Friday, March 26, 2021


I don't particularly like comic books, but I do like superheroes. My native mythology is 1970s Marvel, but if you like superheroes then Superman and Batman are magical, supercharged figures. I saw the Christopher Reeve movie more times than I saw Star Wars; I even loved the John Byrne reboot. 

John Byrne is a problematic figure, but then everyone is a problematic figure. Byrne's Fantastic Four was joyous because it reminded me of Stan and Jack; and Man of Steel was joyous because someone who reminded me of Stan and Jack was reinventing Superman.

The Golden Age of comics is about twelve. When I was twelve I was reading the Eternals and the tale end of Starlin's original Thanos saga. They reprinted the New Gods when I was at college. The Fourth World is where superhero comics should have finished: nothing was ever as super or heroic again. That guy who did Marvelman did a superhero comic for DC, which I somehow never loved quite as much as I was supposed to love it. That would have been another good place for superhero comics to finish. Years later Zack Snyder turned it into a movie, with Bob Dylan singing over the opening credits. It kind of worked. 

Then Snyder did a Superman movie, which I didn't like all that much, although I did like the trailer. It was too self-aware: Superman knew that Superman was a mythic figure. The spaceship and the story was too big. Mario Puzo's prologue took over the movie, reducing Superman to a bit player in the war between Jor El and Zod. I want to see Superman rescuing a cat from a tree; or breaking up the clan of the fiery cross before I see him laying down his life for the sins of the world. Wonder Woman entirely passed me by. I didn't actively hate Superman vs Batman, although I felt it wasted Batman. Suicide Squad is definitely a move I saw. 

Moderately invested in Superman and Batman; very invested in Darkseid; quite ambivalent about the DC Cinematic Universe. If there had not been so much shouting about THE SNYDER CUT I would not have bothered. 

Everyone is cross about it. But then everyone is cross about everything all the time. Possibly everyone was always cross but now Twitter allows them to tell everyone else how cross they are. Half the world is cross with Justice League for existing; but then half the world was also cross with the Justice League for not existing.  A lot of people are cross because Batman said fuck. A fair proportion of my inbox seems to be cross about the whole principle of a four hour movie, although we live in a world where box sets no longer come in boxes and everyone consumes them in single sittings. It's broken up into 6 chapters and an epilogue, so its not like you can't get a cup of coffee and a toilet break if you need one. 

I liked it. The material is too slender for the presentation. I am self-consciously retro in my tastes: but the natural home of superheroes is baseball caps, seed catalogues, sea monkeys and breakfast cereal fortified with the vitamins. I don't think that Superman is necessarily improved by portentous voice overs about giving the human race an ideal to strive towards. I don't think Wonder Woman's Island of the Lesbians is necessarily improved by cavalry charges and CGI Spartans. The original New Gods had Wagnerian preludes about the Days When The Old Gods Died but it also had a cruel orphanage run by Granny Goodness and an escapee called Scott Free. It really only makes sense in four colour newsprint with "too" many quotation marks. Snyder is clearly under the influence of Grant Morrison who was under the influence of Alan Moore who was under the influence of William Blake. God knows what William Blake was under the influence of. Morrison has done a lot of stuff with Darkseid and the DC Universe which I have never read: perhaps I ought to. The one glance we get at Apokolips makes it look like the Rebel Alliance medal ceremony. Darkseid snarls a lot but doesn't have the weird evil nobility that Kirby gave him. The main villain is Steppenwolf, who looks nothing like Steppenwolf. He wants to conquer the earth to get back into Darkseid's good books. The secular critics have spotted that Darkseid is a lot like Thanos, although in actual fact Thanos is a lot like Darkseid 

I liked it. I thought it worked better than the more recent Marvel movies. Four hours seemed to be about the right length. It gave us time for a set up, some digression, a climax and an epilogue without us feeling that the grindstone was particularly damaging our noses. 

Superman is dead to begin with. The films works hard to convince us that this matters: everyone is sad, and Batman is recruiting superheroes to fight on in his name. Ben Affleck can act a bit, and he can do the squared jawed resolution the part requires. He can even do the thing of talking in different voices depending on whether he has got his mask on or not. But he isn't so much playing Batman as playing a man in a Batman suit. There is no sense of dark knight who strikes fear into the hearts of cowardly, superstitious criminals. I think Christopher Nolan turned him too much into a James Bond figure who is defined by high tech machinery. Jeremy Irons's Alfred has taken over the "Q" role from Morgan Freeman. (Did the sarcastic Alfred, the Alfred whose job it is to undermine Batman's pomposity, exist before the very good animated cartoon series? Adam West's Alfred was merely an obsequious and faithful manservant. In the army a manservant is sometimes referred to as a batman, I suppose because he carries your cricket kit. No-one ever makes this joke.) 

Aquaman hangs out in stormy sailors bars showing off his beard, and characters we don't know turn up and talk about Queens and tridents and how he ought to take up his heritage. The solo movie, which I saw out of sequence, is very epic and very camp and doesn't have a Freddie Mercury soundtrack. But I think I liked hm rather better as a bad tempered guy in his bathing suit with some history that he knows about and we don't. 

The introductions of Teen Titans alumni Kid Flash and Cyborg were particularly well handled. They keep telling us that the guy in the red suit is Barry Allen, but he's quite clearly Kid Flash. I respect the fact that they didn't want a protagonist called Wally. Tongue tied, witty, I suppose coded as autistic, hero-worshipping the dead Superman, he brought exactly the right amount of humanity and lightness to the epic absurdity that was going on around him. Flash started out as a guy who can run very fast, but he acquired a heavy duty backstory in which something called the Speed Force is a pivotal element in the universe. Doomsday Clock and the Last and Definitely Ultimate and Final Crisis both seemed to be about positioning Kid Flash as the most important being in the Continuity. The movie uses the cosmic imagery as he runs faster than the speed of light and warps the universe around himself but it doesn't waste our time trying to explain revisionist DC theology. FTL sprinting generates infinite power which can be used to jumpstart McGuffins. But he is at his most fun when he is simply doing speedy stunts, which are represented by a kind of hyper bullet times: Barry sees the rest of the world as a lot of static frozen statues. 

I take it someone has done a manga version called Flash in Japan?

Victor Stone gets something much more like full on origin and a redemption arc. He hates Daddy for turning him into a monster and missing his big football game but then Daddy dies and they make it up posthumously. (Barry's Daddy is in prison for a Crime He Did Not Commit. Superman and Batman also have paternal issues.) His main power is being able to plug himself into every computer in the world at once. I think in the comic he was just quite strong. Batman and Wonder Woman and Aquaman are big and archetypal and we know that the biggest and most archetypal dude of all is going to be be resurrected in time for the finale. A couple of recently upgraded teenagers bring the team slightly down to relatable human levels. 

Steppenwolf is collecting Mother Boxes. He is not going to attach them to a glove. When he gets all three, Darkseid will come and conquer the earth. There is some muttering about the Anti-Life Equation. 

In the penultimate act everyone realises that Mother Boxes bring dead things back to life, and Superman is currently a dead thing. The film takes its time over this. (Did I mention that it is very nearly four hours long?) We are allowed to feel that raising the dead is difficult; that coming to terms with the fact that someone has raised you from the dead is also hard. Clark and Lois and Clark's Mum get to do some proper character stuff. One feels one has seen a satisfactory third part of the Superman Trilogy and Satisfactory Cyborg and Flash moves, and a satisfactory prequel to Aquaman. Batman is the only character who doesn't get a decent sub-movie to himself: but he does say fuck. 

The Third Acts of Marvel Movies have a tendency to feel like computer games: the heroes have to defeat wave after wave of Chitauri or clones of Ultron before someone finally gets to smash the End of Level Guardian: the kinds of battles which normally end with someone lighting a beacon and summonsing Rohan. Justice League keeps the finale up relatively close and moderately personal. Quite a lot of time is spent zapping Parademons, but the climax is one of those very contrived "plans" that George Lucas taught us about: Character X has to knock out the Force Field so that Character Y can get at the Cybernetic Exhaust Port while Character Z run really really fast to give him a power boost. After the goodies close down the teleportation portal (which does go BOOM but isn not referred to as a Boom Tube) the baddie announces that he is going to launch a space armada and invade earth the old fashioned way. My heart sank a little at this point -- is there a whole nother battle to come? -- it seems to be just foreshadowing the increasingly hypothetical sequel. 

There was an epilogue. I didn't understand the epilogue, but it didn't seem to matter. I don't know what the Martian Manhunter was doing, but then I have never consciously read a Martian Manhunter comic. He appeared briefly in a very early episode of Sandman which. I didn't understand that either, come to think of it. 

So after all the fuss and excitement, what we had was in fact a superhero movie. But quite a classy one, I thought, with space to get to know all the characters (except Batman) and a feeling that the personalities didn't get drowned in spectacle. 

I wonder if the ambiguous canonical status gave us permission to just sit back and enjoy the thing for what it was? The Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the god-awful Star Wars Discourse is now almost entirely canon-based: one approaches every movie in the spirit of "I wonder what line they are going to take with Galactus" or "I feel personally aggrieved by what they did to the one true canonical biography of Luke Skywalker." (This is not, in fact, completely mad: when you are engaged in interlocked world building, every new movie affects ten movies yet unmade: a bad take on the Fantastic Four premptively spoils the Silver Surfer movie that isn't in development yet.) But we know that there is a completely different, unrelated Batman movie on its way, one where he fights criminals and presumably doesn't say fuck. And there is a talk of a Superman story in which the person of steel is going to be played by Jodie Whittaker (check this. ed.) And indeed a separate, stand alone New Gods. So I was not watching SUPERMAN and DARKSEID so much as one tentative and temporary take on Superman and Darkseid. Or as we used to say before Twitter ruined popular culture: a story. 

Don't pay any attention to me. If you are the kind of person who likes this kind of thing you will probably find that this is the kind of thing you like. If it is the kind of thing that you get very cross about, don't bother. Unless you like getting very cross, which presumably you do. But if you like superheroes and have a general sense of who Superman and Batman are there are considerably worse ways of spending a morning.


Mike Taylor said...

I never saw the original cut of Justice League. If I were going to watch one and only one version, would you recommend the original or the new one?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I didn't see the original one either, I'm afraid. I haven't heard anyone say that the old version was better (though it was certainly shorter!)

Andrew Stevens said...

A fair proportion of my inbox seems to be cross about the whole principle of a four hour movie, although we live in a world where box sets no longer come in boxes and everyone consumes them in single sittings. It's broken up into 6 chapters and an epilogue, so its not like you can't get a cup of coffee and a toilet break if you need one.

This is my theory about why HDTV has finally done what television was always predicted to do - kill the movies. I must preface by saying that I think it is quite obvious that, for the last twenty years, films have been in very serious decline, but television has never been better. If you disagree with me about that, then this analysis won't have much force. But I think we're just going through a shift similar to theater->novels in the 19th century, novels->film in the 20th century, and now film->television in the 21st. The film artform, after all, came about simply to accommodate people's bladders. If anyone had thought to do it, The Queen's Gambit could have been made as a film in the 1980s, shortened to two and a half hours, and maybe even have been a hit. But why would you do that nowadays when you can make a ten part miniseries and people can watch it on big high-definition screens in their own homes? So you get guys like Vince Gilligan who, fifty years ago, would probably have been a film director, writing for television.