I’m reminded of the parable my film lecturer once told me of Michael Powell’s 1960 film Peeping Tom, the story of a young man who murders young women and records their deaths on film. Upon the film’s release, critics and (most) audiences were openly hostile of the psychosexual thriller based solely on the nature of its content and the taboo, voyeuristic themes it explored. Free love, flower power and the rousing liberal rhetoric of Dr. Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy had yet to come and the public tastes (of which critics were and are the bastions) tended to err on the conservative.
Critics came out for Peeping Tom with knives drawn; so great was the animosity of critics toward the film that it effectively ruined Powell’s career. What’s curious in the case of Peeping Tom is that it ever-so-slightly preceded Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, a lauded masterpiece despite exploring very similar violently psychosexual territory. Film scholars have in the half-century since have suggested that Peeping Tom, with its implicitly first person narrative, makes the audience far more complicit in the violence and is thusly a far more challenging and far less comfortable viewing experience.
Modern readings of the film have since exonerated the audacious and challenging piece, and even some critics who met the film with resounding disapproval in 1960 have positively reappraised it since.
So, what does this have to do with Batman V Superman?
Well, like Caroline Lejeune who stormed vitriolically out of Peeping Tom, many critics have responded negatively to the film in a way that borders on personal agenda. Others, such as Forbes blogger Mark Hughes have argued eloquently and passionately in defence of Zack Snyder’s DC opus but been dismissed as ‘DC apologists’.
When I first saw the film I felt deeply conflicted, sensorially bombarded and frankly exhausted by the experience. I had mistook Batman V Superman’s central thesis as a weakness. When I first saw the film I was much less enthusiastic than I’d hoped to be. Upon subsequent viewings I think I get it now.
It is supposed to be a challenging film.
Like its predecessor, the divisive Man of Steel (2013) it asks a question of us that we might not like the answer to; presented with the gift of a Superman, how would we react?
The unfortunate but true answer is, with doubt, paranoia and mistrust.
Sometimes fans are the people least equipped to evaluate a superhero text and I freely admit that my own fandom got in my way here.
Batman and Superman are my two favourite literary characters. One of my earliest memories is watching Christopher Reeve’s seminal performance in Superman 2 on blurry VHS. I vividly remember seeing Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and being wowed as a five-year-old. When I was a little older I devoured syndicated episodes of the Adam West Batman TV show as I waited with agonising patience for the home video release of Tim Burton’s Batman (being turned away from the film’s theatrical release, despite being with my consenting mother). I remember flicking through my collection of Batman collectors’ cards and tearfully trying to piece the film together in my head.
I won’t recount the highs and lows of my long infatuation with the characters but suffice to say I went in with a very specific idea of what I wanted the film to be, especially having just revisited Man of Steel. I’d basically extrapolated a plot outline based on Snyder’s earlier text and my knowledge of the trailers and spent the 2 and a half hours of BvS‘ runtime ticking off items on my mental checklist.
My second viewing allowed me to judge the film based on what it was and not what I wanted or expected it to be, and was a far more pleasurable activity for it.
While I still have some issues with the pacing and editing of the film, applying my cognitive faculties to the narrative of the film instead of waiting for “moment X” or “set piece Y” made them less jarring.
In the interests of brevity allow me to outline some areas in which I’ve found new appreciation for after my second viewing:
Generally I thought the film did right by The Man of Steel, and I was grateful that the film didn’t marginalise him in favour of Batman due to the latter’s popularity. In cinematic terms it feels like Superman can’t do right for doing wrong. Superman Returns was dismissed as a nostalgic and irrelevant take on the character, yet the more deconstructivist take of Man of Steel was disparaged as grim and joyless. I personally appreciated the attempt to question Superman’s place in the world and even for Clark himself to question it.
BvS asks some searching and difficult questions of the basic premise of Superman.
If you love somebody, imagine them in a potentially fatal situation, a situation that only you can save them from. Knowing that taking that action may come at the expense of other equally innocent lives, how do you react?
It’s a complicated and uncomfortable question and the film addresses it without the aid of convenient get-outs like memory erasing kisses or time travel.
Many have unfairly derided the characterisation and Henry Cavill’s excellent performance as overly morose and (again) joyless. I think they do a disservice to the script and the character.
How do you present yourself as a symbol of hope to a world that refuses to reciprocate that hope in you? It’s another difficult question that plays itself out wordlessly and masterfully in Cavill’s facial expression at the end of the courtroom scene.
I came down like a ton of bricks on this depiction of Batman despite being enamoured by Ben Affleck’s performance. I felt at the time that this Batman was not even remotely heroic and I take that sentiment back.
This Batman made me feel uncomfortable. He was violent, belligerent, dismissive, yes but a second viewing revealed far more of the nuances of Affleck’s performance.
This Bruce Wayne is suffering from what Robert Louis Stevenson referred to as “an agony of the spirit”, a fading Dr Jekyll who is almost completely consumed by his cowled Mr Hyde. Comic book history has shown us that for all his intellect, Bruce is severely emotionally retarded and is unable to deal constructively with self-doubt and guilt, sublimating his self-loathing into the violent handling of Gotham’s underworld (see “A Lonely Place of Dying”).
Like Superman, this is a Batman facing an existential crisis. He has fought a one man war on crime for two decades and still seems to be right where he started. There’s a legitimate precedent for Batman taking out his frustrations and insecurities on others in brutal ways.
It may not be a particularly crowd-pleasing notion but its a perfectly valid take on the character.
Having seen so many previous incarnations of Batman’s early career on screen I can forgive the film for skipping over its twenty year span although perhaps a Watchmen style montage of The Batman’s career highs and lows as the opening credits rolled and after the Wayne murders might have sold this disenfranchisement better.
The Batman arc clearly doesn’t end with Batman V Superman and it’ll be interesting to see Batman rediscover his notion of what it is to be a hero in next year’s Justice League.
Diana Prince / Wonder Woman
I already liked Gal Gadot’s performance but subsequent viewings have given me even more respect for her performance. Ms Gadot saunters through the film with the wry bemusement of an ageless amazonian who has endured over a century of mankind and their infuriating mortal squabbles.
How hilarious the self-superior Bruce Wayne must seem to her, yet she plays the part with patience and kindness throughout their dalliance.
My only gripe is that we didn’t get more of her.
I was upset when some reviews described Lois’ presence in the film as ‘pointless’ since I’d rank this amongst some of Amy Adams’ finest performances. Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane was always a bit too caustic and dismissive for me and Kate Bosworth was just a terrible parent. Ms Adams manages the tough and thankless task of juggling Lois’ bravery, integrity, vulnerability, compassion and stubbornness with aplomb.
John Byrne’s take was a damning indictment of the self-interested yuppie culture of the Reagan era. This was the Facebook generation’s Lex Luthor. He’s every bit as scheming and calculating as his 80s counterpart but with a 21st century twist. Viral material shows that he’s far more confident and comfortable within the parameters of his committee-designed public image (like the ass kissing fake article in Fortune magazine). His interactions with Holly Hunter’s Senator June Finch reveal him to be an awkward, socially malformed creature convinced that he’s a charming magnate. He’s old money re-branded as an entrepreneur. Notice how his manic side comes out in moments requiring improvisational speaking. His mouth and brain are operating at two different speeds and the results are…
It’s not exactly the Lex I wanted to see but I can’t argue that it’s not a valid interpretation of the character or a fitting one for our times.
In conclusion, I think most of the hostility for Batman V Superman (including my own) stems more from our expectations than the film itself.
The film is a deconstruction of the mythic archetypes of Batman and Superman and as such, like Peeping Tom it asks questions that are difficult and uncomfortable to answer.
Will critical reception warm to the film given time and perspective?
We’ll have to find out.
But in the meantime, whatever your opinion of the film, I implore you to go out and watch it a second time and see what you find. You might just be pleasantly surprised.