This past weekend, Birds of Prey was supposed to be the new, big thing from the DC Universe. This outing focused on the popular character Harley Quinn, played by A-list actress Margot Robbie, supported by several other lesser-known characters against some well-known villains. The film has decent critical reception with a Rotten Tomatoes score around 80. And it looks like it's bombing at the box office. Why does this keep happening to DC films, and how have they not been able to replicate the success of the wildly popular Marvel Universe franchise?
It all boils down to the fact that WB doesn't get the source material. Let's take a look at Marvel movies and DC movies. When Marvel Studios started, it was a branch of Marvel Inc. Basically a branch of the comic book company. It was run by the same people who wrote the comics every month, and as such those folks understood the comics and there characters. Those people knew what made their characters cool and unique. So, those dudes made two brilliant choices. One, they hired Kevin Feige as the producer for the fledgling MCU. I don't know what they saw in him, but they knew he could be the architect of a movie Universe to rival their comics. The other was they needed the perfect match for creative force and property. Marvel sold the movie rights for X-Men, Spider-Man, Fantastic 4 and Hulk to get out of bankruptcy, all of there biggest characters, not accessible.
They couldn't just crap out an X-men movie and cash a massive paycheck. Whatever they made had to be GOOD. They had to make C list characters A list. They knew the character of Iron Man well, and they knew Jon Favreau was the guy to direct the movie, because Tony Stark could have easily been a character in Swingers. By the time a massive corporation like Disney came along, they saw that Kevin Feige had the film-making process on lock and just let him do his thing. But once again he was appointed by people who understood the genre.
DC started in the opposite position. They were a publishing company owned by a movie studio.
All the decisions are made by people who don't understand the source material or the genre. They understand market research, they understand box office takes, but they don't understand the source material. They are a reactive force. They don't have to be creative, they own the rights to their most popular characters. They CAN crap out a Batman movie and cash a massive paycheck. And in the beginning they had WAY more market awareness than the characters Marvel had left to work with. In 2008, if you asked your mom to name a superhero, she'd name a DC character if she didn't say Spider-man. If she was cool, MAYBE she'd say Wolverine.
Now, DC is still riding high on the success of the Dark Knight Trilogy. They see Marvel's gaining traction with their cinematic Universe, and their like "Hey, waiddaminnnit! We own superheroes, too!" They ask Christopher Nolan to helm their Cinematic Universe. He wisely declined. Their second choice... Zack Snyder. Now... where do I start with Zack Snyder?
He is a key example of the people making the decisions understanding ledgers and market research, but not understanding the source material. Watchmen had been considered unadaptable and he turned it into a modest hit for them. Additionally 300 made ALL the money. So, the execs at WB see this and said: "Oh sweet! This guy knows comics!" One problem, Alan Moore and Frank Miller, respectively the authors of those two works, are nihilists, and so is Zack Snyder. He is a perfect fit for those two VERY specific series.
Where this becomes problematic is that the DCU proper is and always has been about hope. Their heroes are meant to inspire. Marvel heroes are everyday people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. They have everyday problems. The first Captain Marvel died of cancer, for cripes sake! DC heroes are exemplars who we should all strive to be like. Superman, who by all rights should have grown up to be a world conqueror, is raised by a family who loves him and instills noble values in him. He grows up using his powers to protect all of the people of the world. Wonder Woman leaves her isolated paradise home and steps into a world filled with prejudice and instead of subjugating the populace of the Earth and forcing the values of the Amazons on them, she chooses to inspire people with heroic deeds. Even Batman, when really examined should be inspiring. The popular shallow view of him is "Aw yeah, they killed his parents so he got all jacked and started kicking ass for revenge!" But it's deeper than that. Every night, he goes out and fights a war he cannot win, all in the hopes of there coming a day when no child will have to go through what he did.
Zack Snyder is not about hope. Zack Snyder believes that all comics should be like a story written by Alan Moore or Frank Miller. So all of his comic movies are like that. It starts with Man of Steel. It's very clear that Warner Brothers wanted this to be Superman through filter of The Dark Knight Trilogy. Two problems. One, The Dark Knight Trilogy is VERY bleak and tonally wrong for Superman. Two, Zack Snyder is not one tenth the director Christopher Nolan is.
Instead of a Superman that inspires, we got sad Superman. Superman should never brood. And that's what we got. Mopey, brooding Superman. But, once again Snyder pulls in a modest hit. So onward with the DCEU (what they called their Cinematic Universe.) Around this time Avengers came out and DC was really feeling the heat. They saw that Marvel strung together a team of B,C & D list characters and walked away with a billion + dollars, thought that they could easily do that with their team that was made of 100% A listers. But instead of doing what worked for Marvel and building a story over several individual movies, they decided they'd start with a team up movie and then spin off to a bunch of individual movies. This strategy fails spectacularly.
The first step is Batman v. Superman. The center of this movie (spoiler: Batman fights Superman) occurs with next to no context. The reason why Batman fighting Superman was so cool in The Dark Knight Returns is that these were two men who had been friends for years, but whose ideologies were so different they were forced to come to blows. In BVS, Batman is an unhinged nutbag that chases after Superman like the super villain of the week. Plus it crams together like four different stories from the comics that have no place being there. It was a convoluted mess, but it was a convoluted mess that made money.
Then came Suicide Squad. Not a great movie, but not exactly a keystone of the franchise, so no harm, no foul. And then there was Justice League. Toward the end of production Zack Snyder had a death in the family and had to abandon ship. It was completed by Joss Whedon who did some reshoots and I'm guessing did his best to fix the dumpster fire that had been dumped in his lap. He failed. Since then the DCEU has been flopping around trying to figure out a creative direction. Some good, some mediocre, most bad.
And here we are with another flop in Birds of Prey--or Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey after the sudden name change came, seemingly due to the film's poor performance.The Joker, Harley's companion, has had the most success for DC recently with a film that seems to be detached from the DCU in a Scorsese-style 1980s setting. The fact that their most successful recent film has nothing to do with their shared universe doesn't bode well for the DCU's future.