Thoughts on the DC Extended Universe and Screen Superheroes Generally

Or why I didn’t see Suicide Squad.

This is not a review of Suicide Squad. I did not see Suicide Squad, and I’m not going to comment on something I haven’t seen myself. This is not really a review of Man of Steel or Batman v Superman, either. Those movies have been over-analyzed already. I did see them, and will be referring to them to make a broader point, but this is not a proper review of anything, really. This is my attempt to explain my deeper concerns with the DCEU and their relation to the reason I didn’t go see Suicide Squad.

History of Superhero Film

DC had been king of the cinema for a long time before Marvel really became a thing at the movies. Batman and Superman were film serials since before World War 2. Superman (1978) was the first big-budget superhero film, and also the first with a franchise run. 1989’s Batman was another hit for DC with a string of sequels. Through the 20th century, Marvel didn’t really have much success in theaters.

The first Batman film franchise eventually crashed under the weight of tonal shifts, marketing pushes, and a general lack of interest in making good movies. Marvel attracted some success at this time with non-superhero properties Men in Black and Blade.

With the new millennium came a new dynamic in superhero film. Firstly, there were many, many more of them. Secondly, Marvel’s screen adaptions (Spider-man, X-men, Fantastic Four) were considerably more popular than DC’s (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Catwoman, Green Lantern, Jonah Hex).

DC, it should be mentioned, did release the Dark Knight trilogy, which were wildly popular and were considered by many critics (this one included) to be not only the best superhero films ever made, but also some of the best films in any genre. But these were a mere trilogy…

Status Quo of Superhero Film

If the Dark Knight trilogy was the artistic gold standard of superhero films, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was the financial gold standard. A franchise for which the term “franchise” seems insufficiently large in scope, the MCU is the result of Marvel deciding that their characters were too valuable to licence to other studios. Marvel Studios, under producer Kevin Feige, released Iron Man in 2008. A year later, they were bought by Disney, who funded more and more superhero films, all of which were set in the same universe. There have been, as of the writing of this work, thirteen films released in the MCU, with a fourteenth (Doctor Strange) set to be released in November. There are eight more films planned between now and 2019, though there is no indication that Marvel will stop there if they continue to perform as they have. To date, every single MCU film has been a financial and audience success. A suite of episodic series, for both television and streaming networks, are also set in the MCU. These are performing well also.

It’s easy to see why DC wants similar performance. It can’t be easy for them to watch Superman Returns disappear from the public consciousness to make way for the likes of Ant-man. And their attempts, partnered with Warner Bros., have been successful, and they haven’t really been bad movies, but…they’ve all been met with complaints. Lots of complaints.

Man of Steel was not set in the same universe as the Dark Knight trilogy, but it was very similar in tone. Christopher Nolan, who directed the Dark Knight films, produced Man of Steel. The actual direction was done by Zach Snyder.

It made sense to try to bring Nolan’s realism to other heroes, considering how well a more grounded Batman had worked. Superman is very popular but is often criticized for being too ridiculously powerful, and thus not vulnerable enough to be interesting. So, maybe…

DC’s Trying, They’re Really Trying

When Marvel built their cinematic universe, they built it out of lesser-known characters. As a practical matter, this is because big names like Spider-man and the X-men were already licensed off to other studios. But this has given Marvel a great degree of flexibility when it comes to characterization: was Ant-man an accurate representation of Hank Pym and Scott Lang? I dunno. I don’t read comics. Most people don’t. People who do read comics are familiar with the concepts of alternate timelines, and most can probably deal with differences between the heroes as they appear in film versus how they had previously appeared in other media. Thus when Black Widow is made a hero from the start and Thor is given a beard and Hawkeye is one of the original Avengers even though Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne aren’t, there isn’t a huge backlash.

DC’s heroes are all licensed to Warner Bros. They don’t have to resort to B-list heroes for their movies; they can use Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. And they have. But they have done so…differently than might have been expected. And with broadly understood characters, this is a risk.

The DCEU’s Superman, portrayed by Henry Cavill, is not the eternally optimistic crusader known to audiences from the previous franchise starring Christopher Reeve, as well as other properties. This Superman was cautious about using his powers, and very reactionary in his conflict with Michael Shannon’s Dru-Zod. He feared his power, and feared society’s reaction to his power. Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, did not make an appearance until the very end of Man of Steel.

I have a few ideas about why Superman’s character was changed like this. One is that the filmmakers took a look at the X-men franchise, in particular its breakout character of Wolverine, and thought Superman should be more like Wolverine. This would explain not only the mistrust of superpowers thing but also the new story-line about Kent using his natural resistance to injury to work high-risk jobs in the frozen north.

Another possibility: Superman has been a metaphor for, among other things, America. And lately America has been struggling with the whole using our military to try to make the world a better place, and that not always working out thing. It’s possible that the filmmakers were trying to make some commentary on that.

Now, before I continue, I’d like to make it clear that I respect what DC has done, in theory. It would be very easy for them to simply repackage the same product they’ve been selling for years, use better special effects, and just ride their own popularity. They’d probably make as much money. Instead, DC has taken real risks with these characters. The problem has been that these risks have often failed to pay off.

Archetypes, Ideality vs. Reality, and Characterization

Beneath the details that make up individual characters can often be found the skeleton provided by archetypes. For DC, Superman and Wonder Woman are classical heroes, powerful and good-hearted. Batman is a righteous avenger, battling evil for more personal reasons. Green Lantern, Cyborg, and the Flash are impressed heroes, neither born with power nor seeking it out, but given responsibility to use their power to. (Marvel’s biggest character, Spider-man, is another character built on this archetype.)

But even beneath these archetypes are two different takes on heroes. The ancient Greek comedian Aristophanes made this a theme in The Frogs, where Dionysus (who is now best remembered as the Greek’s god of wine, but was also their god of theater) decides that plays were better in the old days, and decides to go to the underworld to bring back either, Aeschylus, Euripides, or Sophocles. Sophocles declines the offer of resurrection, leaving Aeschylus and Euripides to argue their work’s merits to Dionysus. Aeschylus claims that his work is better because his heroes are aspirational figures whom the audience can look up to and emulate. Euripides claims that his work is better because his heroes are realistic figures whom the audience can identify with and understand. Dionysus can’t decide between these arguments, though he later picks Aeschylus for other reasons.

Superman is an Aeschylan character. He is not very realistic or grounded, and thus he isn’t very relateble. He isn’t supposed to be. Superman is an inspirational figure. He’s just a good person. Superman, in most stories, doesn’t have a reason, as such, to be a hero. He has a naturally altruistic nature, which leads him to help people at every opportunity. His great power ensures that he has many opportunities. Batman has reasons to be a hero, and if those reasons go away, he isn’t a hero anymore. He’s not necessarily a villain, but he isn’t a hero. He’s a very Euripidean hero (inasmuch as Euripides wrote of heroes. His plays are Greek tragedies and thus somewhat bleak).

So when DC began planning for Batman v Superman, they had real potential to incorporate the old Aeschylus v Euripides debate into the theme of their film. Superman’s idealized pursuit of good might see Batman as a vengeful menace to the goals of criminal rehabilitation, for instance, or Batman might see Superman’s general invulnerability as the root of some sort of lack of appreciation for the struggles of vulnerable people.
But because Man of Steel had set up Superman as a sort of reluctant hero, a tragic figure whom we are meant to somewhat pity. He is not shown as a naturally altruistic hero; indeed, he often must be convinced to help others by the various people in his life. This Superman is built on another archetype, the impressed hero.


As an Aside

People, both real and fictional, are influenced by their parents. Superman, in Man of Steel, has two fathers: Jor-El (Russel Crowe), his biological father whose personality is preserved past his death through Kryptonian computer technology, and Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), the Kansan farmer who found the orphan Kal-El and raised him as his son Clark. The characterization of Costner’s Kent has been widely criticized as being even more differentiated from the established character than Cavill’s Superman. As I said, I won’t condemn the DCEU for the simple act of making changes, but I will say that I found the contrast between Kent and Jor-El to be poorly formed even by the movie’s own internal worldbuilding. Jor-El was raised in a Huxleyan society of clones governed by a totalitarian beauracracy, while Kent is a farmer from middle America. And yet the film would have me believe that Kent would argue that his son watch his neighbors and loved ones die to maintain his expected place in society, while Jor-El would argue that his son become Champion of Earth. If these characters had simply had their roles reversed, they each would make more sense by the film’s own logic. Clark Kent, instead of needing to be talked into becoming Superman, could have been talked out of doing so by Jor-El, who wants his son safe in the life of an Earthen man, at least until the arrival of Zod.

Batman v Superman was not a terrible movie, at least not in my estimation. But by setting their Superman against Batman, the makers of the DCEU only further revealed the dissonance between their Superman and that whom the world had become familiar. Ben Affleck’s Batman was fairly well recieved. I believe this is because, even though Affleck’s was an older, more worn and less forgiving Batman, he was still built on the familiar righteous avenger archetype. Whether we like it or not, we can comprehend a Batman who, given time, might start simply killing criminals without care. But a Superman who would not instantly come to aid those in need is too strange for many to comprehend. To be fair, Cavill’s Superman does have many episodes of traditional Superman-ery in DCEU movies, but his overall portrayal is of, to give my honest evaluation, an X-man, who would rather just stay home and pretend not to have superpowers.

BvS also used a different archetype for its villain, Lex Luthor, than had been used for the character before. Luthor is traditionally portrayed as a megalomaniac, whose conflict with Superman stems from Superman’s disruption of his plans for world domination. Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor is focused on killing Superman as a goal within itself.

The Root of the Problem

Criticism of DCEU characters has often focused on specific character moments. Eisenberg’s Luthor has a strange scene with a politician and a cherry-flavored Jolly Rancher. More infamously, Superman ended Zod’s conquest by ending his life, breaking the rule “Superman doesn’t kill.”

But, if you’ll remember, Superman actually does kill. In (the indisputably terrible, but safe and in-character) Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Superman defeated his foe Nuclear Man by incinerating him within a power plant. Two movies prior, he had even killed Zod. This Zod, in fact, had already been functionally disarmed and posed no threat to Superman or anyone else, Superman and Lois still cast him and his compatriots, unprovoked, to their certain deaths, into a glacial fissure. No witnesses, no problem.

Forgot about that, didn’t you?

But Superman II still worked because it was still the familiar Superman for the most part. Superman was still self-motivated to help others, and this was shown as an unequivocally good thing. Superman saved the day, and the audience cheered him on.

That’s what’s missing from Cavill’s Superman. I’ve seen him in two movies now, and I’ve never cheered for him. I’ve hoped he wins; it’s not like I was siding with Zod or Luthor. But there’s never been a moment to really cheer for him. Every action he takes is shown to result in massive collateral damage and death, which might be realistic, but….

And I haven’t really cheered for Batman and Wonder Woman either, really. Batman spends most of Batman v Superman trying to kill Superman, which isn’t meant to be a good thing. When Doomsday shows up, Batman tries to help, but he’s Batman, and fire-breathing trolls are a bit above his pay grade. Wonder Woman is more useful, but she was more of a cameo than a character.

And that’s why I didn’t see Suicide Squad. If I couldn’t enjoy the adventures of the heroes, how would I enjoy the adventures of characters explicitly marketed as terrible people?

I’ll probably see Justice League and Batman and the other upcoming DCEU movies. I haven’t given up on the franchise yet. But DC needs to start showing some real heroics without feeling the need to couch their feats in a whole involved discussion. They haven’t done that yet. They haven’t shown superheroes to be an inherently positive force in their movies’ society. They still can, and they should. Batman v Superman ended at a good point for a soft reboot of both Batman and Superman. Establishing Wonder Woman as an actual character can also help, if done right. Their characters are so endearingly popular because they’re inspiring. Hopefully DC will realize this, and make more than almost-really-good movies.