DC Comics has published the most iconic superhero characters for almost a decade, but has an erratic track record at transferring those characters to the big screen as feature films. For the past decade DC movies have struggled against fan reprobation and rapid drop-off in ticket sales. An impartial review of the changes in the DC movies over this period indicates the blame lays squarely on Heath Ledger… or, more accurately, on studio execs completely misinterpreting the cause of a particular movie’s success.

DC/Warner Bros were already looking to change the tone when they rebooted their universe. For those who came in late, movie series based on DC characters tended to start strong and then get progressively weaker as the studios tried to cash in on the hype of the previous movies rather than craft something great.

Superman and Superman II became part of the popular zeitgeist, whereas Superman III was less well received, and most people don’t even know that Superman IV: The Quest for Peace even exists. Superman fans have long pretended those two movies didn’t exist, and when DC/Warner Bros brought back the character in 2006 they agreed with the fans; Superman Returns replaces III and IV as that series’ canon.

The same applies with the Batman franchise. When Batman came out in 1989 it was a huge success, largely due to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker. This portrayal was so iconic it dominated public perception of the character for two decades, irrespective of what the comics or cartoon shows were doing. Batman Returns (1992), with Catwoman and the Penguin, was almost as successful. Batman Forever (1995) took a decidedly more family friendly tone, to the point of almost being slapstick – although Jim Carrey can carry a movie with slapstick comedy. Again, it started strong at the box office, but failed to gross as much as Batman over the long term. Then, in 1997, they released Batman & Robin, which I’m not ready to talk about. Eight years later DC/Warner Bros were so emphatic about a change of direction they named the next movie Batman Begins.

Batman Begins and Superman Returns both had a more serious tone that the movies they were replacing, and they did all right at the box office. Then, in 2008, came The Dark Knight, and everything changed.

As I’ve said, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker was so apposite that people couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the character without embarrassing themselves when the two were placed in comparison. Then Heath Ledger completely blew everyone away with a Joker that was absolutely terrifying, undeniably psychotic and evil, and yet still believable when convincing people to work with him, or to accept his point of view. In a completely non-sexual sense, Ledger’s Joker was seductive, a supreme master of verbal manipulation. The guy won practically every award he could have for the role, including an Oscar. Also, the tone of the film was quite dark, matching both the nature of the Joker’s antics and the role of the film as the low-point in the planned trilogy.

The public loved it – The Dark Knight raked in three times any previous DC movie in the opening weekend box office, $158 million dollars, and in total has brought in more than $535 million in the US, and more than a billion worldwide. At this point, the studio execs seem to have taken the lesson that people wanted dark and moody superhero movies, instead of recognising that it was Heath Ledger’s performance that created the success. People liked the dark tone of the movie as “a nice change from the normal superhero fare”, but that was a far cry from wanting it to become the new normal. The DC execs may have found support for this argument from the poor reception of the zany, lighthearted Green Lantern in 2011, but that was just a badly made movie.

So The Dark Night Rises came out in 2012, very dark, reasonably successful, and a fairly good conclusion to the trilogy. A year later the Superman franchise was rebooted, with Man of Steel grossing $117 million in the opening and $291 million total. It continued the trajectory of recent DC movies into the dark, with Superman actually killing someone – which may not have seemed a big deal to violence-accustomed movie-goers, but which really enraged the Superman fan base.

Could they go any darker? This year brought Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – everyone’s a killer! Moral ambiguity! The inherent meaningless of the dichotomy of good and evil! MARTHA! That movie had a lot of problems – it wasn’t a complete waste of money for the theatre ticket, but the best thing I can say about it is that it made me super keen to see Wonder Woman’s upcoming standalone film. Still, it pulled in $166 million on opening, and $330 million so far, although most of these sales were pre-sales and the first days – the drop-off of sales has been described as “historic”. So it compares OK to other DC movies… but pretty poor compared to Guardians of the Galaxy or Deadpool, both of which managed to be far more popular and far more profitable (when taking production and marketing expenses into account). They were also more light-hearted, even though Deadpool was rated R.

I think it’s fair to say that DC/Warner Bros vastly overestimated public demand for dark, angsty, morally ambiguous, emo superheroes. That doesn’t mean complex moral questions can’t be posed: Captain America: Civil War pulled it off, and it did this by give both superhero sides strong moral positions, rather than the BvS tactic of giving both superhero sides weak moral positions.

It seems Warner Bros belatedly got the message. In May of this year they reorganised and created a new division, DC Films, to oversee the extended DC universe. The new attitude can be seen in the recent Suicide Squad movie, which got a fairly mixed response. This movie was filmed last year, in the same dark tone as Batman v Superman. However, the promotional trailers and posters and all other marketing indicated it would have a distinctly wacky-punk feel, along the lines of Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy,or perhaps Tank Girl is a better comparison on tone. This promotional material created a lot of buzz and anticipation, but the actual movie was nothing like it, so they desperately recut the film at the last minute so that it fit the marketing. They failed in this, but they tried.

That, I believe, is the important part. They tried. They have finally realised where they went wrong, and what audiences actually want. The only question now, is: Can they pull it off?

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