This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Let’s get right to the grim facts. The Justice League made less in its opening weekend than the first two Avengers films and Batman Vs Superman. The DC Extended Universe is clearly having a problem right now. And its problem is not big names, ambitious sets, or its CGI budget, and DC knows this.
It’s easy to blame directors and messy scripts for DC’s historic streak of objectively bad films—only Wonder Woman has gotten any sort of critical love for DC since Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy ended—but let’s not forget DC is a company so obviously stuck between two eras of heroism. The old, antiquated, golden age comic book-y DC period, and the current DC Extended Universe shit, whose films need a contemporary facelift if they hope in any way to appeal to folks like myself.
Take the single best and worst sequence in Batman vs. Superman for example—a movie so aggressively shitty that I watch it each time just to find some new shit to hate about it. Batman is about to impale Superman (long story), to which Supes mumbles,
“Save...Martha.” Bats responds with a, “Why did you say that name?” all surprised and shit.
And Lois, in all her damsel-y Lois-sy self, shows up and blurts “That’s his mother’s name!” Hours worth of murderous planning and holier than thou convictions are destroyed over some name-drop kumbaya shit (their mothers have the same name).
The buildup to this moment of course is a whole story about Supes collaterally fucking over an entire city in Man of Steel (2013). And a Bat guy who's really mad about it, so shit goes down, leading up to this very stupid moment.
Yes, it was bad. Yes, it was hilariously cheesy in execution, but it was also pretty great. Old school, overpowered shit aside (buildings break), each character showcased human flaws in this scene. The dirty, self-realization that Batman is kind of a paranoid, fucked up nut. And Superman, whose inhumanly high moral standards got him into some very human problems.
There’s a reason why imperfect character moments like these seem so attractive. We root for the Arya Starks, Walter Whites and Omar Littles, who can murder, but do so from a place that’s motivationally identifiable somehow. Yes, they’re outright villains in some cases, but it's in their flaws that we can see the earth-iness; that special something that Marvel just seemed to “get” all the way back in the 60s and 70s.
Stan Lee and co-writer Jack Kirby were on a mission to revamp some old comic conventions in 1961, as spearheaded by DC. Their era was of the Cold War and civil rights movement. So the perfectly haired, bodily chiseled handsome superhero was replaced with broken misfits like Deadpool and Wolverine. They were the nicked and the hurt heroes that felt more identifiable to me as a fan.
Comparatively, I couldn’t say that same thing with a lot of the DC universe, and by extension, the DC film universe, whose heroes are plucked from a 30s and 40s era of hero. Wonder Woman and Superman were always intended to be the optimistic idols for a Great Depression and World War II generation. By nature, their adventures spoke of flawless embodiments of the law, order and mainstream values of the ideal American. And that meant that characters like Superman—good, blemish free, blue eyed, perfectly sculpted hair—resembled no one that I know, and still don’t.
When Zack Snyder took on Man of Steel, he tried to hide this issue of Superman gloss. There was that thing about his relationship with humanity, and his concern for Lois. But by placing Superman square in the front of a conflict with beings as powerful as himself—Earth’s only solution from total destruction—Zack still managed to do the opposite. Instead of a flawed hero, he further pushed that whole perfect savior shtick—the still symbolic, aspirational cup-holder to everyone around him.
And all that is to say that Zack Snyder never needed to do this under some unbreakable character law. DC is definitely not new to making personality changes if the suits and time period allow it. I mean there’s no mistake that DC’s most flawed hero for instance has remained its most successful at the box office for the last 30 years—in both Tim Burton’s successful run of Batman films ( Batman, Batman Returns), and Christopher Nolan’s own vision (we don’t need to talk about Joel Schumacher). Both directors went for a brooding character, obsessed with the death of his family. This was a hero who underwent significant modernization in the 80s (largely thanks to the books of Frank Miller), speaking more to a hero who was deeply flawed, and somewhat unlikeable.
Sure, comic book writers over the years have had liberties over the DC line in fleshing out more true-to-life characters (see Gotham Central). I've read them myself. But the core dichotomy of DC’s “film” universe are still in that crystal sheen phase; steady avoiding a dirtiness on its icons. You’re not seeing this with Marvel’s comparative heroes like snarky asshole Tony Stark, self-absorbed Thor and quippy teen Spider-man.
Solid scripts and director choices have helped Marvel like any other company before it, but the underlying reasons to why the Marvelverse has done so well speaks to the points made above. Their characters are relatable. They have that something that allows them to be at the centre of their own universes without some grand outside conflict always having to move things forward (which to be fair, has happened often). It’s the reason why a Civil War among Marvel’s heroes can be a believable thing; 10 years of ideologies, egos and character flaws that are the stepping blocks to my own broken friendships and bad vices. And when the enviable deaths happen in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, they will be felt because we we care.
If DC wants to appeal to a wider audience outside its comic book pages (i.e. making $200-million movies profitable) it has to embrace a reworking of its ideas about brevity and heroism. This isn’t the 1940s anymore. We don’t need to be shown what the perfect hero looks like. We need the human struggles. We need a Superman that faces the realities of unlimited power and the corruption that goes with it (see the Injustice series). When put to the test, is he as well-adjusted as he appears to be? DC’s characters, if they choose to be so OP, need to wrestle with the failures. That one moment when they’re too late in saving the day. What kind of depression comes with those realities? Attention has to be paid to their inner conflicts a movie at a time instead of the wholesale of their feats.
Like Marvel has managed to do, we need to be shown how heroes can be great in spite of being human-ish; capable of the good, the bad, while being as insecure as any regular joe—and in turn, acknowledge the heroism that can exist in all of us. Give them those dents, the unfiltered and defective baggage and allows them to do the damn thing anyway. That is the kind of shit that I’ll always eat up and I think audiences will too.
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