I’ve written a lot about this movie since it came out, but nothing here because it seems like such a task to tackle and I’m not sure where to start. I came up against a very frustrating reading tonight, though, so it seemed like the right time to crack it open and start to pick apart this truly gargantuan movie. I’ve been disappointed, to say the least, by the critical response and much of the public response to a film that whether you enjoyed it or not will definitely have a profound effect on the genre as a whole. I want to write about this through a feminist lens, but first I want to address that critical response, and a theme I keep coming back to the last couple years in writing critically about the superhero genre- accountability.
I don’t blame people for not seeing the intricate details in this movie the first time through, I’m not remotely bothered by that- I think that hearing people miss huge details- like who orchestrated the senate bombing- or even what purpose the senate bombing served to the plot- is very indicative of poor or lackluster engagement with the film, but I was still picking up the details the fourth time around with this movie. I like a movie like that, I like to be rewarded on repeat viewing, the same way that I like to unlock a novel by reading and re-reading it. What alarms me is the reactions that people have to not picking up these details, because it doesn’t seem like the people who are so ready to drag this movie through the mud ever react with anything approaching curiosity.
There could be a number of causal factors on that trend; maybe it’s just that people don’t go to a movie in this genre to engage on that level, maybe it’s a rejection of the idea that these movies might ask big questions or have literary ambition, maybe it’s simply that the average moviegoer lacks the suspension of disbelief for a Superman movie these days. Whatever it is, I find it pretty alarming, because asking questions and being curious is a basic staple of being an engaged and critical consumer of media.
I had a colleague make some excellent points about racism in comic book movies this week that were buttressed by the argument that Batman v Superman brings up, and then drops the idea of superhero regulation. I am absolutely caught off guard by this reading, because it is so obviously and jarringly false. The only way I could possibly imagine that you could perceive this movie as dropping the subject of accountability would be if you ignored literally every line from both Senator Finch and Lois Lane.
Both of these characters are central to the question of accountability, we have entire scenes with newsreels asking how Superman prioritizes lives, questioning how he might be managed if he were under government control. We have the ironic juxtaposition of Senator Finch taking several stands against unilateral action while our own CIA is setting drones on men labeled terrorists at the whim of a single commanding officer. General Swanwick on one hand, telling Lois that the CIA is pretty certain that Superman did absolutely nothing wrong in the desert- in fact they are pretty sure he was being set up- and then on the other hand we have an entire senate committee spinning its wheels trying to get to the bottom of what happened.
This tangled system, this American government with a long bloody history of atrocities under its belt- that’s the people you want to appoint to have a say in deploying Superman on a regular basis? Are we meant to pretend that such a collection of people would be unbiased enough not to observe the racial, social, and gender hierarchies already in play in their culture? The movie asks these questions. The movie asks Finch- are you responsible when Superman isn’t deployed to save a child in danger? As Steve Rogers points out in Civil War- all we’re accomplishing is a shifting of blame. The movie asks, if you have the power, who lives, and who dies? Who do you prioritize when you have that power? To suggest that this argument is suddenly dropped is unthinkable, unless you were to tune out what results to the majority of the dialog.
I am wondering if perhaps what was meant is that the concept of superhero regulation is brought up, but an answer is never provided. That is true, it’s a big DC question, it’s a big Superman question, but the expectation that the movie offer a concrete answer to such a problem seems like an expectation of pretention, which is interesting, considering that I’ve often heard this movie already accused of pretentiousness. I wonder of the people with this criticism, what this accountability looks like to them. Are we putting that much faith in a Democracy that has failed to deliver justice for certain marginalized populations over, and over, and over again? What answer could this movie have provided that would be satisfactory to such a viewer? It’s easy to point out that a plot lacks answers, it’s a lot less easy to come up with those answers.
What we’re dealing with here, as the movie proposes, does not exist inside our political definitions. We’ve never had a being in our midst with this kind of power, we haven’t been asked to find a way to check that power- Superman’s willingness to show up at the senate hearing- his willingness to be checked- is a statement in itself. He doesn’t get to speak at the senate hearing because Luthor doesn’t want to give him the opportunity, but he shows up. He expresses a desire to meet the human race on our terms, though he’s never done anything but make his best efforts to help us. We have the opportunity to regulate him, we have the opportunity to demand accountability though Superman is never the direct cause of a wrongful death and plenty of people have already begun to see the puppet strings operating around him.
And that’s really the essence of things for me, that’s what Superman is. If you can’t buy Superman’s good intentions, if you’re not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, this might just not work for you. It’s possible that Lex is right, maybe power can’t be innocent. We certainly don’t have any incorruptible untarnished symbols to confirm such a belief, but does that change our desire for one? We’re asking questions, here, not answering them. But what are we meant to take from Clark pulling punches in a fight he could end quickly to rescue his mother? What are we meant to see when Superman darts out to intercept a punch meant for his greatest enemy? What conclusion are we meant to draw from a man laying down his life for a world that at best has mixed feelings, at worst hates and rejects him?
Metaphorically speaking, Superman doesn’t stand in for the United States as a global power, he doesn’t stand for men in the armed services, or UN Peacekeepers, and maybe it’s a flaw of the narrative that his white maleness can obscure that for some viewers, (though I would put forth that that’s an erasure of his Jewish roots) but Superman doesn’t represent any of that for me. Superman is something greater. He’s potential, he’s a dream that we have about who we aspire to be as a species, he is, if you are willing to buy into it, pure wish fulfillment fantasy. The fantasy here is not necessarily that we will have great power, though I think Superman was certainly devised as coping mechanism for the powerless, but that we will be worthy of it.