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.