I wasn’t going to see Batman v Superman, and I especially didn’t want to see it when the reviews starting pouring in. It’s at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while that’s surely a flawed measure, it does not suggest a happy time at the movies. But a bunch of friends I trust liked it, and so my best friend, Wayne, and I decided we’d give it a whirl. We were both glad we did, and found it a powerful and thoughtful movie. My son told me recently that the ability to say something nice about rubbish movies is my superpower, and it is true that I tend to look more for reasons to like something than to dislike it. But I liked Batman v. Superman.
Looking at all those negative reviews, I was struck by how many critics disliked the movie because it was dark in tone, because it was ‘brooding,’ because it was ‘humorless,’ even ‘portentous.’ Well, it was dark in tone, brooding, gloomy even, humorless, and it was a bit portentous, even pretentious. That’s the kind of movie Zack Snyder was trying to make. It wasn’t a Marvel superhero movie, sort of fun and clever, and meta. This is a DC comic book movie, and clearly, DC is aiming for a different tone. That’s okay. Don’t judge a movie, even a superhero movie, by some artificial standard. Judge it by what it’s trying to accomplish.
And what is this movie trying to accomplish? Something very interesting; create a debate over the nature of justice, and place that debate within a theological context.
For starters, it’s a film about collateral damage. In Man of Steel, three years ago, Superman (Henry Cavill) fights off General Zod in a climactic battle scene that destroys much of Metropolis. This film begins with that same battle, only this time from Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck’s) point of view. He owns one of those destroyed buildings, and sees his own employees killed. Thousands of citizens die. He also sees one employee, Wallace Keefe (the always terrific Scoot McNairy) get his legs crushed. The experience sours Batman on the whole Superman universe. Not that any of it was Superman’s fault; he’s fighting a bad guy intent on massive destruction. But Superman is an alien; he’s not from around here. Can he be trusted?
And that’s an interesting question, is it not? Once we grant the premise that a powerful extraterrestrial being, one that our technology is incapable of destroying, has come to earth, insisting on his (His?) essential benevolence, and rescuing folks from burning buildings, I think we would be justified in regarding him with at least a certain skepticism. And a Senate subcommittee (chaired by Holly Hunter) on Dealing With Superman would seem, at least, prudent.
Meanwhile, Superman’s in love. With, of course, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), intrepid reporter, who seems prone to stunts like flying to see an African warlord so she can ask him if he’s a terrorist. That whole scenario goes south in a big hurry, and amidst random gunfire (from whom? Shooting whom?), she’s rescued by the big blue guy. And again, there’s considerable collateral damage.
Here’s the thing; a movie about a battle between Superman and Batman seems stupid. Superman can’t be defeated, except by an extra terrestrial poison. Can Batman beat him? Of course not, unless the Bat has kryptonite, in which case, of course he can. Either way, it’s an uninteresting premise.
But in this movie, Superman’s flaw is not, actually, kryptonite. It’s love, human love. He has every opportunity to take out Lex Luthor (a terrific Jesse Eisenberg). But Lex has kidnapped, first Lois, then second, Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Clark’s mom. Superman’s love for humanity is abstract, generalized. His love for his Mom and for his girlfriend is specific, sharp, detailed. He’ll do what he has to to save the women he loves. Even if it places mankind in jeopardy. (Which I get. I’d be like that too.)
And yes, there’s also kryptonite. He can be killed by stuff from his home planet. On earth, he’s invulnerable. But if he can’t be killed, he can be distracted. And when he places Lois (or Mom) ahead of humankind, he risks losing, well, us. He can’t really function as Superman if he can’t win our hearts and minds. He actually does need us to love him. And he’ll always try to do the right thing. But not if it places those he loves the most in danger. So in a way, he’s Christ, but a compromised Christ, a Christ that puts Mary and Martha ahead of all the rest of us. Yeah, he ‘loves’ us. But he’s in love with Lois Lane.
Batman, meanwhile, isn’t interested in our love, or even in our regard. He slinks around at night, like a criminal, and he catches bad guys. And tortures them, trying to find bigger bad guys. He’s working for the greater good, but he finds the task Sisyphean; take out any bad guy, and five more crawl out from under the floorboards. His pursuit of justice is equivocal; the ends, to Batman, really do justify the means. And he gets things wrong. He’s a very human ‘hero,’ flawed and powerful and as much a danger to himself as to other criminals. Affleck’s terrific in the role, I thought; captures all the complexities of that oh-so-close-to-anti hero.
So we have a human hero, and we have a Christ figure. Obviously, we also need the Devil, and we get him, with Lex Luthor. (Ever notice how much Lex Luthor sounds like Lucifer?) Eisenberg plays him as a sly manipulator, brilliant and weird and filled with bile. He’s the reason Batman and Superman fight, and as they fight, they become increasingly dismayed to realize how much their enmity is based on misconceptions and deception.
And then, a disruptive third hero joins the fray, as Gotham is about to be destroyed. I don’t know what to make of Wonder Woman (Gal Gabot), except that she’s awesome. She doesn’t really fit into this neat God/Devil/Hero formulation. Is she Pallas Athena? Goddess of Justice? Whatever; she’s amazing. She’s in the movie for five minutes (probably a bit longer), and steals the show. Can’t wait for her to get her own movie.
But she’s also needed, because the combined forces of God and Hero are about to be defeated by a golem, a big one. Defined as an ‘anthropomorphic being, magically created from inanimate matter.’ Or in this case, foreign matter; he, like Superman, can only be destroyed by kryptonite. He is, of course, a powerful manifestation of Lex Luthor. He is, anyway, Hulk-like and Hulk strong, only he absorbs and is strengthened by effusions of earthly energy. Like, we Americans nuke him, and it just makes him more formidable.
Yes, the movie is darkish in tone. I still found it endlessly fascinating. Of course, it’s still a superhero movie. I’m imputing to it a profundity it honestly does lack. But it’s still trying for something beyond your standard ‘superheroes save the world’ kind of movie. It counts the costs and finds them close to unacceptable. It’s a superhero movie made with intelligence and insight. If it’s not cute and funny, well, I loved Deadpool too. There’s room for both kind of movies, isn’t there?