Despite opening to terrible reviews, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did huge numbers this past weekend, bringing in $166 million. The prospect of seeing not one, but two, beloved superheroes in the same movie was too enticing to many ticket-buyers. But what’s surprising about Batman v Superman is that, really, there aren’t any heroes at all — at least in the way that we traditionally think of them. Perhaps this blockbuster is attempting to be something more than a traditional superhero flick, something more indicative of our modern world. These days, those who are viewed as heroes aren’t as excited to be filling the role as it was once defined.
Directed by Zack Snyder, Batman v Superman sets up quite a few convoluted reasons why Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) — both normally the good guys — are diametrically opposed. Batman blames Superman for the deaths of so many innocent souls during the climactic Metropolis battle from 2013’s Man of Steel between Superman and his archenemy General Zod. Meanwhile, Superman believes Batman thinks he’s above the law and needs to be reined in. Of course, they each think they’re doing the right thing, but shortsightedness and distrust causes them to go to war against one another, and in the process they behave more like petty adversaries than the paragons of virtue that we normally associate with crusading comic book characters.
Batman has often operated in the shadows, while Superman is portrayed as earnestly decent, sincere and sweet. But in Batman v Superman, Snyder takes the Man of Steel to the dark side, not so much recasting him as a villain but showing the less-savory aspects of a character who feels unappreciated by the Earthlings he’s trying to protect.
The idea of a comic book movie in which its protagonist isn’t a squeaky-clean hero is nothing new. But it is remarkable how many superhero movies these days reflect our own uncertainty about what constitutes a hero or role model. At the multiplex, you have ordinary people who become wary, sardonic superheroes (like Ant-Man). Or you have clearly disreputable individuals who reluctantly become superheroes because no one else can do the job (like Iron Man). Or you have characters who are given superpowers because of a freak occurrence but absolutely don’t want to be thought of as heroes (as seen in Deadpool). In the Marvel universe, only fuddy-duddy do-gooder Captain America is a square-jawed, righteous champion of the people — and everybody else in the Avengers, especially Iron Man, likes making fun of him because of it.
In such a pop-culture environment, the pessimistic spirit of DC Comics’ Batman v Superman feels right at home. (Eventually, the characters do work together to save the day, but even then Snyder drapes the proceedings in dark tones.)
This environment wasn’t invented by Hollywood. Just look at the news. As we get closer to November’s presidential election, it becomes clear that the messages coming from the major candidates aren’t ones of shiny, inspirational optimism but, instead, anger and fear. Of course, depending on the candidate you favor, you may find his or her stump speech to be stirring. But the possible nominees want us to believe in their toughness above all else.
No doubt part of Donald Trump’s appeal to his fans is his willingness to badmouth his opponents. And as an admirer of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s abrasive style, Trump tries to project strength through an unbending, bullying manner. If our idealized version of a fictional hero is someone who is selfless and brave, virtuous and kind, then Trump represents its polar opposite. Not coincidentally, it’s telling that Hillary Clinton, the one woman left in the race, makes a show of talking tough, in part to sound more masculine (lest she be denigrated for not being steely enough). Bernie Sanders is probably the sole candidate who could be said to be offering an inspiring message, but even he plays on voter fury — rallying against America’s top 1 percent, egregious college loans, the corporate influence in politics.
In other words, no one is adopting the “Yes, We Can” optimism of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign — and there are no “transformational” figures, or at least candidates who aspire to be seen that way. (In retrospect, Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” poster for Obama can be seen as an attempt to make Barack seem like a superhero to voters.) Of course, politics are far more complicated than the simplicity of comic book movies — the world is unpredictable and dangerous in ways that a graphic novel’s universe never is — but thus far, the 2016 presidential election is offering us candidates who want us to admire their anger, strength and single-mindedness, not their ability to speak to our better, more noble selves. No one in the race is trying to take on the mantle of Superman.
This tension over what makes a proper hero also plays out in sports. A generation ago, NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley famously starred in a Nike ad in which he declared straight into the camera, “I am not a role model. I am not paid to be a role model,” setting off a national debate about how we view celebrity athletes. That debate rages on today, as some of the best players in our most popular sports actively flout any notion that somehow they should conduct themselves in the manner befitting a role model or hero.
In baseball, last year during the American League Division Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers, Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista blasted a three-run homer in Game 5 that helped send his team to the Championship Series. But it wasn’t the dramatic homer that many fans remembered; it was his momentous bat flip afterward, a drop-the-mic punctuation mark that has become fashionable in baseball, which absolutely enraged retired players. Five months after the incident, some Hall of Famers are still bitching about it — including the Philadelphia Phillies’ great Mike Schmidt, who wrote an essay last week that complained, “What got more attention in last year’s postseason than a bat toss by Jose Bautista? Pointing to the sky is child’s play compared to that moment in the postseason on national TV. A flagrant disrespect of the opponent like that would have gotten somebody hurt back in the day.” He ended the piece by lecturing current ballplayers, “Be the kind of player you want kids to emulate by playing with dignity and class. Baseball demands it.” Schmidt, like other critics, got mad because, to their mind, Bautista had broken one of baseball’s unwritten rules — he was being a showoff, not a role model.
Bautista, for his part, wrote his own essay in November to explain himself, declaring, “[The bat flip] wasn’t out of contempt for the pitcher. It wasn’t because I don’t respect the unwritten rules of the game. I was caught up in the emotion of the moment.” Also, he made the important point that, often, people who moan that players don’t conduct themselves like modern-day heroes are actually just uncomfortable with athletes from different cultural or racial backgrounds who don’t behave the way they do.
And it’s not just baseball: Popular, unbelievably talented athletes such as the NFL’s Cam Newton and the NBA’s Stephen Curry draw criticism because they celebrate in outlandish ways, hearing from critics that they’re not conducting themselves like role model. But who’s to say what constitutes a hero? Ozzie Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end for the Cleveland Browns who’s now the general manager for the Baltimore Ravens, told The New York Times recently that he became a tight end because, as a kid, there was a cultural belief that blacks wouldn’t make good quarterbacks. “Now you’ve got some heroes that you can look at; there is someone you can emulate who is black,” Newsome commented, referring to Newton and other black quarterbacks in the league today.
In a culture in which the definition of a hero is shifting, it’s no wonder that superhero movies are themselves adapting to a new reality. The world still needs heroes, and they’re still around — they’re just operating under different rules.
Tim Grierson is one-half of The New Republic’s film column Grierson and Leitch. He is also a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone and Vulture as well as the author of six books, including Martin Scorsese in Ten Scenes.