Tuesday, 29 March 2016

batman v superman: dawn of justice

i saw batman v superman and overall there was a lot i liked, particularly the way batman handled himself in the fights and the odd moments of magic realism that gave the whole piece a hallucinatory feel. there was a lot i didn't like, all of which has been discussed elsewhere so i'm not going to cover it again here. mostly i was really confused and i think that's the point. i'm going to try to explain. there may be spoilers.

first of all, i'm going to write this from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about batman or superman. i actually think the film takes some liberties with the fact that the audience already knows who all the characters are, and why not? but i'm going to take only what we see on screen, and what we see on screen is this.

billionaire bruce wayne is going about his business when two aliens have a fight in the sky and destroy his building, killing a bunch of employees. however, the alien messed with the wrong dude because this billionaire happens to also be a vigilante. lex luthor is another billionaire who also doesn't like the fact that there are aliens blowing shit up so tries to work with the government to develop a weapon to kill said alien, who happens to be superman. when the government won't help lex he kills a bunch of people and takes matters into his own hands. however, despite essentially wanting the same thing batman steals the weapon from lex so he can kill superman himself. superman, meanwhile, is dealing with the fact that stepping in to save his girlfriend (lois lane does a lot of being saved in this film) has massive global and political implications that he hadn't really considered. at the end there's a big monster and wonder woman turns up. the question i took from all this and that i kept asking myself throughout the film is, whose side am I supposed to be on?

if we look at the characters individually that question becomes much more complicated than it first seems. batman is ostensibly the hero because the film opens with him and superman trashing his building is a thing that happens to his character. it also kind of sets up superman as the villain. in storytelling terms, the thing that kicks off the whole story overall is an event that affects his character, and his character alone (and scoot mcnairy, but i'm skipping that part). batman also has the biggest story arc in the film and goes through the biggest changes. what this says to me is that in a narrative sense the film is telling me to care about batman, but i struggle with that because batman is essentially a representation of extreme right-wing politics.

stick with me on this, it will make some kind of sense, i promise.

bruce wayne was born into privilege. sure, his parents were killed and that sucks, but what makes him able to be batman is the fact that he has money. he can do whatever he wants with his time, he can buy all the cool crime-fighting shit he wants, and yeah he's had to work to be batman by hitting tyres with sledgehammers and stuff but he's not had to balance that with a day-job. the reason he is batman is so that he can find criminals and punch them in the face, because as far as he's concerned the law enforcement and judicial system that exists are insufficient. except this batman doesn't only punch criminals in the face, he brands them so they are singled out and killed in prison. he also, in one scene, blows them up with big guns on his bat plane thing, merrily massacring dozens of people most of whom he can't even see from where he's sitting. he is judge, jury and executioner. the appeal of that, of what batman is selling is not dissimilar to the appeal of the extreme right (and i'm not saying the extreme right is appealing, i'm talking about the appeal of the extreme right to its supporters). batman represents the idea that certain people in society are probably bad because ... reasons, so let's punch them all in the face and then we don't have to worry about it. batman is essentially donald trump, that's what i'm getting at here.

then something bigger than your average criminal turns up; something that can level a building without any thought of the people inside as part of some kind of crusade we don't understand. what's batman's solution? punch it in its stupid alien face!

it is impossible to watch bruce wayne's building fall to the ground without thinking of 9/11, which means that in bruce wayne's head superman represents extremism - a huge, incomprehensible threat that cannot be punched in the face as easily as your average child molester, but he is going to find a way to do that just the same. he doesn't care about the facts, he doesn't care about the consequences, he just knows that this guy destroyed a building, people died and now he's going to find a way to punch him in the face so hard that he dies. that's our protagonist.

there is also something else going on. batman takes everything personally. there is an argument to say that he's not acting in the interests of the people who died because of superman at all. there's a kind of man vs god subplot here too, which is far too complicated to fully explore so i'll stick with my political analogy for now. what's important is that for all his moral outrage batman has only ever acted in his own interests, and while he may say he's punching criminals in the face to help the rest of us, really he's punching the guy who killed his parents over and over again because he's motivated by revenge, batman is overall a self-serving superhero.

superman, meanwhile, is not actually a terrorist threat but a representation of extreme left-wing politics. yes, he was born with superpowers so there's an argument that says he too was born into privilege, except he grew up on a farm with normal, working-class people. it's this upbringing that essentially makes him superman. there is some complicated dad stuff going on here too - superman has two dads in man of steel, but here he just has the one benevolent kevin costner dad. batman, on the other hand, has no parents at all so there is a suggestion that had batman's dad lived he and superman would probably get along much better. again, there's too much else going on here to really get into their parents but it is kind of important later on.

back to the politics - superman comes from a working-class background, he has to balance being a superhero with a low paid job and most of all he cares about humanity, all of humanity. that's where this becomes left versus right, because you have one side who cares about the individual and another who cares about everyone. there is also a superman/obama comparison - someone who has the best intentions but doesn't have the support of his government or, to some degree, his people. note, i'm using american politics as a reference because it's an american film and it doesn't quite work with uk politics. i think there is a superman/corbyn comparison but i don't think you can compare cameron to batman. cameron is more like ultron, and that's a whole other blog post.

also, i don't want to digress too much but it's interesting to compare the politics of this film to the politics of the 1989 tim burton batman movie. in that film, the joker is quite clearly a caricature of the extreme right, most obviously in the parade scene where the gives out free money to the people on the streets whilst simultaneously gassing them. it's a direct reference to the way the right will appeal to the hopes and fears of the poor and disenfranchised whilst secretly stabbing them in the back for their own gain. meanwhile, keaton's batman has a much more altruistic approach to his work and despite being motivated by revenge in that film too he comes across as much more of a batman of the people. although it's fair to say his bat plane has big guns too.

back to this film and the thing that complicates matters even more is lex luthor. lex essentially represents the interests of  the corporations, meaning he represents money. he has the money and resources to do whatever he wants so he takes an interest in politics because if he can control politicians he can control the world. unlike batman who wants to punch the extreme left in the face, lex just wants to ensure it's all under control and he can make more money to exert even more control. unlike batman who takes the law into his own hands, lex attempts to use the existing system to get what he wants. when the system fails him, that's when he starts blowing stuff up, but until that point lex is actually the most sympathetic character in the film. out of context, he's absolutely right to be concerned about superman and offering to help his government introduce a method of control seems perfectly reasonable. he also, notably, talks about his dad a lot.

so lex is money, which is complicated because bruce wayne is also money, but lex's money represents support and it's support that both sides need (bruce's money represents being able to hit people in the face with a robot suit, or something). lex, as a representation of big corporations, understands his value and so sets about playing the left and the right off against each other for his own gain. what becomes apparent, however, is that his interests and even his methodology are more in line with the right than the left. he wants batman to win, because ultimately he can control batman much easily than he can control superman. money is better served by the right.

then there's the subplot that there's an even greater threat on its way and that there are other superhuman folks out there who may be able to stop it. so there's a fourth party which is more extreme and more terrifying than anything else and that we see batman fighting in a desert, and as we all know because of what the news tells us, all extremists come from the desert (before batman nerds start yelling 'it's not terrorists, it's darkseid!!!', calm down, i know that, i am one of you, go back and read my second paragraph again).

so as well as the right and left, the money and the extremists, there is another vital element i need to mention, and it's the most neglected element and also the most important. it's us. where are we in this film? all these hugely important people are supposedly fighting for us and yet we are barely represented at all. the main three, lex, clark and bruce, are certainly not presented as human. the closest we have to a relate-able character is lois lane and she spends most of the film being rescued (and while i don't want to bring up all the same criticisms as everyone else i thought for a film with four potentially interesting female characters the treatment of lois is infuriatingly, almost offensively backwards). actually the only one i could really relate to was martha kent because she has a crappy job, but then her son is an alien so she hardly represents the people. however, it's through the parents that we are expected to see the main characters as human. that's why all three of them are so dad obsessed, because everyone can relate to having a dad, right? and mothers are even more important, so important in fact that when you are beating your enemy to death and he randomly mutters the name of his mother...no, not going to go there...

so where does that leave us? what's my point other than you can crudely map the characters in this film onto current world politics?

the point is i'm still confused and i don't know what to think and i actually believe that this makes it interesting. the point is the fact that i don't care and that the filmmakers make it almost impossible for me to care is what makes the film interesting i.e. the fact that i don't care is what makes me care. the point is my disillusionment and disengagement with current world politics is exactly mirrored by my disillusionment and disengagement with the batman v superman conflict. the point is that the conflict is so extreme that people like me and you are no longer represented. it's not about us anymore. it's not about voters and it's not about audiences. there are four big interconnected concepts battling it out in the world right now - right, left, money and extremism. i feel as helpless in affecting the outcome of that as i did watching batman and superman hit each other. all we can do is watch it play out, minute by minute, not caring who wins but hoping whoever does leaves the rest of us alone.

batman v superman isn't the superhero film we wanted, but it is the superhero film we deserve right now. this is a film made for the people who have stopped caring about who wins.

p.s. if you enjoyed my take on batman v superman, you may also be interested in my video about the dark knight rises - 


  1. Frank Miller created The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Returns, which much of this film is based on. Frank Miller is an ultra extreme right winger. Your review is on the mark. Nice work.

  2. Paz - you hit this right on the mark. Well said!

  3. I literally laughed and cried out loud while reading this!!!!!!!! FINALLY!!!!!! FINALLYYYY!!!! Someone gets the genius of this movie! This film is the FINEST American commentary ever ever made. A masterpiece!