It’s a German word.
It means- to make the familiar strange.
The legendary dramatist Bertolt Brecht used it as a means of making the audience take a step back and view the characters and their actions a little more subjectively. To shake them out of their complacency and really engage with the themes and issues presented on stage.
While watching this latest DC animated feature, the term popped in my head on numerous occasions.
There’s something both challenging and endearing about seeing something familiar (beloved) even through the prism of change.
Your wife dyes her hair. Your boyfriend grows a beard.
The change somehow reminds you what attracted you to them in the first place.
Justice League : Gods and Monsters takes DC’s trinity of most famous and popular characters and gives each of them a tweak, changing some crucial part of their mythos, then waits to see how much of the character we know and love survives the change.
Superman is still the last son of Krypton but before his birthing matrix is rocketed to Earth it is infused with Generol Zod’s DNA, not Jor El’s. Crashing to Earth he is adopted not by the All-American Ma and Pa Kent but by a no-less-kindly couple of Latin immigrants.
Batman is now recast as the Jekyll-like geneticist Dr Kirk Langstrom, known to many as the tragic and villainous Man-Bat. While still very much a vengeful and stealthy creature of the night,
this new Batman is also cursed by an insatiable vampirism.
Wonder Woman can still swing a broadsword with the best of them, and is still a paragon of feminine beauty and power. Instead of hailing from the picturesque island of Themyscira, though, she is recast as a refugee of Apokolips.
The rich cast of DC supporting characters are still there, from Lois Lane to Lex Luthor, Silas Stone to Steve Trevor, albeit in a form somewhat warped by the differences in this new trinity.
This world has a very uneasy relationship with the Justice League, who enjoy a sort of universal amnesty under President Amanda Waller (nice touch). When an unknown new enemy begins murdering prominent scientists in ways that seem to implicate Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, that trust is stretched to breaking point.
To counter the potentially jarring unfamiliarity, the film clings to a reassuringly known commodity when it comes to its aesthetic. The film is the brain child of Bruce Timm, one of the key creators of the Batman, Superman and Justice League animated series, and the greater DC Animated Universe. As such, the film looks and feels like a particularly well-polished episode of Justice League Unlimited.
The creators cleverly evoke and subvert the nostalgia of their fans by painting these fresh takes on the characters with a well known palette and (to my mind) it’s a welcome change from the vaguely anime inspired, New 52 flavoured output of recent DCAU offerings.
For all its JLU influence the film is far more heavy handed with the violence and profanity than its kid-friendly predecessor would allow.
Those who criticised Man of Steel for its laissez-faire attitude towards property damage will probably balk at this more hard boiled Superman, though it’s made abundantly clear that this incarnation was raised in a far harsher environment than the lovably wholesome Clark Kent ever was.
If Christian Bale’s “I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you!” was a bit much for you, then this blood-suckingly murderous Dark Knight may raise your hackles.
And Wonder Woman…
Well, she’s not for the prudish!
These characters are flawed. They make poor choices. They indulge appetites that may be considered unseemly in the DC canon proper.
But for all that, there’s an unmistakable essence of the characters we know at their core.
Watching the film, I surprised myself with how invested I became in these characters and this world. Indeed I sincerely hope that the film has gained enough of a following to merit further sojourns into this parallel DC Universe.
I would love to see how this edgier doppelgänger of the DCU might present a Flash or a Green Lantern.
More than that I was surprised by the extent to which this near flawless fusion of the old and new had reignited my love for the established versions of the characters. It made me yearn to reach for landmark DCAU titles like Superman vs The Elite, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm or the brilliant animated Wonder Woman movie.
Presenting beloved characters in a new light is nothing new in the DC Universe on paper.
Indeed, an entire multiverse, numerous “Elseworlds” tales, a line of “Earth One” graphic novels and the sprawling crossover, “Convergence” have been centred around the very concept.
Legends only endure if creators are bold enough to tear up the rule book, even if they end up lovingly glueing it back together at a later date.
Superman had to die and come back with a black suit and a mullet for us to realise how much we missed him.
Batman had to spend a year in a wheelchair while he was replaced by a brainwashed religious zealot in order for us to realise just how well he walked the line between the light and the dark.
When Denny O’Neil changed Wonder Woman into a powerless, kung-fu-super-spy in the ’70s the comics world realised that it needed the feminist icon more than it needed to ape the popularity of televisual trends.
Change may raise the hackles of die-hards, but these enduring legends become stronger for it.
Justice League: Gods and Monsters successfully re-imagines the of the world’s most iconic superheroes in a way that is bold, challenging and indeed refreshing while still retaining love and respect for the essence of the characters.
If you’re on the fence about whether to watch this film or are looking for a primer before you dive in then I can’t recommend these three animated shorts (brief prequels that establish these versions of the characters) highly enough.
Frustratingly, they aren’t available on the Blu Ray / DVD.