I don’t usually give much credence to film reviews, particularly bad ones, and so far reviews of the new Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie have been atrocious. The movie might be awesome and I’m sure I’ll see it eventually, as I’m totally addicted to the genre. The reviews I’ve read indicate that in its attitude of ponderous self absorption and gloom it’s the diametric opposite of a movie like Deadpool. That film continually cracks jokes at itself, reminding us that it’s just a movie and we are an audience entertained by a story about a regular guy who has some real problems along with his unasked for super powers. The most successful superhero movies thus far have rarely dispensed with a liberal dose of humor amid the action and the power punches and all the nefarious scheming. In fact, a key to the enormous success of Marvel Studios (and the long running success of the comic book brand) is that it’s never abandoned a sense of fun, even in its darkest moments. No matter their extraordinary powers, Marvel characters tend to act like actual, regular people, just as screwed up and petty as the rest of us. Their ‘gifts’ always have the double edge of being both an isolating burden as much as a potential benefit to humanity. They are never an embodiment of perfect virtue or perfect evil. Even a character like Thor (who is actually a God) is subject to the foibles and misperceptions of humanity. Iron Man protects himself with a solid armor of egotism. Daredevil and the Hulk struggle with deep wells of repressed anger. Jennifer Jones is full of self-recrimination and doubt.
There are many who simply don’t get the point of these characters or this genre. For me they express one of the best uses of the spectacular nature of the screen. Like the oldest narratives that we know of, they offer us exaggerated embodiments of the qualities that make us human. By use of the mask and the costume they create enough distance so that we are able to contemplate our own natures objectively, evaluating the core values at the center of our moral and ethical universe. To a large extent this is what all movies and plays and operas and fictions do, by the very act of creating a simulated universe existing outside of our own. In the case of the superhero genre character hugs the edges of caricature thus bringing sharp emphasis to particular qualities and tendencies. In the growing pantheon of a comic book universe we begin to see realms that have more than a little relationship to the archetypal edifices of Olympus or a Valhalla, and are at least as rich and nuanced as anything that the Greeks or Norsemen came up with. By bringing the archetypes down to the level of our familiar world and merging them with familiar characters and situations we’ve expanded the potential of drama to reach into the collective psyches of whole cultures where we can expose the inner fears and hopes that unite and divide us.
These are moral dramas and passion plays. They harken back to the medieval pageants and morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries that are at the origins of our modern secular dramas. In an age in which so much of what has held our civilizations together is being challenged we’ve contrived to discover new ways to ask the important questions about what binds us to one another. The trick to doing this without crossing a line into the ridiculous, is a proper mix of passion and humor, reflection and action that both draws us into the drama and allows us to experience it’s separate elements as distinct embodiments that we can feel. When we watch a superhero on the screen we actually, in effect, put on that costume and carry it away with us.
Personally I’ve preferred the Marvel approach to this archetypal realm. The DC universe has always appeared a little too sharply divided between good and evil, it’s characters taking themselves a little too seriously for my taste. As for Batman and Superman, I enjoyed the somewhat parodic nature of the early Batman revivals on screen, and considered the sheer dramatic energy of the Christopher Nolan/Frank Miller Batman movies to be exceptional. The key to the Batman character’s appeal is that he exists half in shadow. Superman I find a bit problematic. The original mold created in the late 30s and 40’s during an enormous worldwide struggle between totalitarianism and democracy presented him appropriately as the perfect embodiment of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” The character emerged out of the heroic fantasies of a couple of young jewish guys who longed to identify and assimilate into the dream of the red, white and blue. In my own perceptions as a young man feeling like an outsider in a post war world of unquestioned conformity Superman came off to me a little too saintly, a little too ’straight.’ As for Batman, Green Arrow and Green Hornet they were all rich guys who helped humanity out of some sense of charity or guilt. They had big cars and influence and certainly never had to worry about holding a job.
The genius of Stan Lee and his legacy lies in his assistance that his heroes never get too big for their own britches. The ones that do pretty much are guaranteed to end up as villains. Thor doesn’t help us because he’s a god, but just because he likes us. Spiderman is an awkward teenager growing into an awkward adult. Doctor Strange is an arrogant greed head who is led by difficult circumstances into a spiritual conversion. Black Widow is haunted by crimes she was compelled to commit in a former life. Most importantly, the effect of their actions as heroes is rarely without unforeseen consequences, making their lives and the lives of those around them even more complicated. I could relate to all of these guys.
Of course, in the years since my childhood, the approach of both the Marvel and the DC universe has become more and more similar. But, as a person who is used to Apple computers, using Windows always feels somewhat constricting, even though it looks and acts more and more like what we’re used to. Another analogy perhaps is the difference between the Democratic and Republican mindsets, where one sees the world through progressive glasses and the other through conservative ones. With “Dawn of Justice” DC and Warner Brothers hopes to achieve the kind of success that Marvel and Disney have attained in the past decade. Perhaps these gigantic struggles between corporate entities, political philosophies, and comic book universes is like an endless set of mirrors for the struggles taking place within each of us. Perhaps ‘Batman and Superman,’ both who are after all supposed to be the ‘good guys,’ is an apt echo of the battle we are now waging within cultures, political parties, religions and within ourselves.