Batman v Superman is a movie out of context

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As evidenced by movies like Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and 300, Zack Snyder excels at grim and dark stories. Snyder is known for his gritty antiheroes, so while it wouldn’t be fair to say he’s incapable of telling other kinds of stories, it does make for an interesting directing choice for Batman v Superman. Yeah. Supermanthat guy whose kindness and moral compass are his leading motivationsand Batmanwho despite his best attempts to convince people otherwise, is basically a rich guy who collects orphans. Snyder ditched both the morals and the orphans for this film.

Giving iconic characters like Batman and Superman to Snyder wasn’t necessarily bad at the onset, but it wasn’t the loving or faithful adaptation of the source material that Snyder produced with Watchmen. Instead, the bizarre experiment of throwing Batman and Superman into the boxing ring produced a film dripping with masculinity and misogyny. Batman doesn’t need a ragtag group of bird-monikered children to make a movie interesting (though it does help) and, okay, Superman has been successful without the presence of other Kryptonians. However, cherry picking plot threads and personality traits made for a story consistent with the grim-dark movies Snyder is known for, but inconsistent with the characters themselves. Both Batman and Superman were written like antiheroes instead of the widely respected and morally upstanding characters they are in the DC Universe. The end result was a film that seemed wildly out of context, one that also upheld a seriously toxic version of masculinity without scrutiny.

The core concept of Batman v Superman is a theme of absolute power, loosely based on one scene from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. To be fair to Snyder, Miller somehow managed to pack retrofuturist gangs, a new Robin, the Joker’s death, an almost there theme of governmental control of superhero activity, the role of the vigilante, and Cold War conflict into a four-issue miniseries. Adapting the entire story for film could have easily resulted in a frustratingly muddled five-hour epic. Batman v Superman took a single element from the story—Batman fighting Superman—as its base. The Frank Miller versions of these characters have been present in modern cinema for some time, first with Christian Bale’s angst-ridden Batman, and more recently with Henry Cavill’s first outing in Man of Steel.

Batman holds Superman responsible for the attack on Metropolis, which destroyed the city and killed thousands. He’s not wrong, per se, but it’s also hard to imagine the same judgment coming down on the comic version of Superman, since Superman did go out of his way to save the planet in the end. Superman, in turn, believes Batman to be a reckless vigilante who endangers the lives of Gotham residents on a nightly basis. Each believes himself right. The conflict at the center of all of this is the question of absolute power and who should have it, a theme that comes into play early in the film…and is dropped just as quickly as it was drummed up. The three central characters–Lex Luthor, Batman, and Superman–all grapple for power with no real winner. The movie offers no real answer to this conundrum and doesn’t force anyone to consider his own course of action in relation to how it affects the city.

The “Dawn of Justice” subtitle feels inappropriate, because justice is generally lacking in the film with the exception of Lex Luthor getting prison time and his signature haircut. Neither Batman nor Superman are held accountable for their actions, by each other or anyone else. The film lacks humanity in the most basic sense. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent attack each other’s humanity while forgetting their own, giving the sense that the world belongs to the heroes and everyone else is just living it. The rest of Earth’s population is so unimportant that it’s impossible to gauge how Batman and Superman are received by the public outside of the conversation about Superman as a god. Batman, for his part, seems more like Gotham’s worst-kept secret than its savior. By not setting aside time to show the impact the so-called heroes have had on more than a select few characters, it reinforces the emotional and physical disconnect consistent with an unhealthy masculinity.

The conflict in the film, drawn from the conflict between Batman and Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, is absent of the thing it is also contingent upon. Despite the multitude of themes and events present in The Dark Knight Returns, the plot (scattered though it may be) is given an overlying political theme that is a direct result of the Cold War. Batman v Superman aims for a political nature, but it lacks the social and political context of the Cold War or an equally threatening situation adapted for the modern age.

When Batman and Superman do duke it out in an extensive but unsatisfying fight, it gives purpose to the “v” at the center of the title that has been confusing fans and non-fans alike for months, but doesn’t add much weight to the story. Previous squabbles forgotten, Batman and Superman tumble around, destroying the property they had been so committed to protecting in the first half of the movie. All of this results in a grudging team-up befitting a buddy cop movie, but one that lacks any of the humor of an Odd Couple trope. Throughout their fights, Batman and Superman are written as uncharacteristically cruel–Superman threatening to kill Batman, Batman launching Kryptonite grenades–and engaging in behaviors their comic counterparts would likely never consider. Both are disconnected from the communities they’re attempting to protect and to protect from the other. Batman fails his most known tenet of Don’t Kill People on multiple occasions, something Superman has already accomplished by the end of Man of Steel. Batman writes the death toll off as criminal scum and collateral damage, and Superman watches an entire courtroom blow up with silent detachment, then flies off without searching for survivors in the wreckage (or putting out the fire with his freeze breath, at the very least). Again, it’s hard to imagine both of their comic counterparts coming to the conclusion that death is an acceptable outcome without seriously questioning who they are and who they want to be as heroes.

All of this serves to build up a toxic masculinity that doesn’t offer nuanced portraits of its subjects. Batman and Superman and Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent tick off nearly all the boxes in this category, exemplifying violence, a severe lack of emotional response, and righteous anger framed as an exception to the no-emotion rule. It was disconcerting to not see Superman–or even Bruce Wayne, charming businessman and philanthropist–smile. Serious movies can and do have moments of brevity, but without them, the result is a film that simply ticks off squares like “cold and aloof,” “vigilante,” “brooding,” “scowls a lot,” and “They killed my wife/child/family!! I’ll make them pay!!!” in Tormented Male Protagonist Bingo.

Batman v Superman wasn’t great in terms of other characterizations, either. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a new version of Lex that missed the mark on an old foe. The new Lex is a millenial boss, an outgoing guy who wears Chuck Taylors and t-shirts with suit jackets and has a basketball court in his office building. Making Lex such a seemingly young version of himself was an odd choice, especially in a film where Batman and Superman are older versions of their characters. The overall effect was more of an Edward Nigma than Lex Luthor, so while it was easy to picture Eisenberg playing a dark and twisted version of the Riddler in Snyder’s DC Universe, it was harder to take him seriously as Lex.

This aside, Lex Luthor was his own form of toxic masculinity. Though he isn’t calling bingo on the “biceps the size of your thighs” square, Lex is instantly recognizable as the kind of guy women on college campuses cross the street to avoid. He too possessed a disconcerting lack of emotion (save, again, for anger) as well as a tendency to commit violent acts without a thought. While it’s not made clear what his motivations are outside of an unexplained hatred of Batman and Superman, Lex Luthor makes no bones about destroying anyone who gets in his way. Women, especially, are inconsequential, as shown when he pushes Lois Lane from the top of the LexCorp building, and more subtly in how he treats his assistant, Mercy Graves. Though clearly on his side, Mercy was treated more as a fashion accessory than a human, barely communicating beyond nods and glances until her death in the Capitol explosion. It adds to Lex Luthor’s particular brand of toxic masculinity that she falls victim to the dreaded refrigerator. It’s also troubling because where other versions of Mercy portray her with a quick wit and expert martial arts skills, her lack of agency in Batman v Superman also plays into the harmful “submissive Asian” trope.

The film’s treatment of women doesn’t get much better with its remaining female characters, and it often plays hopscotch between toxically masculine and misogynistic. Mercy Graves and Senator Finch exist solely for their deaths, to further the conflict between Lex Luthor and Superman. Martha Kent’s, and largely, Lois Lane’s presences in the film are contingent on the fact that they’re used as bait in order to wind up Superman on numerous occasions. They too lack agency and the richly developed personalities of their source characters, and instead are entirely subject to Lex’s whims.

Though Lois did get the chance to do some investigative reporting in Batman v Superman, her screen time was skewed toward the time she spent with, pining for, or being rescued by Superman. This Lois isn’t the tough, resourceful character established in the Golden Age, and while her story is inextricably tied to Superman’s, Batman v Superman lacks recognition of the fact that it is, in fact, possible to be in love with someone without losing one’s independence. Lois was damseled on at least three separate occasions, and her presence in the film is relegated to Superman’s Love Interest, Kind Of. Superman, still reeling from the destruction of Metropolis, says at one point that he doesn’t know how to be Superman and her boyfriend, so instead of working through this like people in healthy adult relationships do, Clark spends half of his scenes with Lois ignoring her and the other half rescuing her. Lois seems to cause him more anguish than anything else, a relationship that lends itself to the newer, more tortured Superman.

In a way, this film seems inevitable, precluded by nearly ten years of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The success of these films have produced a brooding loner Batman and Superman, versions that exist only in a film genre that has produced lots of dark and gritty over the years. It’s a tone that can work in film, but with intention. There’s a difference between using grit to critique a genre (think Alan Moore’s Watchmen) and using it for the sake of being edgy and new, and that’s another aspect in which Batman v Superman missed the mark, because nothing about it felt new or exciting.

Wonder Woman and cameos from Aquaman and the Flash were bright spots in the movie, but weren’t quite enough to save it or reverse the damage done by its portrayals of other characters. It was nice to meet Gal Gadot as Diana Prince before her debut in the upcoming Wonder Woman, but her screen time was fairly limited, and Jeremy Irons was another enjoyable addition to the cast as Alfred. Despite fans’ initial surprise at the casting, Ben Affleck wasn’t the worst part of the movie, and was daresay entertaining, most notably in Bruce’s sleuthing and his interactions with Alfred. In a different film, Batffleck would have been a delightful surprise, but even Snyder’s version of Batman is still overshadowed by Nolan’s work. There’s a distinctly new story being set up, even though the Dark Knight trilogy also used The Dark Knight Returns as its base storyline. Nolan’s Batman is characteristically similar to Snyder’s, at times exhibiting the same toxic masculinity, and it’s clear that many of Batffleck’s traits were grandfathered in. The problem, then, is that Snyder’s Batman was written with the goal of being a new version of Batman while doing nothing to distinguish Affleck-Batman from Bale-Batman, except perhaps giving Batffleck an even darker outlook and a distinct lack of human connection. Because Bale-Batman was such a recent event in the DC Cinematic Universe history and Batman v Superman wasn’t given the eight-year gap that Batman & Robin and Batman Begins had, the effect was more of an indirect continuation than a fresh start.

Batman v Superman’s plot simply didn’t hold, trying to do too much from too little source material taken out of its original context. It tried and failed to be a new take on two of the most established superheroes in comic book history by losing their morality and asking questions it failed to answer. The toxic masculinity present throughout the film overshadowed everything else. The most radical thing this movie could have done was to show two compassionate characters who respect each other working together, but by treating Clark and Bruce as two men steeped in their own pain, it failed its source material and its fans.

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7 thoughts on “Batman v Superman is a movie out of context

  1. Totally agree with pretty much everything you have said. Your points are awesome, especially about Batman killing in the movie. That was a huge turnoff. I also agree that Lois, was not Lois but just a plot forwarding object.

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  2. @Madison, I deeply admire you in a lot of ways, you’re an endearing, rare writer that’s able to be straight-up honest but I think you’re pushing your review astray by giving toxic masculinity a little too much oomph, driving it in a one sided path that misinforms some points in a simple movie.

    Batman vs Superman originates from Man of Steel which had already broken the core principles of Superman, in my opinion, reboots are okay but not when you completely tear apart the soul of the hero, what makes it tick, to Superman – It’s protecting people. That being said, there’s a lot of people who’ll just watch it for what it is, a mashup of action and laser beams with a superhero cover and that’s what it was.

    The movie wasn’t trying to be anything else, the dialogues between Batman and Superman were horrendously bad and it failed heavily to deliver an engaging (or any) plot to draw the viewers into the fight/rivalism from the start, I’m not sure if even the actors felt that friction. The film lacks consistency at all levels – But it delivers what it was marketed for: a fight between Superman and Batman and that’s why people watched it, it was expected to be gritty with poor lore if any at all, there was so much stuff going on at some point that adding the other superheroes just to advertise their own coming flicks (or perhaps to better establish the universe) was overboard greedy. With that out of the way… I really feel that toxic masculinity is the least rusty gear in the machine, following the link you provided, you don’t really encounter that many aspects of it in the movie, the reason they feel disconnected and overly violent is because they lack development from the source material (as you also pointed out).

    I get the idea and I empathize with the notion that it’s wrong to use well established characters and twist them into something they would never go for and of all things, mindless slaughter of property, lives and empowerment of their own selfishness but that was something it was already torn apart (in Man of Steel) and I don’t think anyone really expected this to be serious movie, It’s just another blockbuster. Superhero movies are hard to produce and in my opinion, very few are well constructed, I still hold the first Captain America to be a very good baseline to what a superhero movie should be like.

    I agree with a lot of what you wrote and It’s always nice to see you care about this subject in a good, critic way but In my opinion, I really feel one should balance the heart on the matter, if you read too much into these things, you’ll lose sight of where you really need to strike.

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    • First of all, Man of Steel was a few writing changes away from being a good movie. Secondly, I fear you’re still missing my point. I wasn’t ever trying to review the movie in all aspects–it was wildly inconsistent in other ways. I could have written another 2k words about how the paper thin plot wasn’t worth the two hours it took for Batman and Superman to make up a reason to fight each other, or how Lois and Clark’s chemistry had the equivalent effect of rubbing two pieces of wet cardboard together. But that wasn’t my purpose.
      Even if the plot is terrible and the characters are weird, out of character versions of themselves, even if the movie is terrible despite the amount of money being pumped in, EVEN IF everyone expected the movie to be terrible in the first place–that does not excuse it from perpetuating harmful ideals of masculinity. This concept isn’t something I had to bend to fit the movie, the movie did that all on its own. Toxic masculinity isn’t a conglomerate of every trait listed on a geek feminism wiki page. It’s like how an individual isn’t going to exhibit EVERY symptom of an illness. One or two are enough for a diagnosis.
      Listen, I don’t know if you’ve seen Mega Shark vs Mecha Shark at all? Mega Shark vs Mecha Shark was like Batman v Superman, but with sharks. It was also one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life, but even that managed to have two female characters who were better fleshed out than BvS’s. It also had men who respected the women in the story. Two loners who get their kicks from enacting justice through violent means that they and they alone deem necessary isn’t a healthy depiction of masculinity.
      If it’s a mindless action movie that everyone else expected to be terrible, where else is there to strike? There have been plenty of reviews of BvS. As I said before, I wasn’t looking to review, I was looking to critique a problem that I’ve noticed is persistently present in plenty of media. As a woman, this is something I notice every day, so perhaps I don’t need to read into things a little less, but you need to read into them a little more.

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  3. I apologize over missing the point, I thought truly that this was a full blown review.

    I still feel that too much ill blood is being drawn from an half empty vein. I’m a male so I can’t emotionally know how it is, I’m not dismissing the problem though, I do recognize it everyday as well but I really feel that It’s not as… heavy? as you point out in this case, considering the movie itself.
    “Perpetuating harmful ideals of masculinity” I don’t think it’s as bold as this, if the movie was serious… yes but it isn’t and I’m not saying one shouldn’t criticize it just because it’s a no-brainer blockbuster, no, you totally should but.. it should be taken into account that everything lore-wise was bad, even the main protagonists were badly written, Lex (although shockingly different from what was expected) was kind of a miss, it would be awkward to see everything so unhinged save for a good representation of women/men, It’s like saying that American Psycho is a bad movie because it portrays (mildly in a positive way) the kind of male you definitely don’t want someone to be… that’s the whole point and it doesn’t make it a bad movie at all, same with Mega Shark vs Mecha Shark, imagine someone saying they’re misrepresenting sharks… it would be pretty weird because that’s the whole point of the movie, same with Batman vs Superman, the whole point was to have these two lash out at each other wildly, a power fantasy, is it a bad influence in our culture? in my opinion, it is if it’s overly done, along with other 100 movies that came out but I wouldn’t go as far as to imperialize producers to adhere to a certain morality threshold, one thing for example, is those horror movies where your average girl in shorts has wild sex with one of the college boys and is then slaughtered and the boy somehow manages to rally everyone to safety… That is unhealthy, that’s so ill culturally rooted that you can feel the misogyny from the title alone, it shouldn’t be something that’s so massively produced, Batman vs Superman? I feel it’s just a bad action movie all around, including the aspects you pointed out, only I think, they’re not as heavily there as suggested, I’m contrasting 8 with 80, I’m sure there’s a lot of things in between but that’s the idea I’m trying to light up.

    I might be wrong and I might be the one who’s reading too much into this, It’s just that I’ve discussed the movie quite a lot with friends and felt like sharing my thoughts.

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    • American Psycho was an awful book and movie that I find disturbing for plenty of reasons (one of which is, yes, sexism), but I’m not here to get into that.
      But…why? Why should I take into account that the rest of the movie was bad? I don’t think Zack Snyder was trying to make a bad movie with a bad concept, I think he was trying to make his version of a concept that fell flat. Based on his interviews, I don’t think he thinks he made a bad movie.
      Bad movies can have just as much of a cultural impact as good movies, and this is part of a larger problem. The other thing is, they could have had these two lash out at each other in a way that made sense for the characters, but didn’t. They could have made a movie that gave its female characters more of a role beyond ‘sit and look pretty’ but they didn’t–even Diana, for most of the movie, was there to look at.
      The intent or public expectations don’t really matter in this situation, and they don’t excuse the outcome, either.

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  4. Well… you -are- supposed to feel disturbed, haum… I don’t want to reply too much into it as well but it is a very good movie and it’s not sexist per se, I think you must have missed the core if you’re bent on labeling it an awful production. It follows the deep depersonalization of Patrick and so he lacks (almost all) identity, he aims only to be accepted and become “the best” but without a soul of his own, he relies on mimicking the society around him and how it’s built, so the movie is more of a portrait on the world rather than a single story following his life. Obviously contains disturbing and sexist scenes but they’re the telling of how wrong the times were then (and much of it, still today) for example, the scene were he’s repugnant by the homosexual in the bathroom is not because he himself feels that way, it’s because overall, it was seen as something undesirable and wrong, the epitome of what he definitely didn’t want to be, the movie isn’t -really- telling what’s right or wrong, it just tells how it is and leaves it up to the viewer to dissect the universe in which Patrick so direly tried to rise atop. Despite the subjectiveness on how it’s done, I think it’s safe to say it’s a well crafted piece that’s quite rare in the industry.

    To answer your question, you should totally take that into account (or at least a little) because a good representation of females (and other characters) is often a consequence of a good movie (that’s part of what makes it good after all) – If perhaps the plot was well designed, leaving Batman and Superman, both super intelligent beings, with no option left but to fight.. maybe then there could be room for actual roles to take place, as it is, there’s really no reason for them to have more than a hollow role, even Lex struggles to have some kind of coherence.
    You are very right on one thing, in the Shark movies, they did manage to out-do in those terms, so it is definitely possible to do and it’s a positive thing to represent (perhaps even more in a mainstream flick) but the movie itself wasn’t…horrible? the premise is in the title, It’s a dummy thing you’ll go watch and possibly (?) have some fun, the same with Batman vs Superman, it’s a bad movie… but it’s still a good blockbuster, you’ll go see it for the action, not for the lore or the good supporting roles, is it something it should have? Yes and it could (as you and I pointed out ) and I’m glad you’re discussing it but following those lines, it should also have an actual plot, good characters, deeper meaning, a good message, etc, all these things would lead to what everyone generally wants, a better representation of women and men.
    I’m not sure I’m delivering my point well, It’s like saying the general Swarnenegger movies are bad because they misrepresent all things male or moral… It isn’t, It’s just a style, and it has its place in the market and in our culture, the same with Batman vs Superman, there -is- a market for that, It’s a good pew pew movie for the fun of it and when criticizing it about having shallow female roles and “Toxic masculinity” one should take that into account. I’m not saying you’re wrong or that it doesn’t have a negative impact, you are right, I’m only trying to lessen the poison.

    A good counterpart to all of this is for example, Kung Fury, It was kickstarted and the generally idea was a take back to the 80’s action movies (that didn’t really had compelling, deep story as well) and taking into account, it still manages to deliver good female roles and a general good feeling overall, I thought it was a great movie. Sin City is another that comes to mind.

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    • I hope you’ve enjoyed writing these essays but you’re literally never convince me that American Psycho is worth my time. You’re also entitled to your opinions, but I disagree with them.

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