Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ★★★★★

“To catch a thief, who stole the soul I prayed to keep
Insomniac, bad dreams got me losing sleep
I’m dead tired, my mind playing tricks, deceit
A face in the glass, unable to admit defeat
All that I am, all that I was is history
The past unraveled, adding insult to this injury
I’m fighting the battle for the soul of the century
Destiny is everything that I pretend to be
Look, and what I did came back to me eventually
The music played on, and told me I was meant to be awake
It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake
Illegal activity controls my black symphony
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally
Oh, there I go, from a man to a memory
Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me”

'Sleep' by The Roots

I’ve watched Batman v Superman ten times since its initial release and it may have been only on this rewatch that it truly struck me how utterly anomalous and incredible it is that it got made. The intuitive decisions one would expect from the two most bankable comic properties being brought together are cast aside for an oblique treatise on inter-generational trauma and the effects of conflicting theories of power in society. Formally and structurally, it’s remarkable the extent to which every moment speaks of human decision from its narrative progression by means of ellipsis to camera setups that deploy dollies, cranes, and one takes liberally—what one would expect from a creative team thinking entirely in images and doing everything in their power to realize them. The sum, as elements such as these merge with the film’s wider themes, is that of a spiraling chaos, a world increasingly fraying at the seams, with the elliptical progression taking on the qualities of an intensifying white noise for both viewer and protagonists alike.

The sui generis quality of this particular iteration of what is now a seemingly never-ending—and increasing formally and narratively indistinct or inept—comic adaption release slate is all the more curious when one begins to try to get inside the nebulous web of concerns director Zack Snyder and writer Chris Terrio were cycling through and triangulating each dilemma within in Batman v Superman. As mentioned earlier and about which I have attempted to write before, the film is deeply concerned with the nature of power, particularly with regard to its contempt for “policy or principle”; its “innocence” or “guilt”; and whether its range is limited to tribe and state or globally extensive. It’s all of this that mark the film as a deeply American one, evidence of which should not need to be rehearsed or justified (the film opens, like its prequel closed, with an event equivalent to 9/11), wherein this discussion of power becomes a reflection on America and who it is and what it can be in this moment.

Alfred: “You're gonna go to war?”
Bruce Wayne/Batman: “… [I]f we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.”

“If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” – Dick Cheney

Indeed, the film’s antagonists, of varying degrees, fit the dominant schemas of American expressions of reaction and power post-September 11th and even -WW2, wherein Bruce Wayne/Batman’s Dick Cheneyisms characterize him as a man holding to the neo-conservative ideological coordinates that have occupied the fear-driven general American imagination and justified the actions taken in the “War on Terror”, with a population—much like the character himself—persuaded to enter into combat on the basis of concerns for security in order to safeguard a New American Century. Alternatively, Lex Luthor could be said to take on the qualities of state leaders and intelligence services from both Cold War-era and more recent times (i.e. George W. Bush), particularly those of the Kissinger-esque realists and the private interest lobby groups that utilize these ideological orbits, wherein might and dominance beyond moralism reign supreme and the fashioning of deterrents is required to keep at bay another superpower. Perhaps fascinatingly, the conspiracy that opens the film—wherein a citizen of the fictional Naoromi, a country seemingly plagued by U.S. military destabilization, testifies falsely to the Senate regarding a brutal massacre in her town ostensibly carried out by Clark Kent/Superman—mirrors an event from the presidency of another political realist, George H. W. Bush Sr.; in which a Kuwaiti teenager was involved in a successful campaign run by various U.S.-based lobby groups to deceive the House of Representatives’ human rights committee regarding alleged Iraqi war crimes to justify the first Gulf War. The parallels speak to the truth of the matter in both film and reality: the deceptive nature of a certain kind of weaponized power as it utilizes both procedure and rule, along with the moral consciousness of the people, to its own ends.

“Ripe fruit, his hate. Two years growing. But it did not take much to push him over, actually. Little red notes, big bang.”

“Do you know the oldest lie in America… You let your family die!” – Lex Luthor

It is in this light, as an investigation of American political identity, that the film proposes an abandonment of both courses: Wayne, as conduit for the contemporary American psyche and history (e.g. “railroads, real estate, and oil” and hunter), comes to a position of repentance for his actions toward Superman and Luthor meets imprisonment for derailing and attacking democratic norms and society. It’s a remarkable move, challenging more than half a century’s worth of propaganda and national self-understanding, and insofar as the film is deeply motivated by this need to challenge and reject it also takes it upon itself to present an image or conduit of the Good, with all the Platonic and even messianic connotations that implies and which Superman embodies (the Man of Steel even shows the young Clark with 'The Republic' in his hand). Indeed, it is here than its rejection or challenge is better understood as an attempt at modulation or re-expression, wherein claims toward right and good action from others within the film that have been bastardized and corrupted by trauma and manipulation are allowed to find healing through an encounter with the Good—and it is precisely here that Batman’s abandonment of holy war becomes a stark thematic epiphany, the rejection of the entire American post-9/11 modus operandi. A “two years growing” hate, the same amount of time between 9/11 and the beginning of the Second Gulf War that Bush contorted a nation’s grief into supporting, is recognized as a manufactured error and product of a litany of deceit; as the oldest lie in America becomes a rejection of the noxiously propagated accusation that the nation let its family die. The subjectivity formed around this accusation and its acceptance is disempowered and recognized as fractured, possessed, demon-ridden, and spoiled when it encounters a humanity shared with the other—in this case with an instantiation of the Good—and so finds healing. It is a healing that is presented as an almost exorcism; a demystification of the “witch”, “demon”, “god”, “devil” terminology targeted toward otherness, with all its subsequent connotations; and the expurgation of the counter-intelligentsia that has twisted and puppeted traumatized ideals toward its own ends.

“… power can be innocent.” – Lex Luthor

“You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They'll race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time... they will join you in the sun, Kal.” – Jor-El

The film then finds its purpose revealed in the moment of pure encounter and direct identification with the Good, or at least one capable of acting according to it, Superman—a refugee, an immigrant, a person encircled by Mexicans, a being countering C.I.A. drone strikes, a man engaged in indiscriminate acts of global aid, one consistently denied any form of speech or self-articulation—wherein a whole set of novel forms of being in the world open up. I am not one who accepts the interpretation that the film is against Superman or aims to condemn him in some manner or other. Batman v Superman imagines him its gordian knot, its nexus of supposed incommensurabilities: absolute virtue, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence—are such things possible in the world when the reality of evil is considered? With Luthor as channel for a realist political outlook and form of statecraft predicated on the propagation of enemies, one encounters the reality of the mindset and its attitude toward such philosophical or moral concepts: the spoiling of alternative ideals and visions, “They need to see the blood on your hands”; its goal of relative hegemony, “Now god bends to my will”; and fear, “having knowledge with no power”. It’s an outlook that refuses the Good for a pragmatism that seeks total domination, in which ethics are no virtue, and the tribe is held up as of paramount importance over against another. By contrast, Superman as “a guy trying to do the right thing” is realized to be not the Good itself but a being who is witness to or capable of enacting its possibilities, and fails to be an adequate witness only insofar as pragmatic realism’s deception machinery insists on its false universal of hegemony—or, indeed, liberal democracy’s insistence that ‘“good” is conversation’ rather than a universal standard the citizens of the world feel they should follow indiscriminately. Against states or legislated permission, Superman takes the position of a generalized identification with humanity as such, “This is my world”, and it is with these words the ideal of the Good is established, the path to follow paved that leads to the light of Plato's sun.

Nevertheless, it is this encounter between mentalities and possibilities that precipitates the central internal conflict Superman experiences: the anxiety that “no one stays good in this world”. It is one that follows naturally if one is expected to submit to corrupted institutions rather than have these institutions excoriate their corruption, or wrestles with others who are not cognizant of the manipulation they are undergoing. Further, it is Superman’s need to hold in tension the nightmares of the “floodplain” when he visits his mountain that mark him a false gordian knot, a problem only insofar as the powerful make him one and a deceived people follow suit; and by no means a God whose actions are the result of unfettered innate capacities, but a being capable of new possibilities of moral agency for no other reason than that he is from somewhere else, has thicker skin, and can act according to the Good as a result. It’s a conclusion that throws out the realist’s dismissal of right action, “the oldest lie in America… that power can be innocent”. Snyder proposes a world in which this is not an impossibility, that innocence or guilt are not applicable to power as a concept as such, but rather of actions consequent to that power—the character of which is known better under a moral, rather than legal, framework which places it in relation to the Good and examines its concrete action and effects under the terms of its pursuit of an ideal properly construed.

All of this positions Batman v Superman as a film between visions of America and its power: a people out for blood over imagined crimes wherein “The world only makes sense if you force it”; elite dis-informants protecting their positions, industries, and wallets on the basis of the pragmatics of their tribal xenophobia; and a new image in which power is no longer weaponized or guarded but takes action in the world on the basis of a shared understanding of the Good without itself as a self-reflexive standard. It is a vision that necessitates the abandonment of a certain mentality and behavior: the entirety of American being and statecraft. Indeed, one could go so far as to say the film is the first of its kind to reach the instructive heights people ostensibly find in the character of Superman, and it is only so given the disorienting, fragmented, broken nature of events and the horror that ensues when power competes with itself and society self-cannibalizes as a result; before coming face to face with its horrifying truth, the blood of its blood: Doomsday—a being, a people, a state that feeds on its own energy and exists as the very opposite of all that is or could be good. The film is Snyder fighting for the soul of this new, ostensibly American century, an endeavor to call awake a dreaming vigilante nation immersed in “a beautiful lie” and imagining itself the vanguard of a destiny or legacy that is nothing other than a deceptive nightmare—one made pleasurable through the incidentalisms of the propaganda of the powerful, who follow no principles or policies but their own—it is the truth of a country told in a chaos parable and refracted through its most ridiculous icons; and also happens to be one of the most vital, necessary, and potent movies of the decade.

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