Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

There’s certain poetic beauty in the Dawn of Justice subtitle. Things are the darkest just before dawn, as they say, and it very much feels like Zach Snyder has chosen to take that to heart in the story that he is telling Batman v Superman. In many ways the film seems to channel the echoes of the fractured soul of the not-so-distant post-9/11 America, almost hauntingly embodying the numerous ugly facets of the nauseating, paranoia driven fear mongering of the era we know as the Bush administration, or the W. years. Zach Snyder has successfully distilled and transformed these painful and shocking memories into a captivating two and half hours of DC comics superhero extravaganza, offering challenging and hard critique of the cynical society that we have slowly become in the past fifteen years, in the wake of the global instability where terror attacks and human suffering have become part of the mundane, everyday news cycle. It’s a bleak picture being painted and I believe this harsh, dark reality that the film so bluntly shoves into the face of the viewer, who these days increasingly seems to only desire easily to digest escapism, might in part explain the very crushing and knee jerk style negative reception that the film has received from critics and certain parts of the audience. America seems still uncomfortable, if not entirely outright unable to process everything that took place in the past fifteen years in the name of the War on Terror and its subsequent and less than ideal trickle down effects.

Personally I quite enjoyed the dark, serious gravitas of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Is it a perfect movie? Absolutely not. It’s flawed, but still a pretty damn entertaining superhero movie because its story is able to overcome its own technical limitations and match that nigh mythological feel that is inherent to the DC comics experience. It’s weird. I’ve never particularly liked Zach Snyder as a direction before, yet I find myself time and time again defending him and his choices when it comes to this film. There are admittedly some pacing and editing issues here and there, the story doesn’t quite come together as wholesome as one might like, but if my experiences with Man of Steel are any indication, I might actually find BvS to be even better experience on the second time around, now that I know what type of tour de force is in front of me. If the promised three hour R-rated Ultimate Cut on the Bluray can form a more cohesive narrative and fix most of the issues as some have mused with its extra half an hour of running time, I could very well see it turning Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice into one of the better films ever made in the superhero genre. Now it’s only pretty good cape film that doesn’t come together as well as it could.

There’s been plenty of heated criticism over Snyder supposedly not getting Superman and portraying him poorly, to a point where it feels like a major crux for the animosity towards the movie and the story Zach is telling. Personally I do not find myself agreeing the sentiment at all. True, Superman does not get an equal screen time to Batman in the movie and he seems to have had plenty of material cut that would have humanized him more, but I would argue that it works within the framework of the type of story we’re getting here: BvS is about Superman’s direct impact on the world, and for that to work, you you cannot be as focused on Clark’s POV as the story is bigger than him. Besides, we already have the context for that provided to us via Man of Steel.  What we get here is the chance to experience for ourselves what it would be like living in a world Superman exists and how easily we could make snap judgments about Superman’s actions and heroics and his motivations. Everything he does would get dissected, twisted, interpreted and re-interpreted and ultimately nitpicked them to death in media, we would automatically suspect him having ulterior motives. Any speech given by Superman would just be received with even stronger suspicion.

To me it also feels like people mostly cannot abide this post-modern way Snyder approaches Superman as a concept. It’s a very radical and different portrayal from the classic boyscout we all have grown up with, and naturally gives birth to disgruntlement. Instead of rehashing Donner Superman from 1978 like Singer’s failed Superman Returns did, Zach Snyder is interested in examining a more realistic version of Superman. Superman who does not always have all the answers, is not all-powerful despite his super powers that the yellow sun bestows onto him, one that sometimes makes mistakes and struggles with the type of messiah role that people project to him, one that despite his limitations and personal failings at his core, just wants to help. To me, that is what makes Superman interesting. He’s like us, and he shows us how we can be better and reach our true potential as people, even when we fall and have doubts. Because there’s always hope waiting just behind the horizon. Snyder’s Superman is one who, realistically, finds it hard to be a superhero because there is no actual manual to it, he has to learn through adversity and mistakes and everything he does is weighted down with all these world changing political consequences that are hard to visualize let alone control. It doesn’t take the usual stance that Superman will fix everything just because he’s Superman, rather it shows how incredibly hard such a fantastic concept as superhero would be in the real world and how easily the modern day cynical world would be weary of a being like Superman, instead of welcoming him with open arms. And even if his faith is tested, ultimately he will overcome his doubts and show us true heroism at its purest form: self-sacrifice out of pure willingness to help those in need. Because that’s what Superman truly is about. Things need to get dark before the beacon of hope can shine brightly.

I suppose I should  now talk a little about the cast before I wrap this up. Before seeing the film, I had reservations concerning Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. The casting felt odd, if one were to be polite about it, and trailers didn’t exactly sell me on him. While it is a very different style of businessman Lex Luthor, more Zuckerberg and less Howard Hawks type tycoon, it was not long before I got used to it and found this new sleeker, more hip if you may, version to be rather great new depiction of Luthor. He still harbors all the key characteristics of Lex, the pettiness, the savage hatred, the air of condescending superiority. When you start to see his public facade drop and the pure viciousness is revealed behind the mask, he’s revealed as an absolute monster and Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex proves to be everything you could want from villainous movie Lex Luthor.

Moving on, Ben Affleck’s Batman, or Batleck for short, was phenomenal. He is easily the best thing in the entire film. It’s been a long way from the days of Gigli and Jersey Girl and it’s absolutely amazing to see him mow down an entire room of crooks with absolute brutal efficiency. There has been some veracious discourse over this version of Batman killing, which I find a bit humorous. Live action Batman has pretty much always killed in the last 27 years, in one form or another, most blatantly in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and especially its sequel, Batman Returns, where he smugly attaches a ticking time bomb to a bad guy and throws him down a gutter. So it’s not like this is some radical change or betrayal to what has become before, it’s entirely in line with past depictions. It works in the confines of the type of world Snyder is building and in-story, this older, more brutal Batman also makes perfect sense. He’s at the end of his rope, he has PTSD, he’s almost lost all hope in his mission. Him turning more violent, angry version of his former sense is entirely logical next step as a character, and it’s crucial plot point to his crusade against Superman and the redemption that follows once he wakes up from the suicidal mad fervor spell that he had fallen under.

Gal Gadot was a bit of a Trojan horse to me as I didn’t really know what to expect from her. Her nearly anorexic pictures raised some eyebrows and I didn’t really have much experience of her as an actor. She was in the first the Fast and the Furious so I must have seen her but honestly, I still draw a complete blank. But even though there were some concerns, I went with an entirely open mind, and I’m happy to say that Gadot’s Wonder Woman was pretty damn fun. By the time you got to see her suit up and join the final fight, I was entirely sold on Wonder Woman’s upcoming solo film with Gal as the star. The moment her theme song started blasting at full volume, signalling this new version of the Amazon princess demigod stepping up to the plate and joining the fight against Doomsday was just incredible, it worked wonderfully to get you hyped up for the fight, despite already having a small adrenaline rush coursing through your veins when Superman was exchanging blows with Doomsday.

Last but not least, let’s get to Henry Cavill, who still does a good job as Superman. The couple of scenes where he really gets to show his emotional range, from heartbreak to complete anger, are really good and make you appreciate Henry as an actor. During Superman’s lowest points you really feel his anguish and personal doubts and you just want to offer a shoulder to him for moral support, Henry is able to pack so much nuance and strength to his very being that his emotions just glow from him. Same applies to when he’s interacting with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane. Their chemistry is great and they really do make a cute couple. Speaking of Adams’ Lois, she was what you would expect, Amy gave a convincing performance and you get to see Lois be a smart, resourceful and strong willed lady, everything you would want from her. Her role did feel slightly diminished from Man of Steel, but that applies to Cavill’s Superman as well, so no biggie. She still got to do more than just be the damsel in distress and Clark Kent’s girlfriend, which is important, plus she had an entirely independent subplot of her own that added some layers to the giant plot that ends up pitting the two modern day icons to fight each other.

In summary, I wholeheartedly enjoyed Batman v Superman. It’s not going to please everyone, but it worked for me. I especially like how it dares to try and be  more than a brainless pop corn flick by handling such heavy subjects and not trying to dumb it down. The realpolitik aspects of the story were interesting and provided much interesting subtext to everything once you start seeing the parallels to 9/11 and how it affected American political policies and cultural mindsets. It also took upon itself a massive task of seeding several world building seeds for the rapidly growing DCEU and while the Justice League cameos could have been edited to fit a slightly smaller time frame, they at least managed to incorporate those seeds to the overall narrative in a clever way where they both enrich the wider world of the DCEU and also in hindsight provide some clever foreshadowing and build up for certain plot points that become important later on. It’s not a complete slam dunk, but comes very close to one. If nothing else, it made me very excited for the next installments of the Warner Bros. and DC comics movie slate: Suicide Squad, Wonder Woman and of course, Justice League, pt. 1.

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