This essay began life as an inquiry into whether the movies of the DC Extended Universe have the depth, integrity and metaphorical richness of their main competitor in the world of cinematic graphic novels and super heroes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
I used two films as an entry point into the DC Universe, the Zack Synder Superman movie Man of Steel (2013) and his wildly disliked Badman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). But after viewing these two very strange films, I now realize that whatever is going on here is going to require more thought.
But lets start at the beginning.
It has been proposed that our cinema has moved beyond the "giant robot" to the comic book superhero as a metaphor for our civilization. Certainly a more nuanced metaphor would be hard to imagine than the classic American comic book with its superheroes, supervillains, women in spandex, alien menaces, and so forth. But not all superhero universes are created equal, and they are certainly not all translated to the big digital screen in the same way and with the same sureness of purpose. No doubt the Marvel Cinematic Universe has achieved a certain level of excellence, but can the same be said about the DC Extended Universe? On paper, the DCEU is every bit as good, if not better, than the Marvel one. Has it also self-consciously aspired to this metaphorical and cultural transcendence, or has it foundered on the jagged rocks of mediocrity in pursuit of commerce?
This were my organizing questions for my first analysis of this important, critical area..
But the two movies that I reviewed defy an easy analysis. The first, Man of Steel (2013) is a very unpleasant movie about genocide from the point of view of the person who has it in his hands the power to either save his civilization or condemn it to a final and gruesome death. And he chooses death for the civilization that created him. In retrospect, it is a very grim movie with a horrible conclusion. Light hearted would not be the term used to describe this movie. It also completely ignores and dismisses all the unconscious themes of America from the 1930s through the 1950s that made the original Superman so interesting to a student of American history and culture. It ignores the colorful villains of the Superman canon, retaining only one, General Zod, but it transforms Zod from a villain to a tragic hero, defeated at last by the criminal, mass murderer, Superman.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was the most hated movie of this year. And I can certainly see why as it turns its back on most of what made the two title characters entertaining to watch. Superman is a weirdo who murdered his people and is now a borderline psycho do-gooder who is hated for his mysterious powers and the collateral damage that he leaves at every turn. And Batman is a psycho, a vigilante, and by all definitions, a criminal who uses his vast wealth for his own purposes outside the law. Both see themselves as noble and doing good, but a lot of criminals and murderers in history also thought that.
Of the three leading psychopaths in our movie: Superman, Batman and Lex Luther, it is the latter who is by far the most interesting.
Everyone hated this movie but me. I liked it a lot. It is a really sick film with a very interesting main villain and everyone's favorite lesbian/femdom popular culture icon, Wonder Woman.
Any woman who dresses up in an outfit like that, or looks like Linda Carter or our modern version, the gender ambiguous Gal Gadot, immediately gets my respect and I am interested in anything she has to say whether its about fighting the Nazis or any other subject she may care to discuss.
Since this blog and other things I write often discuss the semiotics and mechanics of visual effects, these two movies are excellent examples of how irrelevant visual effects are to the filmmaking art in so many cases. The visual effects of both movies are very good, possibly even exceptional. There is some very good design in parts of these two films and they are to be congratulated. They are not even completely excessive as they are in so many movies. But that said, and I will go over some design elements to highlight them in another post, that while these two movies are helped by their visual effects, the effects are not decisive. It is the casting, the story and the direction that sets the tone and everything else is in a supporting role.
Whatever these two movies are, they are not trivial, shallow comic book superhero films. Whether they are a metaphor of our civilization like the more diverse and generally somewhat more pleasant Marvel films are, remains to be seen. But it is interesting that these two tentpole projects for the DC Extended Universe are so very and unrelentingly dark, violent, and without hope.
I think that we should also note that two of the main characters of the second movie, Batman and Lex Luther, are able to do what they do, whether we approve or not, because they are rich. They may be talented as well, but at the very least these movies touch on the that great American theme, that wealth is required to participate in our society. If you are without wealth, then I would not count on being permitted to do anything of value.
Although no reviewer or fan has mentioned this, so far as I know, it is the women of Batman vs Superman who steal this movie. Even when they do not have a speaking part, they are by far the most interesting characters. And let there be no doubt why I think so, and please don't hate me, its because they pretty much are all desirable, in one way or another.
Whatever else can be said about these movies, they are not light hearted. Whether they amount to more than the sum of their parts remains to be seen.