OPINION: "Auteurs, Darkness,
Consequences, Politics, Diversity, and Villains"

Author: Robert Reineke
July 20, 2015

Warner Bros. dropped two trailers at SDCC ’15 and both have created plenty of buzz and upwards of 30 million views on YouTube in just over a week. So, some general thoughts on the trailers and what it means as Warner Bros. tries to differentiate itself from Marvel/Disney on film…

Obviously, we're all a long way from the final movies and we've seen about five minutes of footage, total, from two movies. In the case of BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE, I like how the conflict is drawn clearly and that there is a philosophical edge to it. If Snyder remains disciplined and explores those philosophical differences, I can see all the punches having a real weight to them, unlike a lot of fights between superheroes and anonymous goons. If Snyder rushes over the philosophical issues to get to the punches, well...

Unless there’s a lot of wheel spinning, which I doubt, I get the feeling that the big fight will occur relatively early, maybe around the 1 hour mark. Probably with Wonder Woman taking the place of Oliver in THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Then, they'll make up and deal with Lex Luthor and Holly Hunter's character’s shenanigans. They’ve done a nice job of keeping under wraps what brings the heroes together finally, although it seems the shot of Zod’s body in the trailer is the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun. We’ve seen the darkness, but we haven’t seen the dawn promised in the title yet.

Seems to me that the plot really won't be all that complicated. We now know that the government and Luthor are tied up together and because the conflict is drawn so clearly. You don't really have to jump through hoops to make Batman and Superman fight as the three minute trailer already is plenty to make it look like an inevitability. I'm expecting that 2 1/2 hours will be plenty for this film, although desert Batman kind of throws me. Of course, that could be a red herring.

There clearly seems to be a bit of a political angle to BvS with what appears to be the billionaire Luthor calling in a Senator that is likely aligned with him. No doubt, this Luthor has a PAC and throws his financial muscle into the political arena. I doubt the names Koch or Soros will be mentioned, but I think the film is clearly going to evoke the idea of Luthor as a political player and a power behind the scenes. President Luthor doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility in the world that they’re setting up. Especially as Luthor specifically echoes Paul Revere’s famous call to arms there’s little doubt that he views himself as a patriot. It really wouldn’t surprise me if the true follow-up in the film to “the earliest lie in America” ends up being “that all men are created equal.”

The political angle also stretches to include 9/11 imagery. To their credit, they come up with a strong character beat with Bruce Wayne running towards the dust cloud and another with the inevitable congressional hearings that follow. 9/11 is still too vivid for the imagery to be used lightly, so integrating that imagery and exploring how it affects the characters in a serious manner seems like it will be treating the actual event respectfully.

Overall, I do think that there is promise in the idea of actually exploring the consequences of superheroes instead of just glossing it over. Holly Hunter looks to be a lot less of a joke than Gary Shandling was. We'll see if Marvel has the guts in CIVIL WAR to hold Stark accountable for once instead of skating by on his charm. Marvel has chosen a path that works for them in focusing on the heroes and their internal struggles without looking deeply at the world and the everyday person’s reactions.

The trailer is also dripping in Zack Snyder’s style. Warner Bros. has generally emphasized its director’s visions over heavy producer control and that’s worked out for them. Personally, I think it’s a more interesting – albeit riskier – path than leaning on one producer’s vision to essentially do television on film. Zack Snyder, warts and all, is a more interesting filmmaker than, for example, Collin Treverrow. Your highs are likely to be higher, although you could also crash and burn.

It probably also is a lesson learned from MAN OF STEEL where I think at least part of the backlash against the film was due to Warner Bros. selling it as something along the lines of Terence Malick when it turned out to be an amalgam of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan. Good or bad, it’s probably better to sell your film as what it actually is so that expectations are in line.

Obviously we’ll have to wait for the final film to judge its success or failure, but there seems to be plenty of ways that the film could succeed. There are also plenty of ways that the film could fail if it comes off as overly self-serious, dark, and dour. I think we’d all like to see Superman smile at some point instead of looking depressed. Even THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, which the film is clearly referencing, has humor. But, we’re a long ways away from the film’s opening and clearly we’ll have some more trailers coming and a host of television spots to show some balance.

In many respects, SUICIDE SQUAD seems to already show that it’s aware of the balance that needs to be maintained as David Ayer looks to be very much in control of the tone of the film. It's a bit grimy and dark, but it doesn't look dour and could perhaps be a bit playful. That’s perhaps exemplified by the emphasis on Harley Quinn as Margot Robbie looks like she's going to walk off with the movie and become a true star.

You can certainly tell that they're trying to bake in race and gender diversity right from the beginning in the DC Cinematic Universe. We joke that Marvel movies star white guys named Chris, but with SUICIDE SQUAD you can see that Viola Davis, Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Jared Leto all are featured and that seems to be very much a statement. Marvel is certainly making strides in that direction, especially with BLACK PANTHER and CAPTAIN MARVEL on the horizon and the new Avengers line-up, but with the international box office being increasingly important, it’s clear that everyone wants to emulate the FAST AND THE FURIOUS model of diversity. Marvel isn’t there yet and it’s clear that DC wants to start out on the right foot.

In particular, that’s where Harley Quinn comes in. Judging by cosplayers and sales of her own book, she’s an extremely popular character, helped a lot by her constant exposure on television through animation and by being featured in popular video games. She’s maybe more popular on a base level than Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. She’s a character that cuts across gender lines too, which if you’re aiming for “four quadrants” is a valuable thing to have. The trailer for SUICIDE SQUAD seems to imply that the story will include an arc with her getting over The Joker and, if so, that type of featured role will be refreshing. Now, the X-MEN films have done it to an extent with Mystique and Jean Grey, but Marvel Studios has clearly emphasized the boys first, so it’s a niche that DC looks to be taking advantage of.

SUICIDE SQUAD, moreso than BvS, seems to be embracing a more grounded approach in its aesthetic. Obviously, there will be CGI and other special effects employed, but with the emphasis on makeup and costume and the choice of characters which have only slightly enhanced abilities there seems to be a real effort to connect to the real world. I very much like the practical makeup look of Killer Croc as I think it’s going to allow a real performance by the actor under the makeup to come through. I'm sure that they could have done some sort of CGI motion capture thing, but this kind of low key almost practical aesthetic works for me.

And, with Waller addressing the military over dinner, and the obvious military vehicles involved in what we can see of an action scene, politics look to play a part in SUICIDE SQUAD as well. If the rumors of Luthor being involved play out, the political angle looks like a fit for him.

As David Ayer noted, there does appear to be an emphasis on building up individual villains. If there's one area that Marvel has dropped the ball, that's it. So far Loki seems to be the only really standout that anyone cares about; people want to see Thanos do something other than sit in a chair. I'm pretty bored with “heroes vs. anonymous hordes” at this point, whether they're Chitauri, Ultron drones, dark elves, Hydra soldiers, or whatever it is that Ronan had. They're all just cannon fodder at this point. STAR WARS didn't just throw out wave after wave of storm troopers as cannon fodder. Heck, the characters spend an awful lot of time running away from storm troopers in STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and encounter other threats along the way. That's more interesting to me than these super powered badasses just wiping the floor with their anonymous opponents. If SUICIDE SQUAD serves to build up these villains as interesting characters, that may set the tone for the rest of the franchises where the villains are fleshed out and interesting.

The general assumption has been that the JUSTICE LEAGUE films will feature the heroes teaming up vs. Darkseid. That may still happen. But, a successful SUICIDE SQUAD movie also opens up the possibility of a heroes vs. a team of villains scenario, as you could see the two groups colliding. Obviously, “Task Force X” would need an upgrade in terms of heavy hitters – the addition of the Parasite for instance – but reshuffling the team is part of the core concept. Right now, that sort of villain team up is something that Marvel can’t really sell and is a way for DC to distinguish itself from Marvel.

There are a couple of small things that could be better. Waller giving flat exposition that getting people to work against their self-interest is what she does, for instance, could perhaps have been handled more elegantly. Whether Will Smith is a team player as an actor or if he's going into “Big Willie” mode is an obvious danger. But, I'm intrigued to know more. They haven't really clued us in on the central conflict, stakes, and threat yet, but really the premise, some of the characters, and the tone of the film.

Obviously, there’s a difference between intentions and the successful implementation of those intentions; but based on two trailers, I think you can see clear plans for DC to differentiate themselves from Marvel. It’s up to Zack Snyder and David Ayer (and Ben Affleck as well) to turn those plans into reality. But, if they do pull it off, I think it will be good for both Marvel and DC.

Marvel has a clear tone that it’s aiming for and people will appreciate it more if it’s in contrast to something else instead of the only thing that superhero films deliver. Likewise, there’s no point in DC looking like a “Johnny come lately” imitator of Marvel; especially as dark, serious Batman films have proven to be a winning formula for Warner Bros. There’s no one way to do superhero films, as Christopher Nolan and Marvel have both proven in their respective ways.

We’d all do well to remember that. - Robert Reineke

Longtime BOF contributor & reader Robert Reineke is a
Civil and Environmental Engineer residing in Wisconsin.
He earned a BS and MS degrees from the University of Wisconsin
and has been reading Batman comics since the 1970s.
He’s of the firm belief that there are plenty of Batman comics
written before Frank Miller that are worthy of discussion.

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