This post contains spoilers.
What is a superhero?
In the public consciousness and at its most basic, it’s a brightly-clad human being whose innate or given abilities act as a conduit for a set of principles, usually in service of what can be described as heroism or justice. In short, a superhero is a super-hero. That sounds like a child’s explanation, but it’s deceptively simple. Over the decades, the comicbook medium has explored the concept in every way imaginable, breaking apart its basic elements, God and man, good and evil, the ‘super’ and the ‘hero’, analyzing them under a microscope and incorporating discovered layers into accepted canon. The various lenses used lead to fascinating questions about both fiction and its consumers, and the dynamic between ‘super’ and ‘hero’ often reflects that of the Übermensch and the State, at once a far cry from spandex adventures as well as their precursor. “With great power,” and all that.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a popcorn film, so much so that we may as well tilt the Earth’s axis to make America’s summer line up with its release date, but conversations about power and security are woven into its very fabric. Furthermore, by virtue of drawing from DC Comics, the underlying debates automatically take on qualities associated with the company’s pantheon, where central characters traverse not only moral lines, but mythological ones. Their Gods are Gods, but even their men and women are Gods, embodying fear, hope, and all the abstracts that make up the human experience. The film is relentless in its recognition of this, which is a head start in my book, or at the very least Zack Snyder & co. showing up to the starting line on time. However, given the film’s complete lack of discernible through-line and its muddled machinations, they’re not only headed for the wrong destination, they’re taking the wrong route to get there.
Nothing in Dawn of Justice works in its entirety. Most things don’t work at all, and even the one thing that almost works – Ben Affleck’s grimy, borderline despicable Batman – falls victim to the film’s penchant for pulling threads out of thin air at the very last moment. There are scenes that work when divorced from the rest of the film, just as there are shots that look picturesque out of context. The film’s take on Batman and Superman, and the theological parallels thrust on them by Lex Luthor and damn near everyone in the film, function pretty much the same way.
Batman is at once Jesus, Job, and the God of the Old Testament. The film’s opening is a largely silent dream-flashback combo, a condensed ‘previously on’ montage by way of Snyder’s own Sucker Punch (the best part of that film), and it portrays his first encounter with a swarm of bats as a kind of divine intervention. A Christ-like rebirth where a young Bruce Wayne escapes a tomb and eventually ascends heavenward. Immediately, however, the adult Bruce’s voiceover reveals this dream to be a lie. This isn’t actually how he sees Batman, nor is it ever how the film sees him, and yet this visually striking resurrection is juxtaposed with the Wayne murders, a scene that comes up over and over again until it factors into the titular battle. The ascension is essentially inseparable from the rest of the film, and right before the murders come up again in a bizarre moment of realization, Batman treats his parents’ killings as his Heavenly forsaking. Yet at the same time, the end point of his arc doesn’t end up being about sacrifice, even though the thread about his selfish, self-proclaimed criminality would benefit from exactly that. Instead it’s about regaining faith, which is strange since Superman is the only one of them who ever acts on supposed loss of faith, and here’s where things start to get even more muddled. On one occasion, Batman mentions having lost faith in men, yet the conclusion of that thread involves finding faith in a divine being. In his final scene, he mentions having begun believing in men again – played over images of humanity coming together to mourn – but the catalyst for this exchange is a newfound faith in Superman, who both he and the film posit as distinctly separate from humanity, even once the film is over.
Superman gets the big sacrifice that ought to be Batman’s (based on the caped crusader’s trajectory up to that point), and his parents’ murders, specifically his mother’s, lead to a sudden transformation involving empathy and the recognition of good in others. It’s as if somewhere along the way, somebody crossed a whole bunch of wires and gave Batman the end point that Superman should have. Batman’s journey in the film is seeing past his rage. Not only to make up with Superman, but to see the light in humanity and essentially become Superman! The comicbook Superman, anyway. Superman on the other hand, acts out of guilt and the desire to quiet his demons. He recalls (or dreams?) a conversation with his father, a story of how his heroic act on a farm led to the deaths of some horses, which he wouldn’t stop having nightmares about until he met his wife. The solution to Superman’s failure to save people is, in effect, to save one person – ghost dad refers to Lois as Superman’s “world” – and his failure to protect those around him is the only thing driving him to greater sacrifice. Like survivor’s guilt. It’s as if the end point of his journey is to… become Batman?
Realizing this made my head spin, and while it’s not an impossible idea, it’s one that ends up being quite terrible in execution (whether intended or not) because neither of these characters’ development has anything to do with the other. Batman’s starting point is certainly Superman-centric. The sequence where he runs headfirst into 9/11-esque chaos is a highlight of the film, though it may just be where it peaked. Batman is unwavering in his distrust of Superman, which is something that doesn’t change even slightly throughout the course of the film until one ridiculous moment. Even Luthor egging him on behind the scenes only escalates his actions, while the impetus behind them remains unchanged. When he does finally come around, it’s because his mother and Superman’s mother have the same name. It’s a stupid idea, not just because it sounds stupid, but because nothing up until that scene indicates this would have any bearing on him. Bruce and Clark suddenly know each other’s names during their fight (I don’t recall there ever being a moment where one actually discovers the other’s identity) and they’re sent on an accelerated course towards friendship and camaraderie, centered around an emotional beat that doesn’t ring true for Batman in the slightest. In fact, just moments prior, he mocks the values instilled in Superman by his parents, so the fact that Superman has a human mother isn’t a revelation to him. It’s the mere mention of her name that sends him into a tizzy. For a vital turn that essentially changes his thus far unshakable worldview, it doesn’t come from any character or plot element even hinted at prior. His pivot from “I’m going to kill you” to “I’m going to help you” is a realization of empathy preceded by him discussing the reason he’s unempathetic* – the death of his parents – followed by him feeling empathy because of the death of his parents, which he flashes back to in that very moment.
The handling of Superman’s turn towards sacrificial hero is hardly any better. During a pivotal moment, after he stands around in a flaming courtroom not really bothering about those injured, he tells Lois he fears he didn’t see the bomb coming because he wasn’t looking. That’s a potentially interesting starting point for his journey (some 90 minutes into the film) but the very next thing he says is something that contradicts the entirety of Man of Steel. He refers to Superman, the saviour of humans, as a farmer’s dream – his father’s dream. The conflict here is that this may be someone he doesn’t want to be, but it goes against the entire basis for this version of the character. Not the fact that he’s questioning heroism, but that he’s doing so as a rejection of his father’s wishes. In the first film, the whole reason Superman questions being a hero is because that’s exactly what his father instilled in him. It’s a weird piece of retconning that, while bringing his origin closer to the comics, ends up making Superman even more of an asshole here. In this moment he isn’t struggling with heroism, caught between a desire to do good and a sense of pragmatic self-interest. He simply doesn’t care. In Watchmen, Doctor Manhattan’s aloofness and disinterest in humanity came from being able to see its cosmic insignificance. This Superman, on the other hand, comes off as a sociopath.
His sacrifice is ultimately worthless, not just because him saying he cares about this world is a statement in direct opposition to literally everything else in the film, but because the moment he decides to pick up the Kryptonite spear and run at Doomsday is rendered meaningless earlier on. I love the idea of shared universes, and I know full well that Superman is going to be back soon, so more than his actual death, it’s his decision to sacrifice himself that ought to matter for the character. How can it, when he already made the exact same decision before the final fight even began? How can this Superman’s (unmotivated) realization that he needs to give up his own life to save Lois have any impact when he’s already held on to Doomsday and tossed himself in the path of a nuclear warhead, almost dying in the process?
Not only are these characters’ arcs meant to be entangled with their philosophies, but their very presence is meant to spark debates. The debates do happen, though more so through words than actions, because no matter who’s saying what about whom, none of it ever influences either main character. Superman does seem affected by what people are saying about him early on, but Lois immediately tells him to tune it out. The film then goes on to be media-heavy to the point that the majority of its perspective is that of the people and how they see Superman. A decent chunk of it is how Batman views him, but the film spends so little time exploring Superman’s perspective in all this that he’s basically a plot point until those final thirty minutes.
This would be less of an issue if the actual debates about Superman carried any weight. Senator Finch is the only one with any real opinion that moves the plot, the idea that he should be held accountable to a Government, but for everyone else he’s either God or Satan, and not in a way that explores either concept. The debate boils down to “Is Superman good, or is he evil?” without any shades of grey, while the film presents him as indifferent to anyone he isn’t sleeping with. Lois believes he’s good, her opinion never wavers. Batman believes he’s evil, his doesn’t until his sudden 180. Lex Luthor? I have no idea what was going on there. His theological perspective is applied as literally as possible, extending only to a heaven-up/hell-down dynamic, while his motivations range from his abusive father, to general anarchy, to hating Superman, to Superman-specific anarchy. If you’re going to incorporate some version of Lex Luthor, perhaps the fundamental question of “Why does Lex Luthor hate Superman?” is something you should answer. In fact, it’s the only question that matters.
In the process of all this stagnation, the very nature of the film is rendered moot. Until the literal fight two hours in, the ideological fight between Batman and Superman is a straight line on a graph, and feels just as flat. Even Wonder Woman only really shows up at the beginning and at the end, partially to help set up four upcoming solo movies. She has absolutely no bearing on the plot (any contributions she made during the final battle could’ve been given to Batman or Superman, and nothing leading up to it would’ve changed) and that’s a function of her having no real character here. The photograph she’s after serves to set up her solo outing, but she also acts as a spectator to video files meant to introduce us to The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman. I’ll admit, I was excited when she first showed up in costume, because the very idea of a live-action Wonder Woman on an IMAX screen is exhilarating, but by the time the Trinity stood together for the first time, not one minute later, I was already back to being bored to tears. She doesn’t offer anything to the dynamic, Batman and Superman make a joke about her, and then it’s back to punching and explosions without a single action ever being an extension of their characters. She’s never in any conflict with them, and her camaraderie is out of necessity. Their conflict with each other is manipulated by Lex Luthor, and they’re only on the same team because of the Martha thing, which doesn’t even involve an active decision by Superman.
The film’s outlook on superheroes is limited to the absolute surface. On one hand, you have a violent, horror-movie Batman whose idea of justice is criminals eliminating each other, which is an interesting concept, but he’s also a Batman who straight-up stabs people. We’re also supposed to root for him to defeat Luthor’s henchmen (while landing the Batmobile on their heads, no doubt killing them), but it’s in service of getting Kryptonite with which to kill a misunderstood Superman, something we most definitely don’t want? On the other, you have a Superman who’s filmed like the God people claim he is, but in the process of employing that perspective ad nauseam, the film shuts us out from him completely until it’s time for him to make some kind of decision. So no matter what he does, it feels unmotivated. Can this film realistically be said to have even one protagonist, let alone two? Everyone’s arguing vigilante justice and the responsibility of a supreme being, while Batman and Superman are only concerned with each other, and just barely. These two elements, the film’s perspective and that of the characters’, are so disconnected they’re almost chasmal, and it’s hard not to fall into the void.
Then again, one can’t be surprised when the filmmakers’ take on the DC mythology is less like an extrapolation of meaning, and more like a greatest hits album where every track is bad, or worse yet, a skit. Zack Snyder’s response to Superman failing to save people in Man of Steel is a third act where there are no people to save. A photographer who gets shot in the head by terrorists is listed as Jimmy Olsen in the credits. Superman’s pal Jimmy Olsen! There are setups for future films that are essentially references for fans, but not only do they make no sense to general audiences, they also make no sense in the context of the plot. Post-Apocalyptic fascist Superman barely feels different from present scowling Superman, though Lord knows why Darkseid’s Omega symbol would be at the center of it all. The Flash’s warning about Lois never has any impact on Batman’s actions, and it’s not clear whether this was a dream, or time-travel, or some sort of psychic projection while Bruce was asleep. Maybe we’ll find out in a later film, but as for this one, it’s just one of many, many disconnected and discordant occurrences in a film where bizarre dreams and visions exist only for characters to deliver information through dialogue.
The ideas behind various DC characters and concepts are present, but they’re devoid of any real meaning. Larry Fong’s cinematography is great to look at, in a way. I’d stare at stills of this film all day long, but in the process of having no real idea how to approach the mythic and ideological elements (other than to simply include them, often in words), Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice paints everything with the same brush. It’s why the media perspectives on Batman and Superman feel indistinguishable. It’s why Batman and Superman themselves feel indistinguishable. It’s why The Man of Tomorrow flying a Roscosmos rocket to safety like he’s Atlas, with the literal and metaphorical weight of the world on his shoulders, ends up looking and feeling the same as a court hearing where someone stares at a jar of piss. And somehow, that jar of piss ends up having more meaning behind it than the two most beloved superheroes in the world.
*He’s actually discussing how his parents’ murders made him nihilistic, but given the end point of that mini-arc, it feels as if empathy is what they were trying to go for. Either that or the reason he stops fighting is because he’s found purpose in saving someone, but he’s more concerned with the name than the danger she’s in when he realizes all this, and the idea that he doesn’t have a purpose was introduced barely a minute prior – a full two hours into the movie.