Talking Pictures: Good v evil

By David Templeton

I’m always wiped out after watching a Zack Snyder movie,” says Andrew Farago, raising his voice slightly to be heard above the booming end-credit music of Zack Snyder’s 150-minute comic-book extravaganza Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. As roughly 10,000 names scroll up the screen, we duck out early, having confirmed that there is no post-film surprise scene waiting at the end of the credits. “That’s a Marvel thing,” Farago says. “Superman and Batman are all DC.”

Slightly exhausted from the dramatic sensory onslaught of the film—in which Batman does, indeed, take on Superman (other DC legends, from Wonder Woman to Aquaman, show their super-powered faces, too)—we head down the escalator at San Francisco’s Metreon shopping complex, desperately in need of coffee.

“I was surprised by that ending,” Farago confesses. “I have colleagues who saw the movie at a preview, and they did a really good job of keeping from spoiling any surprises.”

As shall we, so fear not. No spoilers shall be revealed herein—only a few very strong opinions.

Farago, a lifelong comic book fan, is the curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, which formerly occupied a storefront space not far from the Metreon. In talks to acquire a new permanent home for the museum’s massive collection of cartoon and comic book art, the museum is currently closed to the public, but is sponsoring a number of workshops and talks at various San Francisco locations until a new home is found. Farago’s job is to catalog and sort the museum’s collection, and to prepare and present its exhibitions of cartoon artistry in all of its many forms.

“I didn’t much like Man of Steel, the previous Superman movie from Zack Snyder,” Farago says, sitting down to a latté. “I was not thrilled that they broke the Superman-never-kills rule, so I was not expecting much from Dawn of Justice, and I pretty much got exactly what I expected. It’s not bad, but it’s not very much fun.”

Farago says that he grew up on the Super Friends animated television show, in which the essential goodness of the Justice League was never challenged. In Man of Steel, Superman (Henry Cavill) was given a twisted psyche and a heavy set of sins to carry, and in the new film, Batman (Ben Affleck)—always a bit on the dark and twisted side—is similarly afflicted with serious rage issues.

“I usually like Batman,” I tell Farago. “But in this movie, with his almost psychotic obsession with killing Superman, I thought he was just kind of a dick.”

Farago considers this observation carefully before responding.

“Actually, I think I can sympathize with Batman’s position,” he finally says. “Seeing how much destruction and death was caused by Superman battling General Zod in Man of Steel, I would have taken Batman’s side just based on that first movie. This guy comes from the sky and brings all of this devastation in his wake. It’s interesting that you thought he was so out of line, because I sympathized with him a lot more than I thought I would.

“It goes back to why I disliked Man of Steel so much,” he adds. “At the end of that movie, when Superman shows that he’s willing to kill, I was actually afraid of Superman. He seemed capable of anything. And we’re not supposed to be afraid of Superman.”

“So,” I ask, “Batman deciding that he needs to try and beat Superman to death … ”

“That made a certain kind of logical sense,” Farago says with a nod.

He agrees that Batman’s view of Superman might have shifted early enough to avoid the promised third act bat-on-alien death match, if they had just been able to sit down together over a beer and talk it out. But there is a hallowed tradition in comic books, when Super friends become Super enemies. He cites Disney-Marvel’s upcoming Captain America: Civil War as another example, in which the democracy-loving Steve Rogers (Captain America) becomes the sworn enemy of the right-leaning Tony Stark (Iron Man).

“It’s a classic comic book question,” Farago says. “How do you get two good guys to come into conflict? Going back to the very first time that kind of story happened in a comic book, it usually is just an understanding. Or it’s someone manipulating them, or it’s a case of mistaken identity. It’s not always completely believable. But it doesn’t really have to be.”

Farago acknowledges that while some comic fans prefer the darker, broodier superheroes that have come along over the last decade or so, he prefers the lighter, more optimistic variety.

“In the Christopher Reeve movies,” he reminds me, “Superman saved cats out of trees. He took the time to connect with the people in his community. He was friendly. I miss that.

“I wish these new movies captured more of what I consider to be essential to the Superman mythology,” he continues. “Superman is someone who sees the best in people. He wants humanity to be the best it can be, and he believes in that possibility.”

“So, what else do you miss,” I ask, “when comparing the Superman and Batman stories of 30 years ago with the ones we get today?”

“Well,” Farago says with a laugh, “I miss the fun. There is not a lot of fun in these last two Superman movies. They are pretty serious and joyless. With the exception of those moments when Wonder Woman shows up, I guess. She was pretty fun. Everything lightened up a bit when she appeared.”

“So are you looking forward to next year’s stand-alone Wonder Woman movie?”

“I kind of am,” Farago says. “I think maybe we’ll get some of the optimism and positivity from Wonder Woman that we aren’t getting anymore from Superman. Maybe she’ll have some of the faith in humanity that he used to have. I hope so, because I think that’s the best thing about comic books.”

“A belief in humanity?”

“Yes,” Farago says. “Exactly, a belief that we can be better than we are, not just meaner and more violent. I think that really is an essential piece of the comic book experience.”