But I guess my expectations were not that high.
Despite his incredible gift for capturing super hero visuals, Snyder may not be the right choice to direct a movie about Superman. Fortunately, this movie isn't really about Superman. But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself...
"We created superheroes to inspire us. To give us an idea of our better selves, and then we could imitate our better selves"
Superman should have answers for his critics, not prove them right, as he does in Snyder's films.
I get that kids (like Snyder) who grew up in the shadow of Watchmen, DKR, and decades of "grim and gritty" super-bastard comics and movies are convinced that anti-heroes are more "realistic" than old-fashioned men of virtue and excellence. Even though I think that idea is pretty silly (I know lots of old-fashioned men of virtue and excellence), it doesn't matter, because Superman isn't meant to be realistic. He's meant to be inspirational.
"You are the salt of the earth.
But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless."
-Jesus of Nazereth
Yeah, I went there. This is, in my opinion, where "grim and gritty" Superman gets it wrong. If Superman is no longer the shining light of greatness for regular people (and superheroes) to aspire to, if times of moral crisis break him, if he is a slowly detaching Doctor Manhattan-like man-shaped alien weapon of mass destruction, then Lex Luthor is right. A weak Superman IS likely to evolve into an ominous fascist might-makes-right Ubermensch, only useful as something to fear, and those who continue to believe in him are the gullible masses, who do so at their own peril.
This diminished and diminishing view of Superman as an ideal is an outgrowth of the diminished and diminishing view of the "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" that Superman stands for. The institutions our forefathers stood for are crumbling, and Superman, in many ways the image of those institutions, has been struggling with that ever since. It's bigger than Superman, of course. Watchmen and DKR brought this battle to the forefront of American comics in the eighties, and the battle has been waging ever since. Supes' Marvel Universe reflection Captain America managed to free himself from that by decoupling the ideals of America from the actions of the American government in stories like Mark Waid and Ron Garney's Man Without a Country. Superman scribes have found it harder, because Superman's power situates him as bigger than a government. He is a god. And, as Lex says "If God is all-powerful, he can't be all good."
Superman has been effectively parodied and deconstructed in other characters like Supreme, Hyperion, the Sentry, Apollo from The Authority and countless others. These riffs on the original superhero make Superman-as-beacon-of-light more necessary, not less. Although a few writers have gotten it right (Example: Read Joe Kelly's What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way), Snyder has so far chosen not to listen to them, instead opting for a powerful, but emotionally weak Kal-El. This emo Superman is a lot like unsalty salt. Worthless.
So here's the part where I advocate for the possibility that Snyder and the DC brass might be smarter than their critics give them credit for. Here's a few things I think they got incredibly right:
- Superman doesn't love you, and that's okay- I am not a huge Superman fan, but it's not my fault. After all, most Superman comics suck. But the ones that don't suck have taught me a lot about Kal-El of Krypton. As a spiritual dude, I have had to ponder the questions that often lead people to the dark places populated by Lex and Bruce Wayne, and come to different conclusions, which are too lengthy a matrix to fully cover here, but it is summed up best in the sentence I started this paragraph with. Like Lex, I am convinced that Superman, while raised by humans, is not a human in any meaningful way. I think the Clark Kent persona is an elaborate construction, that is nevertheless not able to contain all that Kal-El is. Like Tarzan eventually and inevitably outgrows being a relatively hairless ape, Kal must eventually outgrow being a human. Like Tarzan, he loves these lesser creatures that raised him, especially certain ones he knows intimately, like the Kents, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White. Even Bruce Wayne, whose trust he struggles to gain and maintain. Of course Superman loves Lois Lane.
- Wonder Woman go hard- As the subtitle suggests, the other superheroes in Dawn of Justice are really what make it worth (re)watching. The big-screen debut of Wonder Woman is probably what most fans I follow on social media were crowing about the most, and with good reason. Wonder Woman is best portrayed in the comics as more of a warrior than a spandex hero, and Warrior Princess Diana of Themyscira dominated every scene she was in. Diana showed herself worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with Superman in battle, and matched wits with the Dark Knight detective. One of my biggest gripes with Dawn of Justice was that Superman's death was very forced, maybe even more than Kal-El's quasi-justifiable murder of Zod in Man of Steel. I get that the narrative required Supes to give his life to defeat
BizarroDoomsday, but he should'a passed the rock to Diana, who would'a deaded Lex's science experiment in short order and took Bruce Wayne to the res for some Netflix and Chill. Anticlimactic endings not withstanding, Wonder Woman was the whole shit, and easily the second best thing in the movie.
- The Goddamn Batman-Superman fans should realize that this movie was not a sequel to Man of Steel, it was the second in series of movies officially (re)establishing the DC Universe on the silver screen. Superman's name came second in the title for a reason, because the real purpose of Dawn of Justice was introducing moviegoers to Detective Comics' greatest hero: The Goddamn Batman. As much as Alan Moore's Watchmen broke Superman for post-modern writers and fans, causing us to question his relevance in a pluralistic world where might doesn't always make right, Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns made Batman into the caped and cowled champion of a generation. He wasn't just a silly, jet-setting playboy with a bunch of wonderful toys, he was an outlaw warrior willing to rob his own riches to rescue the poor from the predators among them and the corrupt and crumbling establishment above them. By squaring Batman and Superman off in tooth-rattling combat, Frank Miller finally (and probably permanently) shifted our hero-worship from the Alien God in man's clothing to the wounded over-achieving plutocrat from Gotham. Where Superman defended the status quo, Batman told the status quo to go fuck itself, and we love him for it. For the record, Snyder is a perfect director for Batman. Snyder and Affleck's Batman is a brutal, black and grey hurricane of fists and batarangs. The way his cape moves when he fights feels better than any other live-action iteration of the character. As much as I enjoyed Nolan's portrayal of Batman and Bruce Wayne, Batman Vs Superman is the purest depiction of the character on screen to date.
- Lex Luthor: Man of Steel- Nobody seems to like Jesse Eisenberg's Alexander "My dad was the Lex in Lexcorp" Luthor, but he was one of my favorite things about the movie. The thing I love most about him is that he is smarter than Batman. Lex and Batman have a lot in common, but while most fans would assume Bruce Wayne is the sharpest mind on Earth, Snyder and company agree with me. Young Alexander Luthor had Wayne and Kent figured out from day zero. He would need to be the smartest man Earth could produce to be a worthy foe of the Last Son of Krypton, and he doesn't disappoint. He didn't disappoint me, at least. Lex takes humanism to villainous ends, offended as he is by Kal-El's arrival on the scene. In Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's Lex Luthor: Man of Steel, Lex suggests that Superman is an interruption of mankind's growth as a species, that by casting our faith on a man in the sky we are turning from faith in ourselves, to our own peril. This particular germ of heroism in Lex is what makes him a perfect foil for Superman, and I like that they included it. It pleases me that Snyder and friends allowed the nietzschean superman Bruce Wayne to be vulnerable to the even more nietzschean superman Lex's machinations. Again, a Lex who is smarter than Batman, who can manipulate Batman and Superman at every turn (who actually beat them in this movie), is a necessary evil, and I can only hope he stays awesome when more supervillains start to appear. And yes, I fully expect them to blow my high by making him a lapdog to Darkseid in future movies. But that's a whole 'nother review.
So, how does unsalty salt regain its saltiness?
Through the ultimate miracle: Resurrection.
Although they have chosen a post-Watchmen/DKR style reality to establish the DC Universe on the big screen, I'm hoping betting they will choose to reaffirm Superman's idealistic purpose as a beacon of light and optimism after his inevitable resurrection in future films, as other heroes contemplate Superman in his absence, and feel his presence in his resurrection. Like almost every superhero movie franchise before Marvel started getting it (mostly) right, Dawn of Justice suffers from trying to do too much, too soon. But it also does a great job creating villains so large that it will take real heroes to defeat and keep them at bay. Already we see that even in defeat, the acts of Zod, Lex Luthor, and (offscreen) the Joker have lasting repercussions that will take many movies to resolve. And we know Darkseid is coming (if only to one-up his Marvel based knockoff, Thanos). But hopefully, not too soon. If events like Superman's resurrection and the arrival of DC's god of Anti-Life are to have any impact, we need to have time to anticipate them. The ability to hold back master strokes for greatest impact, to emulate comics' ability to leave you wanting more while still being satisfying in the moment, and to give each character his or her own tone and color palette, are bonuses Marvel has introduced to audiences. These are features I am not convinced DC has learned to integrate into its movie-making machine yet.
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