BATMAN V EVERYBODY
1. One of the few interesting things about BATMAN V SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE and its director Zack Snyder is that, in the way of similarly stylish hacks like Michael Bay and David Fincher, he’s become obsessed with whether or not the hoi polloi, by which I mean newspaper movie critics, think he’s a genius or not (he’s not). Repeatedly, he’s told interviewers he thinks his films have more going on in them than reviewers have given him credit for putting there, and so it falls to me to give him at least that much: Snyder’s movies are not actually brainless popcorn-flick trash overburdened by special effects and kneecapped by directorial incompetence, they’re the work of a furious intellect trying to communicate ideas so big they overwhelm all notions of story, character and theme, in large part because those ideas are fucking stupid.
Snyder reveres the work of popular novelist and widely derided philosopher Ayn Rand, and if you watch Dawn of Justice, you will, whether you like it or not, witness something like the very first Objectivist superhero film. (Snyder tried to do this with Man of Steel but was thwarted by Superman himself, a pacifist force for altruistic good so strong in the viewer’s mind that his merely letting death happen somewhere during the film, let alone murder at the end, is derided by lovers of the comics, myself included, as Snyder refusing to deal with the character as written and instead fobbing off his own tainted version on a skeptical public. Good job, Superman.) Here’s how it breaks down:
In Batman v Superman, Lex Luthor, the villain, has no real ideas of his own and is driven by whining resentment for power, especially Superman’s power, so he steals it and uses it against Superman in Wagnerian fashion. This is pretty much perfectly redolent of Rand’s own whining, resentful villains, impotent to act except by stealing the work of their betters, who are unafraid to use power to make themselves still awesomer, like Snyder doubtless does basically all the time.
Batman, of course, works beautifully, because Snyder absolutely adores Frank Miller, the alcoholic genius whose minimalist reinvention of Batman as a vigilante psychopath poisoned the well for decades to come simply by being compelling to adult fans of the character’s exploits in an unapologetic way that few of his contemporaries dared to attempt in the fundamentally silly world of superheroes. (It may also have to do with Ben Affleck, the only person involved in the movie who’s ever won anything for his writing, who reportedly rewrote chunks of his dialogue on-set.) I’d also put to you that Snyder understands Miller; that it’s no accident his film of Miller’s 300 is such an insightful adaptation of that beautiful, jingoistic book and such a full realization of its grotesque themes.
In Dawn of Justice, Snyder goes so far as to frame several shots so that they recreate key moments from Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; I have no idea what this does for people who haven’t read an unhealthy number of comics but as an artistic gesture, it’s pretty cool if you’re in the know. Both artists are attracted to Rand’s work as subject matter; Miller’s Martha Washington series of graphic novels loosely adapts Atlas Shrugged, Snyder will direct a big-budget version of The Fountainhead in years to come.
The hardest and least successful reckoning is between Objectivist fuckery and
Superman, because Rand’s ugly philosophy is devoted to making virtue of selfishness, and Superman’s most basic quality, beyond even the big red S and the cape and the ability to bend steel in his bare hands, is selflessness. It becomes very difficult for Snyder to give Superman some kind of compelling motivation to do the right thing, because Snyder, like Rand, doesn’t believe people can ever really want altruism. They just want favors. So, in the movie’s ugliest scenes, he has Superman’s parents tell him that: “You don’t owe this damn world a thing,” Martha Kent tells her son. “Be whatever you want to be.” It’s supposed to sound like motherly support for a guy who needs to embrace the ultimate good of self-interest, I guess, but of course it sounds monstrous. Plenty of good Supeman comics take the view that Superman only becomes Superman because his parents are good people who raise him right. What we’re actually hearing, I think, is Snyder himself screaming at the character to want something, anything, beyond to be asleep next to Lois and to make sure everyone is safe. Where could that sense of responsibility possibly come from? What does Superman have to gain by helping people who might -often, who do – hate and fear him? It’s a question too big for Snyder.
Miller, a smarter writer who lacks Snyder’s open contempt for his audience (which is a little bit funny because Miller’s audience is much smaller and a hundred times more irritating than Snyder’s), dealt with it by reducing Superman’s conscience to thoughtless patriotism, which scans for the length of his Dark Knight comics, where Superman is mostly used to show the superiority of Batman’s will. But that perspective still isn’t quite right, and that’s perhaps why Miller is on record saying he hates Superman. He’s a hard character to write if you exclusively believe people have no capacity other than selfishness within them.
The movie mashes up The Dark Knight Returns with The Death of Superman, a really dumb story that doesn’t say much of anything except “buy this special edition comic, it will be worth something in a few years.”
2. DEADPOOL, another sneering, mean-spirited, ultra-violent superhero movie, is loads of fun, entirely because it embraces the cheapest and most juvenile thrills available and makes no apology for them. It tries to say nothing, it lives only to make you laugh, its performances are uniformly wonderful and it gives its actors room to maneuver in the way that the last few big-budget comedies have wisely done with their writer-performers. “You look like an avocado fucked an older, more disgusting avocado,” Weasel (TJ Miller) observes to Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds). “And it wasn’t gentle, either. It was like, hatefucking. Like there was something seriously wrong in the relatioship and it was the only catharsis they could achieve without violence.”
I would rather watch that line on a loop than think about Zack Snyder’s idiot Superman movies for another minute.
3. The anti-Snyder comic, WORLD’S FUNNEST, finally got its very first reprint this week. It’s so wonderful. Its by the underrated Evan Dorkin, who wrote quite a bit of Superman: The Animated Series and the late, lamented 90′s hipster indie humor comic Milk & Cheese. It’s illustrated, hilariously, by a who’s who of grimdark 80′s and 90′s comics, including but not limited to Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons, Miller himself (see picture), Dave Mazzuchelli, Alex Ross, wonderful workaday guys like Phil Jimenez and Mike Allred, and then a ton of indie comics people from Jim Woodring to Jaime Hernandez. The plot, briefly, is that Bat-Mite and Mr Mxyzptlk, fifth-dimensional foes of Batman and Superman respectively, travel from parallel universe to parallel universe killing their counterparts every time they encounter them. The collection has a bunch of other rarities in it, like Kevin O’Neill’s incredible Bat-Mite comics and some Silver Age Mr Mxyzptlk stories. I hope I live long enough for a Mr Mxyzptlk to show up in a movie. Or at least Brainiac.
4. Things that remain pretty good: Warren Ellis’s bajillion projects are still great (Injection, James Bond: Vargr, which has settled in nicely, a couple others), Matt Fraction and Christian Ward’s borderline unreadable, unbearably beautiful ODY-C remains glorious, Howard the Duck is still solid, oh, and I owe the world a long, nerdy post on the Ellis/Moore/Brubaker years at Wildstorm. I’ll probably also put up my rant about Providence, which got super dark two issues ago, in a few days. Oh and there’s a fun Joss Whedon/John Cassaday story in the new CAPTAIN AMERICA, and Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s BLACK WIDOW is just totally boss.
5. Almost forgot: I did a long feature on Clowes. I put my back into it and I’m proud of how it came out.