Let’s take a moment to have an honest thought, or two, about Batman Versus Superman. Today has wrought some absolutely hilarious pre-release takedowns of Orphan Fight: 2016: Rumble in the Concrete Jungle. Even though this movie’s critical panning seemed as inevitable to me as the turning of the planets, there appears to be no shortage of stunned onlookers. People genuinely thought this movie wouldn’t be a colossal loose stool. In retrospect, I think we should have seen this coming.
Recall the most important conflict in The Dark Knight. No, not the battle of early-childhood psychosis between Batman and the Joker. Nor am I talking about Bruce Wayne’s inner struggle between wanting a life with Rachel and his self-appointed crusade to reshape the world in his own image. Everything in The Dark Knight orbits around Harvey Dent – a decent man in indecent times – being dragged down to the level of Batman and the Joker. This transformation from light to dark, from order to chaos (i.e. only half of a proper hero’s journey) is a portent for what the Nolan/Goyer dream team would do with Superman in Man of Steel.
Those two chuckleheads made Superman so dark I can make a convincing argument for General Zod as Man of Steel’s protagonist. Don’t believe me? Then riddle me this: how do you justify Superman’s choice to execute a genocide against his own people?
Note my verb choice in the previous paragraph. Superman chooses to exterminate the last sons and daughters of Krypton. Ghostdad Jor-El makes it very clear that Kal-El’s uniqueness is rooted in the freedom of his birth and his subsequent freedom to be his own man. Kal-El, unlike Zod, wasn’t born to fulfill a specific function. In this light, Zod’s actions can be understood, perhaps even forgiven, as the actions of a person genetically compelled to preserve Krypton above all other concerns.
Since Kal-El’s choices are singularly the product of his own ill-founded agency, there are no mitigating circumstances to Superman out Zodding Zod in declaring that Krypton had its time. In feeding Superman that line, Nolan, Goyer, and Snyder, ever the master of nuance, execute the Joker’s agenda against Kal-El. The character transubstantiates from god to mortal. No longer a paragon, Superman is one of us: a stupid, selfish, mortal.
Krypton’s genocide answers the question young Kal-El asks his adopted father in the movie’s first act. “Can’t I just keep pretending I’m your son?” Yes, yes you can, kid. And apparently you’ve inherited your Earth dad’s rigid morality and xenophobia. Superman: the self-loathing immigrant story. Bravo, gentlemen. What a brilliant way of shaking up the same old Superman.
Which brings us up to Batman Versus Superman. The problem at hand is that David Goyer’s go-to move of “make it darker” isn’t going to work. Superman can’t go any darker without a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label and some peanuts to flick at small town bartenders. Likewise, Batman, cast as moral arbiter against Superman, isn’t in a position to go darker – at least not without becoming Frank Castle. So make Wonder Woman darker…I guess? Make Batman do darker things while keeping to the chaotic good moral absolutism at the core of his character?
Is there a world where the above doesn’t end up as a dumpster fire?
Go dark, was a necessary knee-jerk reaction to the likes of Joel Schumacher pouring so much camp into Batman that Adam West stopped to wonder if things might be getting a bit excessive. A tonal shift toward Frank Miller helped rehabilitate Batman’s mainstream reputation. Now Hollywood finds itself trapped in a cycle of doubling down on what worked in the past because it can’t see beyond its own myopic pattern dependency. And yes, it is myopic. The DC animated universe shows us that there’s still room for hope, optimism, and joy while telling a self-serious story.
Don’t believe me? Watch this and tell me that the essential loneliness of being a hero among mortals can only be conveyed through square jaws and grim darkness.
DC’s cinematic universe needs to learn a fundamental lesson from Batman: TAS, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, Green Lantern: TAS, and Young Justice. The trick to making a resonant super hero is to go smarter, not darker. Until DC and Warner Brothers figure this out, I hope they enjoy their cinematic universe re-enacting that scene from The Dark Knight where Joker burns all the money.