Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ★★★★

"The american conscience died with Robert, Martin & John."

Huh... So this is a weird one. To me, Zack Snyder is a strange but interesting choice to adapt traditional comicbook superheroes because hearing him talk about them you'd think he worshipped at their alter but watching what he actually does with them on screen you'd think he absolutely hates them & everything they stand for. In adapting Alan Moore's seminal graphic novel Watchmen, which deconstructed the very idea of costumed heroes (featuring allusions to Superman and Batman in the ultimate power of the distant & sad Dr. Manhattan and the brutal quest for "justice" of the psychotic & vicious Rorschach), Snyder found an interesting outlet for his fascination with violence and the cost/meaning of it and heroism in the face of it. Before and after adapting Watchmen this has been the central theme running through his work, be it the inevitable savagery within us of Dawn of the Dead, or the tragic bloodlust of 300, Snyder selects and molds his stories around this theme in a way that allows him to focus & meditate on the actions & movements of his characters (his only other favorite past time) as they navigate violent worlds, and how they might reflect this struggle he’s fascinated by. That’s not to dismiss it either, it is an interesting question he poses, just one with no real easy answer, which is why he likes it. Sometimes he uses it to great effect, like in Watchmen where he emphasizes both the beauty & horror of violence and how it’s provocative, addictive & costly all at once but other times it rings more hollow and lazy like in Sucker Punch, which was reverse-engineered from an idea of sexy, infantilized ladies kicking ass into a story of empowerment in the face of abusive men simply as an excuse for the imagery he wanted to craft.

The problem is that when Snyder is nailing it, he can come off thoughtful, mature, painterly (shh let me have this one), and even occasionally self-aware(!!) but when he’s not he comes off insincere, juvenile, and ugly, and this is why when he tried to translate this complex(ish) meditation into the world of the most simple and traditional hero in the world of comics with Man of Steel, the results were… Polarizing. To put it simply: MoS didn't work for me for a few reasons – namely that his central character is treated as such a mythical figure he doesn’t even bother to have an arc of any kind – but mostly because Snyder pretends it’s a faithful adaptation of superman when it's really not. Superman is meant to be perfect in every way that we aren’t, he is the dream of a better tomorrow, everything we could be if we weren’t humans with human struggles & flaws – he is a being with ultimate power that practices restraint because above all else he is a role model, an adult amongst children, that’s always been his super power. Snyder’s Superman isn’t that – he’s more of a brooding baby that stumbles around wondering “why me?” saving people simply because he apparently has nothing better to do, not necessarily because he’s good. Rewatching it last week I couldn’t even recall a shot of him actively making the choice to save someone (especially in flashbacks, where most of the saving happens off-screen) because Snyder doesn't really care about the character, he’s more curious about the Godlike alienation of the superhuman and the subsequent (super-powered) violence (something Superman again always, always avoids, not seeks), only not the real cost of that violence just how cool it would look in a handheld shot. That’s not to say Snyder’s vision here was entirely invalid, I've come closer to liking it on each rewatch and I’m willing to concede that a version of this post-9/11 superman might’ve worked but hiring Russell Crowe & Kevin Costner solely to sell speeches about how “this is the classic ‘symbol’ you all know & love guys I swear it, look I googled ‘Superman themes’” while delivering something else entirely…? Let's just say it makes sense that people were confused by or rejected that. Either choose to be a good adaptation of the material, or be the weird alien invasion 9/11 movie you wanna be & commit to it. Spielberg’s incredible War of the Worlds already beat you to it, but fine. (Think Tim Burton here, his Batman movies aren’t faithful adaptations of the characters either but they don’t try to be – his Batman is an empty suit whose only purpose & joy is hurting the people that hurt others, and he straight up blows bad guys up & lights them on fire, it’s wicked – instead molding the concepts of these characters into his own, strange gothic expressionist dramas about power, sexuality & capitalism. Batman Returns is one of my favorite movies if you couldn’t tell btw, so maybe take all of this with a grain of salt.)

… Weirdly enough, though, with Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice Snyder has made his choice this time around – to double down on his post-9/11 meditation using these superheroes, yes, but believe it or not it actually kinda works. BvS is fascinating because it’s supposed to be a billion-dollar universe-establishing tentpole, but it’s really not a good one – the introduction to the future Justice League members is maybe the laziest & worst we’ve seen in any of these kinds of movies, and that’s including The Amazing Spider-Man 2 which hinted at Spider-man’s villains all being created by Oscorp & just kinda chilling in the basement. Snyder, for seemingly heading up this entire cinematic universe, is surprisingly uninterested in the future of it -- every tease or hint feels studio-mandated & intrusive to the story he actually wants to tell. Meanwhile that story doesn’t have much to do with any iteration of these characters we’re familiar with. (I truly cannot see other filmmakers working within the aesthetic & archetypes he establishes here. At least not in any long term way.) To me, with BvS Zack Snyder has done the exact same thing Burton did in the 90s, he’s found himself in charge of these characters & he knows the story he’s interested in telling so he’s molded them to his vision like he’s playing with action figures… And goddamn if it isn’t more interesting & thrilling than any of his work in years.

The first 90 minutes of BvS are a series of nearly abstract vignettes that make very little sense structurally or plot-wise but instead emphasize the chaotic, all-consuming cycle of fear, violence, and trauma that defines Bruce Wayne and, in Snyder’s eyes, America in its current form. The opening images of the Wayne family murder manage to weave all of them into an inescapable nightmare that culminates in a fade to white visually consuming the young Bruce … Right before fading back into the MoS battle of Metropolis from Bruce’s point of view, evoking even more 9/11 imagery but this time with purpose, presenting Bruce’s life as a series of traumas he’s forced to wrestle with & react to. (Which he doesn’t do well considering the whole dressing up like a bat thing.) Meanwhile, Superman takes his rightful place in the DC Snyderverse as the Dr. Manhattan of this story – the flawed man turned all-powerful, Godlike figure that the public can’t fully comprehend beyond his capabilities as a weapon of mass-destruction. The world of Snyder's Batman & Superman is one shaken by a horrendous act of violence the public will never fully understand… One consumed by fear, paranoia, and reactionary violence – things in which Snyder infuses into every frame. His typical excessiveness & bombast here feeling more sadistic, aggressive, and overbearing than ever. While his pretentious dumb-guy philosophizing feels almost intentionally like desperate grasping, looking for answers that simply aren’t there. This is a world where humans are the source & victims of violence first, mouthpieces of “justice” & fairness second; a world so guilt-ridden and horrified that basic morality isn’t even in the equation anymore. Snyder’s Batman is one that casually tortures & murders people when he’s not too busy quoting Dick Cheney (and the Bush administration’s stance on terrorism post-9/11), while his Superman is one that questions the value of humanity in the first place and operating in the middle east like a super-powered drone strike. BvS is an ugly movie. One where sweet fan-favorite characters are gagged, mutilated, and shot in the head; where lowly criminals are branded like animals, where even the people that are saved are terrified of the “good guys” and where ghosts & nightmares are more prevalent than scenes of heroism.

This is a deeply unpleasant, nihilistic movie about power & principle, where they come from and whether or not they can coexist, spoiler: they can’t. The oldest lie in America is that “power is innocent” says the whiny, manic, corporate tech-bro posterchild Lex Luthor whose motivations are cartoonishly unclear other than a fascination with American power structures, and how a world with Superman all but topples them. Every character in a real position of power here is either psychotic or indifferent, using real experience, the media and a seemingly intentional blindness to craft a narrative that justifies their actions. Whether those actions make sense or not doesn’t really matter (a lot of things in this movie don’t make sense), as Walter Chaw put it: “BvS is best read as expressionism. It isn't bound by character development or sense. Rather, it's strung-together dream sequences, perverse emotions, and nightmare imagery.” And he’s right! Snyder is operating in the realm of emotional & metaphorical storytelling than he is anything else. At one point in the conclusion of the titular battle, something that’s considered amongst fans just a little fun fact is used as a huge revelation – it’s so silly, especially the way it’s cut, that many people around me in the theatre laughed, but it works on an emotional level (thanks Ben Affleck) and a philosophical one, as something so simple could expose Batman’s "righteous" anti-terrorism crusade as just an excuse to dehumanize his enemy, who in the Man of Steel is coded as an immigrant. It was at that moment BvS clarified itself to me – this movie isn’t even about Batman and Superman, this is about Snyder wrestling with world affairs in the only way he knows how. (Snyder’s response to poor reviews for the film is one of the saddest things you’ll ever read in an interview: “this is the only way I know how to do it…”) He sees these characters as American myth, and so why shouldn’t they be dropped into the ugly America the world sees? According to BvS heroism right now is really just a violent, tunnel-visioned, bloodthirsty quest for vengeance fueled by trauma & fear – an ugly warzone that turns even the best of us into sociopaths. No one in this war is innocent, and until we find a better way of dealing with it, and each other, things are just going to get uglier and uglier and uglier and... You get the picture. "The world only makes sense if you force it to."

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