In 2016, Warner Bros. had a near-impossible task: to take the setting established by Man of Steel – which was meant to be the first of a Superman trilogy equivalent to The Dark Knight trilogy – and turn it into a shared universe on par with 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios. The two films they produced to do this were not as well-received as Warner Bros. had hoped. Instead, the studio might have benefited from adapting the short-run DC comics story from the ’80s known as Legends.
A Unified Story
Legends was an event comic miniseries that had the job of establishing the new makeup of the DC Universe after it was drastically altered by a previous event comic miniseries, Crisis On Infinite Earths. Legends was not the first post-Crisis story, but it was one of the earliest.
Legends covered a lot of the same territory that the Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad films would touch, but with better execution and in a more coherent fashion. Legends depicted superheroes reacting to a media-fuelled controversy over the role of superheroes in society.
During Legends, Wonder Woman met other superheroes for the first (post-Crisis) time in the middle of a major conflict. Legends was the origin story of an incarnation of both the Justice League and the Suicide Squad. This included the Squad’s first mission and the first appearance of Amanda Waller. And crucially, Legends was when arch-villain Darkseid established himself as the enemy of the whole DCU, not just his previous main opponents (the New Gods).
Legends made all of these elements work in a single story by having them all plainly be (a) part of Darkseid’s evil plan or (b) part of the superhero community’s reaction to Darkseid’s plan. Everything in Legends is connected. G. Gordon Godfrey, the architect of the public anti-superhero backlash in Legends, is shown to be working for Darkseid at the start of the story. The U.S. government’s sudden hostility to superheroes and Superman’s temporary decision to step away from heroics are because of Darkseid’s manipulations. We know this from the beginning.
The Reagan administration creates the Suicide Squad to stop a monster that Darkseid controls. The Justice League is re-formed to stop Darkseid’s Parademon army in Washington, D.C. The entire story is tightly bound together, and not much about it feels extraneous. Everything makes sense. The 2016 films could have benefited from this kind of clarity and unity, instead of having numerous side plots and odd twists.
Another area where the 2016 DCEU films struggled was in establishing antagonists. Legends, on the other hand, has a superb lineup of antagonists. G. Gordon Godfrey, Darkseid’s agent provocateur, articulates his anti-superhero philosophy in a way that seems consistent and arguably rational. Meanwhile, he uses his superpowered voice to brainwash ordinary people into committing horrible acts that serve his cause. This makes him a much better villain than Batman v Superman‘s stuttering Lex Luthor or Suicide Squad‘s generic Enchantress.
Brimstone, the creature the Suicide Squad has to confront in Legends, is a huge, murderous monster, but he also has personality. Speaking in King James Bible-style English and making pompous proclamations make him much more memorable than Batman v Superman‘s Doomsday or Suicide Squad‘s Incubus.
In the comic story, readers actually see Darkseid working behind the scenes. In Batman v Superman, however, he is rendered as merely a mysterious offscreen presence. Darkseid is DC’s best villain, and it really shows in Legends. He turns President Reagan into an unwitting pawn and turns superheroes into outlaws. He tricks innocent Billy Batson into thinking of himself as a murderer and brainwashes Superman in one of the tie-ins. Throughout the story, he delivers tons of memorable evil speeches.
The Origin of the Suicide Squad
Legends is, in some respects, the first Suicide Squad story. Technically, DC published earlier stories under the Suicide Squad name in the ’50s and ’60s, but they were nothing like the squad as we know it. Unlike the film, Suicide Squad stories are not about love, happy endings, or redemption. They’re about unrepentant evil barely kept in check, the thrill of impossible odds, and international politics. Although the political side doesn’t come in until the regular Suicide Squad series, the other two elements are on full display in Legends.
In its first appearance, Legends presents a Suicide Squad that’s almost fully-formed. Amanda Waller is indomitable and legitimately competent. Rick Flag is noble and exists to mitigate the depravity of his teammates, up to and including challenging Amanda Waller. Deadshot doesn’t value anyone’s life, including his own. Captain Boomerang, despite being a hilarious, opportunistic screw-up with no redeeming qualities, is actually quite handy in battle.
David Ayer’s film would have benefited from using these characterizations. Instead, Ayer gave us an Amanda Waller whose first squad operation is a fiasco, a Rick Flag who looks the other way when Amanda does wrong, and a useless Captain Boomerang. Most jarringly, Ayer’s Deadshot self-righteously yells, “You’re evil!” at the bad guy, as if he were a moral person.
Legends makes such a good template that it’s surprising Warner Bros. didn’t bother to use it. The story has a large cast of characters and a large scale, probably larger than Warner Bros. would have wanted to tackle in its second DCEU movie. But even if the studio were to reduce and alter the character lineup, adhering to the core storyline could have produced a popular film. And by the end of the film, the audience would be eager for more Justice League and Suicide Squad films.