Deconstruction is a complex, powerful analytical tool, in widespread use since the 1970’s. Though it was not originally intended to be relevant to film, it did not take long for artists and critics alike to apply a deconstructive lens to filmmaking and criticism. When executed well, the method subverts the embedded assumptions of a known format, genre, or archetype. It reveals fundamental elements of a character, setting, or narrative, and forces the audience to look at those elements in ways that can make them examine their fascination with the film, culture, subject, and genre as a whole. Scorsese’s GoodFellas is but one example of well executed genre and character deconstruction.
Examining the gangster movie archetype through the personal lives and familial interactions of its main characters, GoodFellas highlights both the appeal of the mob lifestyle and the ease with which it can be taken away. The qualities that first draw Henry Hill into the mob life are the same ones that lead to the downfall of him and his accomplices in the family. From Henry’s short-sightedness, to Jimmy’s and Tommy’s hyper-aggression, to the dishonesty on which the mob is built, the mob and the decisions it compels are a ticking time-bomb. Scorsese shows the main characters alternately rationalize their actions and crumble under the weight of the consequences, relegating Henry Hill to his own personal hell of anonymity and obscurity. The events reveal the underlying truth that these are broken individuals with an unquenchable lust for power and relevance.
In recent years, however, deconstruction has been used less to enable deeper understanding of a genre and its constitutive parts, and more often deployed by fans to defend less critically or commercially successful interpretations of beloved genres.
Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader and the Man of Tomorrow?
Where once the term clearly described an analytical tool, it now seems largely employed to produce a pretext for the poor reception of a particular genre product on the basis that it is ‘misunderstood’. At no point was the term bandied around more than when Batman v Superman came out, to unenthusiastic reception. Zack Snyder, notoriously, insisted that viewers didn’t understand his movie and that they “don’t like watching their heroes deconstructed”.
As pompous as that statement is, does it hold water? BvS attempts to paint the characters in a light not typical for their genre, updating certain elements of their mythos, taking liberties with their moral codes, and aging Batman to reveal the scars of a prolonged career of vigilanteism. That same description could apply to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, one of the most famous works of deconstruction in comics. So with this many similarities, why did it fall flat?
Part of the problem is that you need a foundation before you deconstruct anything, and the DCEU never bothered with one. With The Dark Knight Returns, there were countless decades of material to draw from, an established relationship between the two characters at its core, and a storyline about the evolution, perhaps for the worse, of their respective philosophies on heroism. Lacking these three things, Batman v Superman couldn’t adequately address the nature of either character.
Looking at the DCEU on its own, isolated from the wider DC universe, what does this version of Superman or this version of Batman stand for? Their moral codes can’t really be defined in a concrete manner. Superman’s ethos is a mishmash of incongruous tenets from his biological and adoptive fathers. Both characters kill repeatedly throughout their respective appearances in films and are inconsistent in their displays of remorse. Superman hunts Batman for being a vigilante, but that’s completely asinine considering he’s not deputized by the state either. As a result, the viewer is left unsure about what’s being deconstructed.
Of course, this abuse of deconstruction extends beyond the movie fandom and into the comics fandom itself. I’ve heard the deconstruction angle used to excuse all the major failings of Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman & Robin, an abysmally written book famous for introducing a Batman whose lunacy became meme-worthy within comic circles. Where Frank Miller was once making a point with his outlandish deformations of the traditional superhero, he had now written something that one could call a satire of his own oeuvre if it weren’t so artless.
There are great deconstructions of both characters throughout the history of comics. I’ve already discussed the trap that Snyder fell into with Superman, and how far better stories avoided it. Aside from The Dark Knight Returns, the other defining deconstruction of Batman is Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader. The comic plays not just with Batman’s symbolic meaning, but also with superheroes’ interpretative malleability. The frame story takes place at Batman’s funeral, with multiple characters offering their individual takes on the Caped Crusader in a series of eulogies. Each character details a different version of Batman’s life, until it’s revealed that they are all true; each time Batman is reborn, he embodies a particular interpretation of some basic essence of the character.
Like the best deconstructions, it works as a good story first, and as a character study second. Its primary objective is not to be clever, but to be engaging and it manages both. It tells multiple stories using the vernacular of the Batman mythos, yet it maintains the core of the character in each retelling. Most importantly, it delivers crucial commentary about the longevity of the character and his various permutations. That’s a far better deconstructive speculation than “what if Batman and Superman hated each other at first sight?”.
Who Watches the Unwatchable?
A similar problem persists throughout Snyder’s Watchmen, a movie that I believe is not that bad on the whole, but is ultimately weighed down by stupid decisions. Its fundamental flaw is its own unwillingness to engage with the spirit of the original text. The entirety of the film’s genre deconstruction involves placing the characters in gratuitously bloody brawls and graphic sex scenes, whilst missing out on the real meat of Watchmen – the commentary about forfeiting our agency and delegating the safety of the world to a small group of vigilantes. Snyder’s interpretation even espouses sympathy towards Ozymandias and Rorschach, both of whom are characters meant to demonstrate the fascistic implications at the heart of the superhero genre.
Perhaps one might charitably insist that his intentions were lost in translation. However, Snyder’s obsession with making Watchmen “look cool” is at odds with the tragedy of its characters and, when the visuals and the written narrative are at odds, what’s on screen supersedes the intentions of the script, whatever they may be. That’s not subversion, it’s unintentional tonal dissonance. It’s actively a step away from Moore’s intent.
The original Watchmen is very precise in its use of violence. It has quite a few brutal deaths in the first few issues, but it never presents any act of violence as a disposable event. It is quite restrained and realistic, right up until those first pages of the final issue where rows of dead bodies are splayed across Times Square in blood-drenched piles. In the movie, the effect is a generic, blockbuster city destruction sequence, the kind Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis.
That’s not even getting into the issue of what Watchmen was actually deconstructing. Watchmen is firmly about comic book medium and its core techniques, just as much as it is about the superhero genre. Therefore, any adaptation of Watchmen would have to be about the medium it was being adapted to and its core techniques (and no, simply putting nipples on Ozymandias as a nod to Batman & Robin is not enough).
Both BvS and Watchmen have their defenders. I’m not here to judge taste but rather to clarify that there’s a particular excuse for these movies’ reception that needs to be taken out to pasture. When it comes to discussing these films, a particular line of argumentation persists. In both these cases, the fact that they purport to be deconstructive is used to wave away their inherent problems and obviate the murderous, callous nature of the protagonists. However, the word “deconstruction” is not a magic spell that convinces people that a movie is beyond criticism. Deconstruction must have a goal and should not be subversion for the sake of subversion.
Death of the Auteur’s Vision
One of my favourite movies from the previous year was Aronofsky’s Mother, a widely divisive surrealist horror that depicts scenes from the Bible as family drama. It deconstructs biblical morality to frame the interplay between Mother Nature and God as an emotionally abusive relationship. The movie was a polarizing, but successful deconstruction that illustrated the point it set out to make clearly and with an auteur’s vision in mind. God, played as he is in the Bible, would come across as an unpleasant mess of a character.
I imagine a Zack Snyder version would have been a retelling of the Bible where Jesus was a whiny, cross-fit bro whose unrecognised genius is trampled by ‘the man‘. Except, he already did precisely that with Superman in the DCEU. So we can add biblical symbolism to the list of things that Batman v Superman ruined.
I don’t mean to rag on Snyder in particular. It is only that’s he is more recently infamous than most other examples. Wrong-headed deconstruction often comes from a place of good intentions by competent people. Ang Lee’s Hulk was one such project. On paper, it is a deconstructive piece of fiction and one of the few attempts to actually go into why the jade giant is so filled with rage. The narrative aims to go into Bruce Banner’s past, an abusive childhood, and examines his daddy issues and fear of losing control. A solid idea with unbelievably terrible execution.
There is no doubt that Ang Lee is an auteur. However, the movie he wanted to make was at odds with the blockbuster genre and the studio’s vision. The material was trying to be hard-hitting, but while watching the film you can practically hear a studio executive in the background calling for more action beats. This results in a movie where Hulk fights off radioactive poodles sent to attack him by his physically abusive, absentee father (dear lord, this movie was beyond weird). The problem with tossing an action scene into a movie about the dangers of repressed anger and abuse is that, if the scenes feel superfluous, you undercut your own points about violence. Coding Rorschach or a murderous Batman as the noble hero doesn’t deconstruct the archetype. It reaffirms it.
This extends beyond superhero films as well. The equivalent would be to make a version of the Great Gatsby that indulges pointless hedonism – except that already happened. As critic Charles Moore stated in his own review of the movie: “The over-staged extravaganzas look like routines from an old-fashioned musical rather than an actual party with real, live, bad people in it“. The self-indulgence of Baz Lurhmann’s camera aesthetic drains the original’s nuance, the depressing undertones of the carnival of corruption that the book sought to demonise. It is not just my opinion; it is a fact that bled into reality, with people who missed the point organising Great Gatsby-themed parties.
In a similar vein, the Starship Troopers franchise started off as a parody of the kind of film a fascist society would make to boost its own ego, and eventually lost the element of parody with the subsequent installments. The deconstructive elements fizzled out due to an insistence on misreading an auteur’s vision. The movies devolved into an unintentional self-parody of a parody. That’s where I feel the meaning of the word “deconstruction” has ended up in popular culture– a laughable shadow of a once noble endeavor, used to excuse the same mindless indulgence that real art should be criticizing.