Injustice 2's story mode is the DC movie we deserve
I don’t think I’m making a controversial statement when I point out that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has the DC Cinematic Universe beat. Disney had the vision and the strength of will to stick to the long game, and here we are, almost 10 years later, laughing with a sense of both irony and expectation when Thor recognizes a “friend from work” in a new trailer.
Warner Bros., on the other hand, has been playing catch-up. But rather than follow Disney’s blueprint, Warner Bros. is operating on an accelerated timeline, cramming multiple famous storylines into a single film, storylines that should have instead been explored in-depth individually.
To put it mildly, I’ve been disappointed with the DC Hollywood offerings so far. And yet I’m a big fan of the DC animated films and associated video games. Not only are they free of the expectations set by the Marvel films, but their respective mediums allow them to capture the comic book experience in more authentic ways, as well as to tell stories that have high stakes with life and death consequences.
Injustice 2 is the perfect example of this. I watched YouTuber Maximillian Dood’s multi-hour playthrough of the story mode, and I was engrossed beginning to end in a way that the DC films could never replicate. Thanks to the power of animation, sharp writing, and a great game engine, Injustice 2 delivers a better DC film than we've seen in theaters in years.
Animation Offers Specificity and Flexibility
For me, animation has consistently been more impactful than live action. With animation, many of the human variables are reduced, leaving the vision concentrated in the hands of a few creators. I’m not distracted by makeup, costumes, or actors’ choices. Continuity errors are less frequent. Sets never feel limited. And no emotion ever feels out of reach.
When I watch a live action film, I’m never sure that I’ll be moved. When I watch a Hollywood animation, however, I prepare for a wellspring of emotion to be tapped. I’ll always be grateful that I watched Pixar’s Up after it left the theater, in the privacy of my home, alone.
When we watch contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, most of what we see doesn’t really exist, but our eyes are used to seeing the computer graphic images and accepting them as real. More often than not, the thing that looks out of place is the human actor who either doesn’t blend well with CGI environment or isn’t reacting properly to it. That's why it can make sense to remove the human element completely.
Furthermore, comic book characters are meant to perform superhuman feats, and animation lends itself perfectly to the task. This is not to say that live action comic book films have not depicted extraordinary acts; it’s just that watching an actual human being that we know and recognize doing something that we know and recognize as something they can’t do requires more work on our parts to accept. Whereas a cartoon can do anything–even take a punch from Superman and survive.
Lastly, with animation, characters look the way we expect them to look and move the way we expect them to move. When I look at Deadshot in Injustice 2, I see Deadshot acting like Deadshot. When I look at Deadshot in Suicide Squad, I see Will Smith, acting like Will Smith in a Deadshot costume. When characters are animated, it frees the audience to accept the characters as unique entities with their own lives instead of roles actors are playing. This works even if the voice actors bringing the characters to life are themselves fairly well known.
A Smart Concept Requires Smart Writing
Animation can’t make for a good film by itself; it needs to be paired with an engrossing story. In the case of comic book characters in a fighting game, a little more work has to be done to make the matchups work. In Injustice 2 the writers had their work cut out for them, but they managed to deliver.
The Injustice 2 story introduces Brainiac in a flashback as a villain who destroys whole planets. When we meet his forces, they’re annihilating Krypton just as a baby Superman and teenage Supergirl are speeding away in escape pods. Back on Earth, in the current timeline, events are unfolding years after the events of Injustice. The Regime has fallen, and Superman is powerless in his cage bathed in an artificial red sun. Meanwhile, nefarious forces are rising to fill the power vacuum in the form of Gorilla Grodd and his group called The Society.
These “What if?” stories are fantastic writing exercises that allow established characters to be more multidimensional (no pun intended). The DC films may have some heroes experience a crisis of character, but they will never be allowed to truly fall. Or truly die. Or truly kill (each other). But when these boundaries are lifted, suddenly the plot becomes exciting in its unpredictability. Maximillian Dood and his friends started off their stream commenting on every cinematic, but the banter quickly faded as the story enthralled them all. And I was right there with them.
What I enjoyed the most was how the writers made the fights plausible–as much as they could, anyway. From shooting Flash in the leg and then freezing the wound to depowering Superman with red solar grenades and kryptonite, I had no idea there were so many ways to counter these super powers. With these explanations in place I watched the characters fight, and I never questioned why Superman didn’t just stay out of punching distance and melt Batman’s face off with heat vision. This is a far cry from how I felt watching Suicide Squad, wondering how Killer Croc or Harley Quinn could ever take down a rogue Superman, which is what the group was formed to do.
A Game Engine Fit for a Film
I haven’t actually played Injustice 2, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the game engine was designed for the cinematics first and the fighting second. NetherRealm has created a versatile game engine that allows them to create whatever sets they need and have the characters interact within and with the environment as necessary. They basically have all of the tools they need for creating any animated film they want. So when the black letterbox stripes move out of the way to reveal the HUD, it almost feels like a pleasant surprise that allows the player to interact with a movie.
Finally, there’s something to be said about the game's facial animations. Getting the expressions and mouth shape right were probably the most important aspects that go into making the cinematics as compelling as they are. As graphics approach true realism, viewer expectations of human facial details become more demanding. The moment something feels out of place in the face is the moment the experience enters the uncanny valley. Fortunately, Injustice 2 sails over the uncanny valley with aplomb.
At first I scrutinized the faces, waiting for an errant animation to betray my senses. While it isn’t always perfect, it was more than convincing. By the time Aquaman was introduced, I was sold. I didn’t need to be on guard for the point where the artistry failed. I could just enjoy the story. So when Batman and Superman talk about old times and all the fight leaves Batman’s face for a moment as he reminisces, these animated characters felt as alive to me as any live action performer.
As someone who loves movies, I’ve always identified video games as one of the causes for film’s box office decline. Not only do video games keep gamers occupied and away from theaters, but modern video games also offer cinematic experiences that usurp much of the theater’s power.
But as someone who also grew up with DC comics, I’m supremely grateful for video games, because this industry still has the freedom to tell the stories fans want in the way they want, free from Hollywood's limits and politics.
Who knew that it would take an Injustice game to do the source material any justice?