Overview: With the world uncertain of how to feel about the Man of Steel, a fearful Batman is driven into a conflict that tests his faith in humanity and his own place in the world. Warner Bros; 2016; PG-13; 153 minutes.
You’re in the Gutters Now: In comic books, there is a space known as “the gutter.” It’s those borders that separate the panels from each other—trenches between our perfectly arranged images. It is here that our mind bridges the gap in time between panels, the gap in understanding. It is here that our mind weaves the connective tissue that allows comic books to work. And it is here that we can sometimes lose our way between the panels. Batman v Superman is rife with these gutters, ultimately feeling more like a comic book than any film ever has. It’s a film meant for multiple viewings, intentionally edited and structured in such a way that it’s impossible not to feel a little lost at times, impossible not to feel your mind weaving in not only current socio-political problems of our world, but also those of our most fantastic fiction. This experiment, first attempted with Watchmen, has now entered into a second stage of trials with Batman v Superman. This is far from the best comic book film. It’s also far from the worst. But there is one superlative distinction it earns: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the most comic book film, because it’s cinematically etched in the language of that medium.
There’s nothing gentle about Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is a battering ram of ideas, fight scenes, allegory, science fiction, fantasy, religion, and politics, all splintering the door of our notion of comic book movies. There’s often little value to be found in comparing movies, and Batman v Superman ultimately must stand on its own. But to really get at the depths of what Zack Snyder and screenwriter Chris Terrio are getting at, we must look at it in context of the superhero movies that preceded it, because that’s how it will be judged within our film culture regardless. Marvel Studios’ movies work for fans, the general audience, and even those not interested in comic book movies, because they provide a smirk, a wink, and a nod. All of this succeeds in an effort to say “Yes, we know this is ridiculous but we’re in on the joke so you can’t laugh at us, only with us” or “Yes, we’re going to get a little weird but not that weird.” And for the most part, this approach has worked and kept things just comic-booky enough so as not to turn anyone off. On the other side of that you have Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which takes the superhero film and dresses it up as a prestige picture, asking viewers to think a little more without feeling guilty for investing so much interest in a comic book movie. Both of these franchises aimed to comfortably situate audiences in these worlds, attaching an anchor to keep us grounded in these realities. Then we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Zack Snyder’s film is one that refuses to tone down its lofty thematics and refuses to play its absurd moments for winks. It takes fan and non-fan alike and hurls them head first into what comic books actually are: the most important things in the world and the least important. Comic books are a collision of the facts and ideas that make up the very bones of storytelling, and the inherent but rarely acknowledged silliness that comes from watching grown men in costumes face pseudo-science and existential identity crises. In Batman v Superman, everything here is presented on a ceremonial pedestal, all set to a hauntingly romantic soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. Every line and gorgeous image is pregnant with comic book history. In fact the film operates very much in the same manner that DC comic books have long treated their characters and storylines, with every event, every reboot, and every issue being sacred relics of this fictional universe. Snyder’s film is very much reminiscent of reading a comic book for the first time, not a first issue mind you, but one in which the mythology of this world has been built upon the foundation of decades of lore. It is entirely understanding how this film might and will be off-putting to some audiences, but there’s far too much good here to call the movie anything remotely close to a failure.
Three Origins and Questions of Legacy: Batman v Superman provides us with the origin stories of a Superman with a more mature heroic identity, a Batman who allows himself to hope again, and Lex who finds confidence in his own human-centric villainy. Those who found fault with the depiction of Superman in Man of Steel should find his character a little more familiar in this film. The introspection and questions of his place in the world are still there but we also see Superman as an everyday hero, saving people from natural disasters and ordinary calamities. But there’s also an appreciated hesitance in his actions, a noticeable thought process when it comes to his involvement- a question of whether this truly is a job for Superman or something human beings can handle themselves, not because he doesn’t care, but because he respects their skills and sense of purpose. The film poses the question of what lasting impact Superman can have on this world, a world faced with problems very similar to our own, and humans who’d rather take on the burden themselves. Ultimately, the film doesn’t provide a concrete answer but it does create a realistic tapestry of all the many feelings we’d likely have if an alien savior came down and made Earth his duty to protect. These complex feelings are given weight by Bruce Wayne.
There was never any reason to worry about Ben Affleck being able to pull off the role of Wayne as he succeeds with aplomb. There’s a sense of weariness and pain in his eyes, an ability to give off waves of emotion with little dialogue. Questions of purpose also circle the Batman, as his twenty years in Gotham don’t seem to have amounted to much. There lies the conflict of Wayne’s battle with Superman, it’s a mission driven by ego, jealousy, and fear so that he might finally make some noteworthy impact on this world by taking out what he and many perceive as a threat. Can a Batman still be effective in a world where a man from the sky can do anything? This depiction of Batman is the closest we’ve gotten to the comics’ version and we’re fully exposed to the deep-seated mental problems, the mommy issues, and the paranoia. Many of these psychological factors are achieved by the film’s dream sequences, which on their own function as beautifully weird art works that give us a peek inside the mind of the Batman. Snyder’s take on Batman is almost perfect, with the exception of his penchant for firing the high caliber weapons of his vehicles at those of his opponents (resulting in many indirect-casualties on his part.) Smartly, the film refrains from giving us Frank Miller’s Batman from The Dark Knight Returns. Yes, this Batman is as brutal as any we’ve seen but ultimately he’s given the opportunity to hope, find redemption, and become a better Batman.
Lex Luthor on the other hand is hopeless. Jesse Eisenberg delivers a Luthor unlike any we’ve seen. He’s fragile, awkward, and lacking all the charisma we typically associate with the character. He is a child of abuse and that comes through in every seething line, and every shaky gesture that points at a thinly tethered grasp on reality and his self worth. He’s compelling to watch because he is inherently odd, but is even more compelling when compared to that of our heroes because he lacks the masculinity of our muscle-bound icons. Though he may believe Superman poses a legitimate threat to the human race, there’s also a fair amount of jealousy when confronted with the image of something he can never be. His near obsession with myths displays a desire to be seen as something grand and legendary, when as a scientist and philanthropist he most certainly is not. But as a villain? As a villain he can cast himself in marble for all the world to see.
A Larger World: Ironically, it is the film’s drama and thematic questions that are the most compelling, and these are the elements that go the furthest in terms of creating anticipation for the Justice League film. The actual physical fight between Batman and Superman makes up very little of the film and it abruptly comes to an end in a way that is equal parts plausible and comical (a mother’s name and existence makes all the difference in the world for this battle of orphans). The action looks good for the most part, though the final battle gets a bit too close to the muddy style of 300 and quickly loses its weight. It’s solid superhero action, but we’ve seen better and we will continue to see better. We’ve reached the point now where comic book films can’t simply be judged by solid and action and staying true to what’s recognizable. Those aspects, in both film and comics will eventually be replaced. What’s irreplaceable though is Snyder and Terrio’s commitment to challenging our perceptions of the comic book film and being unafraid and unashamed to use the concepts that have pushed these characters forward through time. Even at its messiest and most overwrought, the film’s world-building is cause for celebration for anyone with a love of this universe. Though we don’t see too much of her, Wonder Woman is characterized perfectly, and the links towards the larger DC Extended Universe feel like natural byproducts of this world instead of the shoehorned setup they could have potentially been. It’s easy to blame a cluttered movie on studio interference or a poor choice in director, but Snyder was absolutely the right choice for this, because he tackles the material like a fan. There are some choices here that don’t work, and as a whole the film is flawed, but there’s a sense of nothing but love for these characters and an ambitious commitment to bring the collective aspects of these characters, from 1938 to 2016, to the big-screen.
Overview: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice reaches for the sun and almost touches it, but it’s burned by its own self-defined purpose and ambition. It’s a film that offers too much material to make a definitive and conclusive statement about its quality upon first viewing. Zack Snyder has created a fascinating superhero movie, one that, whether we love it or hate it, is worth talking about and examining for the years to come. Recognize its flaws, its brilliance, its unintentional and intentional humor, but don’t dismiss this as some ill-conceived attempt. This is a film that asks us to think, just not in any way that superhero films have trained us to think before. These versions of these characters and this world won’t last forever, but as filmgoers, comic readers, and critics, we need a filmmaker like Zack Snyder now, because there’s no one else making films like this and there’s no one else within this genre that’s challenging us like this. Neither a triumph nor a failure, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a fascinating coalescence of 78 years of comic book history and we would be foolish not to see where it leads.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures