Standing in the Ashes of Metropolis

Much discussion in Interwebland about Suicide Squad, the latest film in DC Comics’ attempt to replicate the success (so far) of Marvel’s ‘cinematic universe’, or ‘MCU’.

No, the other one.

Was Suicide Squad any good? Dunno. Not seen it yet. Not seen Star Trek Beyond yet, either – which is something I didn’t expect. Being a Mad Trekkie I honestly thought I’d have been straight down the cinema for that one, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet.

(Ghostbusters was good, though. Sorry, but it was.)

All right, sorry – back to Suicide Squad.

There are bits of Suicide Squad that look quite appealing to me. Harley Quinn is one of them. Will Smith another[1]. Jared Leto’s The Joker does not particularly appeal to me – but that’s probably because Heath Ledger pwned that role so completely that I can’t imagine anyone, no matter how flamboyantly deranged they try to look and act, being as unsettlingly unhinged as his version.

But honestly, my biggest problem with Suicide Squad isn’t a problem with Suicide Squad, so much as it’s a problem with… well, movies. If by ‘movies’ we mean huge blockbuster tentpole epic CGI ‘splode-fests. And let’s face it: we do. Because that’s what movies are now. And that’s a problem for me, even if it’s not for the box office takings.

I said at the start that DC were trying to replicate the success of the MCU. That’s a burden for them in itself. It might not be that Marvel’s overall project has more inherent merit than DC’s – that their movies or the shared universe itself will be intrinsically ‘better’; it’s just that Marvel got started first. That means that DC doing the same thing will always be ‘DC Doing The Same Thing’: following the trail that Marvel blazed.

And, to be blunt, I think that, so far, DC’s offerings have been a little ramshackle. Man of Steel was the first movie to take Superman into the fashionable dark-and-gritty territory that’s been the hallmark of action movies for the last fifteen years. Superman Returns dipped into that mire a little, by making Supes into a sort of whiny, stalky, red-and-blue version of Edward Cullen, but it was only with Man of Steel that the Man of Steel went Full Grit.

It wasn’t that Man of Steel was a bad film. Well, it may’ve been – I’m not a film critic. But I didn’t think it was too bad. It was… okay. Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (hereafter BVSDOJ) was… kind of okay. It was less not bad than MoS, but fun enough while I was watching it, and it was only as I looked back on it afterwards that it seemed to weaken. (The one exception – the moment that annoyed me even sitting in the cinema – was that the titular conflict could easily have been avoided if one character had chosen to talk to the other, rather than advancing menacingly on him and shouting. These characters are supposed to be intelligent and, in Supes’ case at least, unyieldingly moral.)

The story in BVSDOJ felt forced, numerous elements of the plot seemed implausible (minor example: you can see Gotham from Metropolis? Really?), and it was always going to be hard to strike a tone consistent with Batman’s worldview and that of Superman, and make the audience empathise with both.

Of the Marvel films and their respective characters, Thor is by far my favourite. I’m rather looking forward to seeing more of Wonder Woman, and of Aquaman. There may be a common thread behind my liking for these characters, but I couldn’t possibly comment, I’m sure.

*squeak*

And I enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy very much. But the notable thing about that movie was that, despite being part of the MCU – the McGuffin for the plot was one of the Infinity Stones and there was a link to the larger universe via the Collector – GotG wasn’t really a superhero film. It was just your basic space opera, with a likable main character in ‘Starlord’; there was a fantastic anthropomorphic raccoon; and… well, there was this guy:

Are these, or any of the other GotG characters, really ‘superheroes’?

Then there was Deadpool – a movie whose appeal rests squarely on the magnificence of Ryan Reynolds. I genuinely believe that movie was the success it was only because of that casting choice.

I may be being unfair to DC in saying they’re running to catch up. Their characters are pop-culture staples. They’re icons. And millions of people have devoured decades’ worth of comic books featuring these characters alone or working together, or fighting, or whatever.  Marvel and DC both have an equal right to shoot for success in the shared-universe stakes.

But lurking under this sense of general dissatisfaction is a certain weariness. I’m getting tired of superhero movies. I’m losing interest in shared universes – even though I think that’s potentially one of the most interesting developments in moving-picture storytelling. I’m still quite interested to see what the Star Wars franchise comes up with in terms of non-Skywalker-related spinoffs. But I’m only ‘quite interested’, as opposed to ‘bouncingly excited’.

Is it that I just can’t follow an extended, interwoven arc? Some would claim as much, I’m sure. It may be to do with the fact that the superhero mythos has never particularly caught my interest. These figures have been with us since ancient times: characters like Perseus, Odysseus and Heracles were their era’s Superman. They were parables – lessons in the virtues that men[5] should aim to embody. We still need that – but perhaps the lessons we need have changed.

That, I think, is the key to it for me. I haven’t seen that many films in recent years that haven’t concluded with a massive, epic battle, wreaking huge devastation but it’s all okay because the heroes have triumphed. There may be no better examples of (fictitious) Pyrrhic victories than Superman standing in the ashes of Metropolis having defeated Zod (spoiler, by the way, but come the fuck on), or Kirk warping off into the sunset leaving San Francisco utterly crushed under the wreckage of an illegal Federation starship (spoiler, by the way).

‘Winning’, rebooted-Star-Trek style.

This probably says a lot about me, since I’m an acknowledged pacifist/pussy (depending on your perspective). But putting aside the obvious “it’s just a movie” point, I can’t walk out of a cinema in a celebratory mood when I’ve just watched our heroes win at the cost of hundreds, thousand or millions of lives. And yes, we can apply Vulcan utilitarianism here, and point out that had the heroes not won, far more lives would have been lost. The needs of the many do indeed outweigh the needs of the few. I get that. And certainly we’re victorious if we prevent more death, suffering and destruction – but there are times when even victory should be cause for sorrow. This isn’t just me being a miserable killjoy: this is me acknowledging the complexity of reality. The Allies won World War II, for sure, and no doubt prevented far greater atrocity at the hands of the Nazis – but that victory came at such great cost that there’s at least some grounds to say that, really, everybody lost that one. Much as I can’t now (from the luxury of my modern-day armchair) look back at World War II and whoop with joy at the outcome, so I find I can’t put that sense aside, even for the sake of a silly popcorn movie.

Back to fiction. Dark-and-gritty is the order of the day, I realise. It’s what we want – perhaps because, as is often the case, we’re embedding our fears in our pop culture as a mechanism for dealing with them. It’s notable that American movies since 2001 have included a great deal of imagery echoing 9/11 – much as Japanese movies of the fifties and sixties reflected the social and cultural shock they suffered as a result of the nuclear bombings in 1945. Movies are the mirror of the society’s hopes and fears.

The problem is that modern blockbusters – and superhero movies in particular – are providing a lot of one and not a great deal of the other. Where’s the hope? Is ‘we’ll probably be able to out-punch the bad guys’ really the best status quo humanity can hope for?

Of course action movies need action – and every kind of story needs a conflict of some kind. Even I wouldn’t advocate for conflict-free movies or novels, because story is conflict. But ‘conflict’ in story terms doesn’t have to mean death and destruction on a biblical scale. Superheroes teach us that the first and only response to a threat must be to punch it to death or explode it. And by their own lights, this is fair: superhero movies and blockbusters in general don’t confront the heroes with the kind of threat that can be dealt with in any other way. It’s all evil gods, alien invasion forces – in short, it’s active and self-aware evil.

But in reality, the threats we face most often aren’t like that. There’s usually no evil to attack. Confronting real problems with a punch or a ‘splode generally doesn’t make them go away – and in many cases it’ll simply make them worse. Mostly, our problems stem from groups of people who don’t see things in the way we do. If we get to the point where we have to pick up guns to press our case, then we’ve failed. Even if we prevail in the end, it’s no real victory.

And some threats don’t care. There’s nothing to punch in addressing climate change. The environment isn’t evil either: it just is. And there’s nothing we can explode that will make everything okay again. All that could possibly overcome our pressing environmental threat would be unified action by people the world over.

If movies are our modern myths – if their purpose (beyond making money for the studios; I mean their social purpose) is to teach us the lessons we need to learn to be the best we can be – then they need to start showing us a better vision of ourselves. We need to be reminded – convinced – of the value of working together, thinking rationally, and the importance of compromise and negotiation. Superheroes need to be leading the way and setting us an example. And Star Trek needs to give us more Federation, and less Klingon Empire.


[1] – Because I don’t know the actor’s name[2], and because I don’t know the character’s name[3], respectively.
[2] – Margot Robbie.
[3] – Deadshot.[4]
[4] – Turns out IMDB can be quite useful.
[5] – Because it was the ancient world and it was all about men back then.

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