Yeah yeah yeah. Nobody liked Batman v Superman and it set a new record for a second-weekend box-office nosedive. What interests me is the anti-backlash backlashers, the folks who sincerely liked this flick. They can’t all be reverse-hipsters, so what’s the deal? I’ve got a theory, but first we’ll have to rehash why most people didn’t like this movie. Namely because it was dumb.
I mean, there was some good stuff.
AKA Batman. For the first time. Batman actually moved like a lethal, scary bat-ninja. That was cool. His big fight scene was cool. Ben Affleck was my favorite Bruce Wayne the movies have given us—a sort of battle-scarred playboy detective. I liked him from the opening scene when you see him rushing to save his employees and that little girl. Without the movie making a particular point of it, you feel his weariness, his doggedness, and his noblesse oblige as a boss and city father. That’s a Batman I can get behind and a Mr. Wayne I wouldn’t mind working for. The movies have given us some good Batman stories, but this is the first version of the character that I can imagine giving us good Bruce Wayne stories.
I liked this Batman so much I’ll even excuse his reckless carnage. We didn’t actually see any charred bodies or broken necks, so I guess in Zack-Snyderian terms that means Batman didn’t kill anybody. Except that one guy. But that guy had a flamethrower on Martha Kent, so I’ll let Batman off with community service.
Talking about the things I liked about Batman is as good a way as any to get into why this movie doesn’t work. Because here you have Ben Affleck oozing Batmany goodness, and the movie has no clue what to do with him.
The Batman arc in the movie amounts to this (SPOILERS):
- Bruce Wayne sees the devastation caused by Superman’s fight with Zod and conceives a petulant desire to do Superman in. We don’t see him think about this or process this through. We don’t see his rage sparked and kindled and grown. Apparently, one traumatic experience sets this weary and battle-hardened warrior’s opinion in stone, not to grow, fluctuate, or change until the end (when the movie needs it to).
- We know this because, by the VERY NEXT SCENE, Batman has grown “cruel,” as Alfred tells him, branding criminals and sentencing them to death.
- Just to give him something to do, the movie has Batman/Bruce do some random detective work involving Lexcorp and some Russians. We find later that he’s being played by Luthor (I guess), but since he’s already as mad at Superman as he’s ever going to be AT THE BEGINNING OF THE MOVIE it doesn’t contribute much to his emotional bat-journey.
- Batman has several dreams where Superman is a jerk who destroys the world.
- Bruce Wayne figures out too late that a former employee of his who lost his legs in Superman’s collateral damage is going to blow up a senate hearing. Then the senate hearing gets blown up. Then Bruce learns that this guy was gradually driven mad by Superman’s actions (also, the audience knows, by Luthor’s machinations…maybe?).
- Which would be a key dramatic moment, the moment that finally pushes Batman over the edge and causes him to declare war on Superman.
- Except Batman apparently already got pushed over the edge into cruelty/all-out-revenge mode IN THE VERY FIRST SCENE OF THE MOVIE.
- Batman and Superman fight. Superman lies half dead on the ground and Batman breaks a toilet over his head. Inspiring stuff for the kids.
- Batman is about to kill Superman. We don’t know if Batman was always going to kill Superman or if he has any qualms about killing Superman or if it just escalated to the point where Batman felt he had to kill Superman. The movie doesn’t tell us. Did the Bruce Wayne in the very first scene immediately weigh all the options and decide he needs to kill Superman? Sure. Or not. I mean, I guess. Who knows?
- Then Batman realizes that DC comics writers were bad at coming up with names and he and Superman are best friends.
- Supes kicks the bucket and Batman wants to form the Justice League because he has a feeling it might be a good idea because of his bat-dreams and bat-visions. Also, remember how he was branding people? He’s not branding people anymore. Some of their mothers might be named Martha.
Here’s the thing. Batman hates Superman and wants to fight him from that first scene on. Batman immediately becomes, as Jeremy Irons says, “cruel.” And we don’t know if this arises from Post Traumatic Metropolis Disorder, or just general hatred of godlike beings, or fear of the unknown, or feelings of childhood powerlessness, or what.
The movie is profoundly uninterested in how a man like Batman might actually process the existence of a man like Superman, except in the biggest, broadest, most dramatic shorthand. It’s like if Braveheart started with five minutes of the English being jerks to the Scots and then gave us a series of scenes where William Wallace maintains the same unmodulated pitch of anger and humorless resentment, without ebb, without flow, without build. And tried to cover over that fact by hiring Jeremy Irons to deliver a few lines about how the English made the Scots cruel.
This movie asks us to assume that Batman is a good man based on one scene of Bruce Wayne being a good man. And then immediately asks us to assume that he’s a good man who’s gone borderline bad. Then that he’s a good man clouded by almost psychotic rage. Then that he’s gone back to being good again.
It doesn’t show us how a good man goes from being good to borderline bad and then psychotic and then good again. All that connective tissue is weirdly MIA. Instead the movie is just a series of big, dramatic scenes. Many of them not half bad. But without the necessary setup, it’s as effective us a comedian telling you nothing but the punchlines.
And the reason I chose Batman as my example is because he’s the best of the bunch.
You’ve got Lex Luthor who wants Batman and Superman to fight…so the world will stop believing in Superman? So it will stop believing in Batman? So they’ll kill each other…because that would accomplish what for Lex? So humanity will have front row seats to a great gladiator match? And after he’s gone to so much trouble to arrange this fight, why create Doomsday? Does that plan and the plan to have Batman and Superman fight have anything to do with each other? Is Lex just insane?
I’m not trying to be smug here. I really don’t know the answers to those questions. Unless the only answer to all of Lex’s behavior is “because his daddy didn’t love him.” But luckily there’s no way the movie would actually posit that as the reason for Lex’s behavior. Cuz that would be lame.
And, yes, I know Lex Luthor has a lot of grand Joker-esque philosophizing to explain himself, but I’ve read about the Joker. I’ve seen movies with the Joker. And Lex is no the Joker.
Then there’s Lois Lane. She surely does throw that spear into the water. And then she surely does decide to get it out again.
And then there’s Superman.
Oh, Superman. What was going on with you, Bud? One moment you want to leave it all behind, one moment you don’t. You decide you want Batman to stop being Batman for some reason and you’re going to crash Batman’s car and tell him so. (I’m honestly scared I slept through a scene that set that up—was Clark’s throwaway comments in the interview with Bruce the only set-up?)
What does Superman think about his mom telling him he doesn’t “owe the world a damn thing”? Does he buy into that or does he think he has a higher purpose? I have no clue and I’m not sure the movie does either. I know from moment to moment, Superman has different opinions and expresses them, but again, we’re not given the connective tissue to understand why he’s really changing from moment to moment. He ends up seeming, just like Batman, whiny, petulant, and unstable.
At the end he gives his life for us, or was he really just doing that for Lois? She’s his world, after all. Does that mean he’s decided it’s his duty to be noble or his right to be selfish? I have not the foggiest, Friends and Neighbors. I’m not convinced the filmmakers did either.
The exact same scene of Superman dying to save the world would make me cry in a movie that did the legwork to set it up properly. One that made Superman into a paragon of virtue whose commitment to a higher ideal contrasts with Batman’s queasy gray zone between revenge and justice. Or one that let Superman be flawed and unsure of himself and ended with him realizing he did have to stand for something greater and make the ultimate sacrifice. I like the first one better. I think it’s better Superman. But the filmmakers didn’t do either one, and whatever they did certainly wasn’t done well.
Never once did I feel anything like admiration or fealty to Superman for being good or super. The only act of courage and goodness that really moved me belonged to Bruce in that first scene. Superman had that montage where he was saving all those people, but the way Zack Snyder shot it, it was more about Superman striking deific poses than it was about the vulnerability and weakness of the victims and the relief and admiration we felt when Superman used his strength to save them. We barely saw their faces.
On the evidence of his movies so far, Zack Snyder isn’t too interested in old fashioned heroics. He’s much more interested in strength as a destructive force than strength as a force for good or hope. That may not make him a bad person or a bad filmmaker but boy does it make him an odd choice for Superman.
Anyhow, I’m sure some of you want to argue with me and tell me how the movie does fill in this or that gap and how this or that character does make sense if you think about it. I won’t say you’re wrong, but I will say that the movie varies greatly depending on what you bring to it. If you liked this movie I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but I suspect maybe you brought the movie that you liked with you into the theater. And that’s my entire theory on why some people are sincerely able to like this one so much.
Because, like I said, this movie gives us nothing but punchlines. Sometimes good punchlines. But you as an audience member have to supply the setups yourself. You have to fill in the blanks. Your ability to do so depends on how much you know and love these characters, how you know and love these characters, what you know and love them from. You could almost argue that Batman v Superman is some kind of goofball post-modern masterpiece. The movie gives you a few broad, strong, random brush strokes, and expects you to supply the story and the emotion yourself. It’s an abstract. It’s Bob Kane meets Jackson Pollock.
–Maybe (not to get too melodramatic here) that’s the way movies are going. Maybe this is a harbinger. Maybe because people don’t believe in authority anymore, we don’t believe in the authority of the storyteller either. So more and more our storytellers will give us noise and color and sound and motion, and leave it to us to tell our own stories. Whatever stories we want, about whatever heroes we want, meaning whatever we want, or not meaning much of anything at all.
Even much better movies than this one, like Captain America: The Winter Solider (to take an example from the same genre) feel like they’re about something much more than they’re really actually about something. I mean, what was Captain America: The Winter Solider really about? Governments and bureaucracies are corrupt sometimes except for when they’re not, and people are bad except for when they’re good, and it’s good to be good and it’s bad to be bad. Something like that. Nothing to stick in my mind. Nothing to bother me. Nothing to change me or mold me. How many of our modern movies are not really stories at all, I wonder, but just people dressing up and doing things until such time as a couple hours have passed and we’re ready for them to stop dressing up and doing things?
Or I dunno, maybe I’m crazy, maybe I should get myself a sandwich board and stand outside my local multiplex, “The End of the Movies Is Nigh.” There is that whole box-office drop off thing, so maybe there’s hope after all.
You know what Batman v Superman reminded me of? Don’t take this the wrong way, but The Passion of the Christ.
That was another movie that was all about what you brought with you into the theater. The movie provided almost zero context of who Jesus is or what his teachings are. It didn’t set up our sin, or why he had to die, and it barely contained the most important context of all: the resurrection. Really, it didn’t even give you any particular insight into how Jesus felt about being tortured and crucified, besides that pain sucks.
What it did do, and the only thing it did, was show you those Stations of the Cross, and make them as visceral and powerful (and horrible) as possible.
But there again, there was no pause for explanation. No connective tissue. No insight or understanding offered. All punchline, no setup. If you were a Christian and came into the movie to watch your hero do his thing, you might be moved to tears. You might be moved to renew your faith and commitment to God Almighty. You might lots of things. But you brought it with you. Mel Gibson didn’t assert his authority as the filmmaker to insist on it in his film. A pagan watching the movie wouldn’t be moved (except maybe in the way that somebody watching a snuff film or a gruesome freak show might be moved) or understand what he was watching or why. If you didn’t know who Jesus was, the movie might not do a thing for you.
I wasn’t comfortable with it. It wasn’t a responsible way to honor the legacy of the greatest hero the world has ever known. Some pictures are too beautiful to be painted by Jackson Pollock.
And Batman v Superman doesn’t seem like a responsible way to honor those (100% lamer and more fictional) heroes. It may work for some people but that doesn’t make it, y’know, a quality product.
I guess it would be churlish for me to resent people finding good in something, even something in which I found less good. But whether I found it or they found it or nobody found it, I’d feel even better if I thought the good was waiting there to be found.