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Film Review – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016; Directed by Zack Snyder)

“You know the oldest lie in America?” posits Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to antagonistic Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). “It’s that power can be innocent.” Welcome to the DC Extended Universe, where people go around saying things like that and really meaning them, with the weight of flashy thematic symbolism backing up their words. Luthor’s truism might even describe an accurate condition, in DC’s inflated comic-book version of America or even our own real-world version, which seems to resemble a comic book a little more every day. In the America of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, power cannot be innocent, and the ideal of doing good without a dark-cloud lining of inadvertent evil resulting from the effort is brushed brusquely aside.

At another point in the film, an aging, hardened Batman (Ben Affleck, alternating between unconvincingly splenetic and faintly ashamed) growls a similar epigram at Superman (Henry Cavill), the superhero personification of the faded dream of the benevolence of American power: “The world only makes sense if you force it to.” If only, comes the waggish reply from the back row of the cinema, someone had forced this movie to make sense. In its critical first act in particular, Batman v Superman is a sequence of only tenuously-connected scenes that operate on their own strong internal logic but never build towards anything resembling a coherent whole. It isn’t terrible, exactly, but it’s badly constipated in creative (and narrative, and ideological) terms, which might almost be worse.

Batman v Superman has a story, technically. It draws in both of the suit-and-cape types as well as Supes’ news reporter colleague and girlfriend Lois Lane (Amy Adams), the skeptical, checks-and-balances committee of Senator Finch, Eisenberg’s irritating hip-corporate CEO Luthor (his performance improves just slightly if you assume that it’s an implied sequel continuation of his spin on Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network), and current events totems from 9/11 to drones to terrorism to cable news debates to shady arms dealing to public memorial monuments. There’s flashes of violent African warlords, struggling newspapers, human trafficking, and at least a couple of MacGuffins: a mysterious bullet, a chunk of kryptonite. The script, by Chris Terrio and David Goyer, means to be complex but misses that mark and winds up being complicated instead.

But it’s all an elaborate pantomime for the promised gladiatorial contest in the final act. Here, Batman v Superman submerges the dominant tone of the rest of the movie, a mélange of the brooding undergrad seminar in moral philosophy of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, the Christ figure-cum-Nietzschean übermensch visual associations of Snyder’s prior Superman film, Man of Steel, and desperate approximations of the thematic interrogation of American power which rose much more organically from Marvel’s big-screen Avengers cycle. All of that is set aside for an extended riff on Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns (whose influence on the Caped Crusader in particular over the past three decades has been major and perhaps also lamentable), in which an over-the-hill Batman dons an advanced exosuit to beat down the smugly superior Kryptonian. This battle pivots into a larger cooperative dust-up with a deformed megacreature of the motivationally mercurial Luthor’s making, which also involves the powerful Amazonian warrior Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, who looks like a more tan and statuesque Israeli Taylor Swift) and nuclear weapons.

Snyder and his screenwriters do not borrow Miller’s quasi-fascistic anti-crime mania from The Dark Knight Returns, but the book’s take on Batman and Superman migrates formats nearly enough. Affleck’s Bruce Wayne presses the formative memory of his parents’ murder by a mugger (Snyder is mightily impressed by his slo-mo close-ups of Wayne’s mother’s pearl necklace wrapping around the murderer’s gun, then snapping and scattering the pearls when it goes off) to the fore and allows it to colour his every decision and choice. Before you know it, he’s quoting Dick Cheney’s infamous 1% Doctrine in reference to Superman to Alfred Pennyworth, his butler and generally his proxy conscience but here, in the hands of the ever-severe Jeremy Irons, a willing if bemused enabler of his master’s creeping strongman tendencies.

Superman, meanwhile, might not be the all-American corn-fed embodiment of Reaganite government authority that Miller caricatured him as in his graphic novel, but he could be understood to represent a liberal spirit of conscientious civic engagement and decency that is being gradually bullied out of existence in the contemporary world. Clark Kent reifies the lessons in goodness passed on to him by his adoptive Midwest farmer human father Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), but the elder Kent appears in a Fortress of Solitude-like vision to tell him a parable about the inevitability of good intentions carrying bad consequences.

Clark toils thanklessly in the decaying print media, a once-proud bastion of progressive crusading now dwindling out of existence (maybe he should polish up the ol’ resume and apply to Buzzfeed). He dutifully shows up for the Senate Subcommittee meeting on limiting Superman’s actions, and has only a resigned reaction to roiling media debate about those limits. Snyder’s film may not “get” many things about Superman (Wayne has a nightmare sequence visualizing a vengeful Supes killing with his laser eyes, proving that Snyder can’t let that one controversial violation of the comics rulebook go), but the image of Clark Kent in a button-up sweater fretfully watching PBS is as spot-on as its depiction of the superhero’s personality has ever been.

But these personified male power fantasies carry similar burdens of their own brooding, Byronic making. Bruce Wayne has abandoned the neo-gothic Wayne Manor and stages his ambush attack on Superman in a ruined neo-classical pile in Gotham’s decrepit port. These crumbling architectural remnants of a previous age were, even in their glorious prime, themselves aesthetic attempts to recapture the finery of past ages, and a hero carrying ghosts of the past forever with him, and playing dress-up to exorcise them, haunts them like an unsatisfied spectre. The moment when the titular superheroes’ antagonism turns to wary alliance may strike some observers as contrived, but their divergently wounded masculinity finds common cause at that juncture and it should not be surprising at all that the cause is Oedipal. These tempermental little boys, after all, just want a mother to love them.

Internet fandom and criticism in general ripped this movie to such minute shreds that it was a pleasant surprise upon finally seeing it that it is not wholly incompetent. It’s an unholy mess, a serving-many-masters creative-by-committee hash all the way down from its clunky title, at once invoking marketing focus-group buzzwords for “excitement” and a contentious court case (now that would be a mould-breaking superhero movie; someone second that motion). But it isn’t dull. Sometimes, it’s even fleetingly enjoyable, like when Gadot’s Wonder Woman lets rip in the closing battle. She has the single best hero moment of the film, an all-too-brief beat that gives no small amount of hope for her solo period film due out next year.

Still, Batman v Superman sees Snyder, who is nothing if not a talented and significant visualist, degenerating as a filmmaker, compromising to both his own worst instincts and those of the Warner execs whose shadows seem to loom over every narrative decision, losing the fundamental coherence of his action sequences, and mistaking a busy density of political and cultural allusions for a unified thematic message. His use of slow-motion, so sturdily witty in the opening titles of Watchmen, for example, has become a matter of laughable excess. Even his film history references do not serve his cause as effectively as they once did: a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Excalibur shout-out in the opening scene (check the marquee of the theatre that the Waynes are leaving) is paid off at the climax, but of what import is it, ultimately?

That last question – what’s this all for? – haunts Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice like parental ghosts haunt its protagonists. Marvel’s Avengers cycle – broad, silly, and ideologically irresponsible as those films can be – are more effective at applying superheroes as metaphors for questioning the moral dimensions of America’s superpower status, and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were stronger as both philosophical test cases and action spectacles. Zack Snyder’s muddy pastiche of similar and superior texts on these same themes tries to force its world to make sense. As Batman himself realizes in good time, that simply isn’t advisable or even possible, and the effort soon turns you rotten.

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Categories: Film, Reviews

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