Why Does the DCEU Have Such a Toxic Fanbase?
Every now and then, I google myself. I like to keep tabs on my work, to see where it’s being linked from, and to make sure things are safe from a security point-of-view. It’s not always the easiest thing to do, of course, especially if you’re a woman in my line of work and have feminist views. I’ve seen people using my name and Twitter profile picture to lambaste me as a man-hating reverse racist, I’ve been called all manner of horrible slurs (most of which are about my appearance), and, like basically every female pop culture writer I know, I’ve been labelled an SJW as if that’s a bad thing. I get a lot of Twitter abuse too, although nowhere near as much as some of my friends.
Over the weekend, I received a DM from a stranger who wanted to let me know I was a nasty bully waste of space because I disliked the DCEU and the works of Zack Snyder. The troll in question was otherwise oddly polite, introducing himself by name and insisting his words were not offensive before he launched into his screed. This is nothing new for me, sadly, and certainly not from ardent fans of Snyder and the DCEU. Indeed, for a decent period of time, if you googled my name, one of the first image results was a screenshot of a sarcastic tweet I’d made about Snyder. It was being used as proof of my nefarious scheming against DC and further evidence of an industry-wide agenda to critically maul DC films and keep Marvel at the top. In a business where conspiracies breed with unnerving speed, this particular one may be the most baffling on a personal level.
Yet it’s indicative of a mindset many of us have faced from large corners of the DC fandom, especially those who are avid fans of director Zack Snyder. Almost every critic or pop culture writer I know has had at least one bad incident from certain DCEU fans, usually on social media although many have received nasty e-mails, website comments and DMs. They’re hardly the only fandom on the internet right now with issues of toxicity - we could be here all day tallying up the numbers and barely scratch the surface of fandom history - but nowadays there is something about the DCEU fandom that has many of my colleagues dreading the worst when it comes time to review or write about them. Pajiba still gets angry comments from said fans on years old reviews.
It's been a while since I got one of these. pic.twitter.com/QW7vkAQqs5— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) September 23, 2018
A lot of the time, there is no rhyme or reason to why people act the way they do, especially online and relating to fandom. Sometimes, it happens because it can and people like the lack of responsibility that comes with internet anonymity and an ability to chat with almost anyone in seconds. Trying to decipher why any fandom has issues is often like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Fandom just doesn’t work that way. However, I still feel it is worthwhile to try and understand why the DCEU and Snyder fandom has such large swaths of us on tenterhooks. Why does Snyder get this and not, say, Patty Jenkins or David Ayer? He’s never stoked or weaponized the fanbase, nor has he encouraged fans to be so defensive. So, what’s the deal?
First, for what it’s worth, here is my brief history of my interest in DC and Snyder related properties: I am way more likely to read DC comics than Marvel ones, especially Catwoman, Batgirl, Birds of Prey, Batman (depending on the writer), and Wonder Woman. I own a lot of Vertigo comics, in particular, and consider that my gateway into the world of comics. Batman is my favourite superhero, Michael Keaton is my favourite actor to play that role, I think the first two films in Nolan’s trilogy are great but the third one is an unwieldy creature that doesn’t work as often as it does.
As for Snyder, I think he made the best possible adaptation of Watchmen and see its opening 10 minutes as one of the real peaks of superhero cinema. 300 became meme material super quickly but the film itself is an unabashed display of garish style and is more knowingly camp than it gets credit for. I think Sucker Punch is awful and that he was entirely unsuited to the DCEU, although his hiring is completely understandable. Snyder is excellent at casting, music and creating iconography. Half the work in making a superhero movie is in nailing that triad of problems. He’s clearly a fan of these comics, which is to his credit, but I believe his dedication to the material frequently overshadows the necessities of the adaptation process. The style is often great but frequently doesn’t match his substance. I would love to see him take on something smaller or maybe even an old-school film noir like Raymond Chandler.
And now, on with the show.
First, despite his generally mixed critical responses over the course of his directorial career, it is very easy to root for Zack Snyder. By all reports I’ve read, he’s a lovely a charming man who is great to work with, one who is obviously passionate about his job. He works frequently with his wife Deborah, who produces his films, and they are very cute together in public. In interviews, he is affable, charming and describes his process in ways that are genuinely interesting to listen to. In an industry where absolute bastards are not only tolerated but supported to the nth degree, people remember the good ones, and Snyder is widely described as one of the nice guys. Fans remember stuff like that and it makes for a good defence when they feel their favourite is being slighted.
Snyder is also a director whose career is almost exclusively defined in terms of geek fandom, the comic book world and superheroes. His first film as director was a well-received remake of the zombie classic, Dawn of the Dead, a movie that finally just dealt with the question every horror fan has pondered: Why don’t the zombies just run? 300 is an ardent declaration of love to Frank Miller’s comic with some truly striking recreations of the original artwork but with enough self-awareness of the material’s camp nature to be its own thing. People mock that film for being too self-serious but it’s really not. Snyder knows what he’s doing on that film. Watchmen is, in many ways, the film fans of Alan Moore’s comic wanted, because it seldom strays from the source material in any way. Even Sucker Punch, a mess of a film, is practically a love letter to Snyder’s fandoms.
It’s easy for fans to root for a creator whose work is so intrinsically tied to that ephemeral beast known as geek culture, in part because geek culture was so maligned for so long. We could be here for days talking about that history and its various retellings but each story will end the same way: The geeks win. We didn’t just get a Batman movie; we got several versions as well as video games, cartoons, academic papers, musical parodies, anime, and much more. The pop culture that previously defined you as an outcast is now the unshakable foundations of a multi-billion dollar industry. If we define ‘geek’ by the old ways then everyone is a geek today. In that context, it’s hard to use the defence ‘We made it for the fans’ when a film under-performs because you need millions of general moviegoers to see your film for it to break even. This comes up a lot with the DCEU, this unshakable notion that these films are unfairly treated because they are made by the ultimate fan - Zack Snyder - for the die-hard devotees. On top of being a bad business model, it’s simply untrue.
The DCEU’s primary tactic for creating a viable alternative to Marvel seems to have been to make a more auteur driven franchise. While things are a little more esoteric in the MCU thanks to film-makers like Taika Waititi and James Gunn, the series is primarily defined by its robust adherence to a reliable mould. Warner Bros. rejected that notion in favour of essentially letting Zack Snyder wholly define a multi-billion dollar franchise. For better or worse, the DCEU is completely the work of Zack Snyder, even in the works he didn’t direct. You can see this in the muted colour palates, the stylized masculinity, the pseudo-realism of the themes, and so on. If it can be labelled as ‘dark and edgy’, then it’s a Snyder thing (although even his earlier works still had moments of self-awareness that the DCEU seems to sorely lack). There’s clearly an audience for that, but committing to it for several films across an expanded universe was always going to be risky.
Man of Steel did well and has its fans but hasn’t aged well. You either love that bleakness with its visual parallels to modern day warfare or you find it exhausting. That interpretation of Superman is immensely appealing to many but feels decidedly un-Superman to others. For me, I really dislike the film because it seems so pointlessly joyless and lacks the hopeful optimism I associate with Clark. However, it does have some of the most dazzling iconography of any superhero film, particularly the music. Visually, Henry Cavill IS Superman, although he’s a much more appealing actor in other roles, and Amy Adams is the perfect Lois Lane. Once again, Snyder ticks all the boxes he’s great at: Defining icons, casting well, and getting the music right.
Man of Steel was never really the problem. It made money and was the 9th biggest film of 2013, ahead of Thor: The Dark World. It did its job in establishing a new franchise, very much cut from the cloth of Nolan’s Batman trilogy but definitively a Zack Snyder movie. The problems came with the next film.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced at 2013’s San Diego Comic Con, shortly after the release of Man of Steel. Snyder revealed the film would mostly take inspiration from the hugely influential Frank Miller comic The Dark Knight Returns, and of course the most defining plot point would come straight from the Death of Superman arc. Ben Affleck, fresh off his career revival with the Oscar winning Argo, would once again take up the leading man mantle to play Batman, while Jesse Eisenberg surprised everyone when cast as Lex Luthor. Finally, the two defining heroes of DC would meet in a big-budget blockbuster and they’d fight! All this and Wonder Woman too? Sure, Warner Bros. seemed to be rushing this franchise, getting to the big team-up in two films where Marvel took six, but this felt like something new: An auteur-driven superhero film rooted in real grit and fury, echoing some of the most iconic tales in comic book lore. If nothing else, it seemed that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice promised to be a unique experience.
The reviews weren’t kind and for good reason. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a mess of a film, utterly devoid of joy and vibrancy, and depressingly lacking in fun. It takes itself so seriously but the stakes feel non-existent. The style is overdone, the tone ceaselessly miserable, nobody’s motivations make sense, and big twists more suited to memes than a screenplay (altogether now - MARTHA!). Bad films happen all the time, but in an age of endless test screenings and studio notes, we seldom see such messes on this kind of scale. For many, this film felt like the exemplification of where the blockbuster age had gone wrong, but for many DC fans like me, it was just kind of sad. It’s not devoid of merits - Ben Affleck is a great Bruce Wayne, even if his Batman is saddled with a ‘mad Crossfit gains bruh’ level of macho masculinity that feels ill-suited to the world’s greatest detective; the Wonder Woman stuff, including her theme, is top-notch; and the chemistry between Cavill and Adams sparkles in the right moments.
The film is nowadays discussed as a flop. It’s tough to gauge the true success of films on this scale, mostly because we’ll probably never truly know how much it cost. The same would apply to Justice League and Suicide Squad, which all made a profit if we go by the traditional explanation of a film making back 2 ½ times its budget. Officially, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice cost between $250 - 300 million, and made $873.6 million worldwide. That’s still a hit, assuming the budget is real (welcome to the world of creative Hollywood accounting), but it didn’t make the $1 billion it was projected to. That’s more a sign of how screwed up the era of Too Big To Fail film-making is nowadays than anything else. It still boggles my mind that the new normal for a film this size being a flop is ‘it didn’t pass $1bn worldwide’. This is an issue that sticks in the throats of many fans, especially when this notion of competing with Marvel is pushed. It’s not good enough to make lots of money: It has to make more money than Marvel, and in 2016, neither of the two DCEU films released managed that.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a mess but at least it’s one man’s mess. Suicide Squad was arguably the first real sign of issues for the DCEU, as the film struggled with extensive reshoots, multiple editing teams, and desperate attempts to lighten the mood after audiences rejected the bleak tone of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Suicide Squad is just incompetent on every level and remains the worst film I’ve ever seen, if only because it barely holds together as a cohesive narrative. The film signalled Warner Bros. truly getting scared that they weren’t doing as well as projected, but the hasty attempts to bring levity to the film only act as a remidner of how messy everything is: Jared Leto is the worst Joker of any DC movie but he’s also barely in Suicide Squad; characters are ill-defined; the humour is tacked on; the villain is ridiculous; the editing is dizzying in its ineptitude; and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is filmed like a swimsuit model for most of the running time.
The film signalled Warner Bros. having doubts about their Snyder-driven model, and for better or worse, they decided to change paths. That wasn’t an inherently bad idea but it’s seldom advised for studios working with billions of dollars to lay down a new path while the vehicle is hurtling down the highway at a hundred miles an hour. For the fans who loved that style - and there are plenty of them - it felt like Warner Bros. were letting them down. They had lost faith not only in their concept but their guiding force. Snyder was clearly wholeheartedly dedicated to this franchise and for those fans it seemed like Warner Bros. were leaving him on the outskirts, an issue exacerbated by the fact that people seemed to like the director’s cut of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a lot more than the theatrical cut. All of these threads - the underdog sensation, the support of a seemingly beleaguered visionary, the opposition to a seemingly united critical condemnation, residual geek anger - combined in an explosive way. It wasn’t just that they had to be fans of the DCEU: They had to be defenders to the very end.
Zack Snyder did not get to make the Justice League film he wanted to. Even defenders of the film have to admit that the finished product is an amalgamation of various people’s works and conflicting visions, which leave the film feeling incomplete. The film already had everything rooting against it before Snyder stepped down from directorial duties due to a family tragedy. Stories later circulated that Snyder was actually fired from the gig but both versions of the story have the same effect. By the time the film is released, it’s reportedly hugely over-budget, it under-performs at the box office, and quickly disappears from cultural conversations. Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment go through a few managerial changes, Ben Affleck’s struggles get more public than ever, and the PR nightmare continues. In the face of that, fans have something to cling onto: The Snyder Cut.
A change.org petition asking Warner Bros. to release Snyder’s cut of Justice League currently has over 179,000 signatures. That’s certainly nothing to sneeze at, although it still only represents a sliver of the kind of audiences needed to make a film like that a box office hit. The Snyder cut has become almost mythic in a short amount of time: This cut of the film that may or may not exist that allows its auteur to fully display his vision to the world, a chance for fans to see a true artist free from studio demands. For fans, it only feels for to them and Snyder that the film be released in some form or another. They should give Snyder a proper swan song for not only his movie but his time as the force behind the DCEU, a time that seems to be coming to an end. It’s the least they owe him, given the tragic circumstances surrounding him leaving the project in the first place. It’s easy to root for a perceived underdog, especially when the people in his own team have done a runner.
Of course, it’s tough to call anything related to a multi-billion dollar franchise a true underdog. Warner Bros. may have aimed for something a little more daring than their competitors but they were still spending billions to earn billions and aiming for the largest audiences possible. It’s tough to breed real tribalism when the necessity of capitalism requires companies to appeal to everyone. There’s no true divide between Marvel and DC: Both companies rely fans of each to see their films.
This fervour may also be rooted in the fact that DC, for a time, were unimpeachable. They kickstarted superhero cinema in the 1980s thanks to Tim Burton turning Batman into a lavish gothic noir. They were the company of Superman and his various movies, but especially that beautiful moment when audiences realized a man could fly. They’re the platform Christopher Nolan used to elevate pulpy crime stories to critical marvels, winning Oscars and reinventing how blockbusters are made altogether. When you’re on top, it makes the fall all the harder to deal with. Snyder wasn’t just following in Nolan’s footsteps: He was the hand-chosen heir to the throne, saddled with all those lofty expectations. That audiences and critics who previously adored this world were now rejecting it couldn’t help but sting, but the force with which those fans fought back remains startling. In my experience, talking about how mediocre Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 2 are never results in my Twitter mentions or DMs being flooded with hate or anger, but I just expect it now whenever DC films come into conversation.
Tribalism becomes toxic very quickly. It’s a mindset that demands blind loyalty and sees the slightest pushback as all-out war. You simply cannot force people to love everything the exact way that you love it or suffer the consequences. You can’t insist on victim status while gathering ‘evidence’ against critics to threaten them with. You can’t create conspiracies of paid off critics or Hollywood-wide sabotage to justify treating people in such an obviously horrible way. You can’t have a healthy fandom if everyone in it with mildly dissenting opinions is afraid to share them for fear of harassment. This is nothing unique to the DCEU or Snyder fans. Indeed, it’s a lesson all fandoms should be taught. Fandom should be fun, not hate.
There’s a solid chance that Warner Bros. can turn their fortunes around for the best. Shazam looks like fun, we’re all in on a 1980s sequel to Wonder Woman and the one-off Joker movie is a great idea in theory, although an origin story for such a character still feels suspect (having said that, the first glimpse of the character got a stronger fan response than expected and the suit is great). The chances are that the DCEU will be reset on some level. Snyder is out, Cavill is reportedly leaving too, and Ben Affleck is probably not going to stick around once he’s dealt with his own issues. The DCEU will always be something that some people want to root for, and the same applies to Zack Snyder. The issue comes when supporting both becomes a life or death situation, and nobody wins in that context.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.