The DCEU: A Franchise on Fire

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Tommy Bozzuto, Staff Writer

With the recent release of “Wonder Woman 1984,” the current state of the DC Extended Universe, in terms of success and quality, is difficult to determine. The DCEU is perhaps the most divisive movie franchise amongst audiences. The DCEU began in 2013 with the release of “Man of Steel,” and has gone on to spawn a total of nine films. Depicting the heroics of some of DC Comics’s most beloved characters, the DCEU has come under fire multiple times by critics and fans alike. I have been following the DCEU since its debut; these are my findings on the franchise.

My overarching belief is that the DCEU tried to run before it had learned to walk. Instead of carefully establishing n vision and purpose in the beginning, the franchise started with risky and ambitious films such as “Batman vs. Superman” and “Suicide Squad” that set the DCEU off to a rocky start. This is not to say that it has not had success taking these risks. Overall, the franchise is difficult to define as a success or a failure, so let’s examine some individual films. 

Director Zack Snyder gave audiences a modern take on Superman in “Man of Steel,” which depicts Clark Kent/Kal-El as he sets out to discover his identity on Earth while battling the steadfast Kryptonian legions led by the conqueror, General Zod. Although the film has been panned by critics for being hollow and over-the-top, I find it to be one of the best in the DCEU’s repertoire. Serving as a study of Kal-El’s purpose on Earth, “Man of Steel” boldly ditches elements of the traditional Superman in favor of a more mature character. Snyder has a clear vision for the film, as it is a departure from the conventional Superman story, which I can greatly appreciate.

With “Batman vs. Superman,” critics and fans stood divided over the film’s relative success. The movie follows Batman as he struggles to live in a world that, he believes, is under threat by Superman. At the same time, Superman struggles to maintain his faith in himself and humanity. I appreciate this film as a bold blockbuster that intimately explores the characters in great detail. However, it is plagued by a convoluted and confusing plot in which events are set up in an overcomplicated fashion. The film contains far too many plotlines and characters for the audience to invest in, and as a result, “Batman vs. Superman” is a mess of a film.

Coming right off the heels of the divisive Batman vs. Superman, critics and fans were united in their disgust for “Suicide Squad.” The film serves as an origin story for the Suicide Squad, a group of incarcerated villains who are united to fight on behalf of the government in exchange for a reduction in their sentences. The film is an utter disaster. The plot is derivative and shallow and is executed sloppily. The film doesn’t seem to know what to do with its characters, as the talented cast portrays the squad well, but these villains are given nothing resembling character arcs. The storytelling is so drab that about the first 20 minutes of the film are devoted to character introductions that are shown through flashbacks and voiceovers, sacrificing real character development for boring exposition. Granted, according to The Hollywood Reporter, the director, David Ayer, was given only six weeks to write the script, and the studio constantly interfered with production. However, this information is not enough to absolve the film of its flaws, making it the worst film in the DCEU.

After the mess of “Suicide Squad,” audiences were treated to a welcome breath of fresh air in “Wonder Woman.” The film takes place during WWI, as Diana, an Amazonian warrior, fights on behalf of truth and mankind. The film is a delightful superhero adventure with a great cast and style. While the humor is creative and the action vivid, the film is held back from its full potential by a disastrous third act. Whether it is the villain’s disappointing reveal or the uncompelling dialogue, the third act effectively sees the progress made by the characters and the film undone. Despite my overall criticisms, though, the film is a solid addition to the DCEU.

In 2017, “Justice League” continued the DCEU’s tradition of uniting audiences in their hatred. As an alien army seeks to conquer Earth, Batman and Wonder Woman unite a team of superheroes in hopes of defending the world. There is almost nothing redeemable about this film. The basic plot is a story we have seen a million times. The dialogue is stale and lifeless, the characters are boring, and the action disappoints massively, as CGI is overused and the film is digitally recolored. There is no clear vision for this film, as two very different filmmakers, Zack Snyder and Joss Wheadon, worked on this project. To me, this is the most disappointing and frustrating film in the DCEU.

After a period of grim and cynical films, “Aquman” and “Shazam” gave audiences fun and digestible journeys with great heroes to root for. On the one hand, you have “Aquaman,” a globetrotting adventure about Arthur Curry, prince of Atlantis, who must defeat his half-brother Orm to save both the land and the sea. The film is ridiculous, yet loveable. I think its strongest aspect is its self awareness in that it does not take itself too seriously and instead, embraces the inherent wacky nature of the title character, who is portrayed perfectly by the infectious Jason Momoa. Although don’t forget, at its core, it is still an action and adventure movie. Next, you have “Shazam,” a comedic family drama encompassed by the story of a boy who can turn into an adult superhero with one word. The film’s fun energy is a delightful new addition to the DCEU. “Shazam” is carried by the lead, Zachary Levy, who portrays the title character with such great childhood wit. At its core, the movie is about the importance of family, a message that appeals to all types of moviegoers. With these two additions, the DCEU is complete with barrels of laughs. 

“I remain cautiously optimistic about the DCEU, and I must confess that I am rooting for it. In that regard, I would have to proclaim the DCEU a success… for now!”

Through non-linear storytelling, “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” (yes, that is the actual, full title) depicts Harley Quinn, after breaking up with the Joker, forming a team of her own in the Birds of Prey. With a small scale, straightforward story, the film functions well with great practical action, giving audiences a break from big CGI noise. The characters are colorful, and the performances are lively. The biggest flaw with this film for me was the way it focuses on its characters. The movie feels less of a Birds of Prey movie, and more like a Harley Quinn movie, as she dominates its screen time, leaving less time to develop the other characters. The movie would have functioned better if it only served as a movie for Harley Quinn (then at least the title could have been shorter). Still, “Birds of Prey” complements the DCEU fairly well.

As the latest addition to the DCEU, “Wonder Woman 1984” takes audiences back to the 80s for a unique adventure. In the film, Diana is mysteriously reunited with her lost love, Steve Trevor, as Maxwell Lord, a failing business man, falls down a path of villainy that places the world in jeopardy. From the setting and premise, this movie is a complete departure from the first film. “WW84” frustrates me in that it fails to recognize simple logic at times. The fact that it is a superhero movie is not enough to explain away the lack of realism in the action and movie’s plot. Though it has been panned by critics and audiences for similar reasons, I actually enjoyed this movie. At its core, it is a love story between Diana and Steve that packs real emotion. The performances are great and the characters are nuanced and compelling. The movie is a nice return to the superhero movies of the 80s, as it pays homage to films such as Richard Donner’s “Superman” and “Superman II.” Though no doubt a flawed film, “WW84” is a fun, much needed escape, much like “Aquaman” and “Shazam” before it.

The DCEU is young and still trying to figure out its own identity. However, as it has progressed, it has proven that, though not perfect, its films can still delight moviegoers such as myself. The franchise has proven to be profitable, but I will leave it for you to evaluate its artistic successes. I remain cautiously optimistic about the DCEU, and I must confess that I am rooting for it. In that regard, I would have to proclaim the DCEU a success… for now!