In 2013, director Zack Snyder released his gritty, modern reboot of the Superman movie series after a long hiatus and after Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) almost killed the franchise with ridiculous plotlines and nonsensical decisions. Man of Steel caused quite a deal of controversy for its darker, more grounded approach and the massive amounts of destruction caused by the battles between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon). Personally, I enjoyed the movie for making Superman awesome again and showcasing the impact of super-powered beings doing battle in highly-populated areas.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice follows-up on Man of Steel’s themes and narrative by introducing the first-ever live-action meeting between the two iconic superheroes. It should be noted that this post is going to be full of spoilers and talk about the film’s narrative, so if you haven’t seen the film then it’s probably best not to read on further.
With the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy (2004-2012), the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman was taken up by Ben Affleck in a casting decision that also caused a stir of controversy, mainly due to Affleck’s previous work on Daredevil (Johnson, 2003). Personally, this decision riled me the wrong way. While I actually enjoyed Daredevil (especially The Director’s Cut), I cannot say that I am much of a Ben Affleck fan; also, I felt that his casting took the role away from other actors who could have shined in that sort of role. Basically, this casting felt like the producers were trying to leech of Affleck’s star power.
However, Affleck’s portrayal of Wayne/Batman is a true gem of a surprise; Affleck plays an older, grizzled, veteran Batman who is constantly haunted by nightmares, fatigue, and inner turmoil. In the film, Wayne has been Batman for about twenty years; Gotham has gone to hell despite his presence (Wayne Manor is dilapidated, for reasons unknown, and the Gotham Police Department is similarly run-down and seemingly abandoned) and his approach towards his vigilantism has become cruel and violent. This is not just due to his age but also to the dramatic shift in Wayne’s entire persona and attitude after the loss of his partner, Robin, at some point in the past.
As a result, Batman (refreshingly commonly referred to as “the Bat” on numerous occasions) tortures and brands criminals in his night-by-night activities and, at a number of points in the film, brandishes firearms and racks up quite the body count. If people were pissed that Michael Keaton’s Batman killed people back in the day, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see Affleck’s Batman attract some debate given that he clearly guns down, blows up, and drives through quite a few goons.
Personally, again, I have no problem with that because of the movie’s context. Batman is older, admittedly slower; he’s worn down by age, weariness, and his new mission in life: mainly, the destruction of Superman. It transpires that Wayne was present during the events of Man of Steel and witnessed Superman and Zod’s fight devastating Metropolis, causing the deaths of numerous Wayne employees.
As a result, despite the protestations of his ever-loyal butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons), Batman has decided to view Superman as a potential threat that doesn’t need stopping…he needs killing. It doesn’t help Wayne’s mindset that he is constantly haunted by nightmares of not only the deaths of his parents (as standard) but also visions of a dystopian future where Superman rules as a tyrant. These visions are given further credence not only by a surprise visit by the Flash (Ezra Miller) in a scene straight out of Crisis on Infinite Earths (Wolfman, et al, 1986) where he warns Wayne of this apocalyptic future and urges him to “find us”, but also through the machinations of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).
Given the controversy caused by Man of Steel, the world is suitably divided by Superman’s presence. A big side plot in the film is the world’s views on Superman; while many view him as a hero, saviour, and messianic figure, others are also fearful of his presence and uncomfortable with his status as an all-powerful alien who answers to no one. While Batman comes to represent the extremes of the latter, Superman’s extended family – the ever-pretty Amy Adams and Lois Lane and his mother, Martha (Diane Lane) – represent the former, urging Clark to be a symbol of hope and/or remove himself from the equation entirely and leave the world to its own issues.
Luthor capitalises on the divide that Superman causes and works it to his advantages; through his devious machinations, Luthor gains access to the remains of Zod’s Kryptonian ship, the body of Zod himself, and frames Superman as a destructive force through a series of terrorist actions. This is aided by the general consensus that, because Superman acts as an independent force, his actions have consequences for the rest of the world that led to a number of deaths, a fact that weighs heavily on Superman’s conscience and his belief in himself and what he’s doing.
For me, the casting of Eisenberg is the exact opposite of Affleck’s: while I generally believed that he could bring something unusual to the role, he is less of a gem and more of a scenery-chewing, ham-fisted version of the character. In his defence, I was glad to see that he wasn’t the corporate, suit-wearing version; Eisenberg brings a manic, hyperactive energy to the role that masks his true, devious intentions; however, while it kind of portrays the character as a quirky, eccentric tycoon, it lends itself more to Jim Carrey’s over-the-top acting from Batman Forever (Schumacher, 1995) people continue to lament to this day.
Luthor, implied to be from observing how often Superman saves Lois Lane from danger, pieces together Superman’s secret identity and kidnaps his mother and places Lois in peril in order to bend Superman to his will. He has also been fuelling Wayne’s thirst for blood by manipulating him over time, effectively setting the two against each other in order to publically discredit and shame Superman. However, Luthor’s ultimate plot involves not only the discovery of Kryptonite (which Wayne manages to intercept and use to his own advantage) but also the genetic tampering of Zod’s remains. Accessing forbidden Kryptonian technology, Luthor creates a hulking genetic monstrosity whose sole purpose is to kill Superman: he creates Doomsday.
Doomsday, whom many online have criticised as being shoe-horned in to unite the central characters, also surprised me. When I first saw the footage of Doomsday from an earlier trailer, I lamenting his presence as it causes so many issues. People have been asking me over the last few years how Batman and Superman can fight and I have explained, over and over, that the two have not only fought numerous times in the comics but also that Batman has often come out on top more than once. Superman, for all his powers, is fallible and has numerous weaknesses; Doomsday, however, traditionally has no such weaknesses and, in a fight against him, the most useless ally you would want would be Batman.
However, the film’s version of Doomsday is markedly different; it’s somewhat weaker, physically, and vulnerable to Kryptonite but remains as immensely powerful as ever, if not more so. Doomsday emits concussive blasts of heat energy, seems to float or straight-up fly a few times, and expels shockwaves of energy every time it evolves to repair from damage and attacks. In Superman’s favour, he learns from Man of Steel and attempts to take Doomsday into space and away from the planet; however, this plan is foiled by the governmental decision to nuke them once their out in orbit, which brings Doomsday back more powerful than ever.
Joining Superman and Batman to oppose Doomsday is Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), who appears at numerous points in a sub-plot concerning her attempts to retrieve vital data of metahumans from Luthor. It turns out that Luthor has kept tabs on Barry Allen/the Flash, sightings of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and the augmentation of Victor Stone into Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and is eager to keep Luthor from eliminating these metahumans. In service of this, she runs into Wayne at numerous points, who discovers that Diana has been around for about a hundred years and is more than she seems. Diana opts to interject herself into the conclusion and assist Batman and Superman, relishing the battle against Doomsday. For the first-ever live-action portrayal of Wonder Woman, Gadot bring both beauty and strength; while her casting also attracted controversy, she was actually portrayed very well and as integral to not only this film but also the formation of the upcoming Justice League.
However, the primary title of this movie involves the fight between Batman and Superman. These two clash immediately due to their ideals and approaches and because of Wayne’s vendetta against Superman, but don’t actually come to blows until the third act. For this battle, Snyder draws implicitly from The Dark Knight Returns (Miller, 1986); Batman dons a cybernetic suit exactly as in the comic, blasts Superman with Kryptonite gas as in the comic, and beats him into submission just like in the comic. I guess, in execution, the fight between the two comes across as very similar to the showdown in Freddy vs. Jason (Yu, 2003) in that the entirely film builds the tension towards the confrontation, and builds it some more, and, when the tension finally snaps, it is a very satisfying event.
Batman, as mentioned before, is violent and aggressive in his fighting style; his combat prowess is ripped straight from the Arkham series of videogames (Rocksteady Studios/Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, 2009-2015) and there is no question that, once Superman is suitably weakened, Batman is the superior fighter. Superman, in a change of pace, shakes off the effects of Kryptonite over time and it merely weakens him, rather than kills him. However, that’s alright because Batman is more than willing to stab a Kryptonite spear through Superman’s head! Batman bests Superman, beating him into submission, and is poised for the kill before Superman begs him to save his mother after the fact and Lois rushes in to help clear the air.
It is at this moment that Batman comes to his senses and realises that Superman is a selfless man trying to do good; however, this revelation comes off quite rushed. Indeed, once the revelation that Wayne and Clark’s mothers share the same first name (a point I had never actually considered or thought of before) is brought up, Wayne does a complete turn around. Not only is he now willing to assist Superman’s causes, he also pledges to unite the other metahumans in honour of Superman’s penultimate sacrifice.
Oh, didn’t I mention that Superman dies?
Well, honestly, I was pleasantly surprised that Snyder saw this through as totally as he did. As I said on numerous occasions before the movie came out, you cannot involve Doomsday and not do The Death of Superman (Jurgens, et al, 1992) from the comics. Doomsday’s entire purpose is to kill Superman; leaving that out would be like using bane and not having him break Batman’s back. In fact, one of the major issues I had with Smallville (2001-2011) using a version of Doomsday was that it obviously wouldn’t be killing Clark (Tom Welling) and would be portrayed as another “villain-of-the-season”. Here, Doomsday and Superman kill each other through mutual impalement; this heroic act brings Batman entirely over to Superman’s cause. It also (through the effective use of a military/state funeral, the more emotional funeral in Smallville, and the montage of reaction shots to the news of Superman’s death) turns Superman into a matriarchal symbol of hope and heroism, effectively ending the divisive conflict he caused in life.
Of course, a two-part Justice League movie is scheduled to begin filming soon and Superman is already confirmed as being part of the line-up. As a result, the film’s final shot is of Superman’s grave trembling slightly, signalling his inevitable return (and without the four bogus clones as in the original story, one would assume). However, the fact that Snyder actually had the balls to do The Death of Superman, in my mind, completely justifies and exonerates the inclusion of Doomsday. It wasn’t just some half-assed inclusion there to be brought down by the trinity of superheroes; it was there to unite them, the Justice League, and the world by killing Superman, so kudos for that.
Visually, the film is actually quite magnificent; say what you will about Snyder as a storyteller, the man knows how to be cinematic. Batman shines the most throughout because of this, being shot in pitch black and having his action scenes be energetic and clear to see. Snyder’s visual symbolism extends to Superman as well; while the God and Christ metaphors have been done to death with Superman, here they actually have relevance in the plot so they don’t come off as cheap or superficial. The visual dichotomy of the film is wonderfully done; the contrast between Metropolis and Gotham City is apparent, the costumes all pop out and appear functional, and Batman’s weapons and gadgets are showcased to the fullest.
It really feels as though the film-makers held nothing back (except for the half-hour of cut footage rumoured to be on the home release) and that has, in the eyes of many, caused more controversy. I have heard of critics attacking the film for being “choppy” at the start, shoe-horning in the Justice League elements and Doomsday, and having nonsensical decisions woven into the dialogue, script, and plot. To them, I say, these are valid points in some cases. However, I never experienced any issues with the pacing or the editing; sure, it’s a long film, but films are these days and, when you’re enjoying a movie, that’s not a bad film. I found myself engaged with the plot; I wanted to know more about Wayne Manor, Gotham, and Batman (which is a perfect way to re-introduce this version of the character and will be expanded upon in future DC films), I followed along easily enough with Luthor’s plot and the side-plots involving the Justice League, and never felt that anything else done an injustice or there for the sake of it.
The fact is that DC and Warner Bros. are very late to the shared universe party; Marvel Studios have gained the upper hand after building their individual heroes separately and now having them cross over regularly. While DC’s television efforts are popular and are beginning to cross over, their television shows will not be a part of this forthcoming DC film universe and the studio, which has largely been happy to produce mainly Batman and Superman movies after the lacklustre reception of Green Lantern (Campbell, 2011), doesn’t have the time or the release schedule to introduce the Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg or the other Justice Leaguers. Instead, what will set DC movies apart from Marvel’s from now on is their cross-connectivity and their immediate focus of having their films and character converge right off the bat, which could make for some exciting future releases.
Overall, yes, this film has some flaws but nowhere near as many as I was expecting and it certainly doesn’t deserve the critical backlash it is currently facing. It re-introduces Batman, presenting a grizzled, more violent version of the character who seems just as mental as the villains he faces, and brings more humanity and empathy to Superman. The visual presentation is top-notch, more than making up for any narrative deficiencies, and the thematic portrayal of both characters is largely in keeping with their portrayals in several prominent comic books, even the vaunted Dark Knight Returns.
Snyder had the balls to do new thins with this movie: he incorporates Robin (no one knows which one but, most likely it was Jason Todd, meaning Nightwing could be active in this universe), a character no one has used in film for nearly ten years (and that’s just criminal); he utilised Doomsday to its fullest extent; he addressed and upped the scale of destruction from Man of Steel; and the apocalyptic future witnessed by Wayne, which is implied to be the result of Superman’s actions (somehow), and Luthor’s manic rant at the end (I half-expected him to announce that “a Crisis is coming”) lend credence to the rumours that the Justice League will come together to battle Darkseid. Make no mistake, the DC movies are a violent one where actions have consequences and the heroes amongst us may cause more trouble than the villains but it is one soon to be united by heroes and villains alike and, for the first true attempt and making headway towards a Justice League movie, I would say that Snyder has delivered on all fronts.
Recommended: Absolutely, the film is beautifully shot, exciting, and engaging. It’s maybe not the best-paced film and has it’s issues, but it’s Batman…versus Superman!
Best moment: Easily the entire final act of the film from the titular clash between the two heroes, into Batman’s vicious rescue mission, through to the Trinity joining forces against Doomsday.
Worst moment: Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor totally ruins what should have been a far more cerebral, menacing characterisation.