Praise Lex

If you haven’t seen Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice, you should probably stop reading and save yourself from temptation. I know I don’t control people’s purchasing decisions, but if even one person reads this and gets curious enough about how bad this movie is to buy a ticket, I’ve failed. I was taught that a critic’s job is to find interesting and important things to talk about. We often default to trying to make bad movies’ badness interesting: we’ll call them “surprisingly bad,” even “shockingly bad.” It would be dangerous for me to imply that surprise and shock were emotions I felt during BvS, but I don’t have enough faith in my writing to promise I won’t slip up like that, so please proceed with caution. I’m mainly here for those who boarded this pop-cultural Hindenburg 2 with me and are now wandering the ashen rubble, wondering where we went wrong.

The cliché I’ll lean into for this movie is “mind-numbing.” The numbness starts in the opening credits: we follow a young Bruce Wayne as he runs through some woods and falls into a batcave. The shots are very pretty, as is typical of Zack Snyder, and for about 15 seconds I thought the movie was going fine. Then Snyder started to intercut the batcave scene with the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. As the Hans Zimmer swelled and the robber shot them dead and Martha Wayne’s pearl necklace exploded in slow motion around the barrel of the gun, I felt nothing. Bombarded with loud, decontextualized* emotional cues, I entered an emotional fugue state.

The numbness infects every level of BvS’s stylistic and narrative design. As other critics have pointed out, while this movie’s scenes play in chronological order, they have less conventional narrative structure than the most recent Terrence Malick movie. Shit just happens for no reason. Characters’ motivations don’t make sense. Scene transitions jump around without any connecting thread. People yell, pant, and tremble, but there’s no dramatized reason to care about anything.

It’s a classic bratty blogger move to project this onto a celebrity who I don’t even know, but after seeing BvS I genuinely believe that Zack Snyder, talented as he is, isn’t in touch with his emotions. I’m not armchair-diagnosing him with a personality disorder or anything. He just doesn’t strike me as a guy who acknowledges his feelings, reflects on where they might have come from, and accepts them. Here’s my evidence, a paragraph from a piece Bloomberg did on him:

“There are several human skulls on a circular desk where Snyder works on his iMac. I don’t know why,’ he says. ‘I just like skulls.’ Six axes lean against the nearby wall. ‘I just like axes,’ he says innocently. ‘They are cool. I have axes at home that I cut wood with, but these are my special ones.’”

To be clear, I’m not calling him childish or repressed for liking skulls and axes, or even for having “special ones.” It’s the 21st century, you do you. What’s childish is that, according to his own words, this man has spent five decades on this planet without sitting down and figuring out why he likes skulls and axes so much. What do they remind him of? Some association with a movie or event from his childhood? Why does he get that stirring feeling he gets whenever he looks at a skull or an axe?

That Bloomberg profile, although meant to be complimentary, paints him as someone who chases positive emotional experiences—awe, adrenaline, self-assured suavity—and doesn’t take time to examine the less fun stuff. Doing that work is one of the hardest parts of self-care, and we straight men especially struggle with it, but it seems like one of the most important qualities to have as a storyteller. Filmmaking craft will only take you so far—if you don’t practice witnessing and understanding the ebb and flow of your own emotions, how could you possibly instill that ebb and flow in a viewer? It’s a great time to ask that question, since last year Mad Max: Fury Road reminded everyone that emotionally intelligent people make the best action movies.

People have been calling Snyder’s movies fascist for a while, but that’s not fair. Director Leni Riefenstahl knew exactly how she was manipulating the emotions of the German people with her Nazi screeds Triumph Of The Will and Olympia. Snyder, on the other hand, is stuck making superficially glorious images with no idea how to combine them into something resonant. It’s worse than his movies being boring. By being so visually stunning and emotionally vacant, they get you to chase the high even though you feel numb. They don’t just reflect, but perpetuate the crisis men in America face: a self-imposed culture of emotional denial that causes us to lash out with sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other nonsense when we don’t get what we want. I’m not saying that Snyder’s movies are sexist or homophobic—they lean into unironic homoeroticism more than any other contemporary blockbusters—but that they’re the disease itself, not the symptom.

Into this alarm bell of toxic masculinity (as if we needed another one) walks Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Ding, ding, ding, ding. Junot Diaz said in a recent interview that “one can write someone who is smarter than you.” Based on the evidence, this isn’t a quality that Snyder and BvS’s screenwriters** possess. Their idea of making Lex smart is having someone else describe him as a “bibliophile.” However, Eisenberg, an actual bibliophile and published author, is smart enough to play people who are smarter than himself. Mark Zuckerberg is the obvious example. He’s also smart enough to realize that BvS’s Lex isn’t an egomaniacal genius. He’s a middle schooler.

Not a teenager, even. A preteen. Teenagers have had a couple of years dealing with the existential misery that comes with increased mental capacities and the changes in their bodies, and they can sometimes project a sense of stability to the outside world. Middle schoolers can’t. Middle schoolers flip out at stuff for no reason. They are just starting to comprehend adult social cues and painfully try to mimic what they think is expected of them, then retreat into quivering embarrassment when they see their parents’ confused winces. They think they’re the first people to ever think every thought they think: they’re the last stage of adolescence in which self-awareness is impossible. Their emotional intelligence, like this movie’s, is nil.

Little Lex is in seventh grade. His mom wants him to get a haircut, but he throws a fit every time he sees her with the scissors. He’s mad that his classmates Clark and Bruce, his best friends two years ago, are now sixty pounds of muscle heavier and ignore him at recess. So he devises a series of plans to humiliate them on the playground and make people like him. The plans don’t follow any logic, but they almost work nonetheless, because everyone on the playground is a middle schooler. He leaves a jar of pee on his teacher’s desk. The whole movie is a horrible inversion of Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp, another thing where adults play children.

The manic tics and twitches in Eisenberg’s performance aren’t emulating Heath Ledger’s Joker. They’re showing us a side of childhood that movies usually don’t, the awkwardness of dealing with a kid in his own world. Snyder’s clueless direction has no idea what Eisenberg is doing, but it comes through clearly in the early gala scene. The moment when Lex stops blabbing and realizes that everyone is waiting for him to stop talking is beautiful. For one moment in the whole film, we’re aligned with a character’s fears and insecurities. Acting is reacting, but middle schoolers don’t react in logical ways, so it makes sense that some people think Eisenberg is the worst part of this movie. These are probably the same people who think, “there’s a good movie in there somewhere, they just needed to edit it down.” No. This is a fundamentally awful movie, and Eisenberg’s awful, brilliant performance is the best part of it.

Given BvS’s conflation of Lex’s social difficulties and his lack of empathy, it’s funny that Jesse Eisenberg’s performance was the only part of the movie that made me feel anything. Pity, embarrassment, and nausea aren’t the feelings I look forward to when I go to the movies, but they’re feelings nonetheless. They remind me that I’m a human being, that I’m worthy of love and respect from myself and others, that I’m worthy of better movies than this one.

Seeing this movie in a theater made me feel like Lex Luthor. When I watched it on opening day, people cheered when Wonder Woman showed up and clapped when the movie ended. In those moments, I felt a deep contempt for people whose intellects I felt were far inferior to mine. Here’s something I tweeted while I was walking to my car:

These were juvenile, hypocritical feelings. I have seen every Transformers movie and found things to be giddy about in all of them despite the garbage. Those clapping engineers and salesmen at the New Mission Alamo Drafthouse might have been emotionally in-touch, hardworking people who needed to enjoy this movie because it was Friday and they grew up watching Batman: The Animated Series. I have no reason to believe that they’re the assholes complaining about the “critical conspiracy” against this movie on Twitter. All I can do is think about what I said, how I felt, and try to do better.

 

*For fans, the “context” of the opening scene might be the dozens of times they’ve seen Bruce Wayne’s parents die in comics, cartoons, feature films, and TV shows. I get it, but superhero movies need to work by themselves before I start caring about those connections. If a movie assumes I give a shit about the Batman mythos before I walk in, it has made a grave mistake. When Zack Snyder starts his movie with two random people getting gunned down in slow motion and is already like “FUCK YEAH!!! BATMAN!!! FUCKK SO SAD SO EPIC,” I tune out immediately. I liked the first two Nolan Batmans, All-Star Superman, and The Dark Knight Returns, but I’m not a hardcore fan of either property. I don’t care about the Jimmy Olsen thing or Batman and Superman killing people and fighting each other and what that stuff means, because it doesn’t mean anything to me by itself, it can only mean something within the context of a standalone narrative.

That’s not to say I don’t have that relationship with any other media properties. When Godzilla Vs. King Kong comes out in 2020, I will be camped outside on opening night wearing a rubber lizard suit. Superheroes though? Nope.

**(3/30/16): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ma5cWzsZyDw


Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion tabsolutely no relation to r. kelly.o put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. @awkeller510

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