The Scapegoating of Batman V. Superman: A Theory of Criticism

Sad Ben Affleck

Don’t cry, Ben Affleck. You were just a Girardian Scapegoat.

I have a theory about Batman v. Superman. No, this is not a fan theory about how to pull everything together (as much as we all love those). Rather, it’s a theory about the somewhat astonishing level of critical vitriol and general “mehhing” (to coin a phrase) of the film.

Three caveats before I proceed:

First, the seriousness level of this thesis is about 50/50.

Second, I am not a film critic in any professional sense. I am a watcher of movies who can occasionally approach “being thoughtful” about such things. I generally understand why I’m supposed to like the movies I am supposed to like and vice versa. While I am not a populist (in general) and I appreciate good film critics, I have to acknowledge that, at times, my tastes veer into the pedestrian.

Third, you should know that I enjoyed Man of Steel and that my overall judgment about Batman v. Superman is that it is a “decent” to “pretty good” comic book movie. It is not The Dark Knight, or Iron Man, or Avengers, to be sure. But it’s certainly not a Green Lantern which is how so many of the critics are treating it. My biggest complaint about the film as a whole was the kind of choppy editing and a couple of plot points that strained my ability to suspend belief (though, I hear there’s a director’s cut with about 30 extra minutes which could change some of that).

That said, Affleck did a pretty, darn good job of being Batman, contrary to my earlier naysaying (you won me over, Ben). Actually, everybody’s acting was pretty solid. Wonder Woman legit. I’m curious about Snyder’s story-line to follow, etc. and I thought there was some very interesting interactions at the theo-political level. Could it have been better? Yes. Was it awful and not worth seeing again? Nope.

Alright, with these caveats/reminders-to-take-this-with-a-huge-grain-of-salt out of the way, I will proceed with my theory.

Here it is: Batman v. Superman is the Girardian Scapegoat of all “Comic-book Movies.”

If you’ve been paying attention to the reviews for the most recent spate of superhero flicks, especially since this last summer, there has been a general tone of exhaustion amongst large swathes of the critic class. They are tired of these things. The stories are so similar. They’re so CGI. They just keep coming and eating up budgets that could be used on other, more original stories, etc. One of the major reasons so many critics gave Deadpool high marks was precisely because its hyper-violence and vulgarity broke up the monotony and predictability for them.

In other words, there’s been an anger/frustration/angst building, brewing, waiting to be vented and aired out.

Add to that the fact that there has already been suspicion about the Batman v. Superman flick for some time. “Is Snyder just going to try to keep doing the Nolan thing? Aren’t we done with brooding heroes? Can Affleck really pull off Batman?”

Enter the thought of French social theorist Rene Girard. In his broader theory of desire and culture, Girard talks about the “The Power of the First Stone.” Without going into all the details, Girard argues for a particular view of desire and the imitative nature of our desires and actions. We want and do largely as we see others wanting and doing. Because of this, Girard says that “casting the first stone”, so to speak, is the most difficult bit of any event of Scapegoating, because it’s without any model. But, once it’s cast, if there is enough social unrest, contagion, etc. built up, the rest start to follow very quickly.

This is kind of what I think happened with Batman v. Superman. Going into it there was already a tilt against the film, and once the first round of criticisms rolled in it triggered this the great, cathartic scapegoating of all the build-up, frustration, and exhaustion with comic films, dark heroes, etc. starts pouring out in this cascade of bad reviews, each more over-the-top than the last (partially fueled by the drive to top the last negative review in an even more clever, witty, oh-so-devastating takedown.)

Now, hear me: I am not saying that nobody is justified in not liking the film. I can see many of the criticisms being reasonable, even if they don’t hit me with the same, persuasive force. I especially give space for purist, fan concerns.

I will say, though, that had this movie come out two years ago, we would not be seeing the same, widespread, critical reaction. I mean, the fact that Thor: The Dark World has something like a 75% on Rottentomatoes.com and Batman V. Superman has a 29% is just a bizarre discrepancy when looking at the films side-by-side.

But when you start to see Batman v. Superman as the sacrificial victim being expelled from society and offered up in a cathartic moment—a sort of collective, critical purge—then it starts to make sense.

So, there you go. That’s my theory about why way more critics seem to hate this film than they should compared to other superhero flicks they’ve liked.

6 thoughts on “The Scapegoating of Batman V. Superman: A Theory of Criticism

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