(See Part II here)
Violence and the Lack of a Story (Or Everybody! Start PUUUUUUNCHIIIIIING!)
He’s one of the New Gods, the iconic set of characters Jack Kirby created when he went to DC in 1971. He’s basically Hitler in space, but he’s so much more than that. The cartoon, of course, nails him brilliantly:
Superman: Who are you? I asked you a question. Answer me!
Darkseid: (Shoots Superman with an Omega beam which totally owns him.) That is who I am. And when the time comes, you and this primitive planet will swear allegiance to Darkseid. Or be destroyed.
Man, this is the perfect villain for Superman. He shows up, he does something bad, KOs Superman with nearly no effort, explains that he’s Darkseid, and that the world will bow before him or be destroyed. Boom!
Like, literally Boom!
Notice in that scene, there’s not a ton of action. Nobody punches anyone. There’s barely any straight-up movement. It makes a great beginning to a large story with nothing but a few words and a dash of strange power.
It only gets better from there. Superman does eventually fight Darkseid in this series, and when he does, it looks like this:
The backstory that leads to this is amazing.
Superman gets brainwashed by Darkseid, and fights for Darkseid so he can control the earth. Superman breaks free from the mind control, and goes to confront Darkseid on Apokolips, his homeworld. He beats him, barely.
As a punch line, Superman tosses Darkseid in front of the people he rules, saying ‘You’re free; do with Darkseid what you will.’ Superman expects they’re going to do to Darkseid what Darkseid’s done to them, now that he’s weakened.
But they don’t. They pick him up, calling him ‘Master’ and making him comfortable.
This is so cool, because it tells us something really interesting about Darkseid as a character. He’s so evil, he’s basically Stockholm Syndrome’d an entire world. You know that kind of a threat isn’t going away anytime soon, even though Superman beat him. On top of all that, Superman has to go back to his own world, which now hates and fears him. There’s some real pain there, some real pathos to him. Even though he won, he’s a man without even an adopted homeworld. He is truly an orphan.
Most importantly, there is more going on here than the fact that they are punching each other. That’s not so important as the motivations of the characters and a good story.
In a more modern incarnation, Justice League: War, we’re introduced to Darkseid like this:
You get a guy on a flying platform with a bunch of parademons around him. He blows up some planes, just to show how strong he is. Superman literally says “He doesn’t look so tough.”
His first line: “I am entropy. I am death. I am Darkseid.”
Christ. It’s like they got their dialog from Hot Topic t-shirts.
Then, the final fight goes like this.
I mean, Jesus, did Superman really need to burn the guy’s eyes out?! And for dialog:
Darkseid: “UGH! I AM DARKSEID!”
Superman: “I DON’T CARE!”
I swear, the next line could’ve been: “Everybody! START PUNCHIIIIIIING!!!!!”
It’s shiner and ‘bigger,’ I guess, but easily less compelling. In the second examples, we don’t have any of the angle that Superman will be mistrusted and hated on his adopted world. We don’t have Darkseid using him as a pawn. All we have, again, is punching. (or rather, PUNCHINNNNNNNNG!) That’s not interesting, even though it looks cool.
What they’re doing here is trying to use violence to make up for lack of a story. You don’t need to have blood coming out of a guy’s eyes (Jesus, did I type that?) and have everybody punching to keep us interested. You just need to write a good story, which of course is way, way harder than showing a guy in spandex punching his way out of a situation.
Of course, Batman v. Superman takes the bat-shaped cake on this.
In one scene, Batman is taking on a bunch of Luthor’s thugs to save Martha Kent. He jumps into the warehouse, and just starts taking guys out. There’s even one guy he throws a crate at, and he’s clearly dead from, uh, getting his head busted open by the wall. This is probably the best Batman fight scene ever put to film. He’s vulnerable, and that makes him even more bad-ass (or Bat-ass???). It doesn’t even cut like crazy, like most action movies. You can always tell where the bad-guys are, and actually focus on the action.
This fight scene is so well done, it’s easily the saddest part of the movie. Because everything else is so convoluted, so poorly constructed, that this scene has far less weight than it should.
Violence, just like anything else in movies, is a tool. You can use it to tell a story. The thing is, you can’t use violence to make up for lack of plot, shitty dialog, and characters that aren’t compelling. If the story isn’t there, no amount of violence can make up for it.
In contrast, Timm and his cohort couldn’t possibly do this, because it was a TV show meant for kids and adults. It couldn’t punch or kick its way out. It had to make us care about the characters through the stories they were telling.
So this creative team, of Timm and Dini and the rest, were able to work with Batman, then Superman, then Superman/Batman. When they had nailed the combination of Batman and Superman on the screen, they could start to focus on Justice League, which had a ton the other characters that none of us really knew, like Martian Manhunter, or Hawkgirl. This was from 2001-2006.
Because they had five whole seasons with these characters, they were able to tell stories that mean something to us. They didn’t need over-the-top violence, or sex, or anything like that. They were able to be so well-done because they wrote the characters so we’d actually know and care about them. They were also able to take risks, just like they did in the original Batman series. And this time, they had more than a decade of experience working with these superheroes.
The thing is, the way that modern studios, including Warner, take a very different tack to production. This leads to a few unique problems…
(Continued in Part IV)