What misery has befallen iconic franchises these days! From Star Wars to The Walking Dead, it’s an era of mediocrity. Creative bankruptcy, bad writing, and just plain bizarre decisions are characteristic, and will persist — fanbases will apparently continue paying for content no matter how dreadful, offering little incentive for studios to alter course. Marvel, for instance, appears completely out of gas. While a Spiderman film occasionally offers hope, I felt rather dead inside watching Thor: Love and Thunder, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Wakanda Forever. Admittedly, I have not bothered with She-Hulk, Quantumania, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel, Eternals, Black Widow, Loki, Shang-Chi, WandaVision, or Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and probably never will, but reviews from those I trust often don’t rise above “meh.” Of course, I do not glorify Marvel’s 2008-2019 (Iron Man to End Game) period as quite the Golden Age some observers do; there were certainly better movies produced then, but also some of the OKest or most forgettable: Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, Age of Ultron, Captain Marvel, Civil War, and the first 30 minutes of Iron Man 3 (I turned it off).
DC, as is commonly noted, has been a special kind of disaster. While Joker, Wonder Woman, The Batman, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League were pretty good, Justice League, Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and Wonder Woman 1984, among others I’m sure, were atrocious. Two of these were so bad they were simply remade — try to imagine Marvel doing that, it’s difficult to do. Man of Steel, kicking off the series in 2013, was rather average. I liked the choice of a darker, grittier superhero universe, to stand in contrast to Marvel. But it wasn’t well executed. Remember Nolan’s The Dark Knight from 2008? That’s darkness done right. Joker and the others did it decently, too. But most did not. The DCEU is now being rebooted entirely, under the leadership of the director of the best Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy.
But Star Trek, it seems, has crashed and burned unlike any other franchise. Star Trek used to be about interesting, “what if” civilizations and celestial phenomena. It placed an emphasis on philosophy and moral questions, forcing characters to navigate difficult or impossible choices. It was adventurous, visually and narratively bright, and optimistic about the future of the human race, which finally unites and celebrates its infinite diversity and tries to do the same with other species it encounters. These things defined the series I watched growing up: The Next Generation, Voyager, Deep Space Nine, and Enterprise. The 2009 reboot Star Trek was more a dumb action movie (the sequels were worse), but at least it was a pretty fun ride. By most accounts the new television series since 2017 are fairly miserable: they’re dark, violent, gritty, stupid, with about as much heart as a Transformers movie (which is what Alex Kurtzman, the helmsman of New Trek, did prior). I have only seen clips of these shows and watched many long reviews from commentators I trust, save for one or two full episodes I stumbled upon which confirmed the nightmare. Those who have actually seen the shows start to finish may have a more accurate perspective. Regardless, when I speak of Star Trek being able to teach Marvel and DC anything, I mean Old Trek.
Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War were flawed films (one more so) that got heroes beating each other up. A fun concept that I’m sure the comics do a million times better than these duds. The methods of getting good guys to fight, in my view, were painfully ham-fisted and unconvincing. The public is upset in both movies about collateral damage that the heroes caused when saving the entire world? Grow the fuck up, you all would have died. Batman wants to kill Superman because he might turn evil one day? Why not just work on systems of containment, with kryptonite, and use them if that happens? Aren’t you a good guy? Superman fights Batman because Lex Luthor will kill his mother if he doesn’t, when trying to enlist Batman’s help might be more productive? (Note that Batman finds Martha right away when their fight ends and they do talk; not sure how, but it happens.) Talking to Batman, explaining the situation, and working through the problem together may sound lame or impossible, but recall that these are both good guys. That’s probably what they would do. Superman actually tries to do this, right before the battle starts. The screenwriters make a small attempt to hold together this ridiculous house of cards, while still making sure the movie happens. Superman is interrupted by Batman’s attack. Then he’s too mad to just blurt it out at any point. “I need your help! We’re being manipulated! My mother’s in danger!” When your conflict hinges completely on two justice-minded people not having a short conversation, it’s not terribly convincing.
Civil War has the same problems: there’s a grand manipulator behind the scenes and our heroes won’t say obvious things that would prevent the conflict. They must be dumbed down. Zemo, the antagonist, wants the Avengers to fall apart, so he frames the Winter Soldier for murder. Tony Stark and allies want to bring the Winter Soldier in dead or alive, while Captain America and allies want to protect him and show that he was framed. If Cap had set up a Zoom call, he could have calmly explained the reasons why he believed Bucky was innocent; he could have informed Tony and the authorities that someone was clearly out to get the Winter Soldier, even brainwashing him after the framing to commit other violent acts. Steve Rogers’ dear friends and fellow moral beings probably would have listened. Instead, all the good guys have a big brawl at the airport (of course, no one dies in this weak-ass “Civil War”). Then Zemo reveals that the Winter Soldier murdered Tony Stark’s parents decades ago. This time Cap does try to explain. “It wasn’t him, Hydra had control of his mind!” He could have kept yelling it, but common sense must be sacrificed on the altar of the screenplay. Iron Man is now an idiot, anyway, a blind rage machine incapable of rational thought. Just like Superman. Who cares if Bucky wasn’t in control of his actions? Time to kill! So the good guy ignores the sincere words of the other good guy — his longtime friend — and they have another pointless fight.
Of course, these movies do other small things to create animosity between heroes, which is beneficial. Superman has a festering dislike of Batman’s rough justice, such as the branding of criminals. Batman is affected by the collateral damage of Superman saving the day in Man of Steel (how Lex Luthor knows Batman hates Superman, or manipulates him into hating the Kryptonian, is not explained). Tony Stark wants the government to determine when and how the Avengers act, while Steve Rogers wants to maintain independence. (The first position is a stretch for any character, as “If we can’t accept limitations we’re no different than the bad guys” is obviously untrue, given motivations, and limitations will almost certainly prevent these heroes from saving the entire world. Remember how close it came a few times? Imagine if you had to wait for the committee vote; imagine if the vote was “sit this one out.” It’s fairly absurd. But it would make a tiny bit more sense to have Captain America — the Boy Scout, the soldier — be the bootlicker following orders, not the rebellious billionaire playboy.) Still, the fisticuffs only come about because protagonists go stupid.
There are better ways to get heroes battling. If you want an evil manipulator and good guys incapable of communicating, just have one hero be mind controlled. Or, if you want to maintain agency, do what Star Trek used to do so well and create a true moral conundrum. Not “should we be regulated” or some such nonsense. A “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario, with protagonists placed on either side. In the Deep Space Nine episode “Children of Time,” the crew lands on a planet that has a strange energy barrier. They discover a city of 8,000 people — their own descendants! They are in a time paradox. When the crew attempts to leave the planet, the descendants say, the energy barrier throws them 200 years into the past and their ship is damaged beyond repair in the ensuing crash. They have no choice but to settle there — leaving behind loved ones off-world and in another time, mourning their friends who died in the crash, and, most importantly, unable to return to the war that threatens the survival of Earth. The crew tries to figure out a way to escape the paradox. But they have a terrible moral choice to make. If they escape the energy barrier, they will end the existence of 8,000 people to save their own skins — the crash will never have occurred, thus no descendants. If they decide not to escape, not to avoid the crash, they will never see their loved ones again, friends will die, and the Federation may lose the war. This is a dilemma in the original sense of the word: there are no good options. Characters fall on different sides of the decision. No, Deep Space Nine isn’t dumb enough for everyone to begin punching each other in the face, but you see a fine foundation for such a thing to occur in a superhero film. You see the perspectives of both sides, and they actually make sense. You can see how, after enough time and argument and tension, good people might be willing to use violence against other good people, their comrades, to either save a civilization or win a war.
As a similar example, there’s the Voyager episode “Tuvix,” in which two members of another crew are involved in a transporter accident. The beaming combines them into a single, new individual. He has personality traits and memories of the two crewmen, but is a distinct, unique person. The shocked crew must come to terms with this event and learn to accept Tuvix. A month or two later comes the ethical dilemma: a way to reverse the fusion is developed. The two original crewmen can be restored, but Tuvix will cease to exist. Tears in his eyes, he begs for his life. What do you do? Kill one to save two? Kill a stranger to save a friend? Can’t you see Captain America standing up for the rights of a new being, while Iron Man insists that the two originals have an overriding right to life? Give good people good reason to come to blows. Such ideas and crises can be explored in the superhero realm just as easily as in Star Trek.
This is much more powerful and convincing than disagreements over — yawn — treaties and whether arm boy should die for events he had no control over.
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