Friday, 2 September 2016

"Men are still good:" An essay on "Man of Steel" and "Batman v. Superman"

Warning: Spoilers for both films will follow

I don't think it's too hyperbolic to say that Zack Snyder's Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice are arguably the most controversial and divisive superhero films ever made. They've received both intense hate and love, which isn't surprising. From tone to characterisation, these are not the films many people want. For many, these films are too dark, too violent ("Batman and Superman shouldn't kill"), and don't have enough levity. For me, MoS and BvS are two of the boldest examples of modern blockbuster film-making- significantly flawed but still potent and filled with numerous moments of visual and emotional beauty. This essay will focus on MoS and BvS' thematic concerns rather than attempt to outright review the films. 

On an important side-note, with the newly released Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice- Ultimate Edition on Blu-ray, (which contains 30 more minutes of footage), we're able to see Zack Snyder's original vision for his much maligned film. The Ultimate Edition is fuller and more cohesive. It also feels like the three hour epic as which it was originally conceived.The film's reputation has gained some much needed positivity due to the Ultimate Edition, which I think is helpful as we move closer to next year's Justice League. 

Beginning with MoS, the film shares structural similarities to Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (David S. Goyer wrote both films, Nolan shares a story credit and is a producer on MoS). Like Batman Begins, MoS has a fractured narrative. As the ship carrying baby Kal (Superman's Kryptonian name) is about to crash on earth, we cut to adult Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) working as a fisherman. It's an elegant way to start at the beginning  of the Superman story (Krypton's destruction) while not wasting time getting to Clark as an adult. We then witness, via flashback, Clark's childhood, where he learns about and struggles with his super-human powers. In the present an adult Clark finally discovers where he came from and of his real purpose on Earth.

By employing a flashback structure, MoS distances and diversifies itself from Richard Donner's original classic with Christopher Reeve, which told its story linearly. And by positioning the scenes of Clark's childhood and young adulthood as flashbacks, it makes the experience of the film more intimate; Clark reflects on the moments of his life that defined him, which inform the moments in the present. The scenes of MoS where Clark is discovering where he came from- are its strongest. They feel less like a traditional superhero film than an independent film about someone who has super powers. When General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his fellow Kryptonians come to earth, the film becomes an alien invasion sci-fi film that happens to have Superman in it.

Both MoS and BvS also approach the concept and character of Superman from a very specific angle, which is, how would people react if Superman actually existed in our world. Some would worship him as a saviour, some would fear him or even hate him, and some wouldn't know how to feel. The film-makers approached MoS as a first-contact story- our first encounter with alien life. By being a story about Earth's first encounter with alien life, MoS isn't just a story about Superman, it's a story about the whole being at the precipice of a new chapter in history. The attempted terra-forming and subsequent battle of Metropolis are ground-zero for everything going forward in the DCEU (DC Extended Universe). We are shown a modern and realistic world that witnesses the birth of a modern mythology. The events of the film will be spoken about for generations to come. The arrival of Superman has irrevocably changed the course of world history.

Image result for superman kills zod

At the end of MoS, Superman is forced to kill  Zod the most controversial moment in either film. I don't want to get in to whether Superman should or shouldn't kill. In the context of the film I feel killing Zod is a sacrifice Superman has to make for humanity. He has to kill the last of his race so that the Earth can survive. This makes him the last living Kryptonian on the planet. By showing he is able to sacrifice Krypton for Earth he becomes the representation of Krypton to Earth- the bridge between Krypton and Earth of which his birth father Jor-El (Russell Crowe) spoke.

Moving on to BvS, in that film's news montage, Vikram Gandhi (playing himself) person says the arrival of Superman is a "paradigm shift," and that we can't presume to make Superman abide by our rules- it just won't work. While we Gandhi states people have to start to thinking beyond politics. But as Andrew Sullivan (also playing himself) says, whatever Superman does can be construed as a political act. Sullivan's statement appears to me to be a comment on the image of Superman as an all-American hero. In the modern era, Superman has to represent everyone and care about the state of the whole world- but again, as grand a figure as he is, he can't really escape the political implications and ramifications of his actions. "Must there be a Superman?" Charlie Rose asks Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). Her blunt answer: "There is." Superman is here, regardless of whether people want him or not; he is part of their existence. This one line conveys how it would feel to know- and have to accept- someone like Superman existing in our world. 

And maybe people do need a Superman. All super-heroes inspire us to be better and Superman represents this idea of inspiration better than all the others. While some may find Superman outdated, I think he remains relevant in our current time. There is so much hatred and cynicism that poisons the world. that what Superman stands for is still important: Hope. The hope that we can be better as a people if led the way, if we come together instead of continuing to push each other away.

One criticism of both MoS and BvS is they don't have the optimistic and light-hearted tone that we'd expect from a Superman film. And that's true- but despite being quite serious dark in many places, I believe there is an optimistic undercurrent to both films. In MoS, Superman gaining Colonel Nathan Hardy's (Christopher Meloni) trust and respect when he saves Hardy from Kryptonian Faora (Antje Traue) during the fight in Smallville shows Hardy's- and mankind in general- ability to look beyond his prejudice and see Superman as a hero and ally rather than just an alien. And during the film's climax, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) stay with Jenny (Rebecca Buller) as Metropolis is crumbling around them, displaying the compassion that even the most hardened man is capable of showing.   

Most importantly, by the end of BvS Superman has restored Bruce Wayne's (Ben Affleck) faith in humankind. In the film's closing scenes Bruce tells Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), "Men are still good. We fight. We kill. We betray one another. But we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to." Bruce has spent most of the film hating and wanting to kill Superman- but in a bitter-sweet irony, Superman's sacrifice and death in the fight against Doomsday has shown Bruce a person's ability to be selfless and good. Superman still struggles with being a symbol of hope throughout BvS. People still question his motivations- politically and morally- throughout the film. Through his death at the film's end, I feel he becomes that symbol. His death rises him above politics and fear, and his absence allows humanity to reflect on his time on Earth and how they'll move forward. Superman's sacrifice ties both he and Bruce's arcs nicely together. 

Speaking of Bruce Wayne, I think along with Batman BeginsBvS features the best exploration of Bruce/Batman in live-action. The film begins with the funeral of Bruce's parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne- which bookends with Superman's funeral at the end. Just as MoS began with the cries of baby Kal El- the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries- BvS begins with the "birth" of Batman. In a dream sequence where he's at his parents' funeral Bruce falls down a hole and is swarmed by bats who- in one of the film's most striking images- bring him back up to the surface- to a "beautiful lie," as Bruce tells us in voice-over.

We then witness the Battle of Metropolis from Bruce's perspective. This first scene with the older Bruce establishes his motivations for wanting to destroy Superman. He blames Superman the destruction of Metropolis and the loss of the people in of his buildings. He comforts a girl who lost her mother in the destruction. Part of what drives Bruce in his mission as Batman is the need to prevent his tragedy happening to another child. The orphaned girl further fuels Bruce's rage.

He also fears what would happen if Superman decides to turn against mankind. This is highlighted by the "Knightmare" sequence in which Bruce sees a possible future where Superman is a tyrant (reminiscent of the Injustice video game and the subsequent comic book series it inspired). This sequence is a miniature movie in itself. It both reflects and reinforces Bruce's fears of Superman's unlimited capabilities. 

Just before the fight between Batman and Superman, Bruce tells Alfred (Jeremy Irons) that killing Superman will be his legacy. Bruce feels that criminals are like weeds but eliminating Superman will secure the survival of the world. This is an point-of-view from the character I don't think has ever been explored in the comics- Bruce thinking about a legacy outside his war on crime. Maybe it wouldn't work in the comics medium but in a film it makes sense. This Bruce has aged in real time- 20 years in Gotham as the Batman. This exchange between Bruce and Alfred also conveys that Bruce has been driven over the edge by Superman's presence in the world, on top everything else he's experienced through his. He's willing to fight a super-human being so he can secure a legacy beyond that of beating up criminals, one that's befitting of the Wayne name- "They were hunters," Bruce says of his ancestors.

Bruce also mentions he's older than his father ever was. Like other superheroes that followed them, Superman and Batman's beginnings are based in the loss of parents. MoS is very much a film about fathers, as Superman has two- his aforementioned Kryptonian father Jor and his adopted father, Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner). Jonathan is protective of his son, knowing he's meant for something greater but afraid what will happen when he reveals himself to the world.

If MoS was largely about fathers, then BvS is about mothers. The "Martha" scene has been the subject of much ridicule. People read the scene as Batman becoming Superman's ally just because their mothers share the same name. But I think it goes deeper than that. Batman realizes he's been manipulated by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). He also finally sees Superman as someone with genuine humanity- he has a mother who he's trying to save. Batman has an epiphany, which brings him back from the edge.

Now, about Lex Luthor. I feel BvS' Lex is one of the more unusual villains in recent comic-book movie history. Eisenberg's interpretation is the most eccentric Lex we've seen on screen thus far. His motivations have nothing to do with taking over the world or real estate. All the intricate plot mechanics- which were muddled in the theatrical version of BvS- are in service of Lex's anger from a childhood trauma that never healed. Lex tells Superman that no God saved him when his father physically abused him. To Lex, Superman represents the God who was never there when he needed him. Lex directs all his hatred toward Superman and wishes to prove that the perfect God figure isn't perfect- when pushed, he'll kill someone to save his mother. Though, ironically, Lex's plan is self-destructive, since kidnapping Martha Kent (Diane Lane) is what brings Batman over to Superman's side.

Despite its title, BvS isn't really about Batman and Superman fighting. Yes, it's pivotal sequence in the film and the plot threads of the film lead to it- but BvS is more about bringing these heroes together. What's more satisfying than seeing these two titans duke it out onscreen is seeing them reconcile- to witness Batman seeing Superman for who he really is. "I failed him in life. I will not fail him," says Bruce at the end. This line solidifies Bruce's arc in the film; and it says a great deal about how our relationship with someone can drastically change. Bruce began hating Superman but now he'll make certain his sacrifice isn't in vain. Superman's death is the basis for gathering the Justice League, a team that will honour his memory. And when Superman returns, he will lead this team. I don't find the tease of Superman's return in the film's closing shot cheap. The film slows down in it's final scenes, allowing the audience to feel weight of his loss and how it affects the world.

I think what has made Batman and Superman such inspiring figures for readers throughout the years is that they are characters who have suffer tragedies but use those tragedies as the foundation to do good in the world. Superman will never be able to return to Krypton but he can save Earth from Krypton's fate. Batman fights criminals so another child doesn't have to lose his/her parents. They may go about things differently but Batman and Superman can find common ground, which itself is a hopeful sentiment. If Batman and Superman can get along, maybe we all can.

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