Zach Snyder could learn a thing or two from Bruce Timm about the proper way to make a dark Man of Steel.
The much-anticipated Bruce Timm-produced Justice League: Gods and Monsters Chronicles won't hit shelves until July 28th, but, in a partnership with Machinima, a series of preview shorts have been released this week, beginning with a battle between Harley Quinn and Batman in "Twisted". Even if you've read about the changes to the characters, the narrative set up of the scene (playing with our expectations based on Timm's history with these characters) baits us into a false sense of security that makes the ending all the more shocking.
Perhaps more disarming is yesterday's short, "Bomb". If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and go watch it, it's awesome! What follows is a spoiler:
The six-minute short begins in Metropolis (I assume), showing the human reaction to some mass destruction that is taking out buildings much like the terraform machines in Man of Steel. A reporter for "PLANETNWZ.COM" informs us that the "Civil Defense Court" has called for an emergency evacuation and the military is on its way. All details have been blacked out by the government. So far, the details hint at an alternative Earth.
This is confirmed when the scene changes to the White House, where U.S. President Amanda Waller speaks to her advisor, Dr. Sivana. Sivana suggests Brainiac, the source of the destruction, should be killed in the next ten minutes, with a "small" twenty kiloton warhead, before he becomes too powerful to stop. Waller is appalled, but, as her team cannot reach Superman, she has no choice but to comply.
Sivana finds the incongruity of the situation amusing: "It's funny, really. We created Brainiac as a counter-measure to keep Superman in check. now we need that arrogant bastard more than ever."
This is another big reveal, of course: the government is afraid of Superman, yet he operates in some partnership role with them that does not subvert their authority. This Superman is a sort of hero, not an overlord.
The pilot deployed to launch the missile is startled when Superman squats on the nose of his plane and etches a message into the cockpit's glass with his bare finger: "Give me five minutes".
Sporting a goatee, short hair, black trench coat and a dark blue uniform that fits around his throat like a priest's "dog collar", this Superman is clearly different, the palette of his design something like the dark-washed hues resulting from the color grading in Man of Steel edits.
He flies off toward Metropolis and struggles against the "storm" of the Akira-inspired rampage of suffering Brainiac.
Along the way, he passes a trapped bus full of screaming mortals begging for him to "help" them. We don't know the story yet, but it's obvious (again) that Superman is viewed as having some sort of responsibility to use his powers for the greater good. They expect him to save them.
He ignores them.
Superman punches through flying cars and pushes his way to the "eye" of the "storm", where he finds Brainiac, an injured child cyborg, curled on the ground, in pain and suffering.
In a scene of harsh compassion, Superman explains that he had to learn to control his powers when he was a child, so he expects Brainiac can do it as well. When Brainiac complains that he "can't", Superman responds: "I can."
Because he's Superman. There's always a way.
Tears in his eyes, Brainiac consents, and Superman squats before him, caressing the boy's arms in his hands, and gazes into his eyes. Brainiac's death is slow and beautiful, quiet and moving, a calming storm backlit by the soaring crescendo of ethereal synth-pop.
Superman's eyes glow red with death, a hint of compassion gracing his visage.
And when the storm falls to silence and this dark Superman has taken the sacred life of this singular being (not unlike killing the last Kryptonian), he sighs and looks troubled, dropping his shoulders as though he is tired of the burden of his terrible responsibilities.
In six minutes, Bruce Timm has given us a dark Superman, mass destruction in downtown Metropolis, violence and death and the impotence of human frailty, all ignored at the feet of this god as he marches toward his destiny: to do the thing that no one else can or will do, to take the life of another god. It does everything WELL that Man of Steel executed so poorly.
It worked because he subverted our expectations instead of ignoring them.
In the beginning of the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely JLA: Earth 2 book, Alexander Luthor escapes the antimatter universe and lands in a cornfield of our rural America. Every detail of the scene is reminiscent of Superman's oft-told origin: a rocket crashes, an exasperated farm couple in an old pick up stop to investigate; the woman, like Martha Kent, runs ahead and marvels at the wreckage, wondering aloud if the occupant is human.
Luthor laughs and removes his helmet, saying, "I've just reversed across the matter/antimatter membrane in a homemade ship and this is my reception? My dear country cousin, you are human...
The scene is so successful because it plays on our expectations, our familiarity with well-established characters.
Bruce Timm knows our expectations for the Justice League. We have no expectations for an on-screen version of the Justice League apart from Bruce Timm's vision, and Zach Snyder and DC/Warner would do well to remember this. We are not children of a Christopher Reeve legacy (as Warner apparently believes, having given us Superman Returns, an odd "sequel-nonsequel" regurgitation of the Reeve movies). We are children of the animated Batman, Superman, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited series developed by Bruce Timm, Paul Dini and other creative giants.
Timm and his team have provided a strong foundation for these characters to be portrayed on screen, and this gives him the insight to play around with those expectations and offer darker, violent versions of the characters that invert important qualities without subverting their mythological power.
I understand that DC/Warner and Zach Snyder wanted to wipe the Superman movie slate clean and start over. I can respect that. And I have to admit, I've warmed up to Man of Steel the more I watch it (and I'm excited about Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice). And I've said before, I didn't think it was out of character for Superman to kill Zod; even Bruce Timm wanted to do that at one point.
What I disliked was how important cues to the characters' history were ignored and the ending devolved into a long, boring onslaught of Michael Bay-level violence and destruction, a CGI-induced visual and auditory assault that has become the unfortunate staple of summer blockbusters. Instead of playing around with audience expectations (of comic book history, movie history or television history), the producers of Man of Steel attempted to tell an entirely "new" story featuring familiar characters without addressing the cultural relevance of the characters.
In this Timm short, we saw well-developed versions of Waller, Sivana, Brainiac and Superman that told an important, moving story in less than ten minutes, culminating in a powerful, violent death scene that involved no punching. Man of Steel made no effort to develop Lois, Perry or Jenny Olsen. The staff of the Daily Planet were caricatured fodder like the members of the military, targets of destruction we could never really care about. It was beautifully shot, but there was no risk (except to his mother; when Zod threw Martha's truck into her house, I was scared for her, and that was the result of a good narrative thread leading to that moment).
Overall, Man of Steel was simply an FX-riddled film starring a character who goes by the name of a known superhero. The result was a dark, loud summer blockbuster that has become a negative trope in its own right, critical shorthand for the summer movie that "favors an assault of your senses over sincere adventure and truthfully, is violent as hell, with lots of people getting killed".
I wish DC/Warner would put Bruce Timm in charge of their big-screen versions of Justice League...but I've said that before. He already has a popular on-screen universe for the League to play in. I'm sure he'd let Snyder visit.
Finally, shameless self-promotion: Jamie A. Duncan is author of the in-development fantasy fiction series Fire of Norea. Please check it out!