Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BVS) is akin to a Philosophy 101 thesis read aloud while you’re being punched repeatedly in the face. Ambitious and stylish to a fault, the film is a fever dream of theological proclamations interspersed with massive explosions and battling titans. There are aspects of this film which are more interesting, thought-provoking, and even beautiful than any previous superhero film I’ve seen. There are also aspects which are deeply troubling, heavy-handed, and horrifying.
BVS opens with a very familiar scene–the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and his subsequent fall into a grotto full of bats. Yet director Zack Snyder manages to do something new in this iteration, turning it into an expressionistic nightmare, then interposing it with the destruction of Metropolis during the final fight between Superman and General Zod from Man of Steel. An older Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) watches as one of his buildings crumbles and his employees–his “family”–is killed in the mayhem, the rage growing on his chisled face. This opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film–this experience is going to be a dream, a series of images and impressions, at times maddening and incomprehensible, all leading towards a central conflict between Batman and Superman. And y’know, I was rather enjoying the first half of the film. I bought into the expressionistic conceit and the direction things were headed, even appreciating the dark tone and color palette. Then the fighting started.
The thing is, the actual fight between the two DC comic giants comes quite late in the film, and lasts perhaps 15 minutes. The battle itself is a clear adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, though this is the only real connection to Miller’s comic in terms of story and style. And don’t worry–this 15 minute fight is preceded by Batman killing a bunch of baddies, followed by another 45+ minutes of combat with Doomsday, with “pummel” and “fireball” set at a full 11. Leading up to this climactic battle is a series of scenes somewhat strung together as a narrative, with stylized dream sequences keeping the audience on its toes. Bruce Wayne continues to grow in his anger and obsession over destroying Superman. This is the darkest Batman we’ve seen in film, a Batman who kills villains without question or remorse. At one point, a women he’s saved calls Batman a “devil” out of fear of his diabolical and violent posture. He’s also smart and capable, the most detective-like version of the Dark Knight. On the other hand, Superman (Henry Cavill) comes across as a naive victim, a scapegoat for the world’s problems, and always walking (or flying) into situations and inadvertently making them worse. Often sidelined or saying very little, he’s a supporting role in his own movie, the silent suffering servant of Metropolis. Pitting these two together is Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg), the manic, twitchy, brogrammer billionaire who espouses philosophical nonsense in between sarcastic quips. Eisenberg’s over-the-top performance somehow works here; this is a Luthor we’ve never really seen before, but one which feels adequately dangerous, even as he’s ranting about theology or Greek philosophy in his white sneakers.
There is so much overt God talk in BVS, it becomes tiresome. Lex Luthor literally poses the theodicy question in black-and-white terms: if God is all-powerful, then he can’t be all-good; if God is all-good, then he can’t be all-powerful. Hence, he’s neither. Key characters–particularly Luthor and Wayne–make loads of philosophical statements throughout BVS. Note that I didn’t say questions; the film is less interested in asking whether or not human kind is inherently good or evil, whether we create gods in our own image, how power can corrupt one’s morals, etc. No, this is not about questions; everything is simply stated as absolutes. Wayne declares that if there’s even a 1% chance Superman would destroy the Earth, then that’s an absolute reason why he should be killed. And Wayne is absolutely the one to do it. Theological ideas abound, to the point where there’s a brief montage of various talking heads–including real-life Charlie Rose and Neil Degrasse Tyson–pontificating about Superman as a god-man, a Christ figure, a messiah from above. The film lays out so many theological ideas and opinions without diving into much substance, it’s like listening in on a Bible college late-night dorm discussion about Calvinism vs. Arminianism–everyone’s willing to voice The Answers, but few really understand the questions. By the film’s conclusion, the main thesis of the film is unclear: is humanity fallen and in need of a divine savior, or is humanity capable of good and able to save itself? Bruce Wayne emphatically says both. It feels less like paradox and more like inconsistency.
Yeah, the film has problems. The Doomsday creature design is essentially the Rancor from Return of the Jedi, or the Abomination from The Incredible Hulk, or the cave troll from Fellowship of the Ring–basically, a hulking brute with an artificial CGI aesthetic. Great actors like Scott McNairy, Jeremy Irons, and Amy Adams are underutilized in their roles. There’s a painfully forced scene inserted in the middle of the film as a clear setup for the following Justice League movies, like small featurettes for each new character. Knowing these Justice League movies will unite all of the major DC characters, the main conflict and finale of BVS had little in terms of emotional sway or pathos. We *know* Batman and Superman will resolve their differences in order to fight evil alongside Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the other superhero crew. It’s in their 4-film contracts. (Speaking of Wonder Woman, she’s remarkable here with the very little she’s given to do, making me much more eager to see the upcoming Wonder Woman film.) So while BVS presents itself as having incredibly high stakes and lots of meaningful ideas, it just…doesn’t. The stakes for the characters aren’t really present when you’ve got a franchise to build.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2975590/