There’s a strong argument that Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are the best superhero movies that we have. Each of Nolan’s Batman films was a real event, doing something new each time with groundbreaking action set pieces, performances, and realisations of favourite comic book antiheroes, places and machines. His films were genuinely scary and utterly thrilling.
But Nolan’s films lie outside the Warner Bros. DC’s extended universe pictures, which began life with Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, and is where it all falls apart. Was Man of Steel a terrible film? No, it wasn’t. But it was also at various times drab, dull, plodding and dry.
Then came DC and Snyder’s next instalment, Batman v Superman, and it was at various times, drab, dull, plodding and dry – its lifesize cardboard cutouts more animated than its eponymous protagonists – with the only true excitement being whenever Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman came on screen. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was a hot mess. The most recent DCEU film was Justice League – fine, but entirely forgettable. Preceding that, however, was Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, which was an enormous breath of fresh air.
Wonder Woman was fun, light, funny and thrilling. It had a charismatic lead and supporting cast, and, at its heart, a heroic story about a powerful, empowered woman fighting baddies. Where DC’s other pictures are dark (many would say gloomy) affairs about navel gazing outcasts dealing with their personal fluff, all too caught up in trying to be epic Jesus stories, Wonder Woman throws herself into an action adventure that’s full of colour, enjoyment and levity. Perhaps this will prove informative when we compare DCEU’s general dreariness to Marvel’s scorching run of hot form.
Firstly, just compare some of the numbers. DCEU has to date given us 5 movies. Walt Disney Studios’ Marvel EU has, starting with Iron Man in 2008, taken us through various Thors, Captain Americas and The Avengers – while along the way stopping in on Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man Homecoming and cultural phenomenon Black Panther – to give us a total of 19 pictures at the time of writing. 5 of those Marvel films have taken in more than a billion dollars at the box office, while Batman v Superman was DCEU’s biggest grossing film at under $900 million. Just what is it about Marvel’s mega-franchise that has made it so successful?
The first thing that is striking is just how similar in tone Wonder Woman is to the Marvel films. Those Marvel movies are filled with humour. They have traceable narrative arcs. They may have superheroes at their core, but the films remain character-based stories. They are not obsessed with achieving monumental Homeric figures, but when they do seek to express singular awesome power and scale (see Hulk in Joss Whedon’s Marvel’s The Avengers) they pull it off.
It’s possible that with DC’s upcoming run of Wonder Woman movies – including brilliant comedic presence, Kristen Wiig, set to play villain Cheetah, soon-to-be-released Aquaman, and scheduled Shazam! and Cyborg, they can get a good run going and finally start to compete with Marvel on an equal footing. Let’s face it, their box office performances may not compare with Marvel’s, but they still turnover compelling numbers. Yet the suspicion persists that DC’s is a dark universe, and one that is fated to play second fiddle to Marvel’s continued glossy charisma and cheer.