The long awaited Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice arrived in theaters last week, and it has met to mixed reviews. People genuinely liked the fight scenes and the characteristic Zack Snyder visuals, but they also frequently commented on how there were just too many plots crammed into the movie to really do any one justice and the chaotic pacing and transitions did not give any one character time to really have their own story or development.
However, for me, the real problem of Batman V Superman is its lack of Heroism.
When you look though time, myth, and history, heroes were never heroes because of their power. Sure, we had the supernatural strength of Hercules and Samson, the unparalleled guile and strategy of Odysseus, the near invincible Beowulf, or the magically imbued Monkey King Sun Wukong, but they are not heroes because of the power they have its because of the ideals they imbued in their exploits. After all, their opponents were often equally, or even more powerful than the heroes that bested them, and yet the stories are not about the villain. Instead, Hercules fought for redemption against the sins of man and society, Sun Wukong sought to protect those weaker than him while challenging the highly ordered orthodoxy, and Odysseus stood to show how the mind of man can challenge savage elemental gods. These were not stories about ideal bodies, but stories of ideal hearts and souls. Each hero faced pain that should have broken them, but instead of crumbling, they found the resolve to hold to their moral ideals and become more.
These stories were not just about entertainment, they were meant to teach is all to be more. They served as blueprints about how we could face our challenges, endure and grow, keeping to ideals instead of sacrificing them.
This is what Batman V Superman lacked
Let’s start with Superman. After all, this was originally supposed to be his sequel. The original was was heavily criticized for the amount of destruction and the outright killing of Zod. This criticism was not without merit. Every other Superman representation makes efforts to drive the battles outside of cities where they can. This is where the conflict of morality occurs. Superman is written to be as physically strong as he needs to be, so he is able to squash any opponent if he let loose. But the challenge comes in in that he struggles to make sure his powers never lose control and that his battles are contained to prevent collateral damage. His struggle is not one of strength, but the struggle to maintain the ideal of the preservation of life in he face of a strength that could inadvertently crush it.
Snyder’s Superman lacks this heart. He is less Speigel and Shuster’s Superman, and more Nietzsche’s Ubermench. The main struggle in Man of Steel was not how to use his powers, but if he should. Pa Kent, rather than teaching Clark the struggles of humble morality, teaches him to hide his power, even to the point of letting people die, because of the way others would fear him. Superman’s big growth is in that he lets himself be known to the world. He doesn’t espouse any higher morality than that. He is strong and we are told we should trust him because he is a god among us. The conversation does not go beyond that. In this supposed sequel, there is a little growth in that Snyder tries to portray the Superman doing things that don’t kill people, but when it comes to one of the pivotal plot points, that growth is seen to be superficial. In the terrorist scene, Superman allows a shootout to go on. It is only until his favorite human, Lois Lane, is threatened, that he does anything, and that action is to throw the gunman threatening Lois through a wall (a move that should have killed him unless that terrorist also had super strength). Other Supermen would act early to end it quickly. Other Supermen would draw their gunfire safely through super posing, melt the guns or force them to drop them with heat vision, or just simply disarm them with super speed. Overwhelming force allows for overwhelming control in the situation. But Snyder’s Superman waited until it only affected him, and then just used his might. The reason why this scene was such an effective trap for Superman is because his might-makes-right attitude set himself up to be open and vulnerable to this entrapment. A less impulsive, more intentional Superman would be harder to frame because his actions are more thought out and beholden to more than just his impulses.
Next we have Batman. Batman has two rules: no guns and no killing. These rules are supposed to keep him from going down the path of darkness that he skirts. They are the ideals that keep him from becoming the criminals he hunts.
Snyder’s Batman carries a gun, brands villains, and kills-ish. Snyder actually comments on his thought process involved letting Batman kill. Rather than explore the complexity of his no kill rule, as Nolan does, or show this evolving ethos as Tim Burton did, Snyder looks for the loop holes. Snyder looks for ways to make it ok for Batman to kill and skirt the morality that has defined the character. Instead, he is a man with an obsession, and his money and strength and absolute rightness in his mind are his justification for carrying out his obsession. He is more a likable version of the classic Lex Luthor than he is Batman.
If there was one real hero in this film, it would have been Wonder Woman, but she was not given enough screen time to rally flesh her out. Hopefully she is treated better in her movie than Superman and Batman are in this one.
Finally, we have the villain: Lex Luthor. In the comics, Lex has taken several forms, from basic mad scientist to the modern incarnation of corporate CEO/Politician. The Lex we have come to know is a man who’s mind rival’s Superman’s strength. But beyond his machinations, he is an imposing figure. Unlike the Joker, whom you fear for his mastery of chaos, you fear Lex because he has become a master of the rules of the world and twists them for his needs. He is a foil for Superman, because where Superman restrains himself so as to not let loose his power, Lex is restrained from the world, and mastered the letter of the external rules in order to ultimately skirt them as he looks for the opportunity to be allowed to let loose. Snyder’s Lex Luthor has been described as more of a Riddler character than that of Lex. Gone is the calm discipline and imposing force. Yes, he plots and tricks people, but he doesn’t have the control of the system. He is less the principle you fear, and more that annoying kid who uses his father’s money to push his way into your private superhero club. And what gets lost in his gravitas is the conversation between the hero who uses the rules to constrain his power, and the villain who seeks to avoid the rules to unleash his.
In the end, the ire targeted at Batman V Superman is earned. Snyder is great for recreating comic book visuals, but he consistently fails to capture the essence of the hero. Instead of the pillars of societal virtues we are asked to emulate and grow from, we are given characters who only seek to enact the might-makes-right morality and Mary Sue fantasies. We get not the analogs for the struggles for growth and maturity, but an almost masturbatory fantasy in which we could do whatever we desired if we just had the power, and that we can be always be inherently right despite what society says. Instead of mature heroes of struggle and virtue, we get childish god-things, which is ironic, because the heroes of myth originally arose to oppose the childish god-things that populated the fears of our ancestors.
As I was writing this, I was actually watching the Supergirl/Flash crossover. It was everything Superman V Batman was not. It lacked the budget for complex visuals and prolonged epic fight scenes, but it had the heart of a hero. Supergirl had fallen and was searching for redemption. Her enemies had ganged up on her and help from the Flash was not even enough to win in the end. It was when she showed she was willing to give it all to save people she did not know, common people stepped up, and it was not super strength or speed that won, but brave men and women with words and a fire hose inspired to be more by a hero. The plot may seem cliche and simplistic, but it drove home the narrative of the hero.