Regardless of how you voted, or where your personal politics lie, or how you feel about the outcome, there’s no denying the recent U.S. Presidential election has left a trail of tribulation and strife in its wake. It’s become painfully clear that the nation is split right down the middle, and the rancor and trauma born out of this divide is sure to have long-lasting ramifications across the globe. There’s a blanket of anger, uncertainty, and darkness over us right now, and It’s during times like these one of the things we can collectively do to cope with negativity is turn to our entertainment sources for an escape. Two or three hours at the cinema can be an amazingly cathartic experience; it’s a place where we can discover adventures that send the human spirit soaring, fill our minds with endless possibility, and perhaps most importantly, provide us with inspirational heroes who show us ways to rise above adversity.
For the most part, the major film studios are providing us with plenty of fun, idealistic material to fuel our imaginations and distract ourselves from the tedium of reality. Paramount Pictures is planning on dazzling audience eyeballs for years to come with a steady stream of shiny robots in disguise blowing each other to smithereens in the Transformers movies, with further plans to continue the beloved Shrek property in the near future. Universal Studios continues to charm crowds with the one-two punch of The Minions and Despicable Me animated powerhouses; and naturally, they have no intention of putting the brakes on the high-octane fun of the Fast & Furious flicks. Sony will feed us slick, smooth, action-packed James Bond movies until they lose the rights, and they stand to make a pretty penny with their partnership with Marvel on the fresh, bold, new iteration of Spider-Man in 2017’s Homecoming. 20th Century Fox has several Avatar 3-D eye-poppers planned whenever James Cameron finds the time to shoot them, and they can always rely on the half-superhero, half-societal allegory of the X-Men saga (especially now with the funny-bone tickling antics of surprise hit Deadpool).
The king kahuna of fantasy escapism, though, is Disney, which shows no signs of stopping the good vibes anytime soon, churning out a steady stream of their traditional feel-good animated fare, live-action remakes of said feel-good fare like The Jungle Book and the upcoming Beauty & The Beast, and dependable franchises like Pirates Of The Carribean. Of course, they also pony up the money and distribution for Kevin Feige’s juggernaut Marvel Cinematic Universe, which offers audiences bright, dynamic superhero spectacle, rife with likable characters that fully embody the spirit of their comic book counterparts. Then there’s the unstoppable force—pun intended—of the Star Wars saga, whose latest entry, Rogue One, is a timely tale of a group of diverse heroes—led by a woman—who band together to prevent a faceless, totalitarian Empire from gaining complete dominion over the galaxy and imposing their cruel will over all beings.
However, as the former DC superhero known as Kid Flash, aka Wally West famously says in DC Rebirth #1, “I love this world, but there’s something missing.” I believe that something is the true, iconic interpretations of the DC Comics superheroes within the framework and context of the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) – the interconnected series of films produced by the one studio I neglected to mention above, Warner Brothers. See, Warner Brothers is in pretty big trouble these days, for two huge reasons: firstly, in recent years they’ve seen their profitable, lighthearted escapist franchises like Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings/The Hobbit come to an end, and secondly, they’ve doubled down on darkness, dread, doom, and despair in the DCEU – completely mishandling the one franchise that could lift audience’s spirits and keep their ledgers in the black for decades to come.
In 2013, Warner Brothers had a golden opportunity to reintroduce the greatest hero of them all, Superman, to modern audiences utilizing the latest in special effects techniques to fully realize the potential of the character on screen – an advantage the old Donner/Reeve movies lacked. They also had the opportunity to bring an idealistic, dynamic director like JJ Abrams or Brad Bird on board to steer the hero into the new Millennium. Instead, they clung tightly to the gritty, “realistic” tone and aesthetic established by Christopher Nolan, who delivered the massively successful Batman Dark Knight trilogy for the studio.
With control over Superman granted to Nolan and his brother Jonathan, the brothers immediately enlisted Dark Knight writer David Goyer and hired 300 and Watchmen director Zack Snyder to essentially be the captain of the entire DCEU ship beginning with that year’s Man Of Steel. Sadly, we all know now how that turned out. Snyder made the short-sighted, selfish decision to pander to edgy millennials, hardcore gamer-bros, and frat boy-esque “fans” by openly mocking the pure and virtuous traits of Superman that made him so beloved to millions of people. He chose to deconstruct him, positing the Last Son Of Krypton as a tormented, conflicted alien outsider burdened by his powers and fearful of humanity. He also turned him into a straight-up killer; a decision that Christopher Nolan strongly disagreed with. The Nolans both cut ties with the DCEU to work on other film projects after Man Of Steel, and while the disagreement over the betrayal of Superman’s core values may not have directly facilitated their exit, I think the writing was on the wall for them following the controversial act.
From there, the bad creative decisions, awful casting choices, and the further “grounding” of the DC pantheon cascaded down like a waterfall of raw sewage. In Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Snyder thought it best to depict Batman as a lost, ultra-violent, old and beaten-down xenophobe out for bloody vengeance on a reckless, possibly tryannical alien endangering humanity. For Snyder, It was less about thinking logically and starting a universe with a Batman in his mid-30’s in full on detective mode, and more about an excuse to crib iconography from the pages of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns without any build-up or context. Even worse, Lex Luthor morphed into a twitchy, screeching, psychotic, long-haired Mark Zuckerberg proxy.
In later DCEU offerings like Suicide Squad and in the trailer for DC’s attempt at Avengers-level box office glory, Justice League, Aquaman became a tribal-tatted, booze-chugging, grunting barbarian, while The Flash suffered a wholly unnecessary armor-plate makeover – an unfortunate byproduct of the “extreme” Injustice video games and comic book alt-universe influence. DC’s iconic speedster was also horrifically miscast with the nebbish, joke-spewing Millennial actor Ezra Miller. The Joker switched from dapper, murderous lunatic to a thugged-out street pimp, replete with facial tattoos and gold grill, while his hugely popular gal pal Harley Quinn went from jaunty mad jester to highly-sexualized juggalette roller-derby queen.
Perhaps most worrisome for longtime DC fans is the treatment thus far of Wonder Woman, who female audiences have been waiting a lifetime to see handled properly on the big screen. In what is possibly another egregious mis-casting, the most recognizable female superhero on the planet is played by the very wooden Gal Gadot, best known for just sort of hanging around in the Fast & Furious movies. Though she possesses an exotic beauty and a statuesque frame befitting an Amazon princess, she lacks a certain intangible magic the character needs, and delivers stilted dialogue through her thick Israeli accent. Diana is presented as a hardened, haunted, gloomy loner who turned her back on “the world of men” following the events of World War I.
Though the trailer for her solo film features some vibrant color (finally!), a gorgeous imagining of the island of Themyscria, and some exciting action beats, it’s undercut by more doom and gloom in the opening voiceover: “I used to want to save the world…this beautiful place. But the closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within.” So, the impressions of this great female icon we are left with after her brief (and utterly pointless) appearance in Batman V Superman and the information presented in the solo movie trailer, are that Wonder Woman suffers a devastating emotional loss at the end of World War I, then refuses to be a hero and disappears for 100 years. That’s pretty damned bleak. Where is the hope? The warrior spirit? The inspiration? Apparently, nowhere, as Snyder seems to think these are antiquated concepts.
At the end of the day, we have the framework for an entire cinematic universe for the greatest comic book superheroes of all time built upon the foundation of an old, broken Batman, a reluctant, sullen Wonder Woman, and a dead Superman who barely resembled the character before making his senseless sacrifice. Even hardcore Snyder defenders and DCEU apologists have to admit this a massive creative problem going forward. Though they’ve reaped some decent box office returns out the films, Warner Brothers have consistently botched and bungled their way through the development and production process of their fledgling franchise, turning off fans and critics at every turn, spending ungodly amounts of money on budgets, making terrible editing decisions, and losing directors at an alarming rate (The Flash solo movie alone has lost three!) Rather than thrill and entertain moviegoers with straightforward, traditional superhero adventures, Snyder and “creatives” behind the scenes at Warners seem to be far more concerned with using them to bluntly hammer home ponderous religious, political and philosophical allegories, but with Snyder’s legendarily terrible storytelling ability, these metaphors are handled with all the subtlety and nuance of a toddler smashing two action figures together.
I’m not making the claim that just because we’re going through tough times as a nation, and I have a personal distaste for the tonality and direction DC has taken in the films, that there is no place for operatic bombast, dramatic storytelling, grim n’ gritty aesthetics, or even deconstruction of these characters. I am simply questioning the decision to start a universe with these elements, instead of presenting these icons to a new moviegoing generation in the best possible light. Dawn Of Justice is a story that would carry far more weight and be ten times as effective coming 14 or 15 films deep into this universe, when Batman and Superman have some history built up with one another. The reason classic comic book deconstructions like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns work so well and the satire cuts so deeply is because their premises are predicated on decades of earned context; the simple, black & white/good vs. evil motivations of the subjects. Snyder simply doesn’t get that. His obsession with so-called “adult” themes have driven him to try to have his cake and eat it too; he’s performing an autopsy of these beings before they can even take their first steps.
Pundits continue to equate DC’s efforts to build an interconnected movie universe with a futile struggle to ape Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios profitable empire. The “DCBros” constantly worry that their world of grit and perpetual thunderstorms will be taken away from them, replaced by beaming smiles and snarky quipping. But I don’t believe DC has to use Marvel as a template for anything; all they have to do is show some faith in what makes their characters special and sets them apart. The Marvel characters and the universe they live in has always been about “the world outside your door” — it’s a world where the heroes are deeply flawed and struggle with very human problems we all have to deal with on a daily basis, and the storytelling is steeped in sociocultural issues like discrimination, alienation, and diversity. Whereas the Marvel heroes reflect who we are, the DC Heroes represent ideals for us to strive towards. They are Gods from Olympus who walk among us; symbols for righteousness, valor, honor, willpower, strength, courage, truth, and justice.
The problem is, those words and those values feel corny and outdated to a huge swath of fandom. The buzzword you always hear out of these people is “relatable.” “I liked the changes to Superman in Man Of Steel, because I could relate to him!” Well, I fully disavow any and all notion that movie superheroes have to be grounded or relatable in any way. Why is this a requirement? It’s okay to look up in awe at a character; It’s okay for them to have a level of purity and power you could never fathom having. Maybe I can’t relate to Superman, but I sure as hell like him! We could all also learn a thing or two about being better versions of ourselves via his selfless acts. In this current cultural and sociological climate, with citizens at each other’s throats and a general air of unease, we could use paragons of virtue like Hal Jordan, with his green power ring shining in brightest day, guiding us all through the blackest night, or Barry Allen speeding to our rescue in a blaze of crimson and gold streaks. We need the King Of The Seven Seas, The Big Red Cheese, The Man Of Tomorrow, The Emerald Archer, The Caped Crusader, The Boy Wonder, and so on…
So now, in one of our nation’s darkest hours, I call upon Geoff Johns, Warner Brothers, and DC to abandon deconstruction and darkness, and tell us stories about forces for positivity and hope banding together to protect us from monsters and tyrants; to defeat hatred and stand up for what is right. We need the true, iconic iterations of these bold, beaming superheroes more than ever before. Now is not the time for introspection, desconstruction, and heavy-handed religious metaphor, it’s a time for the triumph of good over evil — for innovation, adventure, spectacle, and imagination.
We don’t need a Wonder Woman lost in despair and haunted by the world’s evils; we need her grace, her love, and her unyielding fighting spirit to bring unity to the world.
We don’t need a murderous Batman blinded by rage and a xenophobic fear of outsiders; we need his relentless resolve and steely determination in the face of terror.
We don’t need a glowering, bitter Superman clouded by doubt and resentment towards the people he protects; we need his unwavering morality, his ability to make people aspire to be better, and his promise to always be a beacon of light to help us find the way.
So please, DC, give us our real heroes. Give us hope.