The X-Men Movies And The Case They Make For Self Contained Stories

The X-Men film universe gives me a headache.

I know intellectually that I should take them in in the same way I do comic books – not worrying about the timeline, just relaxing into the story and not questioning it – but there’s something about having an adaptation, live action or otherwise, that makes that harder. Even though I know it doesn’t make sense, I find myself questioning timelines, questioning how the thing that happened in one movie ties into what happened in the previous one, trying to find in-universe explanations for retcons or inconsistencies. I get a little tired of the constant debate of how different things – even those that are explicitly not in the same universe, like The Gifted and Legion – fit into a timeline that at best can be interpreted loosely. And that doesn’t even get into how exhausting continuity lockout can be. A movie should be a complete story on its own. It should stand alone without needing to watch three other movies and read all the companion material. A multiple part story is one thing, but even then, that story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, based on a pre-existing plan, not an endless number of instalments tacked on, because comic book movies are not comic books. Having more self contained stories, rather than pushing the idea of a “cinematic universe”, would solve all these problems.

Having a predetermined number of movies with a clear overall arc would lessen the debate of how things fit together, because there’d be a clear answer: they don’t. If it floats your boat, you could make a case for how they could, but when it comes to the actual story, the answer is they don’t. It would allow for viewers to just go in and watch the movie or the series without having to watch a bunch more movies to avoid confusion. It would allow for more creator freedom, because their work would depend on, at most, a couple other movies in a series, not a dozen of highly variable quality and comprehensibility. For the viewer, it makes it easier to just reject what you didn’t like. It seems to me like a much more enjoyable experience.

I’m sorry, but I didn’t enjoy Logan. From my perspective, it relied too heavily on existing fondness for the Hugh Jackman Wolverine and Patrick Stewart Xavier, because neither of them were very sympathetic in the film itself. It was more manipulative than well written. I didn’t like the concept, because it felt disrespectful to all the other X-Men and Old Man Logan doesn’t do it for me. And it wasn’t particularly well thought out, either, because when asked if it was in its own universe, everyone involved gave a different answer. But you know what? If it had been explicitly an separate story – with different actors, maybe, something to show that it’s a different universe – all that could have changed.

Part of the reason it bothered me so much was because of what it means for other X-Men movies. It wasn’t all of it, but it was certainly some of it, because it meant we were never going to see the original cast again. They’re never going to get the sendoff they deserve, that I was hoping for after we saw them again in Days of Future Past. So I’ve thought a lot about what it would be like if Logan were in a different universe and hadn’t slammed that door closed. In that case, it wouldn’t have turned a whole franchise into something even more annoyingly Wolverine-centric. It wouldn’t have turned the whole franchise into a giant Shoot the Shaggy Dog story where nothing the X-Men did in past movies or will do in future ones matters. It wouldn’t have presented Logan as the most important X-Man, despite the fact he’s arguably barely an X-Man and doesn’t fit at all with the metaphor for the oppressed that they’ve been since Chris Claremont defined them. Saying, hey, this is a movie about Wolverine and Professor X that has nothing to do with those other movies about them would mean it could be judged as a story, not as an entry into a franchise, on its own merits, rather than being Hugh Jackman’s swan song. In that case, we could have learned if it was actually good beyond the emotional manipulation. I might have actually liked it.

On a similar note, we have Days of Future Past. Now, I love this movie. I think it was one of the peaks of the franchise. But it also has a lot of glaring flaws. Some of these, I think, would have been fixed by making it and First Class a separate duology, or maybe even adding a third movie to put it into a trilogy that had nothing to do with any other movie. What’s one of the biggest complaints about that movie? That’s easy: Kitty Pryde being sidelined from being the lead character of the story to being Wolverine’s Uber driver. But every time that gets brought up, people jump to defending why it “had to be Wolverine”. There are two ways they use to argue this – Watsonian or Doylist. Intradiegetic or extradiegetic. In-universe or real world.

The in-universe answer is that Wolverine was the only one alive at the time they had to go back to that could handle the trip and for the way the story’s version of time travel worked, they couldn’t send someone else. For argument’s sake, let’s ignore the fact that the writers could change those time travel rules. Setting it in a separate timeline from the other movies could make that not true – boom, done, Kitty was alive in the time she needed to go back to, she could go.

The other argument for why it “had to be Wolverine” is the real world answer – people were attached to Wolverine, not Kitty, who only had about fifteen minutes of screen time in the series. So sending back Wolverine made for a more poignant story. You know what that indicates? Precisely my problem with Logan – a story that’s manipulative and relying on existing fondness for a character, rather than actually giving them an arc that we can be invested in. If DoFP was a “standalone” (though part of its own, shorter series), none of this justification for not sending Kitty would be valid, because Wolverine wouldn’t have any more history in the story. All history would have to be built in the movie itself. Every minute would have to count. And that’s how you can tell a good story from something that’s not – a good story can make the audience sympathize and root for and feel attached to the character on its own. It doesn’t need a whole preceding series.

It’s funny – the original X-Men trilogy was hugely important for the development of superhero movies. They demonstrated how great sequels to these movies could be. They very probably paved the way for shared universes as it pertains to superheroes, all of them existing together. Without them, there would be no MCU or DCEU. It doesn’t matter whether or not you love them, you have to acknowledge that they matter. But I think they also have reached a point, eighteen years in, where they make it clear that this really isn’t necessarily the best way to go. Logan  and Days of Future Past clearly demonstrate the value of standalones.

It reminds me of something that there was a lot of debate about which on Twitter recently – Zack Snyder’s comment that, in his five movie plan, he would have killed Batman. A lot of people were shocked and glad that didn’t come to pass. But I think that’s just another indication of what Snyder’s preferred method of storytelling is. And I think that method of storytelling would work amazingly for the X-Men.

Snyder believes in story arcs, not universes. He draws inspiration from various sources, blending them into one coherent story, where instalments connect to each other, but there’s also an end in sight. His movies have very little excess bulk, with every minute of footage serving a specific purpose. He makes bold choices, such as killing off iconic characters like Bruce Wayne, in a way that all Snyder fans know would be respectful and poignant. Some people were talking about how Dick Grayson could become Batman after Bruce’s death- an idea which I love, Dick as Batman is one of my very favourite things – but I don’t think that’s the point here. The point is that Snyder’s vision wasn’t more and more instalments with more and more characters that ended up all sharing the screen. It was thinking through all the details, planning ahead, and making a story that doesn’t go on forever. It’s not really a style loved by executives in this age of sequels and remakes. It’s very different from the MCU brand. But it’s fascinating to watch. It’s a beautiful style from someone that believes in self contained stories, the kind that would be perfect for the X-Men.

The X-Men movies have felt a bit like the result of a bunch of unplanned sequels being tacked on to a finished product, for no reason other than they make money. For someone that loves the X-Men and loves quite a bit of what’s in the X-Men movies, it’s kind of heartbreaking. I know they’re going to reboot. And presumably pretty soon. I just wish that when they do, it would be in a way that follows the tradition of self contained movies or trilogies, rather than the MCU brand of sticking everything together, because who cares about art when there’s money to be made.

It’s unlikely that we’re going to go back to the age of standalones any time soon. Not after the MCU has demonstrated how much money there is to be made like this. But I hope someday we do. The cinematic universe model has been a great experiment, and it was fun while it lasted, but I really would like to go back to self contained series now.

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My Utterly Unsolicited Opinion On Dick Grayson as the Robin in ‘Batman v Superman’

Zack Snyder commented on a Vero post today. This is nothing unusual. He spends a lot of time on Vero, and he comments on a lot of posts. But this time, he was saying that the dead Robin in Batman v Superman – the one pretty much everyone assumed was Jason, even though I do remember some debate based on that one picture of a gravestone labelled Richard Grayson – was in fact Dick, not Jason. This prompted Twitter freaking out. I…think that’s an overreaction.

As I’ve pointed out countless times, I adore Dick Grayson. He’s my favourite comic book character of all time, and the very first comic I read was his miniseries from 1995. I love him as Robin, I love him as Nightwing, and I love him as Batman. So believe me when I say…what I’m going to say has absolutely nothing to do with me being a “Snyder fanboy”. I adore Zack Snyder. I think he’s an awesome storyteller. But my love for Dick Grayson goes back a long way. I’ve loved his character since the same year 300 came out. Like all my posts about him illustrate, I’m very protective of how he’s interpreted. So my defending Snyder’s creative choices – even ones that I’m unsure about – has nothing to do with being a blind follower and everything to do with how Snyder has given me reasons to trust him.

I saw several Tweets along the lines of “having Dick be the dead Robin would have been a terrible idea”. To those, I just have to laugh, because you know something? Snyder has demonstrated that he knows how to make something incredible out of “terrible ideas”.

I do not like Frank Miller. I think The Dark Knight Returns is a bad comic that really doesn’t have many redeeming qualities in it. My instinct would have been to say that adapting it would have been a terrible idea. But that’s what Snyder did when he made Batman v Superman, and that was awesome. I love that movie with all my heart. There is no comic book movie on that level of incredible. And that’s because Snyder thinks things through. He creates nuanced takes. He found the good in The Dark Knight Returns and turned it from something I consider kind of terrible to something beautiful. That he could do that is huge. As it is, it doesn’t really matter to whom the Robin suit in Batman v Superman belonged, just that a loss had a major impact on Bruce. But I absolutely believe Snyder could have made something unique and compelling out of making it explicitly Dick rather than Jason.

Another comment I saw – that a lot of people were upset about – was about how it makes so much sense that it was Dick and not Jason that made Bruce so reclusive and angry in Batman v Superman. People often take comments about Bruce’s love for Dick being special as attacks on the other members of the Batfamily, but that’s not it. Of course Bruce has the capacity to love multiple people. He has room in his heart for all of his children and all of Gotham. That doesn’t mean that he and Dick don’t have a unique and beautiful relationship. Dick is his first son. His first partner. Dick saved Bruce from a dark path. Bruce once kept a whole universe from getting destroyed because Dick was in it. Dick has been there through everything. As a character, he predates Alfred, Barbara, Jason, Selina. He’s Bruce’s most valued partner and the one thing he did right. He’s utterly crucial.

One of the reasons Jason was so upset that Bruce didn’t kill the Joker was because he thought he would have done it had it been Dick who died. And there is some basis for that – Bruce completely flipped out and tried to strangle Lex during Forever Evil when he thought Lex had killed Dick. In Infinite Crisis, he grabbed a gun and threatened to shoot alternate universe Lex because of the same reason. The only reason he didn’t in both those cases was because Dick wasn’t actually dead. It’s a pattern of behaviour in the comics, carried through different writers, that Bruce probably would kill someone for Dick. So canonically, there could be that basis for why Snyder wanted it to be Dick and not Jason. But I don’t think that’s the real point. It’s not about what Dick’s place in the birth order means for his relationship with Bruce, but about what it means for the entire concept of the Batfamily.

Without Dick, there wouldn’t have been any other Robins. Tim could come after Jason because Dick already set the precedent for a success, for illustrating why Batman needs a Robin. But there’s no way in hell that Jason would have come along after Dick if Dick died instead. And without Jason – without the rest of the Batfamily – there would be no one to hold Bruce back and keep him from a dark path. So of course Bruce would be alone ten years after losing his partner. Of course he would be hugely more cynical and unwilling to work with other people. Of course feeling threatened by Superman could tip him into being ready to kill. That’s why Robin matters.

As someone that loves Dick, loves how he’s the gold standard that all his successors feel like they need to live up to, loves that he’s the member of the Batfamily most naturally suited to the job they all chose, and loves that Bruce considers him his greatest success, it upsets me to think that in the movies, that’s not the case and that he’s the Robin Bruce failed to save instead. But it also makes a huge amount of sense in this universe, even down to the simple matter of explaining where all the other members of the family were during the movie.

Is Jason best known for being killed by the Joker? Yeah. But we’re talking about superhero comics and their adaptations. Characters die and come back all the time. Killing a different Robin isn’t the same as taking something that’s fundamentally part of Jason’s story and not anyone else’s. And beyond that, movies are an adaptation. Changes are inevitable. It’s more important to me that they remain true to the spirit of the material than any particular storyline. And Zack Snyder has demonstrated that he has a lot of respect for the comics.

I wouldn’t want Dick to be the dead Robin, even though it does make a lot of sense and I know Snyder could make something awesome out of it that would, in all likelihood, respect Dick as a character, just because I love the Batfamily, I love Dick’s relationships with all kinds of different heroes, and I love how he’s the heart of the DCU. If he made a movie further exploring this, I’d go see it, and I’d be excited because it would be him making it, but I wouldn’t feel the same level of excitement as I do about other superhero movies, just because I get most excited about the other members of the Batfamily when they’re interacting with each other, especially with Dick. I wouldn’t be nearly excited to see any of them without that dynamic and a lot of emphasis on the importance of the Robin legacy and Bruce and Dick’s relationship. I really don’t care about Carrie Kelley, who Snyder said it a later comment, he’d have brought in (He said that Dick would have stayed dead until Carrie. I didn’t quite know what that meant – was that just referring to there being no Robin until Carrie, or was he saying that Dick himself would have come back to life after Carrie was introduced?).

And honestly, none of this really matters. It was left open ended at the time, presumably for the director of the Batsolo to decide how they want to handle it. For all we know, Matt Reeves won’t handle it at all. But I think it’s crazy to have such rigid opinions on how a movie that we probably won’t see would have been based on a one word comment. There are a million ways that story could go. I’m not saying I’d be thrilled about this deviation from the comics, and it might not have been what I wanted, but Zack Snyder has demonstrated that he makes purposeful changes. He doesn’t just change what’s in the source material for no reason. He cares about these characters. I trust that he’d give us an interesting story.

Zack Snyder Ruined Popcorn Comic Book Movies For Me (In The Best Way Possible)

Quick – a comic book movie with a lead character as an older, cynical version of themselves that was once a hero, but was worn down by time and loss until someone inspired them to start acting heroically again. Am I talking about The Dark Knight Rises, Logan, or Batman v Superman? It recently occurred to me (I’m slow on the uptake, sue me) that those three movies had essentially the same storyline for the lead character (in the case of BvS, the co-lead). Pretty much everyone that has ever read one of my posts knows that I love Zack Snyder and his DCEU movies (If you’re reading this and you don’t, hi! I’m Keya. I’m a giant nerd). They’ll also know that I’m not a big fan of either Logan or The Dark Knight trilogy. Seeing the similarities in the movies got me thinking about why that was true.

The best thing about the X-Men movies, at least for me, was that no matter how I felt about them in the long term, they were good for at least one watch. I didn’t think about all the things wrong with them until later.  It was the same thing with the Dark Knight trilogy.  No matter how much I disliked their Bruce interpretation, I was able to set that aside and enjoy the movie. I didn’t think about that dislike until after I left the theatre. I remember sitting in the theatre to watch The Dark Knight Rises, and you know what? At the time, I was genuinely moved. Bruce becoming a recluse after losing Rachel, spending years in mourning, putting on the cowl to fight again, finding the will to move on with his life…when I first saw that, I was very touched.

When Logan – the kind of movie that, very much like The Dark Knight Rises, relied heavily on using an aged lead that’s lost the people most important to him to elicit an emotional reaction – came out in March of last year, though, I wasn’t into it at all, not even while watching. At first, I couldn’t figure out why – after all, the movies basically have the same principle and I had similar problems with both. But The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2012, and made me emotional, while Logan came out in 2017 and didn’t. At all. One obvious explanation is age, and the fact that in those five years, it became harder to elicit a reaction from me. But I think there’s another explanation, and that’s that Batman v Superman came between those movies.

It’s completely subjective whether you find a movie emotional, but objectively, BvS was a much denser, more thought out story than either The Dark Knight Rises or Logan, with constant references and allusions to classical art, literature, comics, and more. What  Batman v Superman did was force me to think about what I was watching while I was watching it, not after. And once I started doing that, all the aspects of movies that I don’t like started to pop out at me, from bad writing to disrespect for the source material. It took away the “good for one watch” thing that the X-Men movies had always had going for them. Popcorn movies are great. Not everything has to be deep,  and sometimes I just want to see a lighthearted adventure. But Zack Snyder movies have spoiled me – now I don’t have patience for movies that half ass the emotional aspects.

I respect Christopher Nolan’s directorial skills, but as a Batman fan, I think his work cut out the most interesting aspects of the character in favour of a pretty shallow, surface level reading. He didn’t get why Robin is important to Batman, and considered giving some random cop that worked with Bruce once the name as the same thing, or at least, a good shout out. He went the “loner” route, rather than acknowledge that comic Bruce has never been that and has more friends, allies, and children than just about any other superhero. It was disrespectful to the enormous cast of Batman characters that aren’t named Bruce Wayne and the whole world of comic books, because like X-Men (2000), The Dark Knight trilogy was afraid of being seen as comic book movies.

To be fair to Logan, I went in biased because of my Wolverine fatigue. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve complained about how the whole movie franchise revolves around him at the expense of other characters and how those characters get no respect just to make him look better or to advance his plot. I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out that the first two of his solo movies neither did amazingly at the box office nor were well received by critics, and as such, using the whole “Wolverine sells! Logan makes them money!” as an excuse isn’t actually valid. I’ve criticized the writing of the original trilogy and how everyone else got so little screen time, it was pretty much impossible for anyone that wasn’t Hugh Jackman to stand out. As a bitter Cyclops fan, I was mad about how the premise of the movie would have been perfect for developing him as the general of mutantkind that he is in the comics, but he was killed off screen instead. All of these things together mean that it was probably impossible to win me over completely, regardless of how it went. But before BvS, I could have at the very least enjoyed that first watch.

Logan was a movie that, had it come out just a year earlier, I could have liked. Maybe even loved. For the reasons stated above, I probably would have been a little bitter towards it, and my appreciation for it would have lessened with time as I thought of more things that bothered me, but I could have enjoyed it. But after BvS did such a fantastic job of fleshing out its characters and relationships so that everything happening to the characters meant something to me, to the point that the “Martha” scene was the closest I’ve ever come to crying during a movie, by the time I saw Logan, I didn’t have any more patience for a movie bashing me over the head to get me to feel what they want me to.

Logan felt more manipulative to me than anything else. It never once seemed to me while watching that it had earned the reaction it wanted. Everything about it was about making us feel bad for Logan. It was a further example of disrespecting the other characters for his sake after nearly two decades of doing just that – and that’s just in the movies. I never felt connected to the supposed emotional core. Logan coming to care for Laura felt rushed. It felt like most of his angst was about being old and in pain, with no actual grief for the X-Men – you know, those people that were supposed to be his friends that w ere ruthlessly killed off screen just to emphasize how alone he was.  A bunch of characters died, but I felt detached – the movie didn’t manage to get through to me why I should care. The closest thing to real emotion I felt the entire time I was watching was seeing Laura crying.

Despite how tired and broken down Bruce was throughout BvS, all the attention devoted to his perspective, it wasn’t about making us feel sorry for him, it was about us wanting him to stop feeling sorry for himself and realize what he’d become. It was about his cynicism being actively harmful. It was about trying to make the audience sympathize with him and understand his perspective, while also wanting him to realize that he’s become the bad guy. BvS is certainly a movie you’re supposed to think about – all the supposed “plot holes” and things that supposedly have no build up can be explained if you pay attention and think about what you’re watching – but it’s even more heart than head. It’s about human emotion, and the combination of acting, visuals, and the score made me feel everything it was trying to convey. I can’t explain logically why Logan‘s attempts at emotional scenes fell flat for me because it’s not an intellectual thing, but while watching, I just didn’t feel anything.

Logan and The Dark Knight Rises had many of the same pieces as BvS – a jaded hero past his prime meeting someone that forces him to get past his cynicism being the most  obvious – but none of the same respect for the mythos. I’m totally for broad strokes adaptations. But those broad strokes adaptations can’t just be for the sake of one character.

I get that Logan was very loosely based on Old Man Logan, but in order to do that, the movie had to ignore the optimistic end of Days of Future Past to basically redo the same idea. Regardless of whether or not this is in the main continuity – I seem to recall statements being made both confirming and denying that – it’s still a rehash of what’s been done before, and killing the X-Men off screen again was insulting to them, especially the ones that have existed as characters for years longer than Wolverine. And making Xavier responsible for their deaths instead of Logan may make more sense, because any number of X-Men could neutralize Logan in a fight before he killed them all, but takes away from the emotion that could have been there, the sense of responsibility.

The way The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises approached the story was to cut out Robin all together, and try to give two original characters the role – they made Rachel the Jason equivalent and Blake the Tim. The problem is, the Batman and Robin dynamic doesn’t work there. In the comics, Bruce felt heavily responsible for Jason’s death because he made him Robin. Had he not done that, Jason wouldn’t have been lured to Ethiopia and the Joker wouldn’t have beaten him to death with a crowbar. While the only one ultimately responsible for Jason’s death was the Joker, Bruce felt guilty for putting Jason in that position. That plotline doesn’t work when you replace the son that he trained to fight with a love interest that would have been targeted regardless of her connection to Batman. There was no ring of truth to Bruce’s guilt. It’s not the same kind of responsibility, and it completely erases the significance of multiple very important characters.

Snyder, too, took a broad strokes approach to his movie – BvS was a patchwork of bits taken from different comics and continuities that relied on Bruce being primarily alone, without his closest friends and allies. But it did that without disrespecting his cast of characters. While Batman v Superman didn’t have Robin, it never felt dismissive of the character. It honoured his memory by having his suit on display in the Batcave, by the implication of that and several lines of dialogue being that his memory haunts Bruce and losing him changed Batman. Bruce felt responsible and spent the entire movie fighting to make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.

Both TDKR and Logan were the culmination of a series. Like I argued hereLogan relied upon years of built up affection for Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of the character and knowledge that this would be his last time in the role. The Dark Knight Rises was similar to that – the audience wanted a happy ending to the trilogy, so they were invested in Bruce’s story and recovery. Batman v Superman was the first movie in the DCEU with Batman, and when it was released, we knew that Justice League was coming, so it didn’t rely on any sort of nostalgia or prior goodwill. It just let us feel things without long pieces of exposition telling us why we should.

The Dark Knight Rises, Logan, and Batman v Superman are all serious dramas in the superhero movie genre. That’s great. I didn’t find them equally effective, but in principle, I love people taking comic book movies seriously. It’s not that TDKR and Logan are bad movies, but they weren’t for me. I know that now because Batman v Superman gave me everything I didn’t know I needed or wanted in a superhero movie. No wink, wink, nudge,  nudge, we’re not like those comic book movies moments. It was itself without needing to deride the rest of the genre. It embraced the spirit of the source material. Every moment was completely sincere. After seeing it, I realized the way The Dark Knight Rises and Logan approached serious and emotional just doesn’t work for me.

TL;DR: Zack Snyder puts too much effort into his movies, and has thus ruined my ability to enjoy movies that are supposed to be intense and emotional but don’t go the full way to making them so. Thanks a lot, Zack.

Happy Birthday, ‘Batman v Superman’: The Impact Two Years Later

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is my favourite movie, comic book or otherwise. Two years ago, I was sitting in the theatre, unbelievably, ridiculously excited, waiting for it to begin.

The movie opens with Bruce as a child, running away during his parents’ funeral, interspersed with the scene of their murder in a flashback style with no words, just Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous score, the whole thing crafted with an amazing attention to detail – when Martha’s necklace breaks and the pearls scatter, one of them is even specked with her blood. I knew from that moment I was in for something special.

The first ten minutes of this movie were the boldest choice in a superhero movie since X-Men (2000) opened in a concentration camp. Snyder trusted his audience. This wasn’t a Batman origin story, and everyone knows about the murder of the Waynes, so he kept it quick and simple, following it with arguably the most Batman moment ever, and it didn’t even involve a Batsuit: Bruce Wayne flying towards trouble; driving straight into a disaster zone; and running through the chaos to rescue people. That’s just awesome.

In this post, from several months ago, I talked about how both Batman v Superman and Man of Steel deconstructed the superhero genre, and I said something along the lines of “the symbolism has been analysed to death”. I was wrong. I was so wrong.

People are still talking about it. Fans are still finding new things to love about it, bits of symbolism and allusions we hadn’t seen before, Easter eggs that we missed. People that hated it can’t get over it – they have to keep making hyperbolic statements about it being the worst movie they’ve ever seen, and comparing every movie that comes out to it. It made that huge of an impact. That’s not the kind of thing that happens with a regular old bad movie or adaptation. Like it or not, BvS is unforgettable.

Its uniqueness doesn’t come from being the “first” anything. It comes from being a brilliant story, inspired by others, but when taken as a whole, completely unlike anything else. It comes from Zack Snyder taking comic books as literature as serious and worthwhile as Nietzsche’s most pretentious works(I know I promised I’d stop bringing up Nietzsche. This doesn’t count.) Arthurian legendphilosophy, Greek and Christian mythology, superhero comics – all of those seemingly unrelated things come together in Batman v Superman to create an incredible, thematically rich story.

A straight up adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns wouldn’t have appealed to me, both because I’m not a Frank Miller fan and because I don’t really see the point in frame for frame adaptations that don’t add anything new to the picture. But as much inspiration as Snyder drew from it, he changed just as much and made it his own by blending the source material with allusions to the classics, to philosophy. Watching Batman v Superman is an entirely different experience from reading The Dark Knight Returns.

He changed the heart of the story, because in his version, Superman is right. Superman is the hero. He took the immense cynicism of the comic and turned it beautifully, wonderfully optimistic. As I discussed hereBatman v Superman is a fundamentally optimistic story about the world being kind of a nightmare, but something we can make better. It frequently gets accused of being “grimdark”, but it’s not that at all – it’s not a fun, escapist flick that lets you avoid thinking about consequences and real world implications for a couple  hours, but it’s also not a cynical everything is terrible, heroes don’t exist, there’s nothing you can do to improve the world take. It’s a life is hard, but we can do it take.

I read this fantastic article a while back that kind of broke my heart – it was about how the Snyder era of superhero movies is over and we should be sad about it. It’s so painfully true. Snyder set the bar so high, it’s going to be very, very hard for the directors that follow to produce something even close to that quality, much less to surpass it, because it’s the most unique, lovingly crafted comic adaptation I’ve ever seen. After experiencing Man of Steel and Batman v Superman, after seeing how spectacular a comic book adaptation can be, it’s going to be hard for me to ever again be satisfied with an okay popcorn movie that I can forget I saw after I leave.

There’s gorgeous detail in everything. From the specks of blood on the fallen pearls to the texture of the costumes to every bit of dialogue. It’s visually spectacular, with fantastic performances and a stellar score. Even with a half hour of the movie hacked out, the theatrical cut of BvS still managed to be excellent. It’s not something I’d watch again, but that’s not because it wasn’t good – it’s because why bother to watch the incomplete version?

The rewatch value of the BvS ultimate edition is unbelievable, and that’s because Snyder doesn’t play it safe or try to pander to the widest possible base. He knows what he wants to make and does it. And what does that result in? Something polarizing, sure, but also something where each frame has more thought put into it and purpose behind it than most movies have in their entirety. So, happy birthday, BvS. You’re amazing, and as much as I pretend I’m done talking to you, we all know I’m probably not.

‘The Divine Comedy’, Greek Tragedies, and the Classic Hero’s Journey: The Different Character Arcs in the DCEU

Batman v Superman centres around Clark Kent. Bruce is the deuteragonist of the piece, and while Clark’s arc is primarily about being hated and feared and demonstrating to the world that he’s on humanity’s side, Bruce’s story is one of doing bad things and seeking redemption.

The Divine Comedy tells the story of Dante’s journey through hell, Purgatory, and heaven – the path through sin and redemption. In Greek tragedy, the hero is brought down by his own hamartia – his fatal flaw. Both of these things are hugely relevant to Bruce and his story throughout the movie.

If I remember eleventh grade English correctly, the characteristics of a tragic hero as described by Aristotle are as follows:

  1. They begin the story as a hero of high status.
  2. The story is about their fall from grace.
  3. The fall is an inevitable event, brought about by the hero’s own actions.
  4. The audience must feel a sense of catharsis upon their death.

Bruce embodies all of these attributes, save for one thing: the last half hour of the movie features him realizing just how bad his actions were and wrenching himself back to being a true hero. The movie isn’t actually a tragedy. The ending is bittersweet, but it doesn’t qualify as a tragedy, either in literary terms, as described above, or what we’ve come to interpret tragedy as – a story with a sad ending.

This is a story about redemption.

This brings us back to The Divine Comedy. It’s a fascinating, if hugely xenophobic, read. Ignoring the “this was written in fourteenth century Italy and is therefore hugely racist and homophobic” thing, each of the three parts can be related to Bruce’s character arc.

The first ten minutes of BvS are a quick, efficient explanation of how Bruce came to be in a mental state where he thought murdering an innocent man was justifiable. The death of his parents. The helplessness of standing there in the rubble of a city destroyed by a fight between aliens with superpowers. Those first ten minutes are the most heroic he is in the entire movie until the end, when he throws aside his spear and goes to save Martha Kent. Because he’s not fighting criminals. He’s not in costume. He is running through a disaster zone, straight into the danger, to see who needs help. For the rest of the movie…as the one man said, “there’s a new kind of mean in him”. That’s the path through sin: the Inferno part of The Divine Comedy. Bruce’s paranoia and obsessiveness changed him from the man that comforted a child that just lost her mother to one that terrifies the people he just saved even more than the human traffickers holding them hostage.

Clark is the catalyst for Bruce realizing that he was the villain in this piece. While The Divine Comedy is about finding God, BvS revolves around reiterating that Superman isn’t a god, he’s just a man that chooses to use his power to make a positive impact in the world. Bruce’s story is about believing in Clark as a good man, and coming back to being good himself. While oftentimes, tragic heroes are static and blind to the faults that will cause their own doom, thus ensuring that their fall is unavoidable, Bruce isn’t a static character. He can change, and he does. He goes to save Martha while Clark confronts Lex and fights with Clark and Diana to stop Doomsday – Purgatorio,  the redemption part of the poem. After Clark’s death, he’s inspired to form the Justice League – Paradiso, the final part of the poem, the journey through Heaven.

Like Bruce, Clark also fits several of the characteristics of a tragic hero. He’s a hero of high status because he’s the last son of Krypton. He’s an alien on Earth, othered and revered, and a literal superhero. That makes his metaphorical fall inevitable, because no one can live up to the impossibly high expectations people had of him. But neither his fall from grace nor his death occur because of his own actions or any fatal flaw, they occur because of other people – Bruce and Lex. After his death, he’s recognized by both the world in general and his would-be killer as a good man and a hero that should be accepted, not feared, because BvS is  not a tragedy.

The film begins with Bruce’s “start of darkness”, as it were, and his path of doing worse and worse things. I’ve talked about Nietzsche and how his philosophy applies to BvSbefore. And then again. Now, I’m going to have to do it again, just to bring up the quote that I somehow forgot to mention before and that encapsulates Bruce’s character arc. I’m sorry, I swear this is the last time!

He who fights monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.

By the time Lois stops Bruce from killing Clark, he has become comparable to the criminals he fought and had alienated the people closest to him. This again ties in to The Divine Comedy – when Dante met his dead lover, she reminded him that he set himself on a self destructive path after her death, despite the good she’d done for him. It’s very reminiscent of Bruce’s loss of Robin, of his parents.

In contrast to the tragic hero, the main stages of the classic hero’s journey (heavily abbreviated) are:

  1. The call to adventure
  2. Refusal of the call
  3. Meeting the mentor
  4. Crossing the threshold
  5. Reward
  6. The road back
  7. Return to ordinary

This doesn’t apply to Bruce in BvS at all, because the story takes place so late in his career as Batman. It can, however, be used to loosely describe Diana’s arc, as well as Clark’s in Man of Steel.

Clark may have never refused the call, but if his call to adventure was the development of his powers, we can argue that his “meeting the mentor” was the holographic Jor-El. He crossed the threshold when Zod came to Earth. And so on. Diana wasn’t in much of BvS, but she arguably fits these stages even better than Clark in MoS. Her call to adventure was seeing the beginnings of the disturbance in Metropolis. She refused the call when she started to leave. She met the “mentor” when she fought Doomsday with Clark and Bruce. She crossed the threshold when Clark died and she agreed to help Bruce assemble the League. The reward and the road back took place during Justice League, culminating in her return to the ordinary when she stepped back into being a public figure.

The members of the Trinity all have different character arcs with a few similar aspects. BvS draws upon every kind of classic literature to craft these arcs and define every character as a unique individual. It’s fascinating, and I love it.

Happy birthday to Zack Snyder, my favourite director around, and happy early birthday to my friend Selene, one of the most awesome people ever.

Thanks For The Ride: An Open Letter To Zack Snyder

I saw Justice League for the first time last night, and for a solid hour after I got home, I couldn’t stop smiling because of the joy of having my childhood brought to life, of having finally seen the movie I’ve been waiting for for years. I still need to gather my complete thoughts about what I actually felt about it, but before I can do that, I need to express how thankful I am for the DC movies that came before this one.

Batman v Superman came out when I was in my first year of college. I was stressed, I was lonely, and I was having a lot of moments of apathy towards everything. I was home for spring break that week, and I watched it on opening night with my best friend. What that movie did, more than anything? It made me feel less alone.

I barely remember the theatrical cut now. I haven’t seen it since the movie was in theatres. I have no idea what scenes don’t exist in the movie I first saw. I know I prefer the ultimate edition, and that’s the one I always watch, but I also remembering loving the theatrical when it first came out, because even though I don’t remember what specifically the ultimate cut included to make it a more fleshed out story, I know that the spirit of it was the same in both incarnations. And the spirit of that movie was exactly what I needed. Every single time I watch BvS, I love it more. Every single time, it helps me appreciate Man of Steel more. It helps me appreciate that no matter how often it feels like I’m alone and like the state of the world is overwhelmingly bleak, there’s still good out there, if I’m willing to help fight for it.

I hate the way film criticism has become about a select group of people trying to turn their subjective opinions into something perceived as objective truth. It’s a strange form of gatekeeping. Film critics seem to have declared themselves the arbiter of good when it comes to all movies, not just the ones of which they are the target. They seem to have decided that they get to decide what means something, and that if it doesn’t appeal to their perceptions of what a comic book movie should be, it’s objectively bad. But that’s not how art works.

Art is a human experience. I’m an engineer. I appreciate the need to quantify things. But that does not apply to fiction. I don’t appreciate having things that have made an impact on my life diminished to how many jokes they had, or a number on an arbitrary scale. Film is subjective. Something that matters to me won’t necessarily matter to someone else, and vice versa. That’s okay. I fully support people not liking things, and even discussing why. What I hate is people dismissing others as being completely wrong about a subjective medium and claiming that anyone who likes a work they don’t is stupid. BvS matters to me in a way that few films can touch. No amount of critic snark is ever going to change that.

 

Through your films, you inspired me – the atheistic Hindu STEM girl that can’t string words into a sentence to save her life – to not only research Christian philosophy, but write a detailed analysis about how it pertains to a superhero movie.  BvS is one of those stories that reminds me why I love stories. It’s full of rich, beautifully layered and complex ideas and characters, but beyond that, it’s real, it’s honest, and it has more heart than any other comicbook movie I’ve ever seen. Watching your movies – especially BvS -makes me happy. It makes me feel safe and valued as a person. It helps me believe in a better world.

I’ve been a fan of DC since I was six years old. My fondness for it began with Nightwing, and through him, I discovered everyone else. Seeing these characters brought to life so well is like a dream come true. That alone would have made me love your movies forever. But you didn’t stop there. The way you handled BvS made me feel seen. As a woman of colour from an immigrant family, you let me see myself in Superman in a very real way. Your version of the character will forever be my Superman. He’s a superhero that’s completely relatable, because for all his powers, for all his alien heritage, he’s human. He’s an immigrant and a refugee. He’s adopted. I’ve never loved any version of the character as much as this one. In Man of Steel, for the first time, all of those aspects of his character that have always existed and been taken mostly for granted are explored in depth. In Batman v Superman, you acknowledged that struggles that immigrants face and confronted prejudice with tact and compassion. In a time when so many people question our humanity, that means a lot.

So from the bottom of my heart, Mr. Snyder, thank you. Thank you for making great movies and telling wonderful stories. Thank you for refusing to choose between awesome, epic, entertaining superhero flicks and intelligent art. Thank you for always being graceful and classy, even in the face of bloggers and critics attacking your work and your character constantly for years. You’ve worked to create wonderful, lasting stories, and I’m forever grateful for the chance to have seen them. I can’t wait to see what you make in the future. Thank you.

Martha, Martha, and Motherhood: Maternal Love in the DCEU

I’ve never cried during a movie in my life, but the Martha scene in Batman v Superman? That’s about as close as I’ve ever come. I don’t know what I expected before walking into that theatre to see BvS for the first time. Whatever it was, it wasn’t what we got. But when you think about all the build up in Man of Steel, in BvS itself, it seems so fitting that it was Clark’s desperation to save his mother that brought him and Bruce together. The DCEU is about family. It’s practically an ode to mothers, and that can  be seen from the very beginning.

The opening of Man of Steel is set on Krypton, with Jor-El and Lara, and even though much of the scene centred around Jor-El, Lara was still a significant player. Her devastation at having to give her son up so he could live was palpable. She was terrified for him, but she did it, because at least he’d have a chance on Earth. Even after they launched the pod containing their infant son, even after Jor-El’s death, the scene continued with Lara. We saw most of the destruction of Krypton through her eyes. She even got the last line before the end of the planet: Make a better world than ours, Kal. He was long gone and never heard those words, but that’s what he did.

Clark never knew Lara. The mother he knew was Martha Kent, and she is one of the two most important figures in his life. He loves his mother to bits. We saw that all throughout Man of Steel and Batman v Superman. The sheer warmth of the scene where he came back home. The fury when Zod threatened her. The terror and anguish when he learned that Lex had had her kidnapped. The way he called her late at night just because he wanted to hear her voice. The quiet comfort of the two of them standing in the fields under the stars after he flew to visit. Clark adores his mother. Martha grounds him. She can get through to him when he’s overwhelmed, and there are times when she’s the only one that can bring him peace of mind. She’s his family, and from the time Jonathan died to the time he met Lois, she was all of it.

Just as important is Martha’s love for him. Martha’s love for Clark is beautifully pure and unconditional. We see that every time the camera is on her, from her expressing her fear that someone would take him away from her in MoS to her dropping the coffee pot when the Capitol blew up with him inside. He’s her only son, and we’ve seen again and again that she’s always there for him when he needs her. She rushed to his school to help him through his sensory overload. She picked up the phone immediately when he called. Her biggest fear is something happening to him – he’s all but invulnerable, but the thought of him being hurt terrifies her.

Bruce’s relationship with his mother isn’t as positive. Not because he doesn’t love her or because she didn’t love him, but because he’s haunted by her. When he thinks of his mother, he thinks of the most traumatic experience of his life, of a person he couldn’t save. His parents were murdered in an alley right in front of him. He never had the chance to really get to know them. Martha put herself between Bruce and the gunman, just as Thomas did – Bruce had to watch both of his parents die to save him while he was helpless and scared, just like he would feel helpless and scared in Metropolis all those years later, unable to stop the devastation.

That mugging scene focused on Martha. Not Bruce, not Thomas. Martha: his mother’s name, his father’s final word. The only thing that could get through to him, through that haze of anger and fear. Bruce couldn’t save his own mother, but he could damn well save Clark’s. Bruce embodies regret. He couldn’t save his parents. He couldn’t save Jason. He couldn’t save all those people that died in Metropolis. All those people in Bruce’s life he couldn’t save, and Clark reminded him that there was someone he could. And  it was thoughts of his mother that made him understand that. Thoughts of one dead woman that mattered to him more than any words could describe.

For all the action and bombast and fantastic elements, BvS remains a gentle, very human story. It’s a story about love, fear, and the human experience, disguised as an action flick. It feels peaceful in a way that no other superhero movie I’ve seen has matched. It’s a story about the Power of Love, but not in the romantic sense. Yes, Clark’s love for Lois played a major role, but beyond that, it was the story of Clark and Bruce’s love for their mothers.

I’ve never loved a superhero movie as much as I love Batman v Superman. The first time I watched BvS was the first time I ever really felt seen by a director of a superhero movie. Zack Snyder cared about telling a real story. BvS isn’t glib or flippant. It never shies away from dark, serious moments through quips or away from real feelings through macho posturing. Superman is universal. He’s a story that we can all relate to. So many action heroes just become white male power fantasies. That’s not what Superman is, and not what Superman should ever be.

Snyder recognized the universality of Superman, and instead of making him a generic, nerdy “nice guy” that Lois doesn’t see outside of him as Superman, he focused on the fact that Clark is deeply and truly loved. That he’s a hero that loves his mother, loves his girlfriend, experiences self doubt, cares about doing the right thing and struggles to figure out what that is. Snyder embraced the idea of Superman as an immigrant, as a refugee. He depicted with loving care that Clark’s adoptive parents are his family, and that the lack of blood ties does not in any way mean they’re unimportant. Superman isn’t just unrelenting optimism no matter what – he’s finding ways to be resilient and push forward in the face of adversity. He’s love and compassion and human decency.

The running theme of love for and by mothers is a huge part of what makes the DCEU special. It’s the very heart of the universe, and it contributes to the creation of one of the most beautifully heartwarming fictional universes ever brought to film.