It almost feels unfair to pile on with everyone else who’s slamming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. You have that meme going around of Ben Affleck’s face with a serious thousand yard stare after an interviewer asked him and Henry Cavill about the bad reviews that have been coming in from pre-screenings of the movie, and it just seems so sad (and hilarious, if you happen to enjoy the internet subgenre of white guys realizing they aren’t as awesome as they thought they were). There are some parallels here between Ben Affleck and Ryan Reynolds, who both had the misfortune of starring in underwhelming superhero movies in the ’00s, and I’m guessing that Affleck was really hoping he’d get a do over with Batman the way that Reynolds has with Deadpool (this isn’t a perfect parallel, of course; Batman’s been a high profile property for decades, and the Deadpool movie was an experiment that just happened to pay off big).
All that’s kind of to the side though. Batman v Superman will probably do perfectly fine with box office sales (Sunday morning numbers say the movie took in $170 million domestically on its opening weekend), and good ticket sales usually translate into more movies in the same vein. Studios are going to follow the money, and if people are willing to pay to see a movie where two guys in capes beat each other up for poorly defined reasons, then that’s how it goes. Personally, I’d rather not support bad filmmaking, which is what all the early reviews are saying about Batman v Superman.
It’s kind of a shame to be in this position too, because I actually really liked Man of Steel when it came out. Of course, I’ve only seen that one twice, and the second time was in a viewing for my students on a fun day at school (in that context, any movie that holds the attention of a bunch of teenagers for even an hour has my esteem); it’s possible that if I were to revisit Man of Steel now, a couple years after all the shine has worn off, I might feel more ambivalent about it.
There are reasons besides the poor reviews that are dissuading me from plunking down money to go see Batman v Superman. One of the biggest is to do with the source material. A couple years ago when this movie was first announced at San Diego Comic Con, it was introduced with a monologue that Batman delivers to Superman after beating him at the climax of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Much has been said about the movie taking inspiration from that miniseries rather than simply being an adaptation of it (Dark Knight Returns features a Superman who’s been fully co-opted by the American government rather than the unknown outsider that was introduced in Man of Steel; a straight up adaptation would be difficult, to say the least), but it’s important to look beyond plot points at the attitudes embedded in the source material. The Dark Knight Returns is a story where Batman knows better than everyone and his paranoia about everything is fully justified. It’s a male power fantasy about the one clear-sighted guy who outsmarts everyone and proves just how useless and corrupt the government is. It’s classic Frank Miller, with all the baggage that anything penned by Frank Miller carries.
The thing with Frank Miller is that I used to quite enjoy his work. In the years immediately after college when I spent much of my time educating myself on the world of comics and their history, I gravitated towards Miller’s work (there’s little doubt in my mind that my fascination with Batman as a character and my beliefs as a conservative evangelical Christian, which were more entwined than a lot of evangelicals might care to admit, were a huge factor in Miller being so appealing). His favorite subject was the nature of masculinity, and in everything I read by him I saw reflected a worldview that made sense to me. Never mind that his depictions of women were always as debased sex workers or brutalized victims of violence, that his villains were typically coded as queer, that he seemed incapable of envisioning any characters of color without appealing to stereotypes; these were things that didn’t concern my straight, white, male mind at the time. I’m fortunate that eventually I grew out of that mindset. Frank Miller really hasn’t.
Neither, for that matter, has Zack Snyder. He’s an unabashed comics fan (he’s pioneered the art form of recreating iconic comic panels as shots in his films) with a clear love of the dark, gritty era that The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen ushered in during the late ’80s. An overview of Snyder’s ouvre of films demonstrates pretty well that he’s of a kind with Frank Miller. He loves splashy violence, he’s unabashed in his presentation of women as sexual objects, and he revels in ignoring the problematic subtext of his own work. He once said of 300,
You know, when I see that, when I see someone use words like “neocon,” “homophobic,” “homoerotic” or “racist” in their review, I kind of just think they don’t get the movie and don’t understand. It’s a graphic novel movie about a bunch of guys that are stomping the snot out of each other. As soon as you start to frame it like that, it becomes clear that you’ve missed the point entirely.
He’s also, apparently, a fan of Ayn Rand (he recently said he’d like to do a film adaptation of her political-screed-disguised-as-a-novel that isn’t six hundred pages long, The Fountainhead). Snyder has an artistic and political sensibility (whether he wants to admit it or not) that lines up extremely well with Miller’s ideas about what makes an interesting superhero story.
These are the chief creative minds that influenced the production of Batman v Superman, and they apparently decided that diving off the deep end into a story where Batman is fully justified in being paranoid about the slightest possibility that Superman might try to conquer the world instead of protecting it (with the only apparent evidence in favor of this supposition being the fact that Superman did pretty much nothing to minimize collateral damage during his fight with Zod at the end of Man of Steel) was a good idea. Whatever else goes on in the film, that guiding ethic of “Batman is right not to trust the immigrant who’s done nothing wrong” doesn’t sit well with me, so I’ll not be sitting through this movie.
- The Writer Who Made Me Love Comics Taught Me to Hate Them by Susana Polo
- Batman v Superman Fails In All the Ways That Man of Steel Succeeded by Charlie Jane Anders