Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, from Man of Steel director Zack Snyder, is so lovingly crafted, so grandly operatic and mythological in spirit and scope, so beautifully visualized and in some ways fearless in execution, that at times I felt a Stockholm syndrome-like impulse to relax my grip on my misgivings and just go with the flow. Granted, this movie is not for me, but at times it seems like it could be a movie for someone.
Yes, it’s the bleakest, most violent, most joyless mainstream superhero movie to date, with an R rating in spirit, if not in fact (a concession to be rectified on home video, where there will be an R-rated version).
Yes, Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel is glum, hopeless, passive and directionless. And yes, Ben Affleck’s new Dark Knight is brutal and even murderous — a nightmare darker than the darkest pages of Frank Miller’s landmark 1980s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, which pointedly emphasized Batman’s ethic against killing. (Despite this, the film so heavily quotes from The Dark Knight Returns, both verbally and visually, that I assume Miller will be getting royalty checks.)
In some ways, the thing evokes Snyder’s own adaptation of that other influential 1980s graphic novel, Watchmen: a nihilistic story set in a world with room for supers, but not heroes. Well, isn’t that a valid interpretation, or critique, of the superhero genre? Again, I’m not a Watchmen fan, but it’s a classic for a reason. Is there some rule that Superman has to be inspiring? Some reason iconic heroes shouldn’t be reimagined as jackbooted fascists riding roughshod over basic rights?
An absolute reason, no. A relative reason, yes.
Yes, if you’re going to have Batman himself ultimately concluding that “men are still good” as you ramp up to the coming of the Justice League like it’s a good thing, and not the formation of a self-appointed, unaccountable junta of planetary overseers.
Yes, if you’re going to double down on Man of Steel’s aspirational language about Superman “giving the people of Earth an ideal to strive for” and “making a better world.” “Be their hero, Clark,” Diane Lane’s Martha Kent tells her son. “Be their angel; be their monument; be anything they need you to be.”
The movie clearly wants Superman to be these things, even if Martha concludes, “Or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” It’s just that the filmmakers still have no clue how to deliver. (Lane’s Martha Kent is sadly misused this time out, by the way, and Amy Adams’ Lois Lane, with whom Clark is casually cohabiting, doesn’t fare much better.)
And yes, if you’re going to double down on Man of Steel’s God talk and religious imagery. Batman v Superman is even more charged with theological language and iconography than Avengers: Age of Ultron. Even the Good Friday opening may not be an accident.
A lot of this comes from Jesse Eisenberg’s manic, voluble Lex Luthor Jr., who, like both titular heroes, is an orphan with daddy issues. Luthor was abused by his father, an experience that apparently left him an atheist: “If God is all-powerful, he cannot be all-good; if God is all-good, then he cannot be all-powerful,” he proclaims, as if this classic theological problem were a new insight of his.
Thus, Luthor sees Superman not as a godlike being, but quite the opposite: “Devils don’t come from hell beneath us. They come from the sky.” There’s a lot more of where this came from: Luthor rants about man against god (i.e., Batman v. Superman), and Luthor is more than willing to play the devil himself if it means killing this particular god. (Remember the line “Every creation myth needs a devil” from The Social Network?)
In another sequence a man maimed during Man of Steel’s climatic battle defaces a Superman monument with a graffito indicting him as a “false god.” The problem with all this is that in two films there has been precious little sign of anyone honoring him in any remotely godlike or even heroic way in the first place, apart from an evocative but isolated sequence set in Mexico in which throngs of adoring Mexicanos surround the Man of Steel after he rescues a woman from a fire, all trying to touch him as if he were a living saint.
Strikingly, this sequence happens to be set on Mexico’s Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead, so several of Superman’s adorers are wearing skull masks or makeup. The symbolic suggestion is that if Superman is a saint, he is a kind of Santa Muerte or “Saint Death” — a macabre, cultic figure whose coming heralds the opposite of the hope we were told in Man of Steel the emblem on his chest symbolized on Krypton.
Holly Hunter is on hand as a U.S. senator trying to call Superman to account. “The world has been so caught up with what he can do,” she declares, “that no one has asked what he should do.” Wait. When exactly was the world caught up with what he could do?
Some defenders of Man of Steel hoped that, after his first downbeat outing, Superman would grow into the role — become the legend he was meant to be. Perhaps, it was optimistically suggested, snapping General Zod’s neck wasn’t a violation of Superman’s famous reverence for life, but its origin; perhaps in the sequel he would …
Nope. If anything, Clark is less Supermanly than ever. “Superman was never real,” he confesses to Lois. “Just a dream of a farmer from Kansas.” (That would be Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent, who died possibly the stupidest onscreen death of 2013, all because Clark’s secret was worth more than anything, even his father’s life.)
Trying to buck him up, Lois touches the emblem on his chest, reminding him that it means something. But Clark’s not having any: “It meant something on my world,” he shrugs, “and that doesn’t exist anymore.” Just like the Superman of my youth, apparently. Snyder’s films are so eager to establish that “Superman was never real” that they never permit even the illusion that he ever was.
From the outset Batman v Superman faced the nearly insuperable challenge of trying to lay the foundations for an incipient shared cinematic DC universe (the curiously branded DC Extended Universe), with the deeply flawed Man of Steel as the cornerstone.
The issue, of course, is that Superman isn’t just the first great comic-book superhero, he’s the archetypal superhero par excellence, almost the superhero as such — the Super-man.
Batman is cooler and more popular, of course, and arguably more interesting as a character (though Grant Morrison’s graphic novel All-Star Superman makes a strong case that Superman can be better written than he often is).
Yet Batman needs Superman; the Dark Knight defines himself in contrast to the Man of Steel. (There’s a reason Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns pits an aging Batman first against street thugs, then Two-Face, then the Joker, and finally Superman, his greatest challenge and in a way his defining rival/antagonist.)
“Metropolis is New York in the daytime,” Miller once said. “Gotham City is New York at night.” At best, though, Man of Steel could only imagine Metropolis as New York in late evening. Where does that leave Gotham? Get Superman wrong, and the whole DC universe goes wrong.
So here we get a Batman who is hell on bad guys, literally branding them with the sign of the bat (which we’re told is a death sentence in prison), yet who is easily manipulated by Luthor rather than being the brilliant mastermind he’s supposed to be. What about Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman? Too early to say; Gadot has a nice sense of presence, but she isn’t much more than a female action figure here.
Of course, the film has to get Batman and Superman to fight — a battle that The Dark Knight Returns put at the end of Batman’s long career, with a great deal of implied history and water under the bridge. That fight was inevitable, and, Batman’s bag of tricks notwithstanding, remained competitive as long as it did because Miller’s Superman loved and honored Batman in spite of their falling out and political differences.
Here the fight is artificial and kind of pointless, although the film does have one promising idea: From the outset it roots Batman’s hostility toward Superman in one of the most heavily criticized elements of Man of Steel, the epic destruction and loss of life of the climactic battle, not to mention the fact that both Superman and the threat he faced had the same origin.
The opening of Batman v Superman revisits this pivotal event in human history from the point of view of Bruce Wayne, who owned one of the many skyscrapers leveled in that battle and employed the people who worked there. (Later there’s an urban action scene in which the film makes a point of having a reporter note that it’s in the financial district, which is pretty empty at that time of night.) Of course, the film’s recontextualization of the earlier film’s disaster violence only heightens its perpetuation of Man of Steel’s other problems.
So far I’ve mentioned The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen and All-Star Superman. Hanging over the climax and denouement is another famous comics storyline that fans will see coming a mile off and casual viewers will have a hard time believing in more ways than one.
I kind of admire the filmmakers’ nerve in ending the film the way they do, although it doesn’t work dramatically or emotionally. The problem is the same as the Batman-Superman fight: It’s too early in Superman’s career for this event to pack the punch it ought to.
Not to spoil the the big spoiler, here is a not-terribly-difficult riddle.
Among the film’s many echoes of Christian faith and culture is a well-known English hymn, played on a distinctive instrument, that will remind many viewers of a comparable moment from the denouement of a classic 1980s franchise film.
As it happens, this denouement was recently echoed in a reboot that everyone agrees had much less power than the original. One reason is what happened in the 1980s film involved well-established characters who had known and loved each other for decades, and in the reboot the recast characters are still finding their feet and getting to know each other.
Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe has its flaws, but they did one thing right: They built their universe slowly, establishing the characters one at a time, before bringing them together in The Avengers. Batman v Superman is a case study in the perils of trying to do too much too quickly.
Caveat Spectator: Much brutal, often deadly violence; a depiction of women imprisoned as sex slaves; a scene of nonmarital sexuality (nothing explicit); some cursing. Older teens and up.