Strange Faces, Nipples & Blood: The trouble with Justice League: Gods and Monsters
I’ve been reading comic books for fifteen years – it started when I was ten and realized the place I bought Pokemon cards also sold comic books. I lean more towards Marvel now but as a kid I was a tried and true DC fan. Nothing made me happier than Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman stories. And the only thing better than a regular old story about the trinity was an Elseworlds tale. DC doesn’t use the labeling so much anymore, what with all the crises and convergences of the last few years, but there was a time when DC gleefully published their own response to the What Ifs of old school Marvel. Sometimes Superman’s ship crash landed in an African jungle and he was raised by gorillas like Tarzan, other times Batman was operating in a gritty 1940s themed world, sometimes the Justice League were cowboys or samurai. A kid a good comic was like an ice cream sandwich and but an Elseworld? Good or bad they might as well have been a whole damn sundae.
Naturally I was excited when Justice League: Gods and Monsters was announced. I wasn’t exactly enthralled with the idea of a grittier, darker Justice League, but I liked the idea of shaking the trinity paradigm up. I was interested to see what it would look like to put different characters in the roles of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
And now that I have I kind of wish I hadn’t.
You see, Gods and Monsters falls flat in an area that a lot of Elseworlds stories do: it fails to show us why the changes to the established canon we’re used to give us the world we’re viewing in the film.
One of my favorite Elseworlds tales, and easily one of the best JLA: The Nail, is set in a world where John and Martha Kent blow out a tire after running over a nail and thus don’t make it to baby Kal-El’s ship in time to adopt and raise him. The rest of the story shows us the butterfly effect styles changes this causes to world and how much different things are for the JLA. Gods and Monsters doesn’t do this. At no point are we really shown why this world is different besides the fact that “it just is.”
And sometimes worlds can just be different: I don’t need to know the exact details as to why the Nazis won the war on Earth-X or why Thunderworld doesn’t have any other superheroes, but when you give us a world as radically different as the one seen in this film is, we need to get a little more backstory.
We don’t know why this child of Zod raised by migrant Mexican workers is a violent superguardian who works for the government and calls himself Superman. Sure he mentions “being at the receiving end of some harsh lessons” when he’s speaking to Lois Lane at one point, but we’re told this rather than shown.
We don’t know why Kirk Langstrom runs around in a costume calling himself Batman besides the fact that Superman “took him in.”
And most frustratingly: we have absolutely have no idea why Bekka, granddaughter of High Father of the New Gods, runs around calling herself Wonder Woman.
It’s as though the film expects us to take these characters for what they tell us they are for no other reasons besides the fact that we’re being told in the first place. And at a certain level, that’s fine, there’s a lot of Elseworlds that do that, but most have the good sense to use characters that we as viewers would be more familiar with.
Besides for Kirk Langstrom, who we all know and love as Man-Bat, the rest of these characters are kind of blank slates. Barring some barely remembered Kirby New Gods stuff, Bekka is a character I honestly couldn’t tell you a damn thing about. And this son of Zod and Lara guy? A completely new character. There’s a part of me that wonders if the narrative wouldn’t be a little more coherent if they’d simply used Kal-El, Diana and Bruce Wayne and just reshaped their lives as most Elseworlds choose to do rather than throwing us into the deep end with new(ish) characters.
I’ve read about Nazi Kal-El and Russian Communist Kal-El and British Kal-El so raised-by-Mexican-migrant worker Kal-El might have been really interesting to see. It would’ve been interesting to see how that kind of life might have changed Kal-El from the one we know and love to a more hardened hero. At least, it would’ve been a helluva lot more interesting than some guy we don’t know saying dios mios as the only real reminder we get of his new origin.
And its not like we haven’t already seen vampire Batman or vicious sword slashing Wonder Woman.
It just feels like almost all the elements to tell a great Elseworlds story were there and the team behind the film fell short. And that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy some things about it: I really loved that made Will Magnus the villain instead of the more obvious Lex Luthor, I enjoyed their more skepetical and hard-assed Lois Lane, and any reality where Amanda Waller is the President is A-OK with me…but I wish they’d given us just a little more backstory than they did blood, nipples and a couple of swear words. Don’t get me wrong, I love blood, nipples and cursing, I just don’t think they mix with the Justice League. Even when the Justice League is a bunch of characters I barely recognize and don’t particularly care about.