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It shouldn't have surprised anyone when Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice star Ben Affleck dropped out of directing his Batman spinoff film, The Batman. For months the guy has shown an intense reluctance about the project as press and fans have pestered him for details. And really who can blame him? What once was pitched as a gritty, grounded competitor to Marvel's generally lighter-fare entertainment, the DC Extended Universe has thus far only found success with the hardest core/most forgiving of comic book fans, while being reviled by pretty much everyone else. Affleck is not even the first director to abandon the film franchise, with two different directors already having dropped out of the company's planned Flash movie due to creative differences. And while we may never know exactly what these directors' initial vision for their films were, Affleck included, the very fact these talented professionals do not feel the freedom to make a film they can stand behind is exactly why the DCEU should be fearful of their future.
If there's anything that defines the three DCEU entries (Man of Steel, Batman V. Superman, Suicide Squad), it's the company's prioritization of a film's look over its story. Look no further than the decision to turn Zack Snyder into the company's creative shepherd. Throughout Snyder's career, his visual innovations have in the best case allowed for stunning exhibitions of action (300) and in the worst case served as window dressing over deeply problematic stories (pretty much everything else). Look no further than his work on Batman V. Superman, where he consistently morphed the film's iconic characters into whatever he needed for his "awesome" vision. This is how we ended up with a Batman who kills people and uses guns (violating two of the characters longest standing traits) and a Superman too angsty to give a shit about truth, justice, or the American way. When this is the voice setting the tone for all the companies projects, it's easy to understand why talented directors wouldn't be able to operate under these circumstances.
Marvel meanwhile has found success in allowing acclaimed directors a fair deal of freedom to turn its properties into everything from a cold war spy homage to a heist film or a mind-bending exploration of mysticism. And sure, the DCEU has to try and forge their own identity if they hope to avoid the title of Marvel's little brother, but right now their focus on visuals over substance is creating fundamentally hollow entertainment that is hard to appeal to talented artists. Being the first non-Snyder director to contribute to the franchise David Ayer's Suicide Squad could have been something truly compelling (even if Leto's Joker was a failure down to its core). Yet it was instead morphed through reshoots and editing into something that matched its visually exciting trailers rather than one focused on telling anything resembling a coherent story.
With the announcement coming on the heels of Affleck's first critical failure as a director, Live by Night, I'm sure he understands the dangers of stepping behind the camera for the company's most beloved character given their track record. And who knows, maybe if Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman nails its story, the DCEU might not seem quite as bleak a fate for creative directors to make a film for the masses. Yet, in the end, the DCEU films only seem to fit the sensibilities of one director, and when that director is Zach Snyder, you've got yourself a big problem.