Spoiler Alert: at the end of this review I discuss the “surprise” plot twist of Batman v Superman, though anyone familiar with the Superman comics of the early 1990s knew what was coming when Doomsday appeared in one of the trailers.
Even when I was a kid reading comic books, I had a preference for Marvel over DC. The Marvel comics always felt slightly more grounded in reality than the DC counterparts. Maybe it was the fact that Marvel stories take place in real cities while DC comics happen in fictional locations. Mostly, I think, it was because of Superman. When your marquee hero has almost unlimited powers, the entire franchise feels more like Greek mythology than science fiction. The one exception, of course, was Batman, perpetually slogging his way through the gritty depths of pain and suffering.
The early reviews are right: Batman v Superman is a joyless film. It will be hard not to compare DC’s late-to-the-game Extended Universe to the numerous films and television shows that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Marvel projects manage to engage serious issues while still being fun. Thus far, Man of Steel and Batman v Superman are all pathos.
I’m not opposed to pathos. In fact, I believe that embracing and confronting pathos is a necessary aspect of progress. For me, the problem with these films is that they still feel too disconnected from reality. By comparison, Marvel’s Daredevil series on Netflix is equally grim but is still somehow believable and relatable. The same could be said about Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, which still stands as the best comic book film series ever produced.
I realize that believability and verisimilitude shouldn’t be the criteria by which we judge comic book fantasies—or religions for that matter. Yet it’s not really the fantasy elements that bother me. Despite my low expectations going into them, I very much enjoyed the Thor films and Guardians of the Galaxy, the most fantastic MCU platforms to date. Rather, what’s missing in these two DC films is an emotional connection to the characters. More than anything, I think the Marvel films work because Robert Downey, Jr. created a complex and compelling character in Tony Stark and the rest of the MCU has followed that formula.
By contrast, the Superman of these two films is so conflicted about his humanity that he coldly distances himself not only from most of the other characters in the films, but from the audience as well. What is there about this Superman that we can identify with? Rather than casting him as a god struggling to find his place in a human world, the filmmakers should have gone out of their way to humanize Superman and draw us into that humanity. The archetype of Superman works best when he inspires humanity to transcend itself, not when he broods about an inferior species whose posture toward him oscillates between worship and fear.
Ironically, Batman v Superman tries to engage the theme of shared humanity, but it ultimately falls flat because the primary protagonists are too aloof or one-dimensional to connect with. Superman’s unapproachability is matched only by Batman’s relentless rage, even though he is clearly motivated by a desire to protect humanity from alien powers it has suddenly and unexpectedly been forced to deal with. (Again, Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark wrestles with this same challenge in more nuanced and interesting ways.) Maybe this version of Batman will work for some people in this season of political anger, but I miss the moral ambiguity of Nolan’s Batman figuring out how to confront evil in the wake of 9/11 without becoming the very thing he is fighting. (Wonder Woman is by far the most centered and inspiring character of the story—I’ll be glad for her brief cameo role to be expanded in future films.)
For me, the most interesting elements of the film are the theological questions it raises. Emotionally scarred by an abusive father, Lex Luthor poses the perennial problem of theodicy: given the world of suffering we live in, God is either not all-powerful or not all-good. With Superman as his proxy for God, Luthor concludes that divinity is neither and must therefore be stopped.
Batman follows a similar logic, suggesting that even a 1% chance of Superman turning against us justifies a preemptive strike. He also layers in another theological conundrum. In their epic battle against each other, Batman accuses Superman of believing the lie that we have a purpose in this world, arguing instead that life is random and meaningless. “The world only makes sense if you force it to,” he growls as he viciously pummels Superman. (The way Batman contrasts his formative childhood experiences with Superman’s is probably my favorite nuance of this film.)
A coincidence I never noticed before leads Batman to recognize Superman’s humanity and lay down his arms. Superman goes on to sacrifice himself to save the world after Luthor unleashes the unstoppable killing machine known as Doomsday. Superman’s death, burial, and the tease of his resurrection are unmistakable allusions in a film opening on Maundy Thursday/Good Friday. (It would have been a humanizing touch to visually connect Superman’s self-sacrifice to the example provided by his human father in Man of Steel.)
In this theodicy, unlike it’s biblical counterpart in the Book of Job, God does not provide any answers from the whirlwind. By the end of Batman v Superman, God is dead. All that’s left is a somewhat redeemed and slightly tamed humanity personified by Bruce Wayne and Batman. It seems that redoubled human resolve and the dei ex machina represented by the soon-to-be-assembled Justice League are our only sources of hope.
In the comic books, the death of Superman inspired DC to ask important questions about what it meant to be a superhero in the changing world of the 1990s. Perhaps the death of Superman in the DCEU will provide a similar catalyst for deeper reflection and more relevant storytelling for today’s even more complicated world.
Update: Check out my follow-up discussion in A Girardian Reading of Batman v Superman