Now it’s no secret what my thoughts are on Batman v Superman and the DCEU in general. I’ve thrown up a few articles sporadically on this site espousing my love for this cinematic universe, as most sites capable of holding articles have done. Today is another such article, but one that’s a bit different. I’ve seen it again and again: the complaint that this type of movie should leave people feeling hopeful. The complaint that this movie is too dark. The complaint, essentially, that this movie is too real. I’m not one for overly long intros, so let’s just dive into it.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. A good way to start these things is to define what the thing actually is. Dictionary.com defines it thusly:
That’s the long and short of it. It’s human nature to retreat to a world of gumdrops and ice cream when things get rough—whether that world is a galaxy far, far away or the halcyon days of yesteryear—we try to find comfort away from the harsh reality around us. That’s where movies come in. People want to escape the doldrums and sometimes unfairness of real life and indulge in the fictitious world where the hero can do anything and the bad guys always lose. It leaves a wonderful feeling, to be sure, but I feel, as with all things, there is a time and place for escapism—this is not one of those times.
By now it’s very well-documented that when Rome was in a time of hardship, the powers that were would orchestrate lavish spectacles to pacify the public, and whether this took the form of chariot races or gladiator fights, the objective was the same: give the people a means to escape the harsh reality of their society by distracting them. It’s hard to deny that we are in such a time right now. When one turns on the news one is bombaraded with stories of uprisings in the middle east, ISIS, Syria, the deaths of our heroes, catastrophic climate change, Brexit, and most recently, the United States’ new president, the uprisings his election has caused and the country the most divided it’s been in recent memory—with all this in mind it can be tempting to just want to shut it all out.
It can be tempting to rest on our past laurels as a society—tempting to remember what was and lose one’s self in it. In our internet meme culture, I’m sure at some point, dear reader, you’ve crossed paths with “Member berries“. This season of South Park, its 20th, is built on this phenomenon, where people withdraw from the world to dwell on nostalgia… which takes the form of Star Wars Episode 7. I (and so many others) too have talked about this movie extensively and why I dislike it, and the bulk of my issues stemmed from the fact that it was so safe—that rather than making a statement about our current world like Star Wars films have been known to do (Vietnam, for example), it instead indulges in nostalgic, self-referential decadence. The fact that this film made 2 billion dollars says that’s what audiences want: they want to go back to those lost halcyon days, leaving behind the uncertainty of the world as it is today.
Now, I know you might be thinking it’s in poor taste to relate all these serious issues to silly movies, but that’s the point. Entertainment doesn’t have to be silly; it can be thought-provoking and reflective of our current society. It doesn’t have to be silly entertainment, even though we might fall into the trap of wanting entertainment to escapist. Indeed, there’s a reason the US government paid Warner Bros. and Disney oodles of money during World War 2 to produce propaganda cartoons, or produced Why We Fight. That’s because films are powerful: they’re audio visual tools that broadcast their message to a viewer receptive to the message. We know films affect us on a psychological level. That’s why to talk about human society, you have to talk about the ways that society entertains itself. Entertainment is intrinsic to society and its importance cannot be overstated. In that sense, it’s only natural; not poor taste.
That’s where Batman v Superman and Man of Steel come in. Man of Steel showed how distrusting we are of outsiders, and that more than ever should be readily apparent, given the current president-elect of the US, Donald Trump, built a campaign on anti-immigrant rhetoric. Batman v Superman carried that theme over, and interlaced it with how the powerful throw their clout around in their best interest, even if that means fooling the public with hate speech and a corrupt news media that will dogpile and perpetuate whichever narrative gives it the most views—another thing that should hit close to home.
That is why these movies are brilliant (well, one of many reasons). They are not dark for darkness’ sake; they’re dour to convey a specific and particular tone. They are not making light of real world issues, and therein lies the problem with many a critic and viewer alike. These films are not escapist; they are instead reflective. I’ve seen the excuse that Christopher Nolan’s masterful Dark Knight trilogy was also dark, but reviewed well with critics and audiences, and that these films are deficient because of that. If you look at Zack Snyder’s two films and Nolan’s two films, then deduce that they’re comparable because they’re earnest… well you’re doing neither auteur anything resembling justice.
The Dark Knight trilogy, far more than the DCEU movies, romanticize Batman. In a quote that is often misrepresented, Zack Snyder once said in an interview:
Everyone says that [that the movies are dark] about [Christopher Nolan’s] Batman Begins. “Batman’s dark.” I’m like, okay, “No, Batman’s cool.” He gets to go to a Tibetan monastery and be trained by ninjas. Okay? I want to do that. But he doesn’t, like, get raped in prison. That could happen in my movie. If you want to talk about dark, that’s how that would go.
It’s true. Christopher Nolan’s masterwork isn’t dark; it’s cool and it’s escapism. In Nolan’s Batman, you can indulge in the fantasy that is Batman without any of the repercussions. You can watch Bruce Wayne blow up a monastery full of ninjas, but because you never see their bodies burning, them screaming in agony, and them maimed and dying it’s okay. Batman can ram through a trailer in a chase scene, and because Nolan never showed their bodies, it’s okay. Catwoman can shoot Bane with a high powered rifle and kill him, but because the movie doesn’t dwell on it and she says a one-liner, it’s okay. All of these examples remove the consequences from the heroes’ actions. It allows you to indulge in the fantasy and think these heroes are great, but that feeling of elation you get is disingenuous as the films just pretend that people aren’t dying.
Again, I am not belittling Nolan’s work here. For all people complain about how dark Nolan’s movies are, his themes tend to skew more idealistic than most other filmmakers. From his central theme of love transcending time and space in Interstellar, to him showing that the good in man will prevail in the end in The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan views humanity very optimistically. Zack Snyder, on the other hand tends to end his movies in bittersweet ways—there is never a clean triumph. Victory is earned with blemishes. Zack Snyder isn’t entirely idealistic, nor is he pessimistic. He’s both, as most things in life tend to be. That’s our world: things are rarely purely one thing or another; most times things are both to varying degrees. There is a misconception that Batman v Superman and Nolan’s movies are comparable because they’re DC movies about Batman, but that’s where their similarity starts and ends: Snyder’s films skew darker than Nolan’s.
Indeed, this is all to similar to Batman: Arkham Knight, where the player uses a set of commands to have the batmobile use its massive guns to shred tanks and then use those same commands to mow down random thugs in the street. This would raise several flags, if not for the game telling you that they’re okay because when you’re about to mow down people the batmobile magically switches to non-lethal rounds. I mean what? Do you see how contrived that is? You get to simulate murdering dozens of people, with that same animation, but the game holds your hand gently and tells you they’re going to be fine, so you can go wild. All this just to preserve the escapism instead of making the player have to deal with the fact that they’re relishing in using Batman’s tools to murder the defenseless.
Zack Snyder has, on more than one occasion, talked about how consequences are very important to him. How he can’t have characters mowing down people without showing their bodies and the grisliness of the action. How he thinks it’s irresponsible and glorifying violence not to do that. In that respect, Batman v Superman is a deconstruction of the concept of consequence-free action. If you want to see the cool batmobile rampage through the streets, you will, but you will also see the consequences of it ramming through cars. You want to see Batman beating up criminals? Okay, but you’ll see how their limbs snap when he hits them and how they scream in agony when he takes them down. Truly, there is nothing wrong with this, nor is there anything wrong with Nolan’s approach; both are different and there’s room for both. The issue is we don’t need everything to be escapist. Sometimes facing the reality of the situation is necessary.
Earlier this year, Go Compare did a tally of the top 653 most deadly films. The list chronicled the films with the most onscreen deaths and ordered them accordingly. With how strong the backlash to Man of Steel’s destruction was, surely it topped the list. Well… it didn’t make top ten, top fifty, or even top one hundred. Ultimately, as far as the death count went, Man of Steel ranked 243rd. So why, then, did it feel like there was so much death? Well, before answering that I wish to compare Man of Steel’s climax with the 10th place holder’s:
If The Avengers is number 10 on that list, well above every Michael Bay movie ever, and Man of Steel is 243rd, how can Man of Steel‘s destruction and death feel so much more impactful? Simple, really. The Avengers doesn’t show the conflict from the perspective of the civilians. It pretends people aren’t getting killed en masse. Its destruction and death is a prop. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not disparaging the film for this. It never set out to be more than a fun, escapist blockbuster, and that is entirely okay. Man of Steel, however, has the destruction shown from the people running away’s perspectives. It shows their bodies getting mangled by the Black Zero’s gravity. The destruction and death matter, we’re faced with the reality that people are dying, and it’s focused on—it is decidedly not escapist—and that’s why this drummed up so many emotions.
This death and destruction led directly into Batman v Superman, where we see it play out again from a different perspective, showing just how integral to the DCEU’s narrative this battle is. Now I’m not saying Man of Steel is Hacksaw Ridge, but both are cut from the same cloth. They both try to hammer home the cost of battle, but one is an R-rated movie and the other a comic book movie. People went into one expecting escapism and went into the other expecting realism. People did not expect this kind of earnestness from a Superman movie, clinging to, indeed, the member berries of the Donner films—craving that escapism where one could believe a man could fly. This is not to knock the Donner films, mind you, as they were good for their time, but we need to understand and accept that the time of those movies have passed and that we need more contemporary movies reflective of our world.
Escapism has created some of the most significant stories of our generation. Indeed, George Lucas has gone on record saying he created Star Wars initially because kids needed something to look up to and look forward to in a time where every movie was. At the time, the world needed escapism. In our current climate, where there is so many cinematic universes and blockbuster franchises, all dealing various kinds of escapism, there’s nothing wrong with one franchise attempting to be reflective of our world and deconstructionist in its approach to heroics. Variance is the spice of life, after all. I leave you with this, it’s tempting to try to escape, to go to Canada, but that won’t accomplish anything.