Warner Bros, DC, The Batman and its director problem


In a ninja-like move worthy of the Caped Crusader himself, Ben Affleck has bowed out of The Batman. Affleck will, of course, still star in the title role and serve as producer, but the standalone Batman movie will now need a new director – leaving the position empty mere months before filming was supposed to commence.

The outlet that broke the story, Variety, adds that Affleck’s decision wasn’t related to the recent performance of Live By Night, the period crime film produced, written, directed and starring Ben Affleck. Rather, Affleck says, “I cannot do both jobs to the level they require. I have decided to find a partner in a director who will collaborate with me on this massive film.”

The word is that Matt Reeves – the director of, among other things, the superb Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes – is at the top of Warner’s list to replace Affleck. Reeves might just be looking at the history of writers and directors who’ve departed the studio’s comic book movies and wondering whether The Batman isn’t something of a poisoned chalice.

You may remember Michelle MacLaren, the Game Of Thrones and Breaking Bad director who bowed out of Wonder Woman’s production in 2015. MacLaren and Warner Bros cited “creative differences”, and another director, Patty Jenkins, was duly brought in to replace her. 

The Flash, originally planned for release in 2018, has had a few dramas of its own. After some talk of Phil Lord and Chris Miller taking on the movie, the job instead went to author Seth Grahame-Smith. The writer turned filmmaker left the production in 2016, with Rick Famuyiwa announced as a replacement director a couple of months later. By October last year, however, those “creative differences” had reared their head again, and Famuyiwa was gone. The last we heard, screenwriter Joby Harold is in the process of rewriting The Flash’s screenplay from scratch, and the project’s now fallen out of Warner’s schedules altogether.

For the sake of balance, it’s important to remember that it’s not uncommon for writers and directors to drop out of film productions. Patty Jenkins was also announced as the director of Thor: The Dark World at one time, for example, before she left and Alan Taylor took her place. Then there’s the whole sorry saga behind Ant-Man, which eventually saw Edgar Wright replaced by Peyton Reed.

The difference for Marvel, however, is that its cinematic universe is now well established; the foundations were years in the making, and The Avengers was a clear sign that its formula was working. Warner-DC has enjoyed more than a little financial success in building its own movie universe, but there have been more than a few creative wobbles along the way.

 

Last year’s Batman V Superman introduced Wonder Woman and teased Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash; Suicide Squad introduced a whole host of characters, several of whom will potentially have their own spin-off movies over the next few years. Both films did well in financial terms, yet the general reaction from critics and the public wasn’t exactly ecstatic. Suicide Squad, in particular, felt muddled – a likely result of the extensive reshoots that went on shortly before its release.

From the outside, the obvious problem appears to be the speed with which Warner DC is trying to build up a cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s. As many have pointed out in the past, Marvel had several years and several separate movies to build up their universe before the main course, The Avengers, came along in 2011. After Man Of Steel established a new, more sombre Superman, Batman V Superman had an awful lot of legwork to do in order to plant the seeds for Wonder Woman, Justice League, Aquaman, Cyborg and The Flash – which at least partly explains why the film felt quite as long and ungainly as it did. Even the title, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, sounds like a compromise – the product of a long meeting between executives trying to agree on one workable vision.

As for Suicide Squad, writer-director David Ayer had his work cut out from the very beginning; he had just six weeks to deliver a finished script, which no doubt followed his own gritty sensibility – the kind of tone he established in such films as End Of Watch and Fury.

This brings us to a second problem: the wildly different studio cultures at Warner and Marvel. From the beginning, Marvel has sought to craft a coherent string of movies under the watchful eye of one person: Kevin Feige, the producer of every Marvel Studios film since 2008‘s Iron Man. Much like a TV showrunner, Feige has steered the growing Marvel universe through multiple movies and a gallery of different directors.

Marvel doesn’t hire maverick directors and auteurs with singular, bizarre creative ideas, but Feige has nevertheless pulled off something quite remarkable: he’s established a tone which is flexible enough to allow a sci-fi character like Tony Stark to stand alongside a god from Asgard, to allow for moments of levity as well as darkness, and where Earth-based thrillers (The Winter Soldier) still work when placed next to madcap space opera (Guardians Of The Galaxy).

Warner, on the other hand, has a long history of producing or distributing movies by singular directors – the most obvious being Stanley Kubrick, while others include Tim Burton, the Wachowskis, George Miller and Alfonso Cuaron. In traditional filmmaking terms, this is by no means a bad thing, since each filmmaker – at least potentially – has the time and creative space to make movies where their individuality shines through. Jupiter Ascending didn’t exactly take off at the box-office, but it was unmistakably a Wachowski film.

When it comes to creating an interlinked franchise spread out over eight or so movies, however, the question of creative uniformity comes into play. How can you create a coherent universe of gods, mortals and man-machine hybrids when each storyteller has their own individual voice? With difficulty, is the short answer. This is why several writers and directors have jumped ship. This is why Suicide Squad wound up being heavily reshot and re-edited – because it was originally made with one tone, but was reworked to fit another, apparently based on the public reaction to Batman V Superman.

In other words, the studio’s still feeling its way around a new and quite different kind of filmmaking. When Christopher Nolan worked on Batman Begins, he didn’t have a detailed road map in his mind for the other two films in the trilogy – we know this because producer Charles Roven told us as much last year.

“We didn’t even talk about what the next movie would be like,” Roven said. “We knew we’d probably have the Joker, because the movie was going to end with the Joker card. But we didn’t talk about plot or anything, you know?”

By the same token, Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel wasn’t made with concrete plans that it would feed into Batman V Superman and its adverts for future films. According to producer-partner Deborah Snyder, the director had simply made the vague suggestion that it might be quite fun to have Superman fight Batman in the next movie. We’re therefore talking about a pair of producers who had to switch from not just thinking about one movie, as they did in the past, but a whole series of them, each under the aegis of a different writer and director and each at its own stage in development.

“Now, we’re not just talking about what the movies are that we’re going to be intimately involved in and Zack’s going to be intimately involved in,” Charles Roven explained. “We’re talking about how the world is going to be connected with these individual movies like Aquaman and The Flash and Cyborg, etc.”

“It’s so many movies,” Deborah Snyder concurred. “It’s this balance you have to achieve, because you need to know where the story’s going in order to do it because you don’t want them to contradict each other.But at the same time, you don’t want all the movies to feel the same – you don’t want to dictate that much, because you want to get really great talent interested to write it, to direct it, so you want the movies to have their own unique view because all the characters are different.” 

In many respects, however, Batman V Superman appears to have represented a turning point in Warner-DC’s nascent movie universe.

On the 25th May 2016 – precisely two months after Batman V Superman’s release – news broke that Charles Roven’s role at the studio was “evolving” away from his established position of producer. While Roven is still producer on the existing movies on the DC slate, Wonder Woman and Justice League, Warner also announced two new appointments to its comic book franchise: Geoff Johns and Jon Berg. Both have form in DC movies, and Geoff Johns, in particular, is steeped in DC comics lore.

Like Kevin Feige, Johns is 44 years old and has a connection to Superman director Richard Donner. Johns got his start by working as Donner’s assistant in the late 90s. Feige worked with producer Lauren Shuler Donner (wife of Richard) on the first X-Men movie in 2000. Since then, Johns and Feige have worked on parallel lines, Johns being involved with DC comics, TV shows and movies and Feige serving as producer on all things Marvel. In other words, Johns is about as close as Warner-DC are going to get to their own Feige-type figure without actually stealing Feige’s DNA and making a clone of him.

Johns and Berg are listed as producers on Zack Snyder’s Justice League, which is currently in post-production. With Johns now the president of DC Entertainment, the subsequent movies on the DC slate – Aquaman, Shazam, Cyborg, the rebooted Green Lantern Corps – will all fall under his creative guidance. A few months after his appointment last year, Johns confidently outlined his view of where the DC Extended Universe will go next.

“In the past, I think the studio has said, ‘Oh, DC films are gritty and dark and that’s what makes them different.’ That couldn’t be more wrong,” Johns told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s a hopeful and optimistic view of life. Even Batman has a glimmer of that in him. If he didn’t think he’d make tomorrow better, he’d stop.”

Movies have always been a tug-of-war between art and commerce, but cinematic universes add a further layer or complexity: the tug-of-war between individual creativity and the requirements of a coherent film series. Now, finally, the DC movies have a single voice to guide the overarching story, whether it’s in solo outings like The Batman – which Johns is also co-writing – or team-up stories like Justice League Dark. Now we just have to wait and see how the filmmakers beneath Geoff Johns can weave their own personality into that predefined tone and framework.



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