Sunday, August 16, 2015

Twisted Heroes: DC's Gods & Monsters

So I’ve mentioned it before that I love superhero stories. I’m absolutely in love with the Marvel movies and TV shows, but my heart will always truly belong to the DC animated cartoons. As a kid growing up in the 90s, I was utterly enamored with Bruce Timm’s Batman and Superman animated series. I remember coming home from school and spending afternoons and waking up early on Saturday mornings just to watch the world being saved over and over again by my favorite heroes. There was something exciting yet comforting about it.

Then as I grew up, so did my heroes with the Justice League and the Justice League Unlimited and the Young Justice series and with the many, many movies like “The Mask of the Phantasm,” “Return of the Joker,” “Doomsday,” and “Under the Red Hood.” And I got to see my heroes struggle. My heroes, who had seemed so infallible as a child began to show cracks and flaws, began to explore the moral gray ground that I knew my real world inhabited. I became privy to the more human sides of my superhuman heroes, which was fascinating.

And, to this day, I still love DC’s animated work. I think the style of art is beautiful and fun. I think many of the stories are still fun to watch. And the fight scenes are amazing!

But, as I grew up further—particularly as a storyteller—the less, well, marveled by DC’s work I seemed. Like how their obvious favoritism toward Batman often makes plots feel unbelievable; I’m a big fan of Sherlockian genius, but Batman is just a man yet he deus ex machinas more than anyone else in the Justice League, often to ridiculous and illogical degrees, like in “Superman/Batman: Apocalypse.” Or how the problem of having an obscenely superpowered boy scout like Superman, whose moral compass rarely points anywhere but directly north, almost predictably means that the bad guys are going to try to brain-wash or possess him into being their vehicle of evil. Or how, despite having a plethora of amazing and interesting female characters—in the League (Wonder Woman, Huntress, Supergirl, Black Canary, etc.), in the rogues gallery (Poison Ivy, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Granny Goodness, Star Sapphire, etc.), and just out in their wider world (Lois Lane, Amanda Waller, Max Gibson, etc.)—they’re too often treated more like overly emotional, high-tempered, reckless sidekicks, screw-ups, or eye candy rather than real, plot-moving characters. More plot devices than actual plot developers.

And I think these points can be seen in their latest animated film, “Gods and Monsters,” as well as their online “Chronicles” series done as teasers to the film.

Again, don’t get me wrong, I still thoroughly enjoyed them, but a part of me wishes that this team of animators, that does such great work, would find people to refine their stories just a bit more. To take them to that next level.

Let’s take for example the film’s new monstrous version of Batman. Kirk Langstrom (originally Man-Bat in the series) is clearly the most developed, most sympathetic character of the three. Aptly (if not amazingly) played by the actor famous for bringing serial-killer-cum-do-gooder Dexter Morgan to life, Kirk is a man dying of cancer who, through playing around with science best left alone, turns himself into a blood-sucking vampire. Choosing to make the best out of a bad situation, much like Dexter, Kirk directs his affliction toward cleaning up the mess of criminals, feeding off of dregs of society whom, he figures, deserves it.

His was the first teaser to come out online and it perfectly setup what this film was going to be. I love that it took one of Batman’s most beloved characters, Harley Quinn, and let her be part of this world’s big-reveal twist. She was a great way to make this feel familiar and strange at the same time.

The short starts off in much the way most Batman stories start. Cloaked in the night lights of Gotham, Batman stalks around in a creepy Joker-esque lair, filled with large Jack-in-the-box cages and fridges filled with grape-flavored soda and body parts (a delightful nod to the Dexter series).

Even Harley herself starts off very familiar before twisting into something new. The short keeps Harley’s very disturbed sense of humor and regressed childishness, while very much upping the mature-content ante. I also loved that, from the grape “soder” in the fridge (a nod to Superman’s Bibbo Bibbowski) to Harley’s desire to create her own family, even if she has to steal and Frankenstein it together, from “The Return of the Joker,” this short took bits and pieces from its Kids’ WB past and wove them seamlessly into this incredibly adult story, creating a kind of whimsically unsettling magic. She may hold many recognizable elements, but this is clearly not your Saturday morning’s Harle.

Which makes the short a perfect setup Batman’s vampiric twist. Harley, crazy and regressed as she often is, is smart. I don’t think she’s actually criminally insane, not by our court’s standards anyway. When she’s done well, she knows exactly what she’s doing when she does it. Always. It’s part of what makes her such a good villain; unlike many of Batman’s other villains—including her love interest, Joker—she walks into evil with her eyes open. Every time. She’s no result of some freak chemical accident or great tragic mental break; she is an example of humanity’s innate desire to revel in that which we know we shouldn’t. To make bad decisions and feel good about it. For all her playfulness and levity, what makes Harley so interesting is that everything she does is by informed choice. She’s not stupid or misled. She’s a smart and calculated person choosing to joyfully play the fool. She’s studied and understands human behavior, expertly manipulating and playing in that space. She knows exactly how the game and all its players work.

That’s what makes this short fascinating. Harley knows how her Batman works. She commits crimes, he catches her, she gets locked up in Arkham, and Gotham’s revolving-door justice system lets her out, intentionally or not, to let her start the whole cycle over, again and again. She knows that these are the rules to the game; she is so sure of it.

Right up until the moment it doesn’t work the way she expects.

That first bite perfectly sets up this world as playing just within but ultimately against those established, expected rules; I can’t think of a better way to do so.

But if I could have added one thing to the short, it would have been a line reminiscent of her “Don’t you knock before entering a lady’s boudoir?” from “Harlequinade.” Personally, I don’t understand DC’s attempts to sex-up Harley. To me, there is nothing sexier than her iconic, form-fitting harlequin outfit; everything else is just a derivative copy (including my own, I know, I know). I find it so unnecessary to dress her up in kinky nurse outfits or lingerie. And, if one is going to do so, at least make it serve a point, like in “Mad Love” when she dons lingerie to tempt the Joker. And it wasn’t even that far of a stretch to have her in her underwear in this short; she is at home and wasn’t necessarily expecting guests. Why not acknowledge it, crack a joke about it, instead of kinda making it seem like a bustier, panties, and barely held-together stockings are her normal everyday crime-wear? She’s crazy, sure, but it’s just impractical to go running around the streets of Gotham in that. I’m all for making her sexy—she undeniably and, again, joyfully is—but she could have been sexy and funny, which fits her so much better.

But, like I said, whatever she’s wearing, at least Harley got to be more than just eye-candy or a prop. The film’s main female character in the Batman story arc, Tina, is just that: a pretty prop meant to manufacture motivation for Kirk and the movie’s ultimate villain, his old college roommate, Will Magnus. Tina hardly speaks. She has little to no characterization or backstory, particularly independent of the men in her life—hell, we don’t even know what she was studying while she was in school with them. We also oddly don’t know exactly why she’s dating Magnus who is, from the start, a complete, misogynistic, consent-violating, manipulative, jealous, ungrateful jackass who isn’t even remotely sympathetic or concerned for his dying friend; why is she with him, when the movie practically hits the viewer over the head with the fact that she ought to be and would likely rather be with Kirk (though, even with Kirk, I don’t really understand the appeal; he doesn’t really have many endearing qualities and we never really get to find out much about their relationship to each other, other than that they have one)?

Except, there goes our entire plot, if her dating choices made any sense at all.

And, to be fair, it could be seen as hypocritical of me to love Harley Quinn so much, despite her horrifically abusive relationship with Joker, yet hate on Tina so much. Except, when done right, DC explains Harley’s attraction and deeply held love for the Joker very well. As someone who grew up with abuse, who intimately knows what it’s like to love someone logic tells you you shouldn’t…Harley feels like, yes, a cartoonish and hyperbolic yet deeply relatable peek into this kind of relationship. He charmingly and often disarmingly grooms and romances her. He monstrously balances his disregard and abuse of her with tenderness and what often feels like genuine affection and caring. It’s confusing and crazy and overwhelming. You see how horribly he treats her and you know that she should walk away. Yet, just as often, you see them together during the good times and know they were made for each other. It isn’t—not in any way—ideal or healthy, but it’s earned. It’s developed. You might never make Harley’s same decisions, but you never wonder why she makes them.

Yet, with Tina—whose existence and story progression is the linchpin of the film’s plot—you cannot say the same.

Like I said, Kirk’s characterization felt the most fleshed-out and developed. I love that they focused on Batman’s desire for family and connection and how often that ends in tragedy for him. Loss of family and creating one’s own family—and often losing that made-family as well—is always at the heart of the Batman story and it belonged in this twisted version as well.  Your heart aches when he says, “I’ve only loved two people in my life. And they’re both gone,” to Magnus. To be so betrayed by someone he loved and whom he thought loved him back is so powerful and calls back to other stories where DC’s done this so well, like “The Return of the Joker” and “Under the Red Hood” or even with characters like Harvey Dent or even Nightwing in the animated cartoon.

Like I said, it’s done well, but could have been done so much better by making Tina as important in this trio as Kirk or Magnus. The way she ought to have been.

I had much the same feeling for Wonder Woman, the female protagonist of the film, as well. While I can appreciate the fact that they made her a sexually open, very sex-positive female, like I’ve said before, it’s not enough to make her that and only that. And, yes, Wonder Woman is strong in this film—fifty times stronger than Steve Trevor—and she gets some of the best and most interesting to watch fight scenes, but that’s abilities, not characterization. It’s what she can do, not who she is.

I can appreciate that DC tried to make her a strong, independent, sexually liberated female character, but I don’t actually think that this Wonder Woman felt all that empowering. Yes, she’s powerful and, yes, she says some of the right things (e.g. “I belong to no man,” etc.) but she ends up falling really flat.

I think the main reason for that is because she really doesn’t get much in the way of real motivations. Fight the bad guy, win the fight, get the guy, and that’s really it. I mean, Batman is trying to find a cure for himself. Superman is trying to figure out his past. And Wonder Woman is...trying to get laid?

Even her backstory just doesn’t feel realistic. For one, she falls for a guy she just met two second ago who ends up dying because of a family feud on a planet that isn’t even remotely hers. Making her essentially a superpowered Juliet. It’s just not that interesting and certainly doesn’t feel empowering or logical for her character.

And I’ve heard the argument that, because she was basically used as a sexual pawn in a war on her home planet, her overt sexuality and attempts at sexual manipulation—which are never actually seen to work, by the way—could be her way of reclaiming that part of herself that other people tried to exploit. I don’t buy it. Like I said, it doesn’t seem to actually work. Other than some mildly ribald jokes—often made in a very judgmental, slut-shaming way—nothing actually comes from her sexual relationship with Trevor. She doesn’t really seem to get any less grief than her male counterparts from the public, the government, or even from Trevor himself. She never gets actionable intel. She never gets leeway or privileges. Hell, she doesn’t even seem to get an actual, functional, or even all that enjoyable—much less lasting—relationship out of the sex. Mostly, she gets unreasonable and grotesquely territorial jealousy from Trevor and eye-rolling judgement from her teammates. That’s supposed to be empowering?

And I suppose there’s also an argument to be made that she’s on a redemption journey and is trying to do good because she’d done bad back on her world by betraying her interstellar Romeo, but there really didn’t feel like there was enough of that in the actual film either.

And there was opportunity to put more of that in the film. Diana almost always serves as an ambassador between her world and ours; she is the bridge that preserves and protects both. Yet, Bekka is disgraced and essentially exiled from her home world and is determined to hide her past from her adopted world. I would have loved, in the sparring scene between Trevor and Bekka, to have a moment where he questions her more significant, non-sexual intentions. If, after the fight, he turns to her and asks, “Why are you here, Bekka? I mean, why did you choose this planet, of all the planets in the universe, to run to? Are you really here to help? Or just to hide?”

They could also have had a moment when Batman mentions that, since her arrival, humans have been trying to copy her technology; that could have been a moment of self-reflection for her about her effect on her new, adopted home and her ability to be the hero she wants to be. Is she making a difference and is it a difference worth making?

And, if they’d taken more time to acknowledge that Magnus stole her tech, that could have made for interesting fight banter between Platinum and Bekka. With the idea that, for better or for worse, Platinum exists because of Bekka. Especially, if there maybe might have been a little bit of Tina left in Platinum—which there seemed to be in previous scenes—because here is this other woman who’s being used and twisted by another man who thinks he owns her.

They could have used these moments to take the two most plot-driving female characters and actually do anything with them that felt at all meaningful and impactful and at all on the same level as their male counterparts. All in all, Wonder Woman wasn’t a bad start to a character; they just focused on the wrong things which left her woefully under-developed.

Which they also did with Superman, who was my favorite character in this film, just not nearly as severely. Full-disclosure, Superman is my favorite classic superhero. There is something about his story—as it was told over the airways in the nineties—that just spoke to me. In much the same way I said that shapeshifter stories often make great symbolism for multicultural, first generation Americans, so does Superman. There’s something powerful in the idea that earth’s—and more specifically, America’s—greatest hero is an alien from another planet who rarely feels like he fully belongs in or to either world.

This film takes that idea to its logical conclusion.

Sort of.


Too often, the film sells Superman’s twist as the fact that Zod is his biological father and not Jor-El. Which admittedly is a big twist. In many ways, this robs Superman of his Kryptonian identity, his legacy, as Kal-El. He also doesn’t discover his history in the traditional way, when he’s a teenager in Smallville with his safe and well-adjusted Kent family. Instead, he grows up into a man without ever knowing what his powers mean or what they were intended for, when his birth parents launched that pod off into space, only learning an edited and censored-to-the-point-of-fabrication version from Lex Luthor. This definitely changes and shapes him.

But DC gave him one more twist that I think is far more fascinating. They not only stole Kal-El from him, but they stole Clark Kent from him. Instead of the Kents finding him and adopting him, he was rescued by illegal immigrants crossing the border into the US.

This, for me, is where his story should have been. This is what turned him. So much of what makes Clark, and by extension Superman, a boy scout who follows and firmly believes in the government, justice system, and promise of America is his upbringing with the Kents. He grows up with the traditional, All-American childhood and all that entails. He doesn’t even know anything is all that strange or unique about him until he’s in his teens.

But, by changing this—more than changing his genetics (especially since Superman only gets a pre-packaged, sugar-coated, Luther-approved version of his origin story, without knowing until well into the film his father’s true nature)—the film changes the essence of what it means to be Superman.

And I wish the film had gone more in-depth about those changes. We hear that he had a tough life; I want to know about that life. Presumably, that feeling of being alien and other and, likely too often, unwanted and othered must have hung over him as he grew up. Suddenly, the America that had stood for freedom and justice and promise for Clark must have looked far different to this Superman. Suddenly, the rules that Clark was taught build up and hold together the fabric of our society are the very same laws and restrictions that would have marginalized and often endangered this Superman.

And, without Clark to lean on for an identity outside of and safe from that sense of otherness, this Superman has far less of a connection to humanity in general. One of my favorite Superman quotes is from the episode “The Late Mr. Kent.” After someone tries to kill the intrepid reporter, which leads to the obviously false report of Clark’s death, Superman is forced to retreat to Smallville to ask his parents for advice while lamenting the loss of, if not his literal life, his life as he knows it, telling them “I am Clark Kent; I’d go crazy if I had to be Superman all the time.”

And this Superman does. And, while bothered by it, he just doesn’t seem bothered enough. Take his short; in many ways it also doesn’t seem that far off from a traditional Superman story. The world is in peril and we need Superman. At the very last minute, he swoops in to save the day.

Yet we watch him calmly walk past a bus of people crying out for help without even a second-glance much less any kind of reassurance. Once he penetrates the danger’s energy field, he sees a small, crying, terrified child Brainiac, who is clearly more terrified of himself than he is of even Superman. And, while not cruel, this Superman is suspiciously cold in his treatment of a child in so much fear and pain, who never asked to be made into a monster meant to kill a god. It feels efficient. He perfunctorily, almost obligatorily, goes through platitudes about controlling one’s own powers. But, when he sees that’s not going to work, he quickly and without much emotion informs the child that, in order to stop his out-of-control powers, he’s going to kill him. And then he does.

And, while there is regret and maybe even remorse on his face afterward, there is resignation also. This is the way of his world and, as he says in the film, “I’ve seen the harshness in life. If I deliver justice with a heavy hand, it’s because I’ve been on the receiving end.” This Superman rarely experienced softness and it’s difficult to be that hard and also be the kind of hero we like to celebrate.

This short reminds me of the JL:U episode “Epilogue.” In that episode, Batman is sent in to deal with Ace, a superpowered girl whose powers are causing chaos and distorting reality. He’s sent in with orders to eliminate the threat before she can do more damage. Instead, he calmly sits by her side and waits with her until she dies so she doesn’t have to be alone in her final moments. It’s that compassion that spurs Amanda Waller to start Project Batman Beyond because, after witnessing that act of mercy and humanity, she didn’t want to live in a world without a Batman.

And it’s that difference that makes the short seem so disturbing to me. Ultimately, they are the same basic plot—they even share the same main player, Amanda Waller. And, despite the fact that at the end of both the world is saved, one feels heroic, while the other…just doesn’t.

It’s made doubly more off-putting in the way Superman kills Brainiac. He lobotomizes him. It’s the exact same type of execution that the Justice Lord version of Superman uses to kill Lex Luthor and Doomsday, which incites so much of the conspiracies and chaos of JL:U’s first season. It’s an act that so separates the Superman we grew up with and his less compassionate, more villainous version.

If Batman’s short setup this world well, this short cemented it. We are not in Kansas anymore. And that is an interesting twist because, for an extremely powerful, godlike being like Superman, the world can’t afford to have him see himself as not human. It puts the systematic othering we often place on the backs of immigrants, legal and otherwise, into interesting perspective.

Another aspect of his character I found fascinating is his relationship to Lois. So much of their stories are inextricably intertwined. She’s almost always Superman’s first interviewer. She almost always names him. She’s often his conscience and hope in humanity.

But, in this twisted version, they hate each other.

I wish there had been more of their history. Maybe she did idolize him at the start; she’d better have been the one to name him. It would have added an interesting layer to their relationship. To have a moment when she looks at him with such contemptuous disappointment. Like in the “Brave New World” episode, she could tell him how she’d had such high hopes for him, but “look at you now.”

To which, I could see this incarnation of the caped crusader responding, “I am what your kind made me.” After all, when we treat people as less than human, how humanely can we really expect them to act in return?

I know that it might sound like I didn't enjoy the movie or that I hate DC or that I think they’re bad storytellers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Superhero and superhuman stories are often so powerful, DC’s more so than most. These kinds of stories resonate so much with the cultures that created them. This is why, when we talk about Ancient Greece, we talk as much about their mythology as we do their historical figures. Like I’ve said before, these kinds of stories, by magnifying and intensifying aspects of human nature, allow us to more easily and more extensively explore that nature. They urge us to be introspective. To ask ourselves what makes us us. They ask us to be better and to strive for more.

And, as an avid fan of them, I think it’s a sign of great admiration to ask them to do the same.

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