Comics on Film: Why Legacy Could Be What the DC Extended Universe Is Really Missing

Comics on Film: Why Legacy Could Be What the DC Extended Universe Is Really Missing

Sep 08, 2017

Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment have now firmly established the overarching tenets of their cinematic "DC Extended Universe," and the scale is set to increase exponentially this November with the arrival of the ensemble-led Justice League. While fans have been debating non-stop since the summer of 2013 about whether or not the efforts since Man of Steel have properly positioned the characters in cinematic efforts going forward, the overall response has become a bit tribal: the most vocalized opinions either absolutely love how the DCEU has been positioned, or characterize the series as the worst comics-based cinematic atrocities since the likes of Batman & Robin / Steel / Elektra / Fantastic Four / insert-a-bad-comics-movie-title-here.

The general perspective of Comics on Film has been that while there are some missteps in the broad strokes of the movies thus far -- with the noted exception of Wonder Woman -- it's also a bit shortsighted to say that Man of SteelBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad have absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. That's flatly untrue, whether you want to point to Superman's inaugural flight in Man of Steel, the climactic warehouse battle in Dawn of Justice, or the high level of popularity Margot Robbie earned as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad.

Still, comics fans also likely have their own ideas on ways the DCEU can be made to feel more authentic to the longstanding mythology it's charged with representing, and this week, we're going to offer one primary factor that can likely help the wider extended universe reach stratospheric heights that comics creators the likes of Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bil Finger, Sheldon Mayer, Gardner Fox and Martin Nodell could never have imagined: that element is, namely, legacy.

 

DCEU: Darkness in Vogue

Dark superhero stories are cool. Ever since they were first popularized on film by the likes of Tim Burton, Alex Proyas and later Bryan Singer, dark superhero movies have managed to capture significant popular attention and a respectable amount of critical acclaim on a largely uninterrupted basis for over 20 years. The problem with the modern superhero film when it's overly dark, though, is that it runs the risk of becoming clichéd and overdone. This isn't to say that the stories themselves are bad by any means, but if an audience detects even a slight deviation in tone, then it has the potential to derail an entire movie, as argably happened to Dawn of Justice last year and perhaps even Fantastic Four the year before that (among a lot of other problems in that film, of course).

Overall, the DC Extended Universe currently stands as a largely darker alternative to the lighter, more comedic and perhaps even hopeful stories found in Marvel's cinematic universe. On concept, that doesn't automatically make one better than the other, but it has helped Marvel's offering achieve a wider level of adoption and ownership by fans as very popular superhero movie experiences.

While many fans have made clear their hopes that DC and Warner Bros. not keep things overridingly dour in future efforts, it might be a little jarring for audiences to experience a complete change in tone if watching Dawn of Justice and Justice League back-to-back. Coincidentally enough, we've seen another live-action representation of the DC Comics Universe go through a similar crisis of conscience. While it's not as...pronounced as the current movies are, one of the things that helped it to get a bit of a new lease on life was an embracing of legacy.

It's certainly not a "fix-all," but the DCEU can likely take some lessons from the way the WB/CW TV show Smallville went from a show semingly embarrassed by its connection to comics, and how it turned things around near the end of its life by both embracing its source material and serving as an awesome crash course to the seemingly little-known forerunner to the Justice League: the original Justice Society of America.

 

The Missing Key: A 'Society'?

After the departure of Michael Rosenbaum as Lex Luthor in season seven, Smallville's eighth season struggled to maintain a lot of critical steam as the story began to extend, conceivably, far past its sell-by date. While it was still one of the better, more profitable shows on the CW lineup overall, it didn't have nearly as much wider interst as it did in the earlier seasons, when Rosenbaum helped to provide, arguably, the best live-action vision of Luthor ever committed to screen.

A season 8 episode bringing in DC's futuristic Legion of Super-Heroes showed potential. Written by popular comic book writer Geoff Johns (now a key executive at WB's DC Films arm), the episode "Legion" gave some of the coolest foreshadowing to Clark's future as Superman that the show had ever featured, while also bringing a portion of Smallville's version of Clark's journey just a little bit closer in-line with the comics of the day. Something that had never really been answered before, in the previous eight years heading into season nine, though, was just how far back this vision of the DCU's superheroic lineage extended.

Then came the two-hour special "Absolute Justice," again written by Johns and directed by Glen Winter and series star Tom Welling. In the episode, Johns modeled the current heroes' lack of awareness about a previous generation of superheroes on a template based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, where a conspiracy and larger legal difficulties swept the team's entire existence under the rug while simultaneously sidelining them for good. Clark slowly discovers the truth, until he comes upon the brownstone of the former superhero team, and fully takes in a series of real monuments to their legacy. Suffice it to say that it has...an impact on him.

Still, it was intriguing seeing Clark, Chloe Sullivan and Lois Lane piece together the existence of the JSA, and it was particularly meaningful for Clark as he still struggled to find his place regarding how best to use his immense gifts to protect his adopted home. The significance of Clark's discovery, and JSA mainstay Doctor Fate's ability to see the future, made the two characters' encounter with each other all the more significant in foreshadowing not just that Clark was destined to be a hero, but that he was also destined to become the leader of the new generation of heroes, and a "sentient power" of light and hope.

In addition to being the first time many of the traditional JSA characters like Wildcat, the original Green Lantern Alan Scott, Hourman, Doctor Fate, and original Flash Jay Garrick appeared or were alluded to in live-action, the story provided an important lesson for Clark and his contemporaries about the importance of leadership, and finding family when setting off into the dangerous world of heroes versus villains. That kind of unity can be made all the more solid by the revelation of the JSA lineage in the current film series.

Injecting the JSA into the recent historical fabric of the DCEU could provide legacy, scale and purpose to a universe that certainly couldn't be hurt by the inclusion (or at least accentuation) of all three. It would give greater service to, what is now, one of the most underrated teams in DC Comics today, while also helping to firmly establish a beating heart at the center of the heroism that defines heroes like the JSA and the Justice League itself in the cores of their best stories.

To get a glimpse at what we're talking about this week, be sure to watch "Absolute Justice," season 9, episode 11 of Smallville, and take a look. If you're a Hulu subscriber, you can stream it now.

We'll see you next week.


Chris Clow is a comic book expert and former retailer, and a writer with work having appeared in the Huffington Post, Fandango and others. He also hosts the podcasts GeekPulse Radio and Comics on Consoles. You can find his weekly Comics on Film column every week here at Movies.com, and you can follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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