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The Critic Versus The Fanboy: Debating Batman vs Superman

April 04, 2016 11:33 IST

Raja Sen hated Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and debates his reasons with Satyajit Chetri, who totally loved it.

IMAGE: Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck in Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.

If you've read my review of Batman Vs Superman: Dawn Of Justice, you know where I stand.

I called the film the worst superhero movie of all time, and while some people have since objected -- mostly by bringing up clunkers like last year's sickening Fantastic Four reboot and the wasted Green Lantern -- I feel the new Zack Snyder film is even worse because it robs two truly memorable characters, the two most iconic characters, of their magic.

I laid out a challenge on the Internet for any one critic -- or impassioned comic fan -- who actually liked Batman Vs Superman to join me in a debate, and the gauntlet was picked up by Satyajit Chetri, a friend I consider extremely sound in all matters comic-y.

Satya used to write a column on graphic novels for Rolling Stone, and currently lives in Los Angeles, reads a lot of comics and collects comic art. He genuinely liked the new film, found it audacious and preferred it to a lot of the Marvel movies, and so we decided to hammer the matter out in a (relatively civil) cage match online.

Read on, if you will, and choose your sides. Maybe one of us will talk you out of wherever it is you stand.

Every line is a spoiler, of course.

Raja Sen:

Let's start with first thoughts: Our initial takes on the film in a couple of lines.

Me, I felt it was clunky, dull, tried too hard to set up other DC films while neglecting what makes these two characters so damned special.

Satyajit C:

Ok, for me: It was massively ambitious, set to fail from time it was announced, but it proved to be a good surprise. It's Zack Snyder's movie, his version of the characters. Different from cookie-cutter superhero movies that come and go.

Raja Sen:

Sure. I get that. and I'm all for reinterpretation. And I agree it gets points for ambition, what with The Death and all...

Satyajit C:

To be clear, In my opinion 300 is terrible and I could not sit through 10 mins of Watchmen. I thought Man of Steel was better than the Avengers -- oh yeah, I went there. :)

I am not trolling you, I swear.

IMAGE: Amy Adams, Henry Cavill and Antje Traue in Man of Steel.

Raja Sen:

Well...

I come from more conventional opinion, in this case: I thought 300 was TOO DAMN SHOUTY but quite an impressive use of a tiny budget, I haven't watched Watchmen (because Moore said not to make it) and I love the Avengers.... but hey. let's talk about this one first.

I do think after Man Of Steel, Snyder's version of Clark/Kal-El needed to be more defined.

I've watched two movies about this character and I don't know who he is, really, and what his motivations are, where his sense of purpose lies and why he is so easily given to rage.

Satyajit C:

It's just that ZS/DC has come into the game super late, they get major flak for the "grimness" as opposed to Marvel's "joy", but the works that came out, if you strip away this veneer of fan expectations of what makes a "good superhero" movie, do stand as opinionated pieces of intent, rather than "hey, here's a fun three act romp that you can relax and enjoy."

Raja Sen:

Oh, I'm fine for grimness as long as they can run with it.. Jessica Jones was dark as sh*t, so was (the first) Sin City.. it all works.. but I feel taking the sunniest character and dipping him in grimness is a bit.... excessive.

Satyajit C:

What I got from MoS and BvS is: Superman is an alien who wants to do the right thing, but he's living in a world where doing the right thing is complicated, and everybody has their own agenda.

It's telling that both his parents advise him to do what he wants, that the world does not owe him a thing. Not only that, his REAL father told him he had a higher purpose, but without an inkling about how to fulfill it.

Raja Sen:

(Aside: And I'm with you re: Marvel's 'template' and am very, very worried about all the other supermovies coming out this year. civil war and doc strange in particular.)

Satyajit C:

This is something that's a popular take on Superman, that he's sunny and noble and everyone looks up to him. I suspect it comes from the '40s Americana roots of the character, but it is a valid statement to make that if you think about a world where superheroes do not exist, except for a bat vigilante with a 20-year character, things will get messed up for everyone.

Raja Sen:

Sure. and his Costner father told him to let kids drown... but okay, if you have a f**ked up Superman that's fine... like you said, it's his take and it's valid.

EXCEPT in this film we also see a pretty f**ked up -- and, for my money, tragically unintelligent -- Batman. He's easily manipulated, doesn't seem like a great detective, is too eager to go stop superman for some overcompensatory/ego-fuelled reasons.... but all this guy does too is glare and hit people.

Satyajit C:

Ah.

IMAGE: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Henry Cavill in Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Raja Sen:

So here's my question: Did you think that the DIFFERENCE between the two protagonists in this film is emphasised enough? Because with the exception of the flying and the finances, they didn't seem ideologically as far removed (or clearly defined.)

Satyajit C:

I thought it was a really really fresh take on Batman, I wrote 1,500 words a couple of weeks ago about why I loathe Batman the character, but Affleck/Snyder's Batman is someone not seen on screen before, a guy who has been fighting the fight for nearly 20 years. How does that change a man? How do his methods change in that time? Even Miller Batman from TDKR (external link) quit his work after his Robin died, but this guy has gone on.

Yes. You have jaded, old guy who has seen shit, and suspects the worst about people and you have idealistic, confused young guy who wants to do good, but doesn't know how.

Raja Sen:

I do accept your point though.. it's very fair that the one super-powered character in a hostile landscape will be looked on with scepticism... but I still think they overdid both the superman worship as well as the way Superman was being blamed for some massacre in "Nairomi" even though people were killed with guns.

Satyajit C:

Isn't that how MSM works though? All headlines, no details. The unsubtle point about power and innocence, how you cannot trust anybody with more power than you have. The details come later.

Raja Sen:

See, I genuinely believe you're giving the approach more credit than the execution.. they might have wanted to show this incredibly jaded Batman -- almost like Old Man Logan (external link) -- but he still comes across as quite thickheaded, at least per the decisions he makes in this movie.

Satyajit C:

The execution is flawed, I agree, but not for lack of trying. There is only so much mandate plus expectations you can handle in a 2: 33 hour film.

There are plot contrivances in this film, just like there are in every. single. superhero. film.

Raja Sen:

Speaking of mainstream media, we must speak of the Daily Planet, a newspaper that doesn't sell but alternates between asking its reporters to fly coach OR take a f*cking helicopter that flies from the roof of their building.

Satyajit C:

LOL

Yeah, i really laughed out loud.

Raja Sen

Sure, all superhero films are flawed and have mad contrivances.. agreed.. but I think this film had little to offer besides approach and lip service.. they kept going on about collateral damage and bruce was so affected by the MoS climax (great idea, btw, great starting point) but when Batman is out chasing or attacking he doesn't seem very concerned about all he's inflicting around him.

IMAGE: Ben Affleck in Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Satyajit C:

Did you like anything at all in the movie?

Raja Sen:

I liked Affleck's performance. A lot. I think he had a great weariness that made me want to root for him (which Batman as a character often doesn't have). I liked Jeremy Irons as Alfred/Siri. I liked Eisenberg's version of Lex, too, right till he went full SRK.

I liked Gadot, I liked the idea of Wonder Woman... but, again, I didn't like the idea of her schmoozing at a party having returned in order to steal a jpeg of herself... a jpeg, which, btw, proves that Lex knows who she is etc but doesn't seem to care about her or about the fact that she's in his mansion.

That's one of my primary problems with the film: It has ideas, but the writing is very first-draft... they made the film before they ironed out all the kinks.

Satyajit C:

Agreed on most points. Agree about Eisenberg/SRK, I believe Suku (Sukanya Verma) said Raam Jaane specifically, except I know people who talk/act like his Luthor IRL and can accept that as a stylistic tic. All other actors were uniformly great, I thought.

But here's the thing: when people are saying that Batman is a flat-out killer, I don't see it. There is this moment where he has a sniper rifle on a platform and I was like, holy sh*t, they are making him the Punisher. But he did not get to popping people in the head, thank goodness.

I really do not see him as a killer more than a no-nonsense Batman who is like "Ok, you throw a grenade at me? Here, you deal with it yourself." and lobs it back.

The one moment where he aims a machine gun at the guy with the gas tank on his shoulder, he shoots the gas tank, not the guy. The visions in the desert with him shooting people were....visions.

Batman does kill in the Burton movies, btw.

Raja Sen:

Yep, i know :)

Satyajit C:

And that's less to forgive, considering that deals with the early career of Bruce Wayne.

I would like to think that Superman's presence tempers Batman of this world down from where he was headed, and that's how the two balance each other out.

Raja Sen:

(I'm a huge fan of Burton's batfilms, btw. So gloriously f**ked up, I can't believe they let him make those. With Keaton. KEATON. That character was clearly a deviant in every sense.)

Satyajit C:

Hahaha

Raja Sen:

But see.

Batman being a killer doesn't bother me because that's a creative call. and Snyder's been calling it "manslaughter, not murder" (external link)

Satyajit C:

Hahahaha, has he?

Snyder is a lot of things, but eloquent and subtle aren't two of them.

He called up a radio station to talk about why Aquaman is awesome, and the most he got to was "his trident can dent superman, isn't that awesome?" (external link).

Raja Sen:

But I'm a lot more concerned about something like the fact that Batman who thinks he has just cause to kill Superman, would totally drop it because he takes a name that triggers off memories of Jeffrey Dean Morgan.. I mean Bats might get choked up, sure, but would he stop?

LOL so damned loud at the trident.

Satyajit C:

"Trident can dent" is my next band name, btw.

Raja Sen:

:D how very Sex Bob-omb

Satyajit C:

So here I disagree again: The film lays down specific reasons why Bruce's hand is forced.

He is there, watching buildings be destroyed, his people killed, and he is helpless. He sees the headlines, he believes that the world is going to hell, he has visions, and then he finds himself casually stopped and warned. How does he know this alien should not be stopped

And that act of driving the spear into Superman's chest was the first premeditated act of murder BW is about to indulge in, so his latching onto any excuse to hesitate is also understandable.

Also, I kinda *liked* that they finally used the Martha Wayne/Kent connection somehow. I am pretty sure there has never been a conversation in the comics where B & S are like "wait, your mom's name is Martha? Mine is too" : )

Raja Sen:

Yes but would he stop? He'd pause, perhaps... but to stop as if that's a magic password... it was quite crazily abrupt. at least he'd tie Superman up with green rope while he checked it out.. this whole Deewaar thing was too Bollywood.

And I'm with you there. it's a cute connection, nobody's really exploited it and I wish they'd have used it in that sort of throwaway, high-fivey vein.

Satyajit C:

Speaking of high-fivey, I look at the tone of the DC movies as bringing wine to a party that was primarily beer.

It may or may not be good wine, but everyone's like what the f**k, we wanted beer, dude!

Raja Sen:

Listen. Here's the issue with the DC liquor store: nolan brought single malt. and now everyone's a bootlegger.

For example, here's another thing that bothered me a lot: superman shows up, batman's waiting, the fight is about to start: and he calls him Bruce? He's already figured out Wayne is Batman? Damn, now who's the World's Greatest Detective?

IMAGE: Henry Cavill in Man of Steel

Satyajit C

Yeah! Another of those things I liked. Lex knows it's Clark, Superman knows it's Bruce, Lois and Clark know each other. Superman can literally hear anything, he could hear Bruce Wayne on his microphone at Lex's show.

Raja Sen:

Yes but that can be dealt with a lot more cleverly than just having him show up and say it.

Satyajit C:

Nolan isn't that great either, the works are a great standalone body, but the plot contrivances in the scripts, good lord.

Raja Sen:

(Agreed on Nolan, but whole other can of worms.)

Satyajit C:

Yeah, let's not derail.

Raja Sen:

Okay, here's a question: Why didn't somebody just throw the goddamned spear at Doomsday? it's like a egotistical basketball player: all Supes needed to do was pass to Diana.

Satyajit C:

One shot at destroying a monster who can shoot light-rays, and you want to risk letting him go when he's barely restrained by the strongest lasso/er on the planet? 

Handled deftly: I thought that was the beauty of it, the universe is less comic-bookey than we are used to.

As a viewer, I was like "wait, how?" and then, "oh, of course, he is superman"

Raja Sen:

I don't quite agree, and I have two more significant comic-book fan gripes.

Satyajit C:

Bring it : )

Raja Sen:

One is how completely Lois was damselled-in-distress throughout the narrative, and also used by most villains to basically page Superman...

And two was Batman now branding sex-offenders with his logo so as to get them bumped off by proxy while in prison.... <scratches head>

Satyajit C:

Funny you should say that about Lois Lane. Man of Steel has her figuring out how to use the Phantom Zone converter (with Jor El's help, obviously) and destroying the world engine, and this one has her figuring out the Lex/Africa connection by herself. The Lex Luthor throwing her off sequence is lazy writing, but it throws her square into the fray without being a third-party observer somewhere else. I know this sounds like I am defending the movie too much, no doubt there could have been better ways to do this or that. But Lois's presence is strong, in the movie, which is more than can be said for female characters in general

Raja Sen:

I can't quite get how she figured that Doomsday was from Krypton and hence the spear she tossed in the water would hurt him at all.. but okay.. Pulitzer etc ;)

And yeah, Ma Kent really got a raw deal. ugh. those polaroids. poor Diane Lane all niruparoy'd like so.

Satyajit C:

The electrical charges around the Kryptonian ship.

Yeah, but the polaroids were there in an earlier scene too, where Clark is sent polaroids of Batman's violence. It's an ugly world, for sure.

Raja Sen:

Also it was crazy that Metropolis and Gotham were basically Bandra vs South Bombay.. a bit too close for comfort, really.

Satyajit C:

That's fair.

Also, Bruce's parents' deaths over and over. Too many pearls, I say

The Batman branding: Remember that scene in Dark Knight when after Batman is hanging someone upside down and they are like "we know you don't kill, do your worst". That happened in year 1 or 2 of his career. By year 20, how does a man stay scary? Obviously by going further and further down the edge. Punching people in the head, breaking their bones, branding them. Where is the line? If we are ok with Daredevil throwing people down stairwells and repeatedly punching people over and over, why are we squeamish about violence that escalates? 

Raja Sen:

Not squeamish.. it's just that this character might as well have been, say, Deathstroke.. where's the Batman-ness? (besides Siri-Alfred.)

The visions... I appreciate the attempt at going hardcore with both the darkseid vision -- the Knightmare -- and the flash warning, but because of how this film was written and edited, they just jarred and I think they threw a lot of the BvS audience (me included) totally out of this present film while setting up the next few.

Satyajit C:

I think the Batman-ness got lost with age and cynicism. The movie makes a point that characters may have noble intentions and methods that can change over time, even fictional characters. And when they have changed once, they can change again. i.e Superman's idealism might as well bring Batman back from being a psychopath.

I am not a big fan of the superhero dance, "oh yeah, he is noble because he is not a killer". It serves serialized fiction well, but not a scenario when you have a story to tell with a beginning, middle and end.

Raja Sen:

Heh. 

Okay see: I get your affection for the ideas.. and you're right, it's good to see a film like this -- a film that could have well been made instead with a simple plot and starring pro-wrestlers -- aiming high instead of low.

Satyajit C:

Yeah, if it was simple and unambitious, or even a crowdpleaser, I wouldn't be as impressed.

Raja Sen:

Yet for me the direction was painful. exemplified best in that scene with granny's lemonade.. where we see the lemonade label and the horror is clear except then there are THREE more shots as Holly Hunter (who only talks through clenched teeth, bless her) turns it around, sees the full label and holds her breath so she can gasp only once the word 'granny' shows up.. you know what I mean?

When you're playing with these icons, just changing them up so fundamentally is a huge risk.. the ideas are there, but maybe there are too many stuffed into the same setpiece-heavy script? give the script three rewrites, fine-tune, hand it to someone like guillermo del toro or even rodriguez, and voila.

Raja Sen:

I do, however, traditional as my expectation is, believe that superman should smile a bit. this one doesn't have personality at all.

I mean superman might be considered square, but he isn't dull. cavill was so.... meh. (thoroughly enjoyed him in Man From UNCLE, though.)

IMAGE: A scene from Guardians of the Galaxy

Satyajit C:

At this point, it is fair to assume that everybody knows how to make a crowd-pleasing movie. Guardians of the Galaxy was so calculated to win hearts and sell toys it's ridiculous. But Mr Snyder chooses to take a different route, be as it may, and instead of berating him for it and for going wrong with details, I would rather laud his flawed product for the ballsiness.

Raja Sen:

No, you're right. Points for trying, for sure. When you were coming aboard to duke it out, you used the word 'audacious' on twitter and that set me thinking and I do see what you mean.

Satyajit C:

I liked Cavill, I kinda feel he's almost an Indian boy whose parents want him to be an engineer and his teachers want him to study hard, but he would rather figure himself out first.

Raja Sen:

If only he were a more competent director, though. A less-cluttered and better crafted film could have been a true milestone. as it stands, despite ideas I must just finally say i found this movie too tedious.

Haha Indian boy.

Satyajit C:

I think using Superman to save cats from trees or stopping bank robbers is a very traditional way of looking at his sunniness.

Raja Sen:

I must confess the Costner dream was too weird for me to even try to decipher.. also I'd lost interest by that time.

Hey. I'm fine with that. Don't go super-cliche. 

You know what'd make a killer movie? Without changing a f**king thing? Red Son.

Satyajit C:

I will agree with you about the tediousness in the sense that, we need moments of rest while watching something intense. Breaking Bad, just to give an example of darkness in media, has moments of cruel, intense laughter that follow a spectacular scene. The Snyder movies do not, they're just relentless. Though MoS had genuine moments of beauty, like when Superman flies for the first time. Or when Jor El says "you can save them all."

This movie was definitely lacking in those quiet, beautiful moments. That Costner scene wasn't it.

Raja Sen:

Yeah that first flight is a thing of true awesomeness.

Satyajit C:

Chances are high there will be a Red Son animated movie soon, DC is doing well with direct-to-video animation adaptations of its greatest hits.

Raja Sen:

Oh, and I'm so damn thrilled about The Lego Batman Movie :D

Ah, I'd like to dream of Red Son to be made like, say, Man In The High Castle.

Raja Sen:

Overall, it's just that in order to be balls-out relentlessness through a film, you need more directorial finesse.

Satyajit C:

I agree.

Raja Sen:

Alright. I guess we should wrap up the Versus bit, right? That's debate enough and handshakey enough I guess : )

Satyajit C:

Yeah, I think so. I understand where you stand, and I am sure you understand my standpoint too. :)

Raja Sen:

Absolutely.

Raja Sen / Rediff.com in Mumbai