For the last fortnight, The Playlist HQ has been the scene of so much infighting over our Best of the 1990’s series,(which you should check out because it’s fun and a lot of people died for it) that for many of us, only the biggest news drops made an impact. Even then, they could get pretty garbled. So imagine our surprise when we tuned back in this week and discovered that no, Joss Whedon was not in line to direct a remake of Catherine Breillat‘s controversial 2001 title “Fat Girl,” but was, in much less likely fashion, apparently on track to cross the aisle to put his quippy, characterful, money-minting sorcery to work for DC.
It’s very early days for the Whedon “Batgirl” movie, and Lord knows there have been enough directors rotating onto and off DC film projects of late (as of 9:30am Tuesday 4th April 2017, Matt Reeves is still directing “The Batman,” but check back in at lunchtime). It’s a fool’s errand to regard anything as set in stone. But maybe, just maybe, if we’re very, very lucky, a Joss Whedon “Batgirl” movie could spell the end of this intensely irritating era of rival, monolithic DC and Marvel cinematic universes. This fandom-driven feud sucks up a ridiculous proportion of the available oxygen each summer, in a stupidly partisan game of one-upmanship that seldom has anything to do with the quality of the films. Whoever wins these battles, increasingly, those of us who care about movies and movie culture (up to and including blockbuster tentpole releases and what they say about our times) are the ones who lose.
Obviously, the thing that caused a thousand basement fires as toaster ovens across the nation went unattended by fanboy trolls in a froth of keyboard-tapping joy/despair, is that Whedon is a Marvel guy. Not just any Marvel guy, either, but the Marvel guy. The single creative force more identified than any other (apart maybe from Kevin Feige) with the vastly successful meta-project that has been the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes, he famously got sick of the meddling from Feige and other Marvel overlords around the time he was denied final cut rights on subpar ‘Avengers‘ sequel ‘Age of Ultron‘. But for better and worse (largely better), the tone that the various MCU properties all more or less cleave to, is more associated with Whedon than any other director. This is a little unfair since it was Jon Favreau who directed the first MCU movie, “Iron Man“, establishing mid-tier superhero Tony Stark as the first Avenger that the modern filmgoing audience would come to know – and the quippiest. It basically espoused all the popcorn-y disposable PG-13 fun that characterizes the MCU, an entity that still counts Robert Downey Jr‘s character as its centerpiece.
None of this is to lessen the impact of Whedon, a director we have loved since “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (recently the subject of such gushing ’20-years-later’ retrospective hagiographies, that you’d swear it had singlehandedly brought peace to Northern Ireland). He had the hardest job, pioneering a team-up movie that was at the time, a huge gamble and would ultimately have to serve not only as a kind of proof of concept for Feige’s ambitious phase-spanning future plans, but to perform as a standalone summer tentpole on its own merits. It made $1.5bn worldwide and still enjoys a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
But, and here’s where Feige rips up the check he was about to send us right when we needed to extend the beach house he’s already paid for, let’s not forget that “Marvel’s Avengers” came out the same year that, with “The Dark Knight Rises,” Christopher Nolan hung up his bat spurs on the most critically successful superhero trilogy of all time. If DC’s future cinematic plans were nowhere near as far developed or fully articulated as Marvel’s in 2012, they were still going forward into the brave new synergistic future on an enviably firm creative footing. That’s not to say there’s no truth to the idea that a lot of the unseemly haste with which DC assembled its plans for its own Extended Universe on the big screen was a knee-jerk reaction to the enormous payoff of that Marvel gamble. It’s a time-honored comic book tradition, in fact one that dates all the way back to the original superhero, God, that one enormously powerful being will somehow create his opposite number, his nemesis, the yang to his yin. But it does mean that things are not quite as simple and binary as a lot of today’s trolling between rival fan bases would have you believe.
The first three films released under the DCEU banner have not just been bad, they’ve been bad in recognizably similar, brand-identifiable ways. David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad” may not have had quite the same sludgy self-seriousness as Zack Snyder‘s “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” or “Man of Steel,” but what it lacked in philosophical posturing it more than made up for in eye-jangling incoherence and the sense that everyone in it just needed a good wash. This is what the DCEU’s much-vaunted “darkness” has been reduced to — as the bargain-bucket version of Nolan’s well-earned, textural grit, and a shorthanded way to set itself in opposition to the relatively cheery colorfulness of the MCU, everything has a cast of grime over it, and nobody ever smiles. Unless they are deranged.