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Death to All Superheroes

Batman is a fascist. Superman is dead. I'm bored.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice has made almost $600 million worldwide. That’s a lot for a movie every bit as atrocious as you’ve heard. Batman v. Superman is so extraordinarily muddled and boring that the few critics who are determined to like something about it are driven to desperation.

Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, for example, is wowed by “textures”: “If this film is about anything (which is debatable), it’s about materials and fabrics . . .”

In my suffering, I didn’t think of the fabrics that might have sustained me. I was focusing on “politics.”

Not that the film’s politics amounted to anything beyond what you’ve already seen in other blockbuster films that use topicality as a cheap come-on. There were a lot of familiar gestures toward America’s post-9/11 politics — the clumsy script seems to have been designed as a pop referendum on our rotten times, referencing scenes of torture as an interrogation technique, mysteriously funded private mercenary armies, hopeless congressional hearings, tech billionaires flouting government policy, and a host of real-life media pundits offering sickeningly reductive commentary on it all (Anderson Cooper, Nancy Grace, Soledad O’Brien, Lawrence O’Donnell, Andrew Sullivan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson).

Batman v. Superman kicks off with a partial restaging of 9/11 featuring Batman disappearing into eerie yellow clouds of dust and debris generated after a skyscraper collapse. As Batman we have Ben Affleck, looking as always like an ex-frat boy peeved that he’s too old to attend college keggers. Affleck’s Batman frowns hard to show that he is aware of the seriousness around him. He will become even more darkly emo and inclined toward paranoia and vigilantism than Batman was in the recent Christopher Nolan films.

Then Superman, played by the eye-wateringly dull Henry Cavill, has his own traumatic event when he rescues Lois Lane (Amy Adams) just like he always does. Only this time he skydives right into the midst of a top-secret proxy war op in Africa that turns out to be the work of mercenaries hired by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), the evil tech billionaire. The resulting body count gets blamed on Superman. This makes Superman sad and self-doubting — he just wasn’t made for these times.

By now Superman is a faintly absurd figure representing America’s lost golden age and its values. For scholar Dan Hassler-Forest, who decided to spend his life studying superhero films, Superman is the fantasy embodiment of committed liberal idealism, his godlike alien status allowing him to represent good governance in action with no taint of vigilantism about him. He becomes a figure of nostalgia as the possibility of such unifying idealism falls apart and Batman supersedes him as the fantasy embodiment of the violent contradictions of neoliberalism.

In Batman v. Superman, Batman’s relationship with the law disintegrates entirely as he creates a scandal by torturing malefactors for information, and tells his jaded “butler” Alfred, “We’re just criminals — that’s all we ever were.”

There is a corresponding collapse of Superman’s self-valuation in Batman v. Superman. It continues the logic of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, in which, Hassler-Forrest argues, Superman is humanized and thus brought closer to Batman in his earthbound struggle with chaos and contingency, signaling the loss of “transcendent” values Superman once embodied.

And indeed, Superman seems to accept this demotion in Batman v. Superman when he laments, “I’m just the dream of a Kansas farmer.” (Cut to sunny elegiac shots of Kevin Costner as the heartland adoptive dad who raised him and instilled in him old-fashioned American values.)

That the dream is over is signaled throughout as Superman is cast down, blown up, repeatedly hugged by tearful Lois Lane as if he were a bruised toddler, and forced into a tediously protracted fight with Batman. For the occasion, Batman wears a ridiculous cast-iron suit of armor, suggesting that the only way to kill Superman is to go medieval on his ass.

This fight is cynically engineered by Lex Luthor, who’s seeking “the greatest gladiatorial contest in the history of the world,” but also pursuing some grad student line of thought he can never quite complete about power never being innocent. This seems to be another shot at Superman, the figure who once demonstrated supposedly unsullied power as the embodiment of liberal idealism.

It can’t be much of a spoiler to reveal that the film’s emotional center, such as it is, revolves around the degradation and ultimate destruction of Superman. The only way to recover any of the values associated with Superman, it seems, is to kill him and make a pact over his grave.

In this way the film gets uncomfortably close to the Marvel Avengers movies featuring Captain America, Superman’s even squarer cousin. Captain America is dissed and dismissed and defeated and killed off repeatedly so as to unite all the other Avengers, who realize, in his absence, that he’s the embodiment of values that, however hokey, must be upheld.

But the pact made over Superman’s grave is complicated by Wonder Woman’s participation in it. Played by Israeli actor Gal Gadot, she’s introduced as Diana Prince, a kind of femme Bruce Wayne, swanking through plutocrat galas in expensive clothes and dispensing cryptic one-liners while pursuing covert plans that point to a more compelling alter-ego. She stymies Batman by doing his own act better than he does.

But when Wonder Woman’s background is finally revealed in the form of a photograph, she is shown to be part of a band of ancient warrior types associated with the far past, including a Native American in headband and beaded leathers. That combined with Batman’s donning of medieval-style armor suggests an anxious return to the heavily mythologized past for some answers as to how best to go on from there.

This makes sense in the film’s demoralized terms, given that Batman can be said to represent the godawful neoliberal present, and Superman nostalgia for the unrecoverable liberal past, and that the representative futurist in the film is diabolical Lex Luthor, looking like a gibbering refugee from a Wes Anderson film.

No good choices there.

Personally, after sitting through Batman v. Superman, I’d just as soon not see if the superheroes wind up going backward or forward (or sideways, for that matter). Not even if a new superhero named BernieMan was invented, with white hair, glasses, and a bird sidekick, to show that there might be a way forward after all.

I’m sick of all superheroes, along with their friends and foes, and I wish they were all dead and buried together in one mass grave. If I thought there could be an absolutely final sequel called Superhero Slaughterhouse: No One Is Spared, I’d be there opening day in the front row to see it.

But the rest of the world has already expressed $600,000,000 worth of disagreement. So we plod on.