Friday, March 25, 2016

Batman v Superman v Heroism

Posted By on March 25, 2016, 6:06 PM

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In the middle of 2004’s Spider-man 2, Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) has begun losing control of his powers, and has decided to throw aside the costumed, crime-fighting alter-ego that could threaten his chance at happiness with Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst). Visiting his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris), who’s in the middle of cleaning out her garage, Peter encounters one of her neighbors, a young boy named Henry who wonders where Spider-man has gone. And Aunt May responds as follows:

“He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there, flying around like that, saving old girls like me. Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero: courageous, self-sacrificing people, setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up to cheer them, scream their names, and years later they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who told them to hold on, just a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us that keeps us honest. Gives us strength. Makes us noble. And finally, allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams. Spider-man did that for Henry, and he wonders where he’s gone. He needs him.”

I watched a YouTube clip to be able to transcribe that speech exactly, and in the course of doing so, I started to feel my eyes tear up. This is something that happens every time I watch this scene, one of at least three scenes in that movie that never fail to wreck me. I get emotional because this is what stories of costumed, super-powered people—now so omnipresent in our culture—can teach us. They can be lessons about our better selves. They can dare to make the corny suggestion that heroism is a real thing, and that it’s within us.

I’ve been thinking about Spider-man 2 a lot ever since watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, because it offered such a stark counterpoint. BvS plays as though someone watched Aunt May’s speech and thought, “What a loser.”

There are perfectly reasonable aesthetic objections to Batman v Superman as a piece of filmmaking, and I probably agree with all of them. As a narrative, it’s a mess; visually, it’s chaotic; Jesse Eisenberg appears determined to set the craft of screen acting back at least a century. All of these things may be true, but worse than all of these, Batman v Superman is reprehensible because it seems determined to murder not just every supporting character in the movie, but the idea of heroism itself.

The centerpiece battle—and here I suppose I should invite those who haven’t seen the movie, but may make the unfortunate decision to do so, to step out of the room—is predicated on decisions that make both of the main characters decidedly less than heroic. Batman wants to kill Superman because he thinks Superman’s power is a threat, and still feels personally bitter about the destruction in Man of Steel that killed employees from Wayne Enterprises; Superman wants to kill Batman because Lex Luthor has kidnapped his mother, and promises to have her burned alive if Superman doesn’t slay the Dark Knight. It’s a fight built upon two queasy-making rationalizations: that one individual is justified in using lethal force without due process if the threat seems scary enough, and that killing is okay to protect one’s own.

Compare this to something that should be easily available to Zack Snyder and the rest of the “creative braintrust” (and I use both words oh so loosely) behind the DC Comics movie universe: the DC Comics television universe. Just this week, an episode of The Flash found one character wrestling with the realization that her own father had been prepared to sacrifice the life of the show’s hero in order to protect her from the villain. This was a source of real emotional turmoil, a devastating realization for this young woman; it was not taken as a given that of course it’s okay for other people to die if you’re taking care of your family. This story was about that thing Aunt May was talking about in Spider-man 2, the idea that aspiring to our best selves sometimes means being steady, and giving up the thing—or even the people—we want the most. Principles have consequences, but without them, what are we?

Between The Flash and Supergirl, I find myself fighting back tears at least once almost w
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eekly. It’s not because these shows are perfect, but because they reach for something. They deal with characters trying their best to overcome their fears, their jealousies, the worst parts of themselves, in order to make the world better. Even when it’s hard. To paraphrase another Batman movie, they’re not about the heroes we deserve right now, but the heroes we need.

Batman v Superman gives us the “heroes” Zack Snyder thinks we deserve: People who are just as angry, scared, vindictive and misguided as the Americans who think bigotry and xenophobia are the answer to an uncertain world. Of course these are fictional characters, and of course there can be more than one way to interpret them. This movie has chosen the most cynical way possible to interpret them, at a time in our history when we need that interpretation least. It feels cowardly and cruel. It feels like the worst part of ourselves.

That’s why I’ll take The Flash and Supergirl, and why the room will continue to get a little dusty whenever Aunt May reminds me what heroes are there for. Not to launch a cinematic franchise, but to make us believe in something good. Like Henry, I need that kind of hero. We all do.

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