The much hated-on superhero flick portrays an ugly, fractured America—one that's familiar to Muslims like me.
The reviews are in, and critics are saying Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is really, really bad. With reviews calling the movie "joyless," "overstuffed and preposterous," and "a disgrace," director Zack Snyder responded, "It is what it is." Batman Ben Affleck simply looked bummed out.
However, the movie wasn't meant to be pretty. Rather it was intended as an unpleasant lambast of the government and the popular reaction to 9/11. In doing so, Snyder has created the most original, visually-striking, and well thought-out superhero movie in years. Rather than being incoherent, he uses the superheroes and their backstories to convey a batshit America amid bitter infighting and divisions.
The film opens with an incredible action sequence. Remember the big fight at the end of Man of Steel, where Superman (Henry Cavill) and Zod duke it out, flattening Metropolis? Here Snyder poses a question that superhero movies usually shy away from: What about all the actual people in those flattened buildings? Snyder gives us a grim-faced Bruce Wayne speeding to his downtown offices, only to arrive too late. Wayne's understandable reaction is to immediately hate those who have brought such death and destruction, but he doesn't take the time to see that Superman (a.k.a. Clark Kent a.k.a. Kal-El) was actually doing good, protecting Earth from the villainous Zod. Wayne only sees aliens who have arrived from a foreign land, bringing their problems to American soil. For him, Kal-El is just as culpable as Zod.
While watching Wayne leading an incensed crowd, shouting 'Go home! Go home!' at Kal-El, I couldn't help but think of all the Muslims being attacked and blamed for the actions of a mindless, nihilistic minority who don't represent us at all.
This is the language many hear Trump using when he says he will ban Muslims for coming into America, or that America should build a wall along the border with Mexico and mass-deport undocumented workers. All of a sudden, I could see Kal-El, with his Arabic-sounding name and alien origin, as a symbol for all those who see the values that Superman is supposed to uphold—"truth, justice, and the American way"—being diminished in an era where hate is on the rise.
As a writer who is Muslim, I find it rare to see a protagonist that represents me in American film, but Batman v Superman positions Kal-El as an unfortunate victim, tarnished because of the actions of others deemed to be his contemporaries. While watching Wayne leading an incensed crowd, shouting, "Go home! Go home!" at Kal-El, I couldn't help but think of all the Muslims being attacked and blamed for the actions of a mindless, nihilistic minority who don't represent us at all.
The next scene, taking place in an Islamic stronghold in Africa, also resonated. What this action had to do with the destruction of Metropolis is never clearly linked. But my greatest pleasure came from the man saving the day, Kal-El, an outsider who supports the American dream and lifestyle, enough to do battle for the flag, just like so many of America's troops.
This scene reinforces that Batman v Superman is about the confusion that America has been in since 9/11. Indeed, when the movie returns to this moment, it's through journalist Lois Lane's (Amy Adams) discovery that weapons used in this war have come from a secret deal with a corporation—just like so many actual tales of government officials landing contracts in Iraq. Yet Lane can't publish the story because the military man that can back up her story is not foolish enough to be a whistleblower. And who can blame him, in a world where Chelsea Manning goes to jail and Edward Snowden has to flee to Russia.
As for the promised battle royale of the title, viewers after a UFC smackdown are in for a disappointment. Instead, what we get is more along the lines of an ideological chess match between two opposing visions of America. In one corner stands Metropolis, where workers send checks home to their moms and have misty-eyed reminiscences and dreams of Smallville, the fictional town with its emphasis on faith, family, community, and strong morals. In the other corner is Gotham, the haunted, joyless world of Bruce Wayne. Ever since Tim Burton gothed up the wonderfully cornball Batman of Adam West, Gotham has largely been a bleak, godless place, where the richest man in the city lives underground and the only heavenly illumination comes in the form of a bat signal. This Gotham simply cannot comprehend the world of Metropolis, and vice versa.
Snyder has never been big on plotting and dialogue, and his chief success is that he tells this story in symbols ("I'm a comic book guy," he told Yahoo). As he jumps between dreams, reflections, and action, some of the scenes are a bit jarring narratively, but they become comprehensible when viewed as metaphors for modern American discourse. Lex Luthor becomes a symbol for the internet generation, where his chief aim seems less about doing evil then entertaining himself. Why not have Batman battle Superman for lolz?
Once these semiotics are understood, even the overblown second half of the movie, where Snyder has to set up a Justice League movie, bring in Wonder Woman, and have a titanic battle with a Doomsday monster, makes sense. The film goes to the only place a story about a post-9/11, web-addled America can go, to polarized confusion, where fascism is on the rise and it doesn't matter how good you are—if you're from the wrong planet, you can be banished. It's an ugly world: A place where viable presidential candidates can push for banning Muslims from coming to America or targeted patrols in Muslim neighborhoods. A place where if the election goes Trump's way, people like me would no longer be welcome, until Trump can "work out what's going on."
Many have been slamming Batman v Superman for this very darkness. Yet, to me, the film tackles head on the travails of an increasingly fractured American society, which Snyder holds a mirror to. The end of Batman v Superman , far from being the hot mess some claim, is a condemnation of what America is becoming, a place where immigrants, especially those unfairly tainted because of the mass destruction caused by a few, are no longer part of a viable American dream. Perhaps it isn't Zack Snyder who's lost the plot, but everyone else who has.
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