The most famous (or infamous) sequence in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice comes along just after Batman has bashed Superman over the head with a washbasin. Weakened by Kryptonite gas grenades, the Man of Steel (Henry Cavill) gasps that Lex Luthor has kidnapped his mother, Martha. “Why did you say that name,” roars the Caped Crusader (Ben Affleck). His own mother, you see, was called Martha, too.
I remember, on seeing the film, being almost as staggered as Batman was. I’d been a superhero geek for decades, but I’d never noticed that the mothers of DC Comics’ two most iconic characters had the same name. And yet Zack Snyder, the director of Batman v Superman, or one of the writers, Chris Terrio and David S Goyer, hadn’t just spotted the coincidence, they had imagined the impact it might have on the characters in question, given that Batman’s parents were murdered when he was a boy, and that Superman was adopted by Martha Kent after his own biological parents were vaporised in a planetary cataclysm. As different as the two superheroes were, Batman v Superman showed that they were linked by the trauma of their parents’ horrific deaths. Genius! This is a film, I thought, that my fellow nerds were going to adore.
I wasn’t entirely correct. Most critics slated Batman v Superman as a miserable mess with a headache-inducing score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, and a colour palette so dingy that it looked as if Superman had washed his blue and red jumpsuit along with his black jeans. Even viewers with a high tolerance for masks and capes were unimpressed. All too soon, Snyder’s film became a symbol of the way that Warner was mishandling DC’s superheroes, as opposed to the way that Disney was handling Marvel’s. And nothing about it was as derided as the Martha scene.
Well, OK. I admit that the dialogue could have been more elegant. Maybe the characters shouldn’t have kept referring to Superman’s adoptive mother by her Christian name. But I maintain that the Martha idea was a clever one, and it’s connected to the key theme which makes me love Batman v Superman while so many people loathe it. Snyder dared to take two of the most popular, commercially viable superheroes ever created, and to say that they were both screwed-up mummy’s boys. Marvel’s cinematic universe, in contrast, is stocked with well-adjusted, quip-swapping paragons. Even the Batman played by Christian Bale was a clubbable fellow. But Snyder gave some serious thought to the question of what our favourite costumed crime-fighters might be like if they actually existed, and he concluded, not unreasonably, that a near-omnipotent extraterrestrial and an orphaned, billionaire vigilante might have deep-rooted psychological issues. Inspired by Frank Miller’s game-changing 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns, Snyder decided that Batman and Superman would be insecure, angry, guilt-ridden, nightmare-haunted – and despised by a fearful populace. Somehow, he got away with making a multimillion-dollar blockbuster on that very subject.
Yes, it’s hectic, dystopian and apparently lit by a low-watt torch bulb. Yes, it has an over-inflated sense of its own importance. But that’s how its two paranoid frenemies see the world. Affleck’s Batman is a sadistic loner who – thanks to the star’s imposing size and well-publicised personal demons – could plausibly beat up a roomful of Russian gangsters. This was the brutal bruiser that we Dark Knight Returns devotees had been waiting for. Cavill’s perma-frowning Superman, meanwhile, isn’t the gentle charmer that Christopher Reeve’s was. Snyder prefers to depict him as a living missile, sonic booming through the sky, or else as a divine messenger, floating down from on high for a brief, contemptuous word with us earthbound mortals. Since Batman v Superman was released, a television series (The Boys) and a film (Brightburn) have both played with the notion that an indestructible, unaccountable Superman-type might be a terrifying existential threat. But Snyder’s uncompromisingly subversive epic did so with Superman himself.
In a startling early sequence, the director recaps the climactic fight between Superman and General Zod from 2013’s Man Of Steel, but this time we see it from ground level. We see the shattering skyscrapers, the choking dust clouds, the innocent civilians who are killed and maimed. In short, we see the mass destruction which tends to be glossed over in Marvel’s blockbusters.
I understand why this doom and gloom might have been off-putting, but it was supposed to be. Batman v Superman isn’t a superhero movie, but an anti-superhero movie: a film about two people only a mother could love.