Essays · Movies

DC’s Everlasting Tone Problems

The DCEU films focus more on tone rather than story, leaving viewers underwhelmed. This new batch of trailers for future DC projects has much to be worried about.
Bvs Dark Tone
By  · Published on July 24th, 2018

The Dark Knight trilogy may have ruined DC films forever. Although DC has always been dark in general, it’s painfully clear that poorly executed darkness within the DCEU does not sit well with audiences or critics. The Dark Knight trilogy did not succeed merely because it brought fans to a gritty, realistic superhero world unseen before. It succeeded because director Christopher Nolan immersed you in darkness surrounded by thoughtful characters and story. It’s not just dark for the sake of darkness. Nolan imbues darkness and emotion into the heroes, villains, and plotline, showing us how our characters either evolve or devolve through this darkness.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Unfortunately, the DCEU began their new franchise focused on tone, not story. The dark tone featured in Nolan’s trilogy proved so successful that they just had to emulate it. They hired visual director Zack Snyder to jumpstart their universe, which proved troublesome because he grounded this new franchise in visuals rather than characters. Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice are by no means awful, but these films attempted to emulate the tone of a successful franchise by focusing on visuals and moments. While the dark visuals and aesthetic in these films are absolutely beautiful, without a story, your universe is grounded in nothing, leading to lackluster films that feature paper-thin, misguided characters.

After the public’s dissatisfaction with Batman v. Superman, DC tried to course correct their tone problem by making Justice League lighthearted and funny. Unfortunately, this tone shift did not change the public’s opinion of the DCEU because Justice League faced the same issues that plagued Batman v. Superman. Instead of focusing on an engaging story or a compelling villain, they focused on lightening up the tone because Marvel films are funny right? Batman v. Superman and Justice League could have been as dark as possible or as light as possible, it doesn’t matter. What matters is how they imbue these tones throughout the story. These films didn’t fail because they couldn’t emulate specific tones, they failed because story drives everything, and in these films, there was nothing to drive.

Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman also don’t hold a strong emphasis on story. For Suicide Squad, it failed on all levels of filmmaking. It doesn’t present a remotely competent plotline, the characters are all one-dimensional and basic, and it plays more like a two-hour music video than an actual film. While DC may have wanted to switch it up by bringing a vibrant, ridiculous tone to this film, it doesn’t matter because nothing stands as comprehensive here.

While I mostly really enjoy Wonder Woman, it ultimately presents the same basic action formula we’re all familiar with and it devolves in the third act. Fortunately, director Patty Jenkins executes this formula perfectly and makes Wonder Woman an incredibly fun time as it reached an exciting first step for superheroines. Story-wise, there’s not much unique about this film, but it shows how competent filmmaking elevates formulaic stories and tones. Wonder Woman gives us a lot of hope about the future of women in film, but I hope that Wonder Woman 1984 brings a more unique story and tone to the franchise.

Wonder Woman

As I’ve established, the problem with most DCEU films isn’t their dark tone. The problem is that they focus on tone over story. When their dark and edgy tone didn’t hit, they switched it up with jokes and thrills instead of blending the tones throughout the film.

This leads to my trepidations for the future of the DCEU. Look, I love DC characters. I wouldn’t be this upset with DC if I hadn’t grown up with Batman, Green Lantern, and the Flash, but I have to admit I’m worried future DC films will continue to throw story away in favor for tone, visuals, or even progressiveness. This is why I’m worried about the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con trailers for Shazam!, Aquaman, and Titans. Let’s get into these worries.


The Shazam! trailer is a lot of fun. It looks like it could be DC’s Ant-Man which brings hope to many fans. Although this looks like fun, I’m still worried how this will play out. Personally, I don’t want Shazam! to be DC’s Ant-Man because Ant-Man isn’t that great of a film. It’s ultimately fine, but it follows the same action superhero formula everyone uses. I don’t want DC films to merely be carbon copy responses to Marvel films. Rather, I want them to have their own identity while featuring compelling stories and characters. Hopefully, underneath the laughs and quips, Shazam! proves that they DC can blend both tone and story together while standing without comparisons to Ant-Man. There’s a lot of excitement for Shazam!, let’s just hope it’s not another cog in the machine.


My worries with the Aquaman trailer don’t sit with its tone because I’m not sure what to think. It looks like it follows some common story plots, but the action and one-liners look to be a ton of fun. I’m most excited about the characters in this film. We get a full-fledged look at Jason Momoa’s bro-surfer Aquaman and there are myriad other fan-favorite characters to meet. I’m hoping Aquaman knocks it out of the park with the characters, providing us with real, deep looks at merpeople that explore the perils and oppression of humanity.


This trailer is so dark it looks comical. This is what I’m talking about. Using darkness for the sake of darkness. Everything about this trailer screams teen angst and this aesthetic does not suit the light, jovial nature of the characters. Plunging deep into grayscale, horror, and stomping on necks doesn’t seem like a terribly calculated move. Instead, it comes off as a haphazard attempt to recapture the tone of The Dark Knight with characters from Riverdale. Of course, this is just the trailer, but this trailer inspires no confidence that Titans is going to feature any depth or complexity.

Dark and gritty may have always been DC’s “thing,” but when dark and gritty eclipses story and characters, your recipe for success is clouded. DC has learned all the wrong lessons from The Dark Knight, and if they can’t learn the right lessons, they may be doomed for good. I love DC superheroes, but until they can prove that they’ve placed story above all else, I can’t help but hold my excitement for the DCEU’s future.

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Lover of coffee, the emdash, and General Hux. Journalism student at Biola University in Los Angeles.