When it comes to superheroes, Batman and Superman are bigger than anyone in the Marvel stable. People who otherwise never read comics will still turn out to see the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight, so when both characters are appearing in the same blockbuster, you can be damn sure that people are paying attention.
That’s why I felt compelled to pocket my Avengers decoder ring to see Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice on opening weekend. The movie is culturally significant for reasons that have nothing to do with quality, and I felt like I had to see it in order to follow the conversation. I suspect that there are a lot of people seeing it with the same sense of morbid curiosity.
The end result proved to be more puzzling than entertaining, and that’s a weird takeaway for what should be one of the landmark cinematic events of 2016. Movies are a form of entertainment, which means that most people go to see them with the expectation that the experience will be enjoyable. I went to Dawn of Justice expecting the opposite to be true, especially after reading a series of scathing reviews from critics.
I’m cool with that because I happen to find the meta-story around the movie as fascinating as the film itself, and the same ubiquity that makes Batman and Superman iconic makes any interpretation of them equally noteworthy. Multiple generations of people have grown up with the various incarnations of these characters, which gives them extremely personal resonance for millions of fans around the world. People care about Batman and Superman, which makes Dawn of Justice fun to talk about even though it’s not terribly pleasurable to watch.
However, those same factors guarantee disagreement as readily as they guaranteed a large opening box office. Characters as old as Batman and Superman may not live and breathe in the traditional sense, but neither do they remain constant over 75 years of publication. They grow and adapt and come to reflect the concerns of specific writers and the social trends of any given era, taking on different meanings for different people while offering plenty of canonical support to every subjective iteration.
The catch is that only one Superman can appear in any single movie, so some fans are bound to go home disappointed when reality does not meet desire. The sense of betrayal is great for people who have waited a lifetime to see these characters onscreen together, and that’s why critics and fans can go back and forth arguing about whether or not Dawn of Justice offers the ‘right’ version of its protagonists.
Yet beneath the vitriol, both camps are incredibly passionate about film and/or comic books, and that’s what seems to be getting lost amidst the backlash. We argue about Batman v Superman because Batman and Superman are important. We want to love them, and it’s confusing when the film doesn’t live up to the gravity of our expectations.
That’s what what makes Dawn of Justice such an unusual cultural artifact. Superman has a global appeal that cuts across every demographic, but with filmmaker Zack Snyder, Warner Bros. managed to find the one director who can’t find anything to like about one of the world’s most likeable heroes, and that raw antipathy radiates across his film whenever someone warns against the disastrous side-effects of any altruistic tendency. Forget superheroes. Zack Snyder doesn’t seem to like people, to the point that he genuinely can’t understand why someone would help a neighbour bring in the groceries, to say nothing of saving a city with millions of people.
That doesn’t necessarily make Dawn of Justice a bad movie, and in truth, I enjoyed Dawn of Justice more than I expected. Then again, I enjoyed Man of Steel when I saw it in theatres and it was only later that I realized it was gibberish. The same will likely be true for Dawn of Justice, which is loud and explodey and reasonably distracting, but also hypocritical and empty and ethically bankrupt. Every bad thing that the critics have said about it is true. Dawn of Justice is a disjointed, inconsistent mess that doesn’t seem to have much affection for logic, the audience, or the characters appearing in it.
At the same time, it is unquestionably compelling. The quality of the Marvel movies varies, but even when actors change or Ant-Man loses its director halfway through production, it’s always clear that Marvel has a deep affection for its characters. The movies feel optimistic because the studio isn’t ashamed of its source material.
Meanwhile, DC and Warner Bros. entrusted a nakedly selfish director with two of its most selfless characters, which has to be one of the most perplexing decisions in recent Hollywood memory.
More than the banks or the auto industry, Batman and Superman truly are too big to fail. Their costumes are too deeply woven into the fabric of modern pop culture. The duo will have as many opportunities as Hollywood can afford them, so if DC Comics were to go broke tomorrow, another studio would purchase the rights and have a new movie in production before the signs were down on the Warner Bros. lot.
In other words, all the hand-wringing is ultimately irrelevant. Zack Snyder’s nihilistic interpretation will not define these characters. Batman and Superman will be rewritten again and again and again, and they will continue to evolve and take on unique resonance for every generation. Like all superheroes, Batman and Superman allow us to grapple with large-scale abstract problems in a comprehensible and human manner.
I just don’t think we’ll ever see another movie quite like Dawn of Justice, a big-budget superhero flick in which it’s painfully obvious that the director does not like superheroes or the idealism they represent. Snyder seems legitimately bewildered with the mere concept of human decency. He can’t understand that heroes are a source of inspiration and that – even more than the premise of Batman v Superman – is truly unbelievable.