High Wire Act – The Five Tenses of Batman v Superman


With the release of a new edition of the film, Fikri Jermadi takes a step back and reconsiders the different merits of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’.

In the spoiler-free review of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’, Screen Rant discussed the major issues they had with the film. Essentially, they felt it was not as good as it could have been, suffering from too much jammed into too little. It was five movies rolled into one: a Batman film, a Man of Steel sequel, an introduction to Lex Luthor, and a prequel to the Justice League (with an especial focus on Wonder Woman). That’s before we actually get to a story featuring Batman versus Superman.

While that assessment was quite on point as far as I am concerned, I do wish to explore five other aspects relatively unspoken in the aftermath of the film’s release. In light of the Ultimate Edition release, it’s not entirely untimely, either. Rather than reaching for a conclusive conclusion, I simply believe there’s more to ‘Batman v Superman’ as a good or bad film, merely that more critical discussions peeling back the unpeeled may make for a more rounded viewing experience.

The first layer is foremost for many: spirituality. One of the film’s themes is the challenging of mortality. Superman, being made of sterner stock than most of mankind, is revered as a god. For many, he is the son of God reincarnate; other analyses will have explored this further, but the imagery of Jesus Christ, regarded as the first superhero, should not be ignored. Ironically, it was a scene not in the film that truly highlighted this, with the initial trailers revealing the words False God in garish graffiti scrawled on a Superman memorial. Present through its absence, it is an intriguing question to question.

At the other end of the spectrum is Batman himself. Not your traditional superhero, the character has often been envisioned as a mortal avenger, the warts-and-all people’s champion. The key here is his mortality, evidenced by Batman’s heavily digitised growl to Superman, “Do you bleed?” This line works in three ways. Not only does it position Batman as someone who does bleed, it positions Superman as his direct opposite, a more immortal opponent. It also questions the Man of Steel’s manhood, for in interrogating his manity, we’re challenging his humanity as well.

That segues nicely into a more post-colonial reading. For that, we turn to Lex Luthor, portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg. A manipulative psychopath, his uniqueness is not unfamiliar. For significant portions of the film, he is shown to be incredibly effective as an influential lobbyist. Such a position is well-known to those who know American politics well. A major contemporary thread of discussion in that field is immigration. Without needing to rehash the words of Donald Trump and principles of Trumpism to that effect, it is far more interesting to note of their impact in other spheres, especially in light of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

What does this have to do with the film? While Superman’s presence on American soil is hailed by most, a sizeable collective voice can also be heard protesting his illegality. He is a literal alien, and the debate over his presence, therefore, strangely mirrored such heated discussions taking place off screen. Consequently, he is also regarded as a superior being, one which has the potential to colonise and conquer should he wish for it. It is this fear of skilled aliens in real life that was identified as a key factor in the Brexit vote.

Such ideals are dependent upon the principles of drawn up borders to begin with. The United States itself was a former colony of Great Britain. The idea of us and them in that nation was first proposed in that era, eventually formalised by the American Revolution in the 18th century and its aftermath. Getting back to the film, Luthor referred to this in a scene with Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). Here, he tried vainly to swerve her opinion, before ending that discussion in sinister fashion: “The red capes are coming!” Going beyond the colour of Superman’s signature garment, this also referred to Paul Revere, credited as the first man to warn the Americans of the British military intervention. Again, the fear of being subjugated to superior forces alien to the nation can be identified; Batman could therefore be seen as the American patriot expelling the power of the Other.

The key scene in this is the Senate hearing, where Superman was requested to validate his presence in the United States. A politically charged event, it was also followed by those not present (including Bruce Wayne), a feat accomplished by the news media. This is the third point I wish to make: that though ‘Batman v Superman’ may have denigrated the messenger at times, its bigger picture would not have been seen without the media and its useful ubiquity.

There was a swipe against the media early on, when Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), in his role as a journalist at The Daily Planet, wanted to follow up on a news item. However, he was essentially slapped down by his boss, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne): “Crime wave in Gotham! Other breaking news, Water, Wet!” He proceeded to explicitly direct Kent not to push his boundaries, saying that people don’t read the news anymore. White does not believe that the trees could be seen from the forest.

He is, however, wrong in assuming its impotence. The media helps to build character, leading to important plot points. An example would be of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot). Boarding a flight, she saw an Anderson Cooper report on a major battle in the film. She then stepped out of the plane to step up to that fight itself. There are other examples, but however small they may be, they’re certainly just as important, even when deemed inadequate by many. I believe it says something that Kent, an emasculated bearer of news, transforms into an all-powerful being in creating it.

More obvious is the fourth and more extraneous element. Rewind the clock a decade to ‘Superman Returns’. Long-awaited, the Bryan Singer film was loaded with nostalgia. Wishing wistfully for a whimsical past of Christopher Reeve’s flawless All-American rendition, ideas about superheroes and those they protect had changed since the late 1970s. More contemporary incarnations such as The Dark Knight trilogy suggested a darker angle on the world, while Marvel was busy planting seeds with its own super endeavours (official records shows ‘Iron Man’ to the first film in its cinematic universe, but I’d contend a spiritual starting point could also be surmised from Ang Lee’s angsty ‘Hulk’ in 2003). The times they are a changin’, and a sopoforic soap opera is not what the audiences wanted.

In came director Zack Snyder. Fame for the garish glorification of gore, a huge budget was commissioned, along with a directive to destroy in 2013’s ‘Man of Steel’. By itself, this led to new levels of on-screen violence and demolition for a superhero film. Within the bigger picture, however, it was a logical move to move on from Singer’s Superman in any contrasting way possible. Aided by a more receptive reception, Warner Brothers released the hounds and raised a Batman to see Marvel’s hand of The Avengers and their plethora of equally-expensive solo character movies. Subjugated to such pressures, it is perhaps not surprising that extensive and careful storytelling took a backseat to other box office concerns.

The fifth and final point is more subjective than most, but it certainly does not help. Perhaps this is an indication of superhero fatigue, with the audience tired by a multitude of such stories to begin with, but in this case the infidelity of filmmaking styles made us tap out in submission. By this I refer to the filming approach. The rule of thumb is that a shakier handheld approach is capable of placing us in situ. It can aid a greater empathy on our part simply by involving us more. The flip side is that misusing it can overinvolve us, invoking greater intensity. For instance, as Bruce Wayne arrived at Lex Luthor’s function, the camera moved as part of the press pack, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Gotham City’s most famous son. While this ‘in the crowd’ element is not without its merits, it merely intensified a scene that needed no such thing.

There is no doubt that it is an important scene, one in which our two protagonists meet face to face for the first time. Highly anticipated, however, need not mean a heightening of emotions; indeed, given its position in that sequence of events, this could have been a moment of rest and relaxation. Instead, it’s filming approach left the audience as part of a high wire act that lasted a lot longer than it really should. We’re constantly on the edge of our seats, with action that pummels rather than massages. Interestingly, some of my favourite scenes in the film occurred with steadier camerawork. There’s a lucidity in the fight scenes that was a result of this, making for a more enjoyable experience. For the other scenes, though, this lack of difference in tension, as well as a mismatch in its eventual levels achieved, made for a smaller difference between the highs and lows. Given that there is no meaning without difference, this lack of variety made the emotional experience of ‘Batman v Superman’ less meaningful than it could have been.

This does not mean that ‘Batman v Superman’ is a bad film. Indeed, it had a number of interesting characters and sequences, some of which are pleasantly surprising. The story entertained in parts, with highly accomplished action sequences that lived up to its title.

What surprised me is not that Zack Snyder is not a good filmmaker who does not tell a good story. Rather, it could be argued that the filmmaking team is too good, resulting in a film too effective. Propelled forward by the plot at a punishing pace, one could say that the five tenses of ‘Batman v Superman’ have instead made it a high wire act too tense to truly enjoy in a way similar to other films of its ilk. Maybe that’s because rather than following a mould set forth by others, this is a film that attempted to chart its own path in what a superhero film should be.

The Ultimate Edition of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ is out now. Listen to what Fikri and Muz said of the film many moons ago on the podcast.

Featured image credit: Bleeding Cool

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