When “Batman v. Superman” opened to $166 million, Warner Bros. was celebrating. No matter what the critics said, their movie was a hit. It was making them boatloads of money which would allow them to call the movie a win, ignoring the B CinemaScore. And then the next weekend happened. The film dropped 69 percent from its first week to its second, the worst for a superhero movie since “Hulk” in 2003. While the movie will likely make a good amount of money, it might not reach the $1 billion threshold WB was hoping for.
There’s many lessons DC Films and Warner Bros. can learn from the experience, and to learn them they can turn to the television universe. DC TV series are outshining the films in pretty much every way right now.
One of the most important lessons, which might seem simple at first, is to have your character’s motivations be clear and meaningful. It sounds like something from Screenwriting 101, but it makes a huge impact if it’s not there. “Batman v. Superman” manipulates its characters into the titular fight and portrays Lois Lane (Amy Adams, “Enchanted”) making stupid decisions (remember the spear and the fountain, anyone?) based on what the plot needs them to do. In contrast, “The Flash” based its entire first season on the interplay between a villain and hero, giving Barry Allen (Grant Gustin, “Glee”) a reason to fight Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh, “Scrubs”). It makes the payoff that much stronger when you drive a conflict based on character instead of plot.
The DC TV universe isn’t afraid to go to dark places, but that doesn’t mean there needs to be an overbearing feeling of dread overpowering everything else in the movie. Both “Arrow” and “The Flash” push their titular heroes into dark places where they feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. (“Arrow” has been especially guilty of this, but the show tends to recover when it becomes overbearing.) Yet, they never let this sense of darkness overwhelm the overall tone of the characters. On “The Flash,” there’s always someone to bring Barry back, and make him know that he’s not alone. Jesse L. Martin (“Rent”) as Barry’s surrogate father, Joe West, is especially good at bringing pathos to the darkness, something “Batman v. Superman” sorely lacked.
Still, “The Flash” ’s crossover episode with “Supergirl” should be the model for what’s possible when you mash up DC characters. While The Flash is a natural fit in the light (and slightly cheesy) tone of “Supergirl,” the hour still integrated Gustin well. It was genuinely fun to see the two heroes fight off some villains and then race at the end. While I understand the DC Film universe wants to match the tone of the “Dark Knight” series, “World’s Finest” gives them a template for what they can do if they just lighten up.
In addition, while the legwork “The Flash” and “Arrow” did to introduce new characters for “Legends of Tomorrow” is not a perfect template, it was surely better than anything “Batman v. Superman” did to set up the DC cinematic universe. When “The Flash” and “Arrow” did their crossover episode this season, bringing together Hawkman (Falk Hentschel, “Transcendence”) and Hawkgirl (Ciara Renee, Broadway’s “Pippin”), they layered in the exposition with the ongoing story by introducing Renee’s character early and integrating her into “The Flash” ’s ongoing arc. Though films don’t have the advantage of having weekly content to work with, “Batman v. Superman” decided to pause the movie for a few minutes while Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, “Furious 6”) looked at sneak previews of upcoming movies. There has to be a better way of integrating these previews by introducing new characters for the new story.
In the end, “Batman v. Superman” serves as a launching pad for a massive franchise of films, whether we like it or not. Still, though, there are lessons director Zack Snyder (“Sucker Punch”) and the rest of the drivers of the universe could learn, and TV is a good place for them to start.