The DCEU Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Camp

Pow! Bam! Woo! The DCEU has been criticized for its overly grim tone. Perhaps it's time for the franchise to embrace the camp of its past.

Superman and Camp in the Justice League

The DCEU has faced multiple criticisms over the past several years since its inception with Man of Steel. What was intended to be the primary competition to the already dominant Marvel Cinematic Universe has instead become a critically reviled hodgepodge of ideas, styles and intents. While there have been exceptions, such as 2017’s Wonder Woman, and the franchise has a loyal fanbase, the overall feeling emanating from the increasingly crumbing saga has been one of missed opportunity and misjudged execution. The biggest complaint has been about the franchise’s tone, which favored nihilistic grimness over optimistic vibrancy. The color palates are darker, the characterizations rooted in bleakness, and a greater focus put on the struggles of heroism.

This is not a bad idea and it’s worked wonders in the past, as evidenced by the continuing love for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Yet it’s an emotional and stylistic choice that’s had diminishing returns with each film, and audiences have grown tired of it. Warner Bros. has tried to change course throughout the series – from adding more comedic scenes and a brash neon color scheme to the advertising of Suicide Squad to the total color and tonal correction of Justice League in its re-shoots – but it hasn’t offered the desired results.

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As the franchise struggles with its next steps, and further major projects are announced (the most recent one being an Ava DuVernay directed adaptation of The New Gods), now more than ever, the DCEU needs to lighten things up. Over in the world of Marvel, as much as they are accused of their products being too similar, there are obvious variations in tone that help widen the fan-base: Ant-Man and Thor: Ragnarok and The Punisher exist in the same universe and there's no conflict over that. Meanwhile, everything in the DCEU follows the same pattern and that limits its appeal. There are definitely fans of the darker take that are getting their fill, yet a sizeable base of fans that crave the cheesier stuff are left in the dark. Perhaps it’s time for the series to embrace that which it has long tried to reject: The joys of camp.

This Page: DC is Popular Because of Camp

DC is Popular Because of Camp

Burt Ward as Robin and Adam West as Batman in the Batmobile

Prior to Nolan reinventing the superhero movie as we know it for a new age, the genre was typically more lighthearted fare. Indeed, it was this more irreverent and goofy tone for characters like Batman that seemingly sank the franchise in the first place, as Batman and Robin became a punchline before it left cinemas. In reality, the Joel Schumacher movies were a deliberate opposition to the Tim Burton ones that helped kick-start the series.

The studio feared the movies were getting too dark and the hallucinogenic gothic approach in Batman Returns turned off parents and toy sales alike, so they asked for a new direction. DC had gone through this before in the comics, as creators rejected the silliness of the Adam West TV show era in order to tell their own more serious stories with the Gotham universe. This cycle is well established and speaks volumes to how audiences consume pop culture as well as the inevitability of backlash. Yet there's also something worth exploring here, and it feels only fair that DC take another shot at their camp roots.

For many fans, their entry point into DC fandom came from these campier interpretations of the franchise: The 1960s Batman series was a huge hit in its day, the original Superman movie has a knowingly corny edge that only enhances its appeal, and Hanna-Barbera's Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends won over legions of kids (a recent fun promotional video for Justice League's upcoming Blu-ray release that invoked Super Friends was quietly removed by Warner Bros. after fan hostility). For the current generation of young fans, the CW line-up and cartoons like Batman: The Brave and the Bold have opened up the world of DC to them through colorful kitsch and a self-aware rejection of grimness. Yet these offerings are few and far between, and they still tend to lean more towards a grounded tone than anything truly camp. Even the animation's getting darker, with R-rated adaptations of The Killing Joke taking center-stage. Camp has its obvious appeal, but it’s also clear why so many reject it.

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