Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ★★★★½

“This isn’t 1938, Kent.” – Perry White
“No one in this world stays good.” – Kal-El
“They only know how to honour him as a soldier.” – Diana Prince

Twenty-four hour news-cycle Superman, the world portrayed here is certainly not 1938. Batman v Superman’s is a world situated in only one country—the United States of America—that is reckoning with a drone it did not legitimise. In this way this is basically contemporary blockbuster cinema at its most self-conscious. (Of course the corporate media and state governments of that world would describe a person clearly helping in the midst of constant disaster as acting unilaterally, without the “consent of the governed”.) For in not being legally sanctioned, as this singular being demonstrates a power that eclipses the fiction of the American state (omnipotent, indispensable the politicians often purr to the masses) and its strength, fictions reach fever pitch and begin to eat each other, become mutations that consume the world—good men become cruel. All the while the most extreme of aliens, the universal refugee, is encircled by those on the other side of the (“proposed”) future wall—the disenfranchised, the reviled of global power politics.

The idealism cannot last. The modus operandi of the Man of Steel, the “be a light”, the “help make them better” rhetoric of the previous film is hollowed, lost in the hysteria of the powerful who paint their visions, dreams, delusions, and paranoia across reality itself. “No one in this world stays good,” truly yes, in a post-1938 world, following the collapse of any viable democratic socialism and communism, the movie presents us with the responses from the two contemporary types we idiolise: the young hipster, billionaire, West coast tech mogul and the East coast self-made billionaire tycoon. In short, we have the tech-fascism of Lex Luthor and philantro-fascism of Batman—the gods of our own world. These gods wage war against the Superman, to corrupt and reduce him, to have him swallowed by terms of their crazed world.

Luthor and Batman are both bent on killing this man they consistently coin a god, both are motivated by concerns for “security”, and in this one (Luthor) only sees the inefficiency of government responses—of the failure to interpolate this being that has not embraced the world as/is. The as/is being what we can infer Luthor has always exploited and seeks to exploit in its heightened hysteric state. A summary of this as/is being: imperialism, terror cells generated as acts of destabilisation, the manipulation of failed masculinity’s discontents. In short, Luthor stands for capital and its unwillingness to miss the chance to generate a new domain for itself. He desires the elimination of a threat to our pretensions to godhood, our capitalist predilection to enclose and take from the alien even as we destroy it. Eisenberg’s modulated and crazed performance crafts a Luthor who envisions here a new horizon for the expansion of capital, under the guise of security, of “forging a silver bullet” to ensure his own status as god—“if man won’t kill god then the devil will do it”, and as we know, what is the devil but god by another name? God is Satan—and Satan, perhaps most terrifyingly, is but a man.

If Luthor is Satan then it seems only fair to say that Batman is a demon (turned saint, perhaps). Motivated by the concerns for security, but in the tenor of his philantro-fascist ideology that forces the world’s cruelty to yield under the terror of his own, Batman conceives of his mission as an attempt to eliminate a free radical, of a being able to defy the laws he has applied to the world to force it to make sense (elucidated in the film’s opening moments, “what goes up comes down”, nothing flies that is not meant to as an unsanctioned drone might), and that flattens the people he sees himself as protecting. While Luthor is concerned for his private interests, Batman is concerned in the interests of the people—as he conceives them.

Yet, a lone demon will rarely outwit Satan himself. Luthor’s interests are considerably wider than Batman’s. Luthor knows the secrets of 150,000 worlds. Batman’s interests are decidedly parochial by comparison. Luthor anticipates, captures, and uses the goals of the Batman for his own ends—two birds one stone, the house always wins, and all that (even here it is interesting that the film has no doubts this tech-billionaire would know the secrets of all those he lays his interest on). Both in their way underline and make clear the unreality of a superhero in our times—not necessarily due to the danger the hero presents, though there is certainly that to consider; but chiefly because of the deranged, desperate, and dangerous dispositions we bring as reactions to these heroes. Even philantro-fascism loses to hipster-tech-billionaire fascism.

It is this that appears as Batman v Superman’s thesis, ambivalent as it might be: “No one stays good in this world”. Superman is corrupted and captured just as Batman is, manipulated to confront the Batman, but not before he becomes aware this is a parochial distraction, an obfuscation to ensure that the devil may sink its claws into the would-be god. The powerful will not allow a meticulous interrogation of society on such a level, they seek to ensure the system of large scale problems to ensure the norm of bludgeoning generalised chaos. Indeed, the powerful-as-aligned-with-capital create a god-killing monster from their own blood, a horror that feeds on pure energy, much as they depend on virulently exploiting its degradation.

As I said in my previous write-up, Superman is no god. He is labelled as such as our anxious minds attempt to categorise him, and while we label him god, he remains only ever a different kind of man—one able to be more, but profoundly restricted by our refusal to have him on anything other than our own terms. The scene in which Superman is presented desperately watching as a montage of cameos wax detritus opinion after detritus opinion, while Superman very tangibly saves lives, is profoundly moving. Indeed, Superman appears to know no other terms than our own, in appearing before the Senate tribunal he is seen accepting and complying to our standards—even as they explode around him and us. All he envisions (literally, through his father) himself as doing is diverting a flood that it may wash away the lives of others. “No one stays good in this world”.

This is a sombre view of the world, indeed. For while the liberal-progressive view of the world enshrines a developmental attitude that has humanity learn and grow, Superman instead throws in with the philantro-fascist. (It is a beautiful moment in many respects, and Affleck captures perfectly the interruption of his laws by the alien-god in front of the Batman, as if he hears for the first time.) Superman leaves aside his concerns over whether one can rightly use means such as Batman’s, when juxtaposed to his own. Can the Batman justly operate as a vigilante, when Superman is willing to conform to the standards of US government? Instead Superman leaves aside his notions of being able to fundamentally inspire humanity to something more, he is only a man, another kind of man, fallible and overwhelmed by the failure of democracy as it is undermined by cloying capitalist expansionist opportunism. In this philantro-fascism is figured, hardly coherently endorsed, as the primary and most popularly viewed ideology of our time—even as we can only but view it as terrifying and greatly flawed, and subordinated to the heaven-scarring aspirations of capital. Our times and our future are located in the circularity of this failed repetition of the power of the gods, as it collapses into a polar conflict within fascism, with a side endorsing the rampant expansion of private interests in “security” against the alien, as the other obscures their very operation in relation to the problem through figuring it as a pure vendetta.

As such, we must see this clearly as a movie in which Superman struggles against and eventually truly concedes to, even as he is defeated by, the categories of the order of things. He can only be embraced by society in defeat, in being seen only ever as a man much like any other. Batman v Superman is a truly deep and exacting interrogation of the superhero as it could possibly exist today. “They only know how to honour him as a soldier.” We know no other way; he cannot be allowed to be more. Throughout the movie he is not allowed to be anything less than a god, until we make him a man like any other. As such, when he is brave—like a man, as a man—his bravery is molded and understood as bravery on our terms, not anything higher—like “a soldier”, the primary American symbol of the brave and the bold.

Batman v Superman carves itself out as perhaps the first concerted and best attempts to elucidate the failure of imagination operative in how we think of these heroes, and, further, their impotence in contemporary society; our deliberate attempt to bend them to our failed imaginations and categories, their capture in actually existing institutions that can only accept the more they gesture toward by erasing it, by interpolating them on the institution’s terms. Indeed, even as these institutions produce actors who are little but our Doomsday, figures of nothing but a capitalist-fascist monster seeking to drain all energy from heaven and earth.

It is surely the case that, perhaps as failure or even knowing tragedy, as the film ends in foreshadowing and anticipating the Justice League, it is only an announcement of further warfare. The chaos continues and even those who might transcend it, even lead us to transcend it, only end up turning to those who might help them make it on the best terms. Superman falls to our level and in doing so shall only increase the fighting, to help realise it as a higher level of warfare. This is the message of this film: a rendering of our contemporary reality as nothing but war, energy leeching monstrosity, all the down—and up, into the very heavens.

“nothing matters in these movies. nothing ever fucking matters in these movies”, a critic complains. Please! This might be the first film of the neo-superhero genre to matter almost fully—the first film to achieve self-awareness of its own dangerousness and vacuity; to make us conscious of what entertains us; to show us the profound ambiguity and ambivalence that might and should undergird any contemporary expression of these characters. —And entertained I was, even as I felt the dread that could only be truly felt from the ground as two near invisible drones fought over Metropolis; quaked at the thunderous booms as the Man of Steel flies; felt frightened deeply at the devil who crawls on roofs and stabs mercenaries; shoke at the terrifying space abstracting movements of Wonder Woman as her body became bullet.

Batman v Superman is, in many respects, the first entry of the genre to feel like it matters, that it says something and is motivated by concerns for what the genre is and should be, given the state of the world and the place of these films in shaping our view of it. For the bombast here is not a party on an airstrip, it is not combat among friends, it is the very powers of the gods failing to transcend the corrupting madness of our world and siding with the least worst expressions of politics within it—that matters, because no film such as this has articulated it quite so forcefully before. I mean, my god, we live it every goddamn day.

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