New Gods, Old Fears

News broke today that Ava DuVernay, director of the divisive (but visually-stunning) A Wrinkle in Time will now also direct New Gods, an upcoming entry in the DC Comics cinematic universe. As this is news involving a superhero movie, you might expect that I have some opinions on the matter. And you would be right.

I am 100%, absolutely, totally excited for this jazz!

See, New Gods is based on the “Fourth World” saga, which is easily one of my favorite comics, one of the best things DC ever published. The story begins as something of a Superman spin-off, but it quickly turns into its own thing, combining The Lord of the Rings with the soft sci-fi of superhero comics and a liberal dose of hippy-dippy social allegory. And, with art and writing by Jack Kirby, it’s a truly beautiful thing to behold.

Kirby is one of the most influential artists in comics for good reason. The artistic mind behind some of the most popular superheroes in the world (Iron Man, The Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, the X-Men…), Kirby had a flair for wild, imaginative visuals. The Fourth World is one of Kirby’s most important creations, and he filled those pages with some of the weirdest and most wonderful drawings he ever did. This is material that is perfect for a visual-oriented director like Ava DuVernay.

But it’s not just about the visuals. The Fourth World is full of some of the richest, most colorful characters to ever grace the comics page:

  • Mister Miracle – a high-tech escape artist and conscientious objector in the war between light and darkness
  • Orion – the son of an evil god, whose dark nature makes him the perfect soldier for the forces of good
  • Granny Goodness – a motherly figure who “nurtures” all the free will out of her charges
  • Glorious Godfrey – basically just Alex Jones, but somehow even worse
  • Steppenwolfe – a warrior who… Wait, we’ve seen this guy recently, haven’t we?

Oh… Oh crap.

Um… so, yeah, before I get too excited about this project, I need to remind myself that New Gods is slated to be part of the DC Extended Universe, a cinematic monstrosity that now includes five films, of which only one and a half are any dang good at all (and those are Wonder Woman and maybe a quarter part each of Man of Steel and Justice League). I know, I just know, that there’s going to be a real temptation to follow in Zach Snyder’s deconstructionist grimdark footsteps. That’s a huge problem for the material, which is so straightforward and earnest that it literally named its chief antagonist Darkseid.

He wears a minidress, so he is clearly the best and most evillest.

Darkseid is probably the best known of all of the New Gods. He’s popped up in a few major Superman adaptations over the years, including that one time someone decided that the best way to make Superman relatable was to have him date Kristin Kreuk. He is also (and I know I’m using this word a lot recently) my favorite super villain of all time.

There’s a lot of great stuff about Darkseid. He’s every bit the physical match of the heroes he faces off against. He can easily beat the tar out of Superman or Wonder Woman, and he actually killed Batman once (and by “killed” I mean “turned into a caveman”… long story). But the best stories about Darkseid don’t involve him throwing a single punch. Darkseid wins the same way evil wins in the real world: by slow, imperceptible, inevitable corruption.

See, Darkseid preys on the “dark side” of human nature. He seeks, like so many do, to “take over the world,” but he’s a theological villain more than a standard super villain. He doesn’t control people using mind beams or hypnosis. Rather, he controls them by appealing to their weakest, most shameful elements – their fear, their selfishness, their anger and pettiness. In the world of the New Gods, he is the devil.

If you ask me, the last great Darkseid story was Final Crisis, a 2008 comics series by writer Grant Morrison. In this story, Darkseid succeeds in placing the world under his control. The heroes of the DC Universe have to unite to fight a war that, frankly, they’ve already lost. Their great strength, their ability to punch evil into submission, is of no practical use here. The big fist fight between Superman and Darkseid never happens in this story. In fact, Darkseid is probably at his physical low point here, having possessed a weak mortal body. He even wears leg braces the whole time, apparently unable to stand on his own.

And yet… he’s never been more terrifying than he is in this story.

I remember that the end of Final Crisis drew a fair bit of criticism, as Darkseid was ultimately defeated by Superman singing a song at him. It’s slightly less ridiculous than it sounds, but only slightly. But I think that ending illustrates an important point: the darkness in humanity cannot be overcome through violence.

That’s a difficult message to portray in superhero stories, where violence is almost as much a part of the medium as ink and paper. However, the fact that Darkseid is an antagonist in a superhero comic means one thing for certain: he will always lose, in the end. That makes for a pretty inspiring message, if you think about it. The literal “dark side” of human nature can be beaten, and goodness and virtue can win, no matter how bad things get.

As much as I love the New Gods and the character of Darkseid in particular, I’m very nervous about how these characters will appear on the big screen. See, I can now, very easily, picture Henry Cavill trying on his best Christopher Reeve smile and saying, “Well, Darkseid, time to send you to the ‘dark side’ of the moon!” before punching him in the face and sending him shooting into the stratosphere, while Darkseid (played by yet another wildly inappropriate actor… I’mma say Colin Firth) screams “Noooooooooo!” before finally disappearing with a distant twinkle, Team Rocket style.

…actually, now that I’ve typed that out, it really doesn’t sound that bad.

My point is this: the New Gods don’t really function the same way other superhero characters do. They aren’t about over the top action sequences and quippy comedy. They’re a Book-of-Genesis style myth about the nature of good and evil within humanity. In other words, they’re the one place the whole “Superman is disaffected Jesus” thing might actually work (but seriously please don’t try that again).

The New Gods are going to be really, really difficult to film. I think DuVernay is up to the task. At the very least, the film should be pretty. But if what we get is just another “pretty and competent” superhero beat-’em-up, then we’ll have wasted a lot of potential, and that would be too bad.

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