“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” is a tale of two cities, a tale of two superheroes, and a tale of cinematic paradoxes. There is both clunky dialogue and profound expressions of ideology, story pacing problems and exceptional editing, flat characters and characters with dramatic arcs. And there is despair— lots of it— but also a glimmer of hope (just take a peek at the second half of the title). When the critical fire and brimstone clears, what is left very well may be a fascinating, finely-tuned film worth seeing and worth rooting for. Yes, hater in the front row: even Batfleck.
From the interminable string of trailers, Snapchat filters, posters, and interviews with actors of other superhero franchises, every promotion for “Batman v. Superman” bills it as an epic showdown between two titans of comic book lore, akin to Marvel’s own upcoming “Captain America: Civil War.” But it’s not really about that fight— and least, not the physical one, though that sequence certainly does deliver on bone-rattling spectacle. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) only start raining down blows on each other in the last third of the movie, and the fight dissipates rather suddenly (many would say too suddenly, but I was both moved and satisfied. More on that later). No, Zack Snyder’s unsurprisingly bleak yet surprisingly resonant film crackles with contemporary relevance, tapping into xenophobic fear-mongering and addressing moral and spiritual disillusionment. Perhaps I’m giving Snyder a bit too much credit— here’s the guy who said it was okay that Superman inadvertently razed half a city in this film’s precursor, 2013’s “Man of Steel,” because “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” destroyed an entire planet. (Um, Zack? Those billions of people in “Star Wars” were murdered by the bad guys.) But I won’t deny what’s right there on the screen, and even if the film fumbles with answers, it deserves praise, at least, for asking the pertinent questions.
“Batman v. Superman” takes its comic book inspiration from Frank Miller’s seminal four-issue miniseries, “The Dark Knight Returns,” and the multi-arc Doomsday narrative, so fans of both can already guess at the film’s trajectory. (Given opening weekend box office grosses, though, knowing what’s going to happen isn’t exactly keeping fans away.) After an abridged but artful explanation of the Batman origin story, the film dives into the aforementioned destruction of Metropolis in “Man of Steel,” this time from the perspective of a horrified Bruce Wayne. Already we’re offered a salient (if unintended) bit of meta-commentary: for those of us who were deeply disturbed by the unchecked devastation at the end of “Man of Steel,” Batman’s got our back— and so begins his fervent mistrust of the mighty and seemingly impenetrable Superman. Though it may seem self-serving to begin a sequel with a sizzle-reel from the franchise’s previous film, it works here, framing “Batman v. Superman” as a feature-length response to its own controversy.
The plot, at times numbingly complicated and at others thinly underdeveloped, can be summed up like so: Batman and Superman disagree with the other’s dispensation of justice. Thanks to some prodding from Jesse Eisenberg’s “psychotic” Lex Luthor— and because this is a Zack Snyder superhero movie— their ideological spat naturally escalates to violence. Say what you will about Snyder’s philosophical motivations, but his lush visuals make movie-goers feel like they’re right beside the action rather than merely in front of it. The film’s score stands apart as well; collaborating with multi-instrumentalist Junkie XL, musical magician Hans Zimmer ratchets up the emotion of unfolding drama with an operatic, “Star Wars”-esque theme, while the hopeful, Smallville-evoking tune from “Man of Steel” seeps into the background of more tender moments. Wonder Woman’s electric war drum theme starts to feel a bit grating when it kicks in for the fifth time, but, hey, the first four cues were pretty epic, amiright? For Themyscira!
With the immediate introduction of so many larger-than-life figures and set pieces, the film stumbles a bit coming out of the gate. But in other ways, the editing masterfully evokes the parallel journeys of our two superheroes: a close-up of Clark’s iconic glasses transitions to a shot of Batman’s equally iconic “Batarang” gadget; Clark approaching a smoldering ruin near his Fortress of Solitude shifts to Bruce standing in the rubble of Wayne Manor; and Clark watching news footage of Batman’s crime-fighting antics is interspliced with Bruce doing his own digging on the Man of Steel. Unfortunately, other scenes are laid out like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together: a flashback here, a different flashback there, a convoluted dream sequence (or two…or three…), journeys from Nairobi to Metropolis and from the Indian Ocean to Gotham. Frankly, it’s exhausting. But perhaps there is a metaphor to be gleaned here, as Snyder’s scattered movie and broken superheroes reflect a contemporary society equally as shattered.
“Batman v. Superman” was penned by Chris Terrio (an Oscar winner for “Argo”) and David S. Goyer, the latter of whom received a story credit for Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking “Dark Knight” trilogy, the first hugely successful superhero franchise in the post 9/11 age (aside from Sam Raimi’s tonally different “Spider-Man”). This film falls far from the psycho-ethical thrill of “The Dark Knight,” which is arguably the best superhero movie of all time. But 15 years after 9/11, when terrorist attacks have become the numbing norm rather than a watershed event, Snyder’s film feels adroitly reflective of the state of our fractured world. These are conflicted heroes wrestling with the relation between power and morality, while humanity— through newscast-ready soundbites— debates the same. As Lex Luthor gleefully insists: “If God is all-powerful, He cannot be good. If God is good, He cannot be all-powerful.” Perhaps referring to Superman as “God” feels extreme; perhaps I occupy the niche spot in a bizarre Venn Diagram of people who are religious and intellectual and huge comic book nerds, but I actually do agonize over such matters, and it’s apparent that Snyder does too. Even so, let’s think things through from a practical standpoint: if an alien from Krypton were to land on our humble blue planet, people would react a lot like they do in “Batman v. Superman”—with equal parts Messianic reverence and fear. Snyder unashamedly feeds into the former; every time Superman is struck down or the Dark Knight rises, another Christ figure is displayed, and smoking crucifixes adorn the blazing aftermath of the climactic final battle. The entire film is a baptism by fire and water, and it’s both aesthetically and morally affecting.
Disturbingly, however, Batman reacts to “the Superman problem” with fear. “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race,” Bruce Wayne says to his butler and confidante, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), “and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” That’s the type of damning rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the Republican party. To make matters worse, Bruce consistently refers to Superman as an “alien,” which, although true in a literal sense, reveals an undercurrent of mistrust and hostility that shouldn’t exist in the souls of our supposed “heroes.” And yet, I still found the Batman arc compelling because of its resolution— Batman and Superman don’t, of course, go on brawling indefinitely, and though the reason for their sudden team-up can be viewed as contrived, it’s stirring because it promotes the commonality needed to breach the distance between two alleged “others.” Incredibly, Ben Affleck manages to sell this jaded, dangerously mistaken hero for the entire journey. Affleck’s tired eyes betray Batman’s wounded soul, and a defiled Robin suit hanging in the Batcave hints at a past tragedy that still haunts him. Chin up, Sadfleck: you done pretty good.
What’s more, these heroes are facing villains that embody opposing reactions to this chaotic world: mindlessly destructive anarchy, as exhibited by the barely sentient Doomsday, and nihilistic glee, carried out by Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Though the villains represent intriguing prototypes of morality, the way each plays out in the film is, admittedly, pretty disastrous. The entire Doomsday plot brings nothing but befuddlement and a draining final act, and should have been cut outright. As for Luthor: Jesse Eisenberg seems to be making a career out of playing painfully awkward geniuses, and to his credit, many of his roles optimize that trait, from Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” to David Lipsky in “The End of the Tour.” Here, Eisenberg embodies Superman’s archenemy like a Zuckerbergian Moriarty of the Andrew Scott variety infused (somewhat desperately) with a dash of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Naturally, it’s a total mess. Though he has a few good lines that resonate, most of his pontificating on the problem of evil lands with a resolute thump, and his invocations of— by my count— Lucifer, Jesus, Icarus and Prometheus serve more to confuse the audience than to illuminate age-old mythological truths. (Perhaps Luthor’s Prometheus shout-out—cheekily uttered while Clark, Bruce and Wonder Woman’s alter-ego, Diana Prince, are all sneaking around under his nose, not paying attention in the slightest to the madman with the mic— reflects a twisted motivation to “save mankind,” but the message is too far buried to count for much.)
And then there’s Superman himself. Snyder backed himself into a corner with an uncharacteristically gritty portrayal of America’s ur-superhero in “Man of Steel,” forgoing truth, justice, and the American way for anguish and uncertainty. Like his Gotham-based counterpart, Superman does go through a drastic transformation over the course of “Batman v. Superman,” but Snyder’s iteration of the character is still the weak point of the budding DC cinematic universe. Superman should be the focal point, the beacon of light and hope and all that is good and true. But after “Batman v. Superman,” I have hope that Snyder is building towards a grand rebirth that will showcase a lighter hero. We just have to have a little faith.
“Superman v. Batman” is undoubtedly a ponderous film. Tapping into culturally relevant paranoia as well as the nature of heroism, the film aims for the brilliance of Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” but falls towards the heavy-handedness of “The Dark Knight Rises”– which is, of course, impressive in its own right. “Batman v. Superman” is overstuffed on plot and rushed when it comes to introducing major game-changers, and the female characters don’t fare too well in terms of overturning decades of damsel in distress tropes. But there’s a lot to appreciate here, too. Snyder takes all of these characters so seriously that he entrusts them with the fundamental questions that plague the human race, and perhaps it’s too much, too soon. As Luthor would say, Snyder, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Luckily, he’s dealing with a mythic being who doesn’t need wax wings to fly. Godspeed, Mr. Snyder: The Justice League awaits.