Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has been hyped as the battle between the alien, godlike Superman and the human vigilante Batman. Chronologically, it serves as the second film in writer/director Zack Snyder’s reboot of Superman’s film history, which attempted to erase the Superman-has-a-kid mistake that was Brandon Routh’s Superman Returns. But while Dawn of Justice failed to deliver an epic, theater-rattling battle royale between the two, it served up more than its fair share of superhero noir and metaphysical questions about the world we live in.
Opening with the impact of Superman’s (Henry Cavill) battle with General Zod (Michael Shannon) that proved to be the climax of Man of Steel, the film reminded us (in IMAX 2D and Dolby surround) of the terrible implications of two humanoid aliens ripping each other apart. While we’re left shaking our heads at the unSuperman-like neck break that saved the tourist family, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) struggles to free a Wayne Enterprise employee (Scoot McNairy) from the debris and stares angrily at the Superman floating in the heavens. Of course, Wayne has already donned the cowl of the Dark Knight, but his methodology (and paranoia about Superman’s intentions) create an ideological rift about which Superman remains naive for another eighteen months.
Meanwhile, LexCorp head, Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) provides the straw that stirs the drink. He’s the one pushing in the background for these two to finally do battle, having already scouted out the secrets behind Wayne and Superman’s Clark Kent. While comic geeks like me have watched various incarnations of Superman drag out the Kent/Lois Lane (Amy Adams) romance, Snyder’s version already sets her up as reporter extraordinaire (“I’m not a woman, I’m a reporter”), Clark’s girlfriend, and Superman’s damsel in distress.
I’ve read the reviews and heard the critics of the film – “too much Snyder action,” “too few plot points developed.” I’ll ask incredulously, as someone who has been critical of Snyder’s film (300 –overrated; Man of Steel– anachronistic to the canon), what in the world are they talking about? While I came expecting to see two hours of the extensive two-and-a-half-hour run time devoted to skull crunching, nose-mashing action, I found myself pleasantly delighted by the new version of Batman’s back story in development (although I hated his bulky suit) and the hints, peeks, and foreshadowing directed at Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and a host of other heroes and villains.
The story of the new triumvirate, spun here as Superman, Batman, and Lex (sorry, Gal, it wasn’t equal billing for Wonder Woman), was soaked in theological underpinnings – and struggle. This in itself confronts another critic complaint about the film – “it’s not funny enough.” Let’s be clear, neither Batman (with apologies to the hokey Adam West) or Superman (how many witty one-liners can you find in Donner’s films or the works of Siegel and Shuster) have much “funny” to them, in fact, you can go count up the examples… I’ll wait. While Marvel has a handle on the mostly upbeat superhero motif, DC aims here for something different.
Instead of the hip quips from the smarmy mouth of Tony Stark AKA Robert Downey Jr., Snyder focuses on “showing us” versus “telling us.” Yes, there’s a voiceover from Wayne about what the destruction of the world looks like – and Lex’s fascination with a painting that was passed down from his father (above, background). He goes on and on about how mankind has long thought that evil came from below (hell) but he has recognized that evil comes from above (heavens) in his own twisted take on theology.
But Lex also introduces the problem of evil, the discussion of theodicy. Lex believes that a god cannot be both all powerful and good, because he believes power corrupts (John Dalberg-Acton, for you history scholars). This highlights Lex’s own Machiavellian beliefs, his own maniacal talents, and quite a bit of transference on what Superman (and Batman) are like. [More on that later.]
It’s enough that Batman’s vigilanteism and Superman’s straightforward “farm boy” ideals are at odds, but to have Lex manipulate them closer toward confrontation, that shows the grayscale world that we live in. Is Batman wrong to brand the criminals he catches with the bat? Is Superman right in his worldwide ‘justice is served’ decision-making? Does the government have a right to police either or both (hello, Captain America: Civil War)? Ironically, all three of these men believe they’re doing what’s right, even while their ideology separates them… or draws them together.
Thankfully, the film makes us believe that there are more questions than answers left, setting up more to come – and plenty of discussion. So, with that, I will close this first portion of my review. Simply put, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is deeper than the casual fans will expect from a comic book-inspired film. It’s done with more of a Mad Max: Fury Road vibe, with a focus on visuals over words, and filled with enough hints to keep the serious fan engaged.
This Film Has Daddy Issues (Minor Spoilers)
Bruce intones about putting our thoughts and beliefs on something else, and yet, he’s really highlighting how each of the focal three men has daddy issues. Bruce Wayne, who watches his parents die at the hands of Joe Chill, believes the world is about the good and the evil but that people are primarily evil; he thinks that the evil must be destroyed through fear and violence. Clark, who watches his father (Kevin Costner) die heroically, believes the world is good and that it is his responsibility to use his power to fight for good and model it for others. Lex, whose father abused him and gave him the misguided view of reality, sees power as the only way to get what he wants – regardless of the cost to others in life or otherwise.
While Clark still “talks” to his father, in a Snyder variation on the Kryptonite crystals that allow him to speak to Jor-El, Bruce has only the nightmares that provide a look back at his parents’ murderous end — and a strange, apocalyptic future. Lex, well, Lex, doesn’t even have the mental ability to string a paragraph’s worth of sentences together because he gets lost in his own head. He doesn’t know another way than to capture, control, or destroy.
When it comes to the issues of the men and their fathers, I found both Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) to be underplayed. While in some instances, these two provide moral influences for our two heroes, they are sadly underused. Instead, the balance of the moral integrity and spiritual understanding comes from the women in Clark’s life. Honestly, I walked out of the theater seeing Amy Adams as the spiritual linchpin of the film, reminding Clark of why he was Superman – and urging him to realize that is purpose was ‘divine.’ [On the other hand, Diane Lane’s Martha Kent plays the mother Mary, urging Clark to make the decision that is best for him, stretching the difference between the human and the divine even further.]
What we see in the tug-of-war over Superman is the same thing that Snyder would say about his art: art and the individual are their own, but we (the audience/media/society) try to make them in our image. It’s not unlike the way that Jesus was received by the masses, as a “messiah” who would overthrow Rome, or as any culture making idols to represent a higher power. Ultimately, Superman is who he is with no apology – even at a price.
If you didn’t know Wonder Woman was in the film, than you apparently didn’t watch the trailer or see any promotional information. As a huge fan of Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman, I doubted Gal Gadot’s ability to pull of her role. The Israeli actress pulled off her position with gravitas – and subtle humor and sexuality that made the scenes ripple with electricity and promise for what will come.
And now, for the third act…
The Making of Legends (Major Spoilers & Easter Eggs)
First, there’s the death of Robin, or at least the absence of the character in the older, more established Bruce Wayne/Batman’s state as played by Affleck. While there has been some buzz about the gravestone of Richard Grayson in the background of the cemetery scene, we know that Dick Grayson AKA (first) Robin AKA Nightwing would not have been a contemporary of Martha and Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s parents. So the relationship would have been different than that of dead circus performers and their adoptive son. [Snyder’s toying with the known canon includes changing the theater marquee backlighting the Waynes’ murder from The Mark of Zorro to Excalibur… for no apparent reason.] Instead, the suit in the Batcave covered by Joker’s graffiti would refer to the second Robin, Jason Todd. But is the continuity of Suicide Squad going to allow us a prequel with Jared Leto’s Joker versus Affleck’s Batman, given Affleck’s one-liner about having faced jokers in suits before?
Lex’s mashup of Zod and Doomsday is … creative. In much the same way that Marvel is using Bucky’s Winter Soldier as the precipitation for Civil War instead of some rogue C-level superheroes as in the comics, Snyder allows Lex to create Doomsday out of Zod’s DNA in a Lazarus pool-esque ‘resurrection.’ This allows for the entrance of other … resurrections… but also makes for a singular sacrifice of Superman that echoes Iron Man’s in Avengers and Superman’s… everywhere. This also sets up the ending that no casual fan will see coming — ripped straight from Dan Jurgens’ 1982 storyline where the impossibly powerful, godlike Superman actually dies.
While Man of Steel (and even Superman Returns) seemed intent on ripping the Christ-like imagery out of the modern day Superman, from making him kill Zod to portraying him (unfairly) as an absentee father, Dawn of Justice shows his sacrificial love, with a twist. Instead of dying for the world, Superman tells Lois that she’s his world, making his salvation act one that is personal, not communal. It’s heroic, but it’s not ‘for everyone.’ Somehow, Lex has caused Superman to re-see the world in a more jaded, cynical way, even as Superman’s act opens up Batman/Bruce Wayne to see the need for heroes.
In the end, Superman’s death is portrayed a la pietà, as Batman hands down the broken body of Jesus, er, Superman to the arms of Mary AKA Lois. Wonder Woman looks on, forming a sort of holy trinity of sorts, with a cross superimposed in the background. In the same scene where the monolithic statue of Superman, celebrated for defeating Zod, is destroyed, Superman is himself destroyed in the shadow of a cross. How’s that for establishing some metaphorical crossover?
Speaking of crossovers… rather than adapting Batman as the devious and conniving creator of the superhero files (see Mark Waid’s JLA: Tower of Babel story arc), Snyder’s major plot point has Prince stealing a file that Batman will later decrypt. This reveals the first footage of would-be Justice Leaguers like Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller), prepping us for 2017 – and a fight with … Darkseid?
With the foreboding dreams, the flying winged minions, and the imprinted symbol in the remains of Gotham, we don’t even need Lex to cackle, “He’s coming!” We know he is, like we know winter is coming, or like Bruce has that itch in his gut that warns him heroes are needed, or that … again, Marvel will beat DC to the punch by unveiling Marvel’s Darkseid doppleganger, Apocalypse, in May.
The truth is, while Marvel has the X-men to battle graphic evil, they leave the witty, sometimes benign villains to the Avengers. Thankfully, while Darkseid believes himself to be god, Dawn of Justice leaves us reveling in the fact that heroes live sacrificially and inspire others. Better yet, this Holy Week, we realize that the truly holy can’t be held down, that no grave can hold them.
Christ figures rise.