Difficult to talk about superhero movies just now. It’s not just the loud arguments, though there are a lot of them: “Are superheroes too gritty,” “Did Snyder drop the ball,” “Can DC be saved by the director of Heat Goes to Boston and Wacky Syriana,” “How does Captain America 3 affect Spider-Man 6,” “Is Deadpool for adults or teenagers,” “Will Thor ever not be terrible,” “How much does Bryan Singer hate The Last Stand?”
The bigger issue, I think: No one is willing to define the terms of our debate. Should a superhero movie function independent of source material, or honor it? Does it matter if Superman barely speaks in a Superman movie? Does it matter if a decent movie called Captain America barely has time for Captain America? Do we value excessive continuity, or deplore how quickly it devolves into aimless referentiality? (Look, it’s Howard Stark!) If Ant-Man does everything for his daughter in one movie, why does he forget about her the second Captain America kidnaps him? Is Ant-Man a sociopath? Would that make his movies better?
Batman v Superman, Civil War, and Apocalypse alI ride hard hard on political imagery. A suicide bomber in Washington blows up the Capitol. Explosive unrest in Cairo. The U.S. Secretary of State speaks on behalf of the United Nations, indefinitely detaining noncombatants without trial in offshore black sites. Jesus, there’s a movie called “Civil War.” Like: Auschwitz.
Does that mean that we must, in turn, struggle to take seriously the gas-leak politics of stateless (though invariably American) superpowered globo-cops with infinite resources motivated exclusively by goodness? If Wonder Woman spends a two-and-a-half-hour movie checking email and searching for a photograph and flying on TURKISH AIRLINES before waving her sword directionally adjacent towards incoherent digital sludge, do we grudgingly admit that things could be worse for female superheroes or ponder where everything went wrong for everyone of all genders? Do we blame comic books, filmmakers, corporations, ourselves? Do we talk about what a movie does, or do we specifically address what a movie doesn’t do? If Captain America is gay, will that finally make Bucky interesting?
Superheroes have always been slipstream archetypes, fill-in-your-personal-blank symbols. Consider Superman. A Kansas kid on a family farm but eventually a well-heeled reporter at a bigtime newspaper in a version of New York that looks like Mega Cleveland. Rural and Urban, Agricultural Class and Creative Class. A farmer and a newspaper reporter: Clark Kent circa 2016 is a proud member of two struggling American industries. But he is also the ubermenschen, freelance law enforcement with implicit state support and possessing top-secret ties to the media. (He writes his own puff pieces!)
Superman and his super-friends have been symbols of latent homoeroticism and crushing heteronormality, of an outcast underclass and the upclass one-percent. Try to take it too seriously, and you ultimately arrive at Batman v Superman or Civil War, movies where Superman is victimized for being too super, where Captain America’s unilateral moral certitude is the cause and solution to all life’s problems.
This is all to say that the vast majority of think pieces written this year about Batman v Superman, Civil War, and Apocalypse strike me as intrinsically ludicrous, regardless of quality of the writers and the thoughtfulness of their arguments. I subtweet myself first and foremost, throw the most shade on yours truly: A couple years ago, I read The Winter Soldier as Marvel’s great paranoiac manifesto against government overreach. And I still think it’s the best movie Marvel Studios has ever produced. I love the circular casting of reformed bro Chris Evans as an archetype both too old and too young for this world – he radiates Greatest Generation innocence and millennial naiveté – contrasted with Robert Redford Now, Once Upon a Time in the West-ing as the sellout variation of Robert Redford Forty Years Ago. (In All the President’s Men, he took down Nixon. In Winter Soldier, he plots world domination in a splendid office across the river from the Watergate Hotel.)
But I misread Winter Soldier, or maybe the movie lied. The second Captain America movie acts suspicious about SHIELD – it was HYDRA all along! – but looking back now, I realize the movie’s strange sub-subtext. The problem isn’t that there’s a top-secret organization policing us without our knowledge. The problem is that the wrong people are in charge of that top-secret organization. So Winter Soldier is a movie about making sure the right Illuminati run the world. History argues that absolute power corrupts absolutely; Winter Soldier counter-argues that absolute power only corrupts meanies.
There’s an outcry right now over Captain America and HYDRA in the comic books: He was a Nazi all along, kinda-sorta! People say this twist “betrays” the character, as if a character who has been a werewolf and a Power Ranger and a douchebag hasn’t been betrayed a thousand times over, as if a character named America wouldn’t maybe go a little lot a bit crazy in an election year like this. It speaks to the terrible way we talk about superheroes that so many people are currently arguing a single panel in a single comic book, the beginning of an unfinished story. We say superheroes are symbols, but it’s more like their hieroglyphs, and nobody has a Rosetta Stone.
All of this is to say: Maybe best, for the moment, not to talk about all the things we can’t agree on. Maybe it makes more sense to talk about the buildings.
There’s a great run of Batman comics, circa late ‘90s, wherein a massive earthquake devastates Gotham City so completely that the American government declares it a No Man’s Land. This used to read fantastical, now looks like prophetic domestic policy; the ensuing story arc plays retroactively like Tremé if five Omars moved to post-Katrina New Orleans, and the politicians were still supervillains but with better clothes.
The “No Man’s Land” arc ran for a year; in one issue, Superman came to Gotham, hoping to help. All of his positive actions have equal, opposite, unintentional reactions; he turns on a power station, which creates new third-world stratification between People Who Control The Power Station and People Who Need Power. It’s a silly, on-the-nose, incredibly potent metaphor – golly, superpowers can’t fix a broken social infrastructure, Batman! – but it makes you realize that there’s probably a reason why Superman only hangs out in glittery Metropolis, where problems are easily resolved, and the population is less problematic.
Batman v Superman rolls from the idea that Gotham City is bay-adjacent to Metropolis. This is an unusual notion, but a clear-eyed filmmaker could use that geography to define the city’s dreamy duality. One thinks of Gotham as, well, Gothic – spires and gargoyles, Cthulhic mansions with hellscape basements dug into hillsides looming mountainous over downtown. Gotham City is most convincingly rendered, in comic book form, with the architecture of an earlier century overgrown with pestilence, as if modernity itself is a maggot chewing through a great creature’s corpse.
Metropolis looks like it was built at least a century later, full of buildings tall and clean. It’s always futuristic, but it’s a nostalgic future, one where the skyscrapers can only get taller and the infrastructural grid only gets straighter. Robert Moses would love Metropolis and despise Gotham. The single best interpretation of these cities is one that nobody’s actually dramatized yet: Metropolis is New York by day and Gotham is the same city at night. Frank Miller said that; it’s one of the few Frank Miller ideas Snyder hasn’t ruined yet.
Possibly a joke in an only accidentally funny movie: In Batman v Superman, Metropolis is the city that got decimated by weapons of mass superhuman destruction, but Gotham still looks worse by comparison. Not that either city particularly “feels” like much of anything. Metropolis has tall buildings and Gotham has empty warehouses. There are less bystanders than buildings: An overcorrection against Man of Steel’s death toll, but also maybe a statement of purpose from the director, a decloseted Randian.
Just guessing here: Rand wouldn’t have liked Batman v Superman. Bruce Wayne builds himself a nifty postmodern glassware batcave, but his spirit haunts his family’s garish mansion countryside. Rand would’ve demanded Wayne Mansion be firebombed. Hell, Rand would have cheered at the climax in Man of Steel – recycled in one of Batman v Superman’s two prologues – wherein two supermen knock down a century’s worth of merely functional architecture. (Guarantee Rand would have been overjoyed to see someone finally eradicate a Greco-columned eyesore filled with bureaucrats who refuse to allow great men their greatness.)
The biggest bummer of Batman v Superman is that we don’t really get any understanding of the Metropolis rebuilding process. I’m having fun with the Rand stuff, but only because I wish there was more of it. Imagine if Snyder let his Superman go Full Howard Roark, rebuilding the city he helped destroy. Such a feat may be beyond this version of Superman; Clark Kent in these films is a stealth dummy who never knows his own strength and can’t even figure out that he’s on the same side as Batman.
But recall that, in Man of Steel, Zod’s big idea was globalized urban renewal: He wanted to remake Earth in Krypton’s image. Krypton in the comics was always supposed to be a civilization gone astray, but it was usually rendered as a colorful rocketopia, with curved-line cityscapes populated by caped Flash Gordon archetypes. The original Superman films made Krypton stale, emotionally bleached, beyond architecture; they loved spheres and crystals. Richard Donner had zero nostalgia for Krypton: It was a no-fun deathscape, diet-vanilla Kubrick. In Man of Steel, the Kryptonians have a more florid sensibility. Demi-Cimmerians who tunnel deep mountains, they have evolved beyond fertility but still scrawl hieroglyphs across cave walls where they sit astride horned thrones. This is what Westeros will look like when the White Walkers take over.
So Zod is a problem because he wants to pull Earth backwards. Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman is an explicit Zod worshipper, taking up residence in Zod’s ship and thrilling to the techno-organismic circuitry of Kryptonian technology. In this sense, Lex Luthor might be actually be our first artisanal supervillain, refracting Zod’s nostalgic vision: He’s a brilliant scientist whose brilliant science involves slicing his hand open and spilling blood into a pool of space placenta. You imagine Luthor bragging that he locally sourced his demonic killing machine by recycling Zod’s dead body. (Like anyone who self-identifies as artisanal, Luthor is desperately annoying.)
Would Superman have an alternative idea? If Luthor’s vision is nostalgic, would Superman’s be futuristic? Would he rebuild Metropolis in his image? We never find out, because Batman v Superman doesn’t care much about either of its mythic cities. Actually, Batman v Superman is the first Batman movie ever to not even remotely care what Gotham looks like. Tim Burton being Tim Burton, he loved the Gothic architecture. Joel Schumacher thrilled to the idea of a city-sized nightclub. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy thrilled to infrastructure: Monorails, bridges, tunnels, parking garages, freeways. It felt like a few different cities; sometimes, it felt like Pittsburgh. (Even Adam West’s Batman movie has fun world-building its Gotham, mainly by arguing that Gotham City is Los Angeles.)
There’s no sense of place in Batman v Superman. But that reflects a weird broadening at the core of all these superhero movies: As their interests become global, the specificity drains away. Captain America and Spider-Man joke about “Brooklyn” and “Queens,” but only when they’re fighting across an airport in Saxony. (Civil War is, I believe, the first movie where someone gets captured in Bucharest but then immediately flown to Berlin.) The Kent Family Farm in Kansas is shot with the same bleached-dusk grit as Wayne Manor. Actually, they both uncannily resemble Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting Christina’s World, and maybe some future post-retro-unironic generation of critics will dig some accidental wit out of the fact that only Zack Snyder could reimagine Christina’s World with the sick striving young girl replaced by twin identical bicep bros.
It wasn’t always thus. Superheroes used to come from places. I’m not talking grand-scheme, like midcentury New Yorkers making Spider-Man a Queens kid. I’m talking about 2008’s Iron Man, a convincing portrayal of a rich Malibu tech douche growing a genuine human soul. But the character lost almost all depth when he lost his geographic particularity: 2012’s Avengers made Tony Stark just another bicoastal billionaire, putting his name so high up on a Manhattan skyscraper that it’s probably only visible from his rich frenemies’ penthouses. A shame, too: The Stark mansion was a gorgeous assault of hysterical modernism, basically a Frank Lloyd Wright desert house deposited incongruously on a gorgeous coastline.
Actually, the Stark mansion looks remarkably like the Triskelion from Winter Soldier: Circular-spiral motif, white-gray exterior, proximity to water. Marvel destroyed both buildings in Phase 2: Take that, modernism! Oddly, Marvel Studios cares more about preserving extraterrestrial cities. After two films, Asgard remains essentially unharmed – a bridge got broken, boohoo. If any city is primed for urban renewal, it’s Asgard, an overgrown village with a skyscraper made of organ pipes.
Likewise, Guardians of the Galaxy threatened to destroy that one city on that one planet, you know what I’m talking about, the place with Glenn Close and the glowing people, or whatever. I’m being cruel to be kind. Architecturally, the Guardians of the Galaxy is half-cool and half-lame. It has the single most memorable setting in any of the Marvel Studios movies: “Knowhere,” a smuggler-friendly Space Tortuga built inside the skull of a dead cosmic being. (Among other things, Knowhere is a monument to recycling.)
The problem is that Marvel Studios isn’t funky enough to make you care about Knowhere. The setting is just a brief tangent on the road back to Xandar, a planet with a capital city that looks like what San Francisco will look like when it becomes the Google campus. Xandar is bright and colorful; the movie assumes that you’ll care that someone is attacking Xandar just because it’s so nice-looking.
The problem is that Xandar is also totally dull: It looks like a lot of money poorly spent. This is a common thread throughout all the Marvel movies since The Avengers, which introduced the SHIELD helicarrier as the height of Marvel universe fantasy architecture. The helicarrier is also pretty boring – a landing strip with four circles on all sides. Weirdly, it also looks a lot like Tony Stark’s swirly mansion, but all the hip modernism of the coastal pad has been conformed into shapeless gray. Inside, the helicarrier is no better: Corridors and gray laboratories and a big room where lots of people type on computers.
It reads like the over-financed headquarters of a CSI TV show, which is only a bummer if you’ve read any of the SHIELD comics illustrated by Jim Steranko. For Steranko, SHIELD represented Jet Age swagger. He honored Jack Kirby’s love for swoopy-glob technology, but he had an adman’s love for cool cars, dynamic angles, Warholian cubes. Steranko actually drew a layout of his Helicarrier once: A Missile Launch Pad, a Cipher Code Chamber, a Super-Advanced Weapons Design Workshop, VIP Apartments, a Lounge!
The Marvel Studios films don’t really do “lounge.” People work on the Helicarrier, and work is all they do. In Civil War, the Avengers are always taking meetings in boardrooms, and it doesn’t matter what continent that meeting takes place in, because the boardrooms all look the same: Windows, desks, corridors behind them full of extras walking and talking.
There’s a weird utilitarian streak to all of Marvel’s movies, which is a roundabout way of saying that almost none of the sets stick with you. The places are boring, even a bit cheap-looking. The almost-exception is the Manhattan of Marvel’s Netflix underverse. The Netflix shows begin with the just nonsensical idea that the massive destruction of New York seen in The Avengers was actually limited a few spaceships falling on a few city blocks in midtown, bombing Hell’s Kitchen back to the Scorsese age. The Netflix shows have real locations – usually Brooklyn and Long Island City, marginally affordable neighborhoods doubling for luxury-priced Manhattan.
Daredevil’s New York actually feels like a city where people live, not just a place people work. It doesn’t feel anything like the New York Frank Miller created in his run on Daredevil – that city was a beautiful ornate mess of water towers and pipes, of ninja assassins fighting vigilante heroes on nite-glo rooftops. The Daredevil TV show does have some of those visual flourishes; I get bored about five minutes into every episode of the show, but I always thrill to the neon sign over-projecting garish light into Matt Murdock’s apartment. You appreciate how populated the Netflix Marvel world feels. I love how the office of Murdock and Nelson feels like a real office, something inherited, something crappy. I love when Jessica Jones drinks in a bar that looks like a bar.
Geographically, the closest thing to the Marvel-Netflix Manhattan is Fox’s X-Men franchise. Charles Xavier is a mid-century blue-blood with a big house in Westchester, although the prequel movies clearly establish that he’s an aristocratic fop affecting a British accent. (Apparently, he went Full Madonna at Boarding School.) One of the biggest laughs in X-Men: Apocalypse – besides Evan Peters yelling “WE DON’T KNOW, BRO!” when the bad guy from X2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine demands to know what god just did to us, man – is when Cyclops looks around Xavier’s mansion and deadpans, “The only American thing about this place is that it used to be British.”
IRL, the place is still British. In the original X trilogy, Charles Xavier’s mansion was played by a couple different big houses in Canada. Now it’s an Elizabethan estate in Englefield, two centuries older than America itself. Christopher Nolan’s version of Wayne Manor was also British, two different English estates. That made sense: The Old World architecture of Batman’s house is a veneer, hiding the Oldest Of Old Worlds secret of the Batcave.
The X-Men films have their own version of the Batcave, but it’s a playful design gag: The stately Elizabethan mansion hides Cerebro, a modernist dome resembling nothing so much as EPCOT center. Part of the fun of the X-Men movies can be explained by the fact that Bryan Singer either thinks Cerebro looks awesome or stupid. When Professor X shows it to Wolverine way back in X-Men 1, Wolverine looks around nonplussed and deadpans: “Well, it certainly is a big, round room.” (Harsh crit, but accurate: Call his architectural thesis Logan Shrugged.)
You could tease out some Downton-ish nostalgia, from the way the X series keeps on returning to the X-mansion. And the X series is deep-down nostalgic the way all superhero movies are nostalgic – these are films based on concepts 30, 40, 50, even almost 80 years old. Credit the mutant franchise for taking nostalgia to its logical endpoint: The beginning of Apocalypse reaches back all the way to Ancient Egypt, the great pyramids.
Cause for alarm, since Hollywood has never really known what to do with Ancient Egypt. You have to complain that Hollywood’s Egyptians are always white, but any charges of cinematic cultural appropriation arguably miss the point that our whole contemporary vision of Ancient Egypt results from the literal appropriation of actual culture. (The Rosetta Stone is an 80-minute drive from Charles Xavier’s mansion.)
Yet Hollywood is occasionally drawn to Egypt. Great folly inevitably results. This year’s Gods of Egypt was an expensive not-at-all-success. If you only know the movie from the controversy – Egyptian gods-as-white-Europeans – you don’t know the half of it. Gods of Egypt is a movie about super-beings who rule completely over a world of humans who are powerless to stop them. But the problem isn’t that humanity has been subjugated by a race of omnipowerful aristocrats; as in Winter Soldier, the problem is only that the wrong aristocrats are in charge. In Gods of Egypt, the Wrong Man is Gerard Butler, who kills his brother, blinds his nephew, and sets all humanity to work building a great towering monument to his brilliance: A great Obelisk, helplessly phallic like a lot of ancient art actually is.
Although Gods of Egypt is dumb as a box of pet rocks, the film clues into some deeper banality about all-encompassing evil. Given complete control of the world, what do you to? You build a monument to yourself. The ancient Egyptians did it. Hitler was going to do it: Rebuild Berlin as a new monument to global domination, complete with a great neo-classic domed hall that looks freakishly just-enough like the U.S. Capitol building. And although Gods of Egypt wants to be a fantasy movie – Clash of the Titans with less beards and more Worthingtons – it is unmistakably a superhero movie. The gods all have vaguely specialized powers, which bad-guy Set absorbs for himself. The gods all transform into great flying creatures, bird and plane and Superman. The gods all have daddy issues: Horus has a murdered dead father, like Batman and Superman and god help us even Tony Stark now.
Intriguingly, Apocalypse in Apocalypse has a big plan evil plan that is precisely equivalent to Set’s in Gods of Egypt. Oscar Isaac’s blue-man mutant absorbs other superpowers and desires nothing beyond total domination. One of the best jokes in Apocalypse – which, accidentally and on purpose, is a very funny movie – is that its version of a Darwinian supergod learns about the last five millennia of human history by watching television. (At one point in Apocalypse’s analog Googling, the Twin Towers flash onscreen.) Soon enough, Apocalypse has leveled most of modern Cairo and rebuilt his glorious mega-pyramid.
Apocalypse doesn’t have much narrative courage: It carefully leaves open the possibility for several different sequels, in the maybe-vain hope that Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender and Hugh Jackman are interested in making another X-Men movie. But there’s a goofy cleverness to Apocalypse’s settings, which reflect the goofy cleverness of the movie itself. Any other superhero movie would treat the destruction of the superhero’s headquarters as a tragedy – think of Batman Begins, when the end of Wayne Manor marks the dark moment of Batman’s uncertainty. In Apocalypse, it’s an opportunity for Keaton-esque farce, with the superspeedsman Quicksilver racing through every room of the mansion to rescue the students and puppies therein.
There’s another scene of destruction, around the same point in the movie, that is even more exultant and totally nightmarish: Magneto returns to Auschwitz, the concentration camp that destroyed his family and so many more. This is the third or fourth time Auschwitz has been in an X-Men movie, and it is the first time that Auschwitz gets destroyed in a wave of mutant energy.
I don’t really know what to make of this scene. I’ve been to Auschwitz, and it is the nightmarish physical manifestation of the evil impossible depths of man’s utter inhumanity to man. But the experience of being there is quite profound and educational on a spiritual level, as the thousands of tourists who flock there every year can readily attest. You could argue that destroying it in movie form represents a tone-deaf missing of the point: We have to remember what happened there, in those freakishly functional buildings designed for nobody’s comfort, a place built by demons for ghosts.
But the scene works in a way that shouldn’t be overlooked. Magneto is a victim of fascism and a practitioner of the same: His purpose is the subjugation-if-not-the eradication of all humans. So it makes sense that, in Apocalypse, his appetite for destruction is initially vengeful but then becomes something much different; it makes sense that a moment that he considers triumphant (destroying a building created by monsters) is actually the moment of his downward spiral (by erasing Auschwitz, he erases his own history, dooming himself to repeat it.) Supercharged by Apocalypse, Magneto uses his powers to destroy – well, everything. The movie becomes incoherent in the last half-hour, but I’m pretty sure Magneto eradicates the bridges around Manhattan. It’s a direct rip-off of the bridge destruction scene in The Dark Knight Rises, but with the added genuine strangeness that Magneto is ultimately kind of a good guy.
Apocalypse the movie has a much clearer sense of Apocalypse. The movie isn’t impressed by its villain. There’s none of Lex Luthor’s hipster-savant preening, none of Zemo’s self-righteous sorrow. Apocalypse just wants to show you how impressed Apocalypse is with himself. His decadence, his narcissism comes across in his artistic style. Which is to say: He has none. Like fascists throughout history, he just builds things big, real big, huge in fact. He builds big pyramids, and he builds big statues of himself and of his Horsemen. The statues actually look a bit like the statue of Superman in Batman v Superman – and much like Henry Cavill’s Superman, Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse destroys lots of buildings and doesn’t seem to care very much about humans.
Apocalypse wants to enslave humanity, but not for the reasons people usually want to enslave people. Apocalypse doesn’t really need anything; he even builds his own pyramids.
Conventional Western history used to hold that the actual pyramids were built by slaves. That idea has been occasionally debunked, with modern historians arguing that the pyramid builders were the equivalent of skilled laborers. We can all agree that Ancient Egypt perhaps had a minor social stratification problem: The rulers were worshipped as gods on Earth.
Not coincidentally, Apocalypse thinks he is a god. Unfortunately coincidentally, Zack Snyder seems to think that Superman is a god – and his movies sanctify that idea, reintegrating one of the cheapest stories in Superman’s history as final proof of his Messianic potential. Credit Apocalypse with portraying its Superman with skepticism and even a bit of parody: Apocalypse is so obsessed with images that he gives all his minions a makeover. He also has the inexplicable power to Melt People Into The Wall: An eerie effect which makes you wonder if Apocalypse’s pyramids are secretly mass graveyards.
Somewhere between Batman v Superman’s humorless crypto-zealotry and Apocalypse’s campy agnosticm, you find Civil War, which tries so hard to humanize its characters that you only start to notice their inhumanity. (Do any of these people hang out with people who aren’t superpeople anymore?)
If you want to understand how we got to all these films – massive-budget sequel advertisements about heroes who briefly doubt their heroism as a way to prove just how heroic they are – it helps to go back to the source. After decades of lawsuit purgatory, Alan Moore’s Miracleman is back in print, in three volumes published by Marvel. When it was published 30-plus years ago, Moore’s story – called Marvelman before the lawsuits started – was a savvy, angry, funny, cerebral, grounded deconstruction of superhero tropes. Reading it now, you realize how completely superhero tropes have become mainstream tropes – and you also realize how silly even the most serious superhero film is by comparison.
By the end of Alan Moore’s run, his hero has fought a terrible villain through a destructive rampage across a great city: Think of Superman and Zod, or the Avengers and Ultron, or the X-Men and Apocalypse. Everything the protagonist has done appears to be for something like “goodness.” It is strongly implied that he has inaugurated a new utopian age on Earth. Yet the tone is not quite triumphant. Miracleman has lost something essential. He only hangs out with superpeople. How does he pass the time? He builds in the ruins. He builds statues. He is a god, dammit, and he will build his goddamned pyramid.