How would you feel if something you loved, thought was amazing, was constantly attacked and derided? Brought up for no reason other than to claim it’s supposed inadequacies, had claims made of it that you found often hypocritical or blatantly false? Think to some of your favorite series and imagine this was the case with you.
I have found myself in this situation. For the past few years, DC Comics has released several movies in the shared cinematic universe, the DCEU. As a long-time DC Fan, I absolutely loved them. Some of them are today among my favorite movies of all time. And yet the majority of my western friends online seem to not just dislike them, but on occasion to actively despise them with an anger I have never felt towards any movie. And why?
The DCEU to me represents the modern DC Comics, the return to their legacy promised in Rebirth. They create a universe that unlike so much of fiction is predicated on the positive humanistic message that I see as the core of DC Comics, especially today: Humanity is Great. You are stronger, wiser, and more noble then you think you are. And yet I hear these movies referred to as “Dark”, sometimes even “Hopeless” and “Fascist”.
A trait you learn very quickly about me if you are around me for any significant amount of time is I don’t like conflict. I don’t like the stress, I don’t like the work, and more than anything I don’t like hurting people’s feelings. I am writing this defense of the DCEU for the same reason I love the DCEU: I believe in people’s ability. For all my life, the one thing more constant then anything was the nobility in people. How they always, always helped me when I needed it. This experience with the DCEU is unlike anything I’ve seen in people but I believe as Superman does: that people are capable of great things.
If you hate the DCEU, I cannot change your mind. I trust in the beauty of the movies and I trust in your capacity as a human being to see what you previously had not and I hope that I, as the humble reflector of that beauty’s light, can help you see it.
I will create three articles, one for Man of Steel, one for Dawn of Justice, and one for Suicide Squad. I will not make one for Wonder Woman even after I see it and read reviews because already I am aware that it has universal acclaim. I suspect when I see Wonder Woman I shall see the same as I saw in Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice and that finally people are starting to see, which truly is wondrous. I am going to attempt to justify these movies to you, to defend their worth as some of the greatest cinema, especially superhero cinema of all time.
There are 3 standards of quality you can judge art by. 2 of them are universal. The third is not universal but does happen to apply to the DCEU. 2 of them are justifiable.
This is the one that’s not technically justifiable. Everyone enjoys and doesn’t enjoy certain things and no one can tell you otherwise on your opinion.
There’s a general saying that goes around. “There’s no wrong thing to like/dislike, and no wrong reason to like/dislike”. And I mostly agree. There is nothing that should be impossible to like or dislike, or even bear stigma, and there is no wrong personal standard.
But I would not fully agree. There is wrong reason and right reason to dislike and like a film. Specifically, if your own standard do not align. Let me give an example.
Take the movie 300. Let’s say you said, “I hate 300 because there’s an hour-long sex scene in the middle and I hate hour long sex scenes”. That would be a wrong reason to dislike it because…there isn’t one. You can dislike 300 and you can have that person standard about sex scenes but you can’t apply that standard here to say it’s bad because it doesn’t apply. Likewise, if you said “I love 300 because I love any movie with Romans in it!” That would be a wrong reason to like the movie. You can like 300 and you can have that standard but you can’t like 300 for that standard because it simply isn’t in there.
Sounds like crazy exaggerations no one would ever make? Well let’s consider where it gets blurrier, Double-Standards. If you say, “I hate violence, if a movie has violence in it, I will hate it, therefore I hate the DCEU.” Then I wouldn’t have your personal standards but that does follow logically and so makes sense. But if you then say you love other movies with violence in them, then you are being a hypocrite. And while that’s greyer, I would still say then you are objectively wrong on one of the two because you are applying the standards inconsistently.
So by personal standards you can like or dislike anything you want but I do think there can be right and wrong reasons for it.
There is a blurry border between Personal and Artistic Standards. I don’t have much I would say that is high on the former but low on the later, something that I like but don’t think is very good (a guilty pleasure). If I like something then usually I also think it’s of good quality and can defend that position via arguments. I don’t have much that is the inverse, something I think is technically good but that I personally don’t like. I don’t say this as some statement of nobility, it’s just the way my brain works and that others have less of an association between personal and artistic standards is simply a greater degree of cognitive disassociation then I have.
How to justify something via artistic merits is an endless complex debate with ideas such as characters, plots, aesthetic, moods, themes, symbols all inter-woven in a grand pattern. But to do in a simplistic way we can see that each work is part of “genre” which defines the central appeal of a story and that everything in a story is either:
The Primary Appeal: The actual part concerning the appeal of the story
The Secondary Appeal: The part which is not part of the appeal of the story meant to enhance the primary appeal in some way
I think Horror is the best illustration of this concept. In Horror the appeal is in fear, since Horror fans, by the very nature of the word “Horror” like to experience fear. Hence the Primary Appeal in a Horror Movie is the parts that are scary, and the rest of the story used to buildup character and world and tension are part of the Secondary Appeal meant to enhance the primary appear where it appears.
The DCEU Films are Superhero films. The Superhero Elements are the Primary Appeal and the Secondary Appeal are the Mundane Elements used to enhanced the Superhero Elements, and from this starting point I can assess these films from as close as possibly to an objective artistic standpoint, by measuring the film’s objective within the superhero genre and how effectively it delivers on that objective.
The only form of assessment outside of how well a series pursues its goal is how worthy that goal is to be pursued but that cannot truly be assessed in any form of quasi-objective way and will again revert to Personal Standards.
I mentioned that two of the standards are universal, and one was not but does apply to the DCEU anyway. This is the standard of adaptation where a work can be judged based on how well it adapts it’s source material. This is obviously not possibly in original stories but it is in the DCEU
Important to note however is that the DCEU films are not strictly speaking traditional “adaptations”.
Watchmen is a film adaptation of the Watchman comic series. The DCEU films are not strictly speaking adapting any one comic or comic arc, though they may take inspiration from. It’s more like, as befitting the brand, it is a parallel universe akin to the DC Elseworlds series. This is very important because I regularly see people judge the DCEU as if it was the comics with the same characterization.
Now while I contend that the DCEU is actually really good here as well. I also have to say I think Adaptational Standards are the least important one of these three. Making a perfect adaptation of a terrible story and your story will be terrible and no one will like it. Conversely if you adapt things heavily you can create a story at least some people will like. Let me use an example:
Dante’s Inferno the Video Game is an adaptation of the Inferno by Dante Alighieri. It is bad an adaptation as you could possibly imagine, actively going against the source material’s themes in every way it can. While the original poem portrays Dante as a complete everyman who’s is uplifted indicating at the power resting in all peoples to choose their own destiny and create the world they want to see, the game has Dante be a freak of nature so twisted that what happens to him is miraculous and impossible to apply to anyone else. While the poem shows such sorrow and anguish at the people tormented in hell with the poet crying and fainting at the horror befallen on his fellow man, the game turns the people in hell into monstrosities to be destroyed without sympathy.
BUT, if you judge Dante’s Inferno the game by it’s own merits it has a reasonably compelling plot, and solid gameplay mechanics even if they are basically ripped from God of War.
Conversely if you took something that is heavily invested in the tropes of one medium and then tried to adapt it, especially faithfully into another medium you can reach bone-numbing results.
Imagine for a second someone tries to make a movie about The Stanley Parable or Undertale.
That would be utterly stupid because the point of both of those games is about how the players have some level of input.
Even an adaptation should be more focused on being a good story in and of itself, rather then being an adaptation first. Though I contend the DCEU is high on all 3 standards
I will be explaining my reason for each DCEU movie so far besides WW. I can not force you to change your mind. All I can do is ask you to try and keep an open mind to what I am gonna say.