F vs the Franchises: Superhero Fatigue (Part 3 - The DCEU Lays An Egg)

DC is home to characters that are not only global icons, but archetypes – the standards by which superheroes are judged. Superman, the benevolent protector. Batman, the embodiment of justice (or revenge, depending on your point of view). Wonder Woman, ambassador for love and peace. All tap into very fundamental psychological aspects of the human condition when distilled to their essences. As the anchors for a roster of characters that, personally, I find more interesting than the MCU’s, these three mythological figures, along with many other interesting characters, should have been easy subjects for a DC cinematic universe. Yet it’s clear that Warner Bros was its own enemy and studio interference, at least partly due to a desperate need to compete with the MCU, perpetuated repeated acts of creative malpractice. David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, whose director’s cut may never see the light of a theatre (although there is hope), is a prime example. Ostensibly intended to focus a mission against a global threat around Harley Quinn’s emancipation from the Joker (among other plot intentions), the theatrical cut instead offered a tonally confused and creatively compromised vision of the film – a far different experience than I anticipated from the director of the excellent WWII drama, Fury. (I do think that Suicide Squad was serviceable enough as a film to be enjoyed in the moment and then more or less forgotten, a mostly harmless sideshow to the DCEU’s main continuity.)

It’s impossible to hand-wave away the failure of the Snyderverse, however, although I think that the criticism leveled against Snyder often rests on inconsistently applied criteria. I’d argue that Snyder is not only a skilled director, but a visionary filmmaker with a strong instinct for the cinematic. From production design to direction and cinematograph, his films demonstrate panache as well as purpose. Watching Henry Cavill’s Superman in Man of Steel, whether taking flight or fighting against Zod and his minions, I remember being impressed by how visceral an experience Snyder created. More so than any MCU film, I could really believe his characters are superheroes and not just special effects.

Of course, it’s his storytelling more than his direction that is controversial and divisive. But like it or not, it’s clear he did have a storytelling concept – that is, a trajectory to guide his characters from their introduction to their teaming against a formidable threat. With characterizations rooted in a far less idealized, idol-worshipping attitude than we find in the MCU, the arc of his films moves his characters from doubt, uncertainty, even cynicism to inspiration, heroism, and teamwork. The extent to which his vision was compromised is well known by now, with Joss Whedon’s takeover of Justice League effectively ending the momentum of his multi-film narrative. Though a tad overstuffed, Snyder’s cut of Justice League nevertheless offers a much more coherent plot with richer characterizations than Whedon’s version. Before that, we saw the effect of studio interference in the difference between the theatrical and director’s cut of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: the director’s cut also offers a more coherent story and deeper characterizations than the theatrical version.

Yet it’s not hard to see why Snyder’s approach received a mixed reception. A gloomy Superman, with a dour adoptive father prone to giving morally ambiguous advice, is too drastic a departure from the sunnier version embodied so memorably by Christopher Reeve. A brutal, Frank Miller-esque Batman, while not an unfamiliar depiction, is too unabashedly cynical in his lethality. The problem isn’t so much that Snyder may feel that deadly violence reflects the reality of superheroes. He has a point, within reason, insofar as the realities of violent conflict are concerned. While the scene was contrived, Superman killing General Zod in Man of Steel made sense given the circumstances. The Joker being alive and on the loose in Batman’s corner of the world, in both Suicide Squad and Snyder’s Justice League, seems philosophically inconsistent, especially after Robin’s murder, but otherwise it’s entirely plausible that people who try to kill Batman might be the ones who get killed instead. In any case, I’d say the problem is that Snyder presents a rather narrow conception of heroism, one focused on bravery in battle and the willingness to beat up bullies rather than serve as positive role models. Despite returning to Jor El’s speech about Superman being able to “give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards” and helping them “accomplish wonders,” the Snyderverse doesn’t explore how Superman actually inspires change for the better. Even Batman’s inspiration to do better following Superman’s sacrifice at the end of Batman v Superman doesn’t come close to exploring how his redemption could positively impact Gotham. And Wonder Woman? For all that she has a kinder disposition, she’s nevertheless a warrior whose valor is demonstrated by beating up the bad guys. Whatever version of Justice League we go with, the culmination of Snyder’s arc is not how the superheroes inspire humanity to defend themselves or just generally be better people, but something more reductive: the equivalent of a special ops team going on a secret mission to defeat violent invaders. I wouldn’t even rate it as a “deconstruction” of the characters. The Snyderverse is rather straightforward in presenting emotionally ambivalent characters whose personal dilemmas are overcome to get them to exactly where they need to be within the conventions of superhero stories: ready to beat up the villains!

As to whether Snyder should have been allowed to finish his arc or not, well, I have mixed feelings about it. Personally, the planned story of Superman falling victim to Darkseid and the Anti-Life Equation (a concept equally stupid, if not more so, than the Thanos snap) doesn’t appeal. The “Evil Superman” schtick, already done within the comics, just doesn’t resonate with me. The prospect of time travel being key to unravelling the Knightmare future strikes me as a disappointing cheat. And with recent revelations of a planned trilogy of Flash films, culminating in the revelation of Reverse-Flash as the ultimate evil master mind engineering events, I am even less enthused at what the DCEU would have ultimately offered.  It’s enough to wonder, along with Giant Freaking Robot (https://www.giantfreakinrobot.com/ent/zack-snyder-worst-thing-dc.html, why Snyder’s vision was chosen as the blueprint for the DCEU.

But while I won’t mourn the excellent decision to chart a new path for the DCU under James Gunn and Peter Saffron, I do think it’s unfortunate that Snyder couldn’t at least bring his story to a conclusion. Perhaps he should have just been given one movie and a smaller budget, but whatever the approach, at least Warner Bros would have had a complete story to sell on streaming and DVD for people to enjoy if they’re so inclined. The DCEU wouldn’t then be a room full of baggage to burden future movies. Regardless, the lesson points to Warner Bros lack of trust in their filmmakers, whose films might not have scored with critics but could have at least fulfilled their intention to entertain the fans.

Looking beyond the Snyderverse, around which other DCEU films orbited, I find the results more compelling. Shazam! and Aquaman might not challenge genre conventions, but at least they work well within them by offering interesting characters in fun adventures. Despite a disappointing third act culminating in the usual boss battle, Wonder Woman offers an overall hopeful tone that is a welcome contrast to Snyder’s cynicism. (I can’t comment on Wonder Woman 1984, which I haven’t watched, but going by the plot synopsis at Wikipedia it seems the film does take the character in an interesting, convention-defying direction. It’s a shame I find Gal Gadot rather unremarkable in the role.) And James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad not only makes up for Warner Bros’ botching of David Ayer’s film, but stands out for its blend of heart and brutality in an energetic covert ops action/adventure plot.

Then there’s The Flash, which bombed at the box office and met with heavy criticism from the pop-culture trades (e.g. The Escapist, ScreenRant, Inverse) who view it as a weak, even cynical whimper to end the DCEU. To a large extent, The Flash was doomed to fail. Not necessarily because of Ezra Miller’s unfortunate troubles, although they certainly didn’t help generate enthusiasm, but because the film was burdened with too many expectations related to financial performance, ability to wrap up the DCEU, and generally just offer something fresh in a genre whose bar has been set by the MCU. It’s hard to see how the film could have succeeded in satisfying both comic fans and general audiences when success depended on fulfilling so many criteria. For my money, I think The Flash is actually one of the better DCEU movies – even one of the better superhero movies. It offers some delightfully bonkers action spectacle like the opening “baby shower” scene, features an exceptional performance by Ezra Miller as two similar yet distinguishable versions of Barry Allen, and gives us a character arc with emotional heft.  The Flash is also surprisingly subversive in its hero’s journey in comparison to the MCU and Snyderverse films. Where these openly embrace the use of superpowers, celebrating exercises of force, The Flash argues in favor of caution and restraint through a story on the necessity of making peace with the inevitability of death. Allen may have incredible superpowers, but learning when not to use them is just as important, if not more so, than knowing when they can be truly helpful. As for the cameos? Despite all the hemming and hawing over whether any given cameo was cynical pandering, nonsensical, or what have you – I have no vested interest. Personally, they were all fun and the film’s core drama wouldn’t have changed with different cameos. And as far as ending the DCEU goes, I think it succeeds it setting up the DC multiverse without bludgeoning us with a hard continuity reboot. I find it rather annoying when time travel movies ask us to invest in characters and situations, only to erase them so that the same characters are reset for a different story – as in Donnie Darko, for example. The Flash establishes the existence of a multiverse with all its many DC stories, setting the DCEU as one of its many branches but not requiring Gunn to specifically use Snyder’s version of the characters moving forward, even with retconned histories.

Then, there’s the Arrowverse, of which I can only say that, exhausted, I gave up on all the shows I was watching – Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow – long before they reached their end. They all became mired in the worse, most exhaustive soap opera impulses of comic book storytelling, from endlessly returning or revived villains to nonsensical fantasy that is rarely anything other than arbitrary no matter how often it’s labeled “science.” The (melo)dramatic core always reduced itself to a duel between homicidal megalomaniacs with personal vendettas against our heroes, which became repetitive and dull – the one-note Reverse-Flash being a particularly irritating example. I also found the use of superpowers to be very shaky, with villains often made to seem more powerful by making the heroes weirdly dumb or weak. Case in point: Captain Cold, who is somehow a formidable threat despite the fact that he can’t, logically, unholster let alone fire his special gun faster than the Flash can disarm him. While I get that narrative logic, mature drama, and the usual expectations of plausibility are generally beside the point for the Arrowverse (as in comics), suspending disbelief in a story in the name of fun adventuring shouldn’t be an act of faith. By the time I called it quits, the Arrowverse was beginning to feel like a multi-car pileup in a freeway accident.

When all is said and done, I’m perfectly fine with leaving the bulk of DC’s media output behind. But I do harbor a cautious optimism that James Gunn, who has so far delivered among the best superhero films to date, can deliver a DCU that fulfills the superhero genre’s potential to tell meaningful stories with heart as well as thrills.

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