High Camp in the DC Cinematic Universe

By  · Published on August 3rd, 2016

Zack Snyder and David Ayer have created a franchise with legs, just not the kind they really wanted.

On Monday, one of the writers I followed on Twitter posted a movie still from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice alongside an excerpt from film theorist Susan Sontag. “The pure examples of Camp are unintentional,” the quote read. “They are dead serious.” You ever spend time trying to form an opinion on a film only to have your thoughts lock into place when someone else frames it in just the right way? This was one of those moments for me. I’d long thought that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was a film that warranted some degree of defense – I had even written about its ‘B-Movie’ appeal immediately after its theatrical release – but it wasn’t until Brian placed it within the context of Susan Sontag and camp that my own appreciation for it locked into place.

The DC Universe as modern superhero camp is something I thought a lot about today while reading the early reviews of Suicide Squad. While critic after critic lambasted the film for its complete disregard for character development and its commitment to monochromatic fight sequences, I found myself oddly excited to dive into the world that my colleagues were describing. Here is a franchise that has historically subverted everything about the original comic books in service to Zack Snyder’s own hyper-masculine vision of modern gods and goddesses. And I think they stand a pretty good chance at being movies we remember with a great deal of fondness in 20 or 30 years.

I probably spend more time thinking about the construction of a modern camp canon than your average writer, especially when it comes to action and horror cinema. As someone who was introduced to film and television relatively late in life, I did not grow up around the video nasties of the ’70s and ’80s that so many of my peers take for granted. Instead, I came to my appreciation of the style through publications like Daily Grindhouse that separate the art from the trash and highlight lowbrow cinema that has evolved to a position of prominence over time. Post-apocalyptic wastelands, exploitation, men and women whose awkward appropriation of foreign culture made them international movie stars; these are the films that have established themselves as important works of camp art.

And since I missed the films in their original context, I am constantly on the lookout for modern cinema that has a shot at eventually forming its own camp canon. These are films positioned in the mainstream but critically reviled, movies that look to capitalize on modern trends in cinema but cannot help but ride a singular vision straight off the cliff. “Camp is art that proposes itself seriously,” Sontag wrote in her seminal essay on camp cinema, “but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is ‘too much.’” With this, Sontag took great pains to locate artifice and hyper-stylization somewhere in the realm of good taste. What Sontag sees in camp cinema is a gratuitous, commercialized sincerity that could become elevated to the position of important cinema with the proper amount of distance. It is film that can be celebrated because of its failings, not despite them, and stands as stark evidence for the appeal of style over substance.

This means that Zack Snyder’s vision for the DC Universe is well on its way. The critics of Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad argue that both films fail within the context of the modern summer movie – often unintentionally fanning the flames of the obnoxious Marvel and DC non-conflict – but in doing so also help earmark it for future consideration as camp. We may be tired of CGI battles or bloodless PG-13 violence, but these films commit themselves to an extravagance of both, giving us more ragdoll fight sequences and non-violent violence than entire decades of action films leading up to their release. They attempt to wring the most of a modern aesthetic that has fallen from favor; is only when looking back at the full context of this decade of monochromatic blockbusters that we may full appreciate their extravagance for what it is. Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad are films that suffer from their lack of originality, but they are also films whose completely misguided excess may surprise others with their longevity. We just can’t quite see it from where we’re sitting.

The Suicide Squad Pain Index

This is, of course, the beginning of the conversation, not the end of one. We technically only have three DC movies under our belt – Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad — and only time will tell if these movies remain the stylistic outlier for superhero films or if they pull the industry a little more towards the middle ground. Conversations about camp also come with a heavy price tag for the progressively minded among us. Camp is far more enjoyable in hindsight than it is in its moment; from a distance, we can find some entertainment in a film’s misguided depictions of social issues, knowing that the industry has a whole has taken steps to making that representation a thing of the past. Films that glorify gun violence or domestic abuse offer little to society, but those are some of the narrative elements – a lack of political correctness, for lack of a better phrase – that also make movies like Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad stand out against their peers. They are committed to their vision, empathy be damned.

Most importantly, the idea that these films could be important in the future as works of camp should not be read as a defense of DC fanboys who attack others for their negative opinions, especially when those attacks are not backed up by actual firsthand experience. The internet is an ugly place, and I only offer this as consolation: that Snyder and Ayer’s films, seen at a little more distance, may end up more closely aligned with the slashers and action movies of past decades that we have come to hold dear to our hearts. In order for a movie to succeed as camp, it must fail as objective art. Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad have pretty much nailed the failing at this point; let’s keep the door open to a revisit in a few decade’s time.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)