The Superhero-Body Problem

On superhero fight scenes, the achievement of Logan, and the missed opportunities of Batman vs. Superman.

My extended take on the extended Zack Snyder cut of Justice League — sorry, not an extended cut, a whole new movie, don’t hurt me Sonny Bunch — is in the latest issue of National Review, though if I’m being honest it’s really more a review of the full Snyderverse, with particular attention to the promise and failure (yes, even in the director’s cut) of Batman vs. Superman.

Watching all nine hours of Snyder’s superhero saga, to my wife’s despair and my occasional exhaustion, I came away convinced that the second Snyder D.C. movie was the crucial one, the place where his distinctive superhero vision, his fascination with the “what if …” of gods coming down to Earth, really had the opportunity to crystallize into something that escaped the current limitations of the genre. The lengthy Justice League, by contrast, while a much better movie in technical terms than its predecessor, represents a retreat to a more conventional superhero story: It’s a grimdark Avengers, which is fine for those who like that sort of thing, but not nearly as interesting as the man-versus-god dynamics in Batman vs. Superman — whose promise was undone, unfortunately, by some truly terrible scripting.

I want to talk a little more about that promise here, but in roundabout way, by starting with a moment near the end of Justice League, where The Flash, a.k.a. Barry Allen, while racing in circles to generate the energy required to do Something Very Important, gets hit by a blast from a laser cannon in his thigh. The shot knocks him out of his superspeed mode, but more than that it actually wounds him, giving him something you rarely see on superheroes in the modern movies: A patch of scorched and bleeding flesh, an injury that keeps him from completing his part of the mission, and that he then needs to overcome in order to race fast enough to turn back time and save his supermates and the world.

To see the wound and puzzle over what it meant (does the Flash’s energy give him super-healing powers?) was to be reminded of the problem with the climaxes of so many superhero movies: These are stories that inevitably end in knock-down, drag-out fights of one kind or another, but very often the battles are intensely boring, because the rules of what actually defeats a given superbeing seem so arbitrary. Nobody bleeds, nobody really gets hurt, until a certain allotted time passes, and then it’s time for this lightning bolt or that neck twist to finally do the job.

To be clear, I understand that in the comic books the rules are not always so arbitrary; indeed, I just had an interesting chat with a fellow preschool dad, more plugged into comic-book arcana than I, who explained to me at length all the different hierarchies of fighting power. (I hadn’t realized, for instance, that the Hulk’s super-strength was a such a trump.) And I suspect that if I watched Marvel and D.C. movies as a careful fanboy, with multiple reviewings and rewindings, I might catch more references to these hierarchies, more subtle attempts to make the fights make sense.

For instance, in the example above, if you browse the internet after watching Justice League you will quickly discover that yes, in fact, the Flash’s powers do give him super-healing abilities:

By having a connection to the speed force, every speed force conduit has an incredibly fast healing factor and can heal from most injuries in seconds and devastating injuries in minutes.

And if I recall the scene correctly, Barry Allen says something along the lines of “give me a moment” before he sets out to save the day, suggesting an intended nod to that arcana.

But it’s not a detail of his powers that the four-hour movie bothers to adequately explain, or that a casual viewer can be expected to immediately infer from what’s on screen. So instead that viewer is left uncertain, at the very climax of the movie, as to whether we’re watching The Flash shrug off the equivalent of a paper cut or one of the weightless punches that superheroes always take, or persevere, like Curt Schilling in the 2004 ALCS, in a world-saving feat of derring-do while dealing with crippling pain in his super-speedy body. Put another way: We don’t know whether he’s manifesting a super being’s powers or a human body’s toughness, and that uncertainty diminishes his moment no matter which interpretation is vindicated by the the extra-cinematic canon.

And that moment with Allen/The Flash is distinctive, again, because you do see a moment’s worth of viscera. For your average superbeing — meaning not Superman but notionally lesser sorts, from Captain America to Aquaman — it’s not always clear what would have to happen to even raise a bruise. Instead the main quality that they seems to share, whether they’re Atlantean or Amazonian, graced with Spidey strength or a vibranium suit, is a kind of bounciness, so that they can sling each other around like WWE stars without anyone getting really hurt:

As with the “E” in in WWE, there’s nothing wrong with this as entertainment! (Every critique of the Marvel universe comes with that disclaimer.) And of course it’s not as if the typical non-superhero action movie is a model of physical realism in its fights and stunts.

On the other hand, the non-superhero action movies that we consider classics often do make an effort to take the bodies of their heroes somewhat seriously. Think of John McClane, barefoot and bleeding, in Nakatomi Tower. Or think of the incredible use of stunts — absurd, impossible, yet defiantly embodied — instead of computer-generated effects in Mad Max: Fury Road, the greatest action spectacle of this century. Or think of almost every action movie involving Mel Gibson, behind the camera or in front of it, from Lethal Weapon down to Apocalypto — embracing embodiment to a sometimes-ridiculous extreme.

Is there a superhero-movie equivalent of these kind of efforts? (No, Thor’s beer belly does not count.) Well, Christopher Nolan goes hard on the physical requirements of being Batman, but the whole point of Bruce Wayne is that he doesn’t have a superbody, so it’s a somewhat different case. You do get a little bit of a what-is-it-actually-like-to-have-this-superhuman-body energy in the Spiderman mythos, which is one reason Peter Parker’s superhero puberty is so frequently recycled. But the best example, from the opposite end of the superhero life cycle, is James Mangold’s Logan, an imperfect movie in some ways but one that’s just terrific in the way it takes superhero embodiment seriously, by asking a simple question: What happens to the super-soldier when he starts to get old and go downhill? (And, at the same time — what happens to the telepath when he slips into dementia?)

Logan’s agonized decay is a rebuke to superhero bounciness, and much more interesting than mere superhero death, whether the late lamented is Iron Man or for that matter Superman himself. Death tells us that something can kill a superhero; okay, great. But the question of what wounds a superhero is much more interesting, much richer in dramatic possibilities, much closer to the adult storytelling that so many of these movies lack.

Which brings us back to Batman vs. Superman. What did I want from the movie? Well, to start with I wanted the plot to make sense, but by make sense I really mean that I wanted it to effectively execute its premise, and show us Superman’s apparently-indestructible body as a political and military and scientific problem, whose restraint and even destruction might seem necessary to good men as well as wicked ones.

For this purpose, the Christ imagery that Snyder deploys (as in the image above) is somewhat ill-chosen. Jesus is a god-man who submits to wicked men and keeps his full powers hidden, a god-man whose true invulnerability is invisible, a god-man who until the resurrection appears to be relatively easy to defeat. Whereas Superman is the opposite: He’s a god-man who has already come on the clouds of heaven, whose powers nobody denies or doubts, and so the dramatic question is not how his power might be manifest in weakness, but what hidden weakness his brazen strength conceals.

In a scattered way Batman vs. Superman is interested in that question, presenting various candidates for the crucial weakness — Superman’s partiality toward Lois Lane and his adoptive mother, his political naivete, his brook-no-rivals attitude toward Batman. But the movie’s storytelling is just so lazy, so terribly lazy: It never effectively imagines a realistic way that public opinion might move against Superman, or a reasonable way that Bruce Wayne might persuade himself to go to war against a god, or a really interesting way that a pair of mortal billionaires might plot against a seemingly-immortal hero. And then it just relies on kryptonite to lay the hero low.

[Comic Book Guy voice]: Excuse me, but you have to have the kryptonite … But do you? Or if you do, does it have to be the primary mechanism of Superman’s defeat?

Consider, as an alternative, one of the strongest scenes in Man of Steel, featuring a young Clark Kent struggling to master his super-hearing and super-sight, holding out the very Logan-like possibility that with a less-understanding mother the young Superman could have gone insane:

This idea recurs later in the same movie, when Zod and the other Kryptonians have a similar experience, opening a brief chink in their armor as they adjust to superpowered life on Earth. Why couldn’t Batman vs. Superman have returned to this conceit, or something like it — some way in which Superman’s actual superness might be turned against him instead of merely neutralized, some way in which his godlike body might, without ceasing to be godlike, betray him and leave him vulnerable? Some idea that asked more of Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor in terms of ingenuity, but also showed us some actual physical vulnerability of Superman’s, linked perhaps to the gestured-at emotional vulnerabilities, that lent the whole story more weight than just the “rocks from Krypton make him weak” conventions of the comic book?

Maybe invention and drama of that scale and subtlety is too much to ask of a Snyder movie. But in both the fanboy enthusiasm and the grudgingly-positive reviews for the Snyder cut of Justice League I think you can see, after so many bounce-house superhero movies, a desire to honor his desire to do something more serious, more tragic, and more unsettling than the more lightweight Marvelian norm. And the best way to honor a desire that falls short is to suggest ways in which it might have gone further, instead of returning, in the end, to the more weightless style of superhero storytelling that still rules this age of Hollywood.