From The Cave To The Heavens
Yeah, I saw Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice. At this stage, a lot of people have seen it.
And a lot of people didn’t like it.
No, I’m holding my punches there: a lot of people hated it, and have been spewing such horrible, affected vitriol in the general directions of this film that its making me question their fucking sanity. Because it’s a film about fictional characters, and if you care that much about these characters and how they have been ‘ruined’ by this movie, then you don’t really understand much about fiction or these characters.
There are many negative pieces I’ve read about this film: some are well-considered discussions about personal taste, of people’s issues regarding tone or character or an uneven plot. And some of them are acid-spewed rage from god-knows-where, determined to destroy and condemn a film that, if you don’t join in the condemnation, you are “wrong”, you are “terrible” and you are “part of the problem and everything that is wrong with movies, with comics and the modern world.”
In that case, I guess I’m everything that’s wrong with the world then? I guess I’m wrong and terrible for liking this piece of fictional work (while also understanding and recognising it for its problems.)
But then again, I’ve had a brain tumour, so what would I know? Maybe you need to have had something like that in your life to actually understand where this film is going? Or maybe you need to think of this as less a film about superheroes, and more of a film about people?
Because what are those superheroes if not exactly that?
I used to love superheroes: I spent most of my pre-teenage years watching the X-Men cartoon (and then the movies), the Spider-Man cartoon with its heavy plotted multi-part stories. They led me to traditional, printed comic books that led to other worlds, and a whole other way of telling stories. But what drew me to those superheroes? It wasn’t the powers, and the shock and the awe: it was the fact that these were characters who were so like me. Spider-Man was a nerdish guy who had the dumbest luck, while the X-Men stood for the Other. (The X-Men stand for many things to many different people: to me, it was a sense of queer sexuality that I wasn’t even fully aware of at the time.)
Applying those rules to the DC universe, I never got sucked in. Sure, I enjoyed Batman: The Animated Series and Lois & Clark but these worlds and these stories were missing the sensibilities that appealed to me. Both of these worlds engaged with a different set of emotions: Batman was angry and brooding, but in a way that was kid-friendly and non-threatening. (Here’s the thing, Batman has always been angry and brooding, save perhaps for the classic 60s TV show. Oh, I loved that show too, but a lot of that was humour, camp theatrics and a healthy respect of farce.) Lois & Clark, on the other hand, painted a warm, fluffy vision of superheroes, romantic entanglements and workplace shenanigans that I was too young to understand. Sure, I rooted for Lois and Clark to get together (because that’s what the show wanted its viewers to do) but I had no invested interest in that relationship. Because I didn’t truly understand it.
And then things flipped: I grew up, I lived a little, I had experiences of my own. I got jobs, I wrote books, I dealt with cancer and everywhere I looked, there were shades of me reflected in new books and stories. That was around the time those original stories were taken away from me, when the things that defined you as a child (or a teenager) don’t quite mean the same to you any more. I already wrote a post about how I don’t really feel the same for the X-Men any more. Like many things, the things I cared about got remade and re-purposed, covered in shiny gloss and packaging to make them appeal to a younger audience. (Either that, or the people involved in them were revealed to be sex-pests or tax-avoiders.)
I had outgrown my outcast years, getting used to who I was and what my life meant. X-Men characters were becoming more and more oppressed, taking three steps backwards with every step they took forward, while I moved in the opposite directions. These characters had done their job for me, and now someone else needed them to join their fight.
I am taking this opportunity to talk about anything that isn’t Batman V Superman right now to prove a point. Because as disenfranchised as I have become from the X-Men and their world, I have been welcomed by other worlds about gods acting like humans and humans acting like gods. (I wrote books about them, and I touched on it in the title of this blog. You didn’t think I was leaving that note just dangling, did you?)
With that in mind, it feels like I’m in the minority, like I’m the Other in a world where “normal” is “not liking this film.”
This film that touches on those themes that are pretty close to my heart.
This film that I loved, for all there is wrong with it.
With that in mind, I wanted to share my point of view, to explain what I like about it, to defend it. Because the people who hate this film are taking every opportunity to tell us why they hate it and that everyone else should hate it alongside them.
So let me tell you why I like it.
Because Batman V Superman is a film about gods acting like human, humans acting like gods and the various people who move in between. It even calls attention to its own themes, with a lingering shot of artwork hanging on Lex Luthor’s wall, an inverted image of hell and heaven and the people who are trapped in between, facing one way or the other.
Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor is a microcosm of the film’s greater themes and reactions, from snarky criticism to fan-boy excitement, all within a moment’s beat. Most of his dialogue is delivered with raving comedic mania and he acts like the worst comic-book fan ever, a boy-child desperate for control, just because he is in possession of an ego the size of his bank balance.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not here to argue that Batman V Superman isn’t a messy film. Because the words messy and challenging were made just for films like this. There are multiple changes of tone throughout the film, scenes that probably don’t make sense to a casual viewer. The themes of this film are surprisingly alien for a superhero movie of the 21st century.
Or these are themes that seem alien.
Maybe they’re actually themes that are so close to home that people don’t want to deal with them.
See, here’s the thing. The Marvel cinematic universe has been churning out two movies a year for the guts of a decade, spoiling the audience with superhero after superhero, gorging on the trope until there is nearly nothing left. There have been so many fight scenes and origin stories that they have not only become meaningless, but they’ve elevated humans to a higher level where anybody can do anything.
Superheroes aren’t special anymore; superheroes aren’t divine, powerful, impressive and shocking. They are people who just happen to have powers, but who nonetheless still act like ordinary people.
The dichotomy sells gang-busters in the box-office: audiences previously unfamiliar with characters are introduced to people who might be just like them, characters who quip and eat Indian food and whatever emotions they experience will last no longer than fifteen minutes (unless it’s a long-term defining character-flaw.) Ultimately, these people who are so much just like you, guys are the same people capable of saving a whole planet or a galaxy. (Ant-Man and Guardians Of The Galaxy, I am looking at you. God, I just love that average guys can rather easily save the world without breaking a sweat or getting injured. Twice a year. Every year.)
(While I’m on the subject, both of those films leave me with a terrible taste in my mouth due to their treatment of the male body. Let’s put superhero abs on the Everyman characters who will be portrayed by actors that aren’t known for their physique and then flaunt that physique in the film. Everyone should be white, have superhero abs and no body hair. EVERYONE!)(This is not my opinion, hence the italics. Yeah, I’m bitter about it, but I’m also a realist.)
The changes that Hollywood makes to their comic-book source-material does make sense: comic-books are still a subculture of sorts, an ever-growing subcultures but one what is financially led by movies and TV shows, not by actual comics. In fairness, physical comic books have never defined the subculture, but it would be nice if they got some respect.
Actual comics are still treated as something a little bit dirty and a little bit Other: people are happy to wear superhero T-shirts and attend midnight openings to superhero movies, but your average book-store will still only have a handful of comic-related shelves, occupied only by goods that will sell, and those goods better sell well.
Think about it.
Go to your local book store, and you will see comics and comic-book merchandising. It’s great to see, isn’t it? Now look at all that merchandising that you identify from movies or from TV. If there’s something you don’t recognise, is that just because that movie isn’t out yet?
I did this a few weeks ago: it was interesting to see this subculture booming, to see books I never expected to see in a main retail store. Then I noticed that these books only had pride of place because the character had a brief moment in Batman V Superman .
That character was Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot . This is, I think, that character’s first live-action appearance in over 35 years. I fell in love with that camp TV show during its Saturday afternoon repeats in the 80s, not really understanding the boundaries that the character challenged. The fact that Wonder Woman may (or may not) be a Greek goddess (depending on who’s writing her); well that came later, but those facts aren’t lost on my own interests. She’s also a character associated with truth and conflicted and complicated emotions, a character who was created by a triad of BDSM polygamists, one of whom invented the polygraph.
But to the rest of the world, Wonder Woman just has a couple of fancy powers, an invisible plane (again, depending on who’s writing) and doesn’t really stand for anything. She’s forgotten about because it suits the narrative, or a narrative that isn’t as easy to market.
That’s the same narrative where some stories might have Batman kill the Joker, might have Superman kill Zod, might have Clark Kent married to Lois Lane or not having met her yet or might have Batman working alone or alternatively helped by a family of crime-fighting heroes. All of these things are just stories, and in the world of comics, DC Comics in particularly, any and every story is possible.
But this world isn’t really about stories or characters any longer: it’s about marketing, and up-selling. Krypto’s tail has always wagged the Super-dog, creating stories and events that sell and make money rather than the stories that people desperately want to see. Such is the nature of modern creativity: to be successful. And what’s more successful than getting to play with these god-like characters. Even the worst parodies and fan-fiction have more power in them than the constant destructive energy sent this way towards this film.
You don’t want to see a superhero film, that’s great: don’t see it. You want everyone you know not to go to it too? Well, that’s your first step in destroying an industry you claim to love and support, while also shitting all over the form and the characters that you claim to care so much about.
It’s a hypocritical irony: people had a lot to say about Man Of Steel (also directed by Zack Snyder and starring Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman.) Some people loved the film; others hated it. People are allowed to love or hate whatever they want, but this was a film that summoned hateful ire because of some story-telling steps that I found interesting and refreshing.
Producers responded in kind, not by re-casting Superman or searching for a new director. Quite the opposite: producers tried to change and challenge audience expectations. The story that Snyder wanted to tell and the world in which he wanted to play were established: it was up to the audience to decide if they wanted to be a part of it.
In some ways, Batman V Superman should be a cash-cow, a blockbuster event with marketing aplomb that could redefine an industry. What fan hasn’t wanted to see both of these heavyweights in the same film, a battle that has been seventy years in the making? But a March release is intentionally shying away from that drama, and when you consider what this film is actually about (not what people think or want it to be) it becomes obvious.
Warner Bros/DC spent more money, care and time on this movie than they spent on the marketing campaign.
That’s the behaviour of someone that cares about comics.
People have been rushing to destroy Batman V Superman because it didn’t meet their expectations. I say their because the film played its cards very close to its chest, never revealing too much of it save for what was required to market. Marketing for the film took a creative, narrative lead, inviting its audience into its world rather than putting a branded sticker on everything. People aren’t used to that any longer: we’re used to Happy Meal toys and teaser after trailer after tie-in social gaming. Gone are the days of a viral video or a viral site that raised questions to answer months later: those questions now need immediate answers. (I’m aware when writing this that this film hit cinemas so close to 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film that tried to build itself by using creative hype, and letting itself down because it never quite lived up to the promise of its predecessor, Cloverfield.)
I wanted to see Batman V Superman not because I had seen a particular trailer and was blown away by the effects; not because I wanted to see a certain character finally appear on the big screen; and certainly not because I wanted to see who would win a fight between Superman and Batman.
I wanted to see it to follow an epic story too big for the screen, and that’s exactly what I got. (Again, I’m admitting here that it was a story so big that it didn’t always make sense.)
And I loved it because of it.
This is a film that treats both Batman and Superman as extremely fallible characters, with all their flaws on show. Cavill’s Superman comes across a little cold and emotionless because that’s what he needs to be to make it so people in his world don’t like him. (And this may very well have been some retroactive tweaking of the character, because I’ve always found Cavill cold and emotionless.)
Similarly, Ben Affleck’s Batman/Bruce Wayne feels jaded and world-weary because that suits his worldview. Affleck is easily one of my favourites to ever play Batman, because he’s a character who is able to learn, to admit if and when he is wrong. Yes, he has his superhero-abs but they are only there because of some very fucking hard work.
It’s probably not what audiences want to see from their superheroes, but this humanity is an important part of bringing these characters down a couple of (hundred) levels, making both Batman and Superman more attainable, more believable and easier to understand.
Sure, not everyone wants to understand Batman or Superman. They want to see them fight the bad guys. The thing is: there are a lot of stories that involve the good guys punching the bad guys. There are very few where they deal with their emotions, their humanity and their awkward place in the world.
I don’t care about origin stories any more: I care about why these characters are doing the things they’re doing now. What’s their motivation, and what drives them. Batman V Superman is all about that drive, acknowledging it multiple times: the deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents lingers over the opening credits, and Clark Kent’s mother (Diane Lane) plays an important, if uncomfortable, role in Lex Luthor’s denouement.
And now I’ve gotten to that awkward moment I’ve been avoiding for a couple thousand words, the point of this movie that has been reduced to parody by anyone who wants to destroy the film, and even more people who don’t want to understand it.
Yeah, parse it however you want. Batman and Superman decide to be friends because their mothers have the same name: that’s actually not something that needs to be ridiculed, because there are real-life friendships that are based on conceits that are a lot thinner (Grew up next door to someone? Went to the same school as them? Have some similar DNA? These people don’t want you to be friends with people like that. Nope, your friendship needs to have more meaning to be validated in their eyes.)
The bit that people miss is that it’s not about their mothers having the same names: it’s about them having mothers, about them finding humanity in each other.
And finding that humanity in themselves as well.
Batman and Superman think of themselves as above repute: neither of them answer to any higher powers, save their own abilities and conscience. That’s why they fight and why it takes them so long to understand each other: because they’re so stubbornly alike, and the things they dislike about each other are both the worst and idealised elements of themselves. They are human and stubborn enough to be blind to that until it is screamed at them (and that scream comes not from each other, but through Diane Lane and Amy Adam’s Lois Lane.)
This isn’t a film about two characters who become friends because their mothers have the same name: this is a film about characters who don’t respect or understand each other until a third party helps them find new ways to do that. It’s a film about characters who don’t even truly understand themselves until they are taken down a few emotional pegs and forced to look through someone else’s eyes.
Batman and Superman, or Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent to give them their true characters, are broken, hurting men who have gone through significant pains and suffering, none of which they truly understand. Batman V Superman is a film about superheroes with PTSD, dealing with the after-affects of their normal human lives, and why they’ve run into their superhero lives to escape the truth of their emotions.
Does that sound slightly familiar to anyone?
Moreso, Bruce and Clark can get so removed from the human condition that it takes the very important presence of their supporting cast to keep them human, and this film proves that: Superman is nothing without the guiding hand of Clark Kent’s mother (a mother whom he trusts so implicitly that she knows about his plans to propose to Lois.)
Bruce Wane, on the other hand, needs someone, anyone, to challenge him every step of the way. The billionaire playboy has been touched on in other stories: this movie is all the stronger because of the fact that he is challenged and forced to get out of his shadows.
Yes, Batman shouldn’t kill and use a gun; unless he was forced into a position where he has to (and a dystopian future or a dead ward counts, right?) Superman shouldn’t kill either: that’s why the ending of Man Of Steel proved jarring for some and powerful for others. These characters are superheroes not because of their powers and their gadgets, but because of their willingness to do the things that need to be done, even if it means breaking their own moral codes.
Sure, there are a lot of problems with Batman V Superman: I’m not here to defend a heavily-plotted film that made references to stories and plots outside of itself, whether other films or several thousands of pages of story. The noise and power of this film isn’t going to be to everyone’s tastes, and I can understand why people might not enjoy it.
But for me, this film is about two powerful men who should know better, consumed by their egos and their pride, who find common ground only by realising that they are both human. (If only there were a line in the film, perhaps something where Batman could ask Superman if he bleeds? That would really hammer that point home…) Both men are superheroes not because they have great power (and responsibility) but because they (eventually) overcome their egos and work for a greater good.
By those rules, there’s an inverse too, where the human characters become superheroes. That would be Lois Lane and Martha Kent: they make hard choices and do things that normal humans shouldn’t have to, because that’s what life is.
Superheroes and superhero movies aren’t all about fight scenes and special effects: they’re about showing us the best and worst of humanity, and giving us something to aim for, while still respecting where we’ve come from.
Be nice to people, kids. Be nice to your mother. And be nice to other people’s mothers (as a microcosm of just being nice to other people.)
That is what makes a superhero.
Also published on Medium.