Deconstructing Deconstructism: If It Ain’t Broke, Then Break It

(Sorry, this is my last rant about BvS:DoJ:UE:PTSD:S&M, promise…)

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IMAGE: ‘I respect your opinion and encourage your enthusiasm.’

For the past three months Mark Hughes over at Forbes has been the principal cheerleader, advocate, and, in his comments section replies, aggressive defence council for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  Since its release Hughes has been churning out articles and interviews (like this, and this, and this), applauding the film’s opening box office as proof of its greatness (even as audiences abandoned it in droves) and progressively chastising critics, fans, and people with the capacity to perceive moving images and sounds, for not agreeing that this exploding jar of stale urine was anything less than a masterpiece.

(Turns out Hughes has something of a reputation getting antagonistic in ‘defence’ of Snyder’s version of these characters.)

His latest offering has been prompted by the release of the Ultimate Edition of the film, but plays out all the hallmarks of his previous defensive articles.  It has the usual adolescent attempt to paint anyone who saw through the original film’s asinine plot and direction as somehow being too stupid to understand how deep it was; implies a conspiracy of hive think amongst all the critics who aren’t him; and ties itself in knots trying to explain gaping holes in the film’s plot that, even when ‘explained’ by him in great detail, still remain patently idiotic.

Even the title of his article has a self-justifying silliness that typifies much of his commentary on the film: ‘Review: Batman v Superman: Ultimate Edition Expands Story And Wins Praise’.  Reading the body of the article reveals that he doesn’t actually cite anyone else’s ‘praise’; he means his own.  And since he already liked the first version, by that logic literally no one’s opinion has changed.  Indeed, given that he thought the original version was a masterpiece, it’s a little peculiar to see him now enthusiastically argue that this new version ‘fixes’ the original film’s problems.  It presumably ‘fixes’ something that was already perfect?

But a new twist in the oratory has appeared.  And it comes in the form of a word that he uses to summarise all of the criticisms that have been levelled at the film since its release:

Deconstruction.

Batman v Superman, he says, was a ‘deconstruction’ of the Batman and Superman characters, and it was that – not its quality; not its incoherent plot; not its ugly, cynical, vacuous themes – that was the reason that the film was poorly received.

It is a term that is starting to surface frequently in defence of the film.  Devin Faraci, in his recent recounting of a set visit to the filming of Justice League (inexplicably also being directed by Snyder) spoke of the way that ‘deconstruction’ was being offered as a sorry-not-sorry catch-all for any complaints that had been directed at Batman v Superman.  According to producer Deborah Snyder, speaking to Faraci: ‘I think the main thing we learned is that people don’t like to see their heroes deconstructed.’

Again, it’s not that people want coherent narratives and characters that behave in logical ways, or a director who doesn’t treat his audience like imbeciles and who doesn’t overtly despise everything his protagonist represents.  What they ‘learned’ was audiences don’t like to be challenged.  That she and her husband Zack were just too visionary for an intransigent fan base to deal with it.

And yes, I know that there is clearly some saving-face going on there, and there are few filmmakers who would be humble enough to admit to having failed in their execution (let alone ones who missed the mark this spectacularly), but it still feels grossly disingenuous to imply that the problem here was that moviegoers just want to be fed the same regurgitated narratives again and again.  Particularly when it appears that there are clearly a contingent pop culture reporters eager to accept this kind of retroactive justification without reservation.

For example, in just one of Hughes’ paragraphs he uses the word four separate times, flashing it about as a lazy bit of ‘I win’ rhetoric.  And in its application he uses the term to frame an audience response that tries to deny them the right to dispute its quality:

Regarding tone, the Ultimate Edition changes a lot about the film, but one thing that remains is the overall somber, deconstructive nature of the story. If that bothered you, then …. I might strongly disagree with you about this film and about your preferences for tone etc in general, but I respect that it’s your opinion and personal preferences so you aren’t “wrong” for disliking somber deconstruction of (these?) characters.

Putting aside the fact that Hughes has been arguing (sometimes quite aggressively) for the past three months that you are indeed very wrong for having that opinion, he is now saying that you are free to argue with whether you like the film or not, but you can’t argue with it being ‘deconstructive’.

Except, yes you can.

Because here’s the thing.  To badly paraphrase Inigo Montoya, that word doesn’t mean what Hughes thinks it does.

Even without deep diving into the history of critical theory first articulated by Jacques Derrida that has come to be known as ‘Deconstruction’, it is clear that this is cheap obfuscation.  Audiences have always embraced legitimate deconstructions of their heroic myths.  One need not even look further than the superhero films that bookended BvS’s release: Deadpool and Captain America: Civil War.  Here were two films that actively subverted their audience’s expectations, genuinely deconstructing the conventions of their own narratives to great effect – and both, unlike Batman v Superman, were showered with praise for doing so.

In the case of Deadpool, an overly-familiar Frankenstein revenge quest was used to riff on the rote conventions of superhero filmmaking, and the result offered, alongside all its infectious fourth-wall breaking absurdity, an oddly affecting romance, arguably one of the better X-Men films of the bunch, and a palate cleanser for years worth of carbon copy action blockbusters.

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IMAGE: Deadpool

In the example of Civil War, the established ideologies of the principle characters were broken down and flipped elegantly.  Military pin-up boy, Steve Rogers bucks military authority to argue for self-regulation; Downey Jr.’s antiestablishment Tony Stark signs on for governmental oversight; Black Widow, the hardened amoral spy, desperately negotiates her way through the fray, trying to hold her makeshift family together.  Each acts in ways seemingly contrary to their established personality, and yet all prove to be organic extensions of their cumulative experience, deconstructing their beliefs and rebuilding them anew.  And that’s before the film even gets to the (for once) ingenious villain scheme that operates, not through external peril, but personal principle, resulting in a third act unlike any Marvel film before it – one that discards the generic lets-put-our-differences-aside-and-fight-the-big-bad crescendo that audiences have come to expect, and offering a climax that plays as a brutal, raw stoush between two friends who are finally pushed beyond ethos into pure emotion.

Basically, everything Batman v Superman failed to provide on every conceivable level.

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IMAGE: Captain America: Civil War

And even before these two examples there were films like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, an exploration of the price of order in the wake of the 21st century’s new paradigm of terrorism, or The Incredibles, a stylised analogy for familial dysfunction and the perils of fame, or even Richard Donner’s Superman, exploring the immigrant experience through colourful fantasy, and playfully satirising American ideology through Superman’s impersonation of both a human being and an icon.  Numerous examples, stretching all the way back through the history of cinema.  These characters have been broken down, critiqued, and reassembled since they first appeared on screen.

So suggesting that audiences can’t handle change, or claiming that Zack Snyder invented ‘deconstruction’ because he was able to indulge his objectivist fetishes after misreading Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, is ridiculous.

The real issue is that Snyder and his screenwriter Goyer had nothing to say beyond their grimdark posturing and mangled pseudo-philosophy.

Turning Superman, who has traditionally been a beacon of hope and optimism; an ideal for testing human morality on a grand scale of near-infinite power, into a whiny, narcissistic jag with a messiah fetish, is fine (actually it’s stupid, but whatever) – but you have to actually be exploring something after you do it.  Otherwise you’ve just changed the character into something else for no reason.  Making Batman a savage, gun-happy mass murderer might be an interesting subversion of everything he represents, if only there was some point to it beyond: ‘Lookit!  HARDCORE!’  But similarly, there’s not.

You can turn Huck Finn into a vicious slave trader, turn Robinson Crusoe into a lazy shut-in, the Powerpuff Girls into three jacked-up male Mexican wrestlers with samurai blades, but none of that is ‘deconstruction’.  At best it’s just mutation.  It’s what DC once created ‘Elseworlds’ stories for, so they need not be beholden to the integrity of their characters and their universe.  Indeed, Derrida himself specifically argued that it is not enough to simply tear something into its constituent parts and grunt nihilistically that everything can be undone; saying something is a ‘deconstruction’ does not excuse it from having to say something.

Consequently, what Batman v Superman offered felt immediately redundant.  Snyder’s ‘deconstruction’ of his characters consists solely in ignoring their fundamental elements and recasting them as indulgent power fantasies.  It plays more like a sketch comedy bit – like when Dora the Explorer gets remade as a gritty action film, or the Smurfs get played as a reclusive religious cult.  And it is that lack of substance that renders the film a giddy, empty spectacle.

As Hughes somewhat disingenuously asserts in his article, however, taste is taste.  People can like whatever they want, and for whatever reasons they want.  Hughes himself obviously enjoyed the film.  It was to his taste to see a psychotically homicidal character called Batman, and a sullen, impassive alien called Superman get tricked into punching each other for an hour.  And that is genuinely fine (despite my clear distaste for it).  But spending the next three months telling everyone else that they are wrong for not accepting this vision as their Batman and Superman, that they have bad taste for not liking the film, or that they fundamentally do not understand critical theory, is so specious an argument as to be farcical.

Speaking as someone who hated the film – both aesthetically and thematically – I think Hughes should just be happy that he enjoyed the film, and feel comforted that there are others who did too.  That he could see something in it to like is a gift, not a pulpit from which to berate everyone who doesn’t agree.  Because in the end, when the justification for liking something becomes so inextricably tied up in trying to prove that everyone else has missed the point, the only thing that ends up getting ‘deconstructed’ is an individual fan’s dependence upon grasping rhetoric.

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