Allan Is an Asshole Contrarian - Batman v Superman Edition
It is always darkest before the dawn.
-Old Mariner Proverb
Beware: Here There Be Spoilers
-Less Old Internet Proverb
If you were to ask me to pinpoint my favourite scene in any superhero movie, I wouldn’t have to think about it nor would I bother to offer the slightest pretense of thoughtful hesitation.
“Adam West trying to get rid of the bomb on the crowded pier,” I’d say immediately, meaning every word of it.
There is a giddy joy in that sequence that has never been replicated (even though Mr. Schumacher did give it his best—only to prove his best wasn’t quite good enough). It’s also—I believe—proof of my theory that far from being the childish embarrassment many Bat-fans believe that era of Batmania to be, it was actually the most sophisticated (live-action) version of the character we’ve thus seen. Adam West’s Batman remains the coolest of all the Batmans—the James Bond of Batmans, if you will—because (like Roger Moore—the best of all the Bonds*) he is the one who has to endure the most outright silliness, but never once suffers because of it.
As much as I enjoy the Nolan films (and I do), they don’t offer the same transcendent experience as Batman ’66 because they keep themselves a deliberate distance from their source material. West’s cool is effortless, while Nolan’s is that of the insecure teenager who has recently adopted a “cool” personal uniform in the hopes that no one realizes they’re the same jerk who got picked on the year before. There’s an element of adolescent self-loathing in those films that can’t be denied. Rather than embrace what they are, they try to stand apart, which only makes those moments that do reek of comic book contrivance all the more glaring.
So, given that Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an indirect offshoot of the Nolan-verse, it makes sense for me to criticize it on similar grounds, but I can’t do it, because—even though it evokes a style of comic book storytelling I’m not a huge fan of—I came away from it believing that it actually celebrates that goofiness that draws me to West albeit in a diametrically opposed fashion.
Unlike Nolan, Snyder has made—for good or ill, depending on your point of view—a comic book film that is neither embarrassed about being a comic book film nor one that feels the need to justify it’s existence off the four-colour page. While Batman ’66 looked at the genre and saw the potential for whimsical comedy, BvS takes on its status as the pop mythology of our modern age. While Nolan’s films were essentially slightly elevated crime narratives featuring familiar characters, BvS serves as the beginning of something completely different—an unapologetic DC comic book universe filled with aliens, metahumans, billionaires and ageless Amazon royalty.
As dour as it may seem (and I say “seem” because I actually think it’s far less stern that many suggest), it avoids humour not out of a Nolan-like need to stay “cool”, but instead because it doesn’t feel as though it needs humour to justify its existence.
And I think that’s a valid approach.
Of course, this puts it in stark contrast to Marvel’s superhero universe where—since the first Iron Man—comedy and drama have often been effortlessly intertwined in the films to various degrees. Many have been critical of DC’s apparent refusal to adopt this same model (seemingly ignoring how badly it failed when they tried it with Green Lantern), but doing so would leave it always feeling like an also-ran, rather than its own entity. To stand apart, the franchise can’t do what has already been done—it has to forge its own territory. And to do this it might as well embrace the fact that DC has always been the Der Ring Des Nibelungen to Marvel’s The Young & the Restless.
As fashionable as it has become to dismiss Snyder out of hand as a hack, it’s interesting to note that he is the rare director who has risen to blockbuster status on the backs of films that routinely deny audiences pat happy endings. One of the reasons Sucker Punch alienated audiences to the degree that it did is that it actually lived up to its title—delivering a conclusion that left viewers feeling as though they had been…well…sucker punched. Dawn of the Dead ends with the revelation that the protagonists’ escape was really just a delaying of the inevitable, 300 is the tale of a pyrrhic victory and Watchmen ends with the suggestion the peace created by the heroes’ sacrifice will be undone by the discovery of Rorschach’s diary.
Whatever you think of his work, Snyder isn’t a hack, but as much of an auteur that can exist in the major studio system today. Watching BvS, it occurred to me that it is (with all apologies to The Winter Soldier) the first comic book film that feels as though it could have truly come from the mid-70s. At times it struck me as possessing the same perverse authenticity of Robert Altman’s Popeye—another expensive comic book film that was so willing to be true to its own vision that it happily risked pissing off a significant portion of its audience.
When it comes to Man of Steel, I’ve frequently parroted the popular critique that I enjoyed it as a film, but not as a Superman film. That is to say, I agreed that Snyder’s voice might not have been reconcilable with my preferred expression of the character. I do believe that the film suffers from the same lack of conviction as Nolan’s Batman films, but rather than seeing BvS as a continuation down that same path, I felt that it fully accepted its version of the character in a way that the previous film didn’t (to the point of not even allowing him to be called by his name).
Now, is this universe’s version of Superman my ideal Superman? No, but I don’t feel like I have much right to complain too harshly about this because I’ve already seen several films that scratch that itch for me (he wrote including Superman Lives). That said, BvS’s version of the character at least felt closer to my Christopher Reeve/Brandon Routh ideal than Man of Steal’s. Also, who knows what’s going to happen to the character after he’s resurrected (I already said there would be spoilers, people!).
But as contrarian as my opinions have thus-far been, probably my most out-there opinion regarding the film is my estimation of Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Alexander “Lex” Luthor.
I think it’s great.
Perhaps I would have felt differently about this if I hadn’t heard beforehand that he based his performance on his time spent with American Ultra screenwriter Max Landis, but having been armed with this info it allowed me to completely embrace his interpretation of the character—who serves as the film’s lone thread of meta-commentary.
Landis—for those unfamiliar—is a highly opinionated, extremely passionate embodiment of the fanboy archetype. He’s the guy who has spent his whole life dreaming up his own perfect versions of his ideal superhero stories. During interviews he throws out screenplay/story ideas with an almost reckless abandon—knowing that since none of them will ever be made, he might as well release them into the wild the only way he can. He is both highly glib and extremely serious at the same time—he understands the absurdity of the kinds of stories he wants to tell, but is helpless to their awesomeness.
Eisenberg’s Luthor evokes that same energy—he is the fanboy incarnate, compelled to instigate the battle of his dreams less because it serves his ends than because he knows it’ll be epic. He pushes as hard as he can for the story to be told the way he wants it to be told, only to see his plans crumble due to forces he cannot control. He is the member of the audience who has spent his whole life waiting to see BvS, but who isn’t prepared for it to not go exactly the way he’s planned.
And that—even more than his obvious tics and quirks—is why so many are going to reject his performance. In a post about American Ultra I wrote that (short boring story) was deleted from the One Perfect Shot site, I noted that a major reason male audience members feel compelled to reject Eisenberg as an action hero is not because they can’t identify with him, but because they can identify with him way too easily. They resent how his onscreen presence reminds them of their own fallibility and weakness. This effect is quadrupled in BvS, where instead of embodying the archetype of cold, calculating evil, he instead plays a childish son-of-wealth (not that different from Bruce Wayne when you think about it) who uses his innate advantages in an attempt to mold the world in the image he prefers (only not for justice and criminal ass-kicking).
He is a pure portrait of white male geek privilege. And we all know how that audience reacts when a less-than-flattering reflection is aimed in their direction.
Beyond this I found many other aspects of the film worthy of praise. Much eye-rolling has been had at the film giving us another depiction of Martha and Thomas Wayne’s murder, but I personally found this to be—by far—the most moving depiction of the event I’ve ever seen and one that pays off when the screenwriters smartly use the comic book coincidence of Batman and Superman’s mothers having the same first name to their narrative advantage. Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons and Laurence Fishburne all had great moments in what could have been thankless supporting roles, while Amy Adams’ Lois Lane felt far more integral here than she did in Man of Steel.
And, of course, there was Wonder Woman. Many are complaining that she gets short shrift and/or is uncomfortably shoehorned into the narrative, but I—as one of the character’s most overt and unapologetic fans—actually felt she was well-served by the film.
She is the film’s one true ray of hope, but rather than that being a flaw, I see it as being a feature. Up above I quote an old adage, which I think is evoked by the film’s title. BvS serves as the dawn of something new and before that dawn there must be darkness. Wonder Woman, appearing as she does, is the first light in a film where all is grey. She says as much in the movie, telling Batman that she has avoided the world of man and its infinite horrors for a century, but now is the time for her to return.
And, honestly, I couldn’t be happier about it.
*Fight me. I will not be moved on this.