As Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice nears release, much has been made of The MPAA’s recent bulletin assigning director Zack Snyder’s home video cut an R-Rating for scenes of intense violence. (We even discussed it for 40-plus minutes on an episode of our podcast.) This author is of the opinion that the whole concept of a version of a Superman film that is inappropriate for children to watch is misguided, irresponsible, ill-advised, sick, sad, and utterly pathetic, regardless of the medium or its accesibility. Yet, a vociferous minority online—a new breed of militant, hostile DC film fans dubbed “Bat-bros, or “Synder-bros” by prominent geek writers and pundits (mostly due to these trolls being young males displaying oafish, aggressive, bullying behavior)— is celebrating the announcement and have taken to social media to harass and even threaten those who oppose Snyder’s decision.
Their fervor for the second entry in the fledging “DC Extended Universe” (the moniker WB execs have given to the interconnected DC superhero films) has transcended mere fan excitement and swelled into a seething morass of overprotectiveness, paranoia, anger, and defensiveness: They obtusely condemn venerable critics like Hitfix’s Drew McWeeney for daring to report on a screening of the film that left a few executives nervous about audience reception, then throwing in his own speculation about plans changing on future DC movies should the box office numbers not hit the target.
They believe ludicrous conspiracy theories pointing to a massive, coordinated smear campaign against Dawn Of Justice by Disney. They believe multiple large film/TV websites publish biased material against the DCEU. They invade comment threads to dismiss Marvel Cinematic Universe films as “immature, jokey, Disney kiddie trash.” Message board threads dozens of pages long are dedicated to compulsively monitoring Batman V Superman box office tracking. They employ similar Twitter tactics to other serial online harassment movements, such as gaslighting, sea-lioning, and dog-piling anyone who they deem is “speaking ill” of the film. While many fans on social media look forward to both Marvel and DC superhero movies and are able to civilly debate the merits and deficiencies of each studio, the Bat-Bros lack any decorum, subtlety, or respect — it’s dwell in the darkness or get out.
To this small, misanthropic mob, Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice isn’t simply an opportunity to have an enjoyable night out at the cinema watching two titans of pop culture tussle for the first time, it represents the validation of a “grim n’ gritty” visual aesthetic, bleak tonality, and the perpetuation of the ideological stance that darkness and violence equates to more mature storytelling and complex narrative themes. So, how did we get here? How did a youthful, angry sect of fandom come to embrace darkness and grit, and denounce traditional, hopeful, inspirational, adventurous superhero storytelling? Well, for starters, let’s look at one small, but very telling publishing interaction:
In 2006, comics writer Paul Pope was disheartened that he wasn’t seeing a lot of comics appropriate for children on the shelves, so he decided to pitch an all-ages title based off of Jack Kirby’s Kamandi, Last Boy On Earth character to the head of DC publishing, Dan DiDio. Pope’s presentation was waved off with this charming reply:
“You think this is gonna be for kids? Stop, stop. We don’t publish comics for kids. We publish comics for 45-year-olds. If you want to do comics for kids, you can do Scooby-Doo.”
DiDio’s seemingly insignificant dismissal of the Kamandi pitch represented a small tremor in what would be an oncoming seismic shift. In 2005, Christopher Nolan salvaged the cinematic profile of DC’s cash cow, Batman, with the Year One-esque reboot Batman Begins. Though it wasn’t a massive box office juggernaut, its grounded reality, dark lighting, and lack of rubber nipples on the Bat-suit went a long way to erase from the public consciousness the memory of the disastrous, neon-drenched, camp nightmares the Joel Schumacher Bat-films had become.
A year prior to that, DC contracted novelist Brad Meltzer to write the controversial event series Identity Crisis, which featured, among other shocking revelations, the rape of a Justice League member’s wife, a hero using magic to lobotomize a supervillain, a psychotic serial killer, and more. The series sold well in a slumping comic book market, but it was savaged by many critics who decried it as illicit trash that tainted DC’s irreproachable icons. Little did they know, the DC Universe was about to get a whole lot darker.
In 2011—emboldened by successes like the gargantuan box office take and pop culture impact of Batman Begins’ sequel, The Dark Knight, and the Arkham Asylum video game—DiDio would take the philosophy once imparted to Pope to the extreme, teaming with ’90s superstar artist and newly minted co-publisher Jim Lee to implement one of the most controversial, industry-altering comic book publishing initiatives ever — a complete line-wide restart of the entire DC universe, dubbed “The New 52” (referring to the both the number of monthly titles as well as the number of universes in the “multiverse”).
Over 70 years of continuity (albeit a convoluted and oft-interrupted continuity) were wiped out, so that fresh #1 issues could be sold to collectors and new readers. Lee redesigned costumes for the seven core heroes who made up the Justice League, transforming their iconic, simplistic looks into edgy, glossy, over-designed battle togs. Superman and Batman’s trademark trunks, for instance—a look that paid homage to the circus strong men that inspired them—were replaced by needless armor plates and choker collars.
What’s worse, the sweeping changes to the DCU weren’t merely aesthetic ones; there was also a deliberate tonal shift away from traditional superhero dynamics towards darkness and violence. DiDio and DC had dipped their toe in the water with Identity Crisis, other Crisis events like Infinite and Final (the former gaining infamy after depicting Wonder Woman twisting a villain’s head completely around), violent storylines like Hush in the Bat-books, and of course the Nolan Batman movies, but now they were all systems go for brooding, iniquity, moral ambiguity, and shock factor across every page in their lineup.
Superman’s smile turned to a scowl; Batman battled a Joker who wore his own skinned-off face as a grotesque death mask; Wonder Woman wielded a bloody sword; Harley Quinn was stripped of her jaunty jester’s garb and outfitted in trashy Juggalette gear; all hope was annihilated, quite literally, as the Blue Lanterns—the embodiments and protectors of hope itself—were wiped out in the pages of Green Lantern. It was an apt metaphor for DiDio and Lee’s misguided creed: wide-eyed kids looking for colorful adventures featuring optimistic, beaming, moral heroes were no longer welcome in their world of grit and salaciousness.
Though it was meant to take the company into bold new territory, the whole thing felt like a regression; a plunge back into the extreme, gimmicky ’90s. Those dark days produced massive sales numbers via shocking storylines like Superman’s death at the hands of Doomsday, Batman’s crippling by Bane, and Green Lantern’s genocidal psychotic breakdown. But the gimmicky bubble burst with the collapse of the speculator boom in the mid ’90s, and more than anything, these publicity stunts masquerading as stories were the result of DC catering to the wrong audience – namely, the trend-following, low-attention span kids flocking to the bladed, pouch-laden, cybernetically-enhanced heroes splashed across the pages of Marvel and Image Comics.
For a while there, it seemed like DC would rally and re-commit to fun and adventure in their monthly titles. From 1996 to around 2004 (just before Identity Crisis), the company took flight creatively under writers who truly understood the timeless appeal of these characters, like Geoff Johns, Mark Waid, and Grant Morrison. Sales-wise things may have seemed dire, but color and life were bountiful in the pages:
The golden age Justice Society of America returned in a successful run by Johns; Morrison restored an iconic Justice League lineup of Superman, Batman, The Flash, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, and Martian Manhunter to the main book after years of C and D-listers among the ranks; Johns redeemed Hal Jordan and restored him to the Green Lantern mantle in Rebirth; Mark Waid deftly skewered the uber-violent antihero craze of the early ’90s with the meta-textual, Alex Ross-painted Kingdom Come, as well as recounted Superman’s inspirational origin story in Birthright; and Adam Hughes produced gorgeous painted covers for Wonder Woman. Even DC’s media ventures outside of comics in this period were bright, inspirational, and even comical – with cartoons like Teen Titans, Justice League Unlimited on the air, and outlandish camp like the aforementioned Joel Schumacher Batman movies.
The DC heroes were bold, beaming, and flying high into the sun; but shadows were looming on the horizon. The collective human psyche was left deeply scarred and altered by the 9/11 attacks, triggering darker creative thoughts and thus, darker material. As the comic book industry continued to wither in the early 2000’s DC appeared to be growing increasingly disenfranchised with the demographic they were drawing to their brand. Instead of producing “four quadrant appeal” material; DC would attempt to simultaneously cultivate an edgy, teenage/early20s audience, and pander to the 45-55 year olds who gobbled up seminal, ground-breaking comic events like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen in their rebellious youth.
There’s no question stories like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, V For Vendetta, and The Killing Joke are complex works that deserve to be taken seriously on a literary level, but they are at once incredible boons to DC, as well as lazy crutches.They functioned well because their narratives and thematic elements were predicated on satirizing superhero tropes and utilizing these icons to spin powerful socio-cultural allegories. When a 55-year-old Batman donned his chunky metal battle suit and plugged himself into that lightpost in crime alley to square off against the Man Of Steel in The Dark Knight Returns, it meant something because it leaned on five decades of competitive and sometimes contentious history between the two characters; it was earned and it had context.
Miller was also using the icons to explore political metaphors like free will vs. fascism, but much of the nuance and subversiveness of the stories went over the heads of young fans seeking to learn more about Batman and Superman’s publishing history, and the readers who were there when they were originally published learned all the wrong lessons. They wanted the grit and the hard-edged aggression and the lightning-filled night skies to spill over into everything. Sadly, DC acquiesced, but much of what followed in the wake of these magnum opuses were reactions to these works and not natural progressions. It was violence for violence sake, darkness for darkness sake, and shock for shock’s sake. Without strong writing and more importantly, meaningful context, it’s all just empty visuals on a page or screen. That’s why Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice is so concerning from a critical perspective – it feels like Zack Snyder’s attempt to dazzle audiences by co-opting the iconography of Batman battling Superman, but since these characters are meeting each other for the first time in this cinematic universe, the buildup and the storytelling weight simply isn’t there.
So now that we know the diet that fed the beast—Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, The New 52, The Nolan Dark Knight film trilogy, Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel and Watchmen films, dark Batman comics material like Hush, and Death Of The Family, video games like the Batman Arkham saga and Injustice, all mixed with a near-religious reverence for the iconography, violence, and tone of The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, et al. (but a complete lack of understanding of its thematic and satirical context)—the overlying attitude of the young Snyder-bros begins to come into focus.
These individuals have grown up in a world where Batman is a cold, brutal, obsessive, costumed sociopath, rather than a driven detective in peak physical condition who has moved past his parents death and chooses to patrol Gotham’s streets out of sense of duty and moral obligation. As for Superman, he’s been mostly ignored by these grim devotees, but the character has certainly earned “cred,” now that he’s become a more brutal, emotionally conflicted, soul-searching, brooding, and violent iteration in Man Of Steel, Injustice, and other 21st-century media.
Meanwhile, the previous generations, those who had grown up with these modern titans, are dragging the heroes of their youth into the bitter realities of adulthood with them. Their sense of ownership over the characters, paired with their endless need to be perceived as “mature” or “sophisticated,” has metastasized into a malignancy that is threatening to rot fandom from within, just as it has achieved mainstream ubiquity. Batman V Superman is not simply a movie – its success and cultural impact symbolizes a warped personal validation to these people; a critique of the production is a deeply personal insult.
In all fairness, this phenomenon is not relegated strictly to DC film followers — trolls and overall shitty human beings have always been a cancerous element of all genre fandom, but Batman V Superman and the launch of the DC Extended Universe has amplified a chorus of especially vile voices across social media. Hopefully, these individuals can come to the realization that valid criticism and differing perceptions about how the DC icons should be portrayed in mass media are wholly separate from blind hatred and dismissal of the DCEU. They also need to comprehend that it’s not a matter of vicious competition — success for the DCEU will translate into further success for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and comic book films from Sony and Fox, as well.
And to those seeking an end to the bleak, gritty nihilistic visuals and tone of the current DCEU films? There could be hope on the horizon. Batman V Superman writer Chris Terrio, who also wrote the screenplay for the next DCEU film, Justice League Part I, says the sun may break through the darkness very soon:
“I expect Justice League will be tonally not quite as dark as Batman v Superman. From that point of view, I felt compelled to go back and try to lift us and myself into a different tonal place because I think when you write a darker film, sometimes you want to redeem it all a bit.”