“The Dark Light”
The new Batman vs. Superman movie is getting unfairly drubbed by reviewers. It is admittedly an overly ambitious film, but refreshing given that most other comic book movies are the graveyards of the uninspired. The film begins with a bravura sequence in which Jack Napier kills Bruce Wayne’s parents, returning to the primal space in front of the Monarch Theater, previously best cinematically rendered in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Multiple times in the span of its first few minutes, the marquee in Zach Snyder’s new film advertises John Boorman’s absolutely terrific but poorly remembered Excalibur (1981), a Wagnerian film that re-tells the story of King Arthur.
The politics of Zack Snyder’s interest in Wagner are deeply suspect: his film 300 (2006) is a racist and sexist piece of fascism. The soundtrack to Boorman’s film is militaristic to the extreme, ranging from the operas of Richard Wagner to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1936), the virtual sonic scape of the Third Reich. However, I can detect very little fascism in Batman vs. Superman. Instead, the film seems fairly reasonable in its critique of Superman as a kind of fascist icon, the purported savior of us weak-willed people, but one who actually ends up killing and maiming more people than he saves.
The meandering middle part of the film is obsessed with familial relationships, particularly interested in mothering and fathering. As he did in Snyder’s first Superman film, Man of Steel (2013), Kevin Costner steals the show. In Batman vs. Superman, he takes on the role of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, spinning out humble farm wisdom at the North Pole just as Superman is about to give up. Superman bequeaths the excellent parenting he has received to Batman, rendered a bitter vigilante by the untimely death of his own father and mother.
The film’s great triumph in this regard occurs when Superman must sacrifice himself fighting a golem that the villain, Lex Luther has created from the genetic remnants found in a demolished space ship from Krypton. Impaled in the chest by a Kryptonite spear that Batman earlier created to kill the god he only thinks is his enemy, Superman must pull himself closer to the golem to finish the beast off. It is an exquisite reformulation of an identical scene in Excalibur. At the end of Boorman’s film, Arthur must painfully slide up the lance that impales him, to Mordred, his evil son created by an incestuous mating with his sister. Arthur slays his son and rescues England from the barren misery he has created, as does Superman rid Earth of his similarly genetic miscreant.
Batman vs. Superman skillfully uses Excalibur as an act of transference from the world of Batman to that of Superman. At the beginning of the film, Excalibur serves as the marker of Bruce Wayne’s Oedipal trauma. He cures himself of that trauma, headed from isolation as a vigilante to the community of the Justice League in future films, by passing the heroic torch to Superman. It is the Man of Steel who redeems Batman, lifting the solution to the problem of the golem from the very film Bruce Wayne never got to see as a child.
By grounding itself in the mythology of Excalibur, Batman vs. Superman finds a mature language for understanding the relationship between kings, gods, and humans, thematic material sorely lacking in almost all of the rival Marvel films. The story of the Fisher King is one that deeply matters to us because it expresses the relationship between humans and the Earth from which they spring. An environmental filmmaker to his core, John Boorman emphasizes that “the land is the king, and the king is the land,” a mythological structure that permeates his film. When Arthur thrives, his knights ride past brightly colored flowers. When Arthur fails amidst a sea of sexual treachery and betrayal, the English countryside is reduced to barren, black earth.
Batman vs. Superman fuses the bleak urban decay of the Batman movies (from Tim Burton’s to the more recent Christopher Nolan outings) to the bright world of Superman, most beautifully expressed in the Christopher Reeve movies that began the modern spate of big-budget Hollywood superhero films. The two heroes of Batman vs. Superman have put aside their differences, united in their desire to redeem humanity. They accomplish exactly what Lancelot and Arthur do at the end of Excalibur, joining one last time in their battle against evil, sacrificing themselves not as enemies but as brothers, allowing others to thrive in their place. Because of their film’s superb mastery of intertextuality, for all their differences—man vs. god, dark vs. light—Batman and Superman end their new film as these kind of Arthurian brothers, forging a bond that is both meaningful and shockingly emotionally moving.