[Editor's Note: March kicks off a season of big-time showdowns, grudge matches and maybe a few team-ups. Infamous as the month when Brutus betrayed Caesar, March will get even more epic because Batman will take on Superman on the big screen, Daredevil will get company in Hell's Kitchen in the form of The Punisher on Netflix, and The Flash shall race on over to CBS to meet Supergirl. And, of course, just a few weeks after this kickoff, we'll see a breakdown in the friendship between Captain America and Iron Man in Marvel's Civil War movie. Because we love seeing a good battle between titans, we've dedicated March to versus. Over the next four weeks, check this space for stories on title fights in superhero stories, horror, science, and more!]
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is set to be unleashed on March 25, promising a devastating donnybrook on a global scale for Warner Bros.’ burgeoning DC Comics cinematic continuity. Yet, while loyal fans might be inclined to pick sides, the titular superheroes don’t seem to be coming across as conventionally heroic. In fact, one could observe that these classic do-gooders from days of yore seem uncharacteristically....monstrous.
Accordingly, I plan to make a rather unconventional causal connection explaining this phenomenon. While the idea of brooding heroes is hardly a new concept, Dawn of Justice is completely throwing away the heroes’ veneer of innate benevolence, instead marketing itself as a larger than life rumble in the DC jungle of lost and tortured souls (superhuman and otherwise), pit against each other ideologically to see which one can tilt at the proverbial windmill of moral ambiguity harder as the world gets wrecked.
Put in those terms, I can’t help but think this tone shift roots back to another similarly surreal cinematic showdown in the monster matchup between dream demon, Freddy Krueger and undead brute, Jason Vorhees in 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason.
A new “Nightmare”
Freddy vs. Jason was, by no standard of good taste, a great film or even an ironic classic. The long-gestating movie monster matchup was a campy, primitive-CGI-ridden romp that comically played to the service of fans of the cash-in cavalcade of A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th sequels, working perfunctorily off a checklist of bad slasher film tropes. While the film’s title promised one thing, moviegoers were forced to surrender deference to a group of insufferable teens led by an archetypal final girl, Lori Campbell (Monica Keena), who has some personal misfortune connected to a long-forgotten Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund).
Despite itself, Freddy vs. Jason did deliver on its promised share of slasher-on-slasher violence. However, something was different about the horror icons this time around (and I’m not talking about Ken Kirzinger replacing Kane Hodder as Jason). Coming into the film, Freddy and Jason were always unquestionably depicted as fearsome and repugnant killers, with Jason possibly evoking some measure of sympathy for being the reanimated manifestation of an abused, mentally slow child. Yet, from a character standpoint, the killers’ respective films generally conveyed a measure of moral clarity against them.
This is the crucial aspect where Freddy vs. Jason diverges. The film’s “plot” depicts Freddy, desperate to be remembered and feared, implementing a plan to once again inspire fear in his “children” by manipulating an undead Jason into shedding enough blood to point fingers to Freddy, thereby reestablishing him in the nightmares of hapless Elm Streeters. However, after a vengeance-seeking Lori and her exasperating friends get thrust in the middle of the ordeal, Jason is freed from Freddy’s manipulations and the two head for their fateful throw-down. Oddly enough, when that finally occurs, the movie gives us the oddest thing: a hero of sorts in Jason!
Holding out for a hero
Joseph Campbell defined a hero as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” While Jason may not have willingly “given” anything to anyone that didn’t involve a machete or the occasional harpoon, he nevertheless found himself just as much a victim of Freddy as anyone else. Tortured in the dream realm and humiliated, Jason spent much of the movie as Freddy’s REM-rocked piñata; something that made the inevitable turn of the table default to Jason as an unlikely protagonist.
While Jason still wantonly wreaked havoc on hapless teens and anyone else unfortunate to be in his way, Freddy vs. Jason director Ronny Yu seemed to steer the audience towards the bizarre path of rooting for Jason to get his revenge. Even after Jason broke free of Freddy’s power and still continued to make mincemeat of Lori’s friends, the viewer is made to crave the moment when Freddy gets his just desserts courtesy of a homicidal hockey mask enthusiast.
However, as the film progressed, the phenomenon evolved. The excruciating nature of Lori and her group of fellow teens almost directed the audience to cheer for both Jason AND Freddy whenever they would murder one, thereby relieving the viewer of yet another painfully tacked-on presence. The moral chaos culminates in the film’s final image of Jason emerging from Camp Crystal Lake holding Freddy’s severed head, as the camera cuts to a close-up of it giving a friendly, fourth-wall-slashing wink. Thus, it’s plausible that Freddy also emerged as a suffering, subjective “hero” of sorts to the more demented moviegoers fed up with annoying teens. In the very least, the movie gave off some confusing vibes.
“God vs. Man. Day vs. Night.”
A decade later, the stage for Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was first set in 2013’s cinematic-continuity-launching Superman reboot, Man of Steel, in which audiences were introduced to a post-Christopher Reeve (and Brandon Routh) movie version of DC Comics’ Blue Bomber that was significantly updated for more pathos-craving 21st century sensibilities. Indeed, Henry Cavill’s new Clark Kent/Superman was no longer an invincible Boy Scout with supreme moral clarity whose actions as the film’s protagonist were beyond reproach.
Accordingly, the film, while profitable, proved to be a divisive iteration of the Superman property, not only due to director Zack Snyder’s obscenely over-the-top, city-decimating sequences, but also Superman’s newfound morose nature, leading to the film’s controversial coda during which, under duress, he made the choice to fatally snap the neck of Michael Shannon’s rampaging General Zod. Overall, a solid tonal baseline for the continuity-set follow-up films was established.
By the time we get to Dawn of Justice, the subjective nature of Superman’s heroic actions leads citizens to view him as either a heroic god on Earth or a capricious superhuman wrecking ball. That dynamic has viscerally outraged another hero in the debuting Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman, who seems quite comfortable with throwing stone batarangs in superhero glass houses.
Ironically, the law-eluding nocturnal vigilante, Batman, in presuming that he has the right and/or responsibility to tackle the Superman threat, also comes across as morally dubious. As a result, in a Freddy vs. Jason-type manner, the billed monumental matchup in Batman v Superman ascribes a similarly ambiguous moral dynamic to the tussling titans in which there are not so much clear-cut “good guys” as there are two characters who duel wielding their own suffering. Whichever one moviegoers choose to root for is equally subjective.
Through the lens of that paradigm, the embattled Batman falls into the Jason archetype, since he makes Superman his quarry after a painful backstory; in this case, his mourning of Wayne Corp personnel lost during Superman’s destructive battle with Zod. Likewise, Superman could fit as Freddy, the superior specimen on-paper, armed with supernatural powers who finds himself the centerpiece of the film’s events. Like Freddy and Jason, Batman and Superman’s inevitable collision course stands to leave innocents in danger as they helplessly watch from the periphery of a destructive, Godzilla vs. Mothra-type showdown that will only escalate with more heroes and villains.
As Marvel also gets set to walk down a similarly circuitous ethical road with May’s Captain America: Civil War, we might be well-served to recollect on this (arguably) bellwether thematic approach implemented back in 2003 by Freddy vs. Jason. While no masterpiece, it stands as an unassuming cinematic waypoint reflecting our ever-evolving culture’s standards of what is considered a “hero.”