HBO has had showings of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (or, BvS) in the last couple of months. I had promised Facebook friends at the time of its release that I would review the movie in regard to certain subjects, and with the Wonder Woman movie about to come out (produced, but not directed by Zach Snyder) and with the Justice League movie being promoted (originally being made by Snyder until his daughter’s untimely death caused him to bow out of directing), I thought I needed to go over BvS in terms of how it suffers in comparison to other superhero movies, and exactly why it does, with regard to how Snyder’s oeuvre leaves a lot of fans pessimistic about the overall direction of DC Comics’ movie universe.
First, if you can, I’d recommend seeing the Extended Version/Director’s Cut of BvS. The movie still isn’t that good, but it’s substantially better, giving context to otherwise slapped-together scenes and giving characters like Jimmy Olsen real dialogue. Of course there are at least two reasons this wasn’t released in theatres: the extra stuff added 30 minutes to a movie that was already 2 1/2 hours long, and the extra violence would have gotten it an R rating. (And while the studio didn’t seem to care about the movie being dark and violent, they apparently wanted it just dark and violent enough to where kids could still see it.)
Some random points:
In this movie, Zach Snyder really seems to go for a lot of blurry, out-of-focus shots, which are often irritating but are occasionally used to great effect, as with the scene where a Gotham street cop encounters the Batman for the first time.
As far as the now-famous “surprise” where Batman’s vengeance is stayed when he finds out that Superman’s (foster) mom has the same name as his deceased mother, I thought that was actually a good move. I’m quite surprised that no one else noticed the coincidence of Martha Kent vs. Martha Wayne before, although it wasn’t until now that anyone saw fit to bring it up.
With as many problems as this movie had, I think it would have been improved by a factor of triple if it did not have Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. And normally I like Eisenberg. If he had just played the character as a reinterpretation of his Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, it would have expressed the sort of cold sociopathy that Luthor has in the comics. But in terms of both intelligence and emotional stability, this Luthor makes Donald Trump look like Mr. Spock.
Although in retrospect, given that Luthor had surveillance footage of the future members of the Justice League, much of what happened in the film only makes sense if you realize that Lex Luthor knew Clark Kent’s secret identity all along, and probably Bruce Wayne’s too.
The reason I wanted to critique an otherwise disappointing experience is because of something I’d read at the time of the movie’s release, where Zach Snyder had mentioned doing a film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. Most of what I’ve seen on the subject details a movie that is not yet in production because Warner Brothers is still holding on to Rand’s screenplay, but when you type “zach snyder” in a search, the first thing that comes up is “zach snyder and ayn rand” and the articles it links to are fairly consistently from left-wing sites (like Salon) or from left-wing critics almost choking on their own snark about how bad Rand is and if Snyder likes her work, that just makes sense because he is also technically if not morally awful. As a fan of Rand’s (though not an orthodox Objectivist) I had to react to this assertion, especially since my issue with associating Snyder with Rand turns out to be the ultimate problem with BvS.
For one thing, Ayn Rand never wrote superhero comics, for another, the closest thing we have to such are the comics by Objectivist artist Steve Ditko (including The Question and Mr. A), and Snyder already did an adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen comic story, based largely on comics that the DC company bought from Charlton Comics, including The Question, and in Watchmen, the vigilante Rorschach was basically Moore’s parody of The Question taken to a murderous extreme.
Ayn Rand is now most famous as a radical atheist right-wing philosopher (as opposed to the more religious conservatives) but she had always thought of herself primarily as a fiction author, one who belonged to the “Romantic Realist” school. In Rand’s terms, she was a Realist in the sense that her work did not include supernatural premises (although many of John Galt’s inventions are pure science fiction), and she was a Romantic in the sense that she wanted to write about heroic characters who prevailed over challenges and inspired moral values. The reason for her atheism, and later political involvement, was her sense that traditional altruist morality undermined heroism. This position has made her very unpopular in traditional liberal circles. For instance, Rand’s signature novel, Atlas Shrugged, is considered unrealistic and elitist because it posits a future dystopia in which the last thinking, productive people on Earth are under constant siege from mobs of mindless moochers whose only motivation is feeding themselves. And yet, the Zombie Apocalypse genre is more popular than ever.
Much of this gets into why Rand is now more famous for political philosophy than fiction, and has little bearing on BvS, DC Comics, or Zach Snyder’s film making philosophy. But Rand matters in comparison to Snyder because she articulated two aesthetic ideas that intersected with her political views but are not dependent on them. One is “sense of life” and the other is “benevolent universe premise.”
In the Ayn Rand Lexicon (now online) these two concepts are quoted mainly from Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto. She defines sense of life as “a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence.” In smaller words, one’s sense of life is a mainly subconscious and implicit sense of existence or “how the world works” and in most people is set before they are exposed to abstract philosophy and make specific value judgments on philosophical grounds. Rand explained why sense of life was relevant to art: “It is the artist’s sense of life that controls and integrates his work, directing the innumerable choices he has to make, from the choice of subject to the subtlest details of style. It is the viewer’s or reader’s sense of life that responds to a work of art by a complex, yet automatic reaction of acceptance and approval, or rejection and condemnation. … Regardless of the nature or content of an artist’s metaphysical views, what an art work expresses, fundamentally, under all of its lesser aspects is: “This is life as I see it.” The essential meaning of a viewer’s or reader’s response, under all of its lesser elements, is: “This is (or is not) life as I see it.”
The other concept of benevolent universe premise is not so much that the universe is some animate thing that’s looking out for you, but rather, if the conditions of the universe are such if that human beings can live and find technical and social progress, then a mindset of progress and values is the correct one for existence. This is part of why liberals despise Rand, because this premise goes along with various right-wing beliefs rationalizing the already successful as being more worthy and thus implies that those who are struggling do so because of a lack of values. And yet, this concept that existence is perfectible and that humans are not doomed to tragedy and suffering is inherent to heroic fiction, whether dealing with capitalist “Randian supermen” or the altruistic Superman.
Objectivists contrast this philosophy with “malevolent universe premise” which they hold to be mostly implied in altruism (the idea that lack, disappointment and disaster are the human norm and the goal of existence is to rescue other people from various emergencies) and mysticism (the premise of various religions that the physical world is either unreal or inferior to the spiritual world, and therefore improving material conditions is meaningless). In terms of her literary tastes, Rand identified this overall approach to life as associated with the Naturalist school of fiction, which attempted a scientific or observational view of subjects but emphasized “realism” by focusing on the more grim and sordid aspects of life. Part of this was the attempt to inspect material and social conditions outside the individual, but led to a view that man’s fate is ultimately determined by greater forces than the individual. One of Rand’s objections to Naturalism was based on the sense of life concept: Since the author is the ultimate shaper of the fictional setting (its God, so to speak) then a morally downbeat and grim work says more about the author’s sense of life than about how life “really” is.
In fiction, the malevolent universe premise expresses in one of three ways depending on the author. Either the author arranges things for the hero(es) to fail because the premise of the story relies on them failing, he arranges things to fail because his sense of life disposes him to actually believe that human effort is ultimately meaningless, or he believes that the conditions of the universe are such that they punish honorable behavior and that only rat bastards are capable of doing what it takes to survive in this world (this last could be called ‘the George RR Martin’s Career Premise’).
This premise worked for Zach Snyder in his adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, which was supposed to be an over-the-top, gory last stand movie. It worked for Watchmen, which was was supposed to be a deconstructionist take on superheroes from the get-go. It even works to some extent with Batman (dark cave, wears black, no parents) which might be why the Batman sequences of BvS work better than the Superman ones. But it doesn’t work for Superman, and it might work even less well for Wonder Woman, because if you want your story to express certain values (like ‘violence is a reliable solution to all problems’) then someone like Superman undermines those assertions by his very existence in your setting. In Watchmen, the Dr. Manhattan character is a great deal more powerful than Superman, but he’s not a hero. Whereas in the Marvel Studios movies, Captain America is simply a human being tuned up to the highest level of performance with no fancy powers of his own, but the Captain America movies do a much better job of presenting the comicbook superhero ethos- and what Rand would call the benevolent universe premise- because despite going through trials that are at least as much psychological as physical, Cap still maintains his convictions and prevails over his enemies.
Go back to Man of Steel for a bit. Clark’s foster father Jonathan wanted Clark to conceal his powers. He was willing to keep this secret even to the extent of letting himself die for it. Why? Because he was scared of what might happen to Clark if he were found out. What the government might try to do with him. This version of Pa Kent didn’t grow up in a universe with Superman comics and cartoons. He didn’t grow up with that role model. He grew up in a universe presented much as the cynical world of today, without even that fictional alternative. He was operating on malevolent universe premise.
And unlike some people, while I didn’t object to Clark killing the Kryptonian General Zod at the climax of the movie – because he was clearly left with no choice – the reason he was left with no choice, in “meta” terms, is because that’s how the script was set up. Superman didn’t have access to a Phantom Zone projector or some means of removing the villain’s threat without killing him. Which writers for Superman comics have been able to do for almost 78 YEARS. This is of a piece with all the property damage and mass casualties Superman and Zod caused by their battle within Metropolis, which was another thing that comic fans objected to. Almost as if they’d been reading comic books for years longer than Zach Snyder and expected a comicbook movie to play out LIKE a comic book. But apparently the idea of the producers (including Snyder, and also his co-screenwriter, David S. Goyer of The Dark Knight movie trilogy) was that in order to be believable you have to present superheroes “realistically” in terms of the consequences their powers have and how people would react to them. To the extent that this argument has merit, it’s been better presented in other superhero and science fiction movies, including Watchmen. But it also misses the point. Stories like Watchmen pose the question: what if people with strange abilities and colorful costumes acted just like everybody else? Traditional superhero comics ask the question: What if they didn’t?
In any case that grim approach to how people would “really” react to a superhero carries over to BvS, where events play out as direct consequence to the Kryptonian battle over Metropolis. The city builds a giant statue to Superman but others call him a “false god.” The standoff between the government and Superman in Man of Steel seemed to have been resolved at the end of that movie but is re-intensified, for no obvious reason other than Superman attacking a warlord in a Third World country (mainly to rescue Lois) whom the CIA was going to take out anyway. And nobody cares what the CIA does in the Third World, so why would they care about Superman? The other factor is that the collateral damage in Metropolis also destroyed one of Bruce Wayne’s buildings and killed most of the staff, and with this version of Bruce somewhat resembling the Frank Miller version (semi-retired from crimefighting and embittered by the Joker killing Robin) he’s inclined to outright kill Superman, even as his investigations reveal something more sinister going on with Luthor. Just as this world didn’t grow up with 70-plus years of Superman, it also didn’t seem to have anything like the spectre of the 9-11 bombings. Rather than having public and government insecurity over terrorists blowing up skyscrapers, we have paranoia over superheroes blowing up skyscrapers. Which might explain why this world doesn’t care about protection against bombers.
Luthor sees the confrontation coming between Superman and the government, and decides to escalate by blowing up the Capitol as Superman comes in to testify. Let’s not even dwell on the point that blowing up the Capitol is just another example of postmodern cynicism towards government in particular, where Congress is destroyed largely because it’s a convenient target for audience wrath (much better expressed in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks: ‘We’ve still got two out of three branches of government, and that ain’t bad!!’). What was the guy’s wheelchair made of so that site security was unable to detect the explosive? Would Superman’s X-Ray vision have worked any better? Not like it matters. As my friend Jason Tondro says, he didn’t fucking look. In fact, Clark actually said this to Lois the first time he saw her after the explosion. Well, not the “fucking” part.
Retreating back to the Arctic, Clark has a vision of his dead father Jonathan, who talks about how as a boy he and his family blocked a river flow during a storm to save a farm, only to find out that the diverted flow ended up ruining the Lang family farm instead.
In the movie, Luthor reveals himself to have been abused by his father (as Lex was in the most recent comic iterations). In this, Luthor’s atheism is not so much a rationalist philosophy as a “mad at God” stance, and once he has Superman in his clutches, he makes it clear that he regards him as a substitute for the absent creator he blames for his trauma. (So if we’re supposed to believe that Snyder and Goyer are apologists for Randian atheism, there’s a mixed message here.)
Blackmailed into fighting Batman, Superman tells Lois Lane, “no one stays good in this world.” No one who understands Superman would have written that line. But no one who understands Ayn Rand would have written it either.
To some extent, the fact that someone like Superman doesn’t use all the capabilities at his disposal is an example of what Siskel and Ebert used to call the “idiot plot,” as in, the plot advancement depends on the principals being idiots. And as other critics have discussed, many of the movie’s plot holes, or plot sinkholes, plot crevasses and plot canyons, are best explained if you assume the producers went with the premise “let’s have Batman fight Superman” and worked backward from there, as opposed to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, where the fight between the two was inevitable considering Bruce’s actions, but not actually the point of the story, and where small details were introduced explaining why that confrontation would be inevitable and not contrived. But what we’re discussing with Snyder’s movies, the Superman movies in particular, is more broad and abstract. The forces of the universe, as shaped by the producers, actually work against heroism. In Pa Kent’s example, this is explicit. Even when you try to do the right thing, it blows up on you. So why try?
Ayn Rand was rather infamous for her humorlessness, but one reason for that was that she thought that heroism and heroic virtues should not be mocked. And in terms of her literary position, she saw that mockery taking place throughout a popular culture influenced by Naturalism that saw optimism and virtue as “unrealistic.” Superman, as the most famous altruist next to Jesus himself, is not the sort of character Rand would have championed. But neither would she have tried to make him seem stupid or impotent. And that’s what BvS does. It does this to a lesser extent with Batman, whose investigations of Luthor are distracted by his mad-dog obsession with Superman, but the contrast between what the comic fan knows about the character and what Snyder’s movie presents is not quite so insulting. Batman as a violent and obsessed vigilante is a simplistic interpretation, but it’s not entirely inappropriate. Superman, as a near-omnipotent character who tries to use his power judiciously while causing as little harm as possible, is a character concept that Snyder and Goyer don’t seem to get. BvS, much more so than Man of Steel, seems intent on pushing every “cool kid” conception of Superman as being useless and stupid in comparison to edgier heroes, and given that Superman has that image problem, the challenge in storytelling terms would have been to make that Boy Scout hero both inspiring and believable. It would also have been a challenge for Ayn Rand to do so, but then, she would not have tried, rather than make a genuine hero look like a tool.
All of which is why I don’t think Zach Snyder is a Randian, or if he is, he’s not setting a great example. Most likely if he did get to do an adaptation of The Fountainhead it would end up with Howard Roark as an obscure architect who resorts to terrorism in order to compensate for his failed life, with Dominique as not merely masochistic but outright delusional, acting out a cycle of childhood conditioning and abuse a la Sucker Punch.
And if you want “gritty” superhuman movies that show all the ugliness and vulgarity of real life but are also entertaining and even heroic, you’d be better off with Logan or Deadpool.