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What is a “good” superhero movie? What price growing up?

March 29, 2016

Batman v Superman

The best review explaining why Batman V Superman really doesn’t work is by Charlie Jane Anders and you can find it here.

Her review is better informed and more perceptive than anything I could ever write.  I could sum up my own feelings about the inefficacy of this narrative by saying that there appeared to be no reason why any of the people (and I use the term “people” loosely) do any of the things that they do in this movie.

Personally, I could never get around the fact that the whole movie is a big build up to these two guys hitting one another, but as soon as Batman finds out that Superman’s mom has the same first name as his own mom, he stops hitting him.  If I were a criminal in Gotham City and found myself being beaten up by Batman, I’d definitely scream out “Please stop hitting me!  You’ll break Martha’s heart!”

But I’m unsure of the whole adult superhero movie genre in any case.  I’m unconvinced by Christopher Nolan’s makeover of Gotham.  It seems to me that the more gritty and realistic you make your cityscape, the more the essential silliness of men in tights chasing bad guys in make up is foregrounded.  Tim Burton, for all his excesses and lapses in taste, was on the right track when he created a surreal and overtly gothic Gotham for monsters to fly around in.  You always knew you were dreaming.

Like many people,. I read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns in the 1980s, which pretty much established what a gloomy and “adult” Batman would thereafter look like.  Haven’t read it in a long long time, but certain things stick in the memory.  One thing is that the book was actually funny.  Alfred in particular was given some priceless one-liners.  (Incidentally, Jeremy Irons, were he only given some zingers, would count as the closest approximation of the Alfred of The Dark Knight Returns.)  When Batman and Superman fight in The Dark Knight Returns, they do not fight as God versus Man, or Alien versus Earthling.  They fight as Government Backed Stooge versus Criminal Vigilante.  The Dark Knight Returns has Superman chucking tanks about on behalf of the US military in some grubby Central American intervention.  Far from being the subject of congressional inquiry, the The Dark Knight Return‘s Superman is the darling toy of the military industrial complex.

In place of this political satire, the cinematic punch up we’re offered exhibits Metropolis and Gotham as Twin Cities.  Imagine if Detroit were just over the Hudson River from Manhattan.  The distinction between Metropolis and Gotham is rendered very very proximate and therefore clumsy.  And instead of dark outlaw versus flag-draped soldier, we’re given Man versus God.  (Yes, it’s “Man” rather than Humanity – which is why Wonder Woman appears, belatedly, as though to smash the screenplay as much as the Patriarchy.)  Jesse Eisenberg, who has clearly embraced the Heath Ledger school of villainous logorrhea plays a young Lex Luther who seems more interested in speculative theology than in power or money as such.  He talks in portentous terms about how if you want Power to be unlimited you need to sacrifice Goodness, whereas if you want God to be Good, then you sacrifice Power blah blah blah Kierkegaard versus Feuerbach.

Indeed, I suspect that Lex Luther (the real Lex Luther) only gave permission for his name to be used in this film on the understanding that the title was going to be


The real Lex Luther’s revenge will be swift and terrible.

But I suspect our need for Superheros is different.  (Although the words “our” and “need” are inappropriate – many people don’t need them at all.)  What we we’re looking for is punching.  We invent technologies in order to disinvest ourselves of their implications.  Bruce Wayne has spent a fortune developing gadgets that can turn him back into a caveman – someone who punches.

Superheroes who punch one another represent a compensation for the essentially emasculating technologies of modern warfare.  This anxiety goes back a long way.  The old Spartans didn’t really approve of archery, or even swords that were a bit too long.  If you are to kill, you need to kill with steely muscle power.  You need to be within inches of your enemy.  But ever since, at the very least, the Battle of Agincourt, the advantage of killing people from quite a long way technologies has been pretty decisive in military terms.  But we have not grown up along with these technologies.  We are disconsolate Spartans, knowing that ICBMs make it pointless to be Spartans.

Batman versus Superman is a  very serious movie.  And a bad one.  I am aware that there is a demand for good, serious, superhero movies, and I am also aware that many people believe that such movies have been made.  As far as I can see, this perceived need speaks to an anti-Pauline refusal to put away childish things coupled with a refusal to acknowledge one’s own childishness.  We want to be grown up and children at one and the same time.  We want to punch things.

Hey, I was escorting two ten year olds.

What’s your excuse?

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