Nov 16, 2017
Justice League: Gods and Monsters (2015)
Hello all. I know it’s been a while since you’ve heard from me. I’ve been pretty busy over the past few months. New city, new job, new pretty much everything, really. It’s been hard to concentrate through the writer’s block, especially because it’s becoming harder to come up with stuff to write about for this site. I’ve become something like the “DC Movie Rant Guy” here on the Agony Booth for a while, but there’s only so much you can say about Man of Steel before you start to repeat yourself. Even the new Dawn of Justice trailer didn’t spark anything. By that point, I’d written “Stop sucking the fun out of superheroes, DC!!” so many times, even I was sick of it. At some point, I’m going to have to branch out and write about something other than comic book movies on this site.
But not right now. Right now, we’re going to talk about Justice League: Gods and Monsters.
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Justice League: Gods and Monsters is an interesting beast, because while I quite liked it, on reflection it’s tough to explain why. On the surface, it seems like everything I hate in superhero films: A dark reimagining of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman as violent, morally-ambiguous anti-heroes.
Superman is now the son of General Zod instead of Jor-El, and was raised by Mexican immigrants instead of the Kents. That apparently led to him being a violent, playfully fascist vigilante in a trenchcoat. Go figure.
Batman is no longer Bruce Wayne, but instead is Dr. Kirk Langstrom. In the regular Batman’s universe, Langstrom accidentally turned himself into a giant bat monster dubbed Man-Bat. Here’s, Langstrom instead turned into an outright vampire, and feeds on the blood of criminals to sustain himself.
Finally, Wonder Woman is now Bekka, a sword-swinging member of Jack Kirby’s New Gods. She has probably the most fascinating new origin out of all of them, which I won’t spoil here.
This movie marks the return of the legendary Bruce Timm to DC comics animation. It seems an odd choice for him, but not entirely out of place. Gods and Monsters owes a lot of its inspiration to Warren Ellis’s The Authority, which also featured darker analogs to the Justice League, and of which Bruce Timm has mentioned being a fan before. He toyed with the idea of a dark Justice League in Justice League Unlimited, with the Justice Lords and the Cadmus arc. Here, with the direct-to-DVD format allowing him more freedom to up the violence and adult content, and the alternate universe excuse to do whatever he wants with the characters, Timm can now take these ideas as far as they can go. And boy, does he ever.
Again, it’s odd that I find myself mostly okay with Timm going in this direction, when I’ve been so vocally against the darker versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman in DC’s live-action movies. Part of it is the source. Bruce Timm is the biggest DC fan in the world. He knows these characters, and he knows what makes them work. He knows that that the real Justice League doesn’t kill people, and that they’re compassionate and not cruel, heroic and not Machiavellian. Gods and Monsters is explicitly a “what if?” story, made by someone who loves these characters and wants to play around with them a little. I think that’s what makes me willing to go along with this bizarre little experiment. Vampire Batman isn’t here to replace regular Batman, he’s his own thing. Gods and Monsters is just a fun little alternate universe, rather than the new definitive versions of these characters.
And as an alternate universe, half the fun is in the details. DC Comics fans love Elseworlds stories, because it’s interesting to see the ways different writers take the universe apart and stitch it back together as something completely new, just with familiar pieces. Gods and Monsters certainly succeeds at that. The engagement of the story comes less from being invested in the characters as you are watching the mystery of how the characters’ lives deviated so drastically from their more familiar mainstream counterparts.
Of the three main characters, it’s surprisingly Superman that feels shortchanged on development. Despite the film opening with his conception on Krypton, we get nothing of the actually interesting part of his backstory: his childhood with his immigrant parents, which is covered in a single line of dialogue instead of being explored in detail. Considering that Superman doesn’t even discover his connection to Zod until the end, that’s kind of a big oversight. It would’ve been nice to see what specific experiences as the child of immigrants hardened Superman into the man he is. Instead, it really only comes up when he occasionally mixes in a little Spanish in his dialogue.
Batman has the most screentime devoted to his origin, unsurprisingly. Granted, most of it does end up being important to the story, but how he actually becomes Batman is pretty simple and only needs to take up all of a scene at most, so everything else becomes tedious exposition. But I have to say, this Batman has by far the best looking costume redesign. Superman’s trenchcoat look is fitting but dull, and Wonder Woman’s Kirby-riffic warrior woman look is fun and sexy, but Batman’s space age vampire look trumps them both.
If there’s one thing that does disappoint, however, it’s the larger world outside of the main three. The film is packed with cameos from various characters from the DC universe, but none of them are very interesting, and usually are used as nothing more than cannon fodder. It doesn’t feed my curiosity to learn more about this world when so much time is spent killing off potentially cool alternate versions of my favorite characters. The only real exception is Lex Luthor, who ends up going in a completely unexpected direction.
But overall, I liked Justice League: Gods and Monsters. It’s energetic, a fun twist on familiar characters, and left me wanting to see more of this universe. It is rather sadly ironic though, looking at how similar these deliberately extreme dark versions of the Big Three are to their regular comic book and movie counterparts of late. Wonder Woman as a battle-hungry, sword-wielding warrior would be a fun twist, if that wasn’t exactly what Wonder Woman has been for the last twenty years. Likewise, the Superman we see here isn’t too far removed from the neck-snapping, borderline dictatorial Snyder/Cavill version. The only one who really even feels different from current popular interpretations is Batman, and only because our Batman generally doesn’t feed on human blood.