It’s said that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. I, for over a year now, have been in denial. As much as I wanted to claim otherwise–to put a positive spin on things–I too was disappointed in Batman vs. Superman. It wasn’t Marthagate. If you’re hung up on that, you’re missing the point. It wasn’t Lex Zuckerberg. Okay, it was partly that. It wasn’t even lethal Batman, though for a time I had to swallow some pride on that count. It was that it wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as it could have been–maybe not even as enjoyable as it should have been.
Ironically, it took one of the most enjoyable movies in recent memory to remind me that art doesn’t have to be enjoyable to be good, great even. In fact, I’d argue that entertainment value is far more expendable to art than profundity. A piece of art that shows impressive technique or is a pleasure to behold but leaves the viewer unchanged quickly fades from memory. That’s because pleasure is ephemeral, but art that impacts the way we think or feel is permanent. It seers itself into the consciousness, becoming part of our very character. Often though, it doesn’t get the acclaim it warrants in its own time. Consider the Mona Lisa, which wasn’t widely hailed as a masterpiece until the 1860s. For centuries it was just a portrait, the novelty of which was more a function of its authorship than its own merits, but something in that quizzical simper begs further consideration. More than likely, Dawn of Justice won’t be remembered 500 year from now, but something about it likewise stuck with me even as I smoldered in my disappointment.
To figure out what was nagging me, I delved into the Ultimate Edition. While it managed to fill in some plot holes, if anything the dynamic that originally troubled me was even more pronounced. There was even more connective tissue, but no additional red meat. It still felt clumsy. People did and felt things that didn’t make any sense. Lois threw the spear into the water, seemingly only so she would have to endanger herself to retrieve it later. With all the collateral damage and controversy over Zod’s death in Man of Steel, there was ample opportunity to take Superman to task without manufacturing additional casualties to pin on him. Lex, for all his apparent genius in deducing (nonchalantly off screen I might add) the secret identities of the two heroes, concocts a rather petty plan to pit them against each other that is so heavily contingent on the reactions of others as to render it ineffective if any one of a hundred people had made different decisions. Eventually I decided I hadn’t overlooked some redeeming aspect and that I should simply appreciate it for what it is: a decent piece of art that could have benefited considerably from more careful, deliberate execution. After seeing Wonder Woman, however, I’m convinced that Batman vs. Superman is the linchpin in the DCEU’s incredibly sophisticated story arc.
Often maligned as comparatively bleak for just this reason, the DCEU has undeniably attempted to be more grounded in reality than the MCU. While some might scoff at the wisdom of trying keep a Superman franchise grounded, I posit that there is no better character to highlight a recurring blind-spot in the moralistic overtones of comics, and no better issue to act as a prism for such an endeavor than the No Kill rule that has been the centerpiece of most superheroes’ narratives at one time or another. Caped Persuader J and I have had recurring debate about the necessity of Zod’s death in Man of Steel. More accurately, we have argued about whether or not Superman ceased being Superman having committed this act. The abridged version of his argument is that the No Kill rule is as intrinsic to both Supes and Bats as to render its violation a betrayal of the characters’ cores. Like a Batman capable of natural flight or a Superman who gets his powers from a magic gemstone instead of the sun, a Superman who kills might as well be a different character altogether. I’ll get to my side of the argument in due time, but for now let’s just say this set the stage for us in the theater opening night for Batman vs. Superman with bated breath. I posited that, since obviously Zod’s death was not an afterthought to Snyder, perhaps Batman’s objection to lethal force would be the thing that brought them to blows. Enter the Batmobile casually dragging along a crushed steel deathtrap of a wrecking ball behind it with all the careful precision of a meandering toddler with an askew pull along toy. Now it would seem I had two murderous former paragons of virtue to make excuses for. Every attempt to do so felt as insufficient as a general defense of Dawn of Justice as a whole, and so I bit my tongue when others disparaged it. That is, until Wonder Woman put it all in perspective for me.
Despite her naive innocence, Diana has absolutely no compunctions about killing for much of the film. Not only is killing Ares the express purpose for setting out on her adventure, but she doesn’t seem all that concerned with the various German soldiers she she cuts through on the battlefield despite her repeated assertion that they must have been warped by Ares into their current belligerence. Just as it was beginning to set in for me that maybe–just maybe–J could be right and Snyder (who has a story credit on the film) might have his heroes kill simply because it’s edgy and cool, Wonder Woman veers toward the hallowed debate itself in its climax. As much as I generally try to avoid spoilers, in this case they are necessary to get the point across.
Here, in a microcosm, is the crux of my stance of the To Kill or Not to Kill debate. Its all about necessity as a function of context and scale.
If you’re effectively a god like Wonder Woman, you can’t justify intentionally killing a human who poses no threat to you or others. There are, however, situations in which you MUST kill another god, or else forfeit the lives of not one, not a million, but ALL of humanity. As I have come to understand it, Caped Persuader J’s reasoning for the No Kill rule being intrinsic to both Batman and Superman is because each goes beyond a mere hero in the traditional sense, but is a paragon in the truest sense of the word. Each embodies the virtue of heroism to such an extent that they likewise exist as a pure, inviolable ideal. While other heroes can occasionally deviate from this, the Bat and the Man of Tomorrow stand for something more. They stand as reminders that virtues supersede life itself; that beyond the necessities of life there exists a Truth that cannot be bent to meet the exigencies of a given situation; that this Truth is more real than anything we’ve ever known and to compromise it is a far greater sacrifice than to forfeit life. While I find this line of thinking compelling on an individual level, at the scale of human extinction it becomes meaningless. In the absence of humans, the virtues that supersede the continuance of life are irrelevant. If all humanity has passed into the great beyond where these Truths reside, what good has it accomplished to have upheld them in the terrestrial realm?
While this may explain or even justify the deaths of Ares and Zod, it would seem to condemn Diana for the slicing and dicing on the battlefield and Bruce for his lackadaisical lethality throughout Dawn of Justice. Microcosms and metaphors do have their limitations, and the nuances of context are too in depth to tack on the end of a post. Likewise, I realize that I’ve done more here to pile on the criticisms of the DCEU than to defend against them, but it actually better serves the premise about patience and perspective to leave my audience skeptical at this point in the discussion. It took the DCEU three movies to demonstrate the subtleties of necessity, so I hope you’ll forgive me if it takes me three posts to explain them as I see them.
Join me next whenever as I delve into the trenches and the narrows.