Movies

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Another Nabokov Quote

The dumbest thing about Batman v Superman is its obsession with sounding smart.

Still of Jesse Eisenberg in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. As you can tell from the cardigan, Lex Luthor is supposed to be very, very smart.

Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Late in Batman v Superman, the villainous Lex Luthor confronts intrepid reporter Lois Lane on the roof of a skyscraper. Words all but spill out of Luthor, played by a typically nervy Jesse Eisenberg, who mutters, “Lane Lo in the morning. Lola in slacks.” Never mind that the sun has long since set when he addresses her—a fact that he emphasizes just a few moments beforehand when he intones, “The night is here” into a phone—the strangest detail about this remark is that he’s paraphrasing Lolita’s famous opening paragraph: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning. … She was Lola in slacks.”

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Nothing of what follows—CGI-enabled fisticuffs, mostly—offers any explanation for these appropriated bits of Nabokovian eloquence. Likewise, there’s little to account for Luthor’s other references and quotations, though they are plentiful, so much so that the film might be retitled Batman v Superman v Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations Man. His stuttery lexicon leans heavily on such borrowings, always torqueing them slightly but never so much so that they’re unrecognizable: “The red capes are coming!” he exclaims to a senator to whom he had earlier said, “We don’t have to depend on the kindness of monsters.” Maybe Luthor really is somewhere between Paul Revere and Blanche DuBois, and there’s an interesting story to be told about him if so, one that might help articulate why he does the things he does. But this is not, alas, a film that has any interest in offering such explanations, here or elsewhere.

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Like Luthor’s motivations, his repertoire of references shifts according to the needs of each scene rather than in the service of some coherent master plot: Onstage at a gala event, he recites a turgid etymology of the word philanthropist, seemingly having memorized a few lines from a dictionary.  And in one especially hammy scene, he tells a dead Kryptonian, “You flew too close to the sun,” clearly alluding to the myth of Icarus, though it’s not obvious what he adds by doing so, especially since hubris is his own defining characteristic.

Lex Luthor, as everyone knows, is supposed to be a genius. It’s his intellectual intensity that makes him such an apt foe for Superman—the mad mind of the one an ideal match for the perfect alien body of the other. His borrowed banter in this film is clearly meant to be proof of his prodigious brain, but instead, these lines merely irritate. That’s not entirely the fault of Jesse Eisenberg, who at least seems to be enjoying himself. Instead it demonstrates the film’s most damning fault: It desperately wants to demonstrate its brilliance, despite having nothing especially clever to say.

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Batman v Superman has plenty of opportunities to dramatize the intellect of its villain. And while it occasionally alludes to the consequences of his genius, it never manages to show us a mind at work. It indicates in passing, for example, that he’s somehow divined the secret identities of our heroes, an apparently impressive deduction. We never learn how he penetrated their disguises, however, presumably because showing how he makes connections and inferences would counteract the movie’s goal of being a procession of largely unrelated set pieces.

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In the place of such feats, we get a stream of motor-mouthed prattle. Let’s be clear, though, that there’s nothing inherently smart about the way Lex Luthor talks in this movie. By way of explanation, allow me to offer my own semi-gratuitous name drop: Discussing Einstein’s brain in his essay collection Mythologies, Roland Barthes suggests that the organ has come to signify the mere fact of intelligence, without reference to the scientist’s actual discoveries. Luthor’s quotations and references serve a similar function, vacuously indicating a kind of insight that the movie is too lazy to develop, a parody of cleverness and cultivation.

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If Luthor is maddening, then, it’s largely because the film panders so aggressively to audiences in its presentation of him. Since his supposed erudition exists merely to signify the fact of his superior intelligence, there’s an obvious paradox at play here. To achieve their intended effect, his quotations and references have to be at least vaguely familiar. Accordingly, they can’t actually be that erudite, lest their obscurity muddle the larger message. It might make sense to have Luthor quote, say, Antonio Negri on the dangers of established forms of power while challenging the world’s reliance on the godlike superman. But such a line also wouldn’t scan with the same broad immediacy, which is why the film denies us what’s relevant in favor of what’s convenient.

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And that’s not the only way the film panders; it also has shockingly low expectations of comics fans. Much as Luthor breezily deforms cultural texts, the film itself regularly quotes from comics history, producing pastiches of familiar panels and scenes. Several such moments unfold in the film’s dire final act when—as in Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns—a nuclear missile temporarily weakens Superman. And as in the notorious Death of Superman arc, our Kryptonian hero is ultimately laid low by the beast known as Doomsday.

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Remember this? the filmmakers seem to be saying as they wink toward some of the best-selling comics of all time. So do we! We’re nerds just like you! These are superficial references, even when they’re specific. This bland pastiche-work might be enough to count as fidelity to some, but it is no less empty for its deference. These gestures to the narrative past matter only if adaptations are supposed to be reverent and nothing more. As in his filmic take on Watchmen, director Zack Snyder wants to honor the past, but he has no interest in striking up a conversation with it.

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The film’s Luthor is Snyder’s mirror image, then, giving us slightly tweaked allusions to familiar things and calling them genius. But genius requires more than a capacity for citation, much as adaptation has to do more than show us what we already know. This is not a good adaptation, and it is not a smart film, no matter how much it wants us to think it is. Listen to Batman in its opening moments, as he offhandedly alludes to both William Butler Yeats and Seamus Heaney. Even Luthor’s generic and mostly mute Russian henchman gets in on the quotation game, rewriting a snatch of Cole Porter as he menaces Superman’s mother with a flamethrower: “I’m afraid this is goodbye. And every time we say goodbye you die a little,” he propounds.

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All of this ponderous, pointless wit only highlights the incoherence of the film’s Big Idea: that there’s such a thing as too much power, especially when it’s concentrated in a single individual. Luthor carries the burden of conveying that conceit here, though it’s a premise that superhero comics—most notably Alan Moore’s Watchmen, with which Snyder is all too familiar—have been exploring for decades. Instead of enlivening that increasingly stale conversation, Snyder’s film simply lets it dissolve back into the spectacle of Luthor’s scenery-chewing madness. Like so much else in the film, this idea is here simply because more thoughtful comics have already proposed it.

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