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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

March 25, 2016
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

When I reviewed Man of Steel, I really whiffed it. I never really paid the closest attention to comics growing up, and mostly know them in the general outlines. I picked up the Superman-as-Christ-figure idea that Zack Snyder decided to hammer on, but somehow missed just how awful a decision the climax of that film was, when Snyder forced his hero’s hand into killing General Zod in order to save an innocent family. I didn’t really value the character like other viewers did, and I didn’t see Snyder as having much of a point anyway, so I thought one take was as good as another.

But now it seems that Man of Steel was laying the groundwork for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which itself spends a fair amount of its prodigious running time laying the groundwork for an upcoming Justice League movie. And Batman v Superman does have a point, or at least it wants to.

The ending of Man of Steel featured one of the more literal cinematic invocations of September 11 imagery. The dam may have been broken by Cloverfield putting voice to that horror, but in this age of serialized movies it matters more what the storytellers do with those images. The Avengers wreaked havoc on its own version of New York City, and that has become the primum mobile of everything else on Earth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, influencing everything from the small-scale conflicts in the Daredevil series to the grander conflicts of the second phase of Marvel films.

But, like I said, Man of Steel didn’t really seem to have a point. Leveling downtown Metropolis largely for shock value that echoed our own still-fresh national wound was a fault I really should have caught. And yet now that Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer turn to make their point, it’s a misfire so bad that I can’t miss it.

Batman and Superman, here, stand for two very different views of ourselves in response to the rude awakening of the September 11 attacks. Superman (Henry Cavill) is the American greatness we were taught to believe in, and that plenty of people still think is who we are. In truth, we’re a lot closer to Batman: an overgrown child, tortured by psychotic nightmares, convinced of his morality, but separated from the rest of the world by the same obscene wealth that he uses to exert his influence on it.

Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) was rightly horrified by the Kryptonian attack at the end of Man of Steel. He charges forward into the collapsing buildings as if he can lift them back up, when the best he can really do is help deal with the aftermath. He sees in Superman an existential threat to humanity: a force that might act for good, but whose interests may well be completely unrelated to ours, and who might at any moment turn malevolent. But at the same time he acts just as unilaterally as he claims Superman does. Oh, but Batman’s brutal machismo is only directed against “bad guys”. It doesn’t matter that he’s the one who decides they’re bad, because we happen to agree with him, at least for now, and except for the case of Superman.

The movie doesn’t really seem to recognize this parallel, though. Batman is right in general, though somewhat misguided about Superman. And Alfred (Jeremy Irons), who would normally function as his conscience, is more concerned with Bruce managing to continue the Wayne line. Again, Batman is the fallen America as a certain brand of conservatism sees it, with the old Greco-Roman-inspired Wayne Manor a crumbling shambles.

And, ultimately, there’s not even a contest here between the Batman and Superman visions of America, since Snyder and Goyer fundamentally misunderstand the latter character. The Superman they offer is more demiurge than deity; a dark mirror of the exact same human frailties that Batman exhibits. Even though Batman is wrong about his intentions, he is still “just someone trying to do the best he can”. In Snyder’s Miller-inspired, grimdark view, the Batman-morality is the only truth, whether or not it realizes that it’s only backed up by the will-to-power.

This view cannot tell a Superman story, since it starts out by rejecting the whole idea behind Superman. He’s not merely a Christ-figure in the common way, where his noble self-sacrifice serves the good of the many over his own, but in that he stands for the best in all of us. We may look around, despairing that we can see no way to be truly, unreservedly good in this world, but Superman is the one who somehow is anyway. He is a creation of faith; of course he falls apart when subjected to the gaze of “gritty reality” storytellers. And when they put words in his mouth like “nobody can be good in this world”, it’s nothing short of blasphemy.

Snyder and Goyer make a show of some sort of reckoning with these ideas, but the fix is in from the beginning: in a post-9/11 world, those with power have no choice but to fight. They may try their best to avoid collateral damage, but they must accept its inevitability. There is no place for a truly good and noble Superman in this world anymore; he, and the hopeful vision of America he represents, must be left buried in the past.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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