Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a mess of a movie. After a surprisingly coherent (and effective) opening sequence, the movie devolves into a series of seemingly unrelated scenes featuring hundreds of different characters saying something or other about “the nature of heroes”, or “power”, or “justice”… One scene doesn’t lead into the next. Things just happen without much regard to plot, or character, or theme. Whatever bits of characterization we get are hugely simplistic. Plot points are ridiculous, and the movie’s grandiose statements even more so. No matter how you look at it, this movie doesn’t hold together, and yet… it’s also kind of good?
The first good thing I have to say about Batman v Superman is that it’s surprisingly entertaining, which is more than can be said for its predecessor. I, like many others, regarded Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as a complete disaster. Fans in particular had a problem with the movie’s uncharacteristically violent third act, I found the movie to be an unbearable slog from its very beginning. Snyder comes back to direct Batman v Superman and opens the movie by addressing the most problematic elements of his previous film.
We pick up with Man of Steel‘s last battle between Superman (Clark Kent) and General Zod (Michael Shannon), only we see the action unfold from a different perspective. We’re on the street level, and we see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) be unable to deal with the massive destruction brought upon by the Kryptonians. The allusions to 9/11 are apparent. The sequence ends with Wayne standing on the rubble of a fallen building, covered in ashes, and looking up at the aliens that destroyed the city of Metropolis.
This is probably the best sequence of the movie, aided by particularly good sound design, and the relatively playful idea of reframing the end of Man of Steel. This change of perspective is quite interesting, and a more interesting way of connecting movies that are meant to exist in the same universe than most of what the almighty Marvel has done so far. Just this sequence is enough for the audience to get a sense of what Bruce Wayne’s motivations will be for the rest of the movie. Say what you will about what comes after, but this sequence is a pretty effective piece of visual storytelling.
Wayne’s perspective is important for this movie, because despite sharing the movie’s title, Batman is clearly the protagonist of Dawn of Justice. This, if you subscribe to the theory that the character who changes through an emotional arc is the protagonist. The audience I saw the movie with didn’t have a problem with this at all. It was apparent they were on Batman’s side from the beginning. So much so that they erupted in applause when the promised battle happened and Batman somehow managed to knock Superman to the ground.
It was truly bizarre to hear the audience clap at a moment were the most heroic of heroes is defeated, especially since it’s clear the movie doesn’t play this as a moment of triumph for Batman. Maybe they came in expecting an explicit gladiatorial battle and this was the closest the movie was going to deliver on that promise? Hearing people clap for Superman’s defeat on Good Friday was like hearing people cheer for Jesus’s death. Because Batman v Superman is a story of conversion, and Superman is clearly meant to be Jesus.
Man of Steel was already full of Christian allegory, but failed horribly at positioning Superman as a Christ figure. Batman v Superman seems to exist to right that movie’s wrongs in more ways than just addressing its problematic ending. It makes sense to make Batman the protagonist. Like Jesus Christ Superstar and many other retellings of Christ’s story, Batman v Superman finds more drama in the people around Jesus than in the messiah himself. The closest Biblical analogy to Batman’s arc in this movie is the story of Paul, the skeptic who converts after witnessing God’s glory. The main difference is that this movie’s Paul not only gets to interact with the messiah, but beats the shit out of him, too.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Batman v Superman is the way in which this arc is presented. The movie is overstuffed with scenes of people (particularly Jesse Eisenberg as the villainous Lex Luthor) running their mouths and pontificating about God, and the devil, and heroes, and power… but none of that stays with us, and very little of it makes any sense. None of that talk makes any impression, and yet the arc works. The movie operates beyond its laughable plot and ridiculous script. It operates on an almost metaphysical level, on the level of iconography.
I could’ve picked up the meaning of most emotional beats if the movie had been silent. And I could’ve understood the character arcs, too. This might have nothing to do with Snyder or the talent of any other person involved in the making of this movie, but Batman and Superman are icons of American pop culture, and they come with meaning. In a few months, Marvel will pit Captain America and Iron Man against each other; two characters that most Americans have only been familiar with for the past five or so years. Batman and Superman mean something to the culture. Any American alive would recognize them and could tell you what they’re about. The images in Batman v Superman are loaded. Their metaphors are obvious and overstuffed, they are religious paintings, they are Baroque art.
For most of its running time, the movie juxtaposes inconsequential scenes with such Baroque images. And for the most part, it works. At least until the true action starts. For a man who’s made his name with action movies, Snyder is incredibly incompetent at crafting an action sequence. They are all terrible. With the exception of the pretty exciting introduction of Wonder Woman, the movie’s last fight, which involves one of the most poorly realized and least imaginative CGI villains of the past ten years, is a complete dud.
For all intents and purposes, Snyder was the wrong man to bring these characters to the screen. Why would an objectivist want to tell a story about Christian conversion? And yet, the history of the characters is strong enough that it pulls through all of his questionable decisions (much like Alan Moore’s themes can still be glimpsed through all of the terrible decisions Snyder made while adapting Watchmen).
People have issues with Snyder’s interpretation of the characters, which I don’t really care about that much. Sure, Batman isn’t supposed to carry a gun and kill people, but isn’t it interesting and perversely enjoyable to see a lunatic like Snyder wrestle with the nature of these characters? At first glance, it seems as if director Zack Snyder has followed up his dour and self-serious take on the origins of Superman by doubling down on the dour, but Batman v Superman finds new life in the excess of its operatic conflict.
There are many bad things about this movie. The depiction of the masses and minorities is problematic, Scoot McNairy plays a cringe-worthy character, there are a laughable amount of inconsequential dream sequences, the way in which Batman and Superman decide to stop fighting is beyond silly, and there is a plot point that involves a jar of piss! I know exactly how to shave about forty minutes of the movie’s running time, and yet I don’t want to. It is all bad, and yet, it works.
Snyder’s devotion to “cool” results in a grotesque yet compelling marriage between Baroque and trash. This is most evident in Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s hyper-dramatic score, particularly when electric guitars come in during the final battle. This is a massive opera, a collage of a thousand ideas. There is so much going on, and yet barely anything happens. I forgot most of the movie as soon as I left the theater, and yet, I can still tell you what it was about.
I can’t promise that you’ll like Batman v Superman, but I am fascinated by it. I have never seen a movie be this incompetent and effective at the same time.
Grade: 6 out of 10