The ones we love.
Hot off the feels of one of this years biggest releases has been an incredible amount of negative press coming from critics across the internet. To those who know me, and know me well, it's not hard to tell that I'm a DC fanboy. I've been one my entire life. And although I take great joy from many Marvel properties and instances (specifically Spider-Man and Captain America), I simply grew up with DC comics and its respective heroes more present in my life than any others. I'm not sure that was an intentional choice. I just liked them. And my parents let me like them. And to this day I am still very much in love with the DC Universe, despite it getting a bad rap for reasons that seem strange to me as the nature of these entertainment beasts is undeniably cyclical.
I'm writing this because writing helps me process how I feel and how the new film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice left me feeling when the credits rolled. I'm also writing because in a world where we are bombarded by nothing but subjective criticism it has become popular to jump on a bandwagon, be it good or bad. When the good press bandwagon cruises through on things like the first Avengers film, I thought, "Finally. We're all on board with something." But when that good press wagon continues on films I thought were not fit for me or particularly very good (based on my subjective point of view) I remained confused when the bad word of mouth didn't seem to crush them quite like it has this film.
By superhero film standards this isn't rocket science. And be warned, there are HEAVY SPOILERS in here because I'd like to review the film critically in an attempt to bring to light what I feel the bandwagon of negative press has turned audiences away from and in turn is furthering the creation of an audience who does not pay attention to what's going on before them, rather they look for a film to fit into their preconceived mold of how it "should be".
When you go in to a film or an otherwise entertaining experience with certain expectations, you often let those expectations inform your opinion be it conscious or not. The amount of cynical attitudes I've seen and heard BEFORE people walked in to not just this film but any film is incredible. And when you go in with either low or high expectations then it's hard to let a film unfold as naturally as it should. We are so bombarded with content prior to a film's release that we feel we already know everything about it. Then the bar is set, and we essentially just try to discern whether or not the final film leaps over that bar or stumbles and falls beneath it.
My expectations were high. I wanted to not just like the film but to love it. And here my own subjectivity comes into play, sure, but I think it's important to know why some people love a film and some people do not. And sometimes the weight of liking something everyone seems to dislike makes you think you're crazy. Granted, taste can be all over the place. But when I watch a film my highest expectation is that it try to grab me not just on an entertainment level but also on an emotional level. This is why I so enjoyed Man of Steel. That's an entirely separate can of worms to discuss, but that film spoke to me. I connected with and related to Superman from the first frame to the last. And when people want to argue about it I'm dumbfounded. I don't need you to validate my subjectivity (opinion) and I certainly won't try to do the same for you. It is okay to disagree. There are so many moments in Batman v Superman that hit home for me. But most informative to my subjectivity is the themes of powerlessness, loss, and love.
I think it's important to know that at many formative moments in my youth I had DC comics to rely on when times turned dark. I had a great relationship with my parents and a pretty charmed upbringing. I was a very blessed kid. We did things together as a family and despite the inevitable family squabbles were happy. We went to church almost every Sunday. My moral and spiritual compasses were created and informed by my loving parents and by the image and faith in a loving God and his loving son.
And then my mom got breast cancer and passed away when I was fifteen.
After many long, hard battles against a disease she'd had in both breasts over a period of ten years, she lost. And I was heart broken. We all were. And I think, looking back on it over my adult years, this was really the first chink in my charmed life armor. Life was not permanent and happiness fades away, sometimes leading to tremendous sadness. And the question why will never truly be answered because God doesn't talk back the way you want God to talk back; in specific words.
The five stages of grief are:
- Denial and isolation
I went through none of the first four. Not because I didn't need to, but at the time I was so surrounded by loved ones that acceptance was the only clear choice. I had my father, my siblings, and my church to fall back on. Because of how I was raised and what I believed, my mother had gone to a better place. I accepted that and assumed I had the world all figured out.
Then I became an adult.
Over the past many years I have felt myself surrounded by the ghosts of the family and friends that I have lost over the course of my life since I was fifteen. And in those thirteen years I realize since my initial moment of loss I now realize I never dealt with it truly. And the writing was on the wall when I look back on it. I always had friends but never felt like I belonged in this world. I always sensed some heavenly connection to another kind of life that seemed more appropriate for me than this earthly one. Much as Kal-El feels for his lost Krypton of which he only knows so little about. All he has are the lessons his earthly parents taught him and his inherent moral compass, which is do to good. And I always felt I've had the power to change the world, but feel limited in my ability to do so by people who seek to cause harm to others.
It's only recently that I've realized I'm angry. I'm angry more often than I used to be. I get sad more often than I used to. I try to make emotional bargains, mostly for myself, when that was something I never would have dreamed of doing. In short, I wake up a lot more recently feeling haunted by loss. And it makes me feel powerless.
The God of my childhood has since faded away into something more progressive. Still messianic in nature, still a being of love, but unbound from the specifics of organized religion and flourishes in the idea of being boundless. Because that's what God is. Everything.
And this is often why I know I've been so drawn to Batman and Superman my whole life. Both the products of loss and grief, but with a desire to do good and a dream of saving the world. That's what I've always wanted from my life. To do good and to change lives for the better, no matter how many or how few. So when Man of Steel came out and painted Superman as a confused and grieving man unsure of whether or not to accept his true nature and become a hero I immediately related. I love Chris Reeve and so many other renditions of the character, but I also like and try very hard to embrace change as I know it is the only constant. Losing a parent is a big change, but whether or not I wanted it was not something I got to decide. Change happened regardless of what I wanted. And I had to accept it and find a way to make it work for me. And that attitude grew into the way I view a lot of my art, the way I write, the way I act, and especially when entertainment properties decide to make changes that really don't affect me. I roll with the punches.
And so when Batman v Superman began to germinate the themes of things that have been very personal to me, I listened. I'ts hard for me to grasp this concept of mutual exclusivity when it comes to the way people absorb and take in things like Superhero movies. They demand it be a great film! But they also demand it be tremendously entertaining! And when they inevitably strike an in between a lot of people get upset. Too much story! Not enough story! Too much action! Not enough action! Whatever it is, given how saturated we are with Superhero movies I think it is becoming more and more difficult for people to appreciate what they are getting when they get so much of it already. To me it's a bit like someone having a lot of expensive, fast cars and then someone trying to blow you away with yet another, new, expensive, fast car. We might think it's cool, but it's hard to knock us off our feet when we've been driving fast, expensive cars for ten years now.
I think people would have reacted very differently to Batman v Superman had it come out even three years ago. As time passes and we continue to be over saturated our frame of reference continues to be front loaded with expectations of what we already like. And I think the mind closes a little when we are not open to change.
I wouldn't dream of trying to prove that Batman v Superman is a perfect film, but I think it helps to have your expectations refreshed when you try to view a film as if there was a little influence as possible other than who you are as a human being. How does a film resonate with you, the viewer, on a personal level?
From the onset we have a Batman who is very different from the one we have been familiar with. He seems to have little concern for his enemies, essentially killing or having a general lack of care for the lives of the many who get in his way. He brands them, a mark which is considered a death sentence once sent to prison. Basically, if you come up against the Bat that's the end. This older, more "experienced" version of the Dark Knight is one who now especially under the threat of a seemingly all powerful alien life form like Superman feels afraid and ultimately powerless. And the only way to move past that feeling of powerlessness is to act, no matter how harshly. Justice must be served. And as Bruce begins to mull over the idea of killing Superman to protect the planet from future instances like what happened in Metropolis, it's Alfred who warns him against what happens when good men turn cruel.
"That's how it starts. The fever. The rage. The feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel."
Batman's loss of his parents has informed his definition of both justice and injustice but inevitably, just as change is the only constant in his life, even that begins to warp. Bruce's sense of morals and of heroism are clouded by his feeling powerless and afraid, something he has not felt since he was a boy. And because of this he is preparing to commit an act of cruelty.
And Lex Luthor is the perfect other side of Bruce's coin. A young genius, billionaire philanthropist who feels powerful because he has all the money in the world that surely he must be powerful. But there are small instances of dialogue that come from Lex that really made him stand out for me and understand why he so desperately hates both Superman and those that belong to his metahuman theory. Lex's feeling of power was presumably destroyed when an alien arrived on earth and leveled the city he lived in. Thousands dead in a moment. And all the money in the world could not have saved them.
In his hair brained speech he gives while Bruce, Clark, and Diana are in attendance at his home he begins to ramble. Whatever boy genius exterior he once has is crumbling. He suddenly blurts that, "Knowledge without power" is a paradox. That he, an incredibly knowledgeable person has now been rendered powerless because of someone like Superman and that should be an impossibility. And yet it has happened.
As he reveals his master plan to Superman after having made him kneel before him (something Zod was once good at) he launches into something I thought that was very powerful and yet few are discussing it. Much like myself Lex was raised to believe what God was via the eyes of his father. However Lex's father and my father are very different. My father is like Jonathan Kent. Lex's not so much.
"If God is all powerful then he cannot be all good. And if God is all good...then he cannot be all powerful." And then he drops a line that I think is lost partly because Eisenberg's performance zips through it, but also because people aren't really listening. He talks about being under the thumb of the false God his father believed in, and that he was at the receiving end of "daddy's fists and abominations." Lex is a victim of child abuse. He was been powerless his entire life.
How much more powerless can one feel as a child when their own parents does not protect or love them and abuses them instead? And so when the inherited empire of billions of dollars represents security for a young victim of abuse, imagine how dangerous that psyche is when someone like Superman is the final crack. What chance there may have been for rehabilitation for the young, abused Lex is now gone. The fever and the rage that began when he was a boy bred this feeling of powerlessness. What chance there was of him being a good man is now solidified. He has been turned cruel.
Clark faces other demons. On the heels of Man of Steel the people are divided on the idea of the Superman. He brings many people hope but, again, he brings a feeling of powerlessness to so many. The beautiful montage of him saving lives backed by the philosophical discussion about what his place is in the world and what our place in the universe is, is a tremendous question to be raised. And to Clark it seems like no matter what he does, no matter how good the deed, he too is powerless against the people of earth. He wants to belong. He wants to claim this earth as his own. But it is nearly impossible.
As he takes some time to get away from the rest of the world and hikes up through the mountains, he is met by a vision of his earthly father Jonathan. Jonathan tells the story of the time the Kent's farm was almost destroyed by a flood. They worked tirelessly to save it, but not at the expense of others. Without realizing it, their actions to save their farm destroyed the nearby Lang's instead. Their horses drowned. And while Jonathan was being called a hero by his mother, the neighbors horses were drowning. For every action there is a reaction. Sometimes there is no action without consequence, and sometimes even a deed done in the moment under the best of intentions can negatively impact someone seemingly unrelated. Jonathan was haunted by the screams of those dead horses, by the reactions their actions caused, for years. Until he met Martha. She saved him. And she was his world.
Clark very early on displays his love for Lois. But it's Lois who shows apprehension toward him when she asks if it's possible to live in this world with Clark being who he is. But of course Clark still loves her and still loves his mother Martha dearly. He might feel alone in the world, but he has two people he truly loves who know who he is in his heart, something the rest of the world will never understand.
So when Superman is pitted against Batman via Lex's nefarious plan, Superman doesn't want to fight. He wants Batman's help. But Batman is blinded by his rage. And prepared with Kryptonite weaponry he wins their battle. But it isn't until he realizes that he's become the very thing he's been fighting against all these years. He is about to kill someone who he once said was "not a man" because men are brave. But when he learns that both Clark and he have mothers with the same name, and that he's about to take the life of a boy who belongs to a mother and in turn cause a mother's death as well, his fear of powerlessness releases as he realizes Clark may not be a perfect man, but he is a man nonetheless. Just like he is. One who has parents, who has experienced loss, and who is capable of love. In Bruce's eyes the most important thing is that he sees him as a man and no longer as a monster.
Their truce inevitably begins quickly and they must team up alongside Wonder Woman to stop Lex's Doomsday creation. Of course the battle is glorious and a lot of fun, but as they all know that only kryptonite can kill Doomsday, Superman makes the sacrifice play. Arguments could be made that Wonder Woman could've done it in his stead, but Clark needed to do it to prove to himself that he belongs in this world and to bring the films themes full circle. And just before he picks up the spear, fully knowing what it will do to him, he tells Lois, "This is my world. You...are my world."
Superman then flies to and drives the spear through Doomsday, who in turn stabs him through the heart and, presumably, both their lives are lost. Superman has sacrificed himself to save the world. And that's important not because he necessarily feels he cares for everyone in the world, but the ones he loves are part of this world and if he doesn't claim it as his own he might lose them forever. And perhaps deep down is the knowledge that the only way to prove to the masses that you stand for your cause is to die for it. Despite the hate you've faced and the mistakes you made in the past. You are still a good person. And as Bruce perfectly puts it to Diana after Clark's funeral, despite all they're capable of, "Men are still good."
Much as Jor-El speaks to his son in Man of Steel, "They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time...they will join you in the sun."
And the words placed beneath Superman's memorial in Metropolis appropriately state, "If you seek his monument, look around you."
General Swanwick put it plainly after a nuclear bomb could not stop Doomsday. He was unkillable. But a sacrifice made by Superman saved, quite literally, the entire world. That is his monument. His decision to accept the world for what it is because he has a desire to do good and to believe in the ones he loved saved humankind.
Diana Prince of course experiences these feelings of powerlessness as well. Although they're not as glaring. But we know her solo film will take place during the time that photograph was taken of her, 1918. Whatever happened between then and now has turned her away from helping humankind and silenced her. She has been in hiding, likely from the same hardships Bruce and Clark are both going through. And it takes the knowledge that there are more out there like her, who are fighting, to bring her out of hiding. Her feeling of powerlessness comes from feeling alone. Now she knows she is not.
Lois Lane also serves to be a great female lead primarily because she is active. In this day and age, much as been the standard for so long, so many female characters continue to be either reactive or passive damsels in distress. But ever since Man of Steel they have intentionally written Lois to be intelligent, confident, and active. Something that a lot of reviewers for some reason think is silly. "Why would she..." fill in the blank. "How could she..." fill in the blank. We live in a world where everyone can accept that glasses would conceal Clark's identity, or a mask Bruce's, but a woman running around thinking for herself and pursuing leads as a good journalist? Hogwash! That's unlikely!
Yes Superman saves her. But Lois saved Superman first and I think that's very important to realize as one of the myriad reasons this film worked for me. Lois is his world. The nightmares Jonathan talked about, the ones that undoubtedly haunt Clark after Metropolis' destruction in Man of Steel? Lois is the only thing that makes them go away. Because he loves her. And she is worth his life. And if she is, then everyone else is too. Because somewhere out there, there must be more like her.
This "review" if you can even call it that is so based in personal bias and influence that it is impossible to say it doesn't inform my opinion. Which is why I think it's so important to inform you how and why this film works for me on a personal level before we even analyze its themes. I have always felt deep and emotional connections to both Batman and Superman because they are both children of loss just like me. They have strong moral codes and believe in justice and have the will to do the right thing, just like me. They may be fictional but I have always looked up to them to provide insight on how I should live my life. That's what good material can do to you. And because of Clark's strong relationship to his father in both Man of Steel and now Batman v Superman, I connect with them both because of that. Jonathan tried to hide Clark's secrets because he wanted to protect him. My father isn't necessarily like that but I draw so many similarities in that Jonathan and my father taught Clark and I life's most important lessons. Not how to hunt, how to fight, or how to survive by force, but how to love. My father, just like Superman's (and just like Jor-El did as an act of love by sending his son to earth), taught me how to be a good man. If ever I were a Superman it would not be because of my actions alone, but because of him, and because of the ones that I love. I don't try to be a good person because it's what I NEED to do, I try to be a good person because it's what I WANT to do. Because I want to protect the people I love. That's what makes the world worth saving.
I stumbled upon this piece by artist Mauricio Abril at Wondercon yesterday and it just knocked me off my feet. I was looking for that one extra thing that made me understand why I liked Batman v Superman, and this was it.*
When people say there's no story in Batman v Superman, or too much story, it feels strange. I'm not entirely sure what was expected. There's a lot of story in Avengers: Age of Ultron too. And a lot in Star Wars The Force Awakens. I don't feel that Batman v Superman egregiously stands out as having more or less than either of those two franchise films. Especially when each Marvel movie spends a good ten minutes each film setting up the next two. And Star Wars is much the same. That's why they exists in the first place. Superhero films are inherently franchise machines. They are there to make money so they can make more movies in order to make more money. Some of the metahuman info and Justice League set up feels jackknifed in, but it does not take away from the central themes of the film itself and of course will lead to future realizations for them as a team and as people.
My greatest intention with something like this is to convey the subjectivity of film reviews and also the danger of just becoming one of the masses chiming in on the hate train because it's popular. I'm not saying this is Bonnie and Clyde but when that film first came out every critic panned it except Roger Ebert. And on seemingly his word alone, people changed their minds. And that's the most important thing I think when watching film. I'm by no means Roger Ebert. But I am an informed film goer who has studied and received a degree in critique and the craft of film making, not to mention a working actor and writer out here in LA whose entire life has been formed around comic books and these characters specifically. My opinion is not the gold standard, but it is not uninformed. And it is certainly not without its subjectivity, which has to be admitted.
But I see this happening more and more these days and it feels overwhelming at times. Do not go in rigid, cynical, or with pre-conceived notions to dislike something because that's how people tell you to feel. I've gone in to a lot of movies expecting to love them and hating them instead and vice versa. No one is innocent. But we have a perfectly qualified, thought provoking example of a Superhero film trying to communicate more to an audience than just explosions and muscles and it seems the general public feels the film was made by firmly pressing a crayon down onto celluloid. Or that the production team and executives were simply a room full of monkeys pushing buttons who knew nothing about comics.
I love the film and will see it again and again because it works for me. I genuinely believe it was made with the intention of being good. I find it hard to believe people set out to make bad movies, especially something of this caliber. The most important thing about films and about opinions is that we can all like what we want and dislike what we want. If you didn't like it, that's great! Just know that I don't need it to work for you in order for it to work for me.
Every truth started as a blasphemy. According to most of America's critical opinion, I'll let this one be mine for now.
*Mauricio Abril's work can be found at his website, http://www.mauricioabril.com/.