Editor’s note: Writer Allen Barra is a baby boomer who grew up in the Silver Age of comics. He wrote this point-counterpoint review of the blockbuster movie Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice with his daughter Margaret, who is a film student and millennial comic book enthusiast who “came of age with the newer, darker superheroes.” The following conversation took place before, during and after a screening of Batman v. Superman.
Allen: I confess I haven’t done my homework. The director of this one is?
Maggie: Zack Snyder. His last movie was Man of Steel.
Allen: I remember a couple of Batman vs. Superman fights from old comics. They always had to find a way to take away Superman’s powers, and then Batman won because he was an expert in boxing and judo. Other times they contrived to give Batman superpowers.
Maggie: Who won then?
Allen: Nobody won, because they couldn’t hurt each other. Superman’s strength and invulnerability made him kind of boring — the only way he could be weakened was with Kryptonite. It got kind of repetitive in the comics, then later in the movies, because they had to keep inventing ways to get Kryptonite.
Maggie: In my time, Batman always wins by outsmarting Superman. It’s raw power vs. intellect. Superman and Batman are the two extremes of the concept of superheroes — Superman is all-powerful and Batman has no powers at all.
Allen: Superman was at his peak from the end of World War II through the 1950s, first on radio, then on TV and finally a cartoon series. Except for Batman, he pretty much had the comic book market to himself until Marvel arrived in the early 1960s. If you had to put a tag on it, Batman symbolized the insecurity beneath the cloak of Superman’s invincibility.
Maggie: Are we really watching Batman’s origin story again? Do we have have to watch his parents being murdered again for the fourth time since Tim Burton did it in 1989? Does anyone need to be reminded?
Allen: And aren’t they changing something? Bruce Wayne says the Wayne family came from oil, railroads and real estate. In the old Batman comics, Dr. Wayne was just a successful physician. Now Bruce has inherited billions, which covers just about all the areas of robber baronism from Carnegie through Rockefeller through Trump.
Maggie: Actually, if you go back to Batman’s origin in Detective Comics in 1939 — one year after Superman appeared in Action Comics — the Wayne family fortune was explained as coming from those sources, clearly modeled after the robber barons. Christopher Nolan even doubled down on this in the Dark Knight trilogy by turning Bruce Wayne into a high tech armorer.
Allen: Sort of like Tony Stark and Iron Man. So from the beginning Batman is a character who had a Republican background with Democratic instincts?
Maggie: Pretty much.
Allen: What about Superman?
Maggie: We don’t know where he stands. He’s a living contradiction — an illegal alien raised on a Kansas farm.
Allen: Well, we’re a half hour into this, and I’m lost. Have there been four different beginnings, or five? Are the terrorist scenes supposed to be an attempt to make Batman and Superman relevant?
Maggie: Yeah, and to set up the world’s suspicion and fear of Superman. But it isn’t working — it seems more like Cold War paranoia than concern with terrorism.
Allen: It’s been 45 minutes into this movie and finally Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent finally meet. I have a sinking feeling we’ll have to wait another 45 minutes before the big fight.
Maggie: And they haven’t worked Wonder Woman into the plot. We only caught a glimpse of her at the party. They’re building her up for her own Wonder Woman movie next year.
Allen: What do you think of Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor? I rather like that he’s not afraid to play Lex over-the-top.
Maggie: My objection is not to his performance but how the character is written. He’s basically a Joker-style nihilist without the makeup. His plan is never explained, and it creates a black hole that sucks much of the energy out of the movie.
[AN HOUR-AND-A-HALF INTO THE MOVIE]
Allen: Okay, here we go. I remember feeling like this before the bell for the first Ali-Frazier … A pretty good fight, huh?
Maggie: But who won?
Allen: I’d call it a split decision for Batman.
Maggie: The only reason Batman doesn’t kill Superman is because he begs him, “Save Martha.”
Allen: Refresh my memory. Who’s Martha?
Maggie: Clark Kent’s mother, played by Diane Lane. She was living on a farm in Kansas when Lex’s people kidnapped her. But most people didn’t know that Batman’s mother was also named Martha, which is why Batman is shocked and asks “What do you know about Martha?”
Allen: I think there’s an irony unintended by the filmmakers when Ben Affleck’s Batman rescues Diane Lane’s Martha. Remember, the two played lovers in Hollywoodland …
Maggie: A movie where Affleck played actor George Reeves, who played Superman. By the way, I think he’s the only actor who has played Superman and Batman.
Allen: He also played Daredevil in a very underrated movie, which probably makes him the only actor to play three superheroes.
Maggie: It was too grim and overstuffed, maybe even confused by itself at a certain point. It had too many beginnings and too many endings.
Allen: I did think the pop-Nietzschian themes were amusing …
Maggie: You’ve got the obvious one: the two leading characters are man and Superman. Then there’s the creature they both end up fighting — it absorbs all the energy used against it.
Allen: So, “What does not kill it makes us stronger?” I get it. But I think Zack Snyder is a hack. I despise that stunt he pulled at the London premiere where he asked for a moment of silence for the victims of the Belgian bombings. That’s the phoniest performance by a movie director since James Cameron at the Oscars calling for a moment of silence for the Titanic victims, 86 years after the fact.
Maggie: And after he made a billion dollars off the tragedy. But back to Zack: his first film, Dawn of the Dead was his best — it got by on a great script by Michael Tolkin. I’m just relieved he didn’t use slow motion again in this movie, as he has in all his other films.
And did you hear what Ben Affleck said in an interview? “If you tried to tell a story that didn’t reflect in some way the real world people live in, the audiences would reject it as naïve and unrealistic. When a suicide bomb goes off in this movie, we all feel a twinge of recognition because we know what that is.”
Allen: Yes, we know what it is. Why do we need comic book characters to make it real to us?
Maggie: I like Ben Affleck, but for God’s sake, they didn’t make a movie about real life terrorism. This isn’t The Hurt Locker. Ben, you’re in a movie playing a man dressed like a bat punching an alien wearing a cape. I mean, Affleck’s an Academy Award winning filmmaker — a better director, by the way, than Zack Snyder — and he has made real movies on real subjects. He knows the difference in a movie about real terrorism and a superhero movie.
Allen: And once again Affleck proves that he’s an underrated actor. I thought his middle-aged Bruce Wayne showed some real psychological scars. He looks great with a five-o’clock shadow. I loved Kilmer, Clooney and Bale as Batman, but Affleck’s is the most intriguing Bruce Wayne since Michael Keaton.
Maggie: Henry Cavill is also a great Superman — he has a charm that the movie isn’t smart enough to build on, as The Man From UNCLE did. There’s something about seeing Superman angry and confused and a little menacing, which brings a dimension to his character that hasn’t been explored before. And he and Amy Adams have real chemistry.
Allen: You know what I liked best? Batman and Superman. The conflict was interesting because they firmly identified the kinks in both characters’ personalities. Each thinks the other is the worst vigilante.
Maggie: But the movie raises questions about vigilantism that it’s not willing to answer. Using real life issues like terrorism and vigilantism doesn’t add gravitas. I think it trivializes real mad men and mass killers. Evil may be banal, but it isn’t trivial. Let’s bring down the seriousness a notch.