When trying to diagnose the problems with the DC Extended Universe, many critics point to the franchise’s gritty, joyless tone. But video essayist Patrick H. Willems has another theory as to why the movies are so unsatisfying to watch: They don’t know how to create compelling characters. In this 12-minute video, Willems lays out his case for DC’s character problem, comparing Man Of Steel, Batman V Superman, and Suicide Squad to more successful character-based superhero franchises like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and, of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Despite casting relatively charismatic performers and even introducing some interesting thematic ideas, DC struggles when it comes to creating actual character arcs. Willems calls out Henry Cavill’s Superman in particular as a remarkably static hero and argues Ben Affleck’s Batman isn’t much better. And even more inherently charismatic characters like Will Smith’s Deadshot and Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn don’t particularly grow across the course of Suicide Squad. Willems points out that an interesting semi-formed arc about codependent Harley learning she doesn’t actually need the toxic Joker in her life is undone by an ending that sees her happily reunited with her puddin’. She starts and ends the movie wanting the exact same thing.
To be sure, there are potential pushbacks against Willems’ essay. He’s particularly harsh on Man Of Steel, arguing that Clark Kent is merely a good guy who saves people throughout the entire film. But you could also argue that while Clark doesn’t do a 180 on his relationship to heroism, the film charts his growth from anonymous small-scale hero to prominent defender of the Earth. Still, Willems’ overall critique is a solid one. Batman V Superman is the perfect example of a film that can’t seem to figure out what its characters want or why they do the things they do. So if DC wants to beat Marvel at its own game, perhaps it should focus less on lightening the tone and more on giving audiences characters to root for.