Another superhero movie. Another opportunity to complain about how humourlessness has come to define the genre.
I’m not exactly a comic-book nut. It’s not that I know nothing. If you dropped the name Frank Miller, for instance, I’d know you’re not going on about a blunt-spoken flour-maker. But I wouldn’t be able to keep up with you in a discussion about the various Superman/Batman mythologies down the decades. All of which is to say that I approached Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as just a movie, and for a few minutes I found it fascinating. The film begins where Man of Steel ends, with Superman and General Zod battling over downtown Metropolis, crashing into skyscrapers and reducing them to mushroom clouds of rubble – it’s a 9/11 image with the world’s most beloved superhero as the terrorist. Never mind his reasons, he’s leaving behind a ton of collateral damage. We see mostly shattered glass and morsels of concrete, but we know there are people in those buildings, and thanks to this blur in blue and red, they’re never going to see another day.
In other words, the film tells us that Superman comes with a super price tag – but this isn’t exactly news. At the end of the first major Superman movie – made in 1978, and called, quite simply, Superman – Lois Lane dies, and Superman is so grief-stricken that he goes around the earth and turns back time in order to bring her back to life. His action resides in the realm of the ghoulish: he’s re-animated the dead, a scenario that Stephen King exploited to terrifying effect in Pet Sematary. But it’s a different tone on screen. We register the ending as a happy one. Had Superman been made today, Lois Lane would have stayed dead, and the Man of Steel would have retreated to the Fortress of Solitude. Today’s superhero’s films want us to see that there’s nothing fun about having superpowers. With the two-and-a-half-hour running time that’s become the average, you’d think Superman would find a moment for a super dinner date with Lois, whisking her off to Valencia for seafood paella, after pausing to pick up a rosé in Provence. But we just see him making eggs, the usual way, on a cooking range. You’d think he’d at least use his X-ray vision.
I keep thinking of the scene in X Men: Days of the Future Past with the mutant named Quicksilver, who shares with Superman the ability to be faster than a speeding bullet. Wolverine and Charles Xavier are attempting to rescue Magneto, who’s being held in the bowels of the Pentagon. We expect action, thrills. What we get is a nudge in the ribs, a twinkling piece of movie magic. When federal guards corner the intruders in the cafeteria and draw out their guns, time transforms into Quicksilver-time – he moves so fast that the actions of the others register in slow motion. Bullets are fired, but Quicksilver knows they’ll take a while to reach their target. So what does he do? He dips a finger into a pan and licks the sauce. He knocks the cap off a guard. He pokes another guard in the cheek. Oh damn, there’s still the matter of those bullets. He rearranges their trajectories, as though moving around pins on a notice board. Who says matters of life and death cannot take a moment for the superhero to show off?
If you’re going to say that the plot of Batman v Superman is dead-serious, then allow me to argue that X Men: Days of the Future Past, too, is hardly something that calls for Jim Carrey – it’s about how the mutants could be wiped out unless they go back into the past and change history. But then, the X Men movies, the Iron Man movies and Ant-Man are glorious exceptions in the post-Christopher Nolan movie-verse, where a superhero wears not just the cowl but also the scowl. Hence the reminder, for the 853rd time, that Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered by a mugger. Hence the use of a celestial choir even for a shootout, which makes us feel we’re meant to be watching angels escort the dearly departed souls. We get a whiff of this solemnity in the new Bond movies too, which jettison the gadgets and jokes in favour of a tragic faux-Shakespearean air that screams, “We’re suffering… Give us the Oscar already.”
Which is not to say that these are bad films (though Batman v Superman is certainly undernourished as both spectacle and drama, the cinematic equivalent of a Lamborghini fitted with a TVS-50 engine) – just that these are lumbering, one-note movies, driven by lumbering, one-note Hans Zimmer scores. There’s no lyricism, no wit. There are no grace notes. And it’s not that grace notes always have to be humorous. They can come in other flavours too – as character-revealing asides, as filmmaking showmanship, as eye-popping action, as a wink in the staging, as everything you see in Michael Mann’s Heat, the real-world answer to Batman v Superman, pitting two formidable men – a cop, a thief – against each other. It says something when the story about a duo with no superpowers whatsoever ends up more mythic than one about saviours of mankind.
Then again, who says there are no jokes in Batman v Superman? Just look at the many unintentional ones, like the spluttering villain played by Jesse Eisenberg doing his best Shah Rukh Khan imitation, or the long-suffering, hostage-ready Nirupa Roy-like Martha Kent, or the Amitabh Bachchan-Shashi Kapoor dynamics between Superman and Batman. (With those perfectly sculpted chins, you can imagine the dialogue: “Mere paas maw hai.”) It may be an accident that Martha rhymes with mata, but the Indian film resonances are no coincidence. For both the masala movie and the superhero movie are rooted in myth. It’s just that we already had myths to work from, whereas America needed the crutch of a radioactive spider or a planet named Krypton to explain what put the “super” in these heroes. Another difference. Our myths, and consequently our masala movies, have often made room for a comedy track. Hollywood, look and learn.
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