Remember the Batman storyline in which The Joker unmasks Bruce Wayne and escapes with the knowledge of his identity, partially because Robin mistimes his abrupt return from his French lessons in Andover? You might not remember it, actually. But it exists. It’s called ”The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” and it is not a comic book. It is a story featured in Donald Barthelme’s short story collection Come Back, Dr. Caligari. Don’t worry, though. It isn’t vital. It’s not what Dark Knight experts might consider “canon.” It’s hard to say if it is actually even a Batman story. There’s a character named Bruce Wayne who fights crime as an anonymous masked superhero called Batman. His nemesis is named The Joker, his sidekick is Robin, and he possesses all of the standard Bat playthings – the costume, the Batmobile, the Batplane. But, even so. At the time of the story’s publishing, Barthelme was the sort of wildcard rebel of experimental postmodern literature, and today the late author remains the smartest mind in any room with a bookshelf holding his work. “The Joker’s Greatest Triumph” marks one of Barthelme’s more narratively succinct works (mostly because it actually tells a story), but the story seems only to need the audience’s familiarity with Batman and not the narrative history. The storytelling voice is more concerned with mixing and mashing storytelling forms and influences while mining into Bruce Wayne’s bourgeoisie status and capitalist accomplishment by observing the de-valued artifacts from other cultures that decorate Wayne Manor and transcribing Wayne’s every-Tuesday conversations about mixed drinks, French lessons, short wave radios, and classical music. Again, not very canon.
The same is true of Andy Warhol’s Superman rendering included in the artist’s Myths series, a collection of paintings that seeks and celebrates the vibrant commercialism of American icons (Mickey Mouse, Santa Clause, Uncle Sam, etc). Warhol only wishes to borrow Superman’s iconic status for a greater artistic point. The non-canonical distinction is also a given for Warhol’s unauthorized and largely unseen Batman film Batman Dracula. Neither work is considered part of the respective hero’s canon.
I would contend that Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice falls very close to the same non-canonical category. The second chapter of the visually-innovative and cinematically-divisive director’s Superman story very evidently means to borrow the near-century of representation of these characters so that they can be juxtaposed against a contemporary context that deconstructs their historical definition and allows for our cultural self-reflection. It is a work of post-post-modern iconoclast that we have not really seen on such a large cinematic scale. Films this big in profile usually do not attempt to gut icons for the sake of political and philosophical exploration.
But Snyder’s work is subject to a much harsher critical frontline than Barthelme’s and Warhol’s, for two reasons. With Snyder moving his characters from one narrative form into another narrative form, audiences are logical to expect a near 1-to-1 translation and are at least excused for reacting to not having that expectation met. And second, the current state of the superhero genre is such that the measuring of tent-pole entries has been reduced to a standardized checklist, one which does no favors to the general reception of Dawn of Justice, both in terms of composite critical reaction (the film sits at a disappointing 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, currently) and box office success (early tracking has the film dropping 70 % its second weekend).
It might be necessary to expound on this last point. Traditionally, there is no such thing as a comic/superhero movie genre, as it would be ridiculous to bind a genre together from films that share a broad, spectral category of source material. But due to the commercial success of Marvel, the major movie-studio whose singular-minded and definitive vision for an extended cinematic universe has defined a certain expectation that is narrow and specific, there is a makeshift genre definition in play. It is important to note that I did not say that the entries in this temporary genre are “bad.” There are good and bad Marvel superhero films, but all serve a vision that is narrow and specific.
This genre standard now includes attentive and precise casting, humanizing opening acts, scattered jokes, and then the non-committal second-act investigation of some simple thematic exercise that yields to a large scale (if messy) climactic action sequence. For example, in both Avengers films, there manifests a second-act consideration of ethical questions regarding the distribution and regulation of power before the respective climax presents an attack or catastrophe so large in scale that it severs the need for an intensive consideration of these questions. The answer to “Who should have how much power?” becomes “Well, we need them all right now, so…”
Both Avengers films, however, were at least a good time. Zack Snyder’s first Superman film, once anticipated as the DC answer to Marvel’s money-making formula, was not a good time. But, as it turns out, Man of Steel’s failure was not its sophomoric pursuit of philosophical ponderings or the uncharacteristic moodiness of its main character. The failure was in forcibly shaping these elements to the demands of the new Marvel-designed genre standard.
Snyder does not do that this time around. He has broken the 2010s-era superhero format and ignored the expectation of its common packaging. He’s still equally determined to create a Superman movie that dances with Big Ideas, but in this effort, he’s doing it under his own terms. So, while it might not be the most comfortable or easy request of us, he is owed the same critical courtesy as any film or filmmaker: that of having his film met on its own terms and not the terms molded to an existing genre standard.
It has been said that Snyder’s Superman is not really Superman, disqualified by his uncertainty and hesitation toward being a hero. It is a staple of the character’s identity that Superman accept and welcome the opportunity to be a hero wherever it presents itself.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche presented his Übermensch, a speculative peak human with a moral authority negotiated wholly in earthly terms without consideration for another world or expectations of a next life. Because of the indirect translational connection, this philosophic icon is frequently mentioned, often too loosely or in misapplication, in analysis of America’s most iconic fictional superhero. But, it is a useful connection. If the need to be a hero is pivotal to the development of the Superman character, then Nietzsche’s hypothesized earth-focused moral authority, that baseline of uncontestable good-nesss, is imperative to Superman’s conceptual foundation. If Superman must want to be good (but without murky moral conundrum, as backlash against Snyder’s film suggests that fans insist), then good must be an absolute.
The character Superman was born just before the official start of World War II, an era in which evil was so distinct and specific–it had its own simple representative symbol, a distinctive face, and geographic boundaries—that “good” could be defined simply as “the opposite of evil” or “that which stands in opposition to evil.” In later iterations, Superman’s goodness was assumed by its position to characters who became symbolic abstractions of concentrated evil. “Evil” meaning, in most cases, “the intent to do harm on a large scale” and “good” meaning “the intent to stop evil.”
In today’s world, the information age where everyone is hyper-informed and in control of their own volume buttons, good and bad aren’t so easy to define. Nor are the terms fixed on a sliding scale. The week of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s release saw a tragic reminder of the faceless, nameless, untraceable evil of today’s world in the terrorist attacks in Brussels. Presidential candidate Donald Trump quickly leveraged the event for political promotion, earning supportive cries from those American people who have designated him a hero and stoking the fearful fires of those who have determined him a tyrant-to-be. Around the same time, Bernie Sanders harshly rejected a counterpoint from his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton with, “Excuse me, I’m talking,” and through the in-fighting of the country’s left-wing party there was established an even split. To some, Sanders’ counter-disruption was evidence of a villainous sexism levelled at a heroic woman who has been fighting that brand of oppression her entire life, and to just as many others, it represented a hero of the everyman heroically rejecting the villain spokesperson of the establishment.
This is the world into which Snyder drops the likeness of Superman, once America’s symbol of generic moral absolutism. A world in which a baseline of morality is an impossible calculation, in which any entity that assumes moral autonomy and exercises power to enforce it upon a population is immediately a tyrant to all and a monster to many. There is no black and white left on the illustration of human morality. Rather, 2016’s illustration of morality might be a Pollock-style rendering of vibrant splotches with no gray areas allowing Superman’s red-and-blue to provide scale. Consider that on the day of Dawn of Justice’s release, because of the passing of a controversial bill in North Carolina, the biggest news story in America was a heated national debate regarding who could use which public restrooms. No matter how right you and I might think ourselves on this issue, we must also know that the unilaterally true answer required for Superman to even speak a fictional opinion on this matter does not exist in our world.
How unexpectedly fitting, then, that the narrative turning point of Dawn of Justice is marked by a jar of urine at a Congressional hearing. Before the film’s most important event, Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), a U.S. Representative who has leveraged her junior position to force a conversation about how Superman might be regulated, describes democracy as a “conversation.” It is not, she promises in what ends up being her final moments, “a unilateral decision.” Immediately thereafter, Superman intuits the impending tragedy and lowers his head in what marks probably my favorite bit of acting in a Superhero film. Here, Henry Cavill plays Superman as tired, fatigued, sad, but not reluctant. His evident resignation is the realization that Senator Finch’s statement is correct, but for him, it’s not so much a principle or creed as it is a problem statement. He is disheartened not by obligation, but in the realization of his fictional position in a non-fictional moral landscape. It is almost as if he is cognizant here that he has been removed from the comic book world of moral certainty, his fictional home of eight decades, and placed into a world that makes his existence conceptually impossible.
Superman, in Dawn of Justice, isn’t reluctant to be a hero, he just exists in the hero’s purgatory that is 2016.
This reading is emphasized in Superman’s onscreen decision. Spoilers Ahead. When Lex Luthor unleashes a monster made from General Zod’s Kryptonian DNA (if Superman’s powers combined with his useless moral compass make him a threat, then a monster wholly lacking a moral consciousness must be the apocalypse), the hero, once recovered from Batman’s kryptonite-aided assault, shows no hesitance in his course of action. His act of self-sacrifice is unflinching and unthought. He is doing what he is meant to do. And, because he is lending an act to a population whose political and moral division is responsible for his conceptual erasure, his act is one of mercy and grace, the real cornerstones of heroism in religious contexts, and, qualities of heroism that will likely go untouched in superhero movies that are less curious about the nebulous boundaries of human morality.
Everything that happens prior to Superman’s screen martyrdom has lead us to expect that his death will soon be treated as another talking point between a divided public. But Bruce Wayne’s final character-turning monologue, as hokey and forced as it might be (certainly the most standard moment in a very non-standard film), suggests a need for humans to continue to try, to fight, to establish some level of understood goodness and weave it into a protective umbrella that can cover everyone. It is a call-to-service for the viewer as much as it is an embedded commercial for upcoming Justice League films. End Spoilers.
I find it interesting that Dawn of Justice made the decision to largely ignore online media and internet news. For a film preoccupied with the busy-ness of cultural discourse, a film which uses several famous talking heads from real-world cable media outlets and admits the biased motives of desperate and fading print journalism, it is a bit curious that network computers are presented as a tool to research enemies and steal information. I think that’s because, in accordance with my reading of the film as a post-postmodern blending of pop culture artifact, fictional circumstance, and a true-to-life social landscape, the audience was intended to stand in as the internet discussion element for Snyder’s Big Ideas. Instead, there’s been something of a critical stalemate as the post-viewing conversation has gotten snagged on a two-part question:
One: If Superman and Batman don’t maintain their historical baseline principles (a. Superman always seeks heroism and b. Batman never kills), can this movie still be a good superhero movie? And Two: If the answer to the first question is “no,” can the movie still be a good movie?
This is the part where I finally admit I do not read comic books. Most of you would not have stayed with me this long if I had revealed that up front, but my non-history with the source material has afforded me the chance to answer these questions thusly: One: I don’t care. Two: Of course.
I suggest that if you start your first or next viewing of the film with these answers established and those rather non-critical questions put away, you will find a much more interesting and engaging film experience. And instead of asking “What did Snyder do to the Superman character?” we can start discussing what we have done to the idea of him.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures