World’s Finest

There is little more direct indication of what audiences were in for on March 2016 than the fact that director Zack Snyder, co-writers Chris Terrio & David S. Goyer, and the brass at Warner Bros. could have just been straightforward about the clear branding exercise that this movie was and titled it Batman vs. Superman. Instead, they went with the more official-sounding ideological appeal Batman v. Superman, throwing on the painfully bad subtitle exercise in blatant foreshadowing Dawn of Justice.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Fucking woof.

It’s not very productive to rehash the massive amount of pessimism I had about the project as somebody at the time unimpressed with Man of Steel and firmly anti-Snyder and even more anti-this transparent attempt by WB to skip steps to a dark n’ gritty counterpart to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, already in 2016 at the point of annoyingly sucking up all popular movie culture discussion and determining the medium-shot heavy homogeneity of popcorn cinema for the decade. Let’s just cut right over to the fact that when Batman v. Superman dropped on that March weekend and I got texts from friends stating “you were right, it DID suck”, I could only respond to my surprise with “Well, I actually liked it” to the demands of my friends asking I explain my sudden love for what has been long determined as one of the great boondoggles of superhero cinema. Well, fellas… you’re getting your wish.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice‘s overgluttinous title is emblematic of a major element of Snyder’s movie… it is way overfilled with stuff. To its ostensible detriment, certainly, as it is more than Snyder, Terrio, and Goyer can handle and I’m not sure any cinematic storyteller worth their while could or would want to handle the amount of stuff going on here. I’ve long toyed with the idea of making a fan cut that would in fact be shorter than the 152 minute PG-13 version that was then provided a 183 minute R-rated cut that is – admittedly – a better movie, what with at least giving much of that material room to breathe and develop organically rather than shove it all as quickly as possible to the big climax.

But that’s a lot of mentioning “stuff” and no elaborating what it is, a task I think is tough to do in a compact way. The best thoroughline within Terrio & Goyer’s script would probably be the consequence had in the wake of Superman/Clark Kent/Kal-El (Henry Cavill)’s climactic and earth-levelling battle with Zod in Man of Steel, an event this movie revisits through the perspective of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) after an opening credits rehashing his origin as caped crusader Batman (and among the gravitas-inviting gestures by the film is opening this sequence with a title card: “Metropolis. Mankind is introduced to the Superman”). Ostensibly motivated by the famous criticism Man of Steel received about action setpieces that displayed a destruction that had to promise severe body counts, Batman v. Superman establishes that such devastation has left humanity suspicious of Superman’s presence on Earth to the point of philosophical debates on air and a congressional hearing on him in progress. Meanwhile, Batman appears to have a contingency plan against Superman’s potential threat to Earth that bitterly escalates further into a prevention plan and a plenty lethal one at that.

If this sounds narratively sloppy already, I can assure you it gets sloppier when it comes to the villainous enfant terrible captain of industry Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) entering the scene as well as the attractive Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) snooping around with their own tangents to the hodge-podge happening here, though Luthor at least intersects a whole lot more with the central conflicts. But I do find myself attracted to how those conflicts are morally theoretical and engaging with ideas that may not have much of a real-world application (since we’re never going to be in a position to respond to flying men from outer space in reality), even if Snyder, Terrio, and Goyer are far from well-equipped to interact with those ideas. They bring about these heady things like well utilizing Henry Cavill’s neutral non-emotiveness in the context of a character who has to grapple with why he is compelled to save a people who are hostile to him or Ben Affleck’s super-nihilistic indulgence in a Batman who embraces blind-rage violence with no apparent anchor back to humanity (for all that Zack Snyder got accused of “hating Superman” with these movies, I think it’s evident that he’s less fond of Batman and I find that to provide a genuinely interesting interpretation on the character).

But I don’t think it comes from hate of either character (this is especially the case in the wake of Zack Snyder’s Justice League) anymore than I could claim that Kevin Feige’s version of Spider-Man doesn’t resemble the comic book so he “hates” Spider-Man. Snyder simply approached Superman and Batman from different angles in the hopes of providing a world where they can both be its salvation AND be the source of its troubles, something that seems to try to meld the incompatible philosophies of two of the biggest names in comic book writing history Alan Moore and Frank Miller (both authors whose work Snyder had previously adapted, even beyond how obviously Batman v. Superman takes some cues from Miller’s seminal work The Dark Knight Returns). It’s like oil and water, but I like that I can see that reasoning in such an ingredient-transparent manner. And frankly for all the twitter-era hot takes about how Batman is fundamentally fascist in concept, it’s wild that Snyder is the only director to commit to that fact with a clear critique on how that is corroding Wayne as a human being (Jeremy Irons as faithful valet Alfred has almost no piece of dialogue that does not sardonically point this out) and yet that only made people hiss louder at this movie. Even more perplexing than the response to how Diane Lane’s role as Superman’s adoptive mother suggest advice that does not necessarily align with the moral obligation he feels in his soul and the movie is willing to let him re-soften his heart and recognize that he has power to save people. But this was of course something I already defended in my Man of Steel review (though that movie did not have a scene where Clark opens his fears to Lois seconds before they have sex in the bathtub like this movie has).

But it’s not merely the dedicated dudebro insistence on “this is what would truly happen if superheroes were real” in the writing that pulses. Nor is it the conviction of virtually every performance in this film: it feels like Amy Adams (as Superman’s girlfriend and Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane hunting down the source of a mysteriously discharged bullet), Holly Hunter (as Senator June Finch who heads Superman’s legal crucible), Laurence Fishburne (as Daily Planet editor Perry White having to deal with insubordination from Lois and Clark), and Scoot McNairy (as a hearing witness and non-mortal casualty to the Metropolis fight) seem to act as though the movie is about their own characters (the Extended Edition even affords this dignity to Wunmi Mosaku as a witness to Superman’s allegedly violent rescue of Lois in her character’s home county of Nairomi). Even Jesse Eisenberg – who gives easily the worst performance of the movie as a Tobias Funke motormouthed clown – is acting on something that feels inspired on his part rather than just following along. It falls flat, but I’ll give him this: I deeply appreciate that for all a certain subplot works very hard to telegraph Luthor’s evil, his motivation is streamlined to simply hating Superman’s existence. No more and no less.

But I was talking about how it’s not the writing or acting that’s the lifeblood of Batman v. Superman. It is the imagery that pulses for me. You don’t need to see much of Snyder’s work to recognize that the animating factor for him as a filmmaker is what looks cool, something that was a weakness to his adaptation of Watchmen. But here it is exactly what gives these thin concepts weight: cinematographer Larry Fong – in his very last collaboration with Snyder to date after four films – works with the director to craft images that stress the larger-than-life mythic presence of these forces on Earth like shots that specifically center Superman in the focus of a desperate crowd, including a famous backlit flying appearance. Or as an inverse, shadowy sequences that have Batman meld with masses of black draped on dark ruins and hallways (his first and last scenes in the costume add most to this). Making these characters look completely divided from any other human being is exactly the sort of backbone that otherwise thin explorations need and Fong never runs out of ways to make sure it gets delivered in polar arenas of murky abyss and cutting lighting (sometimes both like a moment that bathes Superman in a hall aflame alone), sometimes even weaponizing Snyder’s obnoxious slow-motion obsession to give heft to moments. It helps that Hans Zimmer – returning after scoring for both titular characters in Nolan’s trilogy and Man of Steel – is already familiar enough with these figures to refine his musical interpretations on them, though the Batman theme is wholly different from his work for Nolan (as it would have to be) and Superman’s arrivals particularly get this bass note that feels like a giant just landed in front of you and deepen the desire to comprehend this character as a presence. And then Junkie XL comes in and provides a brand new theme for when Diana’s identity is revealed as obviously Wonder Woman with a blasting tribal percussion and screeching guitar that stresses the WARRIOR side of Wonder Woman before anything else (and also reminds us that this is definitely the same composer as Mad Max: Fury Road).

Anyway, it doesn’t have any more issues coming together as a story than any given Marvel Cinematic Universe film in my opinion (including terrible fight scene editing outside of a warehouse battle that is the closest I’ve come to liking the burly ballet bullshit that the Rocksteady Arkham video games imposed on Batman, a third act CGI mash alike Man of Steel, and that annoying crossover event manner in which it advertises future movies with Wonder Woman’s obligatory presence, a pair of dark future visions for Wayne that at least come from Snyder’s aspirations as a storyteller, and a least inspired sequence that stops the movie cold just to look at teasers for The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher)), but whereas those movies felt like they had their edges sanded off, Batman v. Superman is made into a passionate mess that feels like the end product of a Hollywood tentpole being fed the meathead ideology of its creators. However unsophisticated the themes can be, however desperately Snyder and company want to cram their ideas in, they are not without a drop of sincerity. It took me aback in 2016 that an ostensible movie meant to appeal to the safest possible denomination of 2010s popcorn cinema went and indulged in the mad ambition of a director whom I previously did not like without any filter to his approach. And then it took me further aback to realize that it was exactly the breath of fresh air from the bland uniformity of popcorn cinema in the 2010s that would find me championing it. However far Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice falls, it falls that far because it’s from a height of visual and atmospheric grandeur that its authors dreamed up and a wholly unique vision of familiar characters that goes aggressively against that familiarity in a way I found compelling. It opts to go big rather than play safe and the few targets it nails are enough to make me glad it sacrificed the ones I wasn’t interested in (even if they are backloaded – including a final shot that made me rage on first watch).

Big grandiose mythical sprawling cinema, it’s what I crave and it’s what Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is.