Can A More Hopeful DCEU Work?

DC wants its films to have "heart, humor and heroics."

Wonder Woman has a tough task ahead of it even before we get into gender politics, owing to both its own tale of wartime as well as the need to forge a more distinct, more nuanced DC identity. The first major lady-led superhero film in years, this World War I fantasy also has the responsibility of striking some kind of balance between its historical backdrop – dourness is a much maligned feature of these films as it is – and the more hopeful nature inherent to heroes like Diana.

By all accounts they seem to be headed in the right direction! It’s far from an impossible task, what with Captain America: The First Avenger having achieved something similar with super Nazis, but the new DC mission statement appears to go further than just Wonder Woman’s first outing. This past weekend at Wonder Con, film division head and DC Comics CCO laid out what appears to be the company’s plan for their cinematic slate going forward:

Heart, humor and heroics.

That’s an easy thing to promise in words when it’s all anyone’s been asking for and you have investors to please, but what bodes well is the implicit acknowledgment that the films have lacked these things thus far. None of this is “new” news per se, and whatever one might think of the Justice League trailer, it’s hard to deny that they’re at least trying to include some levity. Jokes won’t fix the filmmaking or the overall tonal and thematic muddling, but they’re all we have to go on right now… barring of course, what’s already come before.

The DCEU once seemed hell-bent on defining itself in relation to Marvel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Amidst the supposed “superhero glut,” it makes sense to want to stand out amongst the competition and offer a markedly different rival product, though stripping away the things people actually like about Marvel has proven to be misguided. Now the M.O. seems to be redefining DC’s films in relation to themselves, less “We’re going to do the opposite of Marvel” and more “We’re going to fix our own mistakes,” even if doing so inadvertently means skewing closer to the Marvel formula.

Lately, these two superhero crossover behemoths have formed a sort of ouroboros, with the DCEU’s upcoming Darkseid being made possible by Marvel’s long-term commitment to Thanos, the comic book character Jim Starlin created with the partial influence of, you guessed it, Jack Kirby’s Darkseid. Whatever the specifics – Paradaemons and Mother Boxes or The Black Order and Infinity Stones – these are going to be “dark” stories with a lot of death and destruction, and general audiences won’t really care about which superhero team-up is which on the surface like those even vaguely in-the-know about comics, nor will they track production timelines or print histories to see who did what first. The stories will seem like carbon copies to the untrained eye, as will their heroes’ hopeful triumphs if they seem similar enough. So what then, when it comes to making the product stand out?

In my estimation, the approach to the very hope in question.

Marvel Studios has become an interesting political parallel over the last few years, spending much of its thematic focus on military intervention and responsibility (Iron Man 3, Winter Soldier, Ultron and Civil War form a neat series about soldiers and their governments), whereas DC has struggled to really find what it wants to say in this regard, trying to have its cake and eat it too by approaching its big heroes as both direct political metaphors, as well as existential embodiments of the human condition. They are, at once, fearful and hopeful political outlooks and fear and hope themselves, but neither line of attack gets to have its stay since the need to approach them as such results in little time spent approaching them as people. It’s theoretically possible to take these dual approaches, but we only see what the news thinks of them as political tools, and how the common man looks upon them with reverence or hatred. Who are these people, these Gods, in the first place?

This isn’t to say political stories are impossible using DC heroes – Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s socially conscious storytelling was groundbreaking in the ’70s, and Marvel’s Age of Ultron film, as much as I love it, will always be the lesser DC’s OMAC Project – but by their very nature, heroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and the likes are embodiments of concepts to begin with, from fear to hope to a perspective on society untouched by male influence. Even Aquaman, who’s been radically re-imagined for this film universe, looks to have retained the one element of his story that makes him interesting: a literalization of the idea of belonging to different worlds. Where Captain America followed a similar trajectory, his story was based firmly in the specific political realities of the past and present. DC doesn’t need to do that with a man who lives both on land and under the sea.

The films should, by all means, find ways to stay relevant, but it’s in redefining their approach to their characters that they can perhaps redefine their approach to hope. Where the MCU has set itself up for the Avengers overcoming (or setting aside) political differences and re-teaming in Infinity War – a hopeful sentiment for the politically fractured now – DC has the opportunity to push its characters to their thematic extremes. Where Civil War debated responsibility in wartime, Wonder Woman looks to tackle the concept of violent conflict itself in the form of Ares, the God of War, leading to what could be an interesting thematic dilemma.

Marvel heroes and their trajectories focus on specific political and cultural outlooks, from Thor’s throne woes on Asgard to Black Widow’s shifting political allegiances on Earth, while The Vision is the one exception that proves the general rule as he questions his very existence. That’s much closer to where the DC heroes ought to lie, should the films choose to take such an approach. Not necessarily God-like figures asking themselves if they’re human, but rather coming into conflict with all that they embody and coming out the better for it.

Can Superman really be a hopeful beacon when all is lost? Can Batman strike fear into villains that may as well be fear themselves? Can Wonder Woman reconcile the idea of fighting for peace? Can Aquaman exist at all when his two realities are in conflict? Can The Flash finally sprint towards his problems instead of trying to outrun them?

These don’t have to be the exact questions asked of these characters; they’re really just abstract templates based one or two of their traits, but they’re a far cry from the more specifically grounded arcs of their Marvel counterparts, like Doctor Strange reconciling Eastern and Western worldviews, or Iron Man struggling to re-establish personal equilibrium with the help of mechanical suits post-"New York" or even Hawkeye struggling to find his place among a specific team of superheroes. Clint Barton feels right at home when he isn’t fighting for the Avengers, because he’s defined by his house, his wife and his kids; tangible things. Can the same be said of someone like Aquaman, who also might feel out of place on his team but for whom the concept of tangible, definable homes are the very source of his existential displacement in the first place?

Much of this is admittedly wishful thinking, mostly in the hopes that DC incorporating likable characters and a hopeful outlook doesn’t just make them Marvel but with a different colour palette. They can still be as dark as they need to be (if anything Logan is a great example of hope’s potency when adjacent to hopelessness), but if they really want their characters to stand apart from the rest, one would hope they’d dive back in to the source material and get to the root of why these heroes worked in the first place. If anything, it was Marvel that first established itself in relation to the competition back in the 1960s, with the likes of Spider-Man focusing on relatable real-world problems while DC characters had always oscillated between being silly and Godlike.

Each Graeco-Roman deity stands for something specific, much like the DC pantheon, only the latter canon is still unfolding. These are Gods that can actually be challenged by new writers and modern sensibilities. Their humanity doesn’t come from realism in how they deal with outside threats, but from the internal struggle that comes with it. Let’s hope that this “hope” comes with asking all the requisite questions, and I mean really asking them of these characters in terms of how they navigate their existence, instead of having news anchors pay lip-service on talk shows.

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