Watching Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice last month, the thing that annoyed me besides Jesse Eisenberg’s twitchy Luthor was the faux realism.
The movie seems determined to separate itself from the kid-stuff comics of the Silver Age. It’s not just that it’s dark and grim, but that the creators want us to know they’re thinking about the implications of Superman, and how unsettling it would be to have him around. Can we trust him? What happens if he goes rogue? Are superheroes bound by the rule of law and what happens if they’re not?
The trouble is, the realism is about an inch deep. As I said in my review at the link, for all the sturm and drang about the risk Superman poses, nothing’s actually going to change. Superman’s not going to be outlawed. We’re not going to end up with anything like the 52 State Initiative Marvel instituted after Civil War. The most that will happen is that he and the other superheroes are treated closer to the Marvel style (wary, suspicious, cynical) than DC (trust and respect!). Which is why it’s faux.
I have a similar problem with the old Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The 1980s original handbook, steered by Mark Gruenwald, tried to put everything on a sounder scientific basis. Cyclops, for example, isn’t a solar battery who discharges energy through his eyes; no, his eyes contain tiny wormholes that open onto some other dimension and the energy there just pops our into our world!
Again, faux realism. Nothing can make the DC or Marvel universes physically plausible; the most you can do insert something that sounds like better pseudoscientific bilge (other dimensions! Quantum physics! Psionics!) than previous pseudoscientific bilge.
On top of which, faux realism is unaesthetic. The movie doesn’t gain gravitas from all the discussion, it just bogs down in tedium. Cyclops having dimensional gates in his eyes just doesn’t feel as right as the solar battery theory. And as with magic, I’ll trade grimdark grit and realism for aesthetics any day. Especially when you can’t get real realism. If you’re starting your superhero universe from scratch, that’s another story. One thing I like about Malibu Comics’ 1990s Ultraverse (which I must blog about soon) is that while they do shoot for a more realistic universe than the Big Two they don’t let it bog things down — there are still lots of spectacular fights, superpowers and cool villains.
Likewise there’s the complaint I’ve heard that Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series never really explains how, if dragons have been associating with humans for centuries, the world looks like Napoleonic Europe with dragons rather than a completely different history. It’s a fair criticism, but part of the fun of the books is being the Napoleonic War with dragons — I’m willing to make that trade-off (I’m doing something similar myself in No-One Can Slay Her) as long as I like the results. Of course I also like books that pull off the realism (e.g., Watchmen) but the illusion of realism is not, in itself, something that sells me on a story.