Zack Snyder’s sequel to Man of Steel is an earnest but flawed attempt to explore morality and heroism in the space between gods and men.
Director: Zack Snyder
Starring: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Gal Gadot, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons, Scoot McNairy
It’s appropriate that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released on Good Friday. Controversial ending aside, DC’s latest film is built on the biblical luck of prophets; so often undone by the people they are trying to save and the authorities that are threatened by their “power”.
This is exactly the film we could have expected director Zack Snyder to make after his underwhelming attempt at a Superman reboot in 2013. Man of Steel’s narrative was heavily inspired by the Book of Genesis, replete with uninspired symbolism, and this year’s gateway between Superman’s origins and Justice League is its natural, and far superior, successor.
Moving the overtly Christian analogy to the end of Jesus’ life, Batman v Superman ambitiously loads itself up with the deep themes that float around the edges of most superhero movies. Building on that old Marvel adage, “With great power comes great responsibility”, the film questions a hero’s right to intervene, their disregard of the legal system and its enforcers, and the cost of removing the threat of one megalomaniac with a science doctorate against the continuous destruction of Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs.
Picking up at the climax of Man of Steel, Batman v Superman opens with a grizzled Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) witnessing the wrecking ball effect that Superman’s (Henry Cavill) fight with Zod has on the city of Metropolis.
With his daytime face on, Wayne rescues one of his employees and the daughter of another from the wreckage of what is presumably Wayne Enterprises’ headquarters in that city. The little girl’s quiet loss introduces Snyder’s thematic acknowledgement of collateral damage in the supposed defence of a hero’s home town.
Paying no heed to his own destructive past, Wayne, as Batman, becomes obsessed with removing Superman. He believes the indestructible alien is a threat to the human race. Stopping him will be his “legacy”.
Superman naturally disagrees with this assessment. Ignoring his personal failure to abide by the laws of the country/world he is occupying, he thinks Batman should be stopped and held accountable for his vigilante approach to justice.
Disparate ideas collide and there is an awesome fight scene. But that’s not all. Amid the super-feud Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is embroiled in a microcosm of Superman’s moral conundrum, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) tries unconvincingly to hide her identity, a crazed Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) makes incoherent speeches and shady political deals, and Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred, played with perfect resigned cynicism by Jeremy Irons, watches it all with wry incomprehension.
The film is messy, there’s no denying that. But messy doesn’t necessarily mean bad, especially with an R-rated “Ultimate” cut due to be released in July.
The structural problems seem to lie on the cutting room floor. Some sequences are jarringly misaligned, as if bits are missing, and complete overhauls of character values and motivations are impossibly swift. Despite obvious hack-and-slash edits, the film is still two-and-a-half hours long, with characters completely changed or left underdeveloped, which suggests that it might have worked better as a Netflix series.
What’s really sad about the lopping out of moments that were essential enough to be written in is that the wrong scenes seem to have been lost. Batman v Superman is so full of cameos, flash-forwards and other clunky references to the upcoming Justice League films that half of it serves as a very expensive trailer rather than a significant contribution to DC’s canon.
This extended advertising campaign, combined with a plot that relies too much on coincidence and the disorientating effect of constant explosions that will melt the face off of anyone seeing it in IMAX, has made it an indefinable nightmare for critics that don’t follow the comics closely enough to see the seams between various volumes.
Because, for comics fans, Batman v Superman is a dishevelled delight. The issues with structure and the diabolical attempts to preface Justice League are still there, but they can be put aside in favour of nostalgia and a DC universe that matches an imagined reality.
Superman – who has always been portrayed in films as frightfully dull outside of his poor attempts to hide within the bumbling Clark Kent – faces real consequences, connecting with humanity, not through loss of power or risks to Lois Lane, but through social order and challenges to his purpose. He is a metaphor, both for religious idolatry and the hero culture we have built around national military organisations who act on behalf of countries outside their own.
Batman goes even deeper. Middle-aged and all but destroyed by his inability to save the people he loves — his parents, Robin — his idea of what a hero should be is the driving force for the majority of the film. Carelessly adorning his car with stupid bat-shaped trinkets, leaving a calling card at every crime scene, and picking a fight with an indestructible alien, he appears unconsciously suicidal. And unconsciously jealous too. The Dark Knight was never worshipped. He can only ever be a hero in the dark.
Supporting characters, so often sidelined as victims or motivators, also have their day in the sun. Lois saves Clark as often as he saves her, using the skills and character strengths at her disposal, and the plot is moved forward by her journalistic investigations. Bruce Wayne’s descent into darkness is both matched and lightened by Alfred’s dry humour and dreams of a new generation of Waynes.
The trailers were slightly deceiving in its teasing of Wonder Woman but her actual portrayal is better than expected. Instead of assisting on either side in the battle between Batman’s humanity and Superman’s divinity, she does her own thing entirely; going about her swankily dressed business until she decides autonomously to join the climactic fight against Doomsday.
Despite this uncharacteristic freedom, Wonder Woman’s outfit – summed up by an unnecessary crotch shot – is as impractical and revealing as ever. She may be a warrior princess, but, as someone who has lived among humans for a century, it seems conceivable that she might choose to fight crime in an outfit that protects both her modesty and the arteries in her legs.
The successful mainstreaming of superheroes has been commercially beneficial to the lucky fans that get to make them. But energy can’t be created, just transferred, and so something was inevitably going to be lost in the translation.
Batman v Superman hesitates halfway and so its earnest attempts to tackle weightier subjects fall short, but the amount it does achieve should still be lauded. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s enjoyable and it tries to mean something, which should be enough.
It’s not a huge leap to assume that the R-rated version will be better than the cinema release. Spread too thin in its attempts to say too much and set up even more, to please those who want an uncomplicated action blockbuster and those who want intricate examination of a world they have grown up in, to be appropriate for the young and interesting for the grown, it’s no wonder the film is scruffy.
Pleasing the fans and pleasing the general public are two different things. Quality assurance seems to depend on whether the ambition is to make a lot of money or to make a really good superhero film. Marvel’s recent Deadpool adaptation managed to achieve the former by prioritising the latter, which is hopefully a lesson Snyder and Warner Bros. will take with them to the editing suite of Justice League.
This article was originally published on badcantina.com
Images from Warner Bros.