Film

How to Recover From the Batman v. Superman Debacle: An Open Letter to Warner Bros.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is getting trashed. How can DC and Warner Bros. recover from this debacle? PopMatters' comics and movie scholar can help.

Dear Warner Bros and DC Comics,

Well, the day is finally here and the news just isn’t that good, is it? The prints of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice are barely even dry and the damning reviews are already streaming in. Let me tell you, not even Lex Luthor himself could have done more damage if he tried. At the time of this writing, the rock upon which Warner Bros has planned to build the entire "DC Extended Universe" is standing at a 29 percent Rotten score on RottenTomatoes.com.

You’ve poured an estimated $250 million into the making of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice and quite a bit more than that into marketing and promoting this film. By some estimates this behemoth will have to earn over $800 million just to make back a single dollar.

Will it happen? Well, that’s possible. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012) managed to pull in well over $1 billion. However, despite what your marketing department has been so desperate to assert, Batman v. Superman is no Avengers. The Avengers is the result of a multi-film plan set out by Marvel that managed to get an almost overwhelming 92 percent Tomatometer rating. Your movie is currently doing slightly better than your own 2011 attempt, Green Lantern (26 percent). Somehow I don’t think that "Slightly better than Green Lantern" was what you were hoping for.

I’m sure you’re all biting your fingernails right now, watching those box office numbers. Of course, you have to get past that first weekend to see how the reviews might impact ticket sales. Opening weekend is virtually a sure thing considering the fact that the hype you generated has resulted in presale tickets, but that second weekend drop is the kicker.

If Batman v. Superman goes on to make a ton of money you can just consider this your Transformers series. You’ll get horrible reviews and still make bank at the box office. Good trade? Well, sure, except for the fact that your main rivals over at Marvel are making critically acclaimed box office smashes and improving their brand.

As you’ve already said, you’re making movies for the fans, not for critics, but do you really want your brand tarnished in this way? After all, Superman is not just "a superhero", Superman is the first Superhero, upon whom all others are based. How can you settle for this American Icon to be trapped in laughable films, regardless of the amount of money it makes? You know better than I how negative word of mouth can cause disturbing second weekend drop off, so we both know you’re not counting your gold coins just yet.

But even if this is a success and the DC Comics movies become your Transformers series, the damage to the brand will ultimately be catastrophic. People will tire of these and flock to the better made superhero films. Worse, such a thing would be detrimental to the venerable comics your subsidiary has been publishing for a century now.

I, for one, have been hoping for an excellent series of DC movies so that I can see my favorite heroes triumph. That’s not what I’m seeing and, let’s face it, neither are you. But you could… and it really wouldn’t be that hard to do. In fact, with all due respect, I'm hoping that your vaunted movie is a major box office disappointment so that you will be forced to stop in your tracks and reevaluate the steam train you’ve created to see if it’s on the right track.

After all, you’ve already announced no less than nine more entries in your DC Extended Universe (DCEU), all of which have huge budgets and all of which are, because of the way you’ve set this one up, essentially sequels to Batman v. Superman. Yes, you’re scrambling to reevaluate these lofty goals now, but you don’t have to. You just need to take a good, solid look at what you’re doing and right the train before it goes off the tracks completely.

What went wrong? Pretty much the same thing I’ve been saying since this entire questionable affair began. While it’s obvious to me, you at Warner Bros. and your subsidiary DC Comics seem to be completely oblivious to the actual problems here. Hence this open letter that might help you resolve these things.

Here are some very serious steps for you to consider:

1. You’ve got to fire Zack Snyder as soon as possible!

I realize Snyder has his fans and those fans will not be fans of mine after reading this, but hear me out. Snyder has no business directing movies this important. In spite of his very public claims to the contrary (most disturbingly defensive), Snyder does not know anything about comic books and doesn’t care about the source material. He also hasn’t done you many favors.

Let’s take a quick look at Snyder’s career. Snyder is a commercial director. Literally. His career as a director began (and really should have stayed) with television commercials for automobiles, athletic shoes and sports drinks. He also made a mark directing music videos, aka promo films, which are essentially commercials in and of themselves.

So what? Lots of your directors start out that way, right? Well, sure, but the problem is that your boy Zack still thinks he’s directing commercials. Remember what killed the Batman series from the '90s was changing them from smart, character-driven action films into toy commercials (which met their apex with the appalling 1997 film, Batman & Robin).

For those of you at Warner Bros. who do not believe in the supernatural, let’s look again at Snyder’s resume because, he clearly sold his soul to someone. Based solely on his music video and commercial work, Universal had enough faith in him to let him direct the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). Yes, somehow the director of Soul Asylum’s "Somebody to Shove" video was allowed to helm the remake of one of the most intelligent, critically acclaimed horror films of all time. Naturally he missed the social commentary and satire that made the original such a classic and instead delivered a very standard action film entry in the resurgent zombie subgenre of horror. The film managed some good reviews and positive box office, but if you ask critics (like me) his career only went down from there.

Dawn of the Dead made almost four times its budget back -- but that budget was only $26 million. For reasons unknown outside of the third circle of Hell, this small victory led you guys at Warners to hire Snyder to direct his first comic book adaptation, that of Frank Miller’s 300 (2007). I don’t have to tell you, that film was a success, pulling in over $456 million against a $65 million budget. This is in spite of the fact that the film is self-important and unintentionally funny in virtually every scene.

Snyder gained experience fibbing to the press during the promotion of this movie, claiming that he showed it to "world-class historians" who "can’t believe how accurate it is".

Actual historians (outside of Zack’s imagination) have laughed at this claim, but what does that matter when the film made money? Enough money, in fact, for you nice folks at Warner Bros to eye Snyder for further comic book adaptations. If only you hadn’t started with Watchmen.

Watchmen is among the very best, most intelligent and most critically acclaimed graphic novels ever made. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons infused every panel with meaning and the entire story is so gripping that it remains one of the most popular and talked about books of the past 50 years. A-List filmmakers like Terry Gilliam had to walk away from the project because it was "un-filmable", so you guys decided to give it to the guy who didn’t understand the metaphors in Dawn of the Dead. Worse, you actually began promoting the untried helmsman as "Visionary Director Zack Snyder"… for his third film… for which he was out of his league. No pressure, right?

Critics who never read comic books liked to call Watchmen (2009) the most accurate comic book movie ever made and, in fact, there are moments that are framed exactly like the comic frames and many scenes work as a beautiful companion piece to this amazing novel. I would know. I’ve read the damned thing about ten times. However, Snyder clearly didn’t really understand the film. There is virtually no depth, the face of the "villain" (which should be a surprise) is shown in the first few seconds, lines are arbitrarily reassigned to other characters that have no business saying them (implying that someone must’ve had a bad hangover that day) and worst of all, Snyder completely changed the poignant and intelligent ending in favor of something silly and incongruous.

In short, Watchmen was too important and too deep to be any director’s third film. He just wasn’t ready!

Your marketing department did a great job with him, though, as he continued his (sadly transparent) massaging of the press. When fans reacted negatively to the ridiculous looking nipples on the Ozymandias costume (so reminiscent of the much reviled costumes in 1997's Batman & Robin) Snyder cleverly explained that he was attempting to parody such films with Ozymandias’ eccentricities. This, too, was a lie, considering the fact that Snyder carefully selected costumer Dawn Brown for the film -- the very costumer from Batman & Robin!

As your accounting department will gleefully clarify for me, Watchmen was not quite the huge hit you would like to make it out to be. Falling 68 percent in attendance for its second weekend Watchmen ended its run with a little over $185 million. Do the math and you’ll see that with a budget of $130 million, Watchmen would have needed to make $260 million to earn a profit, meaning (to be generous) your company experienced a $74 million loss with Watchmen.

Slightly better reviewed than 300, critics were polarized about the film and it barely registers as "fresh". So I have to ask the question, why did you still bank on him? Was it because you already invested so much (including in the claim "visionary") that you couldn’t cut your losses? Because you again invested in him to direct the 2010 animated tale Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole (which also underperformed) and then funded his next vanity project called Sucker Punch (2011).

Sucker Punch is the most "Zack Snyder" Zack Snyder movie of them all and a true sign of what he can do and what he is ready for, considering the fact that he conceived, wrote, produced and directed it himself. At this point you should seriously have considered severing ties, because once again you lost money on a Zack Snyder movie. With an $82 million budget, the film failed to break even $90 million, meaning you lost almost your entire marketing and distribution budget. Further, Sucker Punch left a sour taste in critics’ mouths, earning it a mere 23 percent Rotten rating. Yes, that’s worse than the failure of the same year’s Green Lantern.

Green Lantern made $220 million against a budget of $200 million, which makes it less of a failure than Sucker Punch, but that dashed any hopes of continuing with the saga and caused Warner Bros. to rethink where it was going with its DC Comics adaptations.

Your solution? Double down on Snyder, the guy who has repeatedly lost you money and received bad reviews.

How exactly does that make any sense? By way of direct comparison, your previous "big blue" film Superman Returns (2006), which has a higher critical approval rating than any Snyder film actually did make back much more than its budget (earning over $391 million from $204 million) and was directed by Bryan Singer, who has a proven track record with successful superhero films.

But you decided to scrap that series and hire Snyder, the guy who made money for you… once… and lost money for you several times, to be in charge of a more expensive Superman movie in Man of Steel (2013).

Can you explain that logic to me? It seems to me that the last thing you would want to do is take such a risk, especially with someone who doesn’t even understand the character.

So the decidedly dark Man of Steel came out and had everything spelled out for the audience. There was no mystery in the film, which rather betrays half of the interest in Superman. You can read my article on what was wrong with that film, but in short, everyone in Smallville has figured out that Clark Kent has superpowers.

Lois Lane figures out that Clark Kent is superpowered, not just before their wedding, but before Superman even exists. Kal-El’s own birthing matrix rocket is found right there on the Kent farm (where, incidentally, the other Kryptonians attack) and Superman even tells the military, "I’m from Kansas." Now, if you were the military and you were looking for Superman, wouldn’t you go to the very Kansas farm where his baby carriage was found (where the bad guys just looked for him) and then ask a few questions to the Kent son who happens to look exactly like Superman? I would.

Instead, Clark puts on a pair of glasses (which he never wore before) and his secret is suddenly safe.

Of course Snyder continued his press dishonesty by announcing that he didn’t change Superman at all. In short, Snyder doesn’t understand Superman any more than he understood Watchmen, and arguably significantly less. While I grant you that Man of Steel made a lot of money ($668 million against a $225 million budget), critics largely savaged the film, earning it a certified Rotten rating.

Still, you drank the Kool-Aid and missed the problems, going instead for the green. So you went all in and put Snyder in charge of your entire slate of DC based films. And to compete with Marvel Studios, you announced a full ten more films on the way (including Batman v Superman).

Not only did you give Snyder carte blanche on Batman v Superman, but you also set him up as producer or executive producer on every single DCEU film that he isn’t directing. Then you announced him as the already carved-in-stone director of not one but two Justice League movies to be released in 2017 and 2019.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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