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DCEU DNA: How The DC Movies Tell Their History

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Let’s face it, the DCEU as we knew it, is history.

The movie universe based on DC comics characters as originally conceived by Christopher Nolan and developed by Zack Snyder in 2013 with Man of Steel is gone. Its detractors would argue it’s for the best while many of its fans still can’t seem to get over the loss. Originally it was planned to be a 5 movie arc for Superman with other DC characters to be introduced to advance that arc, however Warner Bros. couldn’t wait to get their hands on that sweet ‘Avengers’ level money and instructed Snyder to lay out the groundwork for a universe which would set up movies for other characters as well.

The DC Extended Universe (or DCEU as it was formally known) was never intended by Zack Snyder and Chris Terrio to be a copy of their rivals at Marvel. It was never meant to be as a monolithic, episodic and formulaic shared universe with the same tone. It was meant to just provide a platform for each and every director to bring their unique flavors. The original DCEU slate was also unique in that it was not a step by step approach of stand-alone movies for setting up characters who would then come together for a large team up movie like the MCU.

It had a different approach introducing stand-alone movies in between parts of Justice League allowing the ensemble movies to be jumping points for solo movies. Meaning one could technically watch only the Justice League movie to get a grand epic saga and the solo movies would be additional stand-alone stories for the characters to have their own possibly self-contained adventures. But biased critical reception and hesitation on Warner Bros. part to let the universe thrive as planned led to the early demise of the original DCEU. It wasn’t allowed to grow as planned. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t evolve.

Just like evolution in nature is often unplanned but organic and unique, the DCEU has somehow evolved into a franchise with vastly different tones and stories. Yet even without a central show-runner, it is fascinating how all of the movies still share some common aspects. From creating an alternative to the now (in)famous post credit scenes, (How Zack Snyder Was Replacing The Post Credit Scene Fad by John Arryn Garza) to placing more importance on the ‘human’ aspect of super-human (Why DC Is Considered Dark by yours truly), In our on-going series how all of the DCEU movies organically evolved from the same ‘DCEU DNA’, this time we discuss another factor unique to it – the History Lesson.

Talk to any DCEU fan and most of them will know what the words ‘History lesson’ mean. All comic book properties have decades of lore and mythology behind them, it is always hard for the director to please comic book aficionados in this case. Even if not trying to please them, sometimes details essential to the story of the particular movie have to be compressed and presented to an audience who has not necessarily read that Batman Issue 21 Vol 3 released in 1993 or something. Conveying of information necessary to the plot is defined as exposition or when done poorly as an information dump.

SHOW N TELL

To avoid this information dump, one of the first golden nuggets of story-telling that anyone tells you is – ‘show, don’t tell’. While this doesn’t mean literally show. It means rather than telling the information to the audience plainly and bluntly, try and make it organic – have it cleverly included in a conversation or done by means of in-story media like a news clipping or a file etc. Clever dialogue writing is essential to give organic exposition lest it sound too heavy. Often flashbacks are used to give out essential information to the plot. Another way to do this is to have someone narrate the information in the form of a story to one of the characters, in turn narrating the story to us the audience as well.

It is surprising how the DCEU combines all these various tools of in-story media, engaging dialogue, a narrator and flashback into one. Again, it isn’t planned to be this way but somehow all the movies have at least one or more of these “History lesson” scenes. Here are in no particular order the History lessons the DCEU:

“I have so many questions – Where do I come from? “

 

Although we are given an elaborate flashback of Superman’s home planet Krypton in the opening scenes of Man of Steel, it is not until almost 50 minutes in that you get the details of the real story of what happened on Krypton and why Jor-El had to send his son Kal-El to Earth light years away. While this scene could easily have been Russel Crowe’s Jor-El merely narrating the history to Henry Cavil with dramatic close ups or maybe some kind of video message, Snyder being a visual director decides to ‘show’ this history on screen. The conversation takes place inside an ancient Kryptonian ship and a certain Kryptonian material becomes starts shaping itself into various shapes depicting the story.

This is where even while watching it in the theater for the first time, I knew that Nolan definitely didn’t write the scene like this- not taking away from his exposition skills at all. I mean Inception has continuous exposition until almost the last scenes and it still is rocks as a movie. But this kind of stylistic visual exposition, almost like a comic book, had to be Snyder’s touch. Also, if you want to dig deeper, the depictions slowly turns to Stalin era revolutionary communist art when Jor-El mentions General Zod’s revolution, this is Snyder putting his fine art degree to use, conveying the fascist nature of Zod and the neo-socialist nature of Krypton’s govt.

 

“You have told me this story”
“Which is why tonight I will tell you another one”

 

 

Zack Snyder was one of the writers on Wonder Woman and the movie with its comic panel like action scenes and time ramping carries his stamp even outside the writing aspects. However, the biggest influence is seen when Queen Hippolyta is telling young Diana the story of the Amazons.

The story is depicted in a motion comic like format but with classical European art as an influence. All of the images are gorgeous and without showing actual facial expressions of the major characters, it conveys drama and depth. It has a fantastic dream like quality to it and is our first introduction to the story’s main antagonist – Ares. It creates this mythical larger than life image of Ares in our mind and this setting up of that image is cleverly subverted to deliver a twist later on in the movie.

 

“Oh, I know this story”
“It’s not a story. It’s real”


While Aquaman may have differed vastly in tone to the DCEU movies that came before it, it also retains in its DNA aspects like gorgeous cinematography and slo-mo action scenes. It also shares a connection with Wonder-Woman not just in terms of Greek mythology aspects but it also has a fantastical bed-time story like History Lesson.

Exposition was essential to Aquaman’s story since unlike Batman or Superman, his lore isn’t that well known outside of comic book readers. James Wan had a whale of a task on hand (pun intended) to set up Atlantis’ lore in order for the movie to pay off. The movie almost has Lord of The Rings like mythology with 7 different kingdoms, magical races and weapons etc. This scene is narrated by Atlantean scientist and Aquaman’s mentor Vulko and is the story of the legendary trident of King Atlan with the power over the sea. The scenes depict a technologically advanced civilization, its fall and how it Atlanteans gained the ability to breathe under water, how the different kingdoms came to be etc. all this in a matter of minutes, thus bringing us up to date with Atlantis and also pushing the story forward in letting us know why Aquaman needs to find the Trident. While traditionally any such movie would have probably opened with such a history lesson (Black Panther, Lord of the Rings), another characteristic of the DCEU is that they like their history lessons midway.

“There was a time above…a time before…”


Nobody ever imagined that a super-hero movie titled Batman Vs Superman would open with such hauntingly poetic lines. It’s a play upon the “Once upon a time…” trope of kid’s stories but with a much more somber touch. Now the one history in comic book movies which doesn’t ever need re-telling is that of the death of the Wayne’s. The shooting of Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of little Bruce Wayne has been shown in almost every major comic book, TV series, movie, video game etc. before. So what was the point of showing it once again?

Not just for the fact that it is the most gorgeously shot of all the scenes before it…with the pearls scattering…and Thomas Wayne glove tightening…all in its Snyder-esque glory. But it was necessary to establish that (a) This is a different Batman and (b) It really matters that the very first words you actually see someone speak on screen (Affleck is narrating, Alfred’s voice is barely heard when is trying to stop young Bruce from running away) are “Martha”. Yeah. They kinda set it up. The close up on the lips almost “Rosebud” style from Citizen Kane. It is THAT important.

However, unlike the examples above, this is a flashback than more of a ‘history lesson’ (arguments can be made into nuance of each ones definition). It’s not midway into the movie unlike most history lessons and although it takes you into the nightmare-ish world of Bruce Wayne’s mind…it doesn’t transport you to a fantastical time and place.

But that kinda happens later on. I mean this more of a ‘Flash’-forward (Yes Again. Puns always intended) but Bruce Wayne suddenly gets a vision of an alternate time where Darkseid has conquered the earth and Superman is an evil dictator like the Injustice comic books. The scene known popularly as ‘Knightmare’ is kind of a history lesson as it is something which happens in alternate timeline. Bruce is inspired by this vision as to not repeat his mistakes. The scene was actually a set-up for the Justice League movies.

“It was truly an age of heroes”

History is full of mysteries. The history of this movie especially this scene from Justice League is particularly mysterious. The scene as it was in the theatrical version consists of Diana narrating the story of Steppenwolf’s first attack on earth eons ago, when Men, Atlanteans, Amazons and Old Gods like Zeus and Ares got together to defeat him. It is even in its butchered theatrical version a grandiose LoTR style epic battle with a cameo from one of the Green Lanterns.

However, subsequent digging by many people and confessions by actors like Nick McKinless who reportedly played Ares in this scene and also some clues by Zack Snyder himself has led to the theories it was even more elaborate. The original history lesson was supposed to involve Darkseid himself and perhaps started differently with Diana discovering a mural in some monument (an exclusive dug up by DC Films Hub/Reelanarchy ).


Speculation has lead from Supergirl having an appearance to Darkseid being replaced by Steppenwolf in the Joss Whedon reshoots to the scene possibly being the opening scene of the movie. However wild theories apart, the scene as it seen even in the theatrical cut seems oddly edited. Our own John Arryn Garza has a wonderful detailed video on this particular scene on YouTube here, where he puts the scenes in their rightful order.

“Own that Shit! What did you think was gonna happen?!”


While Suicide Squad which was another victim of butchered editing on corporate orders, it has way too many history lessons to count. All of the characters are given (except infamously Slipknot) some kind of Flashback narrated by Amanda Waller. Again the movie’s butchered tone also leads to many facts being merely bluntly told to us by either on – screen stats cards for the main characters or by Rick Flagg who is just an exposition machine. The info cards are actually very creatively done though.

But the best history lesson, is the back-story of Diablo. Emotional, dramatic and immediately bringing to the fore the central theme of the movie (owning your mistakes and redemption) the scene is beautifully narrated, acted, well-paced and well shot with Diablo conjuring up a female figure from the flames on his hand which poetically dies down.

“I choose you as Champion”


While Shazam is a movie with a much smaller budget, it does have a very interesting history lesson. In the rock of Eternity where the ancient wizard is choosing his champion, he briefly gives a history of what went wrong the last time he choose a champion a few thousand years ago. This is depicted with yellow magical particles forming shapes. While nothing deep or superbly artistic about it, the reference to ancient Egypt and another champion who got corrupted immediately strikes a note of recognition in any geek’s mind. It was referring to Shazam’s arch enemy – Black Adam.

As it can be seen, the “History lesson” is not just is a creative exposition tool, but also as a fertile ground for planting future movies instead of having the typical Post credits scene. This also lets the movie be more complete on its own, instead of making the future set up too obvious like the Thor scenes in Age of Ultron. A Green Lantern cameo in Justice League, Harley Quinn backstory in Suicide Squad (an on-screen card clearly mentions her as an accomplice in Robin’s murder, which was also referenced in a graffiti covered Robin suit in the Batcave in Batman V Superman), Flash’s Cameo in Suicide Squad, the Knightmare in Batman V Superman etc. were all seeds planted in fertile grounds. These would later grow into Flash solo movie, Ben Affleck Batman solo movie, Joker-Harley spin off, Green Lantern as was originally planned. As of now however Black Adam and The Trench movie from Aquaman are on the cards whose seeds were planted in their respective history lessons.

While the next two DCEU movies, (Joker is a stand-alone movie) Birds of Prey (which reportedly has another Harley Quinn – Joker backstory) or Wonder woman 1984 (which is literally set in history) may or may not carry this tradition forward, the history lesson is another fascinating factor of a fractured franchise (yes, alliteration is also intended). The one thing Warner Bros/DC can do is learn from their history and not repeat mistakes of their past in trying to copy their peers.

Because let’s face it, the DCEU as we knew it may be history but just like the Krypton codex attached to Kal-El’s DNA, it still holds the promise of a unique future.

Writer, blogger comic book and movie geek offering a unique take on story-telling and narrative aspects

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