This is the superhero movie we deserve.
This review contains SPOILERS.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the superhero movie we deserve. For years, superhero movies have been trying desperately to coexist alongside some degree of realism, out of a fear that audiences would mistake their earnest goofiness and ridiculous for embarrassing cheesiness. Superheroes are, by their very nature, quite silly. Their origin stories are silly, their costumes look ridiculous to any sane member of the public, the villains they face are often similarly larger-than-life because the disconnect between a giant all-powerful super-being and a guy who has a gun and robs people would be too much otherwise, and their sense of morality is primarily rather simplistic and clear-cut – good guys are often selfless and fight for peace and justice, bad guys are often selfish and fight for chaos and power.
Yet there’s something comforting about all of this. The real world is a miserable, complex, and often hopeless place rife with injustice, mundane terrors and villains who are far more powerful yet far more boring than those found on the pages of fictional worlds, and it seems near-impossible for any kind of good to triumph in any way. But on the pages of a comic book, that kind of ideal can exist. They can provide an escape, a comforting visit to a world where morals don’t need to be compromised and an all-powerful alien from another world can settle on Earth, choose to fight for its best interests and actually succeed in doing so, and we (both on the page and in real life) subsequently adore him for it. They can also provide escapist power fantasies for minorities or genders suffering from some kind of systemic oppression; superheroes and comic book stories can provide hope. And they do so through earnest goofiness because they are inherently silly.
But superhero movies, especially those produced in a post-Raimi Spider-Man world, have been increasingly reticent to do that. In a way, the genre is still smarting from the late-60s Batman and mid-70s Wonder Woman TV series, which were both incredibly silly because that’s what happens when you dramatise these fantastical beings and events in live-action, even on a stripped-down TV scale. The general public seems to have a problem with earnest goofiness and silliness, always conflating them with stupidity and childishness – see: every non-Matrix work by The Wachowski Sisters ever – and stringently rejecting any notion of camp in these films regardless of how ingrained into the genre’s very DNA they are. Batman & Robin, for example, does not suck because it is incredibly campy – it sucks for various terrible story, thematic, and series-long reasons that are not exclusive to this film – but it’s the tangible element that people can point to, dismissing it as something stupid for kids, as if kids’ entertainment is somehow lesser.
So, ever since that debacle especially, there’s been an ongoing attempt to stamp out the more ridiculous and outlandish elements of superhero culture in their movie adaptations, in an effort to make them more ‘mature’, often via framing it all through a lens of realism. That’s not to say that adding realism to this kind of storytelling is inherently futile or worthless, a touch of nuance in terms of morality or using these characters to make pointed and relevant political and social commentary or other such ideas are necessary and interesting potential avenues for this type of genre, it’s that the kind of realism and maturity that these films end up going for is that of a tired, angsty, serious route that’s only mature if you’re a 13 year-old boy who believes that Linkin Park seriously speaks to you.
It started in costumes, with the colourful, unique, and visually-striking costumes of the comic-book X-Men swapped out for what a discount S&M club throws on its 3PM pole-dancers in Bryan Singer’s X-Men series. Then it came in the stories we told, giving us two goddamn Punisher movies before we got even one proper Captain America movie (and I say this as a fan of both of those Punisher movies). Then the Christopher Nolan Batman movies stripped The Dark Knight dry of any sense of the fun, the silly, or the supernatural in favour of a realist deconstructionist take on the character and became box office and critical sensations, winning over most all of the genre’s detractors, and we were completely set. By the time that The Avengers and especially Man of Steel were specifically invoking the memory and imagery of 9/11 and our worst fears of urban terrorism for entertainment, the escapist fantasy nature of the genre had been sucked dry. These films now took place in and resembled our world, adding in real-world destructive consequences and subsequently trying to address them in-film as if that made somehow made them more mature and less cheesy.
That drive for realism, and more specifically for “maturity”, for comic book movies and superheroes to be taken seriously has now reached its inevitable conclusion with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This is the movie we have been building to since Tim Burton’s first Batman rolled into theatres nearly 3 full decades ago, as our quest for realism and maturity in comic book and superhero movies has led us to this miserable, nihilistic, aimless, nonsensical borefest with all the emotional maturity and complexity of a teenaged anime fan fiction writer. This is a movie about a murdering psychopath and an angsty sociopath being played like goddamn fiddles by a villain with no consistent personality and no motivations into beating the living crap out of each other for basically no adequate reason whilst swapping philosophical arguments like, and with the intellectual depth and capability of, sentient Speak-And-Spells. For two-and-a-half hours.
Who am I supposed to root for here? The all-powerful and supposedly benevolent alien who can’t stop with the collateral damage and, at one point, admits to allowing a Congressional hearing filled with senators, powerful people, and innocent bystanders to explode in a giant ball of flames because, and I swear that he admits this, he didn’t bother to even attempt to be alert for any kind of threats, supposedly out of spite for how humanity has treated him up to this point? Or the psychopathic billionaire who kills directly and indirectly as often as he maims, and has taken to branding his victims so that they are guaranteed to be murdered in prison by other inmates? Yeah, Batman (Ben Affleck, trying his best) kills people in this movie. A lot of people. With guns. Superman (Henry Cavill, stripped of all Man From U.N.C.L.E. charisma), at one point, flings – or punches, it’s rather unclear – an African warlord through multiple walls. He’s almost definitely dead. It honestly makes me wonder why Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, wasted) bothered trying to set-up Superman as a bloodthirsty maniac, since he arguably already is.
One may be wondering what the thematic reason for having Batman and Superman fight each other in the first place is. There is a plot reason – a really, really, really stupid and needlessly convoluted plot reason for them both to be fighting that takes about an hour and 40 minutes to set up – but what’s the thematic reason for the two to brawl? In theory, Batman and Superman are different sides of the same coin, both fighting for justice and security but taking different methods to doing so, yet the Batman and Superman of this planned universe of films are interchangeably similar: both are brooding, angsty, roided-up, Mommy-and-Daddy Issues-suffering psychopaths who have zero qualms about murder and generally being as destructive as the villains they hunt down. So, why are we supposed to want to see these two fight again? There is no actual thematic contrast between the two, it’s all being masterminded by a villain that requires both of its participants to be thick as pig shit, and they’re both so thoroughly unlikeable anyway that there’s nobody to root for even if the film provided a reason to care.
Because there is no reason to care about any part of this movie. Its idea of maturity, seriousness, and realism is to drown the whole movie in endless, needless angst – painting all of its characters as morally-compromised husks of freakishly excessive masculinity whose only solutions to problems are punching them in the face a lot or murdering them to death. At one point, Superman himself rejects the entire concept of Superman, a force of pure good designed to unite humanity behind a better guiding force to strive for, as “nothing more than the dream of a Kansas farmer”, something that doesn’t really exist. Superman himself, in his own damn movie, rejects the entire point of his character as unrealistic and childish and therefore unworthy of his time or effort in living up to it, like when a teenager discovers Breaking Bad and declares it the greatest thing in the history of fiction and that any work that is not in the slightest bit morally grey is worthless and childish. Perry White (Laurence Fishburne, wasted), who is now a sensationalist puff-piece cynic except when he’s not, claims that America’s capacity for empathy died with “Martin, Bobby, and John.”
What is gained by tying Superman, Superman iconography, and the Superman brand to our very worst fears of urban terrorism, exactly? The film opens, after the umpteenth dramatisation of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents – an act that I am pretty sure has had more celluloid devoted to it by this point than there have been attempts to get a female or non-White superhero movie franchise off the ground – by replaying the disturbingly awful finale of Man of Steel and yelling through a megaphone, “HEY! DO YOU REMEMBER 9/11? BECAUSE THIS IS TOTALLY MEANT TO BE 9/11!” Bruce Wayne’s extremist paranoia over Superman distressingly recalls American foreign policy post-9/11, whilst the bombing of the Congressional hearing is the kind of thing I’d expect from something like 24, not a film about the supposed embodiment of humanity’s finest aspects and virtues punching the embodiment of the good Capitalism could do if it bothered to use its wealth and resources to try and combat its worst aspects in the face. It’s also proceeded by a joke involving a jar of Lex Luthor’s piss. At least, I hope it was meant to be a joke, and even if it was it’s yet another disrespectful middle-finger from a sullen teenager.
There’s this horrifying streak of nihilism running throughout the whole film, a vengeful desire to kill off the heroic aspects of these God-like figures in the superhero genre similar to Lex Luthor in this movie and with about as much reason for doing so as Lex, who really does seem to have no reason to want Superman dead beyond a briefly tossed-in mention of, what else, Daddy Issues. Zack Snyder, Warner Bros., and the film arm of DC Comics clearly don’t get any part of this source material or its characters, yet are convinced that their interpretation is the absolute right one and ploughed on with it anyway, under the impression that this is what a “mature” and “realistic” superhero movie looks like. This. A film steeped in endless masturbatory philosophical back-and-forth that basically amounts to “you’re wrong!” “NO, YOU’RE WRONG!” A film that revels in an almost sadistic level of violence and destruction with no meaning or emotion put into any part of it. A film that treats Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne both having mothers named “Martha” as this huge shocking revelation that suddenly causes Bruce to see Clark as a human being with feelings.
A film that has absolutely no interest in building up its world and mythology for the Justice League movie that we all are going to be forced to suffer through like-it-or-not in any natural way, instead stopping the movie for 3 goddamn minutes to show 4 mini-trailers for DC’s slate of upcoming movies. Not even counting the pair of bizarre dream sequences that Bruce has hinting to things and events that do not happen in this movie and only make sense to those who know about the comics, yet are still treated as big important pieces of information we should all get and be worried by. A film that has no interest in any of its female characters – indiscriminately blowing up what I think is supposed to Mercy Graves after giving her nothing to do, trying to unnaturally force Lois Lane (Amy Adams, hopelessly lost) into the film’s plot no matter how little sense her presence or actions make, and giving Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, gets nothing to do) less than 10 minutes of screen time (in a 151 minute movie) and having her sole contributions be “kicking Doomsday in the face for a little bit” and “a walking advertisement for Wonder Woman, in cinemas June 27th 2017”.
A film whose idea of realism is endless, needless angsting and a miserabilist, washed-out, soul-sucking atmosphere. Set in a fictional world where Turkish Airlines is the airline of choice for Amazonian Princesses, and Aston Martin is the car manufacturer that all of the billionaire playboy philanthropists drive, and CNN is your only source for the latest breaking news in Metropolis, and where Neal deGrasse Tyson debates the philosophical ramifications of the existence of Superman for reasons that continue to bewilder me. A film that will spend upwards of 5 minutes explaining Bruce Wayne’s origins as Batman, but not even 5 seconds on any character’s motivations or even that Gotham and Metropolis are sister cities separated by a bay. A film that has so little interest in the premise behind its own goddamn title that, after a good 100 minutes of build-up, the big showdown comes down to… a very slow and clumsy fistfight that lasts barely 5 minutes because Superman gets hit by Batman’s Kryptonite grenades and that levels things out somewhat. A fistfight. And a drop-dead boring one at that, much like the rest of this thing.
Then the final 30 minutes suddenly decides to pull a “The Death of Superman” adaptation out of its arse, and it is exactly as horrible and unearned as it sounds. Yet the film keeps hammering home the result for a good 15 straight minutes, driving past at least 4 potential ending scenes as it does so, as if the fact that it “went there” is reason enough for the audience to burst into waterworks, even though everybody knows it’s not going to stick, what with that Justice League movie on the horizon, and the film starting to backpedal on it before the credits start rolling. This movie is about as “mature” as an Evanescence AMV set to Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children – so overwrought that it would have descended into self-parody if it weren’t also so absolutely joyless, insipidly moronic, and bafflingly boring.
And it’s the superhero movie we deserve. Our inability to let superhero movies be silly, to be outwardly fun, to be escapist fantasies has led us to this. This insistence that we must situate these larger-than-life ridiculous figures of myth in some kind of reality, seriousness, and maturity – which in reality manifests as a momentary worry over collateral damage and Grade-School level debates about ethics, like a First Person Shooter that has a level where you walk through the destruction you’ve caused before throwing you back into mindless destructive shooty fun – has brought us to this movie. The idea that campiness is the absolute worst, but dark gritty seriousness is the only way to take this whole enterprise seriously has brought the wrath of Batman v Superman upon us all, and we are all to blame. Even Marvel Studios, who have only embraced that kind of escapist silliness once (Guardians of the Galaxy) and even then not totally.
I left Batman v Superman never wanting to watch another superhero movie ever again. As I type these words, I am coming up on 12 hours since I entered the cinema to start watching the film and I still feel that way. Captain America: Civil War is a month away and I want nothing to do with it, and I have loved both prior Captain America movies. I have been soured on this whole genre of films thanks to Batman v Superman. Catwoman couldn’t do that, Iron Man 3 couldn’t do that, Man of Steel couldn’t do that, even last year’s Fantastic 4 couldn’t do that and that wasn’t even a proper goddamn movie! But Batman v Superman could, because it is a culmination of everything that superhero movies have been building towards, and staring directly into the face of the Lovecraftian horror that played in front of me for 151 minutes has broken me, the realisation that I, however unintentionally, helped bring this thing to life.
This is what our desire for “maturity” and “realism” in our superhero movies has brought us to. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: a two and a half hour incoherent, nihilistic, tone-deaf, point-missing, soul-draining piece of Sixth Grade poetry unfit for human consumption made by a bunch of imbecilic, sadistic, piss-brained, emo, Daddy Issues manchildren whose moronic, wrong-headed visions were allowed to run roughshod over two of the most iconic superheroes of all-time, creating a movie scientifically calculated to prove snobby film critics right about superhero movies, and to break the spirits of those who otherwise love them to death by getting everything so horrifyingly wrong.
We finally did it. We adult men have ruined superhero movies for everyone else. You’re welcome.
Callie Petch is pretending they’re a superman.