Let’s get this part out of the way early: despite featuring spandex-clad heroes, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is no more family-friendly than Deadpool was.
At least that film gleefully embraced its anarchy and absurdity. BvS might be selling toys in happy meals, but the movie itself is rife with bat-torture, evil warlords, up-close terrorism, references to sex trafficking, and a nice long bathtub sequence that ends with some Lois and Clark action.
Hey, at least someone is having fun!
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films were kind of dour as well, but at least you had a good filmmaker to elevate and deepen the story. Everyone knows that superheroes are absurd – and as with the best absurd ideas, like the classic parables they are, greater truths about the nature of humanity emerge. Nolan’s movies were also filled with humorous touches and nimble character moments. They were entertaining.
Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) are the two heroes with the most to say about us puny humans. Batman plays into our deep-seeded need to avenge the wrongs of an unjust balance by being a vigilante. He’s Charlie Bronson with batarangs, and if he gets a little too into his work, that’s fine. Even here, when he tells Alfred that they are “criminals,” it has the hard zing of truth.
But BvS director Zack Snyder has never met an idea that he didn’t feel could be made better with bigger, louder explosions. Spectacle over substance, and right now, he’s Warner and DC’s golden boy in what has become the East Coast/West Coast superhero rap battle against Marvel. Snyder directed the well-intentioned but ultimately controversial Man of Steel, and he’s overseeing the DC universe at large.
I’m not sure how Snyder got this gig or who he had to blackmail but I can’t think of a more cinematically tone-deaf filmmaker working with big budgets today. Except maybe Michael Bay, but that’s a given. At least Bay understands the Transformers. Someone forgot to tell Snyder he was making a movie with Superman and Batman in it, and not Sicario.
How in the bloody hell do you turn Superman into this smug, dour anti-boy scout wrapped in Jesus imagery? In the trailer for Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, Chris Evans looks up and very plainly states that if bad stuff goes down, he really can’t help himself. He has to try and help. And that’s the best depiction of Superman onscreen today, except he’s now called Captain America and he works for the competition.
(Preemptive response #1: I’m not a Marvel apologist. I didn’t like Age of Ultron, didn’t see Ant-Man, and am pretty meh on the solo Thor movies. But the Cap movies are extremely well done, thus far).
By the way, the strings are all pulled by spoiled millennial Lex Luthor – sorry, that’s Alexander Luthor – played by The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg as if he’s a villain from the old 1960s Batman TV show. He occasionally breaks into interesting speeches about the nature of gods among men, and then abandons them just as quickly to do something odd or quirky.
And it’s because Luthor is such a transparent slimeball that there is no real respect given to the moment when the “son of Krypton” meets “the bat from Gotham” for a smackdown. It’s not a simmering difference of ideologies, as hinted will be the case in Captain America: Civil War. Nope, this boils down to good old-fashioned plot contrivance and characters not talking to each other.
Here’s the thing: I don’t need much from my fantastical films. They just need to feel right. When you abandon the tenets of an established character, there is a slight barely-perceptible disconnect that happens between that character and his/her universe, and the audience at large. Everyone feels it at once, and it makes you wonder who signed off on this thing?
When Captain Kirk risks all to save his fallen brother Spock in Star Trek III, it makes all the sense in the universe. Two movies later, when he tells Spock “I should have knocked you on your goddamn ass,” not so much. That’s what this movie does to Superman. We go from “Truth, justice and the American Way” to “Nobody stays good.”
He doesn’t threaten anyone (aside from Batman) but just consider how cool Christopher Reeve’s Superman was in the face of Lex Luthor’s maniacal real estate plan that involved the deaths of millions. He was shocked – shocked – that someone would even form that thought, and even went so far to save Miss Teschmacher’s mom first, because he told her he would. Goodness first.
(Preemptive response #2: I’m also not a Reeve apologist, nor do I need the movies to be completely lighthearted. Out of his four movies, I only really enjoy the first one. But actual filmmaking aside, he was a pretty perfect Superman.)
Now granted, the one thing this iteration of Superman gets right is to not shy away from the big question. Superman is from another world and has powers that make him God-like. The movie asks a lot of pointed questions but it never stays focused long enough to actually answer them. Instead, it just blows more shit up.
But it’s not all bad news. The movie is impeccably cast, and just about everybody get a shining moment. Laurence Fishburne as Daily Planet editor Perry White gets all the funny lines. Holly Hunter is all sass as a tough-as-nails Kentucky senator. Diane Lane finds herself in the thick of things as Clark’s mama Martha Kent. And wouldn’t you know it … Bruce Wayne’s mom was named Martha as well. Try not to laugh when that comes up.
Affleck is absolute perfection as a grizzled older Bruce Wayne, and his is the most compelling arc in the film. He’s a burned-out vigilante with an entire superhero career of loss and pain in his rear view. Okay, so his Batman shoots and kills people, but the filmmakers will defend this as a right story point, based on the character. He keeps things around to remind him of his journey, such as a Robin costume with the scrawlings of a maniacal Joker. Synder allows us this tantalizing glimpse that activates memories of movies and comics past. But then he shows us the murder of Bruce’s parents for the umpteenth time, complete with slow-motion falling pearls.
And just to make sure we get it, Snyder shows the sequence twice.
Much has been made about the movie being used to introduce the rest of the Justice League – the movie is called Dawn of Justice, after all – but with the exception of Gal Gadot’s crowd-pleasing Wonder Woman, the actual sequence that introduces the rest of the team could not be more ham-fisted if it tried. When each hero is introduced alongside their onscreen logos (!!!), it got one of the biggest laughs from the audience. Not a good sign.
There is a batshit crazy dream/vision with Ezra Miller’s The Flash appearing to Bruce (from a future movie?) about how Lois holds the key to something.
Gadot steals the entire movie, and it’s no spoiler to say that once she finally shows up as Wonder Woman, it’s the most badass moment in the film. More importantly, she is the only true hero in the entire film. While the titular men growl and scowl, Gadot fights with a gleefulness that’s energizing. If she had just shown up an hour earlier, maybe she could have talked some sense into the big lugs and everyone who have gotten a chance to go home earlier.
THE DAWN OF MAJOR SPOILERS
Seriously, here is where we get down to business.
It’s almost impossible to contextualize the reason for all the Jesus-baiting without discussing how the movie ends. If you know your Superman lore, you know that super mutant Doomsday (here, a mutation of General Zod) is the one to finally kill the Man of Steel. Indeed, the Death of Superman remains one of the most iconic stories of big blue’s canon.
So it’s both a bold move and a pleasant surprise when the movie dares to give us the Wrath of Khan ending. Doomsday kills Superman. And not in a temporary movie way. Nope, the creature punches a hole right through his weakened Kryptonian chest after Superman essentially sacrifices himself by running the thing with a blazing green kryptonite spear.
Superman dies. Days pass. It makes the papers. Washington DC holds a state funeral. Martha Kent and Lois Lane mourn him and watch the casket go into the ground. And if you don’t blink during that final shot, you might catch a hint that something is happening.
If you thought the Bigger Questions about gods among men were compelling, well just wait until they try to explain this. The knock against Superman has always been that he’s too powerful and cannot be defeated.
Well, now you can take death off the table.
I’m not sure when it was explained that Kal-El can regenerate himself – unless you count the scene when he was hit by the nuke in the atmosphere and looked like toast, but I attributed his awakening to the fact that the sun was shining on him. There ain’t no sun in that coffin.
Another filmmaker might be able to craft a Jesus-Superman parable that would be downright fascinating. There is a way one could completely subvert every expectation about the superhero genre into a story that fundamentally questioned every aspect of religion and faith.
But let’s face it. Zack Snyder is not that filmmaker.