Two things: first, a review of Batman v Superman, and then some thoughts on how we talk about superhero movies.
(Minor Spoilers—if you’ve seen the trailers, you should be fine)
There’s a line in the middle of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that sort of sums up nicely what I thought about the film. Batman has got the upper hand against his nemesis and after referring to his parents’ death “in the gutter,” he says what he learned from the experience:
Life only makes sense if you force it to.
Which is kinda how I keep coming back to characterizing this movie: It only makes sense if you force it to.
And if that sounds harsh, let me assure you that the movie is fine. It really is! It’s making money and, you know, it was compelling enough for me to go and watch it with some friends. But it’s what happened AFTER watching the movie that really gets me.
It’s not that Lois Lane’s only function in the movie is to be Superman’s weakness.
It’s not that the film’s plot is, broadly speaking, kinda incoherent.
It’s not how Affleck’s Batman just doesn’t feel like Batman.
It’s not how the movie (like other superhero films) casually exploits formerly-colonized people and places as disposable settings only to blow them up while perpetuating racist stereotypes.
It’s not how the film’s emotional core is undercut by the proliferation of unmeaning (ahem—explosions and ubiquitous electric shock waves).
(Okay, maybe it’s a little bit of all those things… but ALSO:)
It’s something I’ve written about recently vis-a-vis the Avengers: it’s how the film’s very structure defers thought for spectacle*—both internally, in the movie, and externally, in the theater. Batman v Superman is not about the choices its protagonists make (and even less about the ones Lois Lane makes…) or what its antagonist offers in critique of them; it’s about delivering the straight-up dramatic GESTURES which neither propel the story nor develop character but rather stand as signifying moments for (dubious?) cultural-moral truths: Suffering, Defeat and above all, Justice.
another case of deferring critique
As in Avengers: Age of Ultron, the most compelling character in Batman v Superman is its villain, Lex Luthor. Of the many cutting lines he drops in the film, the one that appears in the trailer is the most damning in terms of the movie’s eponymous protagonists:
Do you know what the oldest lie in America is, senator? It’s that power can be innocent.
Power. Innocence. These are ideas this movie NEEDS to think about. But it can’t. As with Age of Ultron, the baked-in conception of the truth of Justice that Batman and Superman go about signifying in so many punches, kicks, stabs, laser-visions and machine-gun-shootings and building demolitions and infinite through-the-wall-flyings and rubble-scatterings—all this must by necessity defer, push back against, even reject serious contemplation of just what sort of Justice these moments signify.
The movie has no time to think about what Lex is saying. He doesn’t really fit into the scheme. Which, seemingly, is partly why we get Doomsday, so that we have something that can convincingly evince Suffering, Defeat and Justice for our demigod-like heroes (that is, something that can punch and be punched). (Considering Luthor’s stuttering pseudo-confession during the party scene about being knowledgeable but powerless, perhaps it’s Luthor’s only way to be heard, to be subsumed into the moral spectacle, where reasoning is subordinated to how hard you can hit somebody.)
(For an interesting critical discussion about the environmental destruction in superhero movies like Batman v Superman, see PBS Idea Channels recent video, “Who’s Gonna Pay for All This Superhero Destruction?“)
(Also, check out Jacob Brogan’s review for Slate, which makes some interesting points about Luthor along the lines I’ve given above.)
is superhero discourse a closed system?
But it’s not just the way the movie itself brushes aside critique.
This may just be a function of the particular group of friends I went to see the movie with, but it feels like superhero movies can only really be talked about either in terms of the spectacle or in terms of the fictional universe(s).
And it’s this latter approach that seems to me to amount to a discourse which substitutes critical inquiry with what amounts to a nifty way to label parts (e.g., in fact, those were “parademons” in Batman’s post-apocalyptic vision) and/or make value judgments AMONG adaptations of the source material. While this isn’t bad or anything, it can end up feeling like yet another way of deferring critical contemplation in the name of maintaining something like a closed system governed by either THE SPECTACLE (“that part when Superman [did X]!”) or THE CANON (“Affleck isn’t as good a Batman as Bale”).
Let me be clear—I’m not bashing those ways of speaking as such; I engage in them too and it can be a lot of fun. But in the end, it strikes me as lacking in the creative thinking that can emerge in the process of asking fundamental questions of the text, with the process of deconstructing and playing with the pieces that make the text function as an effective (or ineffective) cultural utterance, and in so doing, contemplating the real-world forces that are caught up in it.
Batman v Superman is an okay movie. But isn’t it worth sussing out why it isn’t a GREAT one? And even if it were “great,” would we then be willing to think critically about it together?
What are some ways to encourage/start a critical and generous conversation about a piece of pop culture? Share your thoughts in the comments or on the subreddit.
*Don’t get me wrong, spectacle can be exciting and fun. But does it have to be either spectacle or thoughtful storytelling? I think not.