Seeing I’m tired of all the people giving Wonder Woman backhanded compliments by taking shots at the previous installments in the DCEU, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss how Batman v Superman – and to a lesser extent, Man of Steel – makes viewers uncomfortable by deconstructing the concept of superheroes, and in doing so, tells one of the richest and most important superhero stories ever told.
It’s been more than a year since Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice came out, and since then, a lot of people far more articulate than me have countered the common arguments against the movie, analyzed the layers and metaphors and symbolism. So I’m not going to do any of that. I’m just going to talk about why it means more to me than any other superhero movie I’ve ever seen.
Something remarkable about BvS is that nobody is neutral about it. People love it or hate it, but not many people saw it and thought nothing. And maybe part of that is the comicbook fan community’s penchant for dramatics and extremes, but I think most of it is a serious reaction. People remember they saw it. Even now, more than a year later, we’re still discussing it. Some movies are forgotten after a few weeks. Not this one. And I think a big part of the reason why is that it challenges viewers to think about what superheroes really mean.
As a child of immigrants, this story, especially as it pertained to the DCEU interpretation of Clark Kent, resonated with me. Zack Snyder deconstructed the concept of superheroes just by considering how people would realistically react to someone like Superman. Pointing out the xenophobia he would face rings far more true to me than everyone embracing the alien from another planet. Snyder tore down the idea of a classic superhero by letting him be vulnerable and willing to take responsibility, by building a world in which he’s not universally loved. He gave me a world where I can legitimately see myself in the hero and in which the narrative is on his side, and for that, I’m honestly going to love him forever.
This is a universe in which Clark struggles with his dual identity. He doesn’t know anything about Krypton in the beginning, only that he’s somehow different. Superman has always been an immigrant. But this story, for the first time, explored what that means. He actually chose – Krypton or Earth? And it was a clear choice, a bright line separating right and wrong. Zod the mass murderer, or an innocent family? But just because it was right, didn’t mean it was easy. Sometimes there are no simple answers.
And after that? After deconstructing Superman and posing the question of whether or not he can actually exist and stay good, whether or not his perspective on and approach life and heroism is the right one…Snyder reconstructs everything he questioned by simply answering yes. By saying that Batman – whom, from decades of pop culture, we’re all practically conditioned to believe is the awesome badass that’s right all the time – was wrong. That men are good.
We may not deserve Superman, but he cares about us anyway. He’s not a god – not some infallible being, nor a malicious entity to be feared and distrusted – he’s a child of Earth. He doesn’t want anything. He doesn’t expect to be thanked. He doesn’t like being revered as a god. He just helps because it’s the right thing to do. And him being that good man, sacrificing his own life because this is his world, even though people feared him and what he could do, was what inspired Bruce and Diana to come back from their lowest points and fight the good fight again. Bruce and Diana went to his funeral and they decided that they would form the Justice League in his honour. He inspired them to move past their darkest moments and become the heroes they once were again. And then at the end of the movie, the dirt on top of his coffin rose, because he will be back. There are heroes and good people. There’s fear and prejudice, but that can be overcome. People can lose hope, but still regain it. Suffering doesn’t last forever. Loss can be worked through. How is that not hopeful? How is that not idealistic? It’s not about being infallible and always smiling and perfectly optimistic and happy no matter what. It’s about continuing to strive to be better.
Throughout both MoS and BvS, it was made beautifully clear that Clark didn’t owe the world a thing. Having powers didn’t also give him responsibility. His parents wanted to protect him, because they were afraid for him. They wanted him helping the world to be his choice. It was never that they didn’t want him to save people, it was that they believed he mattered as an individual, not just as a potential saviour. Jonathan and Martha are parents – they’re human, they’re flawed and imperfect and so, so protective of their only child. They taught Clark his values and the importance of both helping others and protecting his identity. And that did cause Clark to struggle with what he should do. It was part of the reason he kept on the move so much. That doesn’t make any of them bad people. Because Jonathan did the best he could for his son and taught him the difference between right and wrong. Because Martha never tried to stop adult Clark from wandering the world or helping people or discovering his identity. Because despite being lost and uncertain, Clark still chose to help people because he could.
The idea of Batman was also rebuilt with this movie, and I think this is the first time live action has ever gotten him right. Some people want to see Bruce as his pop culture caricature – rich playboy that’s also a badass that goes out at night to beat up criminals, AKA the escapist Batman power fantasy. Others, like the people that enjoyed Batman: The Animated Series, do want to see his compassion. But BvS went so much farther. It mixed both ideas and pushed further to explore who he really is.
At his core, Bruce Wayne is a deeply damaged and traumatized individual. He’s obsessive and paranoid and obsessed with control. He’s a deeply compassionate individual that cares about his city and helping people, yes, but the DCEU version of the character is one that doesn’t have a Robin. Bruce’s children ground him and remind him of what he fights for. They give him hope. They keep him sane. But in BvS, he’s lost Jason. We don’t know what his relationship with Dick is like, but it’s probably not good. Tim hasn’t showed up yet.
Bruce in BvS is alone. He’s scared. He doesn’t want what happened in Metropolis to ever happen again. His emotions are totally understandable and fair. But how far he takes it? The way he becomes so violent and brutal he scared the victims as much as the criminals? How he’s willing to kill Clark because of his powers being dangerous? That crosses a line. His fear of and vendetta against Superman began because of one little girl that lost her mother. His return to caring about collateral damage, about the victims more than the criminals, that comes about because Clark is willing to sacrifice himself for the world.
What I really don’t get is that the same people who complain about the movie being overly grim and dark also complain about the Martha scene. That makes absolutely no sense to me. Bruce didn’t back off because of the name, and he and Clark definitely didn’t decide to become friends because of it. Bruce just paused for a second because he has intense PTSD, and the name was not only his mother’s name, it was the last thing his father ever said. It was Lois putting herself between him and Clark that made him put down the spear. It was her telling him that Martha is Clark’s mother’s name, that Superman does have a human mother that he loves and that was in danger that made him stop. Made him realize what he was doing. And after that, Clark trusted him because he had to. That scene was beautifully written and beautifully shot, and very possibly, my favourite scene in any movie, comic book or otherwise, ever.
I really don’t understand where people are getting the idea that this movie lacks heart. At its core, it’s about two men that love their mothers and a villain that’s never had that love. It’s about a man that was once a hero being torn down to his worst self out of fear and loss and grief. It’s about that man realizing he was wrong and actively seeking to become a better person again. It’s about another man that loves the world, even when much of it rejected him. It’s about a woman that’s emphatically not a fascist believing in accountability and not taking unilateral decisions. It’s about another woman realizing that she can’t just do nothing. It’s called Batman v Superman, but it’s about so much more than that.
Batman v Superman was heavily based on The Dark Knight Returns. And I personally do not like that comic. I think it’s poorly written and presents Bruce’s actions as morally right. But this? This took it and made it incredible, because it allowed Superman to have depth, and didn’t ever glorify Batman’s violence, and gave every character clear motivation.
This story is political, embracing all the questions of what it means to be a superhero in the real world, while never justifying Batman’s extremist, insane bigotry. It takes a perfectly reasonable stance – Superman must take responsibility for his actions, but not those of others. He can’t be judged on the basis of what he might do, only what he has done. The parallels to our own world are obvious. Maybe not to everyone, but as someone who’s experienced people looking at her twice because of the colour of her skin? They couldn’t possibly be clearer.
People are uncomfortable with a movie embracing the fact that Clark Kent is more than an outsider – he’s an immigrant, a refugee. They don’t like that story being presented, loud and proud. They don’t like the idea of Batman legitimately having a mental illness. They don’t like the idea of a movie based on comics being taken seriously and approached as meaningful art. But that’s what Snyder does, and in doing so, he’s crafted a masterpiece. It’s heavy, absolutely, and maybe not something I have the emotional capacity to watch all the time, but whenever I want to watch something honest something that tells me, “hey, the world’s a flawed, tough place, but it can be better and there are people trying to make it better”, I’m absolutely turning to Batman v Superman.
Now look, I love Wonder Woman. I think it is a very well done movie. But it does both the movie itself and the DCEU as a whole a disservice to ignore how they fit together, the running themes and the parallels between the characters. Diana is Steve in Batman v Superman – she’s become jaded and cynical, and at the end, she had to do something because she already tried doing nothing.
The different movies in the DCEU tell different parts of one story. They reference each other and tie into each other, as well as referencing comics and mythology and literature. They are stories that I can appreciate as a comics fan as well as someone that likes media to respect her intelligence. So far, they’ve deconstructed the superhero genre and begun to put it back together, and I absolutely cannot wait to see where they go from here.