‘Batman v Superman’: Where’s the Superhero Suit at Warner Bros.?

Director Zack Snyder is a skilled visualist, but is he really the one to bring an overarching vision together?

Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

When I finally caved for a second viewing of Zack Snyder’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” I spotted only six or seven other people in the theater. Even following a dramatic 69% second weekend drop, I couldn’t believe my eyes.

This is “Batman v Superman,” a blockbuster event meant to jump-start an entire cinematic universe, yet in its 13th day of release, the superhero pic mustered only $2.8 million, a number that couldn’t even match Marvel’s “Ant-Man” ($3 million), Snyder’s previous foray “Man of Steel” ($4 million) or even Tim Burton’s 1989 reintroduction to “Batman” on the big screen ($4.36 million). It was a heavily front-loaded release, to be sure: a $166 million opening was a rallying cry for proponents in the face of countless critical pans. But at this point, hitting the magic $1 billion figure in worldwide grosses seems to be out of reach.

If all the recent release date shuffling and rumored restructuring of the Warner Bros. status quo didn’t make it clear, those numbers certainly should: They’re close to hitting the panic button in Burbank this week.

Reports suggest an ongoing culture shift at the studio, with fewer original titles being greenlit as WB doubles down on franchise generators like DC Comics, Lego and Harry Potter. Certainly there’s a fever, what with Disney printing money from the “Star Wars” and Marvel hit parade. But the hot seat is getting hotter, as this is the year Warner chairman and CEO Kevin Tsujihara’s chickens come home to roost.

Tsujihara got the gig in January 2013 and plans were immediately set in motion to catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Snyder took the reins on a “Man of Steel” follow-up, announced at Comic-Con that year as an apparent take on the 1986 Frank Miller classic “The Dark Knight Returns.” On stage at the San Diego Convention Center, the director brought out “Man of Steel” star Harry Lennix to read a passage from the Miller story, the lights dimmed, and the familiar Batman/Superman logo hit the screen, sending 6,000 screaming fans into ecstasy.

Affleck was cast in August that year, and soon enough, he brought on Oscar-winning “Argo” scribe Chris Terrio to help turn the project into a thoughtful exploration of the comic book ethos. That was going to be crucial, given that Snyder is obsessed with iconography, a visualist more than a storyteller. Inevitably, though, the film became more of a corporate vision. It was given an utterly ridiculous title that bent over backwards to cram in three keywords — Batman, Superman and Justice (League) — and mandates were put forth to lay the groundwork. But underneath the promotional noise, a real attempt was being made to dabble in DC’s philosophical bedrock and deconstruct the tendencies of comic book cinema.

“In the way that ‘Deadpool’ took the piss out of the genre, and therefore was post-modern in the way it said, ‘Look at the conventions of this,’ this was a minor key version of that,” a source told me.

Nevertheless, we’re left with a movie in which a central character literally sits down to watch trailers for three other movies. “Batman v Superman” is bursting at the seams, desperate to make up the ground DC has lost to Marvel over the past seven years. You can almost picture the boardroom meeting: “We need our Avengers now.”

Ironically, the studio’s franchise potential was stalled by the very filmmaker who ignited interest in this new era of comic book movies over a decade ago: Christopher Nolan. Nolan was adamant for years that his Batman not exist in any shared universe with other characters from the DC canon. “It was like, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll take it from here,'” a source says. “He would just do it, and deliver.”

Indeed, Nolan’s “Dark Knight” franchise churned out roughly $2.5 billion in worldwide box office receipts. No one was complaining. But having a key character be hijacked for so long tied WB’s hands when it came to the fast-approaching new paradigm. “The Dark Knight” hit theaters in 2008, the same year as “Iron Man” (which kicked off Marvel’s trajectory). It would be three more years before Nolan would finally conclude his trilogy.

In truth, the studio had a 40-year head start on Marvel. DC has been under the Warner banner ever since being folded into Warner Communications way back in 1969 (when it was still known as National Periodical Publications). Nobody quite saw this brave new world of grossly conglomerated media coming, but with a stronger vision, Warners could have been way out ahead of the game.

And that’s what seems to be missing: overriding vision. Warner Bros. strives to be a filmmaker-friendly studio that would like to make an artist-centered model work, and at least conceptually, that’s commendable. But when you’re dealing with something as ungainly as an entire comic book universe, a certain amount of oversight — artistically invested, not corporate — feels only necessary. So the big problem, as far as I see it, remains this lack of a central node, someone akin to Marvel’s Kevin Feige who is intimately attuned to the source material, drawing the various strings together.

For a period, WB was keen on Geoff Johns for such a role. But that’s a tall order for DC’s chief creative officer, who is already stretched very thin. While he is currently writing the upcoming stand-alone Batman film with Affleck, he also wears a number of other hats. “Geoff is really smart, but he’s got like 10 different jobs,” a source says. “He’s writing comic books, controlling DC, writes on [TV’s] ‘The Flash’ — I would imagine Feige’s is a full-time job just managing this stuff. So I don’t know how you ask Geoff, in the best of both worlds, to do that.”

Snyder, therefore, has been making the bulk of the creative decisions. And he has provided the fans with a lot of the imagery they want to see, from a vibrant vision of Superman’s home world borrowed from John Byrne’s “The World of Krypton” to the iconic cover of Miller’s “Dark Knight Returns” No. 1 (blink and you miss it). The new film even manages to pack in moments from story arcs such as “The Death of Superman” and “Funeral for a Friend.” But as skilled as Snyder is at capturing a striking frame, he just isn’t the guy to pull all of this narrative complexity together.

I’m told production exec Jon Berg and Time-Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes are taking more of a hands-on approach now, paying closer attention to overarching story concerns, but someone well-versed in both production and DC’s minutiae is what’s needed. Greg Silverman, head of film production at WB, has his hands full steering the overall ship, while DC Entertainment boss Diane Nelson, who also oversees the company’s core publishing business, may have too much on her plate. Meanwhile, the competition has production company Marvel Studios — with a creative driving force at the top — yet DC, surprisingly, still doesn’t have an analog.

As for “Batman v Superman,” those involved weren’t prepared for the critical knives the film received, but they always knew it was going to be a transitional film, bridging the gap between “Man of Steel” (which was produced with no plan in place to expand the universe) and anything approaching the Avengers/Super Friends mold. But I’m told “Justice League” will be a crowd-pleaser more suited to Snyder’s talents, and that the upcoming two-part event is “extremely kinetic and visual.” It will be far more straightforward than existential in its handling of superheroes.

So maybe the bounce-back will be considerable when it finally hits screens in November of next year. Either way, with production scheduled to start next week in London, the pressure is officially on.