Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
This long-awaited unification of DC Comics’ most iconic heroes just doesn’t understand the icons it claims to represent.
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, and Gal Gadot
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures
Written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
Directed by Zack Snyder
This is a movie I’ve been waiting my entire life for.
Normally when I write a critical analysis of some kind of narrative work, I try to avoid writing in first-person. That’s a lot harder to do in this case, though, because this is a film that features — front and center in the film’s title and throughout its two-and-a-half hour running time — my two absolutely favorite characters in fiction. Divorcing myself from this review is not something I can easily do, because I have, again, been waiting to see this for my entire life.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the kind of movie that, on paper, should make most DC Comics fans scream in ecstasy for both what the film aims to be, and what its subtitle aims to promise for the future: we get to see the World’s Finest heroes, and arguably the two most iconic and culturally ubiquitous superheroes in the world, occupying the same movie screen at the same time in live-action for the very first time.
The subtitle is also a thinly-veiled allusion to the alliance of DC’s premiere superhero team finally getting their long overdue debut on film. Everything about this movie should be a home run, with a visionary director, actors who look like they walked off the pages of comics and into each scene, state-of-the-art visual effects and the promise of much more to come from my favorite shared universe. What could possibly be not to love?
There’s just one problem: the movie that finally puts the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight in the same cinematic frames at the same time fails to grasp the cores of the characters at such a fundamental, core level, that all the glitz and spectacle in the world can’t save this movie from itself. Lessons we thought were learned and even conquered long ago by Warner Bros. and filmmakers in general, particularly after the triumph that is The Dark Knight Trilogy, are now roaring back again like it’s 1992.
While Batman most definitely suffers from an apparent thirst on the part of the studio and filmmakers to make him dark just for the sake of it, though, the biggest victim in all this is a subversion of Superman’s iconography that casts away everything that makes that character so special and necessary for the times in which we live.
Welcome to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film that somehow manages to cast an ugly shadow over the DC Universe’s beacon of light.
Taking place roughly two years after the events of Man of Steel, Dawn of Justice picks up first by showing us the reaction of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) to the arrival of aliens who quite literally have the ability to crack the planet in half, and begins preparing to save humanity from the being he believes represents our absolutely greatest threat: Superman (Henry Cavill). He doesn’t realize, though, that someone with a similar line of thinking is Metropolis business prodigy Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who seeks an import license with the U.S. government through his company, LexCorp, to try and get his hands on an element from space that could be key to humanity’s defense against Superman and any other Kryptonian that could threaten the Earth.
Meanwhile at Metropolis’ Daily Planet, reporter Clark Kent begins to learn about the extreme methods of the Batman, a notorious vigilante who’s been operating in nearby Gotham City for the better part of two decades. Seeking to expose Batman and his brutal methods to the public — methods which often result, directly or indirectly, in the deaths of many Gotham criminals. With Luthor enlisting criminals to steal the alien mineral so he can begin experimenting on it, Batman eventually learns of its whereabouts and tries to steal it himself to weaponize it against Superman.
This leads to the first face-to-face encounter between the heroes of Gotham and Metropolis, and it doesn’t go well. Placing the two heroes on a collision course, though, is a foe that is playing them both against each other to eventually serve his own ends, with the hopeful result being more power and control than this puppet master can possibly currently comprehend. In order to achieve that goal, though, Batman and Superman will need to be taken off the board for good.
Returning from his duties on Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder most definitely brings his proverbial “A-game,” and it shows in a lot of places. His casting is once again very solid, with Ben Affleck being a more-than-worthy successor to the role of the Dark Knight when compared with many previous stewards of that coveted role, and his employment once again of Larry Fong as cinematographer (with whom he collaborated on Watchmen, 300 and Sucker Punch) pays off gorgeously with a film that is impeccably and often brilliantly photographed.
The duo of Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL create a unique and memorable score, though the new Batman theme is a little too simplistic and pounding for my taste. That’s made up for entirely with the return of Zimmer’s brilliant musical cues for Superman, and the expectations that accompany that theme are nicely remixed when trying to give us a musical impression of Lex Luthor. And, we also shouldn’t forget Gal Gadot, whose time to shine as the inaugural cinematic Wonder Woman got legitimately screaming cheers in the screening of the film I attended, and portends a mammoth amount of possibility for future adventures we could see from the too-often underserved member of the DC Comics “Trinity.”
Virtually all of the major problems with Dawn of Justice begin and end with the story’s interpretation of the two major characters, and a disappointingly predictable and over-eccentric take on one of comics’ absolutely best villains.
Let’s begin with Batman. Again, Ben Affleck’s performance here really does emphasize that the actor very much came to work for his performance in this film. In addition to the intense physicality that Affleck brings to Batman’s formidability, many of Larry Fong and Snyder’s long, looming shots on even the mask-less face of this Bruce Wayne posit a vision of the character who absolutely believes in the things that he does. Belief is an often overlooked aspect of every celebrated portrayal of the Dark Knight, because while you’ll never hear from me that Batman is crazy, he is most definitely an extreme personality just by the very nature of how he conducts himself.
The problem with the film’s version of Batman is that it falls into the same chasm that screenwriter Daniel Waters shoved Tim Burton into in 1992, and that Joel Schumacher delightedly skipped into in 1995: Batman is a killer, and in Dawn of Justice, a rather unapologetic one. From using the front-mounted machine guns on the Batmobile to tear a car containing human beings to shreds before barreling through it, to employing the use of a brand to mark people for death while incarcerated, it sucks to have to level a criticism I honestly never thought I would need to repeat in this age of comic book cinema.
That criticism being that this film’s truly positive contributions to Batman’s cinematic legacy are almost entirely undercut by the film’s overly simplistic desire to cast the trait that truly sets him apart and makes him special as too light and passe for the film’s overly-harsh conception of Gotham City. Batman’s oft-observed rule in the source material against the taking of human life is, full-stop, one of the things that always defines him as a hero.
It’s such a fundamental core aspect of his heroism and worldview that stripping it out does crippling damage to the conception of his character, and more importantly, his humanity. As Grant Morrison once so eloquently said,
“It's really important, that's his psychology. If Batman kills anyone he's just another soldier. There's a million soldiers. We don't need another soldier, we need Batman."
Unfortunately, though, the disservice done to Batman pales in comparison to the straw drawn by the original superhero.
Man of Steel ended on a promise, which was that the development and hardship endured by Superman in that film ended up forging a hero who was finally ready to step into the light of the world and bring us a semblance of sorely-needed hope. While Zack Snyder’s and David Goyer’s apparent craving to see DC’s icons inflict death did not spare Superman three years ago, the end of that film seemed to at least hint at the possibility that the death of General Zod was an experience that likely could’ve forged Superman’s desire to never have to inflict that on anyone else ever again.
We now know that ended up being only half-true. While Superman didn’t end up having a direct hand in any deaths in Dawn of Justice, a cornerstone of the plot ends up revealing that this is a version of the hero who’s all too susceptible to a brand of cynicism seldom seen outside of the pages of an Ayn Rand novel. The word “hope” comes up a lot when looking at both Man of Steel and now Batman v Superman, but unfortunately neither film does enough justice to the emotion of hope.
In Dawn of Justice, there are several moments where the notion of guilt and death weigh so heavily on the hero that he concedes something that other incarnations of Superman never would: “nobody stays good in this world.” By the time the film concludes, it becomes clear that this film’s aim was to deconstruct Superman so completely, that by the time the climax comes around to begin building him back up, it abruptly ends the character’s arc without resolving the character’s journey in either this film or its predecessor in a satisfactory way.
We’re left with a broken Superman who never fully recognizes or embraces his most defining attributes: in a seemingly never-ending pool of darkness that audiences and comic book readers have grown so accustomed to over the last 20-plus years, Superman has always largely stood apart from the pack by standing as a noble figure of aspiration. Recognizing this in him doesn’t mean that you have to make him a paragon. After all, the tragedy of Superman is that he wants, more than anything, to be human.
In favor of the deconstructive approach — and arguably to give more service to Batman’s ultimate realization in this story, very much like Frank Miller’s twisted vision of Superman was conceived in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns — we’re left with a vision of the character whose grandiosity and potential for aspirational heroism is, instead, absent. I cannot overstate just how disappointed this makes me. You almost expect a director to turn Batman into a killer these days, but for someone to turn Superman into a cynic? That’s a special brand of creative, uh...talent.
Alas, though, the film goes in an entirely different direction in its misunderstanding of one of DC Comics’ iconic examples of villainy.
In an almost inconceivable way considering the ways in which Batman and Superman are misunderstood, Dawn of Justice is admittedly surprising by giving us yet another vision of Lex Luthor on film that would be just as comfortable in an episode of the 1960’s Batman TV show as he is in this largely gritty conception of the World’s Finest. If you were hoping for a vision of Lex on par with modern comics from creators like Greg Rucka, Jeph Loeb, Grant Morrison or Geoff Johns, you will be disappointed.
It's strange: while we definitely see more elements of the prevailing, modern version of Lex in Eisenberg’s performance, he also decided to envision Lex as an over-eccentric, tactless genius. While his intellect is very clearly on display, he seems to lack any conception whatsoever of acumen in the social space. In the comics, Luthor was a man whose political prowess and command of public image earned him the presidency of the United States, but the Luthor we meet in Dawn of Justice seems like he'd have a hard time convincing people to follow him much of anywhere, especially by the time the film ends.
Still, the film does exhibit a modicum of forward momentum in its portrayal of Lex by showing us that his public face serves only to conceal his true nature as an opportunistic power-seeker, whose true intentions beyond "empowering humanity" against extraterrestrial threats is to give himself leverage over the world's most powerful being, Superman. A lot of that work is undone by the immense amount of eccentricity that Eisenberg applies here, though, clearly inspired by Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance as the Joker while not realizing that the Harlequin of Hate and Superman’s nemesis, beyond being DC Comics villains, are nothing alike.
In the end, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice showcases a lot of technical and visually artistic brilliance on the part of Zack Snyder, cinematographer Larry Fong, production designer Patrick Tatopoulos, editor David Brenner, and composers Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL. Even with a layer of darkness, this is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in years, while also bringing to life some really incredible and familiar visual conceptions of Batman fighting, Superman flying, Wonder Woman (finally!) appearing, and the Bat-Signal shining.
Still, be that as it may, this is a movie that utterly fails at representing many of its icons in either a satisfying or recognizable way. Snyder’s efforts in bringing the DC Universe together on film in the most pronounced way in history are severely undercut by being yet another creator to turn Batman into a killer, yet another creator to turn Lex Luthor into a giggling goofball, and the first creator to wholly misunderstand the aspirational power that the symbol of Superman always represents at that character’s absolute best.
I wanted to absolutely love this movie, more than any other movie I may have ever seen. The movie itself is keeping me from doing that, though. I hope this is just the beginning for Ben Affleck as Batman, Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Jeremy Irons as Alfred, and some recognizable visuals bringing the world of the DC Universe to vibrant cinematic life. Henry Cavill should remain as Superman as long as humanly possible, too.
But, I hate to say it: I hope that this is getting near the end for some of the people behind the camera, because with the trajectory plotted first by Man of Steel and now Dawn of Justice, I’m not sure I like where this vision of my all-time favorite shared universe is going, and I can’t adequately describe how admitting that — and the act of simply typing it — breaks my heart.