The book to read before or after you go see Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is Frank Miller’s 1986 masterpiece of a graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. In it, Bruce Wayne is fifty-ish, beaten down, and going on ten years retired. (Recall that the filmmakers of The Dark Knight Rises settled on a slightly younger Batman who hadn’t been seen in eight years.) Ben Affleck captures well this darker, grittier, unshaven and more cynical Wayne in the present movie. Contrary to the common opinion, it wasn’t Daredevil that prepared him for the role; it was Gone Girl, wherein Affleck played the befuddled but ultimately serpent-wise Nick Dunne to Rosamund Pike’s manipulative Amy Dunne, a man determined to unmask all of his wife’s schemes despite being trapped in the role of her loving husband.
Bruce Wayne carries himself with a similar fortitude and dark wisdom in Zack Snyder’s film, but he’s fought the enemies of Gotham City for so long and internalized the psychological damage they’ve caused so deeply that he even keeps momentos from the experience (including the insult “The joke’s on you, Batman,” scrawled on an old suit of Robin’s, whom the Joker has killed). The most serious consequence of his double life is that he has less ability than before to distinguish between a good man and a bad man, between those who mean to help our world and those who mean to destroy it.
In the painful (and painstakingly-done) long opening sequence, Bruce Wayne is there, in Metropolis, as the Superman of Man of Steel battles General Zod and his soldiers. We see the destruction of Metropolis–a destruction that Superman would like to prevent–from the point of view of those who are truly suffering from that destruction. Superman emerges victorious, you’ll recall, from that battle, but he does so while being watched by a military not-entirely-convinced of his good intentions. Bruce Wayne isn’t entirely convinced, either: from his point of view, if there’s even a one-percent chance that a being with that kind of unstoppable power could be our enemy, then we must assume that he is our enemy, and do all we can to destroy him before he destroys us.
It’s an irrational attitude. Alfred knows it; the audience knows it; even Bruce Wayne himself knows it. But it’s also a human attitude, and that’s why I’ve always loved the Batman far more than Superman. In the old, old TV series and the early comics, Superman was a “strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men”; his powers were his based on his Kryptonian birth. He was inherently Super. By the time of 1978’s Superman, the first hour of which has been unmatched for pathos in the history of comic book films, filmmakers had made a subtle change: Superman becomes super by his interaction with the Earth itself, as our sun and the radiation around us permeates his skin and its cells. I appreciated that change. It made Superman more human-like, more approachable; but it still didn’t remove the basic difficulty that he was fundamentally better than us, and here to save us, not only from our enemies but also from ourselves. Everything was, and is, easy for this guy–too easy. The only challenges for him, truly, are those that come from Krypton itself, and from his own struggles to accept the role of savior. The present film brings in both problems for him: Lex Luthor gains access to both Kryptonite and General Zod’s ship. Meanwhile, there’s a terrific scene in which Clark comes home to Lois, who’s in the bathtub, looking rather seducible, and she tells him that they’re holding hearings on Capitol Hill about his destruction of Metropolis. Clark thinks about it for a second and says, “I don’t. . . I don’t care.” And, in that moment, his voice tells us it’s true. He really doesn’t care what the world thinks about what he does. He’s above all that, literally and figuratively. As an audience member, if Clark had not, in the next moment, jumped into that tub with Lois, I’d have been completely frightened of him. He is almost the embodiment of the Supreme Being of the eighteenth-century deists, but he’s not disinterested or detached. He is, it appears, a being answerable only to himself.
Batman’s not that way. He is, beneath the survival suit, wholly flesh and blood. He’s a vigilante, to be sure, but so was the Lone Ranger. He beats criminals to a pulp, but he does it with his own bare, human hands. And, like the Lone Ranger, he has his moral limits: he won’t kill the criminals he captures. For much of the new film, we aren’t sure what moral limits Superman has.
The two heroes share one other characteristic: in the comics, they outthink their opponents as often as they outfight them. Batman seemed to appear as often in DC’s Detective comic series as he did in his own mag in the sixties. That fits. He was created to be, not just a playboy billionaire with tricks and toys, a la Tony Stark, but the world’s greatest detective. Superman, too, had superior brainpower. He could match wits easily with Lex Luthor or Braniac and come out on top, seemingly without having to lift a muscle. My impression is that, in his angst, his worry over going too far with his powers in Batman vs. Superman, Superman is actually outthought and outfought by the wary Batman and Luthor in the film, a development that I did not expect.
Why should this be so? Because a savior, whoever it is, needs to have the salvation he offers acknowledged and appreciated. There’s yet another small, marvelous moment when the reporters at the Daily Planet are looking at television coverage of a tragedy the world thinks Superman could have prevented, but didn’t. The Man of Steel is not merely criticized in that report; he is reviled; and the look on Clark Kent’s face is utterly crestfallen. He has failed to be the hero he was told the world needed.
Not until Clark comes to the realization that, all along, he was trying to fulfill the vision of a hero that his earthly father, Jonathan Kent, had for him rather than be the hero that his own instincts tell him he can be, does Superman become a hero we can root for. He still has to fight Batman–a man as fully prepared as any mortal can be for the onslaught of superpowers–and he must find a way to rescue a woman he loves from the control of a villain who has outmaneuvered him. But the choices he makes at the climax of the film, against an entirely different enemy, are wholly his own.
I am not and never have been a conspiracy theorist. I can prove that there was a conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln, but Oswald acted alone. I cannot prove that “the Jews run Hollywood”; in fact, I know–to the extent that I “know” it at all–that Hollywood is run mostly by those from Protestant backgrounds. Those that run the place have always been wary of giving offense to any religious group. Recall, if you will, the controversy over the treatment of the Jews in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ some years ago. Consider also, if you will, Hollywood’s general reluctance to treat the Resurrection element of the Christian story seriously or with any reverence. Of the great films about Christ in my lifetime–King of Kings (1961) with Jeffrey Hunter, The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) with Max von Sydow, Jesus of Nazareth (1977) with Robert Powell and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) with Willem Dafoe, only King of Kings treats the Resurrection as a fact. In the others, it remains merely the Christian hope. Why this should be so goes back to Hollywood’s unwillingness to set apart one faith and thereby give offense to all others; but it also speaks to the fact that filmmakers are, for the most part, thoroughgoing secularists. It may be purely accidental that Batman vs. Superman was released officially on Good Friday, 2016. But, respectfully, I wonder if it was an accident.
I am thinking about this matter because the film has made me think about it. In the world of Gotham City and Metropolis that we see, humanity needs to be saved, but it doesn’t necessarily need a savior. Bruce Wayne tells us as much in the final, surprisingly-moving scene he shares with Diana Prince–Wonder Woman–who has done her part in the climactic battle of the film. But a savior can be many things, including someone, man or woman, who sacrifices himself in an attempt to show us the better version of ourselves that we can become. This is the message, the lesson, if you will, of the movie. We can be better than we are. And we must become better than we are if we are to make a better world. We must be willing to sacrifice ourselves–that is, make the choices we don’t think we can make–if that better world is ever to come to pass. “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” Jesus said. Those who make films have always had as much trouble as the rest of us in grasping the first part of that statement because it reaches beyond the reality of our experience here on Earth toward an existence that none of us can verify. Even here, in this movie, it’s hard to tell: those who believe say they can hear a heartbeat from one who is dead, and see the ground around his coffin begin to move; yet, nothing is certain. But “the Life?” That’s something flesh and blood men and women know all too well, and Hollywood has as much right to speak of it as anyone. Their ultimate answer about what life may mean may be as simple and unsatisfying as flowers thrown upon a grave, but those filmmakers are still some of those who live among us, people who are well aware of the need to make sacrifices, whether in the creation of art or in the creation of better lives.
[PS–I have ignored for the moment the history of the comics in order to highlight a more important issue in the film. Doomsday killed Superman in 1992, an event that made the CBS Evening News. Superman was resurrected in the comics a year later and, if we are to judge by a film made back in 2007, Superman was even cloned by Lex Luthor after his battle with Doomsday. All of these changes point to one essential truth about comic books: their universes shift routinely; the world inhabited by George Reeves’ Superman (or even Christopher Reeve’s Superman) no longer exists. The comics “believe” in resurrection as a storytelling and monetary tool, even if Hollywood does not. Hollywood does believe in sequels, however, if it can be determined that a sequel can make money; so it is likely that we are going to see a sequel to Batman vs. Superman.
If a sequel is made, I hope it will address the shortcomings of Snyder’s film. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman was terrific. She won over the many critics who did not believe she could be a convincing embodiment of that character. I was one of those critics. The problem I have with her in the film is that, good as she is, she really doesn’t need to be there. Although she moves the plot, there’s nothing she does that is essential or something that Batman or Superman can’t do. She’ll need to do more in the sequel; but, to be fair, she has her own movie coming out in 2017. Jesse Eisenberg gave it his manful best, but I still think he was too young and not worldly enough to be a convincing Lex Luthor. Overall, however, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice will hold up under multiple viewings, and will show itself to be a more complex and better film than its critics will admit.
All of the comic book movies, whether they are part of the DC universe or the Marvel universe, have to wrestle with the problem of how to make their fictional worlds relevant to our own very real, very different world. Those movies to date have done it in two ways: either by making their heroes grapple with the “big” questions (such as, “does the world need saving?”) as Batman vs. Superman does, or by creating a set of superheroes who quarrel with each other, as the Watchmen did and as the Avengers do now. But the day is coming–and might even have passed already–wherein the heroes must be adapted again, for the principal threat in the world we live in is that of the shifting threat of terrorism. The enemy is not a nation or a state or an “evil empire,” but a loosely-connected network of suicidal commandos whose impulse to do harm in the world is based upon what they’ve learned from a revealed religion. As far as I know, none of our current superheroes has ever had to grapple with an enemy who can be both a group and an individual, who can both disappear at a moment’s notice and yet strike anywhere.]