Like it’s dual protagonists, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is a teetering tower of contradictions. A heartfelt study about the nature of power, humanity, and the dangers of assuming the worst about people in a world were doing so is often the safest option…fatally compromised by its need to also be the foundation of at least four other movies. It’s title is made of keywords, designed to appeal to almost no one outside the WB’s marketing committee. And post-release interviews tell me director Zack Snyder himself came up with that, specifically so that marketeers – too foolish or lazy to know about the oceans of goodwill they could’ve conjured up if they’d just called it “World’s Finest,” like a lot of us wanted – would take a step back.
Because of this, the movie’s almost impossible to parse in the standard plot-summary-with-bad-jokes style we internet critics are known and “loved” for…even though I’m still going to try my damnedest. My efforts are somewhat complicated by the fact every film-loving, comic book-reading nerd on the internet decided to hate this movie the moment they heard about it, three long years before it came out. Don’t say you didn’t. You did. I can count the number of people who didn’t on one hand and still have enough fingers left over for at least two obscene gesture.
Most of my peers hated Man of Steel with the fiery passion of a star that’s only four and a half billion years old. There were times when I flat-out said to myself, “Fine! Guess it’s just me, Armond White, and Twin Perfect out here, and none of you fuckers are getting any of my rum! Hell, neither is Armond. Fuck you, buddy. Roger Ebert was right about you.” Even those who gave Man of Steel the time of day jumped ship the moment they heard its sequel would feature 99.9% more Batman, rightly fearing the Dark Knight would hog 100% of the spotlight.
That process accelerated when Ben Affleck got the cowl and received the instantaneous torrent of hatred every new live-action Bat-actor’s received since Michael Keaton. I can still hear my fellow Bat-fans wailing back in 1988. “Ugh…Mr. Mom? Really? Gag me with roughage.” And in 1995. “Ugh…Doc Holliday? Really? Fuck me gently with a chainsaw.” And in 2004. “Umm…that dude from The Machinist? Really? Didn’t he almost starve himself to death?” At least Affleck had the benefit of living predecessors who could give him their blessing without recourse to a seance…and he’s not a Brit, so no one could possibly call his casting “un-American,” like idiots did when some people got their current jobs.
This movie’s corporate masters didn’t help it either. Forces inside the WB have been trying to make a Justice League movie since at least 2007, which was probably when they first heard of Marvel’s plan for the Avengers. (Remember that year-or-so after Batman Begins and Superman Returns, when we nerds were all fantasizing about Brandon Routh and Christian Bale leading the Justice League? I do.) With Batman/Superman’s announcement, the Justice League Hype Train finally left the station at full steam, aiming for a head-on collision with Avengers 3. And they couldn’t resist spoiling every single one of the surprises Marvel used to leave for nerdy website writers to tease out in their reviews and *(cough)* “news” stories.
It didn’t help. Not even with me, because I trust the WB about as far as I could kick ’em. They can crow about being “filmmaker-driven” all they want – I won’t believe it until they stop cutting whole subplots out of their supposedly “filmmaker-driven” films. As a movie studio, they’ve responded to the triple threat of Piracy, Netflix and TV Shows That Are Actually Good by…trying to hawk Extended Cut DVDs and Ultimate Edition Blu-Rays on a population that hasn’t seen a real raise in almost forty fucking years. No one’s ever going to buy them at the rate the WB needs in order to make the kind of profit they want (that is, “all of it”). Especially not when the entire professional movie internet decides to hate your film three years in advance.
A few might’ve come on board if somebody hadn’t decided to leave a third of this movie on the cutting room floor as well…and then acted surprised when audiences walked away confused and alienated. And I know – I just know – that there was some meeting somewhere in the bowls of WBHQ where they all scratched their heads and wondered, “Why are our DVD sales so low?”
We shouldn’t surprised, though. This is the company that insisted on splitting the second Matrix movie in half, ensuring both would forever taint the original’s reputation. The company that insisted an entire hour disappear from Watchmen before shitting it into theaters in mid-January, where bad films go to die. The company that insisted the seventh Harry Potter film become two films, beginning an asinine trend that’s infected every major studio by now, even your beloved Marvel/Disney. The company that insisted Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies become Yet Another Goddamned Trilogy, because by then they had to plug a Harry-Potter-shaped hole in their annual budget. The company that inserted Batman into its “Extended Cinematic Comic Book Universe,” the first chance it got because Batman, to them, is nothing more than a billion dollar payday…or, at least, he was until now.
All I’m saying is, don’t celebrate this movie’s financial “failure.” If you think anyone will learn any of the lessons you want them to learn from it’s “underperformance,” let me ask: when have they ever done that, ever? The litany of failures I just rattled off is plain for anyone to see. The WB chooses not to see it because Jor-El was right. They’re a pack of fools. Every last one of ’em. And I’m right there with ’em. Hell, I paid to see Green Lantern on opening day.
Evil Me: Stalling.
People often rhetorically wonder, “Why can’t Batman and Superman just be friends, like they were back in the 50s and 60s?” Well, kids, it’s the same reason the Seahawks and the 49ers can’t “just be friends.” The NFL doesn’t care who you root for – the same people get paid either way. But nothing guarantees a PHAT payday for everyone like a 49ers-Seahawks game with a Superbowl slot on the line. Such is the bloodless, thoughtless anti-logic that drives our international media monopolies, including both major comic book companies and their corporate masters. Knowing this used to be the first step in what we called “critical media literacy skills,” but I guess that went out the window when the standardized tests came in. Thanks, No Child Left Behind. You managed to leave everyone behind, and now the few of us who escaped your wrath have to explain everything from scratch every single fucking time.
Bruce Wayne tells us a version of this very truth with the first words of this film, “There was a time Above. A time Before. There were perfect things. Diamond absolutes. But things fall…things on Earth…” Self-evident, perhaps, but the self-evident evidently needs restating these days. And that is why the film opens by juxtaposing Bruce’s parent’s death (outside a theater showing Mark of Zorro, and promising the 1981 John Boorman film Excalibur will start Wednesday), with him running away from his parent’s funeral and falling into the future Batcave.
I had to laugh into my hand when the movie’s second production credit popped up: “An Atlas Entertainment/Cruel And Unusual Production.” I know many people who considered this film a “cruel and unusual production,” and they’re probably going to consider this review Crueler and More Unusual, Still. I heard you, back when this came out:
Evil Me: Must we suffer through this again? Everyone knows Batman’s origin story.
Really? Because the last time someone filmed this, it took place outside an opera showing of Mefistofele – an 1868 Faust play that bombed when it first came out, probably because the conductor sucked. Mark of Zorro’s a much better family outing. Hell, I’d take my kid to any theater showing that and Excalibur, no matter what shitty part of town it was in. Besides, Zorro and King Arthur have some obvious parallels to our dual protagonists that, based on reactions to this film, weren’t made obvious enough.
Zorro is an aristocrat by birth who nevertheless dons and mask and cape to help the downtrodden citizens of his homeland in as flamboyant a manner as possible. King Arthur is the orphan child of two worlds (Roman and Celt, Kryptonian and Kansan) raised as a commoner…but destined to lead his people into a new golden age of magic and light and wonder and – yes – Justice…or die trying…Actually, I should say “and die trying.” But it’s okay! He’ll come back to life again, and even the priest at his funeral will do everything but flat-out say so, straight to your faces. Near the end of this film, you can almost see him fighting the urge to wink at the camera as he reads Isaiah 26:19 to Clark Kent’s grieving loved ones: “Your dead will live, LORD. Their bodies will rise again! Awake and sing, ye that dwell in darkness.”
Oh, yeah. Spoiler alert. But you know what? Those two posters tell you the movie’s whole damn plot within the first minute and five seconds…if you know what to look for…And I think I just discovered another problem with Spoiler Alerts – over and above and beyond the problems of self-infantalization, the hobbling of post-release criticism, and my personal belief that it’s impossible to spoil a good story, while spoiling a bad story is a public service that should get you a medal. Clever foreshadowing was the original Spoiler, but after years of avoiding spoilers like the plague, people have forgotten how to see foreshadowing, even when it smacks them in the face. The few that haven’t are more annoyed by it than anything.
Evil Me: Yes, how dare this movie insult my obviously, superior intelligence?
So after the Waynes’ death, Young Bruce once again falls into the boarded-up hole full of bats in his backyard, and they once again mob him. In contrast to Batman Begins, this time he rises immediately, without his father’s aid, and we realize we’re watching a dream. Just in case we don’t, Adult Bruce pipes in to tell us that, “In the dream, they took me toward the light. A beautiful lie.” The light/lie delivers us to “Metropolis” on the day “Mankind is Introduced To the Superman.” We see the end of Man of Steel from Bruce Wayne’s on-the-ground perspective, and it’s beautiful in its destruction. Turns out Zod first tested his heat vision on the Wayne Enterprises’ Metropolis office, and Bruce was the only fool dumb enough to run towards its collapse. Past a line of kids (no doubt fleeing the on-site daycare center he’d totally offer as a job perk), he finds and rescues an employee named Wallace who’s trapped under the I-beam. So that’s one Wally with broken legs I can’t blame on Mark Millar or Grant Morrison…
Evil Me: …eh?
Sorry. That was for all my Flash homies. Peace.
Crucially, Superman’s barely seen during this, the climax of his last movie. He’s a distant speck in the air that shatters scenery and nothing else. The view on the ground is filled with brick dust and falling paper. And if you want proof that 9/11 broke everyone’s brain, look no further than the fact that my glorious colleagues argued that this is somehow “exploitation” of That Fateful Day we all swore never to forget, until we forgot about it. Frankly, that’s an insult to several generations of exploitation filmmakers, particularly those of the 70s & 80s. Time was, you had to abuse dead animals or live actors to enter their ranks, but the bar for everything seems lower in the 21st century.
This opening instantly hooked me. For one thing, the image of a rider-less horse is a more evocative than all the burning buildings in this franchise & Godzilla’s combined. Most fitting metaphor for the DC movie universe I can think of. Also, Bruce’s actions made me go, “Okay – that’s Batman.” Not just because he runs toward a collapsing building, but because he does so out of fealty to his employees. As you’d expect, Batman has some serious abandonment issues. When he’s not compensating for them by handing out free ninja training to every orphan (or even half-orphan) who wanders into his cave, he’s getting really, really, really paternalistic about his employees. And if Batman and Superman must have this bullshit, grade school playground fight (as their corporate masters insist), at least this movie had the good sense to traumatize Batman the right way – a way that would set him off on a path of vengeance, which he would mistake for justice, because that, too, is Batman. Killing members of his family (and they’re all members of his family) always gets you special attention.
There’s another reason I like this opening, but we’ll put a pin in that now. We must go forward, eighteen months after the Battle of Metropolis, to Africa. Where Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen are trying to interview a warlord…who almost shoots them both when he finds out Jimmy’s a CIA plant. At least Jimmy gets to say his own name in the Ultimate Cut of this film: I walked out of the theater without even knowing it, and the unhinged reaction from his fanbase (don’t laugh – they do exist – some even command major positions at comic book “news” websites) surprised me, once again. Still, it was nothing like back in 2013, when Jimmy Olsen fans went ape shit over the possibility that Jenny the Daily Planet’s Intern was actually Jimmy’s gender-swapped counterpart. Because that’s just the kind of world we live in. And “the ask” (as Perry puts it) of these films was always, “What if Superman really did land in our world?”
Well, he’d be immediately embroiled in international incidents, like the one that opens this story, and become a pariah to everyone he didn’t personally pull out of a burning building, or a hostage taker’s arms. We’d heap all sorts of expectations on his shoulders, view his every deed through the least-charitable lens we could find, and basically condemn him as the fraud Lex Luthor’s going to call him in about two and a half hours. All kinds of crazy assholes would waste tons of time trying to kill him, and odds are, one of them might be rich and crazy enough to pull it off. And people still wonder why Jonathan Kent tried to keep his boy down on the farm.
So Jimmy catches a bullet in what may or may not be a sly “Fuck you” to the unhinged, raving misogynist caucus of his fanbase, before Superman saves Lois from the General that’s about to shoot her and the CIA drone that’s about to bomb them all. Looks like another Tuesday in yet another DC Universe. This plan to stop someone else’s civil war duping a reporter into finding one side’s base is almost dumb enough to pass for a real CIA op…there just isn’t nearly enough arming of America’s enemies, either accidentally, or on purpose. Seems Lex Luthor’s cornered the market, and the mercenaries he’s got on-site begin murdering people before Superman shows up, only to escape in the subsequent chaos so Supes can get all the blame. This won’t be the last time the bad guys will get away with something because the good guys are distracted. And where the hell does that General go once Clark takes him through what look like several walls? He pretty much vanishes from Our Story in every cut, and that makes me think this whole opening act could’ve used a few more seconds in the microwave.
Despite that, I do like how, not even two years on, Lois and Clark have their double-act down to the point where they can communicate through glances. Trust me, for these two, eighteen months is a fucking record. Lois still withholds stuff from him – like the bullet that’s going to set her on the path to unraveling the whole damn plot, winning her the MVP award once again and officially making her the movie’s Third Protagonist – but be honest: if you were her, your significant other’s whole “flying savior” act would get real smothering real fast. Especially if you told him everything. Better to keep him in the dark while he cooks dinner, and launder your bloody shirts on those infuriatingly perfect abs. He might occasionally get a bit sad about the way everyone on TV talks about him like he’s a walking bomb, but let him climb into the tub with you and watch him make that stupid grin and everything will be all right…
You’re goddamn right I’m a Lois and Clark shipper. By the time I got into comics, they were already engaged. Every reboot of their relationship has been a frustrating exercise in waiting around for these two to catch up to where I found them in 1994. Here we are, one movie and change in, and there they are, flooding the apartment downstairs. Fifteen minutes in, and this movie had me dead to rights. And no amount of what “they” (that is, you) were saying about it could change that. “I don’t care what they’re saying,” Clark says when Lois tries to tell him, and I heard my own thoughts in the lead-up to this movie coming out of Superman’s mouth.
Before all that fanservice, though, the General tells Lois something important. Not the theme of the film, so much as the Anti-Theme. “Men with power obey neither policy nor principal, Miss Lane. No one is different. No one is neutral.” This entire film (or however much of it survived the attention of franchise-blinded boardroom operators) is arrayed against this idea. Many a character will repeat it, under many a context, showing that it’s become the default thinking of this world…as it is in ours. We’re not supposed to mention that, but c’mon: this is America, where everyone supposedly wants power specifically so they can get away with ignoring principals…or so we think.
That “pious American fiction” provides cover for an actual belief system so terrifying in its implications, people recoil whenever its stated: “Given that the powerful are assholes, who ignore principles, everyone would become an asshole if they ever got their hands on even the slightest bit of power. Because that’s the only possible appeal of power could ever hold for anyone, ever.” And this is, of course, antithetical to the very idea of Superman. He exists (and, indeed, all superheroes exist) to contend that power (no matter how extraordinary) is really a tool. You can use it to help people as much as hurt people, but the idea that it can only ever hurt is a view Clark will spend the entire film struggling against. He’ll almost succumb to it, and then die trying to prove it wrong…partially to someone who’s spent the whole move trying to kill him. With the weapon he’s going to use to save the world.
Because here, at the beginning, this bleak view of power has entirely consumed Batman, to the point where he’s started branding people…and those people have started catching shanks as soon as they get to prison, as part of an on-going plot by Lex Luthor to drive Batman even crazier than he is already. (Another plot point left out of the theatrical cut, because why would that be important?) Being in Metropolis on the day Zod came knocking obviously broke Batman’s brain, which brings up the last reason I like that opening. In a not-so-subtile way, this Batman views this Superman the same way every nerd on the internet viewed him when they called Man of Steel The Worst Movie of 2013. A year that saw the theatrical debuts of Texas Chainsaw 3D, Death Race 3: Inferno and Lake Placid: The Final Chapter, all of which are real and not at all made up by me as some sort of elaborate joke, unless the jokes on all of us. Ha-ha-ha…
To my fellow internet nerds, this Superman is a thoughtless engine of destruction who should be stopped as soon as possible. So I’m not really surprised so many wound up calling the Batman who shares their view, “Not-Batman.” A little too close for comfort, isn’t he? Remind you a bit too much of yourselves? Except you don’t have a pile of inherited billions and you don’t get invited to the cool parties, where you might bump into Wonder Woman. But, on the other hand, you don’t have to wake up to a breakfast of pain pills and last night’s wine. Unless you want to.
Don’t try to tell me you called him “Not-Batman” just because he kills people. The Batman you met in 1989 killed plenty of fools. By 1992, he’d even started killing ’em smiling. And that “I’m not gonna kill you but I don’t have to save you,” line from Begins always sounded like a weak-ass cop-out. Some of us tried to call it a compromise position between the “Batman does not kill” crowd and the general, bloodthirsty movie audience every Bat-film needs to make money, but we got almost no takers. Especially not after the Batman who said it went back on it after a grand total of one Joker rampage. Not that it mattered. The killing of Harvey Dent at the end of Dark Knight was so sudden and so flagrantly hypocritical, almost no one noticed at the time. even fewer people tried to deal with its implications. Some dumbasses even argued, “Aww, c’mon, he ain’t even dead – just knocked out. It’s hard to tell with people who only have one eyelid left.” Almost until Rises came out, when some interviewer forced Nolan to flat-out state, “Nah, fam – Mister Dent, he dead. Did you all really miss the point by that much?” Yes, Chris –we did. Sorry, man, but Jor-El was right.
The Batman in Batman/Superman’s obviously lived through several Joker rampages, and they were nowhere near as pleasant as the one his predecessor lived through in 2008. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a Robin suit under glass in the Batcave – a bit of fanservice that’s the semiotic equivalent of a neutron bomb to some of us. I’d have scrubbed the Joker’s little love note off before I put it in the case, myself – but, then again, I’m not insane. And that love note’s not even for Batman, really – it’s for us, out here in the “real” world. It tells us that pretty much exactly what we think happened, happened. This, in turn, tells us where we are in the arc of Batman’s life story, one of the more fully fleshed-out life stories in all of comics, thanks to all the movies and TV shows with his name on them. Even those who didn’t spend their formative years seeing a Robin suit under glass in every establishing shot of the Batcave get a lifeline from Alfred, who tell us they’ve been doing the the Bat-tussi for “twenty years” later on.
And by the way, shout out to Jeremy Irons for being a great Alfred. I can already tell I’m not going to have the time to do it later, so here it is now.
So twenty years basting in Gotham’s insanity, combined with that One really Bad Day in Metropolis, drive Batman to spend the first two hours of this film trying to steal Kryptonite from Lex Luthor. Who is both fully aware of and actively encouraging Batsy’s efforts. Which makes perfect sense, from Lex’s perspective. Why waste time trying to kill these capes when you can get them to kill each other?
Some question whether this Lex Luthor deserves his name either, but as far as I’m concerned he earned it several times over. His evil plan is as Lex Luthor as they come, right down to the giant monster and the kidnapping of Superman’s loved ones. Like all the best Luthor plots, it starts off ideological and ends up all-too-personal for its own good. And much like Lois in the last movie, this Luthor earned my goodwill by being smart enough to figure everything out from the start, including Clark’s middle name (Joseph, presumably as in “…of Arimathea”). This saves us years of pissing around the bushes, unearths the actual core of Luthor’s conflict with “Clark Joe,”states it outright in as bald-(har har)-faced a manner as possible…and was promptly greeted by cries of “Lex’s plot makes no sense!”
What is this, number theory? It’s simple: we destroy the Superman. Not just physically, but ideologically, by turning the entire world against him. First by blackmailing a survivor of the opening scene in Africa into telling Congress a sad story (which contains a reinforcement of that prevailing worldview I mentioned: “He will never answer to you,” she tells the Congress. “He answers to no one…Not even, I think, to God”). Then by recruiting a certain Wayne Enterprises employee to personally call Superman out. One way or another, you get Superman to the US Capitol, bomb it while he’s inside, and make him look like the illegal alien terrorist some are already dying to call him, especially if this line of protesters is any indication. (Another quick sidenote: I want one of those Anti-Superman T-shirts. The design’s too striking not to add to the collection)
At the same time, Lex offers to arm the US government against this new terrorist threat, and uses that to gain access to the biggest cache of alien tech this side of Area 51, including his own Monster Maker. He even starts out trying to get the US taxpayer to foot the R&D bill for his Kryptonite bullets, in true red-white-and-blue, pork-barrel, military contractor fashion…but Junior Senator from Kentucky Finch ain’t buying that shit. Maybe Lex should’ve offered to build fertilizer factory in some bullshit, po-dunk town in her district…but nah. Could you imagine Lex Luthor wandering around small town America? Odds are he’d start hanging out with high schoolers…and that would probably end up being the least-creepy thing he does.
In contrast to most depictions of sitting politicians, Senator Finch here’s cast as a figure who’s truly principled in her own, narrow way. A Third Way, if you will – unswayed by the power that Superman’s biology and Lex Luthor’s money obviously command. So, in typical Luthor fashion, he draws her into his Superman trap with a snare he already had in place, named Wally. Wally’s story is bait Lex knows Senator Finch can’t resit because A) she’s a politician and B) her soul has yet to calcify into an inert lump of radioactive rock, like his. Hell, she’ll never see the trap until it springs, because she’s the kind of person who says things like, “In a democracy, ‘good’ is a conversation, not a unilateral decision.” In other words: unbearably naïve. And since she’s old enough to be in Congress she can’t fall back on Vision’s excuse of being born yesterday. Thing is, we live in a Republic designed by hardcore Roman Republic fanboys, where “Good” becomes a unilateral decision every time someone puts a stamp on a piece of paper. Especially an envelope with a check inside. Those really get things done. Certainly gets Lex into that Kryptonian ship.
Shout-out to whomever designed Wally’s Apophenia Wall, which includes the headline “A Manufactured Supergerm That Could End Humanity Was Halted From Release By the Man They Call Superman.” I can’t help but ask, where’s that fucking movie? Sounds awesome. “Superman Saves Homeless Man Camping In Forrest” sounds even moreso, and I have a friend in social services who could turn in one hell of a script, if she ever got time to write it. At least we all saw “Superman Shifts Tectonic Plates, Preventing Deadly Earthquake.” back in 1979. And its presence on the Wall means that Superman: The Movie remake some people cried out for after Man of Steel disappointed them did actually occur between films. Not that that’s much comfort. Might be another stealth “fuck you,” for all I know.
Back to Wally. On top of creating a great image, the message Wally writes on that ugly-looking, Vietnam memorial-rip-off Metropolis put up, “False God,” has the added value of being true. One of the most annoying result of making Superman an American Christ metaphor (Richard) is: ugly Americans tend to take that metaphor seriously. This means they view Superman as a stand in for their dads, and since their dads were dumb, disappointing humans, full of flaws (assuming they were even around in the first place), Superman must be just as dumb, just as inevitably bound to disappoint. It’s the old Theodicy Problem, in tights: if God exists, and He’s supposedly so good, why does He let evil exist? In his big Villain Speech, near the end, Lex reveals he’s solved this 300+ year-old philosophical dilemma the same way all modern atheists do, by going, “Fuck it.” He views any appreciation of Superman as an irrational devotion to a false ideal that must be crushed outright, in as dramatic a way as possible, so all the gullible sheeple might wake up…and, of course, praise Lex Luthor as their true savior and liberator. Because Lex is also malignant narcissist with the building full of daddy issues, as evidenced by the fact he says, “my father,” more often than Jamie Lannister.
The real question becomes, “When did Lex first learn about Batman?” And it’s a question this text does not answer because it has other priorities…and not all of them are good. There is a throwaway line about “the Metahuman Thesis,” and a throwaway explanation of what that might entail (an unknown number of superbeings hiding among us, the usual), but who came up with it in the first place? Lex? He is the one with the computer full of teaser trailers for future DC movies, and he must’ve been digging for awhile, because the island nation of Themyscira’s already on to him, and they’ve put their best (really, only) field agent on the case…
Instead of asking any of these questions, the chattering class asked a whole lot of stupid ones, none were dumber than, “Why does Batman have so many nightmares?” Motherfucker, if you saw half the shit Batman sees nightly, you’d never sleep again. And even if you managed that, you’d probably start drinking to wake up in the morning instead of drinking to fall asleep like the rest of us. Would you still be conscientious enough to get your butler his morning tea? I hope so.
The first of Batman’s nightmares is straightforward graveside fanservice, which has a long tradition in Bat-lore. This time the grave bleeds and a giant bat monster breaks through, which is the kind of subtle symbolism I’ve come to expect from this writer/director team. Bat’s let the Bruce Wayne side of himself atrophy, as shown by the state of Stately Wayne Manor, several of Alfred’s stage-muttered remakes, and the fact they’ve both moved into the glass house on the edge of the lake that hides the Batcave’s garage entrance…
Wait a second… “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones…at Superman…?” Okay, I take it back. That’s the kind of subtle symbolism I’ve come to expect from the writer of the Dark Knight Trilogy (registered trademark) and the director of Watchmen.
Batman’s second nightmare is a bit more abstract, and made more confusing than it needs to be. Sure, I know what that giant omega symbol on the ground means, but I don’t expect anyone who doesn’t to be ameliorated by the ten-minute exegesis of it I could give, if they’d asked. Those people probably didn’t even know, until now, about the contingent of Bat-fandom that would very much like to see the Caped Crusader as a Mad Max freedom fighter, Road Warrior-ing his days away against the forces of fascism. Here, in what I call “the Injustice dream,” that future, and Bat’s worst fears about Superman come to life. And they’re pretty obvious fears, born out of complete ignorance and surface-level semiotics. Hell, the fascist overtones are right there in his name: Superman. Ubermench. The Nietzschian ideal made manifest and blindly worshiped by ignorant masses, more in love with Control and Stability than they are with anything else. Because that’s never caused anyone any problems in human history at all…
Then there’s the dream that’s probably not even a dream, right afterward, when Bruce wakes to find the Flash popping through the fabric of reality, dropping needlessly-cryptic hints. Part of me greeted this with a staunch, “Fuck you, Barry! We’re a movie and a half in and you’re already trying to fuck up this timeline with your Cosmic Treadmill. Get your red ass the fuck home before you break reality again!” But since these reviews exist, in part, to challenge my fellow comic book fans knee-jerk, reactionary anger, I’m gonna take a deep breath, calm down, and examine the possibility that there might be more going on here.
It’s clear to me, after years of watching these things unfold, that big budget franchise filmmaking is a fucking nightmare. A dream job for those who don’t have, it seems to chew up and spit everyone who gets it. If the rise and fall of Josh Trank isn’t already a cautionary tale, it should be, and I made a 20 minute review of Fant4stic in the hopes of kick-starting just that. None of the directors who made that first phase of Marvel movies returned for a second go-round, and Joss Whedon bowed out after Avengers 2. Whedon’s director’s commentaries are their own cautionary tale, because even though he’s one of the most self-deprecating motherfuckers on the planet (every other comment seems to be along the lines of, “This person’s great – their amazing talent disguised what a crazy, hack I am!”) I can read between the lines. They paint a picture of someone enduring at least two years worth of tedious meetings, in which your job as director consists of shooting down every executive’s, marketer’s and toy-maker’s stupid idea in as diplomatic a manner as possible. At the very least, you’d need the patience of a Tulku, the negotiating skills of Jean-Luc Picard, and the steely resolve of…well, a Kryptonian raised by Kansans.
Given all that, I find the decision to put teasers for future films inside one of our protagonist’s nightmares more than a little subversive. A cry for help from a team of artists who probably don’t want to ride this rollercoster forever. This is not their theme park – they’re as trapped it in as the rest of us, but they probably have an much better idea of how bad things can get than we do. Our nerd “journalists” certainly have no incentive to find out – that would only sully all that much-more-profitable speculation. So these days, I’m less angry at Barry’s cameo and more concerned by the giant differed payoff it represents. At some point, we’re probably going to see the other half of this scene, and it probably won’t be anywhere near as awesome as the one’s we’re inventing in our heads in the meantime.
Time, then, to explain why comic book nerds really hated this Batman. (Over and above their objections to his killing, which I’ve already gone over.) It’s because this film shares a lot of superficial aesthetic elements with the 1986 comic book The Dark Knight Returns. This is the ur-text of modern Batman comics, written and illustrated by a young Frank Miller before his future as a crazy, racist old man caught up with him.
Dark Knight Returns got Miller labeled a fascist (or, at best, a fascist apologist) long before calling people you don’t like “fascists” became as cool as it is on the internet today. Then 9/11 broke Miller’s brain and his increasingly-unhinged rants in favor of Dubya’s wars (and their various horrors) turned him into a comic book “community” pariah. So, the current thinking among my peers goes, everything even remotely connected to Miller’s work must be shunned and publicly ridiculed as often, and as loudly, as possible. How else can the right-minded comic book fan avoid accidentally endorsing fascism?
This conundrum’s complicated , in part, because DC Comics is currently ruled over by people who came of age when Miller was at his most influential. Their ideas about what comic book superhero stories should be were inevitably informed by either Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, or both. Usually both. (Watchmen’s original run started just three months after DKR’s concluded.) This leads your typical, right-minded comic book fan to the inevitable conclusion that they must reject all of DC Comics, root and stem. Not for any good reason (like the shitty way management treats all but their top-tier creators…and hell, even they might be getting screwed over in ways they’re too job-conscious to talk about) – but to avoid being publicly shamed for their entertainment choices. Which is funny, because that’s going to happen anyway, and we have no control over it whatsoever.
Of course, the right-thinking comic book-loving culture writer is quick to remind us, we shouldn’t take such shaming efforts seriously. After all, we nerds have “won” the culture and supposedly “rule” the world now by virtue of being the only people who know how to fix everyone’s computers. Hollywood “bends over backward” to “cater” to us with a whopping…what? four? five?…movies a year. And gods know those fill our lives with nothing but joy and happiness. Ask any random Superman fan! The happiest people on Earth since 2013! I swear, a handful of dumbasses become billionaires making a handful of shitty websites and suddenly everyone acts like “nerds” own the means of production. It’s sickening.
And even I’ll concede that, yes, Batman straight-up quotes his Frank Miller-penned counterpart when he says, “We’re criminals, Alfred. We’ve always been criminals. Nothings changed.” But I’d argue he only does that so Alfred Pennyworth, Royal Smart Person of the Bat-family, can immediately refute it. “Everything’s changed,” he says, and it has. Superman’s here, and everyone in this world’s freaking out because, previous to Man of Steel’s alien invasion, all it seems to’ve dealt with are the kinds of costumed crazy people Gotham City breeds like flies, what with it being built on haunted swamp and all. If I have my geography right, this Gotham is like Metropolis’ Jersey City, and I count this as another point in the movie’s favor, because it’s frighteningly accurate.
And just so we’re clear, fuck Frank Miller and everything he stands for. There’s a media montage (Media Break, say?) an hour into this movie that kicks the ass of every six-panel grid and/or splash page media montage he ever came up with in all his years making comics. Props for having Charlie Rose ask Senator Finch, “Is it really surprising that the most powerful man in the world should be a figure of controversy?” I had to throw up my hands at that one. “Alright, Charlie. You got me.” And this movie got me by having Clark call his mom once the Media Break concludes. She exposes Bruce Wayne’s longing for “a time above, a time before” for the false god it is by telling her son the truth: “Nothing was ever simple.” Also, I enjoy any random montage of Clark flying around doing Super-shit. Wish it were more connected to the plot, but this plot’s got enough threads as-is.
Whatever the case, Lex Luthor makes the at-first-glance-dumb-but-in-retrospect-probably-intentional mistake of trying to smuggle Kryptonite into the US via Gotham’s docks. There’s a shot of Batman on a crane here that’s very Chris Nolan here. It transitions to another, closer, rotating shot that’s even more Chris Nolan. The car, by contrast, is pure Tim Burton, right down to the cannons. And so begins this movie’s car chase, which sparked its own micro-controversy, and is the big reason my fellow Bat-fans declared this Batman “not-Batman.” (Aside from the usual fan-preference for dismissing things we don’t like instead of actually dealing with them – that’s just good, ol’ fashioned avoidance.) He obviously kills some fools during his little tour of Gotham’s dockyards, and we could actually grapple with the morality of this head-on (they’re mercenaries, moonlighting for Lex Fucking Luthor because, I guess, the sex-slave trade is slowing down in this shitty, Austerity Economy) but that sounds too much like work. Especially in a world where people can watch all three hours of Dark Knight and still away wondering why Batman doesn’t just kill the Joker and save us all the trouble.
Within universe, this chase exists to highlight what a massive hypocrite Batman’s being, but Batman can’t be hypocritical and a hero, can he? That’s never happened before…except for all those times it totally happened. Like in nearly every single one of his other movies. And here he is: having nightmares about a world where someone else gets to wield absolute power as he pilots his bastard offspring of tank and fighter jet through the streets of the city he claims to love. Does he lie to himself about how all his collateral damage is totally justified, or is that what all the pills are for?
I rip on Batman because I love him, even when he’s tear-assing through the streets. Do you know what I don’t love? The fact that someone, somewhere, seems to have mandated that every goddamned Batman film include a goddamned car chase. This is our sixth one in as many movies and it’s getting so ri-goddamn-diculous, I’m gratuitously overjoyed to see Superman show up and put an end to it by being a humanoid roadblock. Even if I think his plan to out-intimidate the Bat is foolish. “That’s what you call a mistake of youth.”
Clark’s in Gotham, in part, because he watched that poor woman question his accountability before Congress and he wanted to answer to her, personally. Like a man with…oh, god, what’s this word…? “Integrity?” Never heard of it. Luckily Perry White just happens to give him a bullshit college football assignment across the bay…the very presence of which tells me Our Filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing – or being asked to do by corporate, as the case may be. College football matches – like obligatory pre-team-up fights between superheroes – are one of the most pointless public rituals in American life, despite the incredible amounts of significance attached to them. Also, a little later, Perry White, Royal Smart Person of the Superman franchise, says, ““Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman,” right to Clark’s fucking face, which is something I said myself the moment I heard about this project. Kudos again to Laurence Fishburne. We’ve come a long way from Nightmare on Elm Street 3, Larry. Through the hard times and the going.
One day in Gotham allows Clark to uncover the obvious: that Batman has free reign to terrorize that city and, as far as Clark can tell, “the cops are actually helping him.” Pretty greets this news with the cynical contempt I’d expect from an old newsman, because it’s probably old news to him. And then he drops what passes for a truth bomb in old newsman circles: “The American conscience died with Robert, Martin and John.”
Okay, I’ll give you Dr. King – that’s easy – but the Kennedys? I’m sorry, Perry, but JFK sent over 16,000 “advisers” to South Vietnam, supporting a military dictatorship in its continuing efforts to rob, exploit, jail, repress and otherwise piss-off its citizens, loosing their civil war before it even started. And RFK was his Attorney General, writing up justifications for all of it when he wasn’t ducking J. Edgar Hoover. They didn’t start America’s formerly-Longest and Dumbest War (which is only the second-longest and third-dumbest, by now) but they sure as hell didn’t stop it. And the belief that they somehow embodied a National Conscience only feeds into the absurd aura that’s surrounded the US presidency since…well, since forever. The road from Camelot leads directly to Ronald Regan’s Cheshire Snarl (shout-out to John Dolan) and the zombie-spawning swamps of Trumpistan.
So. About that titular fight. Lex kidnaps Lois because she’s spent this whole time patiently tracking down his superbullets (which I’m sure were not but beta-tests of his eventual Kryptonite bullets) back to their source, thus securing the MVP Award for two movies in a row. And then he kidnaps Martha Kent to leverage her son into killing Batman…whom he’s manipulated into killing Superman. Some feel Clark loses his temper too quickly, and makes the tactical mistake of trying to smack some sense into Batman, which is like trying to make Niagara Falls run uphill in the middle of spring. But (a) he’s spent the whole movie stewing in the Batman’s flagrant hypocrisy. Wouldn’t it make you mad, seeing this rich asshole brutalize his city’s underclass to his heart’s content, while you can’t even stop an alien invasion without crowds of protestors forming outside your public appearances? Especially when a supervillain is sending you anonymous pictures of the frame job he barely had to put-up, specifically to piss you off? And (b) I think Clark shows remarkable restraint for a guy who just got bombed and found out his mom’s been kidnapped by mercenaries. Honestly, he tries at least three times to say, “Hey, this shit is crazy! Lex is…” And every time, Batman hits him with another weapon – up to and including Kryptonite gas, which can end any conversation faster than wet fart.
Nothing could really top the city-spanning Superman v. Zod brawl from the last film, and this fight certainly doesn’t try. That’s a good thing, because the fight later that does try winds up being a far-too-typical, largely-pointless exercise in big budget, franchise filmmaking. The title bout, on the other hand, mostly confines itself to one crumbling, film noir-esque building. After a certain point (the point that first hit of Kryptonite gas wears off, say), strategy goes out the window, and our combatants start hitting each other with everything, including the bathroom sink. I particularly like when Clark throws Batman through a whole line of bathroom stalls…the fact “quis custodiet ipsos custodes” is scribbled one wall…and the pile of rusted, steel radiators Batman throws Clark onto, which I suspect Bats arranged specifically for the purpose.
Then, at the end, after Batman’s told him he was “never a man,” and once again quoted Frank Fucking Muiller, Clark manages to gasp out, “You have to save Martha…” One can only assume Bruce’s boot on his neck prevents him from gasping out her last name. It falls to Lois, arriving via helicopter, to save Clark’s ass by explaining things to the Bat. In his anger, Bats viewed Superman as little more than another alien invader and never did the basic legwork when you’re trying to track down and kill a person. His inability to perceive Clark as a man shatters in the face of a woman literally throwing herself between them, and, yes, the amazing coincidence of their mom’s names. One that no previous piece of Batman/Superman fiction in all seventy-five-plus year history of these characters, has thought to exploit, ever. Certainly not for a reason like this – certainly not as a way to bring the two of them together…having sundered them apart for a bullshit dick-measuring contest in the first place.
This movie got absolutely no credit for that, though. In fact, it got the opposite of credit – people laughed. All I have to do is say “the Martha Scene” and everyone on Twitter knows what I’m talking about. We spend so much time bemoaning the lack of original or creative thought in our pop art – especially monthly, serialized pop art – that when it does show up, we don’t even believe it. I have had actual conversations with actual human beings who thought this film named Batman’s mom “Martha” just to force this conclusion. Human beings who are self-professed comic book fans who love bemoaning how much Marvel fanservice non-readers regularly miss (and who don’t know about the whole sector of the internet writing economy that’s been created to explain fanservice to the “we-dare-not-call-them-‘casuals.’”). As if most Marvel fanservice isn’t on the level of the prisoner number Lex winds up with at the end of all this: “AC231940” That is, Action Comics #23, from April, 1940, which featured Lex’s first appearance. How arrogant are we to expect people to know that? That’s the type of shit people are really talking about when they say we nerds have “won” the “culture.”
I got the intent of “the Martha Scene,” right away and was pleased with its inventiveness. Certainly a better ending than the fight in Dark Knight Returns. Should there have been a scene where Lois laid out the entire plot to him in a third-act expository monolog, like something out of Sherlock Holmes? All my training says, “Fuck no,” but the confused reaction to this movie points to “yes.” So once again, this movie should’ve been longer (the theatrical run, certainly), though even for a frequent visitor to the Gotham/Metropolis Corridor, three hours is quite long enough. And we haven’t even gotten to the climactic battle, which makes it Even Longer. It flows better now that half an hour’s been restored to where it should’ve been when this hit theaters, but…
Speaking of which: How’s it fucking hanging, Diana? Gadot turned out better than I feared she might, so her presence here is nice – and not just because I’ve been a Bats-and-Diana shipper since the two shared a dance in the Justice League cartoon. Unfortunately, the start of their relationship (whatever form it might take eventually) makes this movie longer and more muddled, and both take frequent breaks during the entire middle hour to stare at screens, watching either a) Superman’s plot or b) teasers upcoming Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg movies. Along with Wonder Woman’s own solo outing. This only gives your average, brain-dead audience member more of an excuse to stop paying attention. Assuming they were even doing so in the first place.
The Doomsday fight certainly got some immediate historical historical significance, what with it being the first “live-action” staging of Superman’s death. They didn’t chicken out and make Doomsday a robot, so that’s cool. And their fight destroy that gauche-as-fuck statue – seriously, the original one, with the eagle was already bad enough. The sight of Wonder Woman cutting Doomsday’s arm off with her sword is pretty fucking awesome, and the big-damn-hero shot of the Holy Trinity might’ve been awesome…if I hadn’t seen it literally ten bazillion times before I actually saw the movie. And ten bazillion more times before the Blu-Ray came out, especially once they made a bad photoshop version of it their cover.
Other than that, this fight doesn’t have much going for it. It’s the same problem as the world-engine: impersonal threats vs. personal ones. And no, growing this Doomsday out of Zod’s corpse doesn’t count – we have no idea how much of him is still in there. He does turn his nose up at the statue, but that just means he has taste. Meanwhile, the three times we’re explicitly told by three different characters that, “No, it’s ok – they’re fighting in an totally abandoned part of town!” are flat-out insulting.
Clark’s last goodbye is pretty nice, though. It underlines the whole “power as tool with indeterminate use” thing I was talking about all the way back, with him using the Kryptonite spear Batman was going to murder him with to murder the fuck out of Doomsday. And we’re right back to where we started – with a funeral. Two, actually. And like I said, God must’ve given Smallville’s local priest a leaked copy of Justice League’s script. Batman and Wonder Woman don’t have it, but the whole experience has renewed their faith in humanity, so this isn’t about the death of hope, as some would have it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like any god worth worshiping, Hope must become mortal and die in order to be reborn. Why do you think I’m doing this? I’m not going to convince you of anything – you made up your mind years ago. I can only hope to these rants might temporarily cut through the years of social-reinforcement and maybe, just maybe, inspire some thought.
Evil Me: A fool’s errand.
Maybe. But I’d rather do that then stick “not” in front of every character’s name. Or try and come up with my own version of the same five or six jokes. And where’d you go, anyway, stranger?
Evil Me: Oh, not far…I was just preparing…your Doomsday.
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