Friday, March 25, 2016

Superman V Batman: Dawn of Justice

I think about superheroes a lot, but I also think about roleplaying games a lot. I think about games so much, that it has started to fit the definition of a critical theory: it's a lens through which I sometimes interpret the entire world. I once sat down and calculated how many hit points Julius Caesar must have had, to survive getting stabbed by all those senators only to die from Brutus's holy smite. So as I shuffled away from Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, I felt old habits taking over. I began to interpret the film as if it were a roleplaying game. And a kind of comprehension came to me, when I figured out Superman's ability scores:

STR 18/00, DEX 14, CON 18, INT 10, WIS 6, CHA 15

This movie makes a lot more sense once we understand that Superman is just not very smart, and in particular has no real common sense or understanding of how and when to use his incredible power. This begins with his very first appearance: Lois and her cameraman (a CIA plant) are taken by terrorists so Lois can get an interview. The CIA agent is discovered and eventually (not instantaneously) executed. Superman is nowhere to be seen. Half the terrorists are shot by the other half, and it's only after all this that a gun is put to Lois's head, Superman shows up, and smashes the terrorist leader through a wall.

So... Where the hell was Superman two minutes ago, before everyone else got killed? He was obviously watching Lois, because he showed up to save her. But he didn't save anybody else. Were they not worth it? Was he just not paying attention? He and Lois live and work together; he knew where she was, and that she was going into a dangerous situation. I can only conclude that either a) he was too far away to save the CIA guy and all the terrorists, and got there just in time to save Lois, or b) he simply didn't care to save anyone but her. Judging by the over-indulgent use of force on the terrorist leader, the man who had the gun to Lois's head, I'm inclined to think the answer is B. But if you want to be nice, and give Superman a conscience, then the answer is A. He's not a selfish prick, he's just dumb and wasn't paying attention.

(EDIT: I first thought the camera man was obviously Jimmy. Then the camera man was summarily executed and I thought, "Well, so no Jimmy, I guess." But no, as Friend of the Blog Tommy Brownell has pointed out to me: That was effin' Jimmy Olson! Superman let Jimmy get executed. What world is this?)

Superman walks into the Capitol building to testify regarding his own actions, but never gets a word out and does this only after the media has turned against him and he is called to testify. This illustrates a key aspect of Superman's character in both his recent films: he is never proactive. He does nothing until circumstances force him to do it. He doesn't introduce himself to the world or defend his actions to the media, he speaks only when spoken to (and often not even then). When he sees a building fire in Mexico City on TV, he flies off to save a little girl, but does he put out the fire or save anyone else from it? Not that we see. Because only the little girl was on camera; the conspicuous danger in which she was placed forced Superman to save her, but this is all the assuagement his conscience demands. 

Let's get back to that courtroom, because there's a bomb in it. Let the record show, your honor, that there is a bomb in the room when a guy with X-Ray vision and super hearing walks into it. This is not a calm scene; there are protesters all over. Emotions are high. National leaders are present. Later, Superman questions his own inability to detect the bomb. He wonders aloud to Lois; either he couldn't see it, or he chose not to. While both of these possibilities are fraught with portent, in the style of this film, I offer a third, much more prosaic, explanation: he fucking forgot to look.

Superman's elementary forgetfulness and ignorance, the fact that he is a very handsome, incredibly well-built dunderhead, makes the entire last reel of the film comprehensible. Lex has kidnapped Ma Kent and has goons ready to shoot her if Superman does not kill Batman within the hour. Superman, a reporter, whose steady girlfriend is a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist, who could reasonably expect the loyalty of the entire Daily Planet staff, one of the world's foremost information-gathering organizations, a man who can move so fast he cannot be seen, who can fly at hypersonic speed, look through walls, and who can hear radio or just muttered conversation, has an hour to find his mother surrounded by men with guns and he decides, no, the only way out is to kill Batman?

When he confronts Batman, he never says, "Lex has a hostage." That four words would have stopped the fight is demonstrated by the truth that this fact does, actually, stop the fight, but only after the fight has already ended. Superman might reveal the reason why he was sent to kill Batman, but this would have deprived the movie of its purpose, and so instead Superman is an idiot long enough to get beaten in a fight.

Batman has made a spear with a kryptonite blade, and after the fight Lois takes this thing and -- for reasons that make sense only in the world of plot -- drops it into a pool of water. Almost immediately, everyone realizes this is the only thing that can kill Doomsday, and so Lois goes back after the thing she just dropped, in a sequence so contrived that I am kind of astonished by the sheer gutsiness of it. Walter Chaw has suggested the scene was a call out to Dario Argento's Inferno. I don't know the picture, so I can't opine on this, but there are enough other pastiche moments in this movie that it certainly would not surprise me. Bob Mondello alerted me to the Excalibur call-out in the film, though once I was twice shown a marquee for Excalibur, I'd like to think I would have seen it coming on my own. But back to the spear: Bruce knows the spear will kill Doomsday. Lois knows the spear will kill Doomsday. Diana knows the spear will kill Doomsday. But it is left to Clark to get the spear -- the spear that is killing him every minute he's near it. 
Superman gazes over the ruins, then looks to Batman.
SUPERMAN: "The spear is in a fountain, in the center of the building not far from where we fought."
BATMAN: "I'm on it."
WONDER WOMAN: "We'll hold him here." 
Batman raises his grapple gun, fires it, and vanishes into the ruins.

There are a lot of "what if" stories involving Superman: What if Superman was evil? What if Superman was Russian instead of American? What if Superman was Amish? Books like Superfolks or Superman's Broadway musical posit a Superman with feet of clay. So in that sense, BvS and Man of Steel are answers to the question, "What if superhuman powers were given to a charismatic loser?" In that sense, Superman resembles, more than anything, Hugo Danner. Danner is an interesting footnote in Superman-lore, protagonist of the novel Gladiator, which came out years before Superman and which we know was read by Superman's creator. Danner has superhuman powers and tries to use them for good, but no matter what he does, it all goes to shit. Part of this is because he feels completely alienated from other human beings, especially women, whom he treats so shabbily that it beggars description. Despite his incredible good looks and a circle of friends who admire him as the embodiment of manliness, everyone hates and fears Danner the moment his powers are revealed. After enlisting in WWI to use his powers for France, he murders hundreds in a single trench with his bare hands out of revenge for a dead friend only for the peace treaty to be signed, making his "victory" meaningless. Miserable, friendless and alone, he eventually kills himself by daring God to hit him with a lightning bolt. God generously obliges. In retrospect, Hugo Danner is a fascinating example of how superhero stories could have gone, but didn't. While few authors have written characters whose heroic efforts are constantly and inevitably revealed to be useless, many authors have experimented with or embraced Hugo's nihilism. And while I can't read the mind of either David Goyer or Zach Snyder, I think if Hugo Danner could watch this movie, he would feel what old friend Sara Mueller used to call "The vindication of the righteous."

Henry Cavill's Superman does not look like a slow-thinking, well-intentioned, ignoramus. Indeed, he looks incredibly good. My god, those pecs. Like, OH MY GOD. If your goal is to cast a Superman who makes every other man feel inferior: nailed it! But his emotional range is on the Keanu-scale. He has an angry face, a "what's that?" face, and a "that's so sad" face, and ... that's all I got actually. I think Schwarzenegger is a better actor. But my point is, because Superman looks so damn fine, we accept him as the superhero we expect him to be when, in fact, at pretty much every opportunity, Cavill's Superman does the wrong thing, or the good thing too late. This includes all that crap from Man of Steel, when he fights Zod in the city instead of, oh, taking it upstate to where my colleague Chris Wilhelm pointed out there are miles and miles of forest with no one around to get hurt. I don't see Superman as intentionally killing thousands in the last reel of Man of Steel, it's just that he can only think about one thing at a time and OMG ITS ZOD LOOK ZOD PUNCH ZOD.

I'd like to take credit for some big critical breakthrough here, but in fact it has long been understood that, in any team-up between Superman and Batman, Superman is often an idiot. It's the easy play to bring narrative satisfaction. This rule was first shared with me by Roger Frederick, my old college pal, who has read a lot more DC than I ever will and who knows himself some World's Finest. Quite simply, when Batman and Superman are in the same story, there's just not much for Batman to do. Superman is going to out-punch him by a thousand to one. He's Superman. Now Batman has one thing really going for him in this set-up: he's the World's Greatest Detective. So, in these team-up stories, what happens is that Batman solves all the intelligence-based challenges while Superman does all the heavy lifting. When Superman is in his own book, he's completely capable of solving problems on his own without using his fists. Indeed, his brain is supposed to be just as super as the rest of him, a biological super-computer in his head. But as soon as Batman shows up, Superman loses all his higher reasoning functions simply so that -- from a narrative standpoint -- Bruce has something to do.

And that's what you see in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. Batman has top billing in this movie. Batman is the money-maker, and we're gonna shake him. And Superman is a flying idiot who can throw buildings. The writer in me is obliged to note that this is not the only way to write Batman/Superman stories, it's just the easy way. David Goyer has written a lot of superhero movies, but his opinion of comics and comics writing is low. I have no doubt that he has studied the craft of film writing inside and out. But he has not studied the craft of superhero comics, and so when faced with a dilemma that many experienced comics writers have grappled with, he does not know to learn from their example: that there is such a thing as a Batman/Superman story in which Batman is not overshadowed and Superman is not an idiot. But BvS:DoJ is not that story.

As a guy who talks about comics a lot, I often get asked -- usually by my well-meaning fellow nerds, students who want to bond with the professor over shared interests -- who would win in a fight, Hero X or Hero Y. (I was once asked this in the presence of the President of the University of California, whom I was desperately trying to convince that comics were a valid field of study. I got laughed at.) The answer is always the same: "It depends on whose comic the fight takes place in." Superhero comics are incredibly market-driven; they are a thriving testament to the continued relevance of post-Marxist theory. If Superman is fighting the Silver Surfer, what venue is this occurring in? Because if it's in a Superman comic, that means Superman fans are the ones buying the book, and every writer on that book knows that his role is to please Superman fans. Therefore, Superman will win. But if the fight takes place in a Silver Surfer comic, then the reverse is true and Surfer will win. Batman vs. Captain America, Daredevil vs. the Punisher, it really doesn't matter. The answer is always the same. These are fictional characters and we, as writers, can write whatever story we want with them. When we write that story, we make it and the heroes involved mean something. That's what's important: what the characters are saying, what they are made to mean. So if I tell a story in which Captain America and Batman fight, and Captain America wins (because he's Captain America and that's what America does, it always wins, except in stories named Civil War when it doesn't), I might also tell the story in which Batman gets the stuffing beat out of him, and then comes back for the rematch and wins, because Batman represents the resilience of the human spirit. Batman is the superhero equivalent to Robert the Bruce; he can get kicked around once, twice, three times, but eventually he will come back and he will beat you. Eventually, when he's got you figured out. It seldom takes more than two tries.

And so the fight between Batman and Superman in this movie is a metaphor for the battle between men and supermen, that's pretty obvious, and in that fight there's only one emotionally satisfying ending. Batman has no powers, Superman has every power. And so of course Batman wins. Every time. Every single time. This fight is such a no-win for Superman. If he beats up a guy with no powers, he's not a hero, he's just a bully. This, by the way, is the same reason why Hawkeye, if he is present in an Avengers comic, will always be the guy who saves the world. Because he is the underdog. On a team with a living god, an embodiment of the United States of America, and a guy who wears a tank, Hawkeye is a dude with a bow and arrow. He is the most under- of underdogs on that team, and so when the villain -- be it the Collector or the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants or whoever that guy was in JLA/Avengers -- has the world in his sights, the most satisfying ending is for Hawkeye, the little guy, to be the one who kicks him in the balls. And that is why Batman will always beat Superman, unless you're totally playing that fight for laughs, and if you haven't watched the Lego version of this fight, you have a real treat in store, let me tell you.

In any case, getting back to the brawl, I think we can all see now that the only way Superman wins this thing from a narrative standpoint is by never engaging in it. But the whole movie is based on this fight, and so really Superman has already lost. There's no way he gets out without humiliation. The fight validates human beings over superhuman beings. It validates Bruce's philosophy of life. Life only means what you force it to mean; that's what he says at the end. There is no "good." There's not even an "evil." There's just the randomness that shoots your parents in an alley, and the trauma that is the rest of your life. Note that I'm not talking about broader versions of Batman here, versions in which Batman finds a meaning in the world, one that isn't about force. A Batman with a reconstructed family. A Batman that acknowledges good and evil, that there are limits to what one can do, should do, that there are requirements and expectations placed on us by society and we have an obligation to our fellow man to draw the line somewhere. That Batman is not this Batman. If this Batman has any principles, beyond winning at any cost, whatever is most efficient, I do not know them. These are cold, empty, heroes indeed. These are men who always look good, whose every physical action is perfectly choreographed, but who are soulless. Perhaps they are good symbols for modern life, but I reject their nihilistic vision in favor of a world in which there is good to be done, a world in which you and I, humble though we may be, have power and are obliged to use it in ethical ways. And, as for Superman, I reject the reading of that character that makes him an alien, estranged from humanity. The Superman we see in this movie is a very short step from Bill's interpretation in Kill Bill: a super man who sees humanity as a race of bumbling idiots, and by pretending to be one, is making a joke that only he gets.

BvS includes many shout-outs to The Dark Knight Returns -- including the memorable panel from chapter one of that book, in which Batman bursts through a wall to grab a goon armed with a machine gun, only to use the guy as a shield and shoot the other goons. I remember wondering about that panel, because wasn't one of the points of DKR that Batman doesn't use guns? But in this film, Batman is rarely without one. He uses a semi-automatic pistol to shoot several, a sub machine gun moments later in the same scene. The batmobile is armed with machine guns (Arkham Asylum is the primary means by which boys are introduced to Batman in the 21st century), and with the exception of the kryptonite spear, which proves the rule, all of his other weapons are variations on guns. If he has a utility belt, I never saw it; instead, he is always packing. DKR's Green Arrow famously shoots a kryptonite arrow at Superman, who catches it, but in this film's version of the same scene, Superman catches a grenade instead, fired from a gun. (My veteran readers -- by which I mean not those of you who graciously subscribe, but rather readers who are war veterans -- will point out to me that a grenade launcher is not a rifle. But for the purposes of Batman, a gun is a gun is a gun.)

Readers will think I am obsessing over small differences; what does it matter if Batman uses a pistol or a grenade launcher instead of, say, unclipping a gas grenade from his belt and simply throwing it? My answer is that superheroes -- like everything else -- are symbols, and they are made to mean things. Batman is a victim of gun violence; his parents were shot down in an alley before his eyes. The makers of BvS know this; they read Dark Knight Returns, in which Batman declares guns "the weapon of the enemy" as he breaks a shotgun in half with his hands. But while DKR is good enough to get quoted throughout the film, all these quotations are surface: visual recreations of a panel, throwaway dialog or incidental plot beats. At the same time the film is remixing DKR's visual style, it entirely rewrites what the characters mean in pursuit of what I can only call "the cool."

Batman uses guns in this film because guns are cool, because the mechanical sound of a gun cocking sends a thrill up the leg. In the audio vocabulary of American cinema, that sound means "I'm a bad ass," and Batman is the ultimate bad ass.

I knew going in that this film would be making a lot of hay out of Dark Knight Returns, but I was surprised by the extent to which The Death of Superman is also remixed. I was two-thirds of the way through the film when I realized that's a big piece of this incarnation of Lex Luthor, who is called Alexander Luthor throughout the film and who notes that his father, actually, is the "Lex" in "Lexcorp." Those who have read The Death of Superman will recall that, during this particular phase of the 90s, Lex had "died" and transferred his consciousness to a cloned body. Everyone thought this new person, Alexander Luthor, a man with red curling locks, was Lex's son. But while the Alexander of the source material has a massive physique (like his flowing hair, an example of Lex's overcompensation for his own perceived weaknesses in the face of Superman), this Alexander is skinny tech-nerd. He would be at home on the stage of an Apple product reveal event, except that he can't speak a coherent sentence. Of all the confusing parts of this film, Lex Luthor might be the most perplexing because, honestly, how do you fuck up Lex Luthor? The guy is a mad scientist super villain. He's not hard to do. Who thought the manic, annoying, fidgety Lex of this film was a credible villain? When Kurt Busiek relaunched Avengers after the Heroes Reborn debacle, his first villain was Morgana Le Fey. I was reading a lot of bulletin boards in those days and Busiek got a lot of flak from fans who wanted a bigger villain, such as Loki, to be the antagonist. Busiek defended his choice by saying that the first Avengers story was more about the team getting back together than fighting the bad guy, that he had intentionally chosen a second-tier villain so that the villain did not distract from what was a story essentially about the Avengers. I see a similar action at work in BvS; the film-makers need a high profile villain because that is what the audience and press demand and expect. They will be let down if the villain is not Lex Luthor or the Joker. But the real antagonism in this film is between Superman and Batman, and so our version of Lex in this film is less threatening, less dangerous. Hell, he didn't even make his own global tech empire; he inherited it from his dad. 

Wonder Woman is the highlight of the movie, and her appearance is the only moment in which my opening-night audience applauded -- and that was all the women in the audience. But as Bob Mondello noted, one of the reasons she is so great is because, since she has so little screen time, she doesn't get saddled with the over-wrought proclamations about good, evil, and the nature of human life which Clark, Bruce, Lex, Ma, and ghost-Pa all get, usually multiple times. Her theme music is so different than the rest of the picture that, when you hear it, it's like you've been trapped in a canvas sack for two hours and someone just opened the bag to let the sun shine in. There are very few moments of characterization for her, but the most telling for me was the moment in which Doomsday sends her reeling and, as she picks herself up off the ground, she grins. She's into it. She's eager for the fight. Welcome to Zack Snyder's Wonder Woman, everyone.

Apropos of nothing, I want to note that what is done to Perry White in this film is nothing less than a tragedy, almost on the scale of the deformation of Pa Kent that happened in Man of Steel. The little stuff first: his primary concern is the bottom line, though he also notes that the paper is already broke. He invades the private files of his reporters, and assigns then whimsically to whatever section of the paper catch his eye that day. But that's small fish. More important, in a film filled with cynical people, the editor in chief of the newspaper is the worst cynic of them all. He has no conviction to publish the truth, and has no belief in the reading public or humanity in general. When Lois asks for a helicopter and he thinks it's for a story, he refuses her; it's only when it becomes personal that he acquiesces. This is precisely backwards. Perry's role in any Superman story in which he appears is to be the Demander of Truth. He is not the Seeker of Truth, that's Lois. But when Lois or Clark or Jimmy are confronted by a difficult story, or pause when the stakes become too high, Perry is the person who comes in to say, "Get the story." He is Old School Journalism at its finest. He has meaning. Laurence Fishburne is an amazing actor to whom nothing good was given in this film. In his last appearance as Perry, he spent most of the last reel giving reaction shots to imaginary falling buildings. This movie is a step down from that.

The climax to this film comes when Batman withholds the killing blow from Superman because both men have a mother named Martha. I am not making that up or exaggerating. That's the reason Superman does not die in this movie. I'm pretty sure David Goyer -- who has repeatedly testified his contempt for superhero comics in general -- noticed this coincidence and decided, "That's it. That's what these guys have in common. Every guy has a mother, and Martha's name represents that." The fact that Martha Kent and Martha Wayne have the same first name has never occurred to me before, probably because she's always just been Ma Kent to me, and also probably because that's the kind of rookie mistake that happens when it's 1939, you're cranking out a dozen pages of writing in an hour, and you have no idea what you or anyone else is doing. It's the kind of embarrassing fact that writers at DC and Marvel politely ignore, but which cause Wold Newton writers to develop elaborate theories explaining that Martha Wayne did not, in fact, die in Crime Alley but, after sustaining injuries that prevented her from having any more children, moved to Kansas and met a nice farmer named Jonathan. (Please cite me when this story is in fact written.) In BvS, Batman is suddenly forced to pause by the invocation of Martha's name literally seconds after he mocked Superman's parents for suggesting that Superman should use his powers for good.

The criticism that a movie "makes no sense" is probably overused; we tend to invoke it when we see plot holes. This movie has plenty of those, and as I've said already, most of them can be explained away with the phrase, "Superman is really bad at his job." But when I say this movie makes no goddamn sense, I'm not talking about that kind of sense. I'm talking about what the movie means. And the movie's meaning is all over the place. Superman is God. Superman is just a man. Superman is a false idol, worshipped by people against his will. Batman is Man. Batman is the devil. There is good in the world. Doing good is a useless exercise. If we can help someone, we should. We don't owe anybody anything. The people close to you matter; everyone else can go to hell. Whatever this film is trying to say is so inconsistent, so self-deconstructed, that it either means nothing at all, or it means something different to everyone that walks away from it. And this last, from a purely cynical movie-making perspective, seems to make the most sense to me. The makers of BvS sought to make a film which could be all things to all people or, at least, all people willing to buy a ticket.

But they lost me.


  1. I was resigned to see this in my living room when it becomes available. Reading this most excellent review has me convinced I should just watch the fights on youtube.

  2. Friend of the Blog JanaRae (who has much more experience as a reviewer than I) posted a comment and I, in my foolishness, accidentally hit "delete" instead of "publish." So here it is:

    Some of my random take-aways from your thoughts…

    I find especially interesting the aspect of Superman choosing to save only some (e.g., the little girl in the fire in Mexico), while leaving others to perish / getting there too late to save all. You’ve quite a God-question wrapped up in that. I wonder how some of the books on that aspect of the devoutly religious’s views on God choosing to save some (for those who proclaim “It was God’s will”) (or His choosing not to, which has to be the alternative if it is His will) ——how might those books / views answer the issues you raise about Superman too. Isn’t that the part of the question you’re posing about Superman? Does he make these choices when he HAS the power to act and save? So if that’s it, why does he make these choices? Or is he really just fallible?
    Or a prick?
    Interesting indeed.

    I cannot help but find connections: the villain of the film did not create his business empire; he inherited it. Red hair. "Manic, annoying, fidgety." He cannot speak in a coherent sentence.
    Sound like any other villains the public demanded?

    And this: Martha Washington. (I’m sure this connection has been made before, but I’m a comics outsider, so please pardon any ignorance here.)