Let’s go back to 1938, when Superman first premiered in Action Comics #1. This was the beginning of the so-called Golden Age of Comics, when superheroes were presented as messianic figures. They were (theoretically at least) models of optimism, inspiring their fans to help make the world a better place through epic adventures of escapist fantasy. Cut to roughly fifty years later. The pendulum had swung in the other direction, and heroes of the ’80s and ’90s were vigilantes with feet of clay who had no problem committing acts of violence if it meant serving the greater good.
What happened? Two things: “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns”, both published to wild mainstream acclaim in 1986. The latter comic was written by Frank Miller, whose works would only grow more bigoted, misogynistic, and outright psychotic as the years went by, to the ongoing chagrin of comic fans everywhere. Miller also wrote “300,” which was eventually adapted to film by his good friend Zack Snyder. As for “Watchmen,” that film adaptation bounced around in development hell for 20 years until it was finally completed by… wait for it… Zack Snyder.
So here we have Snyder, a man inextricably tied to two of the most brutally violent and aggressively bold superhero deconstructions in the history of the medium — the two comics works that turned the entire industry upside down with effects that are still strongly felt three decades later — and this is the guy who was put in charge of laying the groundwork for DC’s cinematic shared universe. It’s a peculiar move, especially given that public demand for more fun and inspiring superheroics has been steadily pulling the pendulum back in recent years.
Of course, Snyder has always been a highly controversial figure, quite possibly the most polarizing filmmaker in mainstream cinema since Michael Bay. People either really love Snyder or really hate him. Full disclosure: I have personally been a Zack Snyder apologist for many years. I’ve always been right there in his corner. But God knows it hasn’t been easy.
Yes, I know that Watchmen has some serious problems. No, I was never able to embrace Sucker Punch as a masterpiece, and it’s not like I haven’t tried. And I will readily admit that Man of Steel has many, many faults that are either difficult or impossible to overlook.
But here’s the thing: I still support Zack Snyder because he has never, ever failed for lack of trying.
Just look at the rebooted Star Trek franchise. Just look at The Amazing Spider-Man and its sequel. Just look at Dracula Untold and Universal’s ongoing farcical attempt at crafting a shared universe out of its monster stable. Hell, even Marvel has come under fire, with critics and commentators going on about how the MCU has grown creatively stagnant.
The industry is flooded with idiots who have absolutely no idea what they want to make except money. We’ve got so many franchises that keep on treading water so that the next sequel can pick up exactly where the one before last ended over and over again. There are too many filmmakers out there who either can’t or won’t take any kind of artistic risks for fear of driving away moviegoers.
But Zack Snyder? This is the guy who made a hard-R adaptation of “Watchmen” when two decades’ worth of filmmakers tried and failed to make it PG-13. This is the guy who forced Superman to kill his adversary because the godlike Last Son of Krypton was put into a no-win scenario. This is the guy who genuinely tried to make an empowering feminist work in celebration of courage and creativity, delivering a genre mashup that nobody else could ever have possibly dreamed of.
Did those attempts work out a hundred percent of the time? No. Of course not. But in an industry run by people who routinely aim for mediocrity and succeed, I’ll support the guy who shoots for the moon and misses. Zack Snyder’s films have all shown tremendous ambition and a complete lack of fear, both of which are things that mainstream cinema (and also the comics industry, come to think of it) could definitely use more of.
With all of this in mind, it’s little surprise why Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice ended up the way it did.
The film more or less picks up 18 months after the climactic battle in Man of Steel. In a diabolically clever case of art imitating life, everyone in the world seems divided into two camps: Those who focus on the billions of lives that Superman (Henry Cavill, again) saved when he stopped the world from being terraformed into New Krypton, and those who focus on the thousands of people who died when Superman and Zod cratered Metropolis. This serves as the model for pretty much everything Superman has done in the time since.
It’s obvious that Clark Kent is trying to do the right thing. He’s putting in a genuine effort to save lives and make the world a better place, and there are many who respond by seeing him as a beacon of hope. But then there are just as many who blame Superman for the lives he didn’t save. For what he didn’t do. And perhaps worst of all, for what he could do in the future. Hell, something could go catastrophically wrong anywhere in Superman’s vicinity — something he never saw coming, and something that affects him personally — and everyone would be left to wonder whether Superman actively caused it to happen or allowed it to happen.
To put it more succinctly, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. And it’s very difficult for Superman to save and inspire people when so many see the glass as half-empty and stand in his way.
What makes it even worse is that it’s not like Clark ever claimed to be a demigod, never mind a God. He never claimed to be the all-powerful omnipresent Savior, that was just a (very, very heavy) mantle thrust upon him by those with no idea of who or what he is. None of them seem to realize (or perhaps they just don’t want to realize) that Clark is ultimately just another well-intentioned person trying to make the world a better place, with no better idea of what he’s really doing than anyone else.
It’s a wonderful depiction of the character… except for one line. And it’s not even Superman’s line, but it does incredible harm to the character.
This is in the trailers, so I don’t mind repeating something that Martha Kent (a returning Diane Lane) says to her son: “Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be.” If she had only stopped there, everything would have been fine. But then she just had to keep going and say “…or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.”
This from Martha Kent. Superman’s adoptive mother. The woman who raised Clark Kent with good old-fashioned values. The woman who played such a huge part in showing her son why humanity was worth saving and he should use his godlike powers to inspire and protect them. And then she goes and tells Clark that he’d be entirely justified in saying “Fuck it, y’all are on your own, good luck!”
Coupled with Jonathan Kent’s remark from the last movie, implying that maybe a bus full of schoolkids aren’t worth Clark Kent revealing his powers, and it becomes abundantly obvious that these filmmakers don’t adequately understand Clark Kent’s upbringing and what a huge part it played in the creation of Superman.
Now let’s move on to Batman. To get this out of the way, Ben Affleck makes for a fantastic Dark Knight. From the brooding orphan to the flippant playboy to the imposing badass, he’s got all the bases covered. Furthermore, Batman’s action sequences are also spectacular in their presentation, and a lot of the superlative production design is centered around him. In particular, I love how the Batcave and Bruce Wayne’s condo are both made pretty much entirely of glass and straight lines. It’s a smooth, neat, futuristic look that suits Bruce to a T, and using that aesthetic as a connection between Bruce’s two homes was a brilliant touch.
But then we get into the philosophical conflict between Batman and Superman. Both of them want to make the world a better place, but they go about it from entirely different angles. Superman wants to present himself as a symbol of hope, and Batman is presenting himself as a symbol of fear. Additionally, Supes puts himself out in the open, inviting others to welcome him as part of their world; while Batman stays to the shadows and deliberately holds himself at arm’s length from everyone else. Both of them invite skeptics eager to look for signs that either one of them is a false idol. But because it’s easier to hit a target that’s right there in the open, Batman’s brand of fear wins out.
Then there’s the matter of collateral damage. Superman is in such constant trouble because no matter what he does, there’s always the chance that innocent people will get hurt. Compare that to Batman, who uses surgical precision to make sure that only the bad guys get hurt. How does Batman decide who the bad guys are? Well, how does Superman decide whom to save or let go? They’re both taking the law into their own hands in some way or another.
And this is another time when the movie should really have just stopped there. So long as we were only talking about Batman beating up criminals and leaving them for the police to take in, we were on solid ground. But once again, the filmmakers had to go just that one extra step further and ruin everything.
See… Batman kills people. There’s no two ways about it. He straight-up fucking murders people in this movie. Granted, a lot of those murders happen in dream sequences (we’ll get back to that), so obviously those don’t count. But even when Batman kills in self-defense, and he never carries any lethal weapons of his own, and when the vast majority of his body count comes from one vehicle attacking another… Whoo boy.
First of all, even Frank Miller knew better than this. Secondly, just look at the Nolan films. Yes, Batman’s vehicles were loaded with heavy artillery, but he never (that I recall, anyway) used those guns or missiles against any people or occupied vehicles. They were for clearing out obstacles and debris, that’s it. Thirdly, as Batman Begins so elegantly explained, Batman’s refusal to kill is so important because it’s the only thing that separates Batman from the other costumed freaks running around Gotham. Moreover, every time Bruce Wayne takes a life, he proves that he’s no better than the thug who gunned his parents down in cold blood. It means that someone else may have to grow up without a parent, just as Bruce himself did.
The moment Batman takes a life, Bruce Wayne’s entire motivation as Batman and his mission to save Gotham crumbles. And it crumbles completely. Batman is no longer a hero — he’s just another criminal thug, albeit with fancier toys and better martial arts skills.
But let’s get back to the central conflict of Batman vs. Superman. In case it isn’t already clear, the conflict between them is mostly ideological. The vast majority of the film is less about “Who would win in a fight between the two of them?” than it is about “There’s a superpowered alien living among us and there could be more where he came from, how do we deal with that?” For Superman, it’s “How can I be a symbol of hope and salvation when everybody hates me for what I’m not?” For Batman, it’s “How do I make sure that this freak never destroys another city?” And for Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg, we’ll get back to him in a minute), it’s “How do I capitalize on all this fear to make myself more powerful?”
The actual fight doesn’t happen until the start of the third act, and it is appropriately epic. Though both of them at least make an effort to keep the fight contained to a run-down and uninhabited part of Gotham. In fact, given how the climax plays out, it seems that a disproportionate amount of Gotham is deserted for some reason. At least it’s nice to know that the filmmakers took the Man of Steel criticisms to heart.
I don’t want to say too much about how the fight plays out, for obvious reasons. Though I can safely tell you this much without fear of spoilers: This is Superman’s first exposure to Kryptonite. Before that first battle, he has no idea what the stuff is or what it does to him. Giving that crucial element of surprise to Batman was a very clever way to level the playing field, no doubt about it.
(Side note: During the BvS brawl, keep an eye out for a certain bit of graffiti. It’s a sweet little nod to “Watchmen”, and perfectly appropriate in the context of the film on its own.)
Moving on to Lex Luthor, he’s of course the standout of the cast. Eisenberg makes the character so much fun to hate as he chews the scenery in a charismatic yet psychotic fashion that perfectly fits the character. There is an explanation for how he goes bald, but I don’t dare spoil it here. Alas, Luthor is weighed down by some unnecessary daddy issues, and that whole “red capes are coming” line from the trailer is part of a longer monologue that’s even more stupid. Additionally, while Luthor proves highly adept at manipulating Batman (albeit in a very contrived manner that was occasionally hard to keep track of), his means of forcing Superman’s hand is highly disappointing for how pathetically simple it is.
It also sucks that Mercy (Tao Okamoto) has always been known as a suitably formidable right-hand woman for Lex, yet she gets just enough screen time to barely do anything. Such a huge waste of a good character and a good talent.
As for Doomsday… yeah, the trailers have already spoiled that he’s in this picture, so let’s move on to Doomsday.
On the one hand, Doomsday’s origin is rushed to the point of being incoherent. I won’t go into specifics, but suffice to say that as his origin played out, I kept asking “How the fuck did you know that was going to work?!” on an infinite loop. And of course Doomsday’s origin isn’t even close to how it is in the comics, but it’s Doomsday, so who gives a shit?
The film had an imperative need for a seriously huge threat: Something big enough to turn public opinion toward Superman’s favor; and big enough that the Trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) would be forced to rally against. And Doomsday fits the bill very nicely, with a huge climactic fight that’s suitably epic.
In particular, this fight scene is where Gal Godot truly shines as Wonder Woman. And she does way more than just look good while throwing a punch — it really speaks volumes that Godot could plausibly sell Diana Prince as a character smart enough and skilled enough to outmaneuver Batman, the greatest detective in DC’s stable. That said, I can’t possibly begin to count how many writers across comics, TV, and film have already tried and failed to get a decent handle on Wonder Woman as a figure of truth, compassion, and equality. And given how this franchise has already fumbled the respective moralities of Superman and Batman, I don’t really favor Wonder Woman’s chances for better fortunes.
Moving on to the other supporting characters, Amy Adams continues to play Lois Lane as a very skilled and persistent journalist, and the filmmakers were good enough to actually give her something to do in the third act. Alas, she still has to be constantly rescued by Superman because she’s Lois Lane and that’s just how it works.
Laurence Fishburne is still an inspired choice to play Perry White and his inherent gravitas helps a lot when every single one of his lines is some variation of “yes”, “no”, or “Where’s Kent?” Jeremy Irons fares much better, playing Alfred with a dry wit that adds a ton of flavor to his exchanges with Bruce. As for Holly Hunter, she brings a screen presence that elevates an otherwise thankless character. She more than justifies Senator Finch as a vital player in the proceedings, speaking on behalf of the ordinary American citizen trying to figure out their place in a world where superpowered individuals somehow exist. Scoot McNairy also deserves mention, here playing a political pawn after getting crippled in the Metropolis attack.
Moving onto the technical notes, Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL do a fine job collaborating on the score. Superman’s theme is still nicely uplifting. Lex Luthor’s theme is suitably precise in an unhinged sort of way. Wonder Woman’s theme flat-out rocks, with an aggressive and exotic lead melody backed by pounding drums. But I’m really not a fan of Batman’s new theme, which could best be summed up as “DUUUN DUN-DUN-DUN DUUUN DUUUN”. As a subtle background motif to signal Batman’s presence, it works just fine. But when that central rhythm dominates, it’s overbearing and cacophonous in a way that doesn’t suit the character at all.
The visuals are greatly improved now that Snyder is back to working with maestro DOP Larry Fong. But any points I give for the visuals, I have to take right back for the script. Leaving aside all the complaints I’ve already listed, the structure is all over the place. The scenes fly right at us one right after the other, and there are so many storylines to service that it’s very rare to see one scene flow into the other. That makes it very hard to keep everything straight until the storylines all finally start to coalesce. What makes it even worse is that the storylines are so unevenly nurtured that the more developed ones (the respective conflicts of Batman and Superman, both inside each other and against each other) draw that much more attention to how underdeveloped some other plotlines are (Doomsday’s origin, Lex’s manipulation of Superman, etc.).
Of course, a lot of that has to do with the Justice League foreshadowing that was obviously crowbarred in late in development. Granted, the cameo introductions of other metahumans was done in a way that made sense. It was tacked on, entirely useless, and it ground the movie to a halt, but at least it made sense.
But far more of the running time was wasted on useless dream sequences, showing us nothing about Batman that we didn’t already know. Yes, I know a lot of stuff in the dream sequences was foreshadowing for Justice League further down the line, but if the foreshadowing is presented in a way that doesn’t make a lick of sense, it’s not justified. Additionally, a whole ton of screen time is taken up by the sluggish ending, to make absolutely sure we know that a certain event in the climax is going to stick for realsies, even though we know full goddamn well that it’s going to be reversed before long.
What it comes down to is that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is so focused on getting the big things right that it gets the minor details catastrophically wrong. This is a movie that asks huge questions, delving into the minds and methods of its two lead heroes with uncompromising brutality. It also sets the stage for a greater DC superfranchise, opening up the universe to so many new possibilities. The movie looks impeccable, every character is perfectly cast, and the score is perfectly serviceable.
There is so much ambition and creativity and passion in this movie that it seems an incredible shame to throw it all away on a few missed details. But when Batman kills a few nameless and faceless goons in an action scene, when some throwaway line undercuts Superman’s morality, and when Lex Luthor’s ultimate plan makes no sense because some crucial exposition was sacrificed to make room for some other plot line, how am I supposed to blame anyone for saying that the movie outright sucks?
Personally, I find consolation in the fact that DC/WB and Snyder are very clearly listening to reactions and reviews. You can see it in the way that the entire premise was built around real-world backlash against Man of Steel. What’s more, Wonder Woman is currently in production with Patty Jenkins at the helm, and other non-Snyder filmmakers will get to put their two cents in with standalone DC titles very soon.
On the other hand, the very first of these titles is Suicide Squad in August. A movie in which every single main character is a villain, written and directed by the guy who gave us Training Day and Fury. I sincerely hope and pray that DC/WB doesn’t keep with the grim and gritty for very long. This is never going to work until and unless the DC characters are comfortable enough to set aside their philosophizing, get their moralities straight, and start inspiring all of us to be heroes.