Three films into the DC Extended Universe. Three chances to wow the fans, or alternatively, redeem themselves. Now here we stand, having seen two DVDs with extended cuts that promised to redeem unforgivable messes. They may have tried to smooth it out but have not tackled the underlying flaws. This is strike three, and may well be time for us to say that the DCEU is ‘out’.
We have had Man of Steel, a film about one of the most famously optimistic, escapist characters, that portrayed idealism as naïve and equated ‘reality’ with ‘death, depression, and grey wastelands’. We were promised all would be made right with Batman V Superman, which portrayed the beloved dark knight as a murderous sadist and the man of tomorrow as more concerned with his girlfriend and self-doubt than actually saving lives. And finally, we have had Suicide Squad, a jumbled mess of a video game plot and villain, an attempt at gritty, ‘street’ style characters, a wacky and irreverent tone, and a more optimistic message centered around a group of press ganged murderers, cannibals, rapists and psychopaths. The tentpoles are being erected, yet the canvas blows impotently in the wind.
As a few people have pointed out, there is a common denominator at work here. Zack Snyder has directed two films and has a role as executive producer on all of them. His sensibilities run deep through the projector. If you have seen 300, you have seen his appreciation for Supermen who are killing machines. Watchmen was an almost identical copy of the comic book it was based on, yet somehow lacked weight and depth even with dynamic performances and effects. Sucker Punch shows just how good he is at writing women and trying a feminist message. Watch any interview with him, and marvel as a fifty year old man talks like a thirteen year old boy about his own work.
If you listen to him actually describe his own work, then you will see the fundamental problem he has imposed on the DCEU. All he can consider, whenever he creates, adapts or changes material, is ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’. That is the heart of a Zack Snyder movie. Not whether it is logical, relatable, coherent, engaging or faithful to the material. Above all other things, it must be cool.
The Big Blue Boy Scout
The confirming line is a throw away one in Batman V Superman that wouldn’t even be noticeable if it hadn’t been delivered so ostentatiously. When Clark Kent’s boss Perry White is chewing him out for demanding he pursues the stories he believes are more important, he snaps at him ‘This isn’t 1938 anymore. Apples don’t cost a nickel.’ Odd thing to bring up, unless you know that this was the year Superman was first introduced to readers of Action Comics. The line shows a direct rejection of the classic red and blue boy scout, who stood for Truth, Justice and the American Way.
Henry Cavill’s Superman is often shown doing his good deed for the day. He saves workers from a burning oil rig in Man of Steel, and there is a montage of him rescuing people from all kinds of disasters in Batman V Superman. In other movies, these scenes might be a turning point for the hero, realising the good he can do for the world, or simply a celebration of being able to do the right thing as best you can. For Zack Snyder’s Superman, they are made to look like drab, depressing affairs. The shots are filmed to put more emphasis on Superman’s incredible power, showing his bare chest unaffected by flames, or him lifting up the top of an exploded rocket, Atlas style. He does not seem to derive any pleasure from helping people. He does it almost begrudgingly, as if he knows that this is what Superman does, and he must simply do what is expected of him. I think this speaks sad volumes to Snyder’s vision of the character. This isn’t your Dad’s Superman. Because that Superman isn’t cool.
So what is cool? Solving your problems with violence, being more physical powerful than the plebs beneath you, and not being constrained by their petty morality. Just like DC’s other big hero.
The Caped Crusader
Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight is a whole other character. His performance is phenomenal and perfectly evokes the fearsome symbol of a criminals worst downfall. But the interpretation of this Batman (which is not, I stress, Affleck’s fault) is far from the classic champion of justice who holds himself above guns and violence. He shots, stabs and murders crooks with little restraint, often in such elaborate ways as blowing them up in trucks or crushing their heads with crates that it indicates some real sadism. His plan to prevent Superman’s unchecked power from destroying humanity is one of moral absolutism: kill the alien, save the world.
When Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale showed us their Batman, he was a fascinating and tragic character, because he did the chose to do the right thing even when there were clearly easier ways that would get the job done quicker, and knew not to trust himself with too much power – in short, he knew he was lying when he said ‘Batman has no limitations’. He was fighting against the darkness in himself and choose to keep it at bay.
By contrast, look at how Snyder’s Dark Knight. For all the talk about how much more violent he has become, his victims are all shown to be deserving, and his rampages are portrayed as displays of awesome power. The extended cut goes one step further by showing that the ‘Bat Brand’ – said to be a death sentence for any convict – has actually achieved its reputation due to Lex Luthor paying of thugs to murder the branded, further trying to remove the ambiguity and show Batman as a hero.
This Batman is a reckless and terrifying character because he is possessed by his own certainty. The certainty that the ends justify his means, that he can cross the same moral lines as criminals by killing in cold blood without stooping to their level, and that what he is doing is right, no further questions. It is not enough to call Batman more of an anti-hero – he was always an anti-hero, the darker foil to Superman’s golden image, and he managed that ambiguity without bloodshed. This Batman has more traits that make him an excellent villain, instead of a hero. But in a Zack Snyder movie, it is exactly those traits that make him cool.
We can talk a lot about how this new Batman, who is far more vicious and self-assured in his methods than ever before, shows just how far from the path the DCEU has strayed. But I think there is an even more terrible mascot for just how cool DC now is:
The Clown Prince of Crime
Jared Leto’s Joker is, in many ways, a pure psychopath. I think if you compare his personality to the Robert Hare checklist of psychopathic traits, he may actually score the highest out of any of the onscreen Jokers. He is glib and slick, possesses enough charm to compel his Doctor Quinzel to fall in love with him, and compelling enough to run a mob organisation. He is impulsive and arrogant, killing for imagined slights and recklessly endangering himself and others (He intentionally drives into a river, stands casually on a crashing gunship and once let Harley point a gun at his head. Not only is he not afraid, he doesn’t even seem to realise he is in danger at any point.) He is a manipulative liar, tricking Harley into nearly committing suicide. He spends a long time seducing and later rescuing Harley, only to let her get caught again and eventually try to kill her, indicating he does not think long term. kills without remorse, blames everyone else for making him angry, delights in causing pain and shows no signs of empathy.
Whether or not you like this take on the Joker, he would be an absolutely terrifying and despicable person if you met him in real life, as would past Jokers. They were funny to watch but also horrifying and scary, as such an excellent villain should be. We would recoil from them even as we were fascinated. But I think that the DC Cinematic Universe has failed on this crucial character even worse than with others, because of one fatal flaw. What is the big difference Leto’s Joker and past Jokers? It’s not the tattoos, the costume, or the performance. It is that as far as the filmmakers are concerned, we are supposed to love him. Not love to hate him, or love how impressive a villain he is. Everything we see in Suicide Squad indicates that we are supposed to like this character and be on his side.
Listen to any of cast or crew member of Suicide Squad talking in interviews about the Joker, about how ‘fun’ and ‘unpredictable’ a character he is. Jared Leto himself talks about the character as if he is meant to be an escapist fantasy instead of a nightmare. Batman v Superman indicated that The Joker murdered Robin. Suicide Squad brushes over the issue so quickly that I had to rewatch it to get the hint, and even then I’m not entirely sure Watch behind the scenes reports (and footage, if you can find it) of the Joker slapping Harley and cruelly abandoning her. In the film, he never strikes her and seems genuinely, madly desperate to get her back. I think one very telling moment is the scene in which he rescues her in a helicopter. As it is shot down, he pushes her out onto a building to save her whilst he goes down, both of them crying out for each other. According to a report of the original cut, he had had in fact got into an angry argument with her as the ship was being shot, and pushed her out to try and kill her (and putting in a great deal of work to achieve a goal, only to suddenly squander it just before or after achieving it is a classical psychopathic behaviour.) When I watched the film again with this new information in mind, the editing work that disguised the original intent was obvious.
My point here is not on whether or not you like the performance, or even the character generally. The point is that in terms of what we have seen on film, The Joker is objectively more heroic than Batman. And that completely goes against the grain of what these characters represent. It’s just wrong.
Wonder Woman and Justice League are still incoming, and it remains to be seen whether or not the promised redemption will arrive. But whether or not it does, I have no faith in as long as the DCEU is weighed down by the need to show us how violently, smarmily, unpleasantly cool it is.
My main worry is that they will try and fix course in the wrong way. Zack Snyder makes for a great visual director when reigned in. Jared Leto is capable of giving of a good performance, as the Oscar proves, he just needs better direction and less indulgence. Some films can be dark, others can be fun, just choose them as appropriate, not to balance out previous mistakes. And for the love of God, stop being cool and start being engaging!