Throughout human history, enduring epics like Beowulf, The Iliad and Macbeth have not shied away from the bombastic form that embodies most classical storytelling. Before they became classics, these epics were simply the popular entertainment of the time, written for the commoner. They weren’t always English teachers’ critical darlings, but were works designed to stir the audience by staging big drama and big questions. They did not shy away from operatic arrangement of human drama, keying into the fact that our grandest fictions extract general truths for the individual to consider.
Comic books tend to function the same way. In fact, I believe they are the modern successor to Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. Sound and fury, good and evil, life and death, day and night—everything is heightened and dialed up to 11. That’s why, as a comic book movie made decidedly in the vein of classic mythical storytelling, director Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice mostly works. It may never become a Hollywood classic, but when understood in this vein, I think it has a lot to offer. Despite some missteps that many critics can’t seem to see past, there is truth, goodness and even beauty to be found in the polarizing, crowded and furious movie.
Batman v Superman probably succeeds most in Snyder’s audacity to tell a comics story like a comics story. With heightened language and vast themes that speak to the individual about how we choose to live our lives, he captures the big and bold aesthetic of comic book—not to mention epic—storytelling.
Perhaps more than anything, Batman v Superman is a movie about choice—specifically as it relates to the two men on the marquee. Batman is embittered, increasingly violent and a self-professed “criminal” who perhaps started out to do good but has lost his way. Superman is still in the proto stages of his formation. Having saved the world on his first outing in Man of Steel, he is now a worldwide figure of controversy still trying to right wrongs.
Batman v Superman is a Superman film, but it is Batman’s journey. Superman is seen as many things, but ultimately portrayed to the viewer as “a guy just trying to do the right thing.” The world in the film, burned by far too many men trying to do their own right thing, is largely suspicious. The suspicion and savior discussion around Superman is general and vast, but we keep having it, signifying a very important truth of the human condition and an important consideration: We will look for, and indeed need, someone to save us. Even if we are billionaires with bat-gear. The world we live in is suspicious, as well.
Another right note that the film strikes is presenting Clark Kent as a journalist for truth and justice. He not only tries to do the right thing via his mighty muscles but by the pen, as well. He is told that “this isn’t 1938” and nobody cares about the little guy taking on the morally murky. We don’t have the moral stamina for Clark Kent’s kind of reporting any longer.
This is the good of a classic hero like Superman; the world around him can be as dark as the scribes and filmmakers want it to be, but he is the stalwart light; he aims to be a good guy both as a superhero and as a regular person. He may question his place on this planet, what he should be doing—a question every individual should consider in light of his own life—but he remains morally resolute. One reason the eventual duel with the Dark Knight goes the way it does is because Superman is essentially a good man of steeled morality. And Batman is not. Well, not yet.
These two men with differing philosophical approaches meet. There is the inevitable misunderstanding and impasse which, in enduring drama, always leads to a duel. This time-honored but well-worn trope pervades Greek tragedies, Chaucer, Shakespeare and comic books alike. So what makes Batman v Superman worth watching? Is there any beauty to be had in such a bulging blockbuster?
In the finale of the title fight, there is a rebirth for this film’s version of Batman. It works in a way Charles Dickens would appreciate in its intensely personal and implausible connection. Without giving too much away, a single name uttered by Superman immediately humanizes the Man of Steel in Batman’s eyes. Both men change in this moment. Superman is humbled and perhaps a little wiser for the wear. And Batman regains his humanity in a single moment to become the Batman we know. This is what comics and classical storytelling do. In such heightened reality, a man’s heart can change in a moment when he meets another man in whom he sees a bedrock of principles and a moral compass.
This is the beauty of unwavering fictional heroes such as Superman; they can be a catalyst of reinvigoration for other characters, giving them—and us—reason to believe that the fight for truth, good and beauty is not lost so long as men contend for it. Batman and Superman, two orphans of sweepingly separated philosophical experiences, are united here. Batman immediately calls a man formerly considered a mortal “enemy” a “friend." Both characters go on different journeys, but they end up at the same place.
The sound and fury that fills Batman v Superman signifies our link to the classical method of storytelling, of which comic book superheroes are our 21st-century tether. Whether we still have a place for such bombastic storytelling remains to be seen. But given the box office success of Snyder’s film, this kind of imperfect pop culture opera still has mass appeal in its audacity to cloak in capes the most basic questions about ourselves.