“In truth, man is a polluted river. One must be a sea to receive a polluted river without becoming defiled. I teach you the Superman! He is that sea; in him your great contempt can go under.” Nietzsche
A few weeks ago, I took part in a nationwide event of shared anguish as I left one of the most unpleasant cinematic experiences of my lifetime, Batman v. Superman. A friend of mine was so perturbed that he made a Facebook group to discuss how a film could go so horribly awry. Even though there are many conjurers of thoughts that have weaved and cast their spells to try and decipher how and why this already-legendary turd came to be, I thought I would cast my own analysis out into the world.
No matter how much money WB dumped into the marketing of Batman v. Superman, the inescapable fact was that this is a sequel to Man of Steel (2013). Superman is how we came into this dark, grim world and thus through that prism the rest of the film will be judged. So in that vein, it’s in the second opening scene of the film where Lois finds herself in a generic Middle East local trying to score an interview with a terrorist leader that we instantly realize what a travesty this film is going to be. Things of course go horribly wrong and instead of Superman coming into save the day, Jimmy Olsen is shot point blank in the face and then the terrorists turn to Lois and THEN Superman dashes in to save her.
DEVASTATING describes my emotional state as a viewer because it’s when I realize so clearly that the film-makers either have no idea who Superman is or the even more grim reality, they do and they absolutely do not care. On face value alone, the actual act of violence itself is so grotesque and disturbing that it has no place in a superhero movie featuring characters that have been marketed to pre-adolescents for 70+ years. Marvel, DC, and other heroes of these kind of stories deal in fisticuffs, laser beams, and other forms of violence that are extremely expressive in the act of committing the violence, but then, thru years of story-shorthand, the rules of the universe separate the actual consequence of such action. For example, when characters punch each other in these stories it never results in more than a slight bruise. We don’t see the grotesque broken bones, bruising, and other actual injuries that are sustain in real life.
The reason for this is that violence is a catharsis (thanks Freud) and these stories allow us to enjoy violence because we can’t enjoy it in real life because in real life, actual violence leads to destruction/pain. There’s a poignant scene in Cronenberg’s “History of Violence” that is in response to this (also based on a comic). In “History of Violence”, the protagonist son punches a high-school bully in the face and breaks the bully’s nose. In the aftermath of the punch, we’re force to endure the grotesque visual of a broken nose followed by scenes that deal with the actual consequences of real-life violence. It is not a heroic act. This is what makes the choice to have a character shot in the face so disturbing because there is no way to stylistically wash away the actual consequence of it. In BvS, even though we don’t see Jimmy’s head explode as it cuts on the gun shot, we are imagining it and in some ways that’s even worse. This tone deafness on the part of the film-maker reverberates through the entire film as Batman brands/kills his enemy, Superman’s mother is traumatically kidnapped, hundreds die in a bombing in the Senate, etc, all in the name of being “real.”
Moving beyond the face value of the violence of shooting Jimmy in face, there’s something greater that was lost when Jimmy dies. First, let’s examine the history of Jimmy Olson for those that are unfamiliar. You may be surprised to know that Jimmy Olson was not always integral to the Superman mythos and his existence is owed largely to the needs of the performance medium. Jimmy Olson really comes into being when DC was translating Superman from the comics to a radio serial. The creators of the radio serial wanted to give Superman someone to talk to so as to flesh out his psychological struggles. It’s around this time that he became more important in the comics, but when the radio serial died, Olson disappeared. It was not till the TV show came out in the 50s that he was revived again. One of the biggest differences between written stories and performed stories is that in a written story, you can create conflict out of the metaphysical. We can have mountains of conflict over simply a character struggling to tell his feelings to another character. You translate that to the screen and it’s literally, a character nervously standing there looking at another character. Jimmy has always been important as a way of showing the duality of Superman’s lives and serves as a touchstone for Clark’s humanity in that the relationship between Jimmy and Superman/Clark shows those differences. This relationship struck such a cord with comic book readers that there was a popular comic created called, “Superman’s Pal: Jimmy Olsen” in the 50s.
The fact that the filmmakers felt no need for Jimmy Olson in this universe tells us that Clark has no struggle with his humanity/duality as Clark/Superman. In fact, there is almost no Clark in this movie… Just like there was almost no Clark in Man of Steel. The chief derailing reason that the Superman of Batman v. Superman is so wrong is that the filmmakers use Superman as a trite Christ-metaphor. The moment Batman v. Superman posits Superman as a “GOD”, they chucked his humanity and he became a terribly boring character. In many ways, Superman became more akin to Thor then he did to actual Superman. For those that are unfamiliar, in the comics, Odin feels Thor needs humility so he erases his memories and gives him the identity of Donald Blake on earth. After various adventures, Thor gains his humility and eventually casts the shell of Donald Blake completely and takes his place as a god because he’s not a man. Guess what: Superman does the same in Batman v. Superman, when the identity of Clark Kent is killed. The significance of this is profound because it changes everything about Clark/Superman.
Clark IS HUMAN and Superman is not. Clark Kent’s world is marked by trying to be a good reporter, being a good son, being a good husband, things that concern humanity. Superman’s world is that of being a symbol and acts of heroism. Superman is never actually real and that is where his importance lies. The endearing aspect of Clark is that he’s forced to endure how the people in his life idolize Superman and yet, they view him as nothing, but normal. It’s endearing because being Superman is easy, being a good human is not. This is why readers/viewers have tuned into the Adventures of Superman for years because how can you not root for a guy that fights for his friends/way of life, while always wanting nothing, but the simple life.
One of the most iconic moments in the Superman mythos that NEVER changes is the moment Martha and Johnathan Kent find baby Clark. It captures our imagination because part of the human experience is up-bringing, it shapes us for the rest of our years on this planet, and it’s the humanity that Johnathan and Martha Kent instill in Clark that gives birth to Superman. That’s what makes Clark/Superman easy to relate to because he has the powers of a GOD, and yet, those powers make him more humble and gracious because it never feels like “being a God” is ever really an option. The alter-ego of “Superman” is simply a symbol/ideal for Clark to use his power, but as a character he’s unsustainable.
What problems does Superman have? If Clark Kent decided that he wasn’t Clark, but rather Superman, what would that even mean? Superman doesn’t have to pay bills. Superman doesn’t have a mother and a father that he visits regularly. Superman doesn’t have a wife. If Clark became “Superman”, then suddenly, Superman is far less “Super.” The allure of fantasy is that it is fantasy and it doesn’t have to be bound by logic or obligations. It’s why Clark has never seen an option in such things, but this also has been the bedrock of stories that deal with the contradiction that Clark lifespan is far longer than a normal human. This is why Superman has flourished on the small screen, while Batman has flourished on the big screen because Superman’s human side is so much more interesting than his alter-ego. (This is true of the Hulk as well). Batman, on the other hand, is a character that chooses to escape his humanity because he’s broken and finds refuge in his mission. This is why they can do X amount of Batman movies because the villains/quests show us Batman’s fractured humanity.
The inherent struggle of every writer trying to pen a superhero story is how to make saving the world interesting on a weekly basis. While everyone wants to point to Deadpool (2016) success as being attributed to its tongue-in-cheek tone and breaking the fourth wall, I’d argue it’s real selling point is that it is a small-contained character driven story that audiences can relate to: “a man’s quest to regain his life back to be with the woman he loves.” When one looks at “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014), no one gives a shit about the cookie-cutter chase the orb-of-power plot, people were interested in James Gunn’s quirky, supposedly damned characters rising up to be heroes. When the filmmakers killed Jimmy Olson and posited Superman as a God, they killed any chance of the audience being able to relate or care about him because we don’t care about Superman, we care about Clark Kent. (Notice how the Thor movies are the worst BO performers. It’s because we don’t relate to gods, we relate to people.)
If Superman is a God, then he’s apart from our society and all his acts become charity. Throughout Batman v. Superman, we are supposed to feel bad for Superman because people don’t appreciate his heroic acts. The big complaint against Man of Steel (2013) was how Superman can be super when he destroys half a major metropolitan city just so he could kill one of his fellow gods. Further showing that this franchise is in the hands of blunt/unthinking artists, the response was simply to go to great lengths for the characters to always emphasize “WE’RE IN UNPOPULATED PARTS OF THE CITY SO ALL THIS DESTRUCTION ISN’T HURTING PEOPLE.” Instead, when one looks at Batman vs. Superman, we see a god meddling in the affairs of humans and cherry picking which people he wants to save and then feeling little to no regard for those he hurts along the way. Even if this version of Superman was completely happy and a great hero, audiences would still yawn. In fact, this is the reason why we got to this place in the first place.
After years of Superman stories that forgot that Superman’s humanity is what brings in the audiences, the narrative became SUPERMAN is boring. The great folly in this adaptation of Superman is not in the grim/dark tone, but rather erasing Superman’s humanity and focusing purely on SUPERMAN is where it all went wrong. Not that I’m advocating for a dark Superman as I think it’s completely wrong for the character, but if you divorce the humanity out of Superman, if you kill the Jimmy Olson’s of Clark’s existence, then all you’re left with is a disposable man of steel punching random shit for two hours that is completely indecipherable to audiences.