It’s been a weird week for geeks. Disney and J.J. Abrams blew our minds with that new Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer that leaned heavily on original trilogy nostalgia – narration from Luke, a downed Star Destroyer, Darth Vader’s mangled mask, allusions to Leia (holding a lightsaber?), and the reappearance of Han Solo – while also promising a great deal of new stuff and new characters who appear to be very interesting.
I say it blew our minds because the internet has been having a collective fit over that trailer since it first hit the net. It hits all the right notes. It’s a perfect piece of marketing and hype, assuring people that they have not forgotten the characters everybody loves, but nor are they resting on their laurels and relying on them. Normally I hate Abrams’ marketing tacks, and while the Celebration panel overall was underwhelming and filled with traditional Abrams’ obscurity in the name of the mystery box, the trailer I cannot deny is wonderful.
Then Warner Brothers messed up colossally with their bizarre plans to debut a trailer as a stand-alone IMAX experience, and leaked a Batman vs. Superman trailer three days early. After a feeble attempt to cover up the trailer, they eventually caved and released the whole thing.
The better thing to do would have been to scuttle the trailer entirely: this is one of the worst trailers I’ve ever seen.
There are two characters in the overlong, unwieldy full title of this film: Batman, and Superman. This is a trailer featuring both of those characters. But it understands neither of them.
Let’s start with Superman. Man of Steel basically demonstrated that Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Warner Brothers at large have no real idea what makes Superman, Superman. They correctly identified his alien heritage as a significant part of his character, but they steered into it and made the film in large part about Superman’s inabilities to fit into Earth life. There was some nonsense about Pa Kent telling him to hide his powers, but also to protect people with them (contradictory advice! hooray!). There was that huge scene of Zod appearing over Earth and announcing his intentions to everybody on planet, which directly quoted decades of alien invasion films (Spielberg’s Close Encounters was probably the most direct influence). The message is clear: Superman is an alien, he’s not one of us.
But he is. The entire point of Superman is that he is an alien being who is superior to us in every conceivable way. People frequently point to his generic powerset as a negative, but it’s just all of our human traits ratcheted up to 11 (also some weird stuff like heat vision but who’s counting?) Superman is an ideal – he is everything that we wish humans could be. And yet, despite that superiority, despite his ability to totally destroy us on a whim, he chooses to be one of us. He chooses to protect us, the world that gave him a home, when he could just as easily leave us behind forever.
That is what makes Superman the iconic figure that he is. That ethos is what has led to a seemingly unending array of Superman-as-God comparisons. He’s the picture of benevolence and humanity, despite being an alien. So to see a trailer that is actively lashing out as Superman and portraying him as a godlike alien who is being worshipped by certain sects of humanity and reviled by others seems a betrayal of that core concept.
Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman is my favorite depiction of the character, and is by far the closest to his spirit in recent memory. This one page scene from the tenth issue is perhaps the most concise summation that I can give.
So this brings us to Superman’s opponent: Batman.
Most people are familiar with Batman by now, and Christopher Nolan’s films – with their clear inspiration from Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb’s seminal works on the hero – have colored popular perception of him. He’s a dark and brooding hero with a tragic past! And that’s true, to an extent. But those are surface designations. Batman is about much more than a relentless drive for justice (although there’s something to be said for the entirety of the Batman mythos just being an extreme externalization of unrealized psychological turmoil). He too is an ideal. An ideal of the best a human can be. If Superman is what we wish we could be, Batman is the most that we can be. His sense of morality and justice is paramount, and throughout the modern era of comics we’ve seen some stripping back of his grimdark leanings in favor of a strong moral compass.
The most significant influence on modern Batman stories is Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. It depicts a retired Batman returning to the fray as an aging, vaguely out of shape man who is brutally violent and much more angry than previous incarnations. He’s still the World’s Greatest Detective – but a rougher, coarser version. I am not here to tell you that The Dark Knight Returns is anything less than an absolute masterpiece. But I am here to tell you that it is not the graphic novel that everybody believes it to be. It is not about this ideal version of Batman as a brutal crusader with a harsh stance on crime and criminals who does what must be done in the name of justice. The Dark Knight Returns is a terrible tragedy. It is about the corruption of the soul, the loss of the moral compass that has turned Batman into, arguably, a monstrous, aggressive, paranoid human being – quite the opposite of what Batman should be.
This trailer features a scene of Batman in an armored suit staring up at Superman, who is hovering in the air above him. It’s a direct visual quotation of a panel near the end of The Dark Knight Returns. But it is affected entirely differently, and the loss of the critical context has made it pretty gross.
The Dark Knight Returns takes great pains to contextualize the massive fight between Batman and Superman that serves as its climax as a hubristic struggle that isn’t beneficial for either party; it’s this hypermasculine clash of egos, and there’s no valor in the fight at all. Batman makes his case very clear: he’s fighting Clark solely to beat him. Not stop him from doing something that Batman considers wrong; just to beat him to prove he can do it. It’s entirely a pride thing. This trailer, however, doesn’t have that context. Instead, it seems to be framing things in such a way as to make the entire affair seem, in the words of the internet that I have seen echoed all over the place since this trailer came out, “badass.”
That’s so not cool. It’s like taking the fake Nazi propaganda film from Inglourious Basterds and framing it as a heroic war story. When you remove the context you completely change the meaning, and this trailer seems to take this futile clash of titans that is indicative of the state of decay of both parties and turn it into something cool and awesome. It’s cribbing the language without understanding its meaning.
Now, there’s a chance that the film itself will contextualize all of this in a way that makes emotional and thematic sense. I grant that. I find it highly unlikely given everything I’ve heard anybody involved in this film say about it, but it is possible. This trailer, however, is bad. Plain and simple. It’s all pomp, circumstance, and gravitas without earning any of it and without understanding any of it.
Now I’m gonna go watch the Star Wars trailer again.