A Serious House on Serious Earth
I’m at a loss for words. Both because the film has been written about extensively (in many cases, exhaustively) and because Batman v Superman has the fiendish ability of sitting on your chest and squeezing the air from your lungs. It’s heavy, aggressive, and profoundly puzzling. Sitting in the theater, having just revisited Man of Steel a week earlier, I felt like I had seen all the symptoms and now the rash was spreading openly on screen.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. Going into the film I tried to remove myself from the stakes of the franchise. Not because I was rooting for it to be bad, but rather because it would hurt less if I didn’t care. Admittedly it’s sort of a lame defense mechanism, especially after already having funded my curiosity with the purchase of a ticket. But to my surprise, the film never forced my hand. Of its own accord, the film removed any hopes of being invested in the characters, the story, or the “cinematic universe” it was desperately trying to establish.
Whereas Man of Steel functions as a somewhat complete story, BvS has more in common with a late night cram session for an upcoming test. There’s just too much information and half of it is obscured by multi-layered dreams and logic that crumbles under the weight of repetition. Even the ‘Dawn of Justice’ subtitle is only earned through a series of emails containing video snippets that the audience is forced to watch, one after the other. It’s that messy, and by this time we’re no longer even reading from the textbook.
At every turn Batman v Superman is willing to undermine itself to prove the point that you don’t have to like this stuff to play with it. Even in the few scenes that work there’s always a moment where it pushes you back into your seat, reminding you of your place as a witness, not participant. And that’s what I felt like, a witness- mostly to something ugly and quite sad. I spent the following day speaking with a co-worker about the film, which he’d also seen the night before. Our discussion carried the tone of guilt, like we were expelling our thoughts as a form of therapy. Neither of us was particularly angry, just fucking frustrated.
I’d also be lying if I said this was a proper review. There are plenty of those floating around the internet, and many of them are quite good. I tried multiple times to objectively arrange my thoughts, replaying scenes from the film in my head. But each time I was smacked with how indifferent I was to the whole thing. Caring about the details felt like carrying rocks in my pocket. It weighed me down and cluttered my thoughts.
My beef wasn’t that it re-imagined established characters and mangled them into a misguided and under-researched examination of mythological beings. Or that from scene to scene the narrative seems to get “tagged out” in favor of an entirely different kind of story, with this constant tag-team dynamic enduring 80% of the film. But rather that, only two seats over sat a seven year old kid wearing a Batman t-shirt. This would be the Batman he’d grow up with for the foreseeable future- this would be his take on a hero.
I grew up with Batman too. And have since continued growing, each time touching back to the version of the Dark Knight that made sense for the occasion.
I was born in France in the summer of ’91. My parents had moved to Nice only a few months prior, a coastal city at the southernmost tip of France where my Father had been raised. French was my first language, but my Mom- being an American in a foreign country, made sure to inject fixtures of American culture into my early childhood. I like to think that it was as much a comfort to her as it was to me. So when she surprised me with a VHS and a matching action figure, Batman became exactly that: a tool for comfort.
Only a few years earlier, Tim Burton’s Batman (’89) had crowded theaters, propelling the Dark Knight back into mainstream consciousness. Batman: The Animated Series would follow, launching in September of ’92, which served as my primary introduction to the character. Through a collection of figures and most notably, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (’93)- the feature length spin-off film, I immersed myself in Gotham’s strange underbelly.
At that age I didn’t fully grasp every storyline but I knew much of it frightened me, and for that I couldn’t look away. The animated series is often lauded for its mature themes, while still retaining a kid friendly exterior. In it Batman operates both as a vigilante and as a tall tale, uttered by alleyway goons in between cigarette breaks. He’s often defined as the silhouette seen through rain washed windows, or as a pair of sharp white eyes beaming out from the shadows. The iconography was as mythic as the character, making just his presence important to Gotham’s ecosystem.
Watching the show made me feel strong. I understood the needs of both sides of the story: the man of action and the man of legend. No matter Bruce Wayne or Batman, I could count on him to make the right decision, to save the right person, even if only to cart them off to Arkham moments later. There was something important about that consistency. Something that would echo years later when I had become the oldest of four siblings and out of necessity, a caretaker. The character and my relationship to the character would continue to evolve over the next two decades.
After a few years, at the age of five or six, I finally saw Batman and Batman Returns (’92), which served as the next step of my fandom. They felt like a natural progression from the cartoons. The buildings were angular beneath rain filled skies, and below, scum filled the streets. I had walked this beat before. While Catwoman, laying broken in an alleyway as cats licked her wounds, will forever be seared in my head- all of it made sense. I understood this take on the character, I found purpose in it.
Then a few years later, Batman was the first comic I picked up again in my early teens. It helped guide me back into the world of consistent comic reading, helped me feel welcome because I now had a point of reference. And at that age, everything demands an answer. So who better to follow than the greatest detective himself.
The next milestone for me was the release of the Dark Knight, which came out as I was a junior in high school, wrestling with my own perceived darkness. I felt I understood the Joker’s brand of chaos and my hormone riddled body was the proof. It felt jammed to the gills with detail, and I felt smarter for liking it.
And now we’ve been given a new take on the character: Batman v Superman. Despite Ben Affleck’s admirable portrayal (arguably one of the highlights of the film), he still feels inadequate when removed from his conflict with Superman. Neither exist without the other, like Siamese twins, they’re better off just being known as one aggressive unit. In fact the film almost relies on them to play the same fractured character, only made whole when their conflict is finally laid to rest (Maaaaaaaartha!). It shows a level of indifference, that not even Snyder’s interest in modern myth building can support.
I’m sure at this point you’ve also heard that Batman murders people in the film, both through circumstance and a more hands on approach. From what I could gather his overall aim is to punish Superman for his general threat to the public. At night he no longer fights crime, but follows specific leads, dealing out his own literal brand of justice. He acts on his own terms, less a protector of Gotham, and more a one man terror. He’s no longer the tall tale celebrated by the animated series, this Batman is the stuff of nightmares.
So it begs the question: who is this Batman for? It’s not for the Batman fan in his mid-twenties. It’s not for the seven year old, clutching his Dad’s hand on the theater armrest. It’s not for the mixed up teen, gravitating toward a strong icon.
So then who is this all for? Certainly there must be a point, a system of want that willed this version into existence. Films, especially large scale blockbusters, take a lot of time and effort to make, as well as hundreds of people on and off screen. So were there truly individuals who thought to themselves that this worked? I’ll never know.
But I’m still left with that sad question: who is Batman v Superman for? And that’s ultimately what defeats me.