“… it’s an operating table. And Batfleck’s the surgeon.”
If you didn’t get the above reference, it’s from the excellent ‘Dark Knight Returns’ graphic novel by comics superstar, Frank Miller. It’s the first thing that comes to mind having seen the film because BvS is rife with quotes and even some scenes lifted, whole hog, directly from the book. In fact this entire movie is a veritable mish mash of big comic stories, drawing on various tentpole Superman and Batman books and weaving them all together into a brightly colored superhero patchwork quilt.
Plenty of other DC heroes and villains vie for screentime in the already packed outing, as the film introduces Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman and hints at other Justice League members for the sequel. Not to mention villain characters Lex Luthor as well as another major addition I won’t spoil here but whose presence in the film was unfortunately given away in a trailer of all places. DC can’t be too pleased with how Marvel seem to have conquered the world with their expanded universe movies while their own efforts have met with mixed reaction at best. This movie has a lot of heavy lifting to do, essentially serving as the launching point for the DC cinematic universe.
The big question in all of this is did they actually pull it together. Did screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer manage a script that introduces so many characters, setting up so many solo films while also being a cohesive enough whole that it succeeds on its own merits. Did Zack Snyder then artfully shoot that script in a way that makes the material compelling for viewers?
The answer is an unabashed, enthusiastic yes. Batman v Superman is two big, meaty fists of comic book action. It manages a compelling depiction of the first time meetup between Batman and Superman while also giving viewers just enough of a taste of the wider DC cinematic universe to leave fans thirsting for more.
Ben Affleck plays a noticeably much older Batman than his predecessors. This Bruce Wayne is a tired, grizzled old man nearing the middle of his life and the end of his war on crime. His tactics have gotten much more extreme over time. This Batman has no qualms about using extreme violence or even guns to achieve his ends.
This Batman kills. There were several instances where his Batmobile unloaded super high caliber slugs directly into bad guys’ vehicles, those vehicles then erupting into balls of flame. Even if one allows the benefit of the doubt that all of them survived, there is one instance in particular where the Bat immolates a man alive.
It’s a striking portrayal of the character, one that hints that the filmmakers might be gearing up for a live action version of Frank Miller’s aforementioned opus. DKR ushered in the “grim and gritty” era of comics but even that Batman still held onto his aversion to killing. When driving the Batmobile– in that incarnation a literal tank– into a gang hideout the Bat unloads on the bad guys with side-mounted guns, quipping, “Rubber bullets. Honest.” BvS has somehow managed to out grim ‘n’ gritty the godfather of grim and gritty hero stories, with a body count easily racking up into the dozens.
Superman continues the mopey habits he picked up in ‘Man of Steel’. This is a Superman unsure about his place in the universe. Gone is the wide-eyed “Gee golly” optimism of his 1930’s incarnation, replaced by the cynical “Neverending war on terror” xenophobic, petty, jealous modern version. We used to look up to Superman as a representation of everything we could be. Now we hate him as a constant reminder of everything we’re not.
Subtlety isn’t director Snyder’s strong suit and the Superman as God/Christ figure implications come hard and fast here. He is frequently shot descending from the sky, sun at his back, cape in the breeze, lens flare for days, a veritable god coming down from the heavens to be with his followers. It’s significant that the weapon Batman chooses to try to take down Superman is a spear, no doubt a familiar allegory to those well-versed in Sunday school lessons on the Lance of Longinus.
Snyder’s Superman essentially breaks the character. Superman works because despite the tremendous power he possesses he manages to resist temptation to use it for petty or selfish reasons. Despite everything that’s thrown at him he remains a shining beacon of goodness, an icon whose example we should all aspire to. This Superman– one who destroys a man’s rig and with it his entire livelihood just because he got a little mouth’y in a bar (‘Man of Steel’) or who has no problem committing cold-blooded murder just to keep a kidnapped family member safe– IS a monster, is in fact every bad thing Luthor says he is. It’s only a matter of time until that character grows frustrated with humanity’s failures and seizes ultimate power for himself as global dictator. Either that or simply wipes out the inferior species completely.
Lex Luthor is no longer the middle-aged, bald, sinister businessman. Jesse Eisenberg plays him as spastic, conniving, eccentric, more Ledger Joker than Hackman Luthor. The portrayal is jarring at first but Eisenberg soon claims the character for his own and we as viewers go along on his manic ride. “You know the oldest lie in America, senator? It’s that power can be innocent… If God is all-powerful he cannot be all good and if he is all good he cannot be all-powerful.” The entire movie deals with these themes of power, questioning whether or not Superman– or any man– is within their right to wield extreme power for reasons only they deem fit.
The film suffers under trying to fit so many things on the screen at once. There’s a sequence where Batman finds himself in some strange desert environ punching gun smugglers upside the head. Then these strange winged creatures show up and everything becomes bizarro land. Uhh… not that Bizarro but uhh… Let’s just say things get weird. It’s obvious the entire sequence is there to serve as setup for future films but all it really does in the moment is confuse the hell out of viewers. So is Batman a telepath? Does he often have psychic visions of the future. Because otherwise, if the visions mean nothing, they could just as easily have been taken out of the film.
It’s as if the director wanted to include all of the cool bits from all of his favorite DC comics stories in one movie. However, since said stories all take place at varying times in the heroes’ lives it leads to divergent plotlines smashing into one another like a cinematic mosh pit– without any of the context or nuance of the originals– us as viewers left to sort through the carnage.
If the chronology of the film is to be believed, this is Batman and Superman’s first time meeting one another. Given that Batman is nearing middle age, Superman having spent just about as long flying the skies of Metropolis, it seems improbable the two would have never crossed paths in all that time. Especially in light of the fact Clark Kent seems keenly interested in the “bat vigilante” preying on Gotham’s underworld, using methods just as questionable as the baddies he catches.
Conversely, Batfleck seems to have sworn a blood oath to take down the inhumanly powerful alien creature whose apparent carelessness during one of his battles (with fellow Kryptonian Zod, as depicted in ‘Man of Steel’) resulted in massive losses of life in both Metropolis and Gotham. Which bears mentioning the fact, in Snyder’s DCU the two cities are surprisingly, almost uncomfortably close to one another. So close that apparently whenever they light the bat signal in Gotham all a Metropolite (?) has to do is look to the skies and he/she can see it clear as day. Who knew?
In ‘Dark Knight Returns’ vigilante heroes have been outlawed so the government sends Superman to stop Batman. There’s a very obvious motive for why the two would butt heads. In BvS there’s a much more convoluted reason the two must fight which involves Luthor, an abduction and some red writing on some checks that, despite repeated viewings, still doesn’t make total sense.
This movie does have a lot to overcome. The characters, ones whose portrayals have been all but cemented through decades of stories in literally thousands of comics can at times come off as off key. The plot holes are there, some of them large and unwieldy, waiting to be picked apart. There’s a ton of material for this film to go through, serving as a set-up piece to at least 6 or 7 other movies.
Despite all this, BvS is still a great film. The action scenes, while at times over the top, are still amazing. The big climactic battle between the two heroes that the whole film has been building up to looks great. The even bigger, even more climactic followup fight, where both men inevitably realize the error of their ways and team up to face the real threat to humanity, looks even better.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a thrilling hero ride, one which succeeds in building interest in a DC cinematic universe viewers will definitely want to visit again.
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