The newest bat-blockbuster brings the pain and ditches the humanity
by MATTHEW GAULT
Playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne sulks in the batcave watching footage of Superman. He thinks the alien is a threat and he wants to do something about it. Alfred, his butler and constant companion, urges caution.
“This is how the fever starts,” he says. “That feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.” He’s right and Wayne follows through in a textbook manner — becoming the kind of blunt instrument of cruelty he once fought against. This is an early scene in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which may as well be Dawn of Fascism.
Director Zack Snyder spends two and a half hours throwing toys together, misunderstanding the heart and soul of American icons and pushing Batman to extremes even The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller might find disturbing.
For his film, Snyder turns the caped crusader into a fascist and pits him against a dominionist warrior-Christ. If Snyder had more talent it would be an interesting battle. Instead it’s a film of sound, fury and missed opportunity.
Batman v Superman is bad, but there’s a good movie buried inside of it. Amy Adams as Lois Lane and Jeremy Irons as Alfred are wonderful. Jesse Eisenberg’s turn as an ultra-literate, awkward Silicon Valley douche Lex Luthor is a wonderful update. And Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne is perfect.
Affleck is the best actor to ever play Wayne. He’s smooth, world weary and a little dangerous, like a crazy James Bond. His Batman is good too, but Affleck always seems embarrassed in the suit. Which makes sense. He’s an Oscar award winning director and screenwriter and an avid comic book fan. He probably knew how bad the dialogue and the direction was in every scene.
The problems of Batman v Superman fall largely at the feet of director Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer — who’s only ever as good as the director he’s working with. The film is bloated, pondering nonsense. It also suffers from being a launch pad for the entire DC Comics extended cinematic universe, and strains under the weight of so many crisscrossing stories and characters.
I’ve never seen a movie that relies so heavily on dramatic irony. Casual fans will be lost during the movie’s many dream sequences, set ups for further films, and nods to a history Snyder hasn’t bothered to inform us of.
The dialogue is odd. Every character speaks in aphorisms and monologues. It leaps from scene to scene, frenzied moments smash cut into dull exposition. It felt as if Snyder shot 10 hours of movie then trimmed it down to two and a half. It doesn’t work.
But by far, the biggest crime of Batman v Superman is the way Snyder strips down these iconic character to their core and embraces the worst aspects of each.
Warning. I’m about to spoil the rest of the film. Stop reading if you haven’t seen it and don’t want it ruined.
“I’m a comic book guy,” Snyder told an interviewer at Yahoo! Movies. “I made a movie with that aesthetic.”
Which is telling. Snyder is that guy you lent your comics book too as a kid, the one who marveled over the pictures of spandexed titans beating on each other but never bothered to read the words.
Fascism has always been the uncomfortable undercurrent of American superheroes, but the clever creators built protective measures into the hearts of their heroes to prevent them from sliding into despotism.
Batman hates guns and doesn’t kill. Kal El grew up as Clark Kent and never quite gets the hang of being human. It’s what made audiences fall in love with the bumbling charm of Christopher Reeve’s portrayal.
Snyder’s film does away with all the petty moralities and secret identities that make Bruce and Clark human. Man of Steel tore down Superman so the brooding, reluctant warrior-Christ isn’t a surprise. Poor Wayne though …
Batman has always skirted the line of fascism. But watching his parents gunned down in a gutter gave him an abhorrence of firearms, and his rule against murder separated him from the criminals he hunted.
Snyder’s Batman uses guns and murders people. This is a Batman 20 years into the fight who’s tired and pissed at the world. All sense of goodness has left him. He snaps necks, sets men on fire, shoots the heads of underlings and tears through baddies with a Gatling cannon.
At one point, he murders security guards while trying to steal kryptonite from Lex Luthor. That’s right. Snyder’s caped crusader literally kills in the commission of an armed robbery. I’m sure Thomas and Martha would have been proud.
Italian writer Umberto Eco’s essay on Ur-Fascism provides a checklist of common traits found in fascist movements. Snyder’s Batman fulfills most of them.
The third trait is action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection,” Eco wrote. That line may as well be the theme of the film, but applies especially to Batman, who constantly takes actions without thought or reflection. In Batman v Superman, the plot happens because it must.
Trait four is a resistance to criticism. Alfred tries to stop Wayne, but the playboy billionaire doesn’t even argue against his points, he simply ignores his oldest friend. The fifth trait is a fear of difference, which Batman exudes. The alien from Krypton is an all-powerful Other that he must destroy. Wayne makes no attempt to talk to the creature.
“Followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies,” Eco wrote of the eight trait. For me, this is the most frustrating fascist tendency demonstrated in the film. Alfred all but quotes Eco earlier in the movie, suggesting that Goyer and Snyder — at least on the periphery — knew they were twisting Batman into a jackbooted thug.
“Life is lived for the struggle,” Eco wrote of the ninth trait. “Life is permanent warfare.” Late in the film, Wayne bemoans the 20-year war he’s fought in Gotham. “Criminals are like weeds,” he tells Alfred. “Pull one and another springs up.”
The fascist state teaches its people to strive for heroism in a constant and ongoing battle. This is Eco’s 11th trait. But this ideal is impossible, and when the hero can’t win the war, it’s better for him to die heroically.
Batman knows there’s a good chance he’ll die fighting Superman and he’s ready for it. “The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.”
Traits 10 and 13 go together. Wayne is the elite of a reactionary ideology. He is both a billionaire and a one-man army. Worse, he’s a selective populist. Kent points this out to his bosses in the newsroom when he notices that Batman only operates in poor areas, seeming to prey on the weak and disenfranchised. Later, he tells Wayne to his face that he’s trampling on civil liberties.
Which is frustrating when spoken by a god who killed thousands of civilians over the course of two films.
Batman without a moral center isn’t Batman. He’s Rorschach from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. But, the film seems to know this. In the end, Superman literally dies to absolve Batman of the sins of fascism. During the funeral, a somber Wayne tells Wonder Woman that he failed Superman. (How exactly? Nevermind, best to not ask too many questions.)
Wayne resolves to be better and to gather the heroes of the Justice League to do right by the legacy of the fallen warrior-Christ. A greater threat is coming, one you’ll probably recognize from clues if you’re a fan of comics. One you’ll be explaining to your frustrated friends who aren’t comic fans after the credits roll.
But Batman doesn’t sin so much as Snyder does. And those sins are many. We haven’t talked about how cavalierly the U.S. president decides to nuke a major American city, nor how Batman’s armor manages to be immune to bullets and not knives. But cataloging those problems would take tens of thousands of words.
Better to focus on how Snyder took two characters so beloved by millions and turned them into furious fascist action figures he could slam together in his fevered imagination.