May 2016

Arts & Letters

Everyone’s a critic

By Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens
‘Batman v. Superman’ v. the internet

“Humankind deserves a better blockbuster.” However many times you read Michael Phillips’ lacerating Chicago Tribune review of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, this closing line remains strangely overblown. Even Heath Ledger’s classic line from The Dark Knight, which Phillips invokes, had an unstated modesty. It was, after all, only the city of Gotham that deserved “a better class of criminal”. But here the entire species is cast as a victim. Perhaps it’s merely a rhetorical flourish aimed at matching the endlessly epic aesthetic of so many modern superhero films. Regardless, it nicely captures the grandness – the conspicuous gravity – of so many critical reactions to Batman v. Superman. “This movie is a crime against comic book fans,” thundered the headline writer at Vox above a review dismissing the film as “a stink bucket of disappointment”.

It’s an event, this. The sport is familiar – critics have forever delighted in reaching for the most outrageously vivid insults – but there’s something instructive about the intensity of competition. Batman v. Superman, which sees these superheroes as the embodiment of opposing forms of extra-political power, pitted against each other, is now among the worst-reviewed big-budget films of all time. Rotten Tomatoes has it at 28%. Its Metacritic score is 44/100. And yet, no one can feasibly claim to be surprised at this, because the ridicule began even before the film’s release. After each new trailer, and every new addition to an already groaning plot, the pronouncements of pre-emptive disdain would swirl around the film – pronouncements that quickly turned into self-fulfilling prophecies once the film hit the big screen. Then came the nauseating spectacle of many declaring on Twitter that they had just purchased their tickets fully expecting to be bitterly disappointed – as if needing an alibi, or in order to establish their bona fides among the sneering class, or simply for fear of being thought naive.

Which might all be uninteresting if not for the fact that, at least in our view, the film just isn’t that bad. Sure, it’s not a triumph. But it’s not Transformers either. We say this not as film people but as Batman people, as the kind of comic book fans against whom this crime has allegedly been committed. Viewed from that perspective, Batman v. Superman fails not because it is thoroughly terrible but because it is dealing with impossibly competing demands.

The root problem is that this is DC’s attempt to compete with the fabulous success of the Marvel movie franchise. But that suite of films – Iron Man, Captain America and The Avengers, and their sequels, among others – works because it fuses popcorn superficiality with epic ensemble in a way that hadn’t been managed before. In this respect Marvel’s achievements cannot be denied. But notice the cost to character development. By reducing its heroes to prudes, nerds and dilettantes, and its villains to the narrative equivalent of two-minute noodles – namely, figures with no complexity, no pathos, and above all, no history – these films are able to bring together a frictionless pastiche of caricatures and clichés that resist narrative depth and demand next to nothing of the audience. You simply cannot do that to the infinitely more complex DC universe. Not easily, anyway. And arguably the worst elements of Batman v. Superman are those that most resemble the sort of gimmicks one might find in The Avengers: an arch-villain who is less mad scientist than he is an English postgrad with Tourette syndrome; an unstoppable monster who emerges like a ready-made meal from a Kryptonian microwave; and, well, Wonder Woman, whose theatrical appearance and unexplained invulnerability are mystifying – bordering on gratuitous.

So, rendering Batman in this way was always fraught. Batman, after all, elicits a very particular kind of devotion. This has partly to do with the pathos of his own biography, his combination of sheer human vulnerability and Promethean defiance. But it also has to do with the peculiar metaphysics of Batman: that, uniquely among superheroes, he has (to adopt the film’s religious vernacular) an almost apophatic quality about him. He is therefore best understood in terms of what he is not, which is why his enemies are invariably more gaudy, more grotesque, more interesting. His laws are categorical prohibitions, which is why his opponents are the embodiments of excess, of unquenchable lust. He is a character possessed by an all-consuming vocation, which is why Bruce Wayne cannot but be a shell of a man, a badly worn persona.

And yet it is this apophatic quality that makes the nearly endless iterations of Batman possible in the first place. Directors have a thrillingly diverse corpus from which to draw in their interpretation of the Batman legend. Zack Snyder’s difficulty in Batman v. Superman is that he is the first director to draw – deeply, frenetically, perhaps even chaotically, but nonetheless recognisably – on the full breadth of the Batman canon: by our reckoning, there are clear echoes of comic books The Dark Knight Returns (1986), Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985–86), Batman: A Death in the Family (1988–89), The Death of Superman (1992), Superman: Red Son (2003), Final Crisis (2008), Flashpoint (2011) and Injustice: Gods Among Us (2013).

The thick texture of literary references, the non-linear narrative, the highly wrought poetic style, the comic-panel aesthetic (with its facial close-ups and wide-lens action sequences) doubtless made Batman v. Superman a more complex, less “fun” movie than Marvel had taught audiences to expect. And it also left Snyder wide open to criticism that his film was a montage of references more than an exploration of the canon’s themes. True enough. But if it fails to deliver the full richness available in the DC universe, Batman v. Superman at least evokes these themes. Superman is a much more interesting character than Christopher Reeve (and Jerry Seinfeld) would invite us to consider, when he’s faced with questions of unaccountability, perverse consequences and false hope. And the film succeeds in upholding the high aesthetic demands long placed on readers by graphic novel creators of a particular tradition: Alan Moore and Frank Miller, Grant Morrison and Mark Millar, Jeph Loeb and Neil Gaiman, Brian Azzarello and Geoff Johns. The point of this strain of writing was to jolt 1980s pop culture out of its smug somnambulism – whether in the form of the schmaltzy optimism of Reagan, the coiffured moralism of Thatcher, or the suffocating sophistry of the “Hey, I’m Okay” brand of psychology mercilessly lampooned in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

In his scathing review of Batman v. Superman, AO Scott from the New York Times said that the point of the film “isn’t fun, and it isn’t thinking, either. It’s obedience.” He’s right – to an extent – but this needn’t be a negative judgement. Rather, it reflects the suspension of mere enjoyment that is required by this particular cultural form. It doesn’t want your enjoyment. To borrow Stanley Fish’s claim about the poetry of John Milton, it wants your soul!

That becomes difficult when Batman is thrust into the company of simpler superheroes as he is in DC’s Justice League, whose establishment is the whole point of Batman v. Superman. Being surrounded by “meta-humans” (as they’re called in the film) invariably reduces the all-too-human Dark Knight to little more than a surly strategist, a bystander always one step removed from the action. Wonder Woman utterly eclipses Batman, consigning him to the margins. This is the inevitable by-product of Wonder Woman’s role in the film as a kind of harbinger, a narrative placeholder for the Justice League to come. Needless to say, this does not bode well for future instalments in the franchise if you’re interested in the possibilities Batman offers.

The transformation of characters into caricatures is the bane of ensemble films – and insofar as Batman v. Superman steadily devolves into such a film, it shares in this curse. And yet even this flaw is ameliorated somewhat by its subordination to a more compelling story arc: the redemption of an ageing, jaded vigilante, who has seemingly renounced an earlier purity of purpose. Batman’s resort to a form of desperate cruelty effectively plunges him into the ranks of Gotham’s fallen. It is this sense of desperation, of a world that eludes the canons of justice, that finally turns Batman against Superman, whose destruction, he confesses, “may be the only thing I do that matters”.

Batman v. Superman is thus, for all intents and purposes, two movies. One is the sclerotic, self-indulgent spectacle that consumes the final quarter of the film – when it descends most clearly into Marvel mode. The other is a positively, if imperfectly, engaging riff on some of the most challenging and arresting plotlines in the DC universe. And despite the disjunction between these two, the movie as a whole was solidly enjoyable. At least we found it so. That seems a modest claim, and yet in the present environment it seems a radical, even scandalously naive, thing to say. Batman v. Superman’s failings aren’t one-and-a-half-star failings. That they are rendered as such, then amplified endlessly until the derisive tones are reproduced, reveals something about the culture of criticism into which the film was released.

There is little doubt that even as the social web has enabled anyone to be a publisher it has also allowed anyone to be a critic. Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic provide a snapshot of a film’s critical fortunes, but also exert a gravitational pull: the scorecard a film receives frames how it is received and flattens the varied responses it should necessarily invite – in a way similar to how opinion polls frame and flatten out politics.

We’re witnessing a subculture that elevates a particular type of withering criticism to a form of entertainment and an object of emulation, just as it takes away the nuance, the generosity that must necessarily accompany the critic’s task. The result is the phenomenon of online “hate watching” in which viewers follow a particular program precisely because it is so universally panned, so that they themselves can join in the critique. Rituals of public disgust demand objects that people love to hate.

Thus, in the carefully constructed world of social media, it is as if consumers are terrified of being caught actually enjoying anything. Batman v. Superman may well not have been enjoyable to most of its audience. Perhaps, though, this has less to do with the inherent defects of the film than we’re led to believe. Perhaps it has more to do with the aesthetic demands and narrative complexity of the sources on which it draws. And perhaps, when it comes down to it, it has plenty to do with consumers scurrying for cover amid the fashionable disdain of the crowd.

Waleed Aly and Scott Stephens

Waleed Aly is a Walkley Award–winning journalist, broadcaster, author and academic. He is a co-host of Network Ten’s The Project and Radio National’s The Minefield.

Scott Stephens is an author, academic, translator and former parish priest. He is the editor of the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website and a co-host of Radio National’s The Minefield.

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