Saturday, 26 March 2016

Gosh, but Batman vs Superman looks unappealing

You know what? I'm probably not going to go see Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice in theaters.

I've been thinking about this for a few days, ever since I started to see reviews. The reviews I've read have all singled out the humorlessness, violence and borderline fascism of the characters, and so I'm here to say, enough. I didn't enjoy Man of Steel, the film of which BvS is a sequel (or to be precise, I liked it in the moment and have liked it less every time I've thought about it since), and I'm getting frustrated with the world-building in movie franchises, which I kind of believe has been responsible for ruining comics. So I'm done.

Partly I'm also inspired by the AV Club's essay this week asking why everyone's always so determined to see Batman fight Superman. As the author, Tim O'Neil, points out, there are two essential problems with that scenario:

1. Batman and Superman are pals. Leaving aside the silly, sitcom-like stories of the 50s, where Lois Lane was trying to scam on both of them, O'Neil argues (rightly) that they're both working toward the same thing - justice.

2. The other thing is that there's really no contest. Unless Batman is *really* prepared, Superman's going to take him out as easily as you or I can crush a bug. This isn't an attempt to be inflammatory or stake my space in the fanboy wars - if you accept that Superman's the most powerful being on Earth, it's simple logic that he could destroy Batman before Batman even knew he was in trouble. Mark Waid touches on this a bit in his series Irredeemable, which is effectively a "Superman goes crazy" story.

Now, there are good story reasons why you'd pit the two characters against one another, notably Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns and Mark Waid & Alex Ross's Kingdom Come, and I'm rather taken myself with the idea of Batman being able to take out Superman (see? *That's* my spot in the fanboy wars). And from what I know of BvS, Batman's mistrust of Superman does sound reasonable, given the awful, headache-inducing violence of Man of Steel.

But that previous film was based on a fundamental misreading of the character of Superman. I've listened to a couple of podcasts where David Goyer, the film's writer, has justified the decisions he made for that film - or rather, where he justified the bit about Superman killing Zod.

The way Goyer explained it, Superman at that point in his life didn't know how to neutralize Zod without killing him, or to put it another way, hadn't yet learned how to be Superman. But...

The story of how Superman kills Zod in the comics is about him being forced into an action that betrays his core principles, and about how he deals with that decision for the rest of his life. Nothing that I've seen of Goyer and director Zack Snyder's Superman suggests that they are interested in telling that kind of story. Rather, they seem to be more interested in telling a post-modern Superman story, insofar as I understand post-modernism to be "the New Unpleasantness". And gosh, is this latest version of Superman (and Batman) unpleasant.

You may ask why I'm so worked up about this. After all, it's just a movie, the season's first summer tentpole actioner, to throw a bunch of (possibly incorrect) movie jargon at you. It's also essentially the same plot as the upcoming Captain America film, Civil War, which will pit Cap against Iron Man. But I'd argue that taking two symbols of post-war American culture and turning them into amoral, sociopathic fascists does matter.

We're at a pretty dangerous point in our culture right now: there are existential threats at home (yes, sorry, but I have to call Donald Drumpf and Ted Cruz existential threats to America) and abroad (IS and al Qaeda). We're also seeing a diminution of our status abroad, owing to a string of really shitty choices we've been making since the end of World War II (you thought I was going to say 9/11, didn't you?), and we're responding by crawling back into isolationism, xenophobia and complete mistrust in "the establishment".

Batman and Superman once represented ideals that were admirable. One was the pinnacle of human perfection, aimed at the cause of eradicating crime and ensuring that no one else would suffer the same trauma he experienced. The other was meant to be the personification of America's highest and best ideals, fighting injustice with the physical strength that was (and still is) denied to common people.

But now we've bought into the fundamental misunderstanding of these characters as sociopaths and aloof demigods, and it reflects our own feelings of powerlessness as our jobs disappear and as the world (seemingly) grows more violent and dangerous every day. Batman and Superman have gone from being symbols of hope to stand-ins for the increasingly aloof political class that's consolidated its power through gerrymandering, fear-mongering and immoral campaign financing laws.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. We know what's right, and it isn't murdering terrorists' families or allowing politicians to pit us against each other. It's also not supporting a film that, from all accounts, plays into our own worst impulses.

Or, to put it in terms of another Batman movie, BvS is neither the superhero film we need, nor the one we deserve. Go watch the Flash instead, and have some fun.