You don’t have to see Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice to talk about it, as I intend to prove right now. The reviews confirmed my suspicions — the story exists just to set up the title. You have a mopey, borderline-psychotic billionaire trying to punch to death a guy who can throw him into the sun. Wonder Woman shows up. For all I know, Robin and Jimmy Olsen get married in a wacky subplot. Couldn’t care less — and I love superhero movies. At least I did, until the experience of watching these films became like getting struck in the head with timpani mallets for three hours. You leave the theater feeling as if you had a liquefied spleen.
But that’s not my main objection. There are two problems with the very concept of Batman vs. Superman that show deep problems in our culture. The first is that adults are expected to take Superman seriously. Superman is for twelve-year-old boys. The classic Superman comics of the ’50s are ridiculous and juvenile, with Superman confronting some peril and doubting his ability to prevail. Every time. Superman vs. the League of Evil Galactic Pastry Chefs! Great Caesar’s Ghost, they’re infusing the nation’s crullers with Kryptonite fondant — strength fading! Death certain!
The most recent version of the character is somber, more “realistic,” if you can say that about someone who can detect an irregular heartbeat in a hummingbird in Malaysia from the other side of the world, but he’s still a guy who’s impervious to everything except a green rock that makes him fall down and barf. Batman, in the modern incarnation, is more interesting; he wants the best for his city, although you know that even after he’s cut down on crime, the city will still be doomed by looming underfunded pension obligations.
In the hands of a good director, you can get some enjoyable diversion out of comic-book characters, and in the case of Batman or Captain America, something that’s actually stirring. But Batman vs. Superman — in its very title — sums up what’s amiss in our cartoony entertainment. What we need is Batman & Superman vs. ISIS.
But they’re never going to do that. Why?
There’s precedent. Sure, it was tough to integrate Superman into WWII, since he could have flown to Berlin, smashed through the bunker, and broiled Adolf with heat-vision. A children’s book would probably balk at Superman playing hacky-sack with Hitler’s head on the Champs Élysées, especially when the reader knows the war grinds on. So they published comics where Superman shows up in the jungle with an armload of rifles and the troops are happy because they’re running low on ammo. Glad to help, boys! Now I have to go deal with a robot ape back in Metropolis. It’s taken Lois again!
“Yeah but this island is really important, Superman — we’re not asking you to throw Tojo into space or anything, but if you could use your super-breath to defoliate that patch over there, we could see their snipers — aaand, he’s gone. Shoot. Well, at least he gave us some guns. Hey look, a box of Luckies and an Esquire mag.”
It’s as if Superman figured that yelling “Buy bonds!” as he flew around was sufficient contribution to the war effort. Batman was different. A Batman serial in the early ’40s had the Caped Crusader fighting a “Jap mastermind” who controlled a small army of zombies. The villain sneered about the superiority of the master race, even though he made 13 unsuccessful attempts to kill Batman in the course of the serial. At the end, Batman threw him into a pit full of alligators, and everyone cheered because (a) yay Batman, and (b) boo enemies of liberal Western democracies.
Apparently this is too much to ask now. You will never see Superman using his fists to burrow down into an Iranian nuclear facility to destroy the centrifuges or make hash of North Korea’s forward-based artillery. You will never hear Batman say, “You know, instead of standing here in the rain feeling bad about my parents’ murder, maybe I could use all my technological skills to identify Islamist plots.”
Fifteen years into the war — or longer, depending on whether you fix the date at the Iranian Revolution, or the victory of Charles Martel, or the loss of Spain, or the first time in the eighth century some poor soul got his head lopped off for saying, “Yes, I am a Zoroastrian, why do you ask?” — War on Terror movies have been either money-losing downbeat tales about our own perfidy or harrowing portrayals of the moral consequences of war. It’s like looking back on WWII movies and watching Rick in Casablanca decline to help Victor Laszlo because it would just perpetuate the cycle of violence. Let’s sit down with Major Strasser. Captain Renault will bring pastries. We can talk this through.
Imagine the pitch: Wonder Woman busts up a sex-slave auction while Superman finds a nuke in Vatican City, and Batman is breaking up a cell in Gotham that wants to blow up a mall. Nervous executives look around the table. Uh — do any of the bad guys say that “Allawhoo agber”? That’s a problem. Can they be Russian criminals? Could maybe the CIA be behind it all? ’Cause that’s a dark twist. Maybe the president is a real-estate developer who wants to build a new city. Go with that. And make sure Wonder Woman is stronger than Superman and Batman. Also she’s gay, but not so gay that it can’t be toned down for the Chinese market. Agreed? Here’s $300 million.
All of our modern superhero movies are about the West’s battle with Islamic terrorism. Inasmuch as they’re not, which says it all.
– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.