The DC Film fan community feels like it is in mourning. Several loyalists are bemoaning the loss of a movie that could have been. Others, while liking the movie, are bemoaning a movie in a franchise they liked get hated on yet again. I am here to add another think-piece as to what I think is going on, and how to right the ship.
What follows is, in many ways, my interpretation of events. I personally believe this is how things have gone down and why a change needs to be made in Warner Bros. leadership if DC Films are to succeed.
Kevin Tsujihara took over as CEO of Warner Bros. early in the life of DC Films (formerly, and popularly, known as the DCEU), only months before the release of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, still the second-most critical success for DC Films. Man of Steel had a respectable run at the box office despite what was then perceived as a mixed reception (funny what time and perspective will give you).
Just weeks later at San Diego Comic-Con, Snyder announced that Batman would feature in the Man of Steel sequel. While my recollection of the timeline is a bit foggy, somewhere in this period of time Tsujihara began talking about the DC universe. He saw the dollar signs printed all over those $2.99 comic mags and wanted a piece of the pie the distinguished competition was scarfing down. The previous year, Marvel studios made bank with The Avengers and just a month before Man of Steel they made bank again with Iron Man 3. With Nolan’s cash-cow Batman trilogy over, it was time for DC to make a splash, in Tsujihara’s eyes.
As the movie that would eventually be known as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice developed from Man of Steel 2 into, well, Dawn of Justice, the movie was delayed to begin planning for DC’s own slate of interconnected superhero movies. For Snyder, what started as a quest to make a Superman movie, turned into something much bigger. And for those who did not share Snyder’s vision for the Man of Tomorrow, the delay was a sign of bad things to come.
Rumors and bad press dogged DC Films from that day on. Every reshoot was a sign of a trouble, every sneeze on the set was seen as an infection of the soul and potentially the downfall of Western Civilization as we know it. And then when the movie clocked in at three hours long, it was embarrassingly chopped down to size in what I can only assume was a decision made by someone who does not tell stories for a living, putting those who do in an uncomfortable position of having to trim muscle after the fat was all gone.
And then the movie was released and was critically panned, with a better version of the movie sitting quietly on a hard drive, already announced for a Blu Ray release. This failure was followed up by responding only to complaints about tone, forgetting that successful storytelling should take priority, by chopping up Suicide Squad into a manic music video, which was also critically panned.
Geoff Johns and Jon Berg’s newly acquired leadership helps lead the way to what would become DC Film’s biggest success in Wonder Woman. While rumors persisted, studio interference did not play a major role in the production of Wonder Woman, and, lo and behold, Patty Jenkins delivered a fantastic product that was loved by both fans and critics.
But the wrong lessons were learned. Over and over, the wrong lessons were learned by Tsujihara and his team. Batman v Superman was critically panned, but instead of learning to trust their directors to produce the most cohesive product, they repeat their mistake ten-fold with Suicide Squad. And then, news comes out that Tsujihara mandated that Justice League needed to clock in at two hours. Once again, he learned the wrong lessons from his failures, and apparently learned nothing from his success.
Before I continue, I want to reiterate that I actually really enjoyed Justice League. But I do have a sense of loss knowing how badly its released was botched. I do not blame any of the creative forces for whatever failings there are in Justice League. The reality is that Joss Whedon and Geoff Johns had a job, and that was to make the movie Kevin Tsujihara wanted. Tsujihara signed their checks and had something very specific that he wanted.
Leaks, negative press, and studio interference has been a common theme for Warners since Tsujihara took over. Even movies not related to DC Comics have had their share of problems. Remember The Hobbit, Edge of Tomorrow, Jupiter Ascending, Mad Max Fury Road, Pan, The Nice Guys, The Legend of Tarzan, Live by Night, King Arthur, and Blade Runner 2049, just to name a few? All of these movies suffered from production drama, budgetary limitations, studio interference, botched marketing, or under-performing box office results. All of these were under the leadership of Kevin Tsujihara. His mistakes are pervasive and repetitive.
Failure is not the act of making mistakes, but the act of not learning from them. I do not believe that every single Warner Bros. failure rests on Tsujihara’s shoulders, but he is the leader and must take the blame. DC Film’s is in a unique position for a rebirth over the next two years, with only three films on their schedule, two new franchises in Aquaman and Shazam! and Patty Jenkins’ sequel to Wonder Woman. With these franchises being new introductions, history has shown that the directors will be given a longer leash, but after the financial failing that Justice League appears to be headed for, Warners brass may be overzealous to make sure these movies are done “right”, which is never a good sign.
So, the only logical conclusion for the health of both the DC Films brand and for the brand of Warner Bros. as a whole would be for Kevin Tsujihara to be removed from his position as CEO.
The studio needs to return to its identity of filmmaker friendly and leave behind the competition greediness of the last four years of blockbuster productions. Jeff Robinov, who was replaced at Warners in the 2013 that saw Sue Kroll, Greg Silverman, and Toby Emmerich become the leadership group behind Tsujihara, should have, in my opinion, been elevated to CEO at that time. His leadership as President saw one of the most successful periods in studio history, and is rumored to be looking for an exit from his current role with Sony. If I had a vote, it would belong to him.
But, until then, I’m going to see Justice League again. What can I say? I liked it.