Dark Days for DC

08/05/2016 06:39 pm ET

**SPOILERS FOR BOTH SUICIDE SQUAD AND THE KILLING JOKE**

If I had to pick a worst year of my life, it would probably be 2006. I had just entered middle school with a painful lack of self-awareness and a painful abundance of bullet bracelets and glasses croakies, unprepared for my coming lesson in some of the darker recesses of human sadism. I was frustrated, confused, confused as to why I was frustrated, and frustrated about being confused. DC Comics, however, is giving me a run for my money this year, with the three heartbreaking strikes they released this summer in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman: The Killing Joke and Suicide Squad, that have sent them back to the dugout for 2016. 

While I have derided Batman vs Superman in a few previous articles, I feel as if I’ve done so without explaining my love for DC comics. I am a lifetime fan of DC comics, which I have been reading nearly as long as I was able to read. I’ve stayed with many characters through the latter two crises, the New52, and now Rebirth. I’ve seen every episode of Batman: The Animated Series, Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League (and Unlimited), Teen Titans, Young Justice, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, The Zeta Project, and every film, live-action and animated, DC has ever put their name on (Including the 1990’s Justice League movie- talking heads and all) I say all of that so I am understood when I say that the past few months have been the nadir of my fandom for a company that once stood larger-than-life in a world of people who could leap tall buildings in a single bound.

As I’ve already discussed Batman vs Superman, I’ll begin with The Killing Joke. I’ll say just one thing up top; stop adapting Alan Moore comics, please. He doesn’t want his work adapted, I’m tired of reading his reactions to hearing that more of his work is being ruined, and it only worked once (and it took Natalie Portman, Stephen Fry and both Wachowskis to drag V for Vendetta just over the line of general palatability).

Killing Joke’s first act sticks out like a rubber Bat-Nipple. It is not only mismatched to the rest of the film, but the decision to create a brand new villain is unfathomable to me. Never mind the fact that Batman has a rogue for every occasion, from the menace of the Joker to the ridiculous and ineffectual Kite-Man, but the character’s only unique purpose seems to be for a name joke so asinine, I replayed it to make sure I heard it correctly. It makes the Riddler’s alter ego E. Nigma feel like the Voynich manuscript.

The animation doesn’t look as good as the cartoon that came out twenty-one years ago, and despite valiant attempts by series veterans Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamil, and Tara Strong, the film still fell flatter than the paneled pages the story originated from. The R-Rating was also functionally wasted. Rather than use it as room to tell a more grounded, mature version of the story, it was instead used as a license to distract with more swearing, violence and cheap titillation than even most comics.

The greatest disservice, of course, is done to Barbra Gordon. In the original Killing Joke, Barbra was barely in the story prior to her crippling, a problem that speaks to Alan Moore’s own problematic depictions of women more than anything else, but comic books have extended universes and characters woven in and out of storylines for years at a time, only to come back suddenly, so there was at least some context. Film is different; audiences expect character setups and payoffs, especially in a non-serialized format, but I suspect even non-fans would have preferred to be left in the dark. Batman and Batgirl’s relationship, in addition to feeling out of line with other incarnations of the character, is unhealthy, uneven, and simply creepy.

Suicide Squad which came out only weeks after (unless you’re in Mexico or China), seemed intent on capturing the same audience that aggressively insists that comic books can be serious, and called them graphic novels until the cinematic universes were dubbed comic book movies. The film, like these fans, is tone-deaf on what should be taken seriously and what can be played for laughs. The entire thing is one of the most confusing films I’ve seen in some time.

It begins with a half-hour of character introductions, and with nine characters with a collective century of backstory, this makes some sense, but we are introduced to some characters overmuch, and many not at all. I was especially looking forward to Captain Boomerang’s appearance in the film, (indeed his scene with the Flash was probably my favorite) but he is given a sitcom D-plot worth of things to do, and we are never granted access to his inner thoughts as we are with many other characters.

Even the character’s whose motivations we are privy to make no sense. Why does Katana turn on Flagg at the end of the second act? Why does the rest of the cast treat her like she’s insane for having a magic sword in a world where the final battle is over a magic doomsday weapon? Why does Amanda Waller bring people not cleared to handle sensitive information in to download that information on hard drives? What is the Enchantress’ plan? People give Marvel a hard time for having bad villains, but at least they never tried to make an entire movie about them.

Smith, Robbie, and Davis perform admirably as a maskless Deadshot, Harley Quinn and Amanda Waller, respectively. Kinnaman’s Flag, Leto’s Joker, and Ike Barinholtz’s... Ike Barinholtz aren’t bad, and I didn’t hate Jai Courtney for once, (though this may have had to do with his lack of screen time) but no great performance(s) can save this film. More likely than not, they just distracted from the unmitigated disaster that could have been had I not bought in for a few key stretches of time. The entire story is built on a coincidence, and- due to all of the flashbacks effectively removing both pacing and any coherent understanding of the sequence of events- even if the plot hadn’t been solved with a coincidence, I doubt it could have felt otherwise.

The common factor linking these two films (besides DC’s desperate attempts to please both fans and the general public and coming away empty handed) is their strange idea of oversexualization as adult. The Killing Joke holds on a profile shot of Barbra Gordon’s lower half as she goes running. We’re sure to get both bra and underwear from her disrobing two separate times. Even after she has been brutalized by the Joker, Jim Gordon is shown cleavage in the pictures on his carnival torture procession. Suicide Squad similarly puts Margot Robbie through the PG-13 ringer. I lost count of how many shots were dedicated just to men in the film staring at her, let alone the two shots framed by her legs and butt.

Comics are goofy. People shoot lasers out of their eyes and look like crocodiles. Sometimes they have serious conversations about mans’ proclivity for good and evil and drug use, and sometimes they just punch Lex Luthor in the face. Sometimes people in costumes have sex, but that’s usually not the point. Marvel understands that, and that, at least to me, is the main reason they are burying DC in the comic book movie race.

The cause of this might be that DC has placed Batman at the center of their universe, and film writers don’t allow Batman to be goofy, because it might remind audiences of the 60’s TV show or the 90’s Shumacher films, but if this doesn’t change, (and with Batman leading the Justice League, it doesn’t seem like it will) DC will likely be thwarted well into the end of the decade.

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