Sunday, April 17, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

To get the obvious stuff out of the way, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a terrible movie.  I mean, you didn't need me to tell you that, right?  It's been out for three weeks, and the reviews have been so uniformly terrible that its 28% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes actually seems a bit high.  And before that consensus formed, there were the pre-release reviews, which were if anything even more brutal.  And before that, there were the trailers.  And before that, there was Man of Steel.  And before that, there was the overwhelming majority of Zack Snyder's career.  No one should be shocked by the fact that Batman v Superman turned out to be a bad movie, and though I have to admit that I was surprised by how bad it turned out to be--bad enough that even with my expectations lowered by all the factors listed above, I was still surprised by its badness; bad enough that my brother and I spent an hour after the movie enumerating its many flaws and still came up with a few more when we met again the next day--that's not really what I'm here to talk about.

Nor am I here to talk about how Batman v Superman fundamentally betrays its two title characters--and betrays, along the way, the fact that Snyder and writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio fundamentally do not understand what either of those characters are about.  Because the truth is, I don't really care.  I'm not a comic book reader, but I've been watching Batman movies for twenty years, and good or bad they all depict the character as, at best, someone who is working out their mommy-and-daddy issues by beating up poor criminals, and at worst, an outright fascist.  I'm perfectly willing to believe that there is more to the character, and that the comics (and the animated series) have captured that, but I think at this stage it's a mug's game to go to a Batman movie expecting to find more than what they've been known to give us.  As for Superman, if I want stories about a character who is all-powerful yet fundamentally good, and still interesting for all that, I've got the MCU's Captain America, not to mention Supergirl, so that fact that Batman v Superman depicts Superman as someone who seems genuinely to dislike people, and to be carrying out acts of heroism (when he deigns to do so) out of a sense of aggrieved obligation, doesn't really feel worth getting worked up over.  On the contrary, I was more upset by those scenes in Batman v Superman in which characters insisted--despite all available evidence--that its Superman was a figure of hope and inspiration, because they made it clear just how badly the people making the movie had misjudged its effect.

So instead, let's talk about a single scene--to my mind, the strangest and most telling scene in this strange and telling movie.  Having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune--read, having been subjected to a moderate amount of public criticism for such things as not saving a room full of people from a bomb lying just a few meters from him--Clark Kent decides to depart the world of men and run off somewhere to sulk manfully.  Along the way he encounters the ghost/hallucination of his father Jonathan, who tells him a story about the time when, as a child, he helped his father save their farm from a flood, only to realize later that they had directed the floodwaters into the neighbors' land, drowning their horses.  Leaving aside for the moment the fact that this is a ridiculous story--what Kansas farmer doesn't know exactly where the flood-path across their land goes?--it also feels, at first, like taking the character of Jonathan to ridiculous extremes.  Along with Superman's failure to even try and prevent some of the collateral damage from its final battle, one of the things that drew the most fire in Man of Steel was its depiction of Jonathan, who in one scene is so frantic about the dangers of Clark exposing himself to the world that he suggests it would have been better for Clark to have let a bus-full of children drown rather than risk it.  And if on the collateral damage front, Batman v Superman is almost hilariously prone to over-correct, constantly assuring us that wherever Superman, Batman, and their enemies end up fighting just happens to be uninhabited, when it comes to Jonathan the film chooses to double down on its miserablism.  Here is a Jonathan who is outright saying: never try to do anything, son, because any sense of accomplishment you might feel will turn out to be illusory and fleeting.

And yet the more I thought about this scene, the less it seemed to me like yet another unintentionally hilarious instance of Snyder and his writers mistaking gloom for substance, and the more it just seemed sad.  As in: depressed.  As in: Jonathan Kent clearly suffered from serious, lifelong depression (possibly related to the fact that he was raised by an asshole who thought it was OK to drown his neighbors' farms), and dealing with that, and with the poisonous worldview that he promulgated as a father, is coloring every one of Clark's choices as an adult and a superhero.  I mean, the man's death was practically a suicide, right?  And the thing is, once you choose to read the character this way, the entire character of Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman clicks into place.  The core premise of Superman is that he is good not because of his alienness, but because he was raised by good and decent people who taught him to value life and care about others.  In the world of Snyder's movies, Superman seems instead to have been raised by a joyless misanthrope, so it's maybe not so surprising that he seems genuinely to resent every act of kindness he commits, to engage in heroics almost despite himself, and to take no pleasure in helping others.  (It also ties in rather neatly to the raft of daddy issues driving the other characters in the movie: Lex Luthor hates Superman because he sees in him a reflection of his all-powerful, but abusive, father; and of course Batman is all about parental issues.)

To be clear, I'm not trying to say that this was Snyder and Goyer's intended reading.  One of the most frustrating things about Batman v Superman is that it clearly believes that Jonathan was a good man who has inspired his son's heroism, and that that heroism is, in itself, inspirational, despite the fact that what turns up on screen is nothing of the sort.  But I think that very disconnect is revealing, and in fact points to the core flaw of Snyder's superhero movies.  There's a name for the kind of mindset that mistakes depression for profundity, that associates an inability to feel or express joy, or sadness, or any emotion other than anger, with heroism and manliness.  In 2015, it informed the shape of most of our blockbuster movie villains, from Immortan Joe to Kylo Ren.  In 2016, it seems, it also afflicts our heroes.  The actual villain that both Batman and Superman need to fight in this movie isn't Lex Luthor, or Doomsday.  It's toxic masculinity.

Everything about Batman v Superman--right down to the color palette--makes sense if you assume that it's a movie written, created, and told from the point of view of people mired in toxic masculinity.  People who go through life trapped in a low-grade but pervasive depression, and who are disconnected from most of their emotions.  The entire story would have been over in ten minutes if either Batman or Superman were capable of communicating in any form other than violence.  Lex Luthor's master plan--to kidnap Superman's mother and force him to kill Batman, who by this point has been primed to see Superman as a threat--would have immediately crumbled if the two men would just talk to one another.  But for that to happen, Superman has to be willing to make himself vulnerable, to look weak, to say things like "please, I need your help."  This Superman isn't capable of expressing himself that way.  Neither is Batman, who falls into an immediate, burning hatred of Superman in the film's opening minutes and is incapable of considering any approach towards the other superhero that doesn't end in Superman's death--in part, it seems, because he is so threatened by a force he can't control that it is impossible for him to rest until he has a weapon that can destroy it.  (To be fair, Batman comes away from the movie looking slightly better than Superman, largely on the strength of an opening scene in which he rushes to the Wayne Industries building in Metropolis in the middle of Superman's fight with Zod, sans suit and Batmobile, in order to evacuate his employees.  But this is only to stress that Batman is most human when he's not being Batman, and for the rest of the movie that human side of him largely recedes in favor of the revenge-obsessed superhero.)  Even the indifference to the loss of human life starts to make sense when you realize that the mindset of toxic masculinity is one of total, overwhelming entitlement and self-absorption.  For both Batman and Superman, everything bad that happens in the movie is first and foremost something that happens to them, and it's impossible for someone who feels that way to take joy in helping others, or feel meaningfully affected when faced with loss of life.

(One thing that I will say for Batman v Superman is that it does not manage to drag Wonder Woman down into this maelstrom of entitlement and self-absorption.  The role of women in the toxic masculinity narrative is to act as receptacles for the soft emotions that the manly men can't or won't feel.  This is the role the film assigns to Lois Lane and Martha Kent, the latter of whom becomes a symbol of hope that the two men can bond over, simply by dint of sharing a name with Bruce's dead mother.  But Wonder Woman, though obviously more emotionally stable than either of her fellow superheroes, does not allow them to force her into representing hope and goodness.  She's just as much of a warrior as either one of them--and one who seems to like what she's chosen to do with her life, which makes her a breath of fresh air--but though she's willing to lend a hand in battle, she clearly isn't interested in being their sounding board or moral support.  In just a few scenes, Gal Gadot managed to make me feel more hopeful about the Wonder Woman movie than just about any other upcoming superhero movie--and who knows, maybe it'll even be in color!)

For several years now, the conversation about DC and Marvel's superhero movies has tended to focus on jokes, and a little more broadly, on the perception that DC makes serious movies, while Marvel makes funny ones.  Even ignoring that this is simply untrue--the Captain America movies, or Jessica Jones, are not "funny" in any sense of the word--what bothers me about this mentality is that it seems to concede the field without ever taking it, to accept that DC's (these days, Snyder's) approach represents one slice of the human experience, while Marvel's represents another.  When the truth is, DC's approach isn't simply to focus on something other than laughter.  It is to ignore--to deny--the very possibility of laughter.  The difference between DC and Marvel isn't tone, but the breadth of human experience that they are willing to acknowledge.  Jessica Jones has endured suffering and abuse on a level that would send both Superman and Batman into a catatonic state, but she's still capable of being funny, loving, compassionate, snarky, and brave, as well as cynical, self-destructive, angry, and depressed.  Batman and Superman, meanwhile, don't seem to have access to any emotions other than negative ones, even when the film pretends otherwise--which is to say, when it tells us that Clark loves the women in his life.  And this, to me, is a direct offshoot of toxic masculinity, of the mentality that sees any display of emotion except anger as inherently suspect--inherently unmasculine.  Batman v Superman takes that approach to its uttermost, most irrational extremes, finally imagining a world in which even emotions like hope, love, and inspiration look joyless and threatening.

There's a temptation when talking about Batman v Superman--one that I had to suppress several times while writing this review--to talk about the things it could have been.  To say that it could have been a cynical critique of the superhero genre, because it depicts its heroes as dumb psychopaths who do much more harm than good.  To say that it could have been an interesting meditation on how the existence of a Superman in the world changes it, because in its first act, it includes a lot of conversations about this topic, including from talking heads like Andrew Sullivan and Neil deGrasse Tyson.  To say that it might have joined the upcoming Captain America: Civil War in discussing how civil society and legal authorities respond to the existence of superheroes, because its most compelling character, a senator played by Holly Hunter, is occupied with just these questions.  But this is to make Batman v Superman seem much more interesting, much smarter, than it actually is.  This isn't a potentially interesting movie that falls short of its intentions because its creators' reach exceeds their grasp.  Batman v Superman could never have been any of these movies because, in the end, it isn't interested in being about anything at all--anything but its two heroes smashing each other in the face in order to prove their manhood.  That's the awful truth of toxic masculinity.  It looks interesting.  It looks as if there might be something you could say about it.  But in the end you always find out that it is completely hollow.  And so, in its hands, are Batman and Superman.

22 comments:

Mario A. said...

I agree. A ridiculous movie. I thought Batman's background was rather well done. After that, everything went downhill. There's a bunch of big names in the movie, but it really isn't enough.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

As an addendum to the above, a follower on twitter points out that alongside Jonathan Kent, the film also railroads Thomas Wayne, who makes the boneheaded decision to take a swing at a robber holding a gun on himself, his wife, and his young son. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time a Batman adaptation has depicted Thomas as actually responsible for the trauma that turns young Bruce into Batman, and of course it all stems from a need to look macho.

Aonghus Fallon said...

The movie did sound pretty terrible, but reading your article, I guess I wasn't giving Snyder his due. If I understand you correctly, 'Superman vs. Batman' is essentially a critique of masculinity at its most toxic masquerading as a blockbuster (if it were a celebration of masculinity, then the two protagonists' strong, silent routine would actually pay some dividends).

Brigonos said...

Is Wonder Woman really portrayed as more emotionally stable than Batman or Superman, or is she just onscreen so little that the film doesn't get a chance to make her look as bad as they are? She is, after all, using exactly the same kind of armed violence and sense of entitlement (she steals what she wants from Lex Luthor/Batman) as the male characters - she even has electric guitars on her signature theme as one might reasonably expect to hear in the background when an analogue of Steven Tyler or Axl Rose appears onscreen in an episode of erm... Castle I guess? I assume they still make Castle.

lkeke35 said...

Excellent review.
I felt much more strongly about the depiction of Jonathan Kent than I did about the destruction in Man of Steel and this is exactly why. This does make me rethink my understanding of the movie.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Aonghus:

To be clear, I'm not trying to say that Snyder et al intentionally crafted the film as a critique of masculinity. On the contrary, I think - and this is borne out by the comments that Snyder, in particular, has made about the movie - that they believe they've told a moving story about heroic people. My argument is that the way the film goes wrong - its failure to achieve that goal - is rooted in toxic masculinity. In Snyder and his writers' belief that being emotionally cut off, and treating others like dirt, and prioritizing your own anger over anyone else's feelings (or even their survival) are traits that make a character manly and heroic.

Brigonos:

It's entirely possible that the movie would have ruined Wonder Woman too if it had spent more time with her, but I still see reason for hope. When I say that she's more stable than Batman or Superman, I don't mean that she's a paragon of emotional openness and mental health - as I say in the review, that would almost be worse, because it would be an extension of Lois and Martha's roles as emotional pack-mules for Clark.

On the contrary, from what we see of Diana, she's suffering from a similar depression to Clark and Bruce, and she even says at the end of the movie that she turned her back on humanity a hundred years ago. My point, however, is that unlike the two title heroes, Wonder Woman doesn't behave as if her depression and disaffection are anyone's problem but her own, and she doesn't make anyone else suffer because of them. So yes, she steals - though surely stealing from someone like Lex Luthor isn't a huge crime, and certainly not in comparison to the mass murder that Batman commits over the course of the movie - but she also gives Bruce back his drive without him asking for it (and without demanding that he share the information with her after he decrypts it). And when she joins the fight at the end of the movie, her first thought is for the citizens endangered by bringing Doomsday to Gotham. Wonder Woman may not be a happy person, but she's a lot more together than either Batman or Superman, and that, combined with the fact that Snyder is not directing the WW movie, gives me some hope for it.

Chris said...

I was going to ask you if Diana made it worth going to see the movie, because what you said about her here is the first thing I've read anywhere that made me think there might be *something* worth watching in this film. But from comments like "they might have ruined her if they'd spent more time with her," I'm deducing that she doesn't in fact feature that prominently.

Also, obligatory history nerd comment:

"she even says at the end of the movie that she turned her back on humanity a hundred years ago."

Interesting timing. Is that supposed to be a point about World War One? Or is that giving the movie too much credit?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

In general, I wouldn't recommend going to see this movie for any reason other than wanting to be able to comment on it - anything else, you might as well wait to see it at home, because paying movie ticket prices for this dreck is obscene.

Diana does not, in fact, have a lot of screen time in the movie, though she makes the most of what she does get. Her function is mainly to establish her own existence and that of the other future members of the Justice League, which she does in a few scenes.

It's already been announced that the Wonder Woman movie will take place at least in part during WWI. I find that encouraging too, first because period-set superhero movies tend to be good ones (see X-Men: First Class and the first Captain America movie), and second because it's a period that doesn't get a lot of play in American pop culture in general, and superhero stories in particular. And yes, the implication is that the horrors of WWI are what caused Diana to turn her back on humanity.

Greg G said...

I do suspect that rumors of Frank Miller's involvement on some level in this production are true... even if it's just through Snyder's friendship with and admiration for Miller.

His/Goyer's... I hesitate to say characterisation... *portrayal* of Batman & Superman align with latter-period Miller even more than DKR-era Miller, particularly with the contempt for altruism and the always-on machismo (as per the Thomas Wayne business I mentioned on Twitter). Note that Luthor is portrayed as a weedy Miller-esque caricature of an "effeminate" man, flirting only with a middle-aged official, virtually ignoring all female characters (including his own staffer).

The basic story of BvS *could* have worked with a little tweaking, the major one being replacing Luthor with the manipulative New God Glorious Godfrey. What *that* would have required is an admission that the main characters were acting put of character, however, so never would have occurred to the filmmakers.

The biggest failing, to me, of the rather obvious build-up to Darkseid entering the picture several movies down is that Marvel is already leading up to introducing the Darkseid rip-off Thanos. The only way DC end up looking like they didn't copy Marvel would have been to introduce Darkseid as the bad guy *in this move*.

Greg G said...

(the middle aged official mentioned above being male, and portrayed at being profoundly disturbed by Luthor's actions)

Chris said...

"The biggest failing, to me, of the rather obvious build-up to Darkseid entering the picture several movies down is that Marvel is already leading up to introducing the Darkseid rip-off Thanos. The only way DC end up looking like they didn't copy Marvel would have been to introduce Darkseid as the bad guy *in this move*."

So all *three* superhero franchises are building up to a confrontation with a Nigh Unstoppable Supreme Being bent on taking over the known universe.

Someone who knows all these characters better from the comics may want to argue, but is it me or is all that building up to a fairly boring anticlimax? None of these characters or their goals seem especially interesting, and while I can only assume that their godlike powers mean you'll have a climactic Mother Of All Battles, the fact that that's increasingly where all superhero movies go in the third act is going to blunt the wow factor quite a bit.

Chris said...

(By "all three," I meant the MCU with Thanos, the DCU with Darkseid, and the X-Men franchise with Apocalypse).

Lila said...

It's definitely toxic masculinity, but it's also the intersection of that with the filmmaker's other ideology-- Zack Snyder has stated to news outlets that he wants to direct a series of movies based on Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Given the box office (not to even mention the artistic) track record of all the movies to date based on Ayn Rand's work, this is more than a touch hubristic. And it's not something a director would suggest doing unless his personal beliefs are pretty seriously tied up in it.

Superman is not John Galt. The archetypes are fundamentally antithetical to one another. They are literally each other reversed: Superman spends his free time, his non-heroing time, trying to be human, fallible, and part of the mob of humanity, and his heroing time saving without recompense, while Galt retreats from the world and insists on cold, hard cash as the basis of human interaction. But Galt is the Randian superhero. Attempt to portray a Galt-type superhero without the overt speechifying and the whole apparatus of Randian ideology, and what you get is selfishness, toxic masculinity, and a whole lot of nothingness.

The thing I'd love to know is whether Snyder is intentionally writing a Randian subversion of Superman, or whether he actually thinks this is how the character is supposed to work-- basically whether his Superman movies are really, really poorly thought out, or well thought out and made in extremely bad faith. I cannot actually tell.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Chris:

Thanos - and the Infinity Gems - have consistently been the least interesting aspect of recent MCU movies. With every installment that tries to build him up as an awesome threat, I get more bored (and that includes Guardians of the Galaxy, in which two of the main characters are his adopted daughters). I wonder if Marvel realizes this and simply feels that it's too late to course-correct - they've built two whole movies around the idea that fighting him will be fun to watch, and most of their current movies are designed to bring us to that point - or if for some reason they think they can manage to make him an imposing villain. Given the franchise's history with villains, I don't have much hope for the latter, and especially since, as you say, the only thing you can do with Thanos is have a knock-down CGI extravaganza final battle with him. And, as is always the case when you start to rely on such things, you end up having to give a lot more oomph for a lot less audience response. The climactic battle in Avengers was thrilling. The one in Age of Ultron was already routine.

I will say, in the defense of the X-Men franchise, that unlike the MCU and the DC movies, they seem to be introducing their Nigh Unstoppable Supreme Being in the same movie in which he will be fought and, presumably, stopped. There's none of the endless buildup that makes it clear that the character is completely uninteresting. I suppose it's possible that Darkseid will break the mold - there's something amusingly weird about the flashforward to his story in BvS - but right now that seems like a slim hope.

Lila:

You've just answered one of my lingering questions about the film - why in god's name would anyone build that statue of Superman in what is supposed to be a memorial to the victims of a disaster (victims he failed to even try and save, no less). Once you realize that it's a 3D representation of the cover of Atlas Shrugged, it makes a lot more sense.

As I've said already, it's really tempting to take BvS as a critique of its genre. In general, in fact, that temptation exists whenever you watch a bad superhero movie or show, because the superhero concept is so inherently dodgy that doing it badly immediately exposes the terrifying dystopia that lies just under its surface. (Just yesterday I read about a recent plot development on Agents of SHIELD, and once again, for what must be the tenth time, had to ask myself whether the show isn't a subversive masterpiece that intends for us to see SHIELD as a fucked-up, predatory system that destroys everyone who buys into it.) But in the end I suspect the answer is no - as with the toxic masculinity question, the simpler solution is probably that a lot of people buy into it, and don't realize how completely they expose their intellectual bankruptcy every time they open their mouths.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Re Rand. Abigail nails the essence of Superman's appeal (omnipotence modified by his upbringing as a simple but decent farmboy): this is the Superman of DC Comic fame - but maybe Snyder is aiming for a Superman in the old-fashioned Nietzchean sense of the word?

pangloss said...

oh gregG dont blame this one on Miller. I recently re read a great deal of pre DK Millert andf at one point he had more nuance and humor in his little finger than this film has. i guess if youre talking current crazy Miller then maybe. but its time for the world to recall Miller made eg Foggy into a comic relief and Marsha Wahington into a hero. there are reasons Miller has inspired entire genres and Snyder has er, not.
WW was like a slice of light and grace in this grey movie. i wonder if it can simply be down to the actress (who i had not previously rated at all) as it is really hard to say else why

Chris said...

@Lisa:

I think a lot of people like Ayn Rand for the obvious appeal of justifying selfishness, but aren't willing to face up to the full ugliness of her worldview (she idealized a serial killer, FFS). So they end up with a watered-down version of Ayn Rand where the Tragically Unappreciated Rich Guy is actually a nice guy, much more so than anyone Ayn Rand would have admired. The entire debate over "The Incredibles" is basically this in a nutshell: I don't actually know whether the producers consciously based them on Atlas Shrugged or whether it's just the fans who see that, but either way, the filmmakers/fans are projecting Randian narratives onto people who're nothing like Ayn Rand's heroes.

TL/DR: there's a long history of presenting sanitized versions of Atlas Shrugged for public consumption.

@Abigail:

For Thanos specifically, I actually find the current version kind of cool, as a Silent Partner With An Agenda who doesn't actually do anything himself, he just loans out forces to the more obvious villains that buff them up to the point where they can achieve their goals and asks for nothing in return except something whose full value his partners don't realize.

The thing is, the fact that he's smart enough to stay in the shadows and let other people do his work is central to that. As soon as he puts on the Infinity Glove and goes "FINE... I'll do it MYSELF," what little I find cool about him is gone.

Greg G said...

Pangloss - that's why I mentioned latter day post-DKR Miller... Have you read "Holy Terror"?

There were rumours he was story-consulting for BvS, and he let Snyder adapt his unfinished 300 pre/sequel so I'm pretty sure they're close.

Greg G said...

I think the only way to effectively do Darkseid on film is to let him win, Morrison-style, and deal with the aftermath (then go back in time and change it). Even better if it's Morrison's Rock of Ages style, where you don't even know that he's arriving until after the heroes screw up and accidently bring about the future in which he invades. They obviously can't do the latter, but they might be planning a weaksauce version of the former. OR Batman's vision of the future might be it.

Naglfar said...

"Just yesterday I read about a recent plot development on Agents of SHIELD, and once again, for what must be the tenth time, had to ask myself whether the show isn't a subversive masterpiece that intends for us to see SHIELD as a fucked-up, predatory system that destroys everyone who buys into it."

To me this pretty much describes all intelligence agencies and is definitely not a unique feature of being part of comic book universe, only the advanced tech they have. But the rest is all real world evil.

Potulný križiak zemplínsky said...

Expecting any sort of nuanse from a film directed by a weirdo hack like Snyder is an exercise in futility. For a film named "Batman versus Superman", there's an overwhelming amount of "Grumpy Psycho Shotgunman versus Perpetually Frowning Moroseman" in it. Cinematic Murderverse indeed. You're spot on how badly the female characters are treated in this. Lois' role in particular is a complete catastrophe. In addition, to quote Mark Kermode's review over at the BBC, this "film" goes in 48 different directions, without settling on a single one.

Warner Bros. must be near-on suicidal if they think directors like Snyder and the obnoxious "everything is dark and grey and edgy and realistic (and juvenile)" approach are their way to a profitable comic book film series, let alone a critically acclaimed one. The only thing that makes me glad this film exists is that it might have a hand in discrediting Snyder as a director. One could hope...

F Society said...

Ah I completely understood why you didn't understand the film. As you said yourself "I'm not a comic book reader".

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