The Unmanliness of Comics

Writing a review of a comic book movie for a website concerned with norms of manliness isn’t a straight forward endeavor. Comics are not a form of literature providing nuanced insight into human nature. If it is the case that Neil Gaiman represents the zenith of comic book sophistication, it’s also the case that the entirety of the Sandman comics are less interesting than Gaiman’s novels which are less interesting than the novels of Walker Percy or Wendell Berry or Cormac McCarthy or J.R.R. Tolkien or any number of other novelists. That’s not to suggest that reading an occasional comic is problematic. But comic books are not the place I would generally go to have a conversation with an author regarding great ideas.

Add to that concern the colorful bubblegum action and one-dimensional characters present in the most recent spate of comic-based films, or the subtext of angst and alienation and daddy issues that are a fixture of these movies (although maybe those are only Bryan Singer’s movies), and you’ve got the makings of a pretty unmanly genre.

Myth and Manliness: Batman v Superman

But there is something that comics do well. They weave fables, tall tales and legends. They are modern folklore. It says something about the modern world that our folklore involves pneumatic women in leotards and masked dudes wearing tights and capes. Our modern myths are tragic in ways other than the stories they tell. But because comics offer an unsophisticated presentation of the yearnings of contemporary men they provide a window into the dark heart of modernity. Few movie directors understand this mythic sense to comic stories better than Zack Snyder, the director of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. This is the case even though he gravitates towards postmodern comics that reconstruct the tradition (Watchman and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns). The cynical reinterpretation of comic tropes is as much a part of mythmaking as was the naïve jingoism and cheery vigilantism of the Golden and Silver Age comics. And in Snyder’s hands, the Dark Age stories leave behind much of their cynicism and attempted plausibility and become mythic stories of men against Gods.

Snyder is a strange mix of semi-traditionalist and unrestrained modern dudebro. He’s married and has eight kids, but those kids have three moms. He picks masculine themes for his films, but the source materials are frequently comic books. Take Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. One of the subplots involves the absurd story of a zombie baby. Zombie baby is unnecessary to the broader story so it’s inclusion is curious. It could be a nod to pro-life values; a mother, infected with the zombie virus, and father hide from the rest of the zombie-apocalypse survivors to give birth to their child notwithstanding quality of life arguments against bringing a child into the zombie apocalypse or the argument that the pre-born child isn’t a child but a zombie or the risk to the family and other survivors if the child is a zombie. On the other hand, it could be a cautionary tale about embracing pro-life values (the child born is, in fact, a zombie). I watched an interview with Snyder regarding zombie baby in the hope of some insight into his general political opinions regarding the birthing of babies who may or may not be zombies. He said something to the effect of “Dude, I totally wanted to have this scene with a swaddled little baby and then you see that it’s a zombie and kill it. Wicked. Zombie baby! Doooooode.” So there it is.

Still, I think there is a traditionalist hiding in Zack Snyder and I think the critics see that as well.

Critics Hate God and Manliness

This is one reason why BvS, a money maker, has not met with much critical success. As of this writing the Tomatometer ranks BvS at 27%. 27% is Ishtar territory. Or the ridiculous Pompeii or black Annie or Green Lantern or any movie with Nicolas Cage (full disclosure: I personally believe the addition of Nick Cage opens the possibility of cinematic greatness for any film; but the odds are long for a critical success). The low ranking isn’t due to critical dismissal of comic book movies. The average ranking of films within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is 80%. Because the Marvel movies are entertaining. Particularly when compared with DC’s multiple failures. Only the Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan Batman films and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (to get gay bashed by Lex Luthor) have found favor with critics.

So the critics are mostly right. Live-action films based on DC comics have been pretty uniformly terrible. The most significant exceptions have been Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (which, notwithstanding its critical rejection was quite good) and BvS. And all five films are loosely connected. David Goyer assisted the Nolans in crafting the story for each film in the Batman trilogy and he co-wrote Man of Steel with Christopher Nolan (with the Nolans’ production company, Syncopy Films, producing). Goyer also wrote the original  script of BvS and Christopher Nolan is an executive producer.

Viewing BvS as an extension of Nolan’s films, as well as Snyder’s Man of Steel, provides a helpful framework through which BvS can be analyzed. Familiarity with Nolan’s trilogy is assumed for the discussion below. SPOILERS regarding Nolan’s trilogy follow.

Man and the City: Nolan’s Batman Trilogy

The overarching theme of Nolan’s trilogy is the necessity of civilized man overcoming fear. In particular, the fear of death. It is necessary for the continued life of the city for man to accept the contingent and finite life of his earthly body that he might fulfill his obligations to the city. Those obligations should culminate in his self-sacrifice and potentially, in a trilogy that doesn’t suffer the vapors in its final scene, death. But even if his self-sacrifice doesn’t result in death, man needs to be willing to accept that possibility for the good of the city, which is an extension of his family and the body of laws and customs and traditions that will protect his family (nuclear and extended, his children, his children’s children and so forth).

Overcoming Fear: Batman Begins

Batman Begins introduces the problem of fear. A young Bruce Wayne asks to leave an opera because the appearance of bats in the production has frightened him.  On the street his parents are killed, an indirect result of his fear.  The injustice of the crime and his fear both haunt him. As an adult, in an effort to familiarize himself with the criminal underworld that he might more effectively fight injustice, he travels the world incognito associating with criminals. This leads him to the League of Shadows and Ra’s al Ghul.  Because fear prevents us from doing what we ought, if we do not learn to overcome fear it can be used to manipulate us. Therefore, part of Wayne’s training with the League of Shadows is to learn to develop fortitude. But Wayne learns that Ra’s al Ghul is a progressive. He loves the world, but he doesn’t care much for the city. So Ra’s will destroy Gotham to make the world a better place and Wayne will be his tool. To prevent this Wayne destroys the headquarters of the League, and many of its members, and returns to Gotham.

Upon his return to Gotham Wayne takes upon himself the alias of the Batman (signifying the fear he has overcome), and becomes a vigilante fighting crime. If he can make criminals fear justice, and help good men to have hope for the future of the city, the city can be regenerated. Wayne is effective in purging the city of its most problematic lawless elements. However, Ra’s is still alive and, with the assistance of the villain Scarecrow, intent on destroying Gotham. His plan through the widespread release of a chemical that will induce fear among the populace, tearing the city apart.

Fear is a special passion of the soul because it has a special object, a future evil. As St. Thomas Aquinas reasons: “For just as the object of hope is a future good, difficult but possible to obtain; so the object of fear is a future evil, difficult and irresistible.” At the end of the film Ra’s is defeated and fear has been contained by fortitude. There is hope that the future evils to be faced by the city will no longer irresistible but may be overcome by men of virtue.

Establishing Order: The Dark Knight

But the state of Gotham at the end of Batman Begins is problematic. The virtue in the city is extrajudicial. Fear has been contained by the heroic acts of a good man, but even though he acts with the tacit approval of some policemen, he is still a vigilante. Batman’s vigilantism is not the revenge fetishism of 1970s and 1980s cinema. Nolan’s Batman recognizes that the state is properly entitled to a monopoly over decisions of life and death. He recognizes the problem his crime fighting poses for a healthy city; ultimately, it’s not possible for extra-judicial actors to restore justice to the city. Batman can fight injustice, but the salvation of the city is only possible through proper state actors. So Wayne is very interested in District Attorney Harvey Dent, a seemingly incorruptible man in public service who is willing to fight crime under the color of law. Batman sees the possibility of his service as a vigilante coming to an end.

But the nihilistic Joker has other plans.  He thinks men are ultimately self serving. Men will not sacrifice themselves for the city and public servants have no interest in serving justice because there is no justice to serve. Where the progressive Ra’s al Ghul desired to improve the world by destroying Gotham, the demonic Joker would destroy Gotham, as he would the rest of the world, by tempting its citizens to be themselves. But Gotham need not despair; its citizens can overcome their fallen nature. And so, the Joker is defeated by the people of Gotham. They are delivered from their vicious inclinations with a nudge.  The light silent sound of Grace, so powerful but easily overcome by the cacophonous wail of the world.  Grace in Nolan’s trilogy is very silent.

Though defeated, the Joker has still created carnage.  He has killed the mutual love interest of Wayne and Dent. He has disfigured and caused the insanity of Dent who is now transformed into the villain Two-Face.  As Two-Face, Dent is no longer concerned about justice. His decision-making is random, based on the flip of coin. Notwithstanding the fortitude shown by the citizens of Gotham, the Joker opines that Gotham will still unravel because the citizen’s hope in the city’s future is based on the reformation of its public institutions through the person of Dent. Dent’s insanity will break their spirit.

In an effort to forestall the Joker’s prophecy, Gordon and Wayne agree to lie about Dent when he is killed on the evening of the Joker’s capture. They will blame the murders he committed on Batman to preserve Dent’s reputation. They fear for the future of the city. Batman notes at the end of the film, “Sometimes the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes people deserve more.”  So Batman will be perceived as a criminal, and Gotham’s institutions will be rebuilt on a lie. The Joker was prophetic.  The spirit of the citizens will be broken, but not by learning the truth about Dent. It will be through believing in the justice of precarious institutions founded upon a noble lie.

Restoring Truth as a Companion to Justice: The Dark Night Rises

The noble lie is a Trojan Horse that restores corruption to the heart of Gotham. In the third film Bane will chasten Gotham. He is the totalitarian strong man who will restore order, of a sort. It’s an inverted order where men rule by a rule of law that knows no justice. The underclass has revolted and the insane are released from Arkham Asylum. Scarecrow, from Batman Begins, serves as a judge in a corrupt revolutionary court. Gotham is oppressed by a democracy as pure as it is terrifying.

The lie through which Wayne attempted to restore Gotham created a rule of law that did not conform to justice. We hear endlessly of the need for rule of law from our politicians. This is the last gasp of a dying civilization attempting to restore order. When justice is no longer a shared concept order is impossible. Bane purposely inverts order in Gotham to show Gotham that its institutions are not just. As a member of the League of Shadows he is effectuating the League’s prior verdict for Gotham.  It must be culled as the League has culled prior civilizations that have become decayed and weak and unmanly. Gotham seemed to be on the rise, but the city of the third film has only a surface health. It’s still the Gotham of Batman’s youth, corrupt and crime-ridden notwithstanding the clean streets and shiny buildings. Bane doesn’t need a fear serum to destroy Gotham, he merely allows them to rule themselves. And he also has a big bomb.

Batman saves Gotham by removing the bomb. In so doing he seemingly sacrifices himself. We have come full circle. Gotham is without Batman. But this time there is hope. The terrible reign of the many is at an end. The criminal underclass that plagued the city in Batman Begins is mostly defeated. The institutions of the city, though damaged, can be rebuilt. The League of Shadows is destroyed and Gotham is safe from its plotting. And Batman has grown from a boy scared of opera to a man willing to die for the city. The film ends with the possibility of Batman living the life of a normal citizen, with a wife and a family.

This is an appropriate ending for a story about man and the city. But that story is too narrow. Nolan creates stories about the human experience and, regardless of Nolan’s personal views or practice of religion, religion is a part of the human experience. Except it’s not a significant part of his Batman trilogy. But it is a significant part of Superman’s story, which will be addressed in part 2 of this review.