Yeah, everyone knows that when it comes to films of comics Marvel has had more than just a little bit of an upperhand in recent years. Though it’s interesting to think that 2005’s Batman Begins ushered in perhaps a “new era” of superhero film. It’s also interesting to note that the oft though pinnacle of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight, released in 2008, the same year Iron Man also kicked off the now mega successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the Dark Knight Trilogy finished DC have been trying to do something like Marvel beginning with Man of Steel in 2013, followed by Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad in 2016, with many more films announced to come and already in production. Generally these have been poorly received by critics and fans alike.
Look at animated films however and you’ll see the tables have been flipped for some time. The DCU Animated Original Movies label has been churning out some serious hits since 2007, a mixture of adaptations of beloved graphic novels and original material. There are some parallels between the animated movies and the live action ones that I’ll talk about, and I guess that’s what I’m going to write about here for a bit. I’ll try not to be too muddled, but heck, I’m off the clock. I’m more interested in how these films all relate to one another than just doing a review of each one.
Firstly there’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition. I enjoyed this Director’s Cut a lot more than the original release of the film, which I also enjoyed a lot more than some other people did. I think Ben Affleck is a great Batman. As someone who really didn’t like Man of Steel very much at all, this film took me by surprise in how much I liked it. And it’s not just the inclusion of Batman. Superman has become a lot more of a relatable character in having to deal with both the consequences of the climax of Man of Steel, and another event that happens earlier on in the movie. I also love Eisenberg as the very Zuckerberg inspired modern Lex Luthor. The Ultimate Edition slows down the plot of the film quite a bit, and adds back in a lot of scenes with Superman that makes the film feel a lot more cohesive throughout, and makes the plot threads easier to follow and have more resolution, which is pretty much essential. The only downside with this cut is that it makes the overlong final act of the film seem even more overlong in comparison, the film clocking in at just over 3 hours. What I like about Batman v Superman is it feels like its own thing. Things people might not like about it mostly feel, at least, intentional. It definitely has a tone it wants to hit which it succeeds in hitting throughout, and Snyder has crafted some lovely individual scenes visually, and there’s a tonne of imagery that sticks with you. It also has more of a wry sense of humour than I think some people have given it credit for.
The darkness of Batman v Superman is possibly why Warner Bros did so many reshoots on David Ayer’s Suicide Squad film. Some people seemed to think Batman v Superman was a little too dark. The probably Guardians of the Galaxy inspired trailers of Suicide Squad promised a fun, poppy, neon ride — and combined with the surprise success of both Guardians and Deadpool, it seems there was a mandate to retrofit Suicide Squad into that sort of mould. There’s been numerous articles about Suicide Squad‘s production issues, but there’s another way you can tell too — Suicide Squad is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. Just in terms of how poorly its put together. There is no conceivable way it was intended to be put together this way, because it just straight up does not make sense. It’s simply madness, which could be the Joker’s fault as he is indeed an agent of chaos. Some cuts don’t make sense, some scene transitions don’t make sense, all the character development makes no sense. The actors put in good work — good enough where this cut of the film must just be insulting to most of them. It’s been cut around to the point where the tie-in novelisation legitimately seems like a better piece of work than this. It’s the kind of film where the more you think about it, the worse it gets, as its full of so many holes it may as well be Wookey Hole.
The main issue with Suicide Squad is just how much it feels tampered with. Even the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman, for all everyone said was bad about it, it at least felt like some Snyder was happy to put out. It left an impact. Ayer’s Suicide Squad feels distinctly muzzled. Perhaps worst of all is the removal of all of The Joker and Harley’s scenes of conflict, where it throws into question the abusive relationship they have. Instead it’s been recut to make it seem like a good relationship. Um…? Yes, Leto’s Joker is one of the worst things about the film anyway, cringe-inducing to watch, even — but I almost feel bad judging anything like that on this cut of the movie. It feels like such a non-movie, and one that doesn’t understand the tone of the source material at all.
Which brings me to the hotly anticipated animated adaptation of Alan Moore’s fan favourite graphic novel The Killing Joke from 1988. The graphic novel itself is probably overrated, and feels pretty dated, though it does have a handful of interesting things. If anything the work’s main point of interest is just how important it was to works that followed, though perhaps not in a good way — something Moore has stated himself in more than one interview. The original work is perhaps best known for its now fairly boring interpretation of The Joker’s origin, and also for the Joker crippling Batgirl (who is then promptly forgotten about halfway through the book). To be honest it bothers me a little bit that this is such a fan favourite. But whatever, it’s 2016, so an animated adaptation will probably smarten it up a bit and bring it into the modern day — just like they did with the stunning The Dark Knight Returns duology of films, right? Wrong.
The film does update the source material, though. Well, sort of. Because it’s a small book a straight adaptation would have been too short, apparently. Though honestly I don’t see what the big deal would be in making it a short film, but whatever. So instead of padding it they basically add another half to the story at the beginning that focuses around Batgirl. This half of the film focuses around Batgirl’s relationship with Batman, and also her tracking down a mafia criminal who has a thing for her with lots of sexual assault vibes. And yeah, by “relationship with Batman” I mean “relationship with Batman”. There’s a bunch of scenes where she’s talking about how she “sort of” has a man in her life and everything, and it’s all done in such a dated feeling way. And basically it culminates in her having sex with Batman which is kind of weird, yeah.
But besides that The Killing Joke is almost a panel for panel recreation of the source material. Which I don’t really care for. I mean, the panel by panel already exists in the book. There’s really not much reason to watch this half of the film other than to hear it performed by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, who as usual put in great performances as Batman and Joker, but that’s just not enough. I thought with the addition of the Batgirl material, as bad as it was, at the front then they might have at least made more and effort to do more justice to the character throughout. But it doesn’t. As a straight adaptation it has all of the same problems. Batgirl is even forgotten about in exactly the same place. I just don’t understand the point of making an animated movie if you’re not going to actually adapt it? The Dark Knight Returns was so great because it updated the story to take full advantage of the medium. This just feels like whatever. I don’t get why they would get Brian Azzarello to co-write this when they have so many proven and capable female writers at DC who would surely better understand the character. Even Suicide Squad had better female characters than this.
Which finally brings me to Assault on Arkham, a 2014 Suicide Squad movie loosely based in the same universe as the Arkham video games — though that doesn’t really matter. It surprised me how much better this was than the Suicide Squad movie. It felt like it actually respected its viewers to “get it”. Not to mention it didn’t feel dumbed down. It’s much more violent than Suicide Squad for one, though perhaps that’s just the leeway you get by doing an animated movie. And for two, all of the characters get time to shine. It actually let Harley breath as a character too, and explored some of her troubled relationship with The Joker. This was so much better than the Suicide Squad movie that it’s actually really frustrating. Maybe they should have just adapted this instead. Or let Ayer make the film he wanted to.
So where does this leave me with DC films? Heck, I don’t know. Superhero films are weird I guess. Just to recap…
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition – Good, better than the theatrical cut
- Suicide Squad – Really bad
- The Killing Joke – Also really bad, maybe worse than Suicide Squad, but maybe not
- Assault on Arkham – Surprisingly very good
I guess the secret to making a good movie is making one that you can stand by (and yes, I am aware Ayer has said he stands by the theatrical cut, but that just rings very false to me). I think when it comes to creators you need to trust them to an extent. Synder seems like he made a Batman and Superman movie he can stand by, and whether you like it or not I think you can respect that it feels like his movie, and the tone and the imagery feels like what he wanted to show you. The same with Assault on Arkham, which feels like it loves those Suicide Squad characters and its little universe and wants to show those you. Suicide Squad feels like it was just absolutely butchered by the studio, and as much as I didn’t like it, it almost feels unfair to judge it as a movie. Because it fits together so poorly it just doesn’t feel like a real film. Alan Moore doesn’t like The Killing Joke in retrospect, and I’m not sure I do either. Instead of addressing issues with the source material they adapted it much too closely, to the extent where they made it worse. I don’t know. The moral of the story is make good things you want to make.
All of this probably makes no sense.