Where the DC Movies went Wrong: A Blast from the Past

This is going to be a bit of a ramble.

Lately there have been two battling Superhero franchises:  The Marvel Cinematic Universe and whatever mess DC has been putting out lately.

That wording should tell you what fandom camp I fall into.  And what makes that ironic is that I grew up on DC comics.  While I was fond enough of Marvel Comics, it was DC that was my true superheroic love.  Superman, Flash, Wonder Woman, Batman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Teen Titans, Green Lantern, yes, even Aquaman.  I couldn’t even pretend to be a collector because I would read and re-read them until they were falling apart.  No “mint” copies in my collection.

Then Frank Miller did the Mini-Series “The Dark Knight Returns.”  It was a good story.  It was a great story, as a story.  As a stand alone, as one particular take on Batman and his future, it was marvelous.  But it was not the Batman I’d grown up on.  And when DC started making the Darknight Detective more “Dark” and less “Knight” let alone “Detective”, well, that was the beginning of a downhill slide for me.  Your mileage, of course, may vary.  For a while there he was almost a split personality.  A more well-rounded, sane individual when working with the pre-Crisis Jason Todd (back when Todd was, like Dick Grayson, a circus performer whose parents were murdered–as one letter writer said “Where else are you going to find a young man with that kind of acrobatic training?”), then a completely different and far darker individual when working on the West Coast with the group he formed the “Outsiders.”  Gradually the cowled psychopath would take over the character.

Meanwhile, over in the Superman Comics, Superman was still the Big Blue Boyscout.  And I loved it.

Then came the movie “Superman”.  Oh, wow.  Christopher Reevesnailed it.  As Reeves said in a interview (quoted here among other places):

“What sets Superman apart is that he has the wisdom to use his powers for good. He has all these powers, but he’s got the mind of maturity – or he’s got the innocence, really – to look at the world very, very simply. And that makes him so different.

When he says, ‘I’m here to fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way,’ everyone goes: *snicker* *cough* *ahem*.

But he’s not kidding.”

Reeves totally got it.  The movies may have been over the top silly in parts but Reeves understood the character and was true to him.

Well, years passed and we had Keaton’s Batman.  Very Milleresque, but as a stand alone “different take” it was pretty good.  Kilmer’s wasn’t too bad.  And the less said about Clooney’s the better.  There was the Brandon Routh version of Superman in Superman Returns that fell like a dud.

Then there was Nolan’s version of Batman.  This one actually lightened up a bit on Batman himself.  Okay, I think he was wrong in The Dark Knight.  Gotham could have handled that, given what had happened to him, Dent had gone nuts there at the end.  Batman as a heroic figure  would have had more value than was lost in seeing that their idolize DA had human failings.

Then along came Zack Snyder to direct the new Superman movie, “Man of Steel”.  Okay, look, I’ve heard arguments on both sides regarding the collateral damage from the fight in Metropolis and the killing of Zod and how Superman “had no real choice.” This may be true, Superman had no choice.  But that was Snyder’s choice.  In the comics, Superman has killed, yes.  However, that falls into two different categories.  One is the very early development of the character when the writers and editors were still figuring out what the character was going to be.  Then, once they did that and we had the iconic “Big Blue Boy Scout” those rare instances were where he was forced at extremis to kill, and gain their dramatic power because he is deeply committed to preserving life, not taking it.

Snyder’s Superman, as portrayed by Henry Cavil, does not have that.  One could argue that they’re returning to the roots of Superman, the very first stories where he was a bit more casual about things like that, but that Superman was far less powerful, far less of a god among mortals.  “Faster than an express train” “Nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin” “Leap an eighth of a mile”. Compare that with any of the modern versions. The more “relaxed” attitude toward use of lethal force, combined with the far greater powers of the modern Superman is not, IMO, a good combination and breaks the character.

What we end up with is an invulnerable, super strong, super fast bull in a china shop.  Those people (you know like Luthor–or Bruce Wayne for that matter) concerned about what this incredibly powerful alien is going to do are right to be concerned.  He has given them no reason to allay their fears.

They worry that he’s a threat for the very good reason that he acts like a threat.

And this is not just a matter of putting Superman into a difficult spot that he’s going to have to dig his way out of and show that despite how things look he’s really that Boy Scout.  This is a different, darker, interpretation of the character.  As indicated by Snyder’s complaint that people don’t like this version:

“The thing I was surprised about in response to Superman was how everyone clings to the Christopher Reeve version of Superman,” he told Forbes. “How tightly they cling to those ideas, not really the comic book version, but more the movie version. … If you really analyze the comic book version of Superman, he’s killed, he’s done all the things. I guess the rules that people associate with Superman in the movie world are not the rules that really apply to him in the comic book world because those rules are different. He’s done all the things and more that we’ve shown him doing, right?”

First off, he shows here that he does not understand the comic book version.  Yes, Superman has done “those things”.  But they were exceptional things, not, frankly, the only things we’ve seen from the character.  When the first thing we see about how the character deals with a difficult challenge is killing the challenger we don’t have “this is something he was forced to in extremis”.  We have “this is how the character deals with challenges”.

I don’t think he “analyzed” the comic books.  He went through cherry picking what he wanted to do, the character he wanted to make, regardless of whether it was actually true to the iconic character or not.

Even the outfit.  Superman’s costume was inspired by circus costumes.  The muted colors are just plain wrong on the Man of Tomorrow.

The people who are complaining are fans of the comic books.  They generally have read the comic books, probably a lot more thoroughly than Snyder ever did.

Look, I’m the last person to say that nothing can be dark. “If you want to paint pictures like that, you need to use some dark colors.” But it can’t be all dark.  And in a comic book superhero world of all places–especially when it comes to characters like Superman of all things–the purpose of dark is to make the light seem all the brighter.  When all you have is dark, you just have a muddy, bleak landscape, what some folk call “gray goo”.  I know that appeals to some people, but those people generally aren’t Superman fans.

And, so far, with the new DC movies, that’s really all I’m seeing:  unremitting dark with nary a bright spot to be seen, as far as the eye can see.

Since I wrote that I’ve seen one DC movie.  I’ve only been inclined to see one DC movie.  That was “Wonder Woman.” I loved it.  Some people complain about setting it in WWI rather than WWII but I could let that slide.  The original was set in WWII because that was what was going on at the time.  Without that “current events” aspect there’s nothing particular about WWII which ties the character to it and there’s a certain logic to changing it what with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Captain America’s WWII connection.

Still, nothing else from the movie DCU has looked like something I want to watch.  The magic, the joy, the Heroes Writ Large that I grew up on and loved just don’t seem to be there.  Wonder Woman was the exception. And although there have been some eyerolls and some things I’ve skipped, I’ve largely found it in the MCU.

The thing is, I want to enjoy these movies.  But I also want to avoid the crushing disappointment that available evidence indicates I’ll find.

So there we are.  What DC did wrong, and what–despite the hint of possibly fixing it in Wonder Woman–what they seem to have continued to do.

And it makes me sad.

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