Friday, April 8, 2016

Snyder Shrugged: The Disturbing Politics of the Cape and Cowl

Henry Cavill as Superman in Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

I recently learned that Zack Snyder, director of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, is intending on pursuing a remake of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead once he’s done with all this comic book nonsense. In a recent interview for The Hollywood Reporter, he says:
"I have been working on The Fountainhead. I've always felt like The Fountainhead was such a thesis on the creative process and what it is to create something."
This revelation – that Snyder, director of highly politicized comic-book films like his adaptations of Frank Miller’s 300 (2006) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (2009), was an admirer of Ayn Rand’s work – surprised very few people. This little tidbit was, in fact, the final piece of a puzzle we’ve collectively been trying to solve for a decade now: the key to understanding Snyder’s distinctly… personal approach to filmmaking.

In case you’re not aware, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, or “rational self-interest,” basically states that the highest moral duty we have as individuals is to make ourselves happy, and that society as a whole will improve if everyone acts this way. When you learn this, suddenly everything snaps into place. Of course Snyder is an Objectivist. Look at his body of work, and the evidence, sitting dormant all these years, pops into sharp focus: the slavish devotion to Miller’s racist pre-9/11 vision of the Battle of Thermopylae, with its noble and beautiful Greeks fighting warped and subhuman Persians. The “badass” empty-headed girl-power wish-fulfillment fantasy of Sucker Punch. And, most troublingly, the utterly, woefully misguided exploration of the character of Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel (whose connection, if only in name, to the steel manufacturing corporation from Atlas Shrugged is now blisteringly obvious).

It was difficult, until now, to pin down why Man of Steel felt so wrong. Sure, you could point to the city-wide destruction caused by the fight between Kal-El (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) at the end of the film, which wouldn’t have been fun to watch even if it did make sense in the film (which, to be clear, it doesn’t) – but one dumb, mind-numbing climax does not necessarily a turd make. No, the real issue stems from Snyder’s depiction of Superman’s adoptive parents, the Kents, and what it does to his character as a result. The Kents in Man of Steel are the Superman story as penned by Rand herself: Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) is insistent that the young Clark hide his powers from a world that isn’t ready for him, suggesting that perhaps it would have been better to let a busload of his schoolmates perish instead of saving them, and directly stops Clark from intervening when a tornado is about to kill him. Ma Kent (Diane Lane) instills in him a sense that he is special and unique and that he doesn’t owe the world anything, and that it is up to him to decide how to use his powers, whether for the good of others or for his own selfish gains. Clark learns these lessons, and learns them well: his Superman uses his powers only when it is in his own self-interest, rational (stopping Zod’s World Engine because it’s destroying the planet he is currently living on) or otherwise (saving Lois Lane so he can make out with her at Metropolis’ new ground zero, instead of saving what must be thousands of innocents trapped in the city’s rubble). Snyder’s vision is Superman as the literal √úbermensch; he’s portrayed as the ultimate god-like Randian hero, whose struggle is deciding if the people of Earth are worth saving – essentially whether or not to be a hero at all. In Batman v Superman, after a bomb destroys everyone present at the Senate hearing he is attending, he confesses to Lois:
 “I didn’t see it, Lo… I’m worried that I didn’t see it because I wasn’t looking.” 
(I don’t have to explain that Superman is supposed to be the literal opposite of that, right? The Kents are supposed to teach him altruism – the filthiest word in the English language, if you believe Ms Rand – and he is supposed to remain a Kansas farm boy at heart, whose motivation is always to use his powers to help those who cannot help themselves, and whose struggle is against those who would force him to use violence to save others. This is what makes his character both relatable and timeless.)

Matthew Goode as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias in Zack Snyder's Watchmen (2009).

So knowing that this rationally self-interested Superman was the one we were going to get in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (that title really never gets easier to type) made the conflicts and characterization in that film much clearer. Of course this film’s Superman is arrogant, cold, selfish, violent, and reckless – he’s The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark with laser eyes and a cape. Of course the film’s Batman (Ben Affleck) is angry that this god-figure possesses power he never worked for – he’s the same obsessive, self-congratulatory revolutionary as Atlas Shrugged’s Dagny Taggart. Handled delicately, this Objectivist subtext might translate well to a new screen version of Batman, but Snyder fumbles it – not to mention that it doesn’t belong within a hundred miles of Superman.

But Snyder, historically, has been inept at translating these ideas into coherent film characters. Objectivist philosophy is everywhere in his films, but he explores it as sophomorically as the dope-smoking undergrad who hangs Fight Club posters on his dorm room wall. In Snyder’s Watchmen, the Roark corollary is Adrian Veidt (aka Ozymandias), whose power and influence are the result of years of single-minded self-interest. He sees the accidentally god-like Dr. Manhattan as the ultimate symbol of unearned power, which is why Snyder supplants Alan Moore’s original ending with Manhattan himself as the central threat. But what, then, is the explanation for Man of Steel? Isn’t Superman, like Manhattan, the opposite of the Randian ideal?

Well, in Batman v Superman, he is: Kal-El is placed in direct opposition with Ben Affleck’s self-made Batman, who fits neatly into Rand’s self-creation narrative, and who recognizes Superman’s gifts and hates him for possessing them. Superman’s uniqueness – hidden from the world lest it be tainted by humanity’s mediocrity – is pitted against Batman’s genius and industry, fueled by nothing but his rage and his iron will. So… who is Roark here, exactly? Are they both the Randian ideal, or neither? Is Snyder celebrating Objectivism, or attempting (and failing) to deconstruct it? It’s this level of confusion about who represents what, and whose ideals are better than whose, that has come to exemplify Snyder’s work.

Snyder muddies the waters even further with Batman himself. I’ve never read anything that suggests Snyder is a Republican, but I almost don’t have to; his Bruce Wayne, angrily justifying his vendetta to Alfred, says: 
“…if there is even a one percent chance that [Superman] is our enemy, then we have to take it as an absolute certainty… and take him down.”
…which is an almost word-for-word recreation of Dick Cheney’s infamous “One Percent Doctrine”, used as the justification for the USA’s incursion into Iraq, supposedly in search of weapons of mass destruction. When Batman is fighting Superman, he taunts Kal-El with an incisive look at his upbringing:
“Your parents must have taught you that you were special, that you are here for a reason… my parents taught me a different lesson, dying in the gutter for no reason at all. They taught me that this world only makes sense when you force it to.” 
Ben Affleck as Batman with director Zack Snyder on the set of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. (Photo: Clay Enos)

Could there be a more stereotypically "American" attitude than that? The complete lack of self-awareness Snyder displays in his direction of Batman v Superman is a perfect reflection of the same lack of self-awareness the U.S. has typically displayed on the world stage, and is constantly derided for. And where in this quagmire is there room to discuss Batman v Superman’s disturbing take on immigration policy, which motivates Lex Luthor to create a Kryptonian abomination in order to provide “global security” against the threat of increasing alien attention? Who are the refugees in this metaphor – the single Kryptonian who flees his dying world? The citizens of Earth, who alternately revere and abhor Superman as a god? What a goddamn mess.

In my review of Batman v Superman, I derided Snyder as a filmmaker who delights in creating stunning visual tableaux but is ultimately unable to invest them with meaning. I realize now that he is definitely trying to communicate interesting ideas, but can’t make them coherent; it’s almost like he has attention deficit disorder, stopping halfway on the way to something interesting because he’s distracted by an idea for another shiny image. Batman and Superman are characters with legacies stretching back to the early 20th century, and have enjoyed many different artistic interpretations along the way, nearly all of which have respected the core appeal of the characters – that killing is the one line Batman won’t cross; that Superman is motivated by a desire to help others – and this, I think, is what makes Snyder’s interpretation so offensive. His vision of these characters is, at best, muddled, so he can’t be claiming to improve them. He doesn’t appear to think about what his choices actually mean, both to these very famous characters and to the audience that comes to see them on the big screen – he operates solely on the question of “wouldn’t it be cool if." You know what would be really cool, Zack? A superhero movie where the characters were, you know, heroes.

I suppose the best thing, then, to come out of the cinematic abortion that is Batman v Superman is this fresh discussion about Snyder’s hidden artistic intent, and the question of whether or not he will grow as a filmmaker to the point where he can wield these themes with any kind of skill. I anticipate many fascinating discussions with my film-minded friends about this in the future – I just hope Snyder can leave our favourite superheroes alone long enough for us to even give him the time of day.

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

2 comments:

  1. “…if there is even a one percent chance that [Superman] is our enemy, then we have to take it as an absolute certainty… and take him down.”

    You know Batman is literally proven wrong in the film, right?

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  2. I'm not sure what you mean. If you mean that it turns out that Superman isn't their enemy, then sure, he's proven wrong when Supes remembers he's supposed to be a good guy (which is triggered by the mention of his mother - a person who told him to shun the world). But whether or not Batman is wrong about Superman's intentions has nothing to do with the political statement that Snyder is making by putting those very carefully chosen words in the character's mouth.

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