There’s nothing wrong with spectacle. Even, I’d argue, for its own sake. Hell, it used to be its own genre of Hollywood movie (e.g. Cleopatra and more recently Gladiator)!
But there’s good and bad spectacle, just as there’s good and bad anything. A well-done spectacle creates drama and suspense, investing the plot and characters with meaning, so that all that action means something. A bad spectacle, or a hollow one, ignores this and just goes right for the money shot things blowing up — without any of the supporting structure of character and plot that would make this event, however glitzy its presentation, feel like it actually meant something.
I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of movies in which aliens blow something up. If this is done well, so you understand why this is happening and why it matters, and you maybe even care for the characters and understand their motivations, this can be powerfully dramatic. But I’m sure you’d agree that inserting aliens blowing up New York City into, say, The Departed, would not be good or even satisfying. It would be meaningless, stupid, and offensive to that movie and to the audience’s most basic level of intelligence, although you could certainly argue that it was cool to see.
There’s a scene in the 2005 movie Catwoman in which the heroine and her date are on a Ferris wheel that starts to literally come apart while they’re riding it, for no reason whatsoever. The characters get to run and jump all over it, saving people. The screenwriters thought this would look cool, and millions of dollars were probably spent to ensure that it does. But there’s no reason for the Ferris wheel to literally start falling apart right when our two main characters are on it, and it’s such a transparent and stupid attempt to create drama that it fails completely and ought to produce laughter rather than the intended oohs and ahs.
By the way, it is not a good defense of Catwoman to say, “Who cares? It’s a stupid summer blockbuster.” That’s a blanket pardon for stupid, not an argument.
Indulge me in another example. Die Hard is a wonderfully well-made movie. It is also an action movie in which the bad guys receive little characterization, and it’s got a cliched “back from the dead so you gotta shoot me at the last minute” double ending. And it’s also against working women and for some really dumb, outdated macho values.
But man, is it smartly written! Everything is set up incredibly well, right down to the hero stretching his feet on carpet long before he has to walk across glass. You feel the hero’s pain, and you get the sense that he’s totally out of his depth. That’s not only realistic (that dreaded word in comics these days!), but it smartly adds drama to the situation. And when he uses an elevator as a bomb, how he does it is presented logically, so that it’s believable enough to make the action actually cool and fun, not simply a hollow explosion. In fact, it’s so well-done that you end up seeing how the hero’s wife converts to his macho viewpoint at the end not as a horrifying vindication of the dumbest macho values but understandable, in the wake of all he’s suffered. Moreover, the way this is best communicated is by her adopting his name, not by delivering cliched anti-feminist dialogue. And it’s a kick-ass, awesome, fun movie — not so much for its explosions and killings as for how well this has all been set up and presented.
Fast-forward to Live Free or Die Hard, and there’s none of this. The hero is now an invulnerable ninja killing machine. The film eschews the realism that Die Hard accomplished so carefully. Live Free or Die Hard is filled with explosions and action of a far bigger nature. But because it’s all illogical and stupid, all this spectacle is almost completely unaffecting. It’s not cool. In fact, it’s rather lame.
So no one’s saying we can’t have spectacle or super-hero action. I love the stuff! But all the super-hero spectacle in the world means nothing if it’s hollow, stupid, and not properly set up so that one feels the narrative stakes involved.
Applying this to Justice League #1, you might, for example, think it’s cool to see Green Lantern enter the story by creating a fire truck to smash two people on a rooftop. Cool spectacle, right? And there’s nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. But the second you realize how impossibly stupid this is, any coolness immediately vanishes.
Why would Green Lantern so violently attack, without warning, two unknown people fighting? In a way that could easily kill them (and in fact almost causes Batman to fall off the roof)? How about, say, shielding himself and asking the two fighters a few questions to find out who the good guy is? Or if that’s not sufficiently aggressive, how about enclosing the two fighters behind a green prison bars and interrogating them?
No, Green Lantern didn’t deliberately avoid Batman — he didn’t know who Batman was. Batman was fist-fighting the villain at the time, which makes it hard to hit one and not the other with a fire truck. It looks like Batman had to roll out of the way to avoid being hit.
Well, I hear you say, Green Lantern is brash, arrogant. True, and that happens to be the only characteristic Johns gives him, which demonstrates that there’s no real characterization in the issue, since you can summarize their entire personalities with one (or at most two) adjectives.
But isn’t Green Lantern attacking with a fire truck out of the blue taking this brash “characterization” slightly too far? Because anyone so brash as to possibly kill on sight two people fighting on a rooftop isn’t anyone you want to be an intergalactic cop. He’s the kind of cop who might see a mugging victim fighting back and just start shooting at both the assailant and the victim. In other words, he’s the worst kind of villain, too stupid to be allowed a gun and a badge, much less a power ring. And this doesn’t even address the property damage he caused with his little fire truck stunt. If this were a real cop and not a space cop, you wouldn’t want this guy on your block. In fact, I hope you’d be protesting in the streets to have him stripped of his badge and sent to prison.
And isn’t it equally obvious that any intergalactic space agency that would give such a person a power ring is evil and must be stopped at virtually any cost?
Now, I hear you saying, I’m nit-picking. I’m over-thinking. I’m applying logic to super-heroes, and super-heroes don’t work that way. C’mon, man, that truck scene was badass.
Except this isn’t some super logic power I’m using. It stems from the simple, unavoidable observation that Green Lantern just rammed Batman with a fire truck without uttering so much as a word of warning. You did notice that, right? Or did the coolness of the spectacle dazzle you so much that you lost even this most basic ability to observe what’s going on?
What’s interesting is that I bet you haven’t lost this ability, when it comes to other genres. I’m willing to bet that, when you watched Die Hard, you were pissed off at the fact that the cops outside the tower, not unlike Green Lantern, fired on the hero and the terrorists indiscriminately. I’m also willing to be that, if a movie opened with a suburban man in a fist-fight of his lawn, you wouldn’t think it nit-picking to notice that something’s amiss if another neighbor decided that the best course of action was to, without a word, ram the two fighting people with his car.
Yet when you read a super-hero comic, some logic circuit switches off in your brain, and you just let the images wash over you. Cool, green fire truck, move on. Instead of processing that Green Lantern has cavalierly endangered Batman’s life, you see Batman hanging off that rooftop, and all you feel is peril, excitement, adrenaline.
After all, you know Green Lantern’s the good guy, even though he hasn’t been actually introduced yet in the narrative. And we’re accustomed to the good-versus-evil logic of most super-hero stories, in which super-heroes routinely endanger people and do morally questionable things, although rarely is this pointed out. The few stories that do, like Identity Crisis or Civil War, have fallen wildly out of fashion, in favor of old-timey super-hero fun, which everyone keeps calling for as if they haven’t been getting it virtually uninterrupted for over a decade now.
You’re habituated, so you shut your brain off and enjoy the spectacle. You do what you’d never do in an alien invasion movie, in a detective story, in a romance novel, or any other genre, unless you happen to be fans of really bad examples of them.
Now, I realized that this probably seem like a pretty ambitious thesis, that your habituation to super-hero cliches is dampening your logic. Is there any evidence for it?
We need only look at that exact same scene from Justice League #1. Because it’s even stupider than I described.
No, I’m not referencing about how unclear it is that Batman was even on a roof, prior to Green Lantern’s arrival. By itself, this completely spoils any coolness of the spectacle, as it would in any other genre. After all, part of the drama comes from Batman nearly falling off a roof — if that hasn’t been smoothly established, so that the reader knows it (whether he knows that he knows it or not), you might as well have just put a roof edge there between panels to make the spectacle seem more dramatic.
That’s worse than the often-mocked stupidity of having no seat belts on the Enterprise. It’s the equivalent of putting a giant, sharpened spike on the bridge, right in front of the Captain’s chair. And never showing it until after the ship gets hit, tossing the Captain’s forward.
Nor am I talking about how we later find out that Green Lantern’s only in Gotham because he detected something extraterrestrial. Then he says he’s heard rumors that Superman’s an alien, which doesn’t make any sense, since investigating the extraterrestrial’s why he arrived and threw a fire truck in the first place. Suddenly, Green Lantern’s alien-detecting ring works fine on Superman, and he even points it out smugly to Batman, as if that’s cool and not actually destroying any logic being how the plot get set in motion in the first place.
No, all of that’s just inexcusably awful storytelling. What I’ve got in mind is far more revealing about how unconscious super-hero cliches have undermined basic logic.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that someone you’ve never met before just tried to smash you with a fire truck, and you’re lucky that you were able to jump out of the way and only had to narrowly avoid falling off a building. I know this is a rare situation, but should you encounter it, you have several sensible responses.
- You could run away.
- You could verbally confront your assailant about what he did.
- You could threaten to hurt him if he does this again.
- You could turn the other cheek and try to explain the evils of violence.
- Practicing an eye for an eye, you could try to kill your assailant.
- You could try to get the authorities to defend you or to pursue your attacker.
- If you knew your attacker was a cop, you could try to get his superiors to take action against him.
All of these are quite intelligible, though not necessarily morally commendable.
I’m pretty sure the one thing you wouldn’t do is immediately team up with your attacker.
And for sure, you wouldn’t do so without at least saying something — anything — about how he just tried to kill you, or at the very least was so willfully reckless that he didn’t care if he did. It might be important to clear to air about that, before striking up a friendship. That is, were you insane enough in the first place to think people throwing fire trucks at you should be responded with immediate friendship.
Yet Batman immediately teams up with Green Lantern without ever so much as saying a single word about how Green Lantern tried to kill him without warning.
Well, I hear you say, this is Batman. He’s not me. He’s obviously not going to run away or go to the cops.
All of which is perfectly true. But knowing Batman’s character, isn’t it surprising that he doesn’t lash out at Green Lantern, either verbally or physically? Isn’t it surprising that he doesn’t say anything on the matter? Doesn’t this go against everything we know about the character?
I mean, you might be hesitant to bring up how Green Lantern almost killed you and is behaving incredibly irresponsibly, but I’m pretty sure Batman wouldn’t have the same butterflies in his stomach.
Keep in mind that if there’s one thing Batman shouldn’t put up with, it’s people who cavalierly try to kill others in Gotham. I seem to recall something about his parents, in this regard.
And it’s not like this was cut for space. This is a very decompressed issue (by far the biggest complaint in fans’ reviews).
What’s even more surprising is that Batman teams up with Green Lantern at all, after this. Sure, he might tolerate an arrogant space cop. But one who throws fire trucks indiscriminately at people, clearly intending to hit them? One who did this when they first met, nearly causing him to fall off a roof?
Extending the Star Trek analogy, pretend that the Captain’s response to the ship being hit and him being nearly impaled on that sharped spike that wasn’t there before… is to do nothing. To not even mention it. And instead, to immediately hail his attacker to make friends. Because they both have big ships, and captains of big ships ought to get along.
That’s ridiculous in the generally utopian universe of Star Trek, dominated by well-adjusted, peace-loving characters. Now imagine that the Captain is Batman.
What’s so curious about this is that Johns does go on to suggest (I won’t say “characterize”) that Batman is a considered person who isn’t impressed with the idea of alien cops. Yet at the first and most crucial test of Batman’s character, he’s precisely at his most out of character. Indeed, he’s out of character for any semblance of a human being.
You’d think this would have been an important point to get right, because this is the first meeting of super-heroes in what will eventually become the Justice League. Right there, before the Justice League has even formed, the issue has managed to destroy the very concept of these heroes working together.
Yet this need not have been the case. Except for the fact that Johns and Lee apparently thought it was cool to have Green Lantern show up by slamming a green fire truck into Batman. Without warning, ’cause that’s way cooler.
And here we return to spectacle and how, done wrong, it can be so hollow that it’s not remotely cool, just stupid.
Yet plenty of comics readers seem not to have noticed this. And the reason has everything to do with habituation to the genre’s cliches.
Because immediately after Green Lantern strikes comes the new spectacle of a splash page showing Batman recovering under the illuminated Green Lantern.
Not a word of complaint from Batman about Green Lantern’s atrocious, unprovoked, potentially deadly attack. Nor even a word about how they ought to team up.
Instead, the team-up simply begins immediately. Zero segue required! On that same splash page, both characters use the word “us,” demonstrating that the team-up’s already begun. Automatically.
And guess who uses “us” first? Batman, who’s just been assaulted.
True, the “us” is only used to explain an urgent matter — the imminent arrival of the city’s cops. But words matter, and writers know that they can communicate closeness or distance through such simple matters as pronouns. And on the very next page, while Green Lantern shields himself and Batman as the cops fire, Batman and Green Lantern bond as super-heroes, repeatedly using “us” in this context. Then they’re fighting alongside one another.
There’s some light banter meant to differentiate the two in the broadest possible terms, the way boy bands might say “I’m the smart one” and “I’m the reckless one.” But that’s no substitute for addressing the crazy, reckless, homicidal thing Green Lantern’s just done in the name of a narrative spectacle.
It doesn’t need to be forgiven. Because it’s been immediately forgotten. Without so much as pointing out any of the implications.
Why do we not notice this? How could we fail to notice such a horrible lapse in the fundamental logic of narrative and character?
Because we’re used to super-hero stories, and super-heroes team up.
Batman and Green Lantern, they know the drill. This is called Justice League after all. They’re just going to team up anyway — so why bother with any discussion of reckless endangerment, attempted murder, or abuse of power between (future) friends? That way, you can have them meet in the most melodramatic way possible, ignore any consequences or logical sense, and just have them go straight into “us” talk.
No way this would be seen as acceptable, were this not a super-hero comic. No way Hollywood, which certainly loves its hollow spectacles, would let a team-up in a super-hero movie happen this way.
And you know why? Because Hollywood super-hero movies, for all their failigns, are aimed at a general audience. Not at comic-reading super-hero fanboys.
Which proves Justice League #1 isn’t written for new readers, despite the publisher’s many claims to the contrary.
Or else, despite their intentions, that it was created and edited by fanboys who were so wrapped up in the cliches of the genre that they didn’t even understand they were producing something unintelligible to a general audience.
Meanwhile, the fanboy readership will say that super-heroes are supposed to be fun and that applying logic to them just ruins it.
What’s wrong with spectacle, they’ll ask. Shouldn’t comics be exciting?
Such are the cry of those who like the super-hero genre but don’t really respect it, which implies that it ought to go head-to-head with any other genre and fare well.
Because by “logic,” we’re not talking about the conceit of the genre — that people can have super-powers. We’re talking about basic, common-sense rules of narrative and character.
Because by “spectacle,” we’re talking about green fire engines that destroy the basics of your entire plot and undermine everything you’re supposedly doing with the characters.
Can you imagine fans of any other genre saying “our genre is about fun and applying logic to it ruins it?” Or justifying such inanities, as if it’s offensive to even point them out?
So hell, let’s take this to its logical conclusion.
Let’s have characters in two places at once, not because they travel through time but because logic need not apply.
Next time a super-villain punches a hero, let’s have the hero immediately forget the assault and befriend the attacker.
And since spectacle trumps logic, let’s make sure to get a nuclear explosion in every issue. Hell of a lot better than a green fire engine.
I’m exaggerating absurdly, but I trust you take my point. Stories have minor gaffs all the time, but once you get into the business of justifying wild problems in logic, especially because something looks cool or can be considered fun if you don’t squint, you’re advancing an argument that can be used to justify virtually anything.
But I’m picking on Justice League #1. I am. It is a serious offender, in that it wouldn’t pass muster in any adult creative writing course, nor at a respectable non-comics publisher, but it’s by no means alone. It just got hyped as a good place to start for new comics readers, which is what makes it fair to hold up as an example of why comics fail to even consider a new reader’s perspective.
They just can’t bracket their biases. They’re programmed to make sense of the insensible. To not even notice errors of plot and character that would be egregious in any other genre.
And in case you can’t tell, I suffer from the same disease. I love super-hero comics, especially DC’s, or I wouldn’t be writing this. But I’m trying to get better.
I just wish comics would.