Is it so surprising that one of the most powerful popular culture franchises in the world — the DC superhero universe — should be a figure of controversy?
It began with Man of Steel, the 2013 Superman reboot. It rattled the cages of some fans and critics who didn’t recognize Superman or their own vision of what a “fun” superhero movie should be. Many were repulsed by a superhuman hero who would be part of a disaster scene that imperils realistic people, or who would be forced to kill his enemy.
This ill will continued in some critical reactions to the sequel Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, released March 25. I heard early criticisms so I began to worry and adjust. I figured if I expect less, at least it’ll meet or even exceed my expectations; it could be more like Iron Man 2 or even Avengers: Age of Ultron, which are fun flicks yet with story flaws and distractions caused by hints of future films. Or, I suspected, the film could be terrible.
I have never been so wrong.
If you identify the new rules of Batman v Superman, prepare to see its heroes as people, and stay open to themes that aim high, you may find the film soars.
What then about all those critical reviews? Let us, unlike some critics who seemingly refuse to consider evaluating Batman v Superman on its own terms, engage some of those hard cases. This seems necessary to challenge any assumptions we might have picked up about the superhero-fantasy genre itself, and to re-learn how to sample different recipes before we demand the same desserts we had before.
If you identify the new rules of “Batman v Superman,” prepare to see its heroes as people, and stay open to themes that aim high, you may find the film soars.1. The Critics v. Batman
Some reviewers slapped their super suits on Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), charging him with portraying another “brooding” Batman whose grit sticks to everything, including Superman. Even worse, some viewers seem to prefer this approach, thanks to the fairly recent Bat-ification of superhero popular culture. Everything is Batman: toys, cosplays, video games, Lego movies, Lego video games, animated movies, animated TV shows. We’ve already passed through at least three Bat-trends: ‘60s Batman, Burton Batman, and Nolan Batman.
I’m also a critic here. Even as I played my Batman: Arkham games, I felt Bat-swamped. In response to new Bat-movie or Bat-game news, many fans feel the same. Some felt like this about this Man of Steel sort-of-sequel. Why the Bat-jacking? Must everything be Batman?
Well, thanks to this film, I’ve surpassed my fears. Batman is not only necessary to this new DC film universe but vital for this story of Superman. Moreover, I don’t even care which hero has more screen time. Superman had all of Man of Steel to himself. Now he becomes the absolute nexus of this story-world. Yes, Batman is here and is often seen, but he lives on Superman’s planet, buffeted by forces of Superman’s image, news, and culture-upending. Batman’s famous tragic past and present despair become the perfect contrast for Superman’s ideals and struggles in a hyper-realized setting. And (this is a light spoiler) by the story’s end, it’s actually Batman who’s been challenged by Superman’s beliefs and nature.
Judgment in favor of the defendant, Batman.
2. Mickey Mouse-ification v. Superman
If we’re all supposed to be Bat-obsessed, where’s Superman (Henry Cavill)? Back in 1938. Cute, boring, retro, “un-relatable,” unrealistic, ignored. Or, if there must be a Superman, he must fulfill notions from casual fans who know just enough about him to be dangerous, such as that Superman is Sunnily Optimistic, Never Kills, and Always Finds a Way to Do the Right Thing.
This brings to my mind a comparison to another fictitious character from a similar era: Mickey Mouse. Who is Mickey Mouse? That’s a bizarre question. Is Mickey even a person? He’s a drawing, symbol, corporate mascot, and antiquated figurehead for a line of cartoons and products in formerly popular culture(s). Mickey may have fans today, but few call for a “reinvention” of Mickey or care for who “he” could be as a real person.
Some take this approach to Superman. Only if you care to treat Superman as a person will you likely enjoy Man of Steel or Batman v Superman. Both these films ask: “What if this person were not a cartoon but actually real?” Then they take off to explore Superman and his struggles.
You may not agree with this approach. You may prefer a flattened Superman stuck in a sentimental past, or a Superman who can easily be “sunny” because he hasn’t been forced to fight in a hyper-realized world where people love him or despise him. But if so, let us not pretend these films or their makers “hate Superman” or are making him “grimdark” as opposed to how the hero “should” be. That is a persistent, cloying myth that denies real creativity. (It’s on the level of popular tropes such as the “fact” that Sherlock Holmes is always saying “elementary” or Captain Kirk always hits on green alien women).
Judgment in favor of the defendant, Superman.
3. “Movie Law” v. The DC Extended Universe
I want to appreciate these assumptions and respond with nuance. But given the nature of disproportionate accusations against Batman v Superman, I also want to jab fingers and shout trap questions at prosecutors. I would start by demanding proof for our possible assumptions:
Why may we assume a pretentious notion like “superhero stories are for children”?
Why may we assume an artificial “sacred v. secular” divide between superhero fantasy and serious things such as culture, literature, philosophy, politics, and theology?
Why may we assume a barrier of laws between “deep artistic films that wrestle with complex themes and unanswered questions” and “superhero movies that can be well-made, but must begin and end with Fun and never take anything too seriously”?
These are discussions we must have and are having, in-depth and seriously, thanks to these DC stories. This alone ought to give some critics pause and ask if these stories have value.
Judgment ruled in favor of the defendant, DC Extended Universe.
Superman, Batman & Beyond: True Heroes in a World Gone Meta
I am biased for the defense. I don’t read comics. Instead I know these heroes and universe based almost entirely on the DC Animated Universe of stories, from Batman: The Animated Series to Justice League. These stories often aim beyond their genre “rules,” using superhero fantasy as a means of “likening some aspect of reality to what it is not [to] reveal more of what it is.” I grew to love these heroes and their origins, conflicts, flaws, and relationships. And yet only Wikipedia fills me in about their long comic-book histories.
Perhaps this is why I was better prepared for the Batman v Superman approach. Its storytellers ask us to try a new way. They propose a long-term investment in “metahuman” individuals who fight in a world that closely (perhaps uncomfortably so) resembles our own. Fun fantasy? Yes, but Batman v Superman aspires for greater intricacy. It pauses to explain. It delays action scenes for quiet character moments. It cares about slow buildup to awesome.
Yet the film does offer early awesomeness. Who would’ve thought yet another retelling of Bruce Wayne’s origin story would grip me so hard? Meanwhile, internet memes and other movies (The Lego Movie, The Lego Batman Movie) make their sport: “Ha ha, Bruce is an orphan, his parents are dead, sad Batman, boo-hoo.” Batman v Superman refuses to join this flippancy. Slow-motion shots bring back the pain and challenge us to think about this. His parents died. It was horrifying. What if, in this case, such trauma sent a man into this dark lifestyle?
As Larry the Cucumber once noted: There’s a time to be silly, and a time to be serious.
The seriousness continues as we flash back to Man of Steel’s infamous destruction-of-Metropolis scenes. This time we participate from Bruce’s point of view. I sat spellbound, very nearly “triggered.” For me the grief of 9/11 is still too near. It works for this story: Superman’s arrival and the near-destruction of Earth are this world’s 9/11. Buildings fall. People die. A man trapped in a building whispers a prayer, and then he dies. Yes, this was always director Zack Snyder’s plan: not to desensitize us to a disaster but to re-sensitize us. To get us asking the questions: Is this destruction and peril “fun”? Could this happen despite a superhero’s best efforts? Shouldn’t these images instead challenge us?
Batman v Superman gives not only Affleck but audiences the Bat-mask and invites us to join Batman to ask hard questions. In this world, not only humans but questions are meta. I was stunned by the story’s eagerness to reflect these challenges. Is Superman too powerful? Might we have too much faith in him? What if he is not a “Jesus character” but just a man trying to do good?
If this seems too thick, and if you expected super-fights the whole way through, you may want to adjust. This is not the “fun” of riding a coaster; it’s more like the “fun” of long, hard work. For my part, I do prefer long sermons, long-form stories, long descriptions, long setups, and long books, if they are made well. But I also prefer character moments, and Batman v Superman offers many. I am as happy seeing Clark Kent tangle with his editor as I am seeing Superman punch a space critter. I am just as happy at seeing Bruce Wayne get out of a tight social spot as I am seeing Batman smashing a wall. All of this can be “fun.”
What about the criticism that the film has poor editing and unexplained character motives? I was prepared to accept this charge but now it confuses me! Lois Lane had a surprisingly key role uncovering a mystery that drove the entire story. Superman’s weight of responsibility and consequences gripped me. Leaders and soldiers act like adults, not caricatures. I leaned in closer to look alongside them; I cannot recall a point when their choices made no sense.
As for our villain, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), whom many detested, he worked. I was also surprised. And I challenge anyone who declares he had “no motive” for hating Superman and making monsters to listen to what he says atop his roof — really listen — and ask yourself if real people like this exist. Eisenberg blends pieces of the fast-talking con artist (e.g. Gene Hackman) and the evil businessman (voiced by Clancy Brown) into a startling take on this villain. Given Luthor’s background, exposure to religion, and sense of specialness, his path to villainy is clear and even alarming. In a way, Luthor shows the worst of “millennials.” His half-thought self-taught philosophy, immaturity, and depravity ought to sober us.
Now for Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot): Even negative reviews concede she was amazing, and they’re right. Despite limited screen time, her personal allure and story intrigue me. She is kind yet not weak, powerful yet compassionate, a primal warrior and yet joyful. For her part in the epic climax, she is clearly living for something beyond herself: the thrill of battle. For me that results in instant empathy, when a person can glory equally in herself and in others. (Also, she ought to challenge Christian and now even secular perceptions of “modesty” in superheroine dress. Homeschooler’s honor: If anyone can wear those gowns or that battle armor and not be guilty of Immodesty or Sexual Exploitation, it’s this Wonder Woman. Alas, she was better than a wholly unnecessary scene featuring Lois in a bath.)
Fans, not critics, wanted more than glimpses of heroes such as Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. The film shows only cameos-via-camera footage, and if you hear fans complain, it’s not the film’s fault they expected more. If you (like me) want more of these heroes — plus the whole Green Lantern Corps and Martian Manhunter, right now! — temper your hopes.
Like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman is about the long wait, the challenge, the slow build, a careful and methodical establishment of a hyper-realized story-world and its metahumans and meta-themes. Only then are we ready to go play. But once it’s time to play, and maybe even have “fun” in that usual way — say, with super-quips — then Batman v Superman revels just as joyfully. Behold, here’s Wonder Woman, with all her weapons, even that silly one that suddenly looks awesome. Here are Batman’s gadgets, with car chases and wall smashes and bad guys oh-so-cathartically dispatched. Look, up in the sky: it’s Superman, big and proud, shining with light, truly heroic yet struggling in a world like ours, working to do good yet forced into making hard choices — including ones that sent me pondering what I would do.
So what about the case of Batman v Superman? Who won? Spoilers would be cheap words on a screen, like the silly conclusions of reviewers who scoff at the fight’s resolution. I think only if you refuse to grant these heroes and stories legitimacy would you conclude the resolution is absurd. I found the resolution meaningful and very human for Batman, Superman, and those other heroes — people — who respect or love them.
I believed those people can fly. I believe it more when I saw them flying in a world I know yet with one “what-if” difference: metahumans are real. If you try these new “rules” and don’t like them, well, at least you tried. But let us not submit invalid evidence such as “the movie is objectively bad.” I will argue this fiercely, for I want more stories like this and I prefer that bad criticisms (some from Lex Luthor-type critics of Superman!) not interfere.
Thank God it appears these stories are in the works. Now that the DCEU world-building is well underway, storytellers are promising a “lighter” approach — as was always planned — to the two-part Justice League film. This August’s Suicide Squad also promises a quirkier tone. Perhaps we, along with the story and its heroes, will find that we’ve not simply been given new “fun” but have been asked to earn it. As Easter — a holiday clearly chosen for the film’s release — reminds us, often slower buildup and suffering heroes can lead to greater joy.