Monday, April 11, 2016

Should There Be a Superman? Batman v Superman’s One Bright Spot [Contributor: Melanie]

So, for some reason I went to go see Batman v Superman a few weeks ago. It’s one of those cultural things that you don’t actually want to see but feel the need to because you want to be informed. And it’s unfortunate that it was a (super long, 151-minute, dear-Lord-help-me) obligation. Because Superman is actually my favorite superhero, and I was tonally on board with Man of Steel even if the rest of the movie was super underdeveloped and on-the-nose. And while I won’t say the problem lies with the DC Universe — because they have the potential to make good movies out of these arcs — it all boils down to a need for solid direction and writing.

Zack Snyder’s previous directorial endeavors aren’t bad. Sure, Watchmen was weird but Snyder’s take on the world was on track and his remake of Dawn of the Dead did well as far as remakes go. But it’s fascinating that a movie with even less characters to introduce managed to fall right into the hole The Avengers swerved right over in 2012. The balance of storylines was missing, and the result was an incoherent narrative arc. The first 30 minutes rushed to establish plot elements as fast as possible and decided to rely on cultural knowledge to cover the rest. It was riddled with dream sequences, a very strange take on Lex Luthor, and a lack of obvious point. This movie could have survived just being called Dawn of Justice since the entire Batman versus Superman thing was a two hour, semi-coherent cold war that culminated in a two minute fight scene before they started working together.

There was just a lot about this movie that was bad. And you can scour the Internet for reviews that basically list every single flaw. But, because it’s who I am, I strove to locate intelligence amid this incredibly long and emotionally confusing film. And, ultimately, the biggest thing I took from this film was its meta commentary on Superman’s place in culture.

So, as I said, Superman is my favorite superhero. That’s a statement that usually gets mixed reviews from my friends, and the reasons why are part of the conflict of this movie. Superman is a dated concept. He was conceived in 1938 as the first comic book superhero (which explains why everything about him is so painfully obvious). He was born out of a time when an entire generation knew nothing but catastrophic wars. So he was indestructible, imbued with an impossibly elevated moral compass that meant he never killed his enemies if he could help it, and he watched the earth from the skies above. In fact, he wasn’t even from our world, and free of the evils that come with being part of mankind.

I was also a fan of Superman’s story: the last of his kind, forced unwillingly to make Earth his adoptive home, feeling like a freak and outsider for his abilities. It sounds exactly like how you would imagine the first superhero’s story to go. And the humanity behind parts of it resonated. His invulnerability didn’t bother me because it made the element of kryptonite that much more ominous when it came into play. And Man of Steel sought to play up these elements while weaving in more messianic imagery. This Superman is 33, the first child born on Krypton in centuries, sent by his father to Earth to act as a savior and moral leader. The intended parallels are obvious.

And Batman v Superman pushes back on them. The film actively rebels against the very idea of Superman. He’s an antiquated concept, his impeccable moral justice is unobtainable, the world and its politics are far more complicated than in 1938. This is explicitly touched on in a scene between Clark Kent and Perry White where he tells the former to take his ideals “to 1938 when apples cost a quarter.” Batman is now the new thing: he operates with a looser sense of the law, he’s willing to hurt people to do the right thing, he sticks to the shadows and wears a mask. Historically, Batman was the second comic book superhero, created in response to Superman and the contrasts are painfully obvious.

So this movie, whether it was aware of it or not because it was honestly hard to tell, is giving us a rundown of the cultural implications surrounding either superhero and their longstanding rivalry. Day, night. God, man. Luthor’s ridiculously over-the-top dialogue had some points there. Batman is the world pushing back on the idea of heroes like Clark Kent and the idealism he empowers himself with. Can you be all good all the time and still save everyone? (Luthor’s line “If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good, and if he is all good then he cannot be all powerful” was one of the few clever things he said). Can your sense of morality be so squeaky clean that you’re above control of the authorities? Can you be a messianic symbol and still retain your human complexity?

The movie doesn’t answer this. Or maybe it does. In the end, Superman chooses to sacrifice himself not in order to save the city or citizens, but simply because Lois Lane “is (his) world.” He comes to terms with his belief that he doesn’t owe the world anything and realizes the only reason he continues to matter is because of her. So, as in the comics, he gets himself killed by the Kryptonian titan Doomsday. And he, ultimately, dies as a human man protecting the one person who matters most to him. So perhaps the answer then is, no, you cannot be Superman and still truly make a difference. It’s Clark Kent that truly makes the choices in the end.

And that’s a reading on this film I can jibe with because Superman’s duality as Kal-El and Clark makes him unique. His secret identity isn’t just a dangerous tool to be exploited by his enemies; it’s an integral part of what makes up his story and character complexity. And I’m always down for some good old-fashioned existential protagonists.

(This all being said, Wonder Woman saving Batman’s butt was still the best part of this mostly awful movie, but you can watch it for yourself to decide.)


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