Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is neither the hero the superhero genre deserves nor the villain it dreads. This is a film about two superheroes waging war with one another that’s similarly at war with itself, riven between competing narratives, commercial concerns and an overarching ambition that sees it striving for meaning before collapsing – spectacularly – into irrelevance. Its bloated runtime – some two and a half hours – bears the stretch marks of its difficult gestation, but it boasts some fleeting moments of greatness nonetheless.
As its title promises, Dawn of Justice is about the clash between two myths made flesh. In the blue corner, we have Superman (Henry Cavill), an idealised icon of American exceptionalism. A perfect moral figure whose failings were nonetheless visited upon the urban landscape and populace of Metropolis and Gotham alike. For all the failings of Man of Steel, its vivid recreation of September 11’s devastation as a clash between two aliens (Superman and Michael Shannon’s Zod) was not among them. (The fanboy complaints about this scene driven by the notion that our popular entertainment should feature both mass destruction and a bodycount of zero – among the most pernicious paradoxes of superhero cinema.)
That destruction is vividly recreated in the opening minutes of Dawn of Justice through the eyes of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) (and Batman (duh)). Why the filmmakers felt we needed to be subjected to yet another recreation of Wayne’s parents’ murder is beyond me, given how indelibly Batman’s imagery and origin is etched into contemporary culture. But this is a version of Batman we haven’t quite seen on the big screen before; inspired largely by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Affleck’s Dark Knight tortures, maims and kills without compunction. He’s paranoiac and even cruel, twisted irreparably by the years of suffering he’s endured (emphasised by both Affleck’s harsh expression and the patches of grey running through his stubble and along his temple).
These are not men, but gods carved from years of comic books and television series and billion-dollar movies. They’re imperfect gods, undeniably, and the reminder of Man of Steel’s cataclysmic climax aligns their flaws to a post-9/11 world. Through this lens, one can regard the degradation of Superman’s moral certainty – realised most powerfully in his murder of Zod in Man of Steel – as the erosion of America’s ethics. Similarly, the contrast between Affleck’s Batman and, say, Bale’s clarifies the United States’ embrace of torture and drone strikes (the latter of which are explicitly referenced in the screenplay, even) in the wake of the World Trade Centre’s destruction.
All this serves an outrageously unsubtle allegory, but one that plays to the strengths of its director. Ever since his debut – a Dawn of the Dead remake that excised the bulk of Romero’s pointed subtext, leaving only musculature with a pointed emphasis on action – Snyder has offered the incoherent epitome of contemporary commercial cinema. His films simultaneously criticise and lionise a masturbatory version of masculinity. Snyder’s glistening muscles and immense explosions are paired with an attempt to interrogate the underlying thinking that makes these films so popular – especially with young men – but that interrogation invariably fails due to the director’s insistence on emphasising the same ‘badass’ moments he chafes against (he’s more id than intellectual). Essentially, Snyder tries (and fails) to excoriate precisely what his filmography represents in popular culture.
Whether in 300 – where an exaggerated depiction of Spartan hyper-masculinity prioritises heroism over hypocrisy – or Sucker Punch – where any meaningful attempt to conflate American audiences’ fascination with sex and violence is overshadowed by extended videogame action sequences – Snyder’s films exemplify both the shinier and grimier qualities of the action blockbuster. These aren’t good films, necessarily, but their brittle self-awareness makes them far more interesting than the directness of, say, Michael Bay. In particular, Snyder has a knack for the kind of masculine melodrama that’s so popular nowadays, regarding his muscle-bound heroes with eroding ambivalence as any moral ambiguity is overwhelmed by awe – often with distinctly erotic undertones.
In other words, he’s perfectly suited to the story of two superheroes punching one another in some misguided attempt to encapsulate the conflict of post-terrorism ideologies in America ..while appealing to 12 year-old boys. Bay wouldn’t take that seriously enough – it’d be all bright colours, big explosions and no substance – while someone like Nolan would take it too seriously – you only need watch The Dark Knight Rises for evidence of that. In a perfect world, Batman v Superman would be a feature-length version of the opening fight scene of Snyder’s Watchmen: a brutal contest that can’t help but glorify its own violence with syrupy slow motion and exaggerated sound effects. Silly, perhaps, but imbued with some undeniable truth in its contradictions.
Batman v Superman isn’t that film, but it feels like it could be for its first hour. While establishing Affleck’s Batman, Snyder’s gaze flits between another dozen or so stories. Smaller human stories – which, in this context, means Lois Lane (Amy Adams) getting into a desert firefight with terrorists, a Wayne employee (Scoot McNairy) losing his legs or a stern senator (Holly Hunter) grappling with the post-Superman world order – are given short shrift in favour of Batman’s investigation into the identity of the “White Portuguese”, hazy-lensed images of Superman saving the world and fantastical dream sequences.
That goes without mentioning the inevitably nefarious schemes of one Alexander “Lex” Luthor. There’s some kind of genius in updating an über-capitalist icon by casting Jesse Eisenberg in the role, leveraging all the bratty connotations of the man who played Mark Zuckerberg. That genius doesn’t pay dividends, however; Eisenberg is too intent on trying to deliver an erratic, scene-stealing performance to deliver a good one. Lex’s intentions remain ambiguous for a good chunk of time. But as he manoeuvres his way into the fallen Krypton ship and negotiates to import kryptonite into the country, it’s clear he means Superman harm.
This densely-plotted mess, from screenwriters David Goyer and Chris Terrio, cuts from location to location as though it were a comic book shifting attention with each page. What keeps it from Dark Knight Rises-esque incoherency is the mounting tension between its three leads, with enmity accumulating each minute and obscuring any uncertainty. This is all in the service of establishing the titular showdown; however, when it does eventually arrive – in a flurry of blows, bullets and kryptonite grenades – it brings with it a total narrative and thematic collapse. The unwieldy ideological conflict that defined the first half gives way to omnipotent supervillains and damsels-in-distress. The notion of a post-origin-story-era superhero film pairing its embellished grim aesthetic with actual substance crumbles into grey dust.
If I had to guess, I’d say the real culprit here is Goyer and, by extension, the studio scrabbling to catch up to Marvel Studio’s ‘cinematic universe.’ Goyer surely holds the responsibility for directing the film away from Batman v Superman and towards Dawn of Justice in its third act, eroding any of the first half’s seriousness for clichés and contorted character introductions. I’ve seen more than a few critics argue that Wonder Woman is the best thing about the film; a staggering misjudgement.
Yes, Gadot is impressive as both Diana Prince and Wonder Woman, but her inclusion in the script is a symptom of a commercial disease. Any ideological integrity is diluted by the need to weave in DC characters as quickly as possible – there’s also, as you’ve probably heard, appearances from Jason Momoa as Aquaman and Ezra Miller as The Flash. Do these characters contribute to the overall narrative or thematic fabric of the film? Of course not. They’re transparent ring-ins, forced into a screenplay with no need for them. Diana’s irrelevance to the first half of the film is laughable, and her action showcase in the last half, while visually impressive, is similarly unnecessary.
Unfortunately, this is the world we find ourselves in. Films carrying the burden of financial expectation aren’t allowed to commit to telling authentic stories – even stories about supermen fighting for the soul of America. Films like these are only allowed to feint at meaning, at consequences, before pulling back the rug to reveal incoherent plotting, contradictory politics and – most importantly – a series of production-line sequels. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is no different but, tragically, it could have been.