Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ★★★★

Immeasurably better than the deeply flawed theatrical version in terms of narrative coherence, character development, and thematic depth, Batman V Superman is an epic and revelatory achievement and one of the few truly "mytho-poetic" features in the genre that was criminally underserved by inept studio interference that borders on outright malfeasance and character assassination of its controversial and visionary filmmaker, Zack Snyder.

I first saw this in the theater and was massively disappointed by what I thought was a confusing and poorly constructed mess, crafted by a filmmaker who didn't fundamentally understand the source material. Like many people, not only was I confounded by a narrative that didn't make much sense, but I was also disturbed by the sight of a Batman indiscriminately killing bad guys, an unhinged and completely psychotic Lex Luthor who seemed more like a Joker knockoff than Superman's primary antagonist who has been canonically presented as more of a criminal mastermind than a raving lunatic, a main event that amounts to a petty and immature playground scuffle between man-boys, and a stupefying reveal at the conclusion of that titular slugfest concerning the shared names of the battling boys' mothers that reeked of poor imagination and overreliance on silly coincidences to move the story forward. However, when these troublesome elements are presented in the context of its creator's original vision, as it is here in this "Ultimate Edition," in which nearly 40 minutes of footage has been added to the narrative, fleshing out the weaker and incomplete components, adding greater depth and motivation to nearly every plot point, these elements suddenly don't just make way more sense, but they in fact contribute to transcendent super hero story that is philosophically challenging and replete with mythological and religious underpinnings about the nature of evil, whether good can coexist with power, and how one rises above and becomes whole following childhood trauma and PTSD.

Yes, the film still has some problems, and with the elements I previously mentioned now "resolved" in this Ultimate Cut (though the degree to which they are resolved I will discuss in a moment is a matter of taste) the main issue that remains is really the 3rd act climax (as it often is with these superhero yarns) in which Batman, Supes, and Diana must face off against Lex's golum-like creation, Doomsday, who is quite literally a "devil" made from the flesh of a god (General Zod) combined with the blood of man, engineered for a two-fold purpose: to destroy a "false god," (Superman) and to reveal his inherently fraudulent nature to the world after his ploy to get Superman to destroy the Bat or die at his hands fails (either outcome was sufficient for Lex as Superman killing Batman would reveal his lack of goodness, and his destruction at the hands of Batman would reveal his lack of omnipotence).

When considering a work as mytho-poetically rich as this film is (I know, it feels as weird to write that a much-maligned film like this actually contains philosophical depth as it is to read that it does), it's important to have some context to understand the thematic questions that Zack Synder is grapping with in this narrative. A quote from Epicurus, a Greek philosopher from the 3rd Century BC, really sheds light on what Snyder is up to here:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

So the first couple of lines set the stage for Lex Luthor's worldview in this movie. It's really important to understand where Lex is coming from here because his hands are all over this story and he is pulling the strings from nearly the very beginning to manipulate the titular heroes into their inevitable confrontation. 

As a child, this version of Luthor suffered at the hands of an abusive father. Little mention is made of his mother, but he implies that he's an orphan too, so likely she passed away, leaving him unprotected from dad's fury. Perhaps he internalized some hatred for her due to her inability to protect him as a child, hence his lashing out at Clark’s mother later in the film.  As Lex passed through adolescence and emerged into (beta) manhood, he questioned how a God could tolerate the abuse and horrors he experienced as a child. According to the Epicurus's quote, if God was willing to prevent atrocities from occurring, but was unable to intervene, it's a fair question to wonder if God's really omnipotent. Conversely, if God was able to intervene but chose not to, then certainly He can't be good. And if God truly is able and willing to positively influence events on Earth, then from where does evil originate? And if he's not able to do those things, then is He really a God at all?

So Lex, like Bruce, witnesses the destruction of Metropolis during the events of Man of Steel and naturally questions the "goodness" of Superman. How could he allow this horror to occur if he's really good? Bruce has the same question. And Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) considers the conundrum surrounding the extent of Superman's powers as well. If a being exists that can destroy the world, and the nature of that being is unknown (whether it is good or evil, or whether it's even capable of being good, due to its enormous power) how can the world allow that power to exist unchecked?

Luthor firmly believes that it is impossible to have power without corruption, echoing the sentiment of Sir John Dalberg-Acton, who uttered the famous "truism" regarding the nature of power: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men..." Luthor has fashioned his own version of this adage and posits it to Senator Finch before Superman's fateful testimony before Congress at the Capitol. He says to her: "You know the oldest lie in America, Senator? It's that power can be innocent." So to Lex, no power, clearly his own included, can exist without evil, or at the very least, "guilt," which is the opposite of innocence.

So Lex, who is a brilliant tech entrepreneur, with an arsenal of information-gathering weapons at his disposal, is able to learn about these "meta-humans," to include Bruce and Clark, even learning their secret identities. So in this way, Jesse Eisenberg's Lex, who has been roundly criticized for being little more than a Joker analogue than the traditional version of the character, who is often more measured and calculating than Eisenberg's approach to the character, is very much a brilliant criminal mastermind for being able to pull off the scheme to pitch the heroes against one another, along with setting up Superman as a murderer and creating doubt in the mind of the public about his true intentions on Earth, in addition to having the technical skill to be able to genetically manipulate Zod's body to create Doomsday. Yes he is insane, and Zack needs him to be insane for him to be casted off to Arkham after the film's climax, where his knowledge of Batman's and Superman's true identities would be chalked up as the ravings of a madman, and also he needs him to be insane for the audience to understand the dramatic weight of the thematic questions he is considering about the nature of evil. This is heavy stuff and it weighs on a man's soul.

And Batman is quite unhinged in this film as well, as much by his own well-documented origin story, as he is by his 20 year career bashing skulls in Gotham and coming face to face with the worst that humanity has to offer. I rolled my eyes in the film's opening frames that we once again had to witness the death of his parents that forms the basis of his motivation to become Batman and avenge their deaths, but now I understand Zack felt it necessary to once again include a depiction of this moment to really cement the trauma that exists within Bruce's tortured consciousness. The big criticism about this version of Batman using machine guns to fire back at the para-military henchmen of Luthor, ostensibly killing them indiscriminately, which has been argued repeatedly is a casting aside of one of Batman's fundamental "rules" about his vigilantism, revealing a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of Snyder about the character of Batman, is a red herring in my view. This is the exact point that Snyder is trying to make here. This Batman is world weary, jaded, and has lost his way. A very excellent Jeremy Irons, who offers a fantastically stoic version of Alfred here, notices this as well. He chides and warns Bruce for losing his way. He knows that Bruce is waging war using weapons that were previously off the table. Bruce is so beside himself with rage and PTSD, both in general due to his line of work over the last two decades, and very much specifically directed at Superman, a heretofore unknown alien from another freaking planet who nearly single-handedly leveled an entire city of 10 million people, causing thousands of deaths, including people Bruce cared about, and not to mention orphaning at least one child and I'm sure many more, personally striking a nerve at the core of his pain and lifelong trauma, that he finally abandons the principles that separated him from the criminals he's dedicated his life to eradicating from the streets of Gotham. He plainly tells Alfred that he's a criminal too, has always been one. It shouldn't be surprising that this Batman, Snyder's Batman has cracked. He's gone over the edge. And he's in need of redemption.

Superman on the other hand has grappled since MoS about his place in this adopted world, about straddling the line between god and man, about dealing with the enormous responsibility of the power he wields. He is tortured as well, and he himself is even pushed to brink of killing as a solution to the problem he faces in the third act about his mother. He's killed before and it tore him up inside (another moment that had fans in an uproar), and now he's willing to do it again. What will that make him?

On the sidelines, we also have Diana grappling with the weight of power and responsibility. Her story is obviously less central than Bats and Supes, but again, Snyder is very much interested in how people wield power, how people make their way in a wicked world, and how people can develop hope and forgiveness in a world that is often quite brutal and filled with people who betray one another and stab one another in the back. In the film's closing moments, Bruce utters words along these lines, finally being restored to wholeness after the apotheosis of Superman's "ultimate" sacrifice. Bruce realizes his heroism is needed and returns to goodness, while Diana realizes she must re-enter society. Staying on the sidelines is no place for a goddess who can do good in the world (and also cause harm, as Clark's father played by Kevin Costner in a poignant scene tells his son from the afterlife). That duality is the nature of human existence, the ability to both inflict horrors and bring good to the world. Being human is the challenge we face everyday of attempting to reconcile those opposing notions, and hopefully in a way that does more good than harm in the final analysis.

And that realization reveals the fact that Luthor had it wrong. Superman was no god at all. He's not omnipotent. That question that Batman grunted earlier in the film, "Do you bleed?" has symbolic relevance. Superman later proves that he can bleed, at the hands of Batman no less, and is therefore not omnipotent. He is no god and never was one. He might not fully be a man but he is faced with the same struggles that a man, or a human, faces, that of balancing your actions in the physical world between good and evil.

On a technical level, this film is brilliant. The score is excellent and that is indeed a quality that starkly separates a film like this from anything produced under the Marvel banner. Marvel films are notorious for their lack of musical uniqueness (quick - hum the "Ironman theme song") and this film provides each character with their own specific musical cues and lends an epic scope to the entire story. The effects, worldbuilding, and attention to detail are all phenomenal, with the glaring exception being the character design of Doomsday. While I didn't love Doomsday, viewing this character from a mytho-poetic perspective, I can forgive Snyder for giving us what we got. Doomsday is meant to be horrifying abomination, a damnable being brought into existence to wreak destruction, so the fact that Doomsday is oddly neutrally gendered and has no agency of its own makes both thematic and narrative sense, so I can the character design a pass. 

On the acting front, Ben Affleck presents a Batman heretofore unseen on celluloid. As mentioned earlier, this Batman is jaded and on his last rope. Affleck not only brings Bruce's world-shattering trauma to the forefront, but he also embodies Batman's fierce and unrelenting physicality to an entirely different level. This Batman looks like a Batman that could go toe-to-toe with Superman, and make mincemeat of Gotham's criminal class year after year. He is brutish and huge and delivers punishingly merciless bone-crushing blows to his adversaries. This is a Batman that would scare the shit out of a criminal, and is arguably as good, if not better than Bale's version. I like these two versions and don't feel the need to rank one over the other. They are both good, but this Batman feels like the Batman I used to read about in comics as a kid, particularly the Frank Miller iterations of the character.

And it's a damn shame we never got the Batfleck movie, but I've heard that might change based on what happens with the Snydercut on HBO Max. That said, this is really Batman's film, though Supes gets some heavy lifting character development of his own. Henry Cavill certainly looks the part but he doesn't convey the gravity that Affleck does. Some of that is due to the character itself. This is a tough character to write and a tougher one to act. Obviously Christopher Reeve did it to perfection during his run, and perhaps the biggest difference between the two is in their take on Clark Kent. Cavill plays Kent as less of a geek that Reeve did, which makes the line that Laurence Fishburne throws at him offhandedly about being a nerd somewhat misplaced. The dude looks like a stud as Clark and he makes little affectation to distinguish the two personas. They’re basically the same person here. Reeve's Kent was really a mask that Kal-El wears, so he was acting as Superman who was acting as Kent. Cavill dispenses with that and is just Clark, whether he's wearing the tights or not. Not as interesting and he will forever pale in comparison to Reeve, though he certainly looks like Superman, so in that light the casting is quite good. I can forgive his performance but it's definitely lacking.

Amy Adams is quite good here. I've never bought the chemistry between her Lois and Cavill's Supes, but she's an excellent talent and the restored 40 minutes of footage gives her plenty of screen time to embody hands-down the best Lois Lane on film. She's smart, strong, courageous, and compassionate. And I love her interplay with Martha Kent played by Diane Lane. Though they don't share too many scenes, when they do, I could feel a palpable connection between the two women.

Eisenberg's performance at first threw me off. His character tics and bubbling insanity didn't resonate with me, but now as I consider that the existential and nihilistic questions he is grappling with very much inform his mental health, I'm much more forgiving of Jesse's Luthor being a different take on the character. Heck, Gene Hackman was funny as Luthor back in the day but he was mostly a complete buffoon, especially throughout much of Superman II. Yes, he called himself a criminal mastermind, but he didn't really act like one for the most part. Snyder has a very specific take on the material and I respect that he's trying to tell a very different superhero story than what we get in the MCU, and hence that different superhero story comes with a different kind of villain. While Luthor is obsessed with Superman, towards the end of the film, during his final confrontation with Batman, I was struck by how he's as much Batman's villain as he is Superman's in this flick. Not sure if Batman has ever faced off with Luthor in the comics, but that orientation is also a bit of a change-up on the material that threw me off at first. 

It's regrettable that this version of the film wasn't released in theaters. The first half of the film is near perfect. Yes, the tone is heavy and dark. And that might not be the taste of all filmgoers so a negative critique of its tone shouldn't be a determination of the film's inherent worth, but instead be a reflection of a matter of taste on the part of the viewer. Some people can tolerate darkness in their superhero fare and others can't. But its darkness alone should not be considered a negative aspect of the film. Plus it's long. I admit, after hating the theatrical version, it took me years to work up the resolve to sit through this again, except even longer this time around. When this was released at the time, the notion of a three-hour superhero flick probably seemed insane, but three years later Marvel did it with Endgame to great success. It's a shame that DC couldn't just have the courage and resolve to be its own thing, rather than a permutation of the Marvel formula. Obviously the studio interference climbed to epic new heights in the theatrical Justice League release, but its embers are evident here, and I feel bad for Zack Snyder, both due to the personal tragedy that struck his family a year after this film's release, and for the criticism that was piled upon him for what critics (and I) perceived to be an objectively bad film. The truth is that his vision was poorly represented in the film we got, which was a bastardization of its intended exploration of heavy philosophical, mythological, and religious ideas.

Bottom line, I was absolutely blown away by this movie. I could probably go on for days about its themes and ideas but will wrap this up by saying that this film is rich and deep, and while long, very much worth the journey. I am pumped to see Snyder's original vision continue in the Snyercut and am intrigued if that film's success will possibly spawn new iterations of this richly-realized superhero world that exists in stark contrast to the stuff of the MCU. If you like these characters but were put off by the theatrical cut, I highly recommend watching the Ultimate Edition!

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