WHY DC IS CONSIDERED “DARK?”
It is 2002 and as a 14-year-old am watching Sam Raimi’s Spiderman for the first time. I can’t wait to see Peter Parker put on the costume and fight some villains. All the pesky humans with no super-powers like Mary Jane, Aunty May, J Jonah Jameson etc. are just getting in the way. I can’t wait for Uncle Ben to just die so that I get to see what I am there to see – some Superhero action. Not regular human problems.
It is 2012 and am sitting in a jam-packed theatre watching The Dark Knight Rises. Batman doesn’t even show up in costume until minute 46 and am not the least bit concerned. Neither are all the people sitting there. Batman’s arrival is certainly meet with the cheer it deserves, but the drama preceding it concerning a worried Commissioner Gordon hiding a secret, the ghost of Harvey Dent’s death still affecting Gotham, a concerned Alfred worried about an aging Bruce Wayne forcing himself into action after 7 years is still very engaging.
What happened in between was not just that I grew up but the comic book movie genre did as well. Thanks to a certain Mr. Nolan who would take the genre to its greatest heights by asking one simple question—what if these fantastical heroes existed in our real world? The tone and themes that would then dictate the narrative made the hero’s surroundings and hence the average human supporting characters relatable and hence compelling. No one remembers The Dark Knight trilogy for its action scenes or action movie one-liners – they remember it for the amount of intensity this bit of realism bought to it. Fantastical villains like a psycho who wears clown make up or a league of secret assassins seemed…plausible. Hence the stakes felt real. No comic book movie before Batman Begins had made the city, the supporting characters as a gateway to connect to these masked superheroes.
It is 2010 and am watching Zack Snyder’s Watchmen for the first time on a pirated DVD. I couldn’t watch it originally when it released and only thing I vaguely knew about Watchmen was that it was frequently termed to be a complex, ‘unfilmable’ graphic novel. Only thing I knew about Snyder was that he had directed one of the most unique movie experiences I’ve ever had – 300. I had my doubts if he was the right man for the job. A 162 minutes later (this was the theatrical version), I sat there knowing I would definitely be revisiting this movie many times in the future. Rarely had any comic book movie even attempted to deconstruct metahumans (although technically only of them has superpowers) down to their human bits…in order to understand ourselves better. Nobody had ever used masks as a mirror for humanity.
It is 2013 and Mankind is introduced to the Superman…
If asked what is one character common to all DC movies since Batman Begins…barring 2011’s Green Lantern…ok Let’s rephrase, if asked what is the one factor common to all good DC movies since 2005’s Batman Begins? The answer is YOU. By that I don’t mean like ‘the monster was inside you all along’ and not just that it’s because you bought the tickets, it is us. It’s us normal, everyday people… it is the fact that because these movies base themselves in our real world that they created their own unique appeal. Eventually, it would be what would set them apart from their financially super successful and more popular competitor – Marvel.
This is a very Earth 2 scenario since in the comics Marvel has always been the one to bring realism to its characters. Marvel comics have always dealt with issues like Peter Parker balancing studies, temp jobs and his love life while fighting the villains that threaten New York or with racism and social stigma on mutants in X-Men. While DC until at least until (the 80’s when Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns) dealt with fantastic characters facing either cosmic level or weird, goofy, unrealistic threats.
Zack Snyder in an interview in 2013 during the release of Man of Steel commented upon this very fact saying “Chris (Nolan) and I talked about it a lot and I think Warner Bros. really needs to stay with what we do. After the Dark Knight trilogy and after this restart of Superman, we have a tone that works us and works for the DC universe. It’s funny because in the comics Marvel was always the darker one and DC was the bright, happier one. This is a weird paradigm shift and I like that. “
While the DC universe whose foundation Nolan and Snyder laid in Man of Steel may not exist anymore, partially due to biased critical response but primarily due to a studio which did not (and some would say still does not) understand its own USP. But their DNA is apparent throughout each and every movie being released in the DCEU. Just like how evolution in nature is chaotic yet organic, even though these movies may not be in a shared universe but they share this one common factor among them. All of them in some way or the other deal with the real world and how humanity would react to the arrival of Metahumans. Some movies also show as to how Meta-humans would react to discovering humans. Let’s take a look at how each of these movies incorporates these themes:-
- MAN OF STEEL :
“You are not alone”
MoS is more than just a Superman reboot. It is a great first contact/alien invasion movie. It is a great immigrant story and just like superman, it means many things to many people. However, the way the movie uses reporter Lois Lane as humanity’s first eyes into Kal-el is unique. It also adds fascinating human characters like a sceptical General Swanwick or Colonel Hardy as the brave soldier who not only learns to distinguish between good and bad aliens, but also learns to be brave in the face of beings with God-like Powers. The movie also gives us Kal-el discovering his metahuman nature and gives us Jonathan Kent as a human who wants to his son to fully understand what it means to be human before he can become a God. Jor-El also says to Kal-el “You can embody best of both worlds (Krypton and Earth)”. This bridge between two worlds is a theme we will encounter again in future movies.
- BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE:
“Everything’s changed. Men fall from the Sky. Gods hurl Thunderbolts. Innocents die”
It’s very difficult to talk about this movie and not go into a 4 hour rant. The scope of this movie, the ambition, and the stakes on hand everything is just next level. This movie is the peak of the DCEU and among many personal themes focuses on what makes Men and Gods. It cleverly uses the destruction caused in the climax of Man of Steel with two Superpowered beings fighting carelessly in Metropolis and uses that as a setting for its own story. One event viewed first from a God’s perspective and then from Man’s. It shows how the arrival of such powerful beings can trigger aggressive responses especially in men (Luthor and Wayne) who considered themselves powerful until then. The loss of control, finding out that we are not alone in the universe…it perfectly shows that just like with most things in real life, such events would divide society. The ‘v’ in BvS is indicative of these fault lines. Right from polarizing media re-actions to contemplating the political implications of Superman’s actions, the movie covers so much while still delivering a blockbuster. It takes the death of a God to make a Man re-affirm his faith in humanity and for a Goddess to rediscover her human connection.
- SUICIDE SQUAD:
“The world changed when Superman flew across the skies, it changed again when he didn’t. And that is why I am here”
While BvS perfectly captures society’s reaction to the arrival of Metahumans, Suicide Squad captures the Govt’s reaction to it. The movie discusses themes like ‘What if the next Superman doesn’t share our values?’ ‘Like it or not. We are not the only ones looking for them.’ It shows exactly what governments around the world would do if they found out metahumans existed. Just like the nuclear arms race, everyone would want to have one on their side. While not as deep as BvS in its themes, the movie again bases itself in reality by at least making these aspects the reason for formation of the squad. It also has super-powered characters fight humanity and has one of them sacrifice himself for a society which would never accept him. Playing beautifully around with themes of redemption and what makes a good human being, Suicide Squad (even after Warner Bros. ordered reshoots to include ‘humour’) is still thematically linked to BvS and MoS, though being the first DCEU movie to have no direct Nolan or Snyder involvement.
- WONDER WOMAN:
“We are the bridge to a greater understanding among men”
Snyder’s involvement with Patty Jenkins’ first truly great Female Superhero movie was not just evident in the slo-mo and comic accurate action scenes, it also reflected in its story. This movie also carries on the themes of a bridge between two worlds initially introduced in MoS. While up to this point, most of the DCEU movies concentrated on how we as a society would react to Gods among us, Wonder Woman deals also with how a God would react to us. The No-man’s land being a pinnacle of both facets of the story. It is Diana’s journey into discovering humans, being horrified by the things they can do to each other and then still learning to accept them because it’s not about deserve. It’s about her making the choice to do so…thus again exploring themes of what truly makes a God or Goddess is the choices that they are not given to emotional or physical compulsions because they choose to rise above them.
- JUSTICE LEAGUE :
“I don’t have to recognize this world. I have to save it”
While this is the point where the behind the scenes drama by Warner Bros. lead to effectively the death of what could’ve been a unique cinematic franchise, Justice League still carries some of the similar themes from previous movies. Again it is uncertain as to how much of the version we saw is shot by Snyder or reshot and butchered by Joss Whedon, still the themes of Batman a mere human being in a costume trying to bring together a bunch of Metahumans to stop a cosmic level threat is the ultimate coming together of humanity which Snyder had planted in MoS. The ideas of Hope which Jor-El propounds would have come to fruition here. However, we may not know the true extent of the themes the movie really had unless Warner Bros. releases the Snyder Cut.
“You think you are unworthy to lead because you are of two different worlds? But that is exactly you are worthy. You are the bridge between land and sea”
Aquaman can, for lack of a better term, be called the ‘least DCEU’ movie of them all. It has a lot of jokes sometimes in unusual situations, it accepts its weirdness and although its villain is responding to real world water pollution being caused by humans, it does not dive deep (Pun absolutely intended) into those issues. It is at this point we can say that the DCEU’s focus from society’s response to metahumans totally shifts in on the meta-human’s personal adventures. However, the movie still has the ‘bridge between two worlds’ theme of MoS and WW. It has a love story at its center between land dweller Thomas Curry and Queen Atlanna. Also, it shows Arthur Curry as a fish-out-of-water (yes. Intended again) reacting to his Atlantean origins. Thus truly making him act as the bridge (for us as the audience) between our world and Atlantis. Moreover, the second villain Black Manta’s reaction to Aquaman is not of surprise but of accepting the inevitable. Perhaps showing a world that is now growing accustomed to maybe even expecting to encounter a metahuman at some point in their lives.
“You are the only one who I know who knows anything about this caped crusaders stuff”
If Suicide Squad was how the govt. would react to metahumans, Shazam captures the one demographic of society that would be absolutely delighted by their arrival- fanboys. Freddie Freeman is all of us, a comic book nerd who is obsessed with superheroes just like most teenagers would be. Shazam is a funny movie targeted at a younger audience that may seem to have almost nothing in common with BvS but if you think about it, if after Steppenwolf’s invasion the Justice League would have been known all over the earth…all these metahumans would be like sports-stars or rock stars or like any other celebrity with their own fandom. One other way in which Shazam exhibits the DC realism is that first thing Billy Batson does after learning about his powers is not get confused like Harry Potter or want to turn back like reluctant heroes in fiction always. He immediately wants to find out what all he can do with it. Shazam is exactly what you and I would do, if we ever got powers.
Even though the movies don’t have a central showrunner like Marvel and they are not completely connected as well, somehow all the directors have found a way to retain this ‘DC DNA’ if you will. From Alfred to Lois Lane, from Amanda Waller to Thomas Curry to Steve Trevor… the great success of the DCEU in my opinion is giving us relatable, varied engaging human characters while also opening up a window into a meta-human’s mind. The deliberate choice of not even using the word ‘superhero’ in govt. or corporate usage within the universe and using the word ‘metahuman’ instead shows us the DCEU’s early commitment to maintaining this realism. While it is sad that we may never get to see Snyder’s intended 5 part arc that would have truly taken this discovery of humanity and Godhood to the next level, let’s hope DC/WB realizes after the JL fiasco that completely letting go of their USP and falling into fantastical territory is not what works for them. They need to be real and stay real. This whole human characteristic was what was wrongly termed as “DC is dark” by many particularly owing to the Dark Knight trilogy. It is also used as a term to mock DC movies wholesale. But it was this ‘Darkness’ that shines through in their stories…holding them together, setting them apart from the others. Thankfully by the looks of Joker and Birds of Prey, it doesn’t look like they are giving up on it.