Money Matters

The True History Of Zack Snyder’s Impact On The DCEU’s Success

(Source: www.forbes.com)

In the aftermath of Warner Bros.’ superhero team-up film Justice League performing far below expectations and headed toward what increasingly appears to be a final global box office tally of $650 million or possibly less, there’s a great deal of media guesswork at what went wrong and who is to blame. The desire to place the entire burden of guilt upon one single person’s shoulders is leading to lots of finger-pointing and claims of behind-the-scenes intrigues, some of it true, some half-truth, and some purely speculation or outright historical revisionism largely revealing the biases and ulterior motives of this or that particular source or clique at WB or in Hollywood at large.

Source: Warner Bros.

The primary targets for most of the intense blame and bashing, some of it outright insults and personal attacks, have been Zack Snyder and Deborah Snyder. The “it’s all Snyder’s fault” crowd tend to frame the claim like this: the Snyders came aboard the DCEU with Man of Steel, were put in charge of developing the plans and tone of the entire DCEU, had too much creative freedom and answered to only one or two people at the entire studio, and create a cynical and dark incarnation of the DC Comics world that ruined the DCEU and sank its box office prospects. The problem with that view is it’s full of inaccuracies.

The truth about the DCEU is far more complicated than one person who came walking in without supervision and just knocked over all the tables. However much such simplistic narratives and quick blame-game results make people feel better and safer, it ignores many details and facts about the larger array of people and ideas and actions that played significant roles in what transpired.

Many people share various degrees of responsibility for what did happen, what didn’t happen (but could have or should have), and what will happen next. The fact these folks had degrees of responsibility isn’t a condemnation of them or their choices, it’s just a realistic assessment of how things transpired and the end results, and we can take that information and form a more complete and honest picture of why each element combined with others and compounded a series of events causing stumbles for the DCEU.

So let’s start at the beginning, and look at Zack Snyder’s role in the creation of the DCEU, and the various events that influenced how it all turned out.

Source: Warner Bros

Snyder was a director-for-hire, so to speak, on Man of Steel. He came aboard after a few other filmmakers were approached, and after the project had been scripted by David Goyer (from a story developed by Goyer and Christopher Nolan) and was being “godfathered” by Nolan. Snyder was the director, but that project was heavily controlled by the creative team behind the Dark Knight trilogy, so Warner and the producers were not going to allow much creative argument and tinkering. Snyder’s major change was convincing Nolan to agree to let Superman snap Zod’s neck, a significant moment but one that required discussion and debate and approval.

It is, of course, entirely reasonable for Warner to have felt Nolan’s success with Batman meant his role in developing and overseeing Superman’s reboot should be more significant than normal for a producer and story writer. Likewise, Goyer’s own role in the Batman trilogy and other projects meant that his collaboration with Nolan on the Superman project made it important for the studio to maintain as much of the vision and demands of the duo as possible. To that end, then, it was not unreasonable for Warner to approach Man of Steel as a project in need of a director to steer a ship according to a strict completed map drawn by Nolan-Goyer.

There’s no doubt Man of Steel has a strong Snyder stamp on it, but there’s also no doubt he was adhering to a mandate to make the picture Nolan-Goyer wanted made. The results speak for themselves. Whatever flaws the film has don’t overshadow the fact it’s got many moments of greatness. It scored majority-positive reviews from critics and an A- grade from audiences, making it the second-best reviewed movie in the entire DCEU, and audience’s second-favorite DCEU release.

While the studio had higher expectations for the box office results, it still scored a great $668 million — at the time, the ninth-highest grossing solo superhero movie in history, behind Iron Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 3, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, and The Amazing Spider-Man. Being behind only Batman, Spider-Man, and the newly minted Iron Man isn’t a bad start for Superman, considering his first series of movies ended horribly and he didn’t return to the big screen until almost 20 years later in an attempted revival of the prior derailed series.

Source: Warner Bros

So while Man of Steel arguably could’ve performed better with a different release date , a stronger “from the team who brought you The Dark Knight Trilogy” marketing, some additional rewrites to tighten up the narrative and make Superman’s personality a little more upbeat, and a final edit to shorten the mayhem of the nearly 45 minute back-to-back battles during the extended climax, all in all Man of Steel was a decent start for the DCEU.

Now, think back to the production and post-production phases of Man of Steel. Remember all of the early talk about the film launching a standalone solo Superman series? And later, when it was revealed the movie had Easter Eggs for other DC superheroes, the official word was that those elements merely noted other heroes might or do exist somewhere, but Superman needed to have more development on his own first to firmly establish his franchise before attempting larger world-building for a DCEU? Then remember how the studio sense that the film underperformed led to a desire to accelerate plans for a wider DCEU to get some of that sweet, sweet Avengers-level money? As it became clear the plans for a standalone Superman were out the window, and that Warner wanted a team-up sooner rather than later, it led to a crucial set of conversations and a moment that changed everything, as Zack Snyder explained to me back in April of 2014 when I first interviewed him for Forbes…

[When] we started talking about what would be in the next movie, I started subtly mentioning that it would be cool if he faced Batman. In the first meeting, it was like, “Maybe Batman?” Maybe at the end of the second movie, some Kryptonite gets delivered to Bruce Wayne’s house or something. Like in a cryptic way, that’s the first time we see him. But then, once you say it out loud, right? You’re in a story meeting talking about, like, who should [Superman] fight if he fought this giant alien threat Zod who was basically his equal physically, from his planet, fighting on our turf…  You know, who to fight next? The problem is, once you say it out loud, then it’s kind of hard to go back, right? Once you say, “What about Batman?” then you realize, “Okay, that’s a cool idea. What else?” I mean, what do you say after that?

Batman’s name never came back off the table, and the truth is it fit perfectly into the studio’s desire to hurry up and get Batman rebooted as an axis around which their DC plans could revolve. The studio seemed to lose faith in Superman’s ability to deliver the box office goods alone, and there was a sense among some executives that audiences frankly weren’t interested enough in Superman to make him a good enough solo brand to invest heavily in just yet. Batman, then, was going to be the ace up their sleeve to jumpstart the DCEU and hurry quickly toward a larger Justice League team-up event the studio hoped would rake in $1+ billion box office and drive merchandising revenue streams to glorious levels.

Snyder at that point was indeed sitting down planning out a course of action for the DCEU, including making a heavy push for getting Wonder Woman on screen quickly and into her own solo project. Snyder worked with other producers and writers on certain concepts and ideas for Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and several other characters to fit into a DCEU that would be an outgrowth of the next film — the film set to reboot Batman and bring him into direct conflict with Superman. But it’s important to note, Snyder was a partner with Warner Bros. as both a filmmaker and investor, via his and Deborah Snyder’s Cruel and Unusual company. It was a collaborative effort driven by Snyder’s vision but also by Warner plans and mandates. Any notion that Snyder was just handed the keys and told to take it wherever he wanted, and that he developed it all himself instead of working with others to come up with certain ideas that other filmmakers would then take and develop with their own creative vision, is simply untrue.

Source: Warner Bros

Batman v Superman was intended to be much more of Snyder’s baby, and indeed he had a lot of control as director and one of the producers. However, it is also undeniable that the original intent with Man of Steel was to launch a Superman franchise, and Snyder and others said repeatedly that their desire to eventually build a larger DC world would come after Superman was a bit more developed and up-and-running. However, the studio desire to move beyond a solo Superman and to push aside a standalone sequel in favor of something to ramp up their larger DCEU plans is the context in which Batman’s name came up and was inserted into the picture as a major character instead of the initial sort of cameo or smaller supporting role Snyder originally suggested.

It’s very important to understand how much the larger studio desire for a team-up and to aggressively develop a slate of shared-world films drove the development of a project that put Batman front-and-center and set up a fast track toward Justice League. Ignoring that context and studio demands would be disingenuous and lead to a completely flawed understanding of the full background of the DCEU.

Enter Ben Affleck as Batman, and Warner’s intention to maintain a larger and longterm relationship with him as a filmmaker. Affleck was announced as the new Batman in August 2013, just ten weeks after Man of Steel opened in theaters, meaning negotiations and planning were taking place before Man of Steel even hit theaters. At the time, David Goyer was writing the script for the follow-up Batman-Superman movie, and the announcement of the project (at San Diego Comic Con in July 2013) quoted from the famous graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder explained beforehand that while he wasn’t directly adapting the work in question, it would inform a story element in the project. Thus within one month of Man of Steel’s release, the studio already planned and announced a team-up that would have Batman battling Superman, and within two months Ben Affleck was already done negotiating and formally signed to play Batman.

Affleck had some level of script approval. After a choice was made to jettison Goyer’s script, Affleck wanted Chris Terrio brought aboard to rewrite the project, so that’s exactly what happened. Terrio is a fabulous Oscar-winning screenwriter, and I will argue until my dying day that his screenplay for Batman v Superman is a wonderful, nuanced piece of work. It was so good, Affleck — himself an Academy Award winning screenwriter — signed off on it, and most people fairly hailed it as excellent news for the project.

That said, the objective reality is that another director joining the cast and having say-so about the screenplay, and helping bring his preferred writer onto the project, just naturally means it’s hard to ignore how much that meant Snyder himself wasn’t 100% the only person shaping the project and making all of the decisions. This is not remotely an attempt to claim Snyder’s vision isn’t realized in Batman v Superman, nor is it remotely an attempt to “blame” Affleck for changing any plans for the film. I love Batman v Superman, I think it’s exceptional and is unfortunately very misunderstood, and I argue the combined vision and talents of Snyder, Terrio, and everyone else are what elevated the picture and resulted in a deep, complex, thoughtful film speaking to some of the strongest foundational themes related to DC characters and stories.

Source: Warner Bros

The reason I mention Affleck’s position and the change of the script, then, is that it simply undermines the myopic argument that Snyder is a lone figure responsible for everything that transpired with the DCEU and that he alone bears all responsibility for every decisions that shaped it. Snyder was a director with a vision and a plan, but that vision and plan were heavily influenced and altered by many other powerful decision-makers from the start, his own voice limited in the first film and then part of a very collaborative effort in the second. The studio demands for fast-tracking a larger DCEU, the desire to make Batman a more prominent part of those plans in the aftermath of perceptions Man of Steel underperformed, bringing aboard Affleck and changing the screenplay, and — as we’ll discuss momentarily — subsequent studio demands for changes to the picture all help debunk the narrow “Snyder did everything and should be thrown under the bus” narrative.

When it came time to release Batman v Superman, studio executives made a series of demands to heavily edit the film, cutting out more and more of Superman’s story, as well as deleting much of the background and subplots explaining the reasons Batman and Superman fought one another. This affected the pacing and continuity of some elements of the story, too. While I obviously like the theatrical cut a lot, the Ultimate Cut revealed how much Snyder’s fuller vision was yet again limited and reshaped by other people. While I can understand all of the reasons a studio would prefer to cut a 3 hour film down to 2 hours 30 minutes instead, doing so at the expense of the story and quality is never a good idea — but regardless of how you feel about that issue, the undeniable truth is that this is another example of a film that from start to finish includes clear fingerprints and strong influences from other people with decision-making power besides Snyder.

And then came Justice League, except everything changed. What was meant to finally be the fully realized vision by Snyder (within the boundaries of studio demands to accelerate the whole DCEU plan, remember, and to put Batman squarely at the center of the development of the DCEU while aggressively sidelining much of Superman’s character) immediately began changing as the studio reacted to bad reviews and big weekly declines for Batman v Superman at the box office. Snyder’s plan was generally for a two-part story of Earth’s invasion and conquest by evil forces, followed by the rise of a team of heroes to overthrow those villains and take the battle to them in an epic confrontation bringing a large cast of characters together like a multi-part graphic novel given flesh and blood.

That plan was scrapped, rewritten into a single standalone story with potential for a sequel but jettisoning larger overarching plans that made for a bigger two-part event. The changes were fast and furious, with Warner deciding not to delay production (too much time and money had already been spent, the thinking went, to hit the brakes) and to instead focus on rewriting the plan as fast as possible. Production began and still more rewrites took place during early production, in part motivated by a desire to get Affleck’s solo Batman project moving faster and work some of the setup into  Justice League, while also reshaping Batman’s characterization to better fit Affleck’s plans.

Source: Warner Bros

Again, whatever judgment you make about those changes and rewrites to the original plan for Justice League, the point I’m making is simply that Snyder’s own creative plan and vision were not fully realized as the project and plans developed, with much of the choice being taken from him by the studio. The film was definitely his vision within the context of boundaries and repeated changes mandated by the studio and other powerful players involved in the production, but to a large extent Snyder’s position and power were reverting back to more of a sort of “work for hire” situation akin to Man of Steel, except in a more hurried and reactionary manner due to fear and panic at the studio combined with other considerations for separate film projects. And after Snyder completed principal photography, we all know the film needed more work and eventually Joss Whedon took over as director.

So regardless of whatever feelings and opinions anyone on either side of these debates has about how right or wrong the changes were on the front end or back end, and regardless of how anyone feels about the final product, this wasn’t the film Snyder originally envisioned or planned, and it should be very obvious how true that statement is and why trying to debate or deny it is pointless. I like Justice League, I think a lot of the work done by other people on it is good, and I understand many of the reasons that led to many of the changes, despite how much I personally liked Batman v Superman. But I can’t pretend the entire project and final result are entirely the creation and responsibility of Zack Snyder alone, and nor should anyone else.

Which brings us to a very central point in the whole discussion — if we can all agree (as we seem to) Man of Steel was a work-for-hire already envisioned and written and largely controlled by Nolan and Goyer, and if we can all agree (again, as we seem to) Justice League was clearly and undeniably fundamentally changed from Snyder’s original plans and within dictates from the studio and ultimately finished by a different filmmaker, then that leaves Batman v Superman as the primary “evidence” for the claim Snyder alone is the primary “cause” of the problems in the DCEU and almost solely deserving of complaints and criticisms and blame. Except, as already shown, Batman v Superman was actually altered and controlled and by other people as well, including some significant choices and demands that affected the whole picture and resulting reactions.

I am not suggesting Snyder didn’t have major, primary influence over the way Batman v Superman came out, nor that his work on Man of Steel and Justice League aren’t significantly part of the final products and vision since he was steering those productions and was the central artistic voice. So those who disliked them and criticize them are certainly free and correct (from their subjective perspective) to criticize Snyder’s work in those films if they disliked them. I wouldn’t for a second suggest the director of three projects isn’t a valid target for whatever complaints one might have. But to suggest he “ruined” the DCEU, that he is the one upon whom to heap all of the blame and hatred, and that he can be thrown under the bus as a sacrificial lamb, is wrong and relies on a highly misleading and amnesiac version of what transpired.

Source: Warner Bros

It’s all about matters of degree, and avoiding hyperbolic and unfair, self-serving or otherwise disingenuous claims about what happened and why it happened that way. Meaning it’s wrong and false to claim Snyder is solely responsible, that he had full control and answered to almost nobody, that he “ruined” the DCEU, that all of his work and plans in the DCEU were bad and caused these problems, and that he should be thrown under the bus as a sacrifice while everyone else involved in is rescued from responsibility.

But it’s also wrong for fans to pretend that anyone who didn’t like the films, or anyone who feels changes are necessary in light of critical panning and mainstream audience mixed reception of those films (i.e. that change is now necessary from a realistic business standpoint), is unfairly criticizing Snyder or shouldn’t blame a director at all. Again, I’m a big fan of Snyder’s work and defend his films aggressively, and I’m making a pretty clear case that he’s being falsely singled out for blame and banishment regarding the DCEU. But objectively speaking, other people blaming a director for films they don’t like is not an unfair position at face value. Making it personal and rude, using him as a punching bag and pretending that the DCEU box office/critical outcomes are somehow solely his fault, or that he had more control over certain projects than he really did, are what’s out of bounds. We can say so without going so far as to dismiss out of hand any and all criticisms of the films, even if we personally disagree with some or all of those criticisms.

Source: Warner Bros

If some day years from now (as I hope will happen) the press looks back at Batman v Superman with a kinder eye and realizes it’s an ambitious work deserving a better reputation, I’ve little doubt many/most folks who disliked it upon release will (in this scenario) forget their old positions and join the “it’s an underrated gem” narrative. Plenty of films we now recognize as good or great were once panned and ignored, so I feel there’s at least a chance the same could happen for Batman v Superman (especially the Ultimate Edition). If not, that’s fine too, it won’t change my positive feelings about the film, nor diminish my regret that we never got to see Snyder’s fully realized vision for the larger DCEU. It could’ve been a remarkable, epic thing of beauty. But it also could’ve — perhaps would’ve — met with widespread critical rejection, mainstream audience lukewarm reactions, and financial underperformance that hurt the DC brand too much going forward. We’ll never know.

What we do know is Snyder for many years enjoyed mostly positive reception from critics, created one of the true masterpieces of superhero cinema with Watchmen, had a lot of artistic ideas and creative vision that was realized in his DCEU films; but also was forced to alter or completely lose a great deal of his own control and vision for DCEU projects and operated constantly within certain strict studio demands while other people came and went who exerted various degrees of control over the projects, too.

Source: Warner Bros.

So whatever anyone thinks about Snyder, his movies, or the DCEU in general, the claim that he was primarily or solely responsible for the DCEU movies and the repeated stumbles and problems they faced with critics, audiences, and at the box office is just not a credible claim. Even those who dislike Snyder’s work and wanted him gone from the DCEU need to at least be capable of admitting there were several other people with major influence and control of the various projects, and whose input and control in many cases resulted in some of the primary complaints and problems for certain individual films.

A more fair hypothetical claim might be (from the perspective of those who focus blame on Snyder, not my own perspective, mind you) “Batman v Superman is the film that had the biggest impact on the overall DCEU and how other films performed, and that’s the film over which Snyder had the most control.” I’d point out, however, that the film developed from the start within the context of studio desire to hurry forward with a larger DCEU and to get Batman back on the screen soon. I’d also note the many changes made to that film based on studio demands for edits, studio demands for enhancing Batman’s role in the story, the script changes, and other factors clearly setting up a path and a road map Snyder was forced to follow.

I’d also point out some of Snyder’s own decisions and actions — including casting Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, helping write the Wonder Woman solo story, helping design Wonder Woman’s costume, participating in the decision to hire Patty Jenkins to direct the solo Wonder Woman film, and pushing for the studio to expedite a solo Wonder Woman picture — wound up influencing some of the more positive outcomes we could point to for the DCEU. So when talking about Snyder’s role and responsibilities in shaping the DCEU, if folks want to focus on the things he did that they feel went wrong, it has to be fair to at least point out these other things that Snyder’s critics consistently fail to mention.

In the end, my hope is that a more fair examination of the various demands on each DCEU picture and the role of other persons with significant varying control and influence over the productions will help ease some of the extreme claims and reports about the DCEU. No matter what your personal opinion is of him or his work, or your personal preferences for DC movies or superhero films in general, that shouldn’t blind you to the truth about who was responsible at each stage of the DCEU, and how everyone reacted to each film’s release. Nor should those who love Snyder’s work — myself included — allow our preferences and our frustration over other people’s behavior and reactions blind us to the simple truth that in the end, the DCEU films have suffered several problems and have not ultimately delivered the sort of financial returns and opportunities the brands deserve or investors expect.

This is a business, and the success of the DC properties requires making clear and evidence-based decisions that will best serve the brands and the need for these films to be as successful as possible. It’s not just about box office, it’s about reputations of the brands and of the people behind the projects, as well as the huge merchandising revenue streams associated with the brands.

Figuring out what went wrong and making necessary changes to ensure it doesn’t happen again, is imperative for Warner and DC Films. In that process, it’s important that a desire for a single “fall guy” doesn’t overshadow clear inspection of all of the problems and a need for change wherever major mistakes and bad decisions took place. I fear that if the “it’s all Snyder’s fault, he had total control” false narrative is perpetuated, it will endanger any future plans. Hundreds of millions of dollars of investor money, some of the biggest IP in history, and the reputation of the studio are on the line here, so getting the record straight matters.

I’ve got a separate article coming this week to address what I feel would help the DCEU set a new course for the future, so stay tuned for that one. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts by sounding off in the comments below!

Box office figures and tallies based on data via Box Office Mojo , Rentrak, and TheNumbers.

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More Info: www.forbes.com

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