The titans of the comic book world are about to clash. The publicity machinery has been in overdrive for months; fandom and social media are agog. Batman and Superman, two of the most iconic superheroes (and mega franchises) are going to meet in mortal combat in Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice. Coming to your friendly neighbourhood multiplex on Good Friday.
But the world knows that the risks the makers of the film are taking on are huge. Everyone remembers Alien and Predator, but how many us have any memories of Alien vs Predator (AVP)? Even if you are a diehard sci-fi/ horror fan, and do recall AVP, do you have the foggiest memory of its sequel AVP: Requiem? Hollywood runs on optimism (What else could possibly be its fuel?), but AVP: Requiem sort of took the cake. In fact, so hostile was the Alien team to the idea of mixing up the two franchises that Ridley Scott, set to direct Alien 3, dropped out when he heard the news. The reaction of Sigourney Weaver, the heroine of the Alienseries, was even more extreme. She revealed in an interview that she insisted her character Ellen Ripley be killed off in Alien 3.
Well, Batman vs Superman certainly does not come with such bad vibes. After all, one of its producers is Christopher Nolan who directed the classic Batman series, the Dark Knight trilogy, and also co-produced Man Of Steel, the last time Superman was seen on screen. Man Of Steel was directed by Zack Synyder, and yes, he has directed Batman vs Superman. So you have two men who are very familiar with the two superheroes.
Snyder is a very cool director who takes on projects which the normal Hollywood helmer would not dare to touch. Who would take the risk of making a film of Alan Moore’sWatchmen, the 400-page epic graphic novel, which spans generations and galaxies in an alternate reality, with big slabs of prose in between—the graphic novel to kill all graphic novels about superheroes.
His ally—or boss—Christopher Nolan took the Batman comic books (and the characters) into a noir world where all moral choices are haunting trade-offs and each film has a sub-text that’s, to put it euphemistically, disturbing. There was enough violence and large-scale destruction of prime property, but anyone who exited the theatres with the same sort of elation that she felt with The Amazing Spider-Man, should be classified as at least a dimwit and at best an incurable Pollyanna.
The Snyder-Nolan duo’s Man Of Steel was a subtext-filled reinvention of the Superman mythology. Traditionally, this alien from the planet Krypton has been presented as a clean-cut all-American hero, saving the world—and the United States—from ghastly masterminds from both the earth and beyond. But Snyder’s version was Superman as an immigrant to America, with rather unusual skills and powers.
Snyder held up a mirror to a people who were increasingly suspicious of the “different”, the “other”. To make his hero different from his earlier incarnations, he even changed the colour of his body suit. But perhaps the most daring move he made was having Superman being able to grow a pretty bushy beard and have chest hair, just like most average men do. This was simply unimaginable to the fans: Superman had body hair! (Other than the hair on his head and, presumably his nether parts.)
Nolan’s and Snyder’s superhero projects are all about bringing harsh reality into their protagonists’ personalities and predicaments, and they are not above sneaking in a lofty “message” or two.
While Tim Burton’s two Batman films Batman (1989) andBatman Returns (1992) were eerie, atmospherical and weird, Nolan’s vision is totally different.
As a child, Bruce Wayne, the billionaire playboy who dresses as a bat at night and goes out to fight crime in Gotham City, watched his parents being killed by a street gangster. He grew up lonely and friendless in his huge mansion, looked after by the Wayne family’s faithful butler Alfred. Fallen accidentally into a cave infested by bats, he gets his inspiration and the way to fulfil his life’s obsessive objective: to fight crime. This is the basic foundation of the Batman canon that no interpreter can fiddle with—not Burton, not Nolan, not anyone else.
But, while for Burton, Batman was a weirdo, although one to be taken seriously within reasonable limits (after all, this is a guy who dresses up as a bat at midnight, for god’s sake!), Nolan approached this whole Dark Knight business very—as we say in India—“intellectually” (He seems incapable of approaching anything in any other way). Nolan’s Batman is dark, brooding, humourless, morally conflicted—a far darker character than Burton’s. I am consciously avoiding any mention of the Batman films made between Burton’s stint and Nolan’s—they were clunkers that killed the franchise for a decade.
Snyder’s Superman in Man Of Steel also follows the same intellectualized trajectory, no doubt influenced by Nolan. Even after saving Earth from the alien monster Zod (who destroys half of Superman’s home town Metropolis), he is initially seen as an outsider and a predator by the US armed forces, who come out with their heaviest artillery to finish him off. Of course, good sense prevails in the end, and his value is recognised by American society.
Interestingly enough, Batman, throughout his career, in spite of all he does to rid his beloved Gotham City of crime, is treated with suspicion and as an unwanted vigilante by the entire Gotham police force, other than its chief Jim Gordon, who is one of the few people who know Batman’s real identity.
In other words, if Snyder’s re-imagining of Superman inMan Of Steel is as an outsider, Batman has been one all his life, in every medium—comic book, graphic novel, television, film.
Batman has always been a far more ambiguous character than Superman. After all, how much ambiguity could a man with superpowers and a heart of gold and a love for his adopted country and planet have?
Things also happen to Batman. His best friend turns into one of his deadliest enemies; he is crippled by supervillain Bane; he loses his co-crime fighter Robin the Boy Wonder, for whose death he blames himself.
In Frank Miller’s superlative graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, we find him a middle-aged alcoholic recluse who has retired from fighting crime. Nothing like all this ever happens to Superman. Except that in Miller’s world, Superman has also retired and is a farmer now, living a quiet life tending to his crops and cattle.
Obviously, circumstances force both of them to put on their body suits and get back on the job again.
The Dark Knight Returns is also the only graphic novel I know of (there may be others) where Batman and Superman meet in a fight to the death. Batman wears special armour, carries deadly gadgets and is hooked up to Gotham City’s electrical power source.
How else does a human being—flesh and bones—fight a creature who can fly, is not hurt by anything from bullets to nuclear bombs, has X-ray vision and is, by all earthly parameters, a god?
The high point of Batman vs Superman that everyone will be looking forward to, obviously, will be the fight sequence(s) between the two. What strategies will Batman adopt to kill this invincible being? Will he use green Kryptonite, the only thing in the universe that can sap Superman’s powers?
The trailer does not reveal any details, though heavy body armour for Batman is hinted at. What is also indicated is that Superman’s most powerful earthling enemy Lex Luthor is aware of the everyday identities of the superheroes and will engineer their clash. And, as the icing on the cake, we’ll have Wonder Woman, the Amazonian superheroine. The rest of what we see in the trailer (in fact, trailers—three of them have been drip-released to ratchet up curiosity) is destruction on a gargantuan scale. Expect some out-of-this-world computer-generated imagery.
We have no idea what we will get from the Snyder-Nolan combine, except that, at least visually, it will set some benchmarks. And that, in the end, Batman and Superman will be friends and foil Lex Luthor’s mega-evil plans to take over the planet or the galaxy or whatever. And given the track record of its creators, it’ll be a grim film.
But can anyone who has ever been a comic book fan afford to miss the film? I don’t think so. And by Saturday, the Internet and social media will be a cacophony of raves and rants.
By the way, now one hears that Warner Brothers is planning a Godzilla vs King Kong film. And they are going to put so much planning and thought and effort and money into it that they are talking about a release only in 2020.
That’s four years away, but I’ve already decided that I’ll give that one a miss. A dinosaur (or whatever Godzilla is) fighting a giant ape? I can do without that one.