The third chapter of my Man of Steel series, the one I would much rather write, needs to be postponed. This Batman/Superman foolishness is too immediate and pervasive for me to NOT say something.
For people who don’t know, let me catch you up. At this year’s Sand Diego ComicCon Warner Brothers further confirmed an announcement that came very shortly after the release of Man of Steel, that the favored team of Goyer and Synder would indeed be involved in the Man of Steel sequel as expected, and announced that the movie would include Batman. The extent to which this news has been blown out of proportion all over the internet is owed in no small part to the excerpt read from the Frank Miller graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. This one.
I’m not big on speculating about movies before they even begin shooting, I tend to hang back and see how everything falls, because I know with a collaborative project of any decent size, what you expect going in isn’t always what you end up with. I was just going to privately grumble about this decision and leave it at that, but then yesterday, the news broke that Snyder would be meeting with Frank Miller to discuss the movie. That obviously doesn’t mean anything in particular about Miller’s involvement in the direction of the movie, but when asked about the meeting by a source from Supermanhomepage.com, Snyder said:
“It’s too early for me to discuss the film. However, regardless of how I feel about Superman, ultimately I have to go along with the direction that Warner Bros. thinks is best.” (emphasis mine)
If all of that is not enough to frighten Man of Steel fans, I don’t know how to rile them up. Maybe they, like me, weren’t very familiar with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns for one reason or another. Well, I’ve remedied that situation by sitting down and reading it, and I’ve got some insights. People have been saying that this is a horrible idea because Miller doesn’t understand Superman, and that’s part of the problem. Miller also doesn’t understand Batman.
The Batman in this book is contorted into a crude metaphor to suit Miller’s not-so-subtle political agenda and is basically a pale version of what Moore proposed to do to the main Justice League characters had he had the permission for Watchmen. His obsession with tearing down these heroes is writ large in the dark parody that is The Dark Knight Returns. This Batman is not a hero, there’s not anything admirable about his character unless you admire break-neck tenacity with no moral compass attached. Miller’s Batman is a lunatic. He’s just as mentally deranged as the criminals he’s putting in Arkham, and despite a very brief anti-gun speech he gives near the end of the book while inciting a mob full of murderers, he’s constantly armed to the teeth with ammunition. A scene where he turns a landfill into a war zone by driving a tank into a mob of gang members is handily written off by the dark knight’s use of “rubber bullets” with no explanation for the resulting explosions that are without a doubt targeted to kill.
Man of Steel had one of the healthiest approaches to masculinity yet to be seen in this film genre. Clark’s brand of masculinity is non-traditional. It doesn’t involve proving his physical prowess (he doesn’t have to) and it doesn’t involve needless violence. When he loses his head, he quickly regains it because the entire purpose of the Kents is to make sure the most powerful man in the world doesn’t end up some kind of flighty loose-cannon. In Returns, we do see Clark trying to problem solve and use his words, but when Batman literally won’t hear him, he is far too easily provoked to anger. To not understand how serious unchained rage is on this character is to seriously misunderstand not only his motives but the motives of the universe constructed in MoS.
Batman, on the other hand, has somehow magically transformed from one of the most dependable and morally sound characters to wear a cape, to everything that detractors always said he was, an unstable vigilante whose reputation and sense of manhood are so fragile that every action is turned away from a noble attempt to save his city and toward some maniacal quest for glory. This is not a characterization in a vacuum, in fact, this seems to be Miller’s go-to for Batman. After all, he is the guy who coined, “I’m the goddamn Batman.” The worst part though, is the slug-fest, which besides being a another pretty solid example of a character who knows better using poor Clark as an executioner, includes Batman telling Clark, “—it’s way past time you learned—what it means—to be a man.” In this case, Miller makes it clear that the definition of “being a man” involves throwing punches and bleeding from the face, a definition that is so worn out that it’s laughable. Who would have actually thought a fight between these two great men would actually be so easily translated into THIS? Or THIS? The last thing DC needs to boost its image is a protracted scene of their two heavy-hitters behaving like overgrown nine-year-olds.
And this is about image. In an earlier post, I pointed out that every derivative work featuring Superman has the power to effect his image, and Returns has had a very corrosive effect on both Superheroes. Miller’s work has done nothing to complicate these characters, develop them, or challenge them; instead it has lazily reduced both heroes into stale and inaccurate stereotypes of more subtle themes. Since Returns, the mainstream perception of Superman has been as dull, bossy patriarch, which is in my opinion even worse than the typical “boy scout” image pushed in the comics. At least the emotionally fallible and earnest boy scout is a relatable character, while patriarch Superman is not only outdated, but alienates specific groups of people. Batman has also been harmed by his portrayal, many of his followers have begun to exemplify the worst parts of toxic masculinity, and this whole Batman as Chuck Norris thing is a complete embarrassment. Batman vs. Superman is not about brains vs. brawn, anarchy vs. order, or even old-guard masculinity vs. progress, because stories that embrace that kind of simplicity don’t include characters with 75 years worth of history and development.
But what it really comes down to for the Batman vs. Superman supporters is the much-desired grudge match in which the question will be forever answered about which superhero can “take out” the other and therefore whose shorts are the most bursting with virile man-parts or whatever. With DC so far striving for realism over comic book frivolity, how do you honestly have someone like Superman exchanging punches with a regular human being? Sure, Kryptonite can even the playing field, but how much story contortion do you have to perform from the end of Man of Steel to have Bruce show up in town with a big ‘ol hunk of meteor rock that no one ever knew existed? The main point here is really that Returns didn’t have to make Clark a government stooge, it didn’t have to do the whole “Superhero sell out” storyline, all it had to do was alter Batman to the point that he started executing people, which he was, and at that point it’s Superman’s solemn duty to stop him. If the situation were reversed, Clark would consider Batman showing up to stab him with some Kryptonite a sweet mercy. Miller had to fundamentally change both characters and add on decades of bad blood in order to make this fight a completely meaningless one, and that in my estimation indicates that their unlikely friendship is much more interesting than any rivalry could be.