Even with it’s scheduled opening nearly two years away, there has already been a tremendous about of digital ink spilled about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That’s not surprising given the amount of interest –and money– the film will generate. Of course, speculating about a film so far in advance is usually a fool’s game, but that’s never stopped comic book fans.
Based on the few leaked details and images that have emerged, it feels safe to say that the movie will be a bit of a bummer: another “grim and gritty” take on the titular characters. That’s a shame since if anything should be fun it should be a movie about the Justice League. Unfortunately, DC and Warner Brothers seem to think that superheroes can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be fun. It’s almost as if a company that has been built on the rich genre of superheroes is actually embarrassed by them.
The first red flag, of course, is that Batman v Superman is a sequel to what is probably the most bleak superhero movie ever made. Amid Man of Steel’s myriad problem is the fact that it seemed afraid to actually be a Superman movie. The fact his name wasn’t in the title and is only muttered as a joke toward the end of the movie could be seen as a serious take on the character, but instead it just indicates the filmmakers’ self-consciousness toward the source material (at least Superman gets his name in the title the second time. Of course, he gets second billing to the obviously more popular –and marketable– Batman).
Rather than embracing the fun and, more importantly, inspiring parts of Superman, the filmmakers actually diminished the character by staying so serious. In fact, in order to make Superman a “believable” character, they basically had to break him like Zod’s neck: by subverting one of the basic tenets of the character –that he doesn’t kill– the filmmakers showed they fundamentally misunderstood him. Man of Steel was a grim film, and with Zack Snyder behind the camera and David Goyer scripting again for the sequel, it looks like Superman and company will continue this way.
On one hand, it’s easy to see why they went this direction since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy was such a commercial and critical success. The problem is that those types of stories work well for Batman since he is a much more malleable character: he fits equally well in gritty crime stories and over-the-top action movies. Also, one could argue that The Dark Knight, the best of the three, was not really a superhero movie at all, but rather a taut crime thriller that just happened to feature a man in a bat costume punching a clown in the face.
Trying to recreate the tone –and success– of those films with other superheroes simply won’t work. That’s one reason that Marvel’s film franchises have been so successful: each character’s films have a unique feel. Not all of their movies have been great, the “First Wave” films all suffered by having to feed directly into Marvel’s The Avengers for instance, but the best ones —Iron Man and Captain America: Winter Soldier– worked because they suited the characters. The fact that DC and Warner Brothers have let Snyder, Goyer, and to Nolan (who is the executive producer for both Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, although how much influence he has over story choices is unclear.
However, the fact that Nolan was hesitant about the film’s penultimate scene suggests that he does have some input.)shape the direction of their superhero franchises shows they’ve doubled down on having a specific “tone” for their movies (of course, the fact that Green Lantern was a commercial and critical flop probably had some influence on this direction as well). For better or worse, Snyder and Goyer’s vision has become the DC cinematic universe house style.
The “realistic” tone of The Dark Knight and Man of Steel may have worked for those films, but it doesn’t seem like a good fit for the Justice League, especially if the filmmakers are hesitant to show superheroes actually being superheroes onscreen. For example, David Goyer’s recent comments about the Martian Manhunter show how little he cares for the character specifically and superheroes in general (as for his deplorable comments about She-Hulk, plenty of others have written about how problematic –and offensive— those were). According to Goyer, the Martian Manhunter, one of the oldest DC characters and a consistent member of the Justice League “can’t be fucking called ‘The Martian Manhunter’ because that’s goofy.” Goyer continues:
The whole deal with Martian Manhunter is he’s an alien living among us… So he comes down to Earth and decides, unlike Superman who already exists in the world now, that he’s just going to be a homicide detective… So instead of using super-powers and mind-reading and like, oh, “I could figure out if the President’s lying” or whatever, he just decides to disguise himself as a human homicide detective. Dare to dream!
On one hand, Goyer is clearly entitled to think that the Martian Manhunter is “goofy.” In fact, as much as I like the character, I can see how many might view him that way, after all, one of the character’s defining personality traits is that he really loves Oreos. What’s more interesting though is that Goyer sees the Martian Manhunter using his powers to help people as a homicide detective as unrealistic. Goyer goes on to say that the more “realistic” way to introduce an alien character would be to “get the DNA code from that planet and then grow him in a petri dish here… He’s like in Area 51 or something and we’re just basically… doing biopsies on him.” Just to review, the military growing alien DNA in a petri dish is “realistic” (read: “cool”) whereas an alien using his abilities to help individuals is “goofy.” Maybe that explains why Superman had no qualms about destroying Metropolis via negligence in Man of Steel? Superheroes saving people is totally goofy, isn’t it?
Certainly, Goyer is entitled to his opinions, and I’m sure there are many who agree with his assessment of Martian Manhunter. However, having someone who sees superheroics as “unrealistic” or “goofy” writing a movie about the Justice League seems problematic. The fact is that this movie will be the first time many people will see Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and whomever else they introduce. So, if these characters are presented as gritty and “realistic,” that’s the way people will think superheroes are supposed to be. Of course, that’s not really the case: like any type of genre, superhero stories come in all different colors and styles.
Unfortunately, DC and Warner Brothers seem to think that their audience only wants to see one type. I’d like to be proven wrong, and have a Justice League movie that portrays the characters as the altruistic, inspiring figures I grew up reading, but so far that doesn’t seem likely.
The desire to portray superheroes in a more “realistic” light, again, makes sense for the filmmakers trying to reach a larger audience unfamiliar with the characters. However, “realistic” and “fun” aren’t mutually exclusive traits for superheroes, as Marvel’s The Avengers proved. Although the film wasn’t perfect, it did show that audiences like superheroes with developed, engaging personalities. The relationships between them were what was “realistic” about the movie and the more “comic booky” elements –a giant green guy smashing stuff, or the idea that a guy with a bow and arrow is useful in an alien invasion– were supported by them. If Batman v Superman is intended to capture the spirit –and box office receipts– of Avengers, then Goyer and Snyder should try for a similar approach, especially since the most well-known and beloved Justice League comics focused on interpersonal relationships and big, over-the-top superhero action.
Justice League International by J. M. Dematteis, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire was essentially a superhero sitcom that focused on the characters’ personalities and relationships, and JLA, by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter, featured grand superheroics seemingly tailor-made for a cinematic treatment. Both of those versions managed to balance humor and action without “dumbing down” the characters, and they’re still satisfying reads to this day. Unfortunately, seeing the team represented in either of those ways on the big screen seems pretty unlikely. After all, who wants to see fun superheroes?
What makes this even more frustrating is that DC knows that superheroes can be fun, and they’ve been able to make movies and TV shows that showcase that side of their characters. While they may be playing to catch up to Marvel on the big screen, DC has been producing excellent superhero animated features and TV shows for a while now. Their direct to DVD animated films have largely stuck to adapting stories from the comics, but they’ve done so remarkably successfully. While those DVDs may be aimed at a specific audience already familiar with the comics, the animated Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series introduced those characters to an entire generation of fans without making them “grim and gritty”.
Sure, those cartoons were made for kids, but what’s wrong with making superheroes appealing to kids? The goal should be making movies that adults can appreciate and enjoy with their children, whose imaginations are captured by the larger-than-life characters on screen. There was a lot of material in the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films that sailed over my head as a kid, but that didn’t stop me from re-watching them daily. Even Tim Burton’s Batman, which was hailed as a darkly realistic take on the character, had the Joker vandalizing a museum while blasting Prince on a boombox. As a kid, I liked these not for their “mature” take on the character; I liked them because they were fun.
Fortunately, there are some signs that DC knows how to make fun live action superheroes. For example, the recently released trailer, the upcoming Flash series seems to be a step away from the gritty “realism” in which the DC cinematic universe is currently mired. Not only does it actually show the Flash’s powers and costume, as opposed to Smallville’s infamous “no flights or tights” edict, it actually doubles down on the more “comic booky” elements of the character: the speed force, pseudo-science like anti-matter and dimensional rifts, and even the Weather Wizard. It’s obviously too early to say what the tone of the show will actually be, but what’s really refreshing about the Flash trailer are the moments when Barry Allen –the fastest man alive– smiles. It’s almost as if the Flash actually enjoys being a hero.
What a novel concept.