Tuesday, March 29, 2016

'Batman v Superman' Embodies Toxic Masculinity at Its Purest


This movie made me angry. There. I said it. I've been trying to write this article for an hour now, all bogged down in how to explain to all of you that while I wasn't exactly beating down the door for Batman v Superman to come out, I was more than happy to like it once it got here, but I can't do that. I really really don't like this film. Some of my reasons are structural, some ideological, and some just plain petty. But I do not like Batman v Superman, so I guess I should say that you're all duly forewarned.

A vague disclaimer is nobody's friend.

Look - it's a concept familiar enough that we have plenty of pop culture precedents to consider. Fans love making their favorite characters fight. Whether it's a silly conversation between friends over whether Gandalf or Dumbledore was the more powerful wizard or a big budget movie called Alien vs Predator, fans love to make them fight. They have an undeniable urge to figure out who would be on top, I guess. And yet these fans still insist on making fun of the other fans who would rather see who's on top in a less violent situation.*

Batman v Superman, then, falls into this long and not particularly noble tradition. So does the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, which pits differing ideologies and Avengers teams against each other. Like I said, this isn't anything new. As long as we've had brains we've wanted to know if Odysseus could beat up Jason or if that Sabre Toothed Tiger could take on a Dire Wolf. We're all about the matchups, human beings. And this film is no exception.

The problem, however, comes when there really isn't anything to a particular piece of media besides this question. The continual fighting of Magneto and Professor X, at least, has a backing of strong relationship and profound ideological differences. Freddy vs Jason is silly and funny, but has some solid horror, and it's not hard to see why those two might want to kill each other. In general, a matchup of this kind requires a level of congruity with the rest of the story - it's got to make sense why they're fighting.

And that brings me to the fundamental problem with Batman v Superman and the ultimate reason why I think you should probably wait until it's out on dvd so that you can fast forward through everything that's not Wonder Woman: there is absolutely no reason in the plot of this movie why Batman and Superman should fight each other. None at all. And the contortions that the plot must go through in order to make these two ostensibly good and intelligent men beat the shit out of each other are frankly ridiculous. I have seen better plotted porn. Not joking.

If all you're looking for out of a film is an answer to the question "Who would win in a fight?" then presumably this movie is made for you, but even then it fails to satisfy, because the real answer is that neither of them is particularly good at fighting in this film. Even when it comes to its one big draw, the movie utterly disappoints. So while Wonder Woman is rad as hell and Gal Gadot crushes it, and those thirty seconds each of Flash and Aquaman are tantalizing, this movie might go down in history as the most expensive theatrical trailer ever, because all it really does is make people want to watch literally anything else.

You might think that this is me being harsh and judgmental. And you'd be right. I am being harsh and judgmental. But I have good reason to be, and so far it seems that most people agree. Batman v Superman doesn't work, either as a piece of superhero media meant to build a new franchise or as an entertaining movie. It's just two and a half hours of me wanting to bang Superman and Batman's heads together so they make that cantaloupe sound and I can go home.

Since it's going to take some explaining on how a conceptually intriguing premise like this gets so thoroughly trashed, here is a bare bones synopsis of the events of Batman v Superman:

Ben Affleck is Bruce Wayne, a middle-aged man still haunted by the deaths of his parents. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it's clear that Mr. Wayne is still more than a little emotionally stunted. When Superman (Henry Cavill) revealed himself to the world in the events of Man of Steel, Bruce was on hand to see the action close up, attempting to rescue employees from the wreck of his Wayne Enterprises building in Metropolis. And since Bruce Wayne is apparently a moral idiot with no concept of complexity, he utterly blames Superman for the destruction, despite seeing firsthand that Superman was getting his ass handed to him.

Fast forward two years and Superman is going about his daily life as incompetent reporter Clark Kent and heroic space alien Superman. When Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is captured by terrorists in Africa while attempting to write an article, Superman intervenes but accidentally exacerbates a complex political situation, causing the deaths of many innocents. Congress creates a committee to deal with his brand of superheroism and wonder if they can even pretend to regulate him, a committee led by Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), literally the only interesting non-Wonder Woman character in this whole movie.

Because Bruce Wayne is an idiot, he decides to start hunting down Superman so that he can kill him. It takes a little bit of plot for him to get there, but honestly not that much. Superman, meanwhile, doesn't really like Batman but is otherwise ambivalent about the whole thing. He should care more, though, because Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) is actually pitting these two heroes against each other like a little boy making his action figures fight.

So while Bruce is making kryptonite spears and smoke bombs and Clark Kent is literally flying around moping about how people don't like him anymore, Lex Luthor is secretly using Kryptonian technology from the downed spaceship to make a giant unholy monster and also to learn how to kill Superman. Why? Because he's a sniveling millennial villain with daddy issues, why else?

The end result is that Batman and Superman have to fight each other or else something bad will happen, and for all that Superman insists that he just needs to explain himself to Batman and all will be well, he does very little talking and much more punching. Sure, it's the fight that we all went into this film assuming we'd see, but the machinations required to get these two heroes into the ring were extensive and frankly stupid. It's not until they've slapped themselves silly for a while that they manage to actually say the like four words that would have avoided the entire fight and completely get over the previous two hours of animosity just in time for them to be best friends before the credits roll.

If it seems like I'm being vague on the plot here, please understand that it's not so much because I'm avoiding spoilers as because I don't want to get into detail. There is too much detail. Far, far too much. There's so much detail I feel like I'm going to choke on it, because it turns out that the plot these writers came up with was an affront to screenwriting students everywhere. It was needlessly complex and simultaneously moronically stupid. Literally there were whole sections of the plot that could have been avoided if a single character stopped kissing her boyfriend long enough to say, "Hey, this is a trap."

It's worse than feeling uninspired - this story feels down right nonsensical. In order to make Batman and Superman fight, this plot has to make Batman straight up hate Superman. How do they do that? By having him responsible for ruining something Bruce cares about, like his company. Okay, fine. But in order for Bruce to completely blame Superman for this, he has to be willfully ignorant of any extenuating circumstances. In other words, Batman in this movie is pretty dumb. A couple of hours of google searches would have answered most of his questions about Superman, as would his own actual first hand knowledge of the man, but Batman remains aggressively ignorant.

On Superman's side, it's like the writers understood that an actual competent Superman would figure out that Batman was having some problems, wonder if someone was manipulating him, and then sit down and chat with Bruce Wayne because he's a freaking reasonable person above all else. Do we need to remember that Superman in the comics is frequently a diplomat? Instead, Superman is oblivious to anything that's not Lois Lane and her continuous peril. He just does not care. 

But that's not enough to actually get him to fight Batman. Indifference is not the same as malicious intent. Instead, the movie makes it so that Superman is blackmailed into fighting Batman. Only rather than actually say this to his opponent, thus negating the need to fight and uniting them against a common enemy, Superman makes one abortive attempt at communication before just punching his way through. He has no fewer than five opportunities to make Batman listen (I counted) and takes none of them.

Nope, this movie needs these two to fight, so it refuses to give them even the most basic human logic because that would prevent this showdown we all so clearly wanted to see. Common sense is, after all, utterly antithetical to watching two grown men fight like toddlers at naptime.

I just cannot get over how stupid this movie had to make itself in order for the central premise to work. And it's not just that Batman and Superman themselves had to become shambling half-men, characters devoid of all reason or higher brain function. Everything about the story is half-baked because any scrutiny or common sense would upend the whole thing.

In the first five minutes of the film, after seeing Batman's parents die for the thousandth time, we are treated to Bruce Wayne's experience of the attack on Metropolis from Man of Steel. In it, Bruce gets off a helicopter and into a Jeep which he then drives resolutely into the city, against the crowd of fleeing humanity, all while talking on his cell phone to employees stationed at Wayne Enterprises downtown.

The employees are basically all standing at their desks and looking out the window when Bruce yells that they have to evacuate. So they do - "Boss' orders!" And it's just in time because before Bruce can reach the building it's smashed by the destruction-train that is Superman and Zod. He has to pick his employees out of the rubble and it's all very sad and moving, right?

The problem, however, is that none of this makes any freaking sense at all.

Why the hell were his employees just standing there waiting for their building to explode or their boss to tell them to leave? This question is so fundamental that it undermines the entire premise of the plot. Bruce has to tell his employees to leave the building because he has to be involved enough in the incident to hate Superman to want to kill him later. But as we see from the thousands of fleeing residents, pretty much everyone else in Metropolis who isn't in Wayne Enterprises figured out that they should evacuate without needing to be told.

That means that the whole basis for the conflict here is made up. I mean, yes, it exists in the movie universe, but it's dumb as hell. The scene isn't just clumsily written, it's painfully obvious in its objectives - Bruce even saves a little girl from being crushed under the rubble just so that we can really empathize with him as a hero. And then she points up at the Wayne tower all sad and says that her mommy was up there. That's why Batman hates Superman, audience. For the children.

Ultimately what this all adds up to is the understanding that Batman and Superman fighting might be an interesting philosophical thought experiment, but it makes for a pretty bad movie. Without the establishment of some stronger reason for them to fight - like, say, deep and meaningful ideological differences or one of them being temporarily evil - the movie turns into one big justification for the fight. And since those justifications never actually make any sense, the movie is a mass of contradictions, failed plotlines, and unnecessarily long dream sequences.

But that, in and of itself, isn't what bothered me so much about this movie. Sure, I find terrible scriptwriting professionally offensive - I do literally have a degree in this - but that's not my biggest problem. That's not what made me incandescently angry about this film. 

No, what really and truly bothers me about Batman v Superman is that when Warner Brothers and DC were trying to think of a way to get us ready for the Justice League and to build a universe for its future films, all they could think of was making these characters fight.

I've talked before about toxic masculinity. Actually, I've talked a lot about toxic masculinity - I even created a whole weekly column to deal with good and bad representations of masculinity in our media. The basic concept is that toxic masculinity is a masculine ideal that is harmful both to the men who attempt to adhere to it and to the people around them. In this case, it's a look at how Superman and Batman, both classic ideals of masculinity, are toxic character templates in this film. Both of them evidence an understanding of moral virtue as related to physical strength. The stronger you are, the better you are. That's classic toxic masculinity.

The masculinity in Batman v Superman is all about physical power and violence. While the film is more centered on Batman, Superman isn't innocent of this either. Clark Kent might be a sweet wannabe reporter, but he's also the kind of man who flies out into the desert to save his girlfriend and asserts loudly afterwards that he doesn't care if it was wrong. He doesn't care about the people who got hurt because he did that. He's strong and therefore he's right. The movie judges this attitude, and justly, but it also doesn't refute it. 

Ultimately, Superman is proven right. He's proven to be the virtuous, good man he kept insisting he was, and we're bad for having doubted him. How does he prove this? With violence. He did a thing with his strength and he was violent and he was hurt and therefore he was a hero. This film's understanding of heroism is no more complex than that.

Batman gets an even worse depiction. A man who we are told has been fighting crime for twenty years, Bruce Wayne seemingly has never even considered trying a different way to help the people of Gotham. Seriously. He's spent twenty years failing to clean up his city, and yet he sees no problem with the way he does things. All he can figure is that he needs to be tougher on the criminals. Hurt them more. Maybe even kill them.

And, again, the movie doesn't refute this. Batman gets his resolution and justification through violence, albeit violence directed at a different enemy. Hell, the film even makes a point of retelling Bruce's tragic backstory just to make it a little more like an action film. Instead of standing idly by while the mugger shoots him and his wife, this version has Thomas Wayne (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) lunging at his attacker and getting a bullet for his troubles. Thomas Wayne still dies, of course, but he's an action hero here. He's a strong man, which means that he has to be physically strong and also willing to use violence. 

If it weren't painfully clear that the movie is playing this straight, parts of the film would feel like a parody of this kind of overbuilt macho showdown. In one particular extended dream sequence, we see Batman imagining the world as a post-apocalyptic nightmare where he is the only man left who can stop Superman. Watching it feels almost like you've walked in on someone masturbating, so clear is it that Batman loves the idea of being the only righteous man left. Like, he really really enjoys this fantasy.

Batman objects to Superman's superhuman strength and power. But he doesn't object to it by attempting to reason with Superman or understand him better. Instead, the movie suggests that the only way to deal with someone more powerful than you is to become more powerful and take them down. Batman, supposedly a genius, can think of no better solution than amassing a more powerful suit, getting a superweapon, and working out a lot. I rather wish we could have heard what was going through Alfred's head during all of this (a refreshingly droll Jeremy Irons), because I feel like he alone understood how much Bruce was freaking loving this.

Again, the real issue here isn't the actions of the characters - they're fictional and do as they're told. The problem is the studio behind this that banked their franchise's future on an ideology where the only way to be a good man is to kill lots and lots of people. The only rational way adults handle being upset is building doomsday devices. Where the two men who are hypothetically going to start the Justice League together can't even manage to have a single civil conversation in a two and a half hour long movie.

Maybe this will sum it up nicely: when I came home from the movie, expressing my frustration to my parents, my father asked offhand why the trailer showed Batman wearing that suit with glowing eyes. What were they for?

The answer, which you might know if you saw the movie, is that they aren't really for anything. Seriously. That big suit of armor with the glowing eyes is ostensibly there so that Batman can fight Superman more effectively, but it does very little in the moment. And as far as I can tell, there is no point to the eyes that glow. None at all. They are simply there because they look cool.

That, more than anything else, sums up how I feel about this movie. It's there to look cool. Batman and Superman are fighting because the studio didn't even bother wondering if they should fight and why they would. This entire movie happened because no one bothered to think about it long enough to realize it was a dumb idea. It's just there to look cool.

Or how about this lovely logic bender: Batman insists that the reason he hates Superman is because Superman indirectly caused the deaths of thousands of innocent bystanders when his fight with Zod took down Metropolis. But Batman sees no logical discrepancy in directly causing the deaths of at least fifty people in the course of this film. Probably more. It's fine because he's human - Superman can't kill people indirectly because he's an alien, but Batman can straight up murder lots of people because he's a human. Right.

What really chafes my butt, though, is the fact that about five minutes more thought would have turned this movie into a halfway decent story. Even worse, the basis for that is actually in the film itself.

Early on in Batman v Superman we are treated to a scene where Clark Kent, junior reporter, is aggressively crapped on by his boss, Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne). White wants Clark to write more puff pieces for the paper, the kind of stories that make good headline copy and will hopefully go viral online. 

But Clark wants to be a big boy and write real news. He wants to write an article on how the Gotham Bat directly targets working class criminals, taking down muggers and drug dealers and thieves. All bad people, sure, but Batman tends to ignore white collar crime. In so doing, he penalizes the lower classes of Gotham and gives the higher class criminals a free pass.

It's a very valid criticism. He even implies, rightly, that Batman is more interested in punishing criminals than saving civilians. This throwaway scene could have actually set up a really compelling conflict between the two characters, all based around their very different understandings of what a hero ought to be.

When you think about it, both Batman and Superman in this universe have been shaped by the deaths of their fathers. Batman saw his father die at the hands of a mugger, a low level criminal. Superman saw his birth father and adoptive father both die in natural disasters. So Batman is a hero by fighting low level crime and punishing criminals. Superman is a hero by saving people from fires and floods and natural disasters.

This fundamental difference in what it means to be a hero would actually make for a pretty good film. I mean, instead of making them fight, why not try to have them work together only to find them falling out because they can't agree on their priorities? That's good conflict, because it's based in character. The conflict of this movie is entirely based in the machinations of plot and studio executives.

So. While I love Wonder Woman and I'm thrilled to have gotten a full twenty minutes of her presence on screen, no amount of fangirl joy could save this movie for me. It is, when we get down to it, a perfect embodiment of what I consider the worst impulses of our culture. It should be a textbook on how not to write a film. 

And I hate to disappoint you all, but come on. Batman v Superman? The movie had to give Bruce Wayne thirty pounds of kryptonite, a giant robot suit, and an emotionally compromised Clark Kent in order to make it slightly less embarrassing when Superman beat the pants off Batman. That's not a matchup I needed to see.

Same, Diana. Same.
*I'm talking about slash fanfic here, as it happens. For more, read this fantastic article by brownbetty, "Why Do Fanboys Always Make Them Fight?"

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. I'm sorry but this article is very poorly thought out. First you claim that there is no reason why they are fighting each other even thought the movie used an hour of set up time to explain exactly why they were fighting. I find it funny that a site called Kiss my Wonder Woman would say to fast forward everything in the movie that isn't Wonder Woman! LOL
    Secondly, this article goes on for 600 words before it even attempts to make a point. You're actually accusing this film of being toxic because of the masculinity? As if being masculine is somehow wrong? And why would you go see a movie based on two character famous for their amped up masculinity in the first place unless you just wanted to write this article in order to justify your social biases? This is flat out dishonest reporting and utterly dumb on every level. These two characters aren't baddass simply because they are strong, that would be boring. You clearly don't understand this movie or these characters but good luck trying to convince rational people of this nonsensical argument. lol

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    1. You're actually accusing this film of being toxic because of the masculinity? As if being masculine is somehow wrong?

      Seriously claiming that this is Deborah's argument robs you of legs to stand on when you go on to talk about dishonest reporting, lack of understanding, or rationality. Perhaps you should read the site in more detail rather than looking for one article to get offended about. Or, you know, even the sentences that directly follow the phrase.

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  3. Have you read anything else she's written when it comes to toxic masculinity? She makes valid points about the movie.

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  4. There are a lot of things about this film that struck me very differently to how they struck you.

    Without the establishment of some stronger reason for them to fight - like, say, ... one of them being temporarily evil

    This is how Ben Affleck described the Batman of this film in one article (or at least as the bad guy). But the way he struck me was triggered. Immeasurable power had blown into his life and killed people he cared about, and on one level he'd regressed to what the kid who'd just seen his parents die might have been if he'd had Batman's training and tools right then. Luthor on the other hand, struck me as someone who was having an existential panic - if Batman was seeing Superman and reacting Joe Chill, Luthor was seeing Superman and reacting Cthulhu - he had this worldview of what power was and where it came from, and Superman just upended it. (The most telling Lex moment for me was when he almost lost it during his speech when he talked about knowledge without power being a paradox).

    This take on Lex, rather than just jealousy or mistrust of Superman (depending on how sympathetic a given writer likes to make him) is one I like.

    The employees are basically all standing at their desks and looking out the window when Bruce yells that they have to evacuate.

    Yeah, I have to concede that one though. Especially since, as we know from Man of Steel, that building was rght on the edge of the zone the Kryptonian ship had pulverised. It might also have worked better if these were people *we* knew as well as Bruce - ok, not knew knew, but there was speculation before the film that Lucius Fox or Dick Grayson might be among the dead.

    I will praise the film for the way it reframed the Clark/Zod fight to show how utterly terrifying it would be from a human-scale perspective. (It's weird - this Superman is less powerful than previous cinematic versions, but no previous version has so viscerally portrayed the gulf between what humans and Kryptonians are capable of).

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  5. No, what really and truly bothers me about Batman v Superman is that ... all they could think of was making these characters fight.

    Maybe this is why I liked it more than you. I'd much rather have had a film without them fighting,* but it was a given from the moment I knew the name of the film, and at least in the film it was portrayed as a wrongheaded fight that shouldn't have happened... so, maybe it was easier for me to say given they're going to do this thing I don't want, can I like the rest enough to tolerate it? (And maybe, not being a pro at this stuff - and maybe being a guy - it was easier for me to say yes).

    * My preferred setup wasn't my own idea, but something I saw on RPGNet: Who but the world's greatest detective would notice the *other* important thing that happened in Metropolis that day, and start investigating it while the world is distracted by Superman?

    When you think about it, both Batman and Superman in this universe have been shaped by the deaths of their fathers. Batman saw his father die at the hands of a mugger, a low level criminal. Superman saw his birth father and adoptive father both die in natural disasters. So Batman is a hero by fighting low level crime and punishing criminals. Superman is a hero by saving people from fires and floods and natural disasters.

    I can't argue with that though. Even Doomsday fits into it, since it's the closest thing you can get to both at once, so as a climactic battle, it's a way they can come back together (helped by a third party outside their conflict). So an act 1 where they circle round each other (Batman investigating Lex-shenanigans, encountering Diana Prince along the way, Clark investigating Batman, Lex gathering Kryptonian shit, not very dissimilar from what we get), an act 2 where Batman and Superman try to work together, fail, and because of that Lex accidentally makes Doomsday, and an act 3 where Superman and Wonder Woman keep Doomsday corralled while Batman recovers the Kryptonite from wherever Lex was keeping it. Most of what we got in the film would still be there in that version, just without a fight between Superman and Batman.


    Ech. I dunno. I liked it when I saw it, but you're making me rethink it. Which does mean you've encouraged me to see it again (totally not you plan, I guess :) ) in the light of what you've said here.

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  6. The "guys" are dragging me to this on Sunday. From what I've heard here and elsewhere, I don't expect it to rise above the level of dreary slugfest.

    But as far as your critique of "toxic masculinity" and the film's one-dimensional understanding of violence and heroism is concerned, it strikes me that Man of Steel (which I actually found quite decent) neatly subverted the Nazi-esque, Übermensch worldview espoused by Shannon's Zod. If might makes right, Superman should have joined his fellow Kryptonians in sweeping aside insignificant humanity with sovereign indifference; after all, it would be his natural right as the stronger to perpetuate his own kind. Instead, he sacrifices the future of his people in order to protect the weak and defenseless, with whom he now identifies more strongly than Krypton.

    It sounds like Batman v Superman neglected to pursue this line of character development, rather allowing Superman to regress into an entitled and irresponsible strongman with pretensions of godhood and relatively little concern for restraining his powers. Seems like a wasted opportunity to me.

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