The insane politics of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

By Alyssa Rosenberg

Clash of the titans: Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman. Photo / Warner Bros
Clash of the titans: Ben Affleck as Batman and Henry Cavill as Superman. Photo / Warner Bros

Zack Snyder's movies have long been fertile ground for political arguments, from the condemnation of 300, Synder's adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel about the battle of Thermopylae, to fascist debates over the gender politics of Sucker Punch, Snyder's fantasia about women trying to escape a mental hospital.

And I'm sure that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Superman (Henry Cavill) must face the possibility of government regulation, a tech titan whose appetite for disruption makes the sharing economy look trifling, and a very, very unhappy Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), will prompt the same arguments.

If I can't discourage you from spending your time and money on Snyder's latest movie (it makes an unexpectedly effective soporific, despite how loud it is) this weekend, I'm begging you: Don't try to take it seriously.

Given that I write about the intersection of politics and culture for a living, it might seem odd that I'm making this request. I'm all for looking for meaning in blockbuster movies, but those films need to work a lot harder than Batman v Superman does to earn the right to our consideration.

A lot of what's maddening about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is that it makes an utter waste of a promising concept. No Marvel, DC, Sony or 20th Century Fox superhero movie has grappled in any sort of sustained way with how the emergence of superheroes would change society and the international balance of power.

Batman v Superman provides a few striking images in service of those changes: a large, if very ugly monument to those who died in Superman's clash with General Zod (Michael Shannon); the worshippers at a Día de los Muertos parade crowding close to touch Superman after he saves a girl from a burning building; a family taking refuge from a raging flood on their roof, on which they've emblazoned Superman's symbol in hope of rescue; a "Superman=Illegal Alien" sign at a protest.

But there isn't a coherent set of ideas behind those visuals, or a deeper sense of what's going on. A lot of characters talk about Superman as if he's a deity, but are people worshiping him? How has his presence on Earth affected traditional religious faiths? Zack Snyder directed an intermittently-inspired adaptation of Alan Moore's remarkable comic Watchmen, so surely he's aware of the famous line from that work that "God exists and he's American".

But while Superman zips around the globe saving people, especially his girlfriend, reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams, in a role sadly reduced from Man of Steel), Batman v. Superman has no sense of geopolitics and only slightly more of an idea about the role he plays at home in America.

"The world has been so caught up with what Superman can do that we've forgotten to ask what he should do," Sen. Finch (a wasted Holly Hunter) declares at one point. She's right! But the total incoherence of the script written by Chris Terrio and David Goyer means that at times, it seems like Superman is working for the US Government, whether he's standing in for a drone intended to take out a warlord or participating in a coordinated strike on a monster.

Film highlight: Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Photo / Warner Bros
Film highlight: Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. Photo / Warner Bros

Given that this is a movie where Superman literally spends five minutes on a mountaintop having an imaginary conversation with his dead adoptive father (Kevin Costner, radiating decency even as a hallucination), it would have been helpful to give us a couple of measly lines of dialogue that explains how Superman decides where and when to get involved, and what his relationship to the federal and city governments are.

The confusion is only enhanced by the general incoherence of Finch's actions. Despite her call to regulate Superman, she turns down Lex Luthor's (Jesse Eisenberg) request to import Kryptonite so he can try to develop a deterrent in case Superman goes rogue.

It's perfectly reasonable for a legislator not to trust an obviously shady tech mogul. But Finch does give Luthor unfettered access to all sorts of Kryptonian technology for some reason. And once she's been made aware that a substance that could stop Superman exists, nobody in government does the incredibly obvious thing of trying to seize the Kryptonite in the name of national security.

I should pause for a moment and note that this isn't even as bad as the incoherence in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice gets. The climactic fight between Batman and Superman is wholly unnecessary, and could be averted with a single sentence that Superman doesn't utter until it's almost too late. I'd have to count, but Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) may have more smoldering sidelong glances than she has actual lines and still manages to have her actions contradict her words.

But I'm focusing on these questions of power and politics because Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an important illustration of what can happen when artists desperately want to explore big ideas but lack the will and clarity to make a coherent argument. As Annalee Newitz wrote on Twitter, "Yep, (Batman v. Superman) was about the rise of fascism. Which is to say, it was full of nonsensical political messages, spectacle, and male hysteria."

But asking any further questions is a futile endeavour. Is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice an argument for fascism as a response to an ineffective government? Is it a warning about the influence of tech titans who want to disrupt everything, even democratic governance? Is it a reflection on what citizens own their countries?

Who knows, because in the end buildings blow up and there are monsters to fight and wheat fields to walk through and any consideration of Superman's implications for America and the world ends up pretty much amounting to ... shrug. I guess the idea that questions of principle have to be delayed in the face of an imminent threat is an argument in and of itself. If only Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was sufficiently coherent for me to believe it was intentional.

- Washington Post

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