fix, retcon, or reboot. They think we’re all Phillip J. Fry. They show us a preview and expect us to say “Shut up and take my money” with a wad of cash in hand. The MCU will at times admit to its mistakes. They don’t always atone for them. However, they are willing to tweak their formula.

    @Brons: Yes to all of it! The CW scored big time. I am so stoked for the new seasons. While the DCEU can continue to flounder and patronize the audience, DCTV is really where it’s at. I get really absorbed in the shows. You know how many times that an episode ends where I just want to slap the snot out of Barry Allen for being a selfish brat?

  3. The thing is that DC tried to do phase 2 without doing a phase 1. Marvel built up goodwill with quality movies that earned the public’s trust. Not only is a shared universe possible, but it’s awesome too! DC was so slow to get out the door that they tried playing catch up and made some serious mistakes in their haste. Man of Steel should not have been the green light for seven more movies. Everything I’ve heard about Suicide Squad is that it was incredibly rushed. When Ant Man ran into problems, Marvel delayed the movie until it was ready.

    DC could pull it together, but I think Wonder Woman is the key. If that movie doesn’t do well, DC will have to put their non-Justice League plans on hold so that they can recuperate.

  4. DC is just rushing it, and it’s affecting their quality. They need to slow down, take a breath and do it slow. Introduce some of the characters, build things up slowly.

    BvS should have been a movie where you walked out of the theater carrying your socks because they were blown off. It should have been Avengers level of awesome. Everyone that I talked to that saw it said it was ok. That’s it. The First time Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman were on the big screen together should have been bat crap awesome. Not Ok.

    I finally saw it and felt the same way. It plodded along, and they crammed in to much Justice League tid-bits. And don’t get me started on Lex. He’s the easiest villain in the world to do right.

    I’m hoping they are listening to the fans critical reactions instead of the box office receipts. Yeah, people went out to see their movies, but they were not excited about it. If they could build movies people would get excited about, they’d double their box office earnings.

  5. Nick Hentschel

    The DC Cinematic Universe is founded on the kind of marketing strategy that led to the creation of the Edsel: bringing out a not-very-good new product, not for any particular reason than somebody thought they had to. And it gets the same results, in the form of a shoddy product that people just won’t buy.

    DC decided to reboot their characters for the big screen, not because anyone wanted them to, but because they thought they “had to,” to compete with Marvel. Quite frankly, I don’t see why a “DC Cinematic Universe” was necessary, either as a commercial movie or an artistic one. DC already has a great thing going on television, and meanwhile, there’s no real need to re-interpret their material on a cinematic scale, in the minds of the public. Indeed, to many people, the definitive interpretations of DC’s characters have already been done, while in contrast, the MCCU was revitalizing and re-introducing a number of overlooked and under-imagined characters.

  6. The Atomic Punk

    @Jake: I knew it! Underpants Gnomes!

    Seems we have a general consensus going. Warner Bros. slapped together movies trying to cash in on Marvel’s success. Product is ho-hum. DC’s image gets a little tarnished.

    In hindsight, they should have released the DC Trinity in solo movies first. Of course, “Man of Steel” came first. When it really should have been “Batfleck” with a storyline that goes through his transformation from Caped Crusader to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight. Finally, Wonder Woman with her journey from Themyscira. Then have “Dawn of Justice” instead of “Bv$.” Which would have made more BOOM when Aquaman splashed on the big screen.

    Yes, everyone knows the characters and the story. Doesn’t mean that you bury the foundation and supplant it with a skyscraper made of toothpicks and plaster. Marvel did “Captain America: The First Avenger,” as Nick said, to revitalize the character. They did it with a balance of respect for the geeks who had been dying for a quality superhero movie as well as brought in the “normies” who would otherwise pass over another spandex-sporting B-movie.

    As I have said before, after the origin, we can get right into the action. Warner Bros. skipped this winning formula. Yes, I’m blaming the production company not DC Comics. Who signed the contract on this “partnership?” Faust?

  7. @The Atomic Punk: Warner owns DC Comics. Has for a long time.

    What I don’t get is how, for a movie company, they can’t get their collective heads around making a critically acclaimed superhero movie. They have some great people working at WAG (Warner Animation Group) who make amazing animated movies, how come they don’t manage to do the same to the live movies? I mean, I liked both Man of Steel and BvS, and I couldn’t care less about the critics, but there are some slip ups in there AND maybe they’re trying to follow too closely what Marvel has done. At least they’re finally moving a bit away from just Superman and Batman.

    Maybe they shouldn’t be releasing their monetary expectations, or even HAVE expectations, that way the movies can’t be called failures when they’re not. Maybe they should lean more on the people that animate and make the comics day-in and day-out. Nolan is cool, but he’s not Whedon and maybe DC/Warner shouldn’t be looking to a single head in all this. I don’t know how to fix this failure “perception”, specially since the DCEU hasn’t failed in my book, but they should certainly be looking to make good movies first and don’t be afraid to give the second stringers a time to shine.

    Treat the source material with respect and the audience as mature intelligent people. That is a lesson very well demonstrated in Deadpool and very poorly in the Fantastic Four reboot. Also they should NOT be imitating Marvel, they’ve got to carve their own path. In the end, whatever the critics say, I’m very stoked for Wonder Woman, Justice League, Aquaman, Flash, and all the rest. I just hope they don’t loose sight of the fanbase or the source material.

  8. @Worf- It’s not Nolan who they’re looking to in this (although The Dark Knight trilogy is obviously a point of reference), it’s actually Zach Snyder. You know, the guy who when he was making Watchmen said he hated conventional superheroes and didn’t want to make a superhero film. He’s the guy who basically set out the “house style” for DCEU movies, with his “suck the colour out of everything” filter.

  9. The Atomic Punk

    Worf:
    @The Atomic Punk: Warner owns DC Comics.Has for a long time.

    Yes, I know and agree with what you say. The problem with the DCEU is that Warner Bros. does not use the same people who work in the comics and DCTV. Instead, they bring in a supposed heavyweight director or screenwriter who pretty much does what he wants regardless of DC canon or fan expectations.