At the heart of superhero stories are our modern myths, a way of how contemporary society deals with the real world through easily recognizable pop icons. It’s not about things like continuity or consistency or “rules” or even sacredness so much as the tradition of interpretation and re-telling. Comics writer Alan Moore once had a saying, “This is an imaginary story… aren’t they all?” And that cuts right into what Zack Snyder has done with his messy yet endlessly audacious superhero opera, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Unlike the fan-favorite costumed adventure movies we’ve been flooded by, and more akin to what Christopher Nolan did with his Batman trilogy, Snyder’s film forgoes simply bringing the comics mythology to life or even examining these characters as we recognize them in their popular incarnations. Instead Snyder chooses to interpret them, to apply the core concept of who these characters are and use them to explore contemporary society and various ideas and philosophical musings. Quite simply, Batman v Superman isn’t about interpreting mythology, but rather it is mythology in that it interprets our world through the prism of colorful and easily recognizable iconography.
There has been much ballyhooed about who superhero stories are for. Kids? Adults? Angry teens? All of the above? The truth is that like all of our myths since the beginning of time, they are for everybody. With Batman v Superman, the 9th live action Batman film and the 7th live action Superman movie, the filmmakers have created a cerebral fable that blends geopolitical conundrums, theology, social commentary and transforms contemporary struggle into pop myth with an unparalleled mature sophistication that’s been absent from these kinds of movies since Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Some may be turned off by the idea of the most famous super-friends being turned into super-enemies or by Snyder’s brooding and overwrought expressionistic direction but ultimately there’s much to admire in how it dares to pontificate on modern dilemmas concerning power vs. principles, and our relationship with the idea of divinity.
18 months after Man of Steel saw his public debut where he barely managed to stop an invasion from a renegade group of his alien brethren, the Earth-raised Superman (played brilliantly in a heartbreaking performance by Henry Cavill) sees the world having wildly polarizing reactions to him. There are some who consider him as a new messiah and place unrealistic expectations on him; others think he’s another super-powered invader/tyrant waiting to happen. If Man of Steel was about Clark Kent/Superman self-actualizing or deciding who he wants to be in the world, then BvS is about him struggling to fit in with the world he has joined, and overcoming the last bits of his doubts and fears to live up to his ideal of selfless altruism/heroism in this deeply cynical (often bleak) world. Superman is tested in this film both internally and physically both by his weighty internalization of the world’s reaction to him and the nefarious schemes of the cruel and vicious. Enter Batman. Orphaned at a young age and as an adult, he bore witness to Superman’s 1st battle; this version of Bruce Wayne (played by Ben Affleck in a performance that should silence naysayers) has been a masked avenger for over 20 years with more losses on his belt than victories. With the arrival of a super-powered alien, Batman has reached a new level of faithlessness and nihilism in the face of his disappointments and apparent ineffectuality. He’s become cruel, violent (often lethal), reckless and fatalistic and he projects his rage & resentment towards an apparently indifferent higher power onto Superman. This is where their conflict begins.
Superman is a man of great empathy; throughout the film it is made clear that he cannot ignore what he sees as suffering and injustice upon others. To him, the Batman of Gotham is the embodiment of the entropy he seeks to remedy in our world, made worse by the fact that apparently the establishment supports Batman’s presence and actions. To some it may seem like Snyder and co. misunderstand or despise the Superman character but this is a simplistic evaluation. Superman has long been an avatar not just for “American” values but in this film he is an allegory for a newly formed global superpower struggling with issues of efficacy and collective responsibility. This take on Superman is contending with the purity of his intentions vs their place in a larger world he has just joined. Meanwhile, in Batman’s eyes, Superman represents all of his existential fears about a world beyond his control. In fact he can only think of Superman as an abstract, a proxy for everything he’s dedicated his life to combat. His obsession slowly degrades into madness as the film progresses. If Superman is the face a new superpower, then Batman represents the old guard hardened and embittered by years of compromise and perceived failings. It’s telling that this version of Batman is one of the older and more established “heroes” in this universe, as he represents the grim and cynical accepted status quo we are walking into. And as such he is challenged when faced with what is seemingly inscrutable (represented by Superman among other things), something a man who believes that “the world only makes sense when you force it to” adamantly refuses to accept. It doesn’t take much to stoke the fires of this inevitable conflict. In fact it only takes one man: Lex Luthor.
In a clever but easily missed detail, Jesse Eisenberg isn’t playing DC comics’ nemesis Lex Luthor. He’s playing his orphaned son, Alexander Luthor Jr. Don’t be alarmed that Eisenberg’s performance of the character is less the charismatic but ultimately nefarious genius and business tycoon and more of a twitchy caricature of the spoiled millennial sociopath. In Snyder’s vision, the evils of the world are summed up in his take on Luthor’s iconoclastic brat. His father’s name and wealth gives this Lex Luthor the privilege to be taken seriously by everyone in his circle despite his off-putting demeanor, it’s this privilege, this power that only magnifies his sociopathic behavior. In the comics, Lex Luthor was the man who had it all until superheroes rose to prominence, his resentment towards them stemming from an inferiority complex; in Snyder’s eyes, Lex is the kid with a magnifying glass towards ants and the existence of superbeings is just another opportunity for him to prove and indulge his inflated sense of guile, rooted in his resentment for his father’s legacy and the idea of a god.This Lex’s motivation is rooted in instinctual blasphemy, nurtured by the the cynical world he was born into and beaten into him by an abusive role model.
The rest of the supporting cast also greatly keeps the film grounded by balancing out the fantastical elements of the story. Nowhere is this more emphasized than in Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. Much more comfortable in the role here than she was in Man of Steel, and almost miraculously her on screen romance with Cavill’s Superman somehow has the chemistry and lived-in believability that was somewhat lacking last time around. Lois, perhaps more so than Affleck’s Batman, is our human center to the film. So much of the film is seen through her eyes but she’s not just witness to the myths unfolding, she’s a participant. Feisty, strong, quick-witted, no-nonsense but ultimately hopeful and optimistic, characters like Adams’ Lois, Diane Lane’s Martha Kent (Superman’s adoptive mother) and even guest stars like Jeremy Irons (as Alfred, Batman’s faithful butler and crime-fighting assistant) Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter and Kevin Costner help populate the film with down to earth humans to better juxtapose against the grandeur and sense of wonder that comes with superhero sagas.
Superheroes, like many mythological figures often explore mankind’s fantasy of power. This film, actually less cynical than Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen, is also about examining those fantasies. Unlike Nolan or the filmmakers of the MCU, you get the sense that Snyder is far less interested in providing a definitive thesis to the subject at hand so much as he enjoys the actual process of exploring them itself. This film is more about observation than speculation. So with that in mind Batman v Superman ultimately raises more questions and ideas than it resolves(as of yet), it still presents a uniquely engaging experience that satisfies in that it gives us space to ruminate on for ourselves. And of course the central thesis does in fact come to a relatively satisfying conclusion, so those worried that the whole film will leave you unfulfilled or frustrated at mere empty “posturing” needn’t worry.
However it is indicative of the first of several issues with the film itself. A big one is remarkably similar with the more recent Marvel/Disney movies have been suffering from: the conflict between this film’s need to satisfy its own purposes versus its need to function as a piece in a larger Hollywood marketing diorama. Take for instance the movie’s inclusion of DC Comics’ feminist icon, Wonder Woman (played with endless charisma and charm by Gal Gadot). While the inclusion of the character certainly serves an important narrative and thematic purpose (which I won’t spoil) you can’t help but feel the movie would have been much more focused and streamlined without a lot of the film’s lapses into clunky inter-connected franchise building. Still, her inclusion does make me all the more excited for her solo film, so maybe it’s not such a bad move when all is said and done. Like all modern superhero films it can prove disappointing when they start getting to action beats (jaw-dropping, though they may be) especially when the non-action stuff was as engaging as it was here. The moral myth the filmmakers have created struggles to resolve the Hollywood conflict between commerce and art and ultimately feels more than a little compromised as a result but when the movie works, the results are phenomenal.
At the heart of this movie is the tale of people struggling to make sense of the world as presented to them but ultimately comes to the conclusion that the only way to overcome that is the willingness to allow ourselves to connect to one another on a profoundly human level instead. Superman, Batman and Lex Jr are all in some ways driven by living up to what they believe are the models set by their respective fathers just as the populace of the film must contend with how to react to the idea of unknowable larger-than-life forces among them. Batman v Superman may have the expensive Hollywood spectacle you expect but not unlike the 2003 critical/commercial dud Hulk by Ang Lee, it is more invested in complex and often thought provoking stakes, conflicts and moral conundrums at the cost of creating a solid and well (or rather conventionally) constructed action/adventure movie. And that may prove to be too big a barrier for audiences who paid for a superhero smack down or for comics’ fans who’d prefer to just see their myths brought to life onscreen with as little fussing and acceptable liberties as possible.
Ultimately, Snyder’s movie rewards patient viewers as well as open minded ones. Quite clearly: if you go into this movie with certain demands/expectations as to how these characters should be depicted and in what kind of movie, you will probably walk away angry and/or confused. In that regard, Batman v Superman is sort of refreshing in a way. As an intellectual property, superheroes and the like lend themselves to all sorts of radical re-inventions and re-interpretations, and what we see here is just the latest but more than that, the power of mythology is in fact defined by its malleability and not rigidness. Ultimately for much of its run time, the film establishes scenarios that ever so slightly shift the needle of “superhero movies” beyond the increasingly constrictive limits of their “genre” not unlike how Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, Nolan’s The Dark Knight and that 1st Iron Man became a milieu for a wide array of consequential stories. And to be fair, the movie mostly succeeds, until it doesn’t.
The filmmaking has far too many issues to ignore, and in that way the current crop of critics aren’t entirely wrong. Some may have gone a step too far into pedantic nit-picking but it’s understandable. Snyder and returning collaborator cinematographer Larry Fong (absent from Man of Steel) give us gorgeous image after gorgeous image and truly great action scenes that never overstay their welcome. The imagery is subtly different from the prequel’s often egregious use of desaturated colors. Here color is played with on a scene by scene basis, sometimes on a character by character basis all to evoke mood and narrative. The issues creep in with the fact that there’s no denying that Snyder’s trademark flourishes like slow motion photography can often feel intrusive but just like in his better-received entries in his filmography, they all serve a purpose beyond surface level, even his heavy-handed symbolism feels appropriate albeit too “on-the-nose.” Case in point are Snyder’s lapses into “dream logic.”
The film consistently moves and operates less like a traditionally “act by act” play and more like a stream of conscious fever dream. And that’s often indicative of the issue with Snyder’s style as a whole. For instance, his movies also spend an inordinate amount of effort on the textural that it becomes all too easy to dismiss them as lacking any textual substance. He’s an astheticist by nature and that almost precludes deeper reading into his film. Almost. And at the same time his often abstract expressionistic approach to filmmaking sometimes invites misreading of the narrative he’s attempting. And that’s fair. Art is a never-ending conversation and artists still deliberate on the “best” way to communicate to audiences. Snyder elaborates good & evil the way a caricature artist would do it at times and the complete disregard for subtlety can easily be construed as hackneyed. I would disagree with that sentiment even as I would understand how that overbearing execution would be repulsive to many.
However there are unarguably huge problems with the editing and pacing in this film. Scenes are often cut within an inch of their life giving the impression that we’re only watching a series of vignettes with little to no regard for transitions or rhythm. Worse, there are scenes that would have been better served if they were arranged differently. And even then the film satisfies in its’ conclusion to its ponderous grandstanding; you can’t help but feel the movie was cut down to the bare minimum of flesh required. Needless to say, it’s unsurprising that there is an extended 3+ hour “Ultimate Cut” due out later this year. Just like last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Batman v Superman is a 2.5 hour movie that feels a little too tight for its own good, with a 3rd act that feels rushed and frantic but also a 1st hour that while infinitely more engaging than the vast majority of recent superhero fare, is often choppy and scattered. And yet, the film manages to power through its massive, often movie-breaking filmmaking flaws just on the sheer strength of its audacity and ambition.
Paradoxically, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a work that suffers major shortcomings yet still manages to work. It is a work that toes the line between fantastic escapism and a grim reminder of harsh realities. This take on the fictional superheroes Batman and Superman do live out an indulgent power fantasy only to find it cannot compensate for the basic humans needs of empathy, connection and hope. Their quest to attain inner peace in order to become the beacons of goodness in a bleak world (that mirrors our own) is so passionately conveyed it holds the movie together even as the very framework of the movie falls apart. Though in the end Batman v Superman in its theatrical form falls short of filling its own shoes, its feet are bigger than many other superhero blockbusters series put together. Love it or hate it, it definitely shouldn’t be missed or dismissed.