The Pen and Cape Society has had two articles so far about Batman v Superman, one that loved it, and one that encouraged you not to see it. I’m going to do something different, something that I remember from back when NPR was a new radio network and had no money.
I’m going discuss breaking news long after it broke and call it analysis.
The 1980s were a period that culturally wasn’t so different from the 1950s. Rock and roll had become part of the corporate machine and had lost the rebellious quality that people had always associated with it. Reagan was president and was fighting against drugs and the Soviet Union.
In comics, Marvel had the X-Men and Secret Wars and the ongoing complications of the Marvel Universe. DC had… Well, I’m not sure. I followed Marvel more at the time. Certainly there had been the various Superman movies which went from great to horrifying. Plus now that I think of it, there was Crisis on Infinite Earths in the comics as well as Marv Wolfman’s Teen Titans run.
Still, for me at least, DC seemed behind the times, still putting out the same kind of thing they’d put out in the 70s or even the 60s. I’m probably being unfair to a great many creators by saying that, but that was my opinion then.
For me, Crisis (where they rebooted their whole line, merging the two worlds where they set stories) made things a little more interesting as did the powered down version of Superman. That wasn’t enough to make me buy their comics, though.
What did make me buy them was Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
Both of them opened up new possibilities in terms of storytelling–even if most of them were of the grim and gritty sort. Still, in that moment, back when superheroes were rarely anything other than unambiguously good, it was amazing. The funny thing is that bearing in mind that the 80s were also the period of punk as well as the beginnings of science fiction’s Cyberpunk movement, Watchmen and DKR were as much part of their time as the bubblegum pop. They were just part of a different strain.
In the 1990s, of course, the comics companies took this to the logical extreme, creating far too many superpowered antiheroes. It’s interesting that Alan Moore has since mentioned that he never wanted the entire comic industry to chase Watchmen and hasn’t done much with superheroes since.
As for myself, I barely read comics in the 1990s except for Sandman and a few other Vertigo titles. Put simply, I like more optimism than comics in the 1990s provided. Also, I was in graduate school, and graduate school sucks up time.
This brings us back to Batman v Superman. How? Zach Snyder directed the film version of Watchmen. Also, Batman v Superman steals huge chunks out of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.
It’s pretty clear that Zach Snyder has many of the same touchstones in comics that I do.
This is true to the point that many of the criticisms of Man of Steel didn’t particularly bother me because I knew, for example, that Superman killed Zod in the comics. I also knew that in recent versions of Superman, he didn’t do anything with his powers until he became an adult, so having an origin story of Superman where he’s conflicted and not quite the Superman we know from the comics is an interesting way to go with it.
Still, I would have preferred a movie that wasn’t quite as dark and felt more optimistic.
So let’s talk about Batman v Superman. I’ll start off by saying that I enjoyed it. Like Man of Steel, it’s a movie I don’t have any urge to make but nonetheless enjoyed watching. As with the previous movie, it’s darker both in the storyline and the visuals than I’d prefer, but all the actors embodied their characters.
There were things I had issues with. Batman shooting people? Ugh. The fact that they put way too many of the film’s best moments in the trailer? Double ugh. All the same, I wasn’t thinking about its flaws much while I was watching it.
The flaws in the movie aren’t primarily flaws in execution. They’re mostly philosophical. It’s largely a question of what you think a superhero (and specifically Superman and Batman) should be like.
I think many of us who remember the 80s can still enjoy a take on superheroes like this–where it is a little darker. We can even feel happy to see the bits of Dark Knight Returns showing up.
Here’s something I find interesting, though. I read a few different comic book blogs. In one of them, they had people read classic comics and write about what they thought. Readers of the blog would then respond in the comments. In reading the comments, I found it interesting how people found The Dark Knight Returns revolutionary for its time but didn’t necessarily like it. One person, if I remember correctly, was even unhappy to see Batman and Superman fighting in it.
It makes me wonder if the major hurdle that the film faces is simply context.
What made Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns amazing was partially their addition of ambiguity to a superhero universe that was largely black and white. Currently, many superheroes exist in shades of grey, and so a superhero universe like Snyder’s doesn’t add anything particularly new.
In addition, and maybe this is more important, people may be going to superhero movies and reading superhero comics more for their sense of hope right now.
In the 1980s, the good guys and bad guys seemed obvious. At present, it’s little less clear, and people might need superheroes who are less ambiguous. By comparison, Marvel’s movies have that, but also, their characters often convey a sense of optimism, and even joy in what they can do, that no one but Wonder Woman exhibited in BvS.
I don’t know if that’s why the film is performing below expectations despite breaking records for its first weekend, but if so, I’m hoping DC adjusts.
Though I generally preferred Marvel, DC’s optimism was one of the things I liked about them back in the 80s. It’s ironic that they may be on the wrong end of that now.