Batman v. Superman

[This is an old post I had on a previous, now-defunct blog, and it has only been lightly edited in posting here. As such, it’ll read a little strange for a movie that was released five years ago.]

Critical reaction to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has been very poor indeed. And a few of my friends, whose opinions I respect, also strongly disliked this film. But a slightly greater number of friends, whose opinions I also respect, left theaters with at least a somewhat positive opinion. I was confused; I wasn’t sure if it was even worth seeing, but I nonetheless felt compelled to watch a film that could produce such divisive opinions.

I walked into the theater expecting to hate BvS. But by the time I left, I was a lot closer to loving it. The execution was not perfect—this was not a masterpiece film. Nonetheless, despite a bit of a bizarre start and some third act problems, I truly enjoyed the film I was shown. Furthermore, I cannot remember the last time I was as critically engaged by a blockbuster action movie. The movie made me think throughout the experience and well after it ended. And I am hungry for more of this unique vision of the DC universe—I look forward to both an extended director’s cut (which will hopefully fill in a few elements that were somewhat lacking in the theatrical release) and to future films in the franchise. [Well look at that, Past Me. I got both of these things. The Ultimate Edition, for what it’s worth, is a better movie.]

I’d like to try to dig into this film and explain my reactions toward it, especially given how polarizing the film has been and how my own opinion fits into what appears to be a minority viewpoint. I’ll begin this engagement with a spoiler-packed [(though not so much now, five years later)] plot summary and then jump to what I liked, what I didn’t like, and what I was unsure of in BvS. I wouldn’t normally spend much time on a plot summary, but I think it’s useful to have a short narrative here to track the core beats of the film.

Plot summary

First, while I expect a fair number of readers will already be familiar with the basic comics characters, I think it might be beneficial to some if I explain that Batman’s alter ego is Bruce Wayne, Superman’s alter ego is Clark Kent, and Wonder Woman’s alter ego is Diana Prince; Lex Luthor is one of Superman’s most iconic villains, and Lois Lane is Superman’s most famous love interest. Now that that’s out of the way… [I can’t imagine doing something like this now, but I was aimed at a different audience then, and I’m keeping this paragraph here because it’s sort of charming to me in retrospect.]

Maybe the simplest plot summary would be as follows: Batman and Superman must overcome fear, doubt, and selfish self-interest to work together in stopping Lex Luthor from causing mass destruction; also, Wonder Woman shows up. Note that this is a fairly simple story at its core, yet that simple story telegraphs almost nothing that actually happens in the film. Note also that it would be very difficult to directly tie Wonder Woman into that central story. This highlights a few of the major problems with the film: it is over-packed, it is too long with too many extraneous threads for the story it is trying to tell, and because it tackles too much it fails to fully establish even important characters and plot points. But that’s me speaking with the benefit of distance and an attempt at objectivity. Those failings are present, but I was too busy having fun to worry about most of this at the time. Again, the execution was not perfect, but I really loved watching a superhero movie that took risks and experimented heavily with content and storytelling and the interplay of narrative and visuals.

I think that the barrage of details thrown at the unwary viewer probably sunk public opinion for the film. So, below you’ll find my own attempt to summarize (and just as importantly interpret) the key events of the film. [Note that this would be for the theatrical version; I’m not going to try to extend this any further with any reference to Ultimate Edition additions.]

The movie opens with yet another flashback to the murder of the Waynes. It then jumps forward to the destruction of Metropolis from the end of Man of Steel, this time from the perspective of the innocents harmed by the attacks—in particular, Bruce Wayne and his “family” of corporate employees. There is another time jump by eighteen months, and we find Batman and Superman in some unique situations.

First, Superman jumps into a firefight in Africa to save Lois Lane, barely arriving in time. He is blamed for several deaths, which occurred moments before his arrival. The US Senate has convened a committee to investigate Superman’s role in the attacks and his potential threat level. While he was obviously not the killer, testimony from survivors in the surrounding village appears to suggest that Superman triggered the violence and deaths by his arrival.

Despite wavering public opinion regarding Superman, Clark Kent has really come into his own since the events of Man of Steel. He appears to have embraced his role as hero, selflessly helping others whenever he becomes aware (his major limitation is his awareness–he is not omniscient and cannot be omnipresent, and he tends to overlook the motivations of others). He also seems to hold himself responsible for the destruction caused in his fight with Zod, feeling both alienated from humanity and simultaneously accountable to it. Since his encounter with Zod, he seems less willing to kill (although he still rushes to violent action when his loved ones are threatened) and deeply concerned with the plight of the disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, Batman, who has been in the vigilante business for twenty years, has become increasingly disenchanted and cruel. He now literally brands criminals, and his fighting style is brutal and unconcerned with sparing life. Superman becomes troubled by the Bat of Gotham’s new bad behavior (news reports begin circulating after the second branding), especially since it seems mostly directed at the poor who live and work near the ports and working-class neighborhoods of Gotham.

Batman, Superman, and Lois Lane all become concerned with eccentric tech genius and LexCorp heir Lex Luthor. Luthor is attempting to weaponize Kryptonite to use against Superman, whom he fears as a potential source of devastation for the human race, and whom he hates as a false source of hope in a cruel universe. In his weaponization efforts, Luthor has employed a sophisticated smuggling ring based out of Gotham to bring radioactive Kryptonite into the country after his efforts to sway the opinion of the Superman Senate committee fail. Batman becomes involved over the course of his investigation of the Gotham smuggling operation. Lois follows a series of leads to learn that Lex in fact set up the mercenary firefight overseas to attempt to turn public opinion against Superman—apparently in the hopes that this would give him access to the crashed Kryptonian ship from the previous film (which it does), unfettered testing of Zod’s corpse (which it does), and government support of his Kryptonite weapons program (which it does not). Superman’s involvement is largely due to his interactions with Bruce Wayne (in his role as Clark Kent the reporter) and with his girlfriend Lois.

Bruce Wayne, who fears Superman about as much as Lex Luthor does, becomes involved with Diana Prince, who is also attempting to learn more about one of Luthor’s operations, and ultimately attempts to steal Kryptonite from a newly arrived convoy. Unfortunately, he is intercepted by Superman, who has come to tell Batman that he will not tolerate Batman’s form of justice anymore.

Batman backs down, but also becomes enraged by Superman’s interference. After a former Wayne employee, permanently injured in the Zod fight and mentally deranged in the following months, detonates an explosive in the capitol that kills several senators and hearing attendees but leaves Superman unharmed, Batman finally decides to take Superman down. He succeeds in stealing the Kryptonite from LexCorp and reactivates his Bat Signal in defiance of Superman. Lex, who has been waiting for just this moment, kidnaps Martha Kent and Lois Lane. After he gets Superman’s attention by almost killing Lois, he informs Superman that the superhero has one hour to bring Lex Batman’s head—or else Luthor’s goons will kill Martha in an undisclosed hideout. Superman goes after the Bat Signal, and Lois does everything she can to follow close behind, concerned for what is to come.

Superman initially intends to talk Batman into helping, but Batman is dead set on fighting, using a processed Kryptonite gas to disable and a Kryptonite spear to kill. In the fight, Superman is actually nearly killed by Batman, and as Batman prepares to kill him, Superman desperately pleads with Batman to stop the mercenaries who are going to kill “Martha.” Batman is enraged and confused—Martha was his own mother’s name—and this coincidence stalls him long enough for Lois to explain to Batman that Martha is Superman’s mother’s name. Batman, who has viewed Superman as a god or a demon or an alien or a monster throughout the film, finally sees Superman as human; he can finally empathize with this other man. Batman promises to free Martha, who is being held by the smuggler Lex used earlier on. Batman tracks down the smuggler and brutally takes down the mercenaries, freeing Martha.

Superman does not join Batman because he must go to check on the Kryptonian ship, which has been reactivated by Lex. He arrives after Luthor’s time limit is up (and just about the same time that Batman has rescued Martha), so Luthor allows his abominable Frankenstein’s monster, Doomsday, a fusion of Zod’s corrupted body and Lex’s own genetic material, to attack. Superman knocks Doomsday into space, where they are both nuked by the panicked and desperate American military. Doomsday crashes to earth, stronger. Batman, realizing that he needs the Kryptonian spear to take down a Kryptonian monster, agitates Doomsday into chasing him from Metropolis across the bay to Gotham, hoping to lure the monster into the vacated port area and to the spear. Superman is restored in orbit by our yellow sun and returns as Wonder Woman (Diana Prince, remember?) arrives to join the fight.

The three fight valiantly but are unable to defeat Doomsday. After an explosion, Superman realizes Lois is in danger again and races to save her, recovering the Kryptonite spear. Though the spear weakens him, he races back to the battle site and drives it through Doomsday, but Doomsday impales Superman on one of its own bodily spikes. Superman pulls himself further into the spike to drive the spear deeper into Doomsday, killing them both.

Batman has finally been convinced by the goodness that Superman embodied. At Clark Kent’s private funeral (while a separate, public, military funeral is held for Superman), Bruce Wayne convinces Diana Prince to help him recruit other metahumans to fight against future threats. Batman has a final confrontation with Luthor in prison, but instead of branding the supervillain he sears his brand into the wall. This suggests that Batman is healing from his psychic injuries thanks to Superman’s influence. And the film closes with some levitating soil on Superman’s coffin, suggesting that Superman is healing from his physical injuries and will return from his apparent death.

What I liked

  • Batman. We don’t need an origin story for this Batman. He has been a crime fighter for twenty years. He has experienced continued loss. He is hardened and violent and cruel. He seems a man who maybe once had optimism that he could make a difference, that he could make a better Gotham. Now he is haunted by what he sees, rightly or wrongly, as his failures: the death of his parents while he stood by, the apparent death of one (if not the only) Robin at the hands of the Joker, the apparent past betrayal by Catwoman, the apparent past corruption of Harvey Dent, the destruction of so many members of the Wayne corporate family and of so much of Metropolis, and the mental degradation and suicide bombing of a former employee. A lot of those moments are inferred, of course, through snippets of dialogue—he is no longer taken in by women who seem doe-eyed and innocent and so is not fooled by Diana Prince, he continues to display Robin’s defaced armor, he mentions to Alfred that they have seen so many good people die or be turned. I think one of my favorite motivators for this Batman is the role of control. Superman is an excuse, an easy target to fear; the reaction is vitriolic and xenophobic. But deep down, Batman cannot tolerate a loss of control–the same vulnerability that drives Luthor to destroy Superman. Batman lost control the instant his parents died, and he has been trying to force the world to make sense ever after by exerting his control on Gotham. That is why he is Batman; that is why he raced to Metropolis during the Zod fight to attempt to save his employees; that is why he feels so powerless and yet defiant in the face of Superman. And Ben Affleck does a phenomenal job as this aging, tortured Batman; plus, the chemistry between Affleck’s Batman and Jeremy Irons’ Alfred is phenomenal. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about Batman’s killing and use of guns in this film, but almost every gun he uses appears to be in a nonlethal role, and while he is cruel and completely fine with killing, his combat style is still largely about crippling. The number of confirmed kills is surprisingly low compared to the outcry. This is a broken Batman who requires the influence of Superman to be restored, and his willingness to kill  is a marker of that.
  • Superman. I think that this film does a lot to improve my opinion of Man of Steel retroactively. Many have complained that Superman has undergone moral growth without any evidence of that process, but I would disagree. This movie still sees him growing. He is torn between selfishness and selflessness, and those dueling impulses are often combined in his relationship with Lois Lane. He would give anything to protect her, and often at a cost. And the more I think about it, he seems to only kill if nothing else will work. He did not kill Batman even though that would have been an easy solution to his problem. He killed Zod because Zod refused to stand down and was a superhuman threat. He killed Doomsday because it was basically an ever-growing zombie monster that could not be controlled. That doesn’t excuse the loss of innocents in these epic fights, but more weight is given to those losses—and those losses provide a good deal of the motivation for Batman. Henry Cavill isn’t my favorite version of Superman, but he works for this more haunted, vulnerable, and angrier version of the character.
  • The internal debate about morality, ethics, and justice. It’s even in the title. Not only does the subtitle Dawn of Justice set up the origin of the Justice League, it also discloses a key theme in the film. We live in an unjust, cruel world. What decisions must we make to bring about justice? What sacrifices must we undergo? Could most of us even make the sacrifices that these superheroes do (of reputation, of life, of freedom from destructive obsession)? And when our attempts to bring about justice still cause suffering in some form, can we still be said to be acting in a just way (a theme really driven home by a hallucinatory discussion between Clark Kent and the dead Pa Kent)? People mocked the “v.” instead of “vs.” but I would say that it underscores that theme of justice. Batman and Superman spend very little of the film battling each other, but their ideas of what justice is make up the crux of the film’s tension. They are in a way proposing different legal and ethical theories, and their own arguments are sometimes supported and sometimes opposed by arguments brought forward by their family and friends, by their enemies, by the government, and by the citizenry of America and the world.
  • Senator Finch. She is probably the best female character in the film. She at first seems antagonistic toward Superman, but she ultimately is shown to be an honest politician who simply wants Superman to be accountable. Rather than “unilaterally” acting against potential threats, she wants him to engage in a dialogue with the American people and their chosen representatives. Her sudden death in this film was unnecessary and shut down that dialogue way too early.
  • The religious allegories. The Trinity (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) appears in this film, and Snyder does not shy away from drawing comparisons to gods and to the Christian Holy Trinity. Superman’s death and certain eventual resurrection offers a pretty obvious analogy. Batman’s early rise toward heaven on the wings of bats in a dream sequence is over the top. Lex Luthor constantly talks gods and demons and ultimately embodies the figure of an Antichrist. The splash page image of Batman and Wonder Woman sullenly mourning the fallen Superman screams Renaissance religious iconography.
  • The surrealist imagery and how it influences the plot and future installments. The “dream” sequences were disorienting and so interwoven with the “reality” of the film that I think they open an avenue to deconstruction of “superhero films” as the source of any sort of “realism.” They also highlighted many of the themes and allegories discussed above. And I think that they suggest that the forces of Darkseid (who does not appear in this film) are acting on those who may be psychically sensitive. I think they slowly corrupt Luthor, and drive him toward greater knowledge about the larger universe. I think they also serve as a warning to Batman. It may not be an element from the comics, but it’s a unique touch. Also, presumably the dream sequence involving the Flash really did involve time travel. Lois Lane is the key? It seems that she grounds Superman. But is he warning not to trust Superman, or not to trust Lex, or not to trust another character who has not appeared yet?
  • Wonder Woman. She’s powerful, she’s beautiful, she’s competent. Even when fighting Doomsday to a standstill, she seems to enjoy the combat without being sadistic. I greatly enjoyed Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, though her scenes as Diana Prince largely lacked substance. I would have preferred more time to develop her character. I guess that’s something to look forward to about the upcoming Wonder Woman solo film. [Yes. It was worth the wait.]
  • Lex Luthor. I thought I would hate this Lex, based on the trailers. But then I gradually came to accept Jesse Eisenberg’s take on the character. This Lex is a genius, but he is also afraid. He was abused by his father and seems to feel inferior to the deceased elder Luthor, and he also seems to fear both a universe without a god and a universe in which an all-powerful god would allow such things to happen. He fears Superman and what such a being could do to humanity. He fears his own impotence. He is introverted and unstable, and his condition deteriorates over the film—probably both from the stress of inserting himself into the role of a “villain” and due to further psychic influence from Darkseid’s forces.
  • The indebtedness to past comics. The film obviously draws from The Dark Knight Returns and Death of Superman. But the corrupting psychic influence of an unseen force that brings out villains and draws heroes together reminds me of the Justice League origin story in The New Frontier, and the edgier and conflicted version of Superman appears to owe a debt to Superman: Earth One. I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the direct-to-video DC movies over the years—especially the Elseworlds stories in which anything can happen outside of mainstream DC continuity. BvS draws from these stories but also feels willing to let anything happen. I would not be surprised if the DC Cinematic Universe is less direct in how it pulls from comics stories as compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
  • The humor. There wasn’t a lot, and it was often dry or subtle, but I laughed when it came up. Lex doing a Professor Xavier impersonation in an electric wheelchair was my favorite comedic moment.

What I didn’t like

  • The treatment of (most) women and (some) minorities. Lois Lane and Martha Kent spend an inordinate amount of time being rescued. [The Ultimate Edition must have given Lois more time, because I didn’t feel like this was as apparent an issue after my most recent watch, but it’s still definitely an issue.] Wonder Woman is background and not even suited up until the end. Senator Finch is unceremoniously killed. The scene where Superman saves a girl from a burning building and is worshiped by Hispanics celebrating the Day of the Dead is symbolically interesting but smacks of uncomfortable racial politics.
  • The first flashback. We don’t need to see Bruce Wayne’s parents die yet again. The more I think about it, the more I feel like that’s not even that vital to an interpretation of Batman. Unless a different background is proposed, the origin story is so oversaturated in our culture that Snyder should have trusted the audience enough to leave it out. Plus, we’re beaten over the head with imagery of Martha Wayne dying and of Martha Wayne’s tomb so that there is no way that the significance of Superman’s “Martha” moment could be lost on us. [The moment would have worked with less setup–or maybe Batman’s change of attitude should have been triggered by something else entirely. A lot of people seemed to find this key moment to be rather forced and laughable.]
  • The coincidental nature of the third act. In writing the plot summary, it didn’t seem that bad, but Lex took a lot for granted. He expected Batman to go rogue and insist on killing Superman. He expected Superman to show up just in time to save a falling Lois, even though this film repeatedly emphasizes that Superman is not as all-powerful or all-knowing as some interpretations of the character. Maybe Lex bought into his god speeches a bit too much.

What I was indifferent toward 

  • The Elseworlds nature of the DC Cinematic Universe. I think a lot of people did not like the movie because it did not embrace the commonly recognized versions of Batman and Superman. I agree that these are not those characters. But I’m willing to let Snyder and company play with the DC universe some more. We have plenty of other versions of the characters in the comics, in television, and in previous movies. We don’t need to simply repeat the incarnations of the characters that have come before. But I understand why people have reacted so strongly against these versions of the characters.
  • The hastily portrayed founding Justice League members. It makes the world seem small that the only other apparent metahumans are all being tracked by Lex, and these six (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg, and Aquaman) happen to be the future Justice League. It would be fun if this universe eventually grows to have a wild collection of other heroes. There are plenty to draw on. And did the Green Lantern movie do so terribly that GL just won’t appear in this DC Cinematic Universe? [Now I know that Green Lanterns have a part in the DCEU, and Justice League set up some potential other superheroes to appear down the line.]
  • Jimmy Olsen. So he’s not mentioned by name, he’s killed early on, and his death seems to have little impact on Lois and no impact on Superman. Why include him at all? [The Ultimate Edition addresses this a little better. It’s still weird to kill Jimmy Olsen so soon after introducing him, but it doesn’t feel quite so random.]
  • Big monster ravages the city. Seen that before. After such a long, overall thoughtful film, the third act felt rushed, and Doomsday feels almost tossed in to establish a big final battle.
  • The indebtedness to Frank Miller. Snyder obviously loves Frank Miller. I do not normally love Snyder or Miller. They are both fairly self-important and fixated on dark, moody, ultraviolent settings. At the same time, Miller is remembered for his impact on characters like Batman and Daredevil for a good reason (even though his more recent contributions are cartoonishly absurd and almost caricatures of his earlier work).
  • The empty cities. The port of Gotham is completely abandoned? Downtown Metropolis is nearly empty after work hours? That felt a little bit implausible, and more like Snyder flippantly responding to criticisms of the apparent death toll from the final battle of Man of Steel.

I hardly think that my opinion is conclusive. But, for what it’s worth, I found a lot more to like than hate in Batman v. Superman.

The Snyder Cut

Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t need to exist, but I was impressed by it. The originally released Justice League was a light, action-packed superhero story by the numbers, the closest the DC movies have come to the Marvel formula. It was fine but forgettable. Snyder’s Justice League has stuck with me. It’s epic in scope and full of incredible action scenes, yet built on characters given the room to breathe and have full arcs. The best moments are often the slower ones in between the action. The film artfully has something to say about grief, loss, recovery, faith, hope…It genuinely feels like a blockbuster film with a true artistic vision, something there seems to be less and less of.

It’s still a blockbuster film, and some of what strikes me as artistic could also read to others as mere pretension. Snyder uses the same old tricks in all his movies, after all–especially the slow-motion action sequences that drag to a crawl to reveal a still shot that feels like a double-page spread in a comic book, which he returns to over and over and over again. (Maybe I’m just a contrarian–I find more pretension where most people find artistry in Christopher Nolan’s films, for instance.)

I haven’t really sought out reviews of the Snyder Cut, but I still live in a society, so I can’t help but pick up the generally positive reactions by many, even as others seemed quick to mock it. One of the few full essays I’ve actually read is this column by Owen Gleiberman on Variety, and it was one of those experiences where I was surprised to find someone having already put to word the thoughts still fomenting in my head, with much greater clarity than I could achieve. If you’re going to read anything about the new Justice League, it should be his essay. Not only do I agree with him, but I’m hungry for more films set in the DCEU. Justice League resolved its story arc well but set up a lot of new potential stories to tell, with explicit lingering narrative threads tugged at the end and a few references to DC characters waiting in the wings.

I didn’t get around to writing anything about the movie until over a week after its release, even though I watched it on release night, because I don’t feel I have anything vital to add to the general discourse, but it’s nonetheless a movie that’s stuck with me, that I keep thinking about and wanting to talk about. (Not to mention it’s pushed me back into a bit of a DC obsession again; seems I flip between just about half a dozen topics to obsess over.) I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, but I absolutely was not surprised to find a film worth thinking over, even though I expected most people to hate it going in. You see, I really liked Batman v. Superman. It’s a weird thing for me to like, given that Snyder’s films have tended to become ammunition in the ongoing culture wars, and liking a Snyder project seems to ally you with some rather toxic, bigoted people. It’s understandable why, given that Snyder’s films have employed a leering male gaze and some racist tropes (I’m embarrassed to admit that high-school me loved 300 when it came out, and it took a few years for me to really understand what was wrong with it), and given that Snyder is clearly smitten with the problematic works of Frank Miller. Snyder’s take on DC characters is inseparable from Miller’s, after all.

But it would also be unfair to suggest that that’s all a Snyder film is, or that he can’t grow as a filmmaker or a person. Justice League focuses much of its emotional narrative on Cyborg and his family (though there’s a conversation to be had about how Cyborg is uniquely formed a hero out of great physical torment), and Wonder Woman has been an incredible fount of coolness, competence, and resolve since the moment she first appeared in BvS. I think that the new Justice League mostly avoids Snyder’s old pitfalls while telling an evocative story that builds on his previous two DCEU films even as it makes them more essential viewing. It’s a rewarding viewing experience.

Back when I started this blog, I salvaged a few blog posts from my days as a solo attorney. One post I opted not to carry over was a gushing review of Batman v. Superman (yeah, when I was writing a blog for my solo law firm, I sometimes had some weird content). Rather than jumping into more discourse about Justice League just now, I think I’d rather let the movie sit with me some more, maybe after re-watching it and the predecessor DC Snyder films. But I do think now is as good a time as any to re-share that older review. I’ll post it next week. Maybe, if I end up with something worth saying about Justice League, I’ll write more on it, but otherwise, I’ll leave the conversation at BvS.

DC Weekend

I’ve been dealing with a cold since the end of the week, and I definitely hit bottom after running a variety of errands during the snow storm in Indy on Saturday. Since Saturday afternoon, I’ve largely alternated between sleeping, imitating sleep, and watching dumb movies and TV while prone or semi-prone on the couch.

It’s at this point bedrock tradition for me to watch dumb television and movies while sick. I don’t normally like to sit for hours binging a show or movie after movie (though I’ll do the same for a book or game without complaint), especially if of only mediocre quality or worse, but sick days are my big exception to the norm. Brain idling, entertained by pretty moving pictures, waiting out the discomfort: it’s downright pleasurable to me at such a time.

Though not always the case, this sick weekend had a theme: DC movies and TV. I re-watched Suicide SquadBatman v Superman, and a good portion of the first season of Arrow; I also watched the 2017 Justice League film for the first time.

None of these things are great, but that’s the point. They’re dumb, and they’re enjoyable (enough) to watch. My Arrow re-watch might even continue, as I was surprised by how charmed I was yet again by the campy soap-opera take on superheroes. And, confession here, I actually like the DC franchise films. They’re not good, but most of them fall solidly in the B- to B+ range. They’re all overly long, overly dark (in terms of color saturation and narrative tone), and burdened by poorly considered plot contrivances. But they’re largely just a counter-cultural product to the smooth Marvel formula (counter-cultural to the extent that a big corporation can be counter-cultural, a Pepsi to Coca-Cola). DC movies are oddly ragged, ungainly films that all feel desperate to say something, if only there weren’t a dozen different creative and corporate hands meddling with the final product each time. And, well, I just like DC characters more.

I’m not a “comics guy.” I’ve read comics, and I will continue to do so. I’ve always preferred graphic novels to serialized comics, though, and not for particularly pretentious reasons, but simply because I prefer a more contained, tightly honed story. I prefer graphic novels to comics like I prefer films to television and like I prefer standalone novels to book series (not sure I’d go so far as to say I prefer short stories to novels, even though I do think I prefer the crafty efficiency of a good short story–I just tend to read novels more consistently). And I’ve typically preferred non-superhero comics to the superhero kind. I’m also largely bipartisan (or simply agnostic) when it comes to Marvel versus DC. That all said, my childhood rooted me in part to DC: the Tim Burton Batman films, the Teen Titans show, and the DC Animated Universe strongly influenced my tastes regarding caped crusaders and the like (the only Marvel counterpart I particularly recall in my formative years was X-Men Evolution). And in more recent years, Young Justice and the CW collection of shows carried my interest forward (even if the latter eventually became simply too much for me to keep up with).

What I’m trying to say is that, while I do have a familiarity with superhero franchises, I don’t feel like my identity is bound up in these characters. While the cinematic versions of DC characters have typically been darker than what I might prefer, I don’t feel like I have to treat anything in this territory as “canon” or a “defining” vision. It’s all just fun times, and these new films are at least offering something that does feel different.

In that context, I’d avoided Justice League for a while because it looked like a fairly generic superhero team-up film in a genre flooded with that type of apocalypse-punching, alien-invasion scenario. But I found that I greatly enjoyed the film, generic plot and all. Maybe I was just loopy enough to get peak enjoyment out of it. But Ben Affleck was absolutely delightful as Batman; this version of the Dark Knight not only provided a nice redemption arc from the previous title but was also one of the funniest versions of the character I’ve seen in a while. He was lighthearted; he smiled; he said authentic things. Plus, the film provided plenty of fodder for anyone partial to shipping Batman and Wonder Woman. For that matter, Wonder Woman continued to be a badass warrior, and she also had her own opportunity for inner growth that felt like a natural progression from her solo film–she was returning to the world, processing her grief and trauma from the Great War, and taking up the mantle of a leader. The Flash was hilarious and awkward and lovable, Aquaman was about as interesting and cool as Aquaman could ever hope to be, and Cyborg had enough screen time to feel defined if alien (though to the extent that Cyborg works, I’d credit Ray Fisher’s acting rather than the rather mundane dialogue that he delivers). Superman remained a weak point for me, though after some initial Super Dickery on his inevitable resurrection, he actually got to act like the superheroic ideal for the closing minutes of the final act.

Look, it’s not the greatest film out there. But no superhero film is. And sure, Justice League isn’t even the best superhero film, or the best of the new DC films. But it was a fun ride, and I’d watch it again. Especially on another sick day.

Phase Three Fatigue

I accidentally caught up on the Marvel Cinematic Universe this weekend. That doesn’t include the entirety of the continuity of this extended universe, since I’ve seen very little of the television shows and don’t really care to change that.

Because I’m caught up, I think I will see Infinity War. But it’s less that I’m excited about the movie. I feel a sad, pathetic impulse to see it because, hey, why not? I’ve seen the other ones, and it’ll play at the Indiana State Museum IMAX. That’s enough of a reason, I suppose.

This Phase Three of the MCU is a bit of a wash for me. I’ve said before that I have superhero fatigue, and Marvel is the leading culprit. But these movies get talked about enough that it’s hard to ignore them–and whenever I do ignore them, that seems to be just when an actually worthwhile new film comes out. There were some really great films in this cycle, but I don’t feel rejuvenated or excited about the future of this franchise or of superhero films in general.

These movies, no matter what they do to their characters, feel safe and locked in stone. In Thor: Ragnarok, Thor tells Loki that “life is about growth and change. But you just seem to want to stay the same. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you’ll always be the God of Mischief. But you could be more.” It’s as though Thor is commenting on the state of the superhero genre. With each new Marvel movie, we get more and more tricks but very little lasting change or impact to the characters or the world.

There are two interesting exceptions to this general static nature. The first is to Thor himself. He appears to permanently lose his hammer, and an eye, and ends up with a new look and a new focus and a new manifestation of his power. Ragnarok shifted the positions of all the characters, killing off some franchise figures rather quickly and even shuffling Odin off the board. For the moment, Loki even seems to have grown and rethought his motivations–though the Infinity War trailers do seem to suggest that his turn to Good is not very long-lasting. Even Asgard itself is “changed” quite dramatically by film’s end.

The other example is the actual state of the world, as evidenced by Spider-Man: Homecoming. We see the rise of a new breed of criminal, reacting to the fallout of the age of superheroes, taking advantage of the collateral damage left behind after the great battles of previous films. Homecoming, in many ways, is about how the third-act, depersonalized chaos of the previous films has had a profound impact on the people on the ground (to be honest, it’s covering a lot of the same thematic ground of Batman v. Superman, not to mention the street-level superhero approach of the live-action Marvel TV shows).

But most of the heroes are still just reacting to a string of events, not truly evolving or being marked, physically or emotionally, in lasting ways. In Phase Two, we saw a lot of growth for Iron Man and Captain America, as they questioned alliances and as Tony Stark in particular was affected by his experiences in The Avengers. While this led to some explosive interpersonal conflict in Civil War, we see the characters as the archetypes they’ve always been. Tony in particular seems to always bounce back into the roguish scoundrel whenever convenient–for all his paternal efforts in Homecoming, he still feels a little removed, distant, selfish. As much as we are supposed to believe that Peter Parker learns an important lesson about responsibility and maturity, I would say that Homecoming really highlights Tony’s failures at honest communication and mentorship.

And while Tom Holland is an excellent Peter Parker / Spider-Man, the existence of yet another Spider-Man film where Peter must balance personal life versus super-heroics is mostly yawn-inspiring. At least it wasn’t an origin story, and Holland is better in the role than Garfield and might exceed Maguire’s early performances in the role. But a Spider-Man film seems bound by particular narrative expectations, and there was little fresh here (the most memorable moments, as is so often the case in a Marvel film, were the many gags and one-liners).

Doctor Strange was even more by-the-numbers: yet another origin story, incredibly boring in comparison to the similarly done-before beats of Ant-Man but lacking the humor and charm. Where we could have had a weird film that examines spiritualism and the occult and truly challenges perception, we have pretty light shows and special effects tricks that haven’t been cool since Inception.

Thor: Ragnarok was hilarious and self-aware and had some awesome nods to metal and fantasy; Black Panther I’ve written glowingly about before. But Ragnarok‘s flaw is that it is so dependent upon the net of the existing continuity–while willing to burn down expectations and kill off previously important characters, it didn’t really do anything so narratively risky as to disrupt Thor and Loki’s ability to bounce from project to project, and it required at least passing knowledge of events in Dark World and Age of Ultron to fully process what was happening. In other words, Ragnarok was not so much a standalone film as a really funny link in one chain of this sprawling franchise.

Shockingly, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seemed to have the most original storytelling vision, focusing on developing Star-Lord’s crew. But I also found that more original story more flawed, a little looser and maybe too slow. More experimentation invites more risk, after all. But this film was neither too experimental nor too risky. (This mini-review could be used almost verbatim for The Last Jedi‘s place in the Star Wars franchise, as well).

In sum, it’s all fine. It’s fine and forgettable, and the franchise is sure to continue making millions of dollars. There is pathos and humor and action in each film, all measured out in more-or-less the right portions per the old recipe, a formula only modestly revised since that first Iron Man a decade ago. But I think anything these films might actually have to say is crushed under the weight of franchise perpetuity and creation by committee.

The most unpleasant thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the constant reminder that most of our pop culture loves are slickly designed to continue to sell, not stories in and of themselves with intrinsic value but instead utilizing extrinsically valuable intellectual property to continue to push out product that apparently plenty of people still find desire for. It’s not just Marvel, but Star Wars and classic monster movies and classic sci-fi television (ironically including the plucky, post-scarcity utopia of Star Trek) and anything else that can be rebooted or resurrected or impersonated.

Maybe what really kills me about this is that I’m detached from Marvel. I don’t have the childhood nostalgia. I didn’t really get into comic books until college, and I didn’t stay invested for very long. And my college years paralleled the start of the MCU. So I can see the trappings of this franchise juggernaut more clear-eyed than if I were personally invested. And so I can see how much that franchise development resembles the development of the Star Wars franchise, especially post-Lucas. And as much as I’ve loved (most) of this new era of Star Wars, it’s too easy to see as more of the same, with the same bloat and continuity creep and constant churn of product. And where I could otherwise blithely ignore the rotted element of my own fandom, I’m forced to stare it in the face in the mirror image of Disney’s other adopted child.

Part of me wants to insist on drawing a line. Value the works of original creators, and keep looking for new original content by new creators telling new and meaningful stories for our time. Stop investing in a product merely because of nostalgic familiarity and safe name-recognition. Stop with Marvel and DC and Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter and James Bond and all the rest of the bullshit.

But the ugly side of me, the side that sighs and shrugs and continues to “invest” in the next film and the next one and the one after (as though I’m gaining any equity in doing so), will win out. It’s too tiring to keep watching and it’s too tiring to quit. After all, I might as well keep up on the current pop culture conversations. After all, there’s Infinity War to watch. And these franchises sure feel infinite.