In 1987, DC Comics produced a new version of the Justice League unlike any version that had been seen before. Traditionally, the Justice League (and before it, the Golden Age’s Justice Society) was made up of DC’s top brass characters, the most famous, the most powerful, and the most indisputably moral. But the 1987 Justice League International was different. The team was made up of many lesser used or newly created characters, so it was not an inherently popular or well known group, but even more radically different was how this group behaved. In a nutshell, they were idiots. They were still capable superheroes, but were frequently petty, unprincipled, and occasionally just plain dumb. And this is what made them great. Over 2 decades later, CW’s Legends of Tomorrow is doing the same thing, allowing its ragtag group of superheroes the freedom to be dumb to similarly great results.
Spoilers ahead for the first two episodes of Legends of Tomorrow.
What made the Justice League International work so well was the reasoning behind the characters’ bad behavior. Superheroes, particularly DC superheroes, had spent roughly 50 years being paragons of virtue and ability; always capable, always intelligent, always noble. The approach that writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, and editor Andrew Helfer wanted to take was different. Said Helfer, “Heroes have an obligation, to society and themselves, to be heroes – and that means acting like a hero. … In the presence of the public, the mask hides both the hero’s face as well as his true personality. But in the presence of his or her peers... it’s a different story. The Justice League is a fraternity where heroes can take their masks off and let their hair down. They can be human for a change – and, in effect, be like us.”
Now, while many superhero comics’ had by this point utilized character flaws and infighting to craft more human superheroes, they had almost all been done in the name of creating more dramatic stories. The creative team here instead utilized the characters’ more flawed and human sides to craft a superhero comedy, and they used the comedy to make the characters feel more familiar to us, the audience. Said Helfer, “Given the philosophy we’d agreed to – the fact that for the first time heroes could act just like people – would it be too much of a stretch to actually make them funny?” The formula worked, and the formula’s success has affected superheroes down to today. We live in a world where 2012's Avengers and 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy and 2015's Ant-Man films all took a similar approach to the superhero ensemble, emphasizing the humor of flawed superheroes to draw in audiences before delving deeper into the drama.
But there’s one particular area where the JLI has not been properly copied by many of these newer superhero stories and that is in the field of equally dumb female characters. Now, for the purpose of this article, I am defining “Moments of Dumbness” as moments where a character allows their ignorance, idiosyncrasies, or personal flaws to hinder their performance as a superhero, particularly when played to humorous effect. This does not inherently need to disrupt the mission or provide deeper drama, and this does not include simply poor writing, but is specifically referring to the moments of endearing dumbness on the part of the characters, moments when they feel like they’re making the same mistakes that most of us make. These moments are typically played for comedy, but also have the added benefit of making the characters themselves more entertaining, and therefore more valuable in the context of the story.
Note the Guardians of the Galaxy, for instance. In a superhero movie that particularly advertised itself as a comedy superhero story, the main cast consists of four male characters and one female character. All four of the male characters consistently provide laughs throughout the film, Star Lord being goofy and occasionally clumsy, Rocket Raccoon being humorously aggressive and snarky, Drax being oblivious, and Groot being, well, Groot. The lone female character of the team, Gamora, however, is stoic, badass, and morally grounded. This is similar with the lone female character in the cast of Ant-Man, where Hope Van Dyne is an intelligent, strong willed, fully capable, mission focused woman who can and will do what needs to be done, even while working amongst an ensemble of goofy criminals; and Black Widow, who holds down the fort as quite possible the most level headed and basically competent of the Avengers. Now, this is not at all to say that any of these movies are not good movies, or that any of these characters are not good characters. But in films where much of the entertainment is derived from the human foolishness of the ensemble cast, it’s the female characters who are smart, strong, and moral. To a fault.
This is understandable. The treatment of female characters, particularly in male dominated genres is a delicate balance to strike, and where previous projects have been criticized for making female characters helpless and incapable in comparison to male characters, it’s easy to see why a storyteller would be tempted to err on the side of caution. And the result has been a series of great, strong, awesome female characters who work really, really well as superheroes. However, when compared to their male counterparts, these characters don’t always work as well in the context of superhero comedy. The audience is not invited to laugh at the female characters’ antics as much as they are the male characters’, and as a result the female characters are less entertaining. The male characters are equal parts badasses and goofballs, but the female characters only get the badass part, and that leads to a less balanced character. In the realm of fiction, the greatest disservice you can do a character is not to make them less of an ideal, but is to make them less entertaining, and this is what is happening to many female characters.
The Justice League International did not have this problem. Fire was shallow and vain; Ice was naïve and sweet to a fault; Black Canary was a humorously aggressive hyper-feminist (and just to be clear, her feminism was not played for laughs, but her aggressiveness was. It was also not portrayed as wrong, but it was portrayed as endearing and funny). You might note first that the team benefited from having more than one female character, meaning each character did not necessarily have to be the sole representative of women earth-wide, thus allowing them to be more flawed while not feeling like an indictment of the gender. But even more than that, the personalities given to each individual character made them unique and more entertaining. Just as much as the male characters, the female members of the JLI were each their own unique brand of lovable idiot.
This brings me to the Legends of Tomorrow. While we are still pretty early in the series and not all of the characters have gotten chances to really take the focus and show off their strengths and weaknesses, already one character in particular does stand out: Sara Lance, the White Canary. Sara Lance, who drinks and carouses and can be overconfident in her fight picking skills; Sara Lance, who ‘probably can’t even spell physics’; Sara Lance, who will take on a gang of thugs while apparently high as a kite. Two episodes in and many of the characters have had some defining, awesome Moments of Dumbness (Atom’s being technically brilliant yet easily duped by a trick security measure; Captain Cold’s inability to pass up an opportunity for burgling leading the capture of himself and others); I for one am overjoyed to see that Sara Lance is already getting in on these moments as well. All of these characters are still proving themselves to be truly awesome, badass superheroes (or villains, or anti-heroes, or whatever), and yet at the same time they are also proving themselves to be endearing, lovable idiots. In this regard, Legends of Tomorrow is carrying on the proud spirit of the Justice League International, and doing it a step better than the other properties taking a similar approach.
Go get ‘em.