Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the cinematic equivalent of the 2016 presidential election. Leading up to it, you feel the potential for inspiration and hope. Instead, the sometimes interesting, but always brash story smothers you in a cynical cloud and leaves you walking away wishing things could have been different.
It’s the potential that is present that makes the film so disappointing. The fleeting glimpses quickly snatched away that keep hope alive long enough to have it smashed like a Gotham skyscraper.
There are interesting questions behind Zack Snyder’s perpetually grim exterior to this film. How far is too far for an all power superhero? What limits exist for a justice-seeking vigilante? How much should a hero be expected to sacrifice for others? What happens to good men who are constantly exposed to the worst of humanity?
But those philosophical questions are most left unasked or merely assumed. They are not wrestled with in any significant manner. There is no Spider-Man epiphany where the hero realizes “with great power comes great responsibility.” It’s not like The Incredibles where self-sacrifice and familial devotion overcomes public mistrust.
Batman v Superman seems to have read Ecclesiastes and decided: “There is none good, no not one” and felt that was the end of the story. There is no Christ coming to save the day because every potential messiah has been corrupted. In this world, the gods are broken.
Batman wants to fight Superman because he doesn’t believe the all-powerful alien can be trusted with his power. He asks, “How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?”
Superman resigns himself to fighting Batman by telling Lois Lane, “No one stays good in this world.”
Martha Kent tells her adopted son: “Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be …” At this point in her conversation, she could be his Uncle Ben, the father figure to Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, who uttered the famous mantra of power and responsibility. Except, Superman’s mom concludes “… or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” Hope, once again, crushed by cynicism.
As an attempt to work around the cynical outlook, which inherently makes the audience less attached to the characters, Batman v Superman tries to play off borrowed emotion.
The opening scene of Bruce Wayne driving through a chaotic, collapsing downtown Gotham is clearly meant to evoke images of 9/11. As everyone else rushes away from crumbling buildings and an all-encompassing cloud of smoke, ash and rubble, the hero rushes toward the danger, rescuing a little girl. But still he knells there, overwhelmed at the loss he was unable to prevent.
The viewer is supposed to be reminded to the actual human lives lost that day in New York City. This is meant to make you much more emotional over individuals on a screen to which you have no actual or theatrical emotional attachment.
Looking at the title characters gives us the same ploy. We are meant to be connected to Superman and Batman because of their comic book mythos. See Batman lost his parents to violent crime. Care about him. But nothing in the films makes either one of these men likeable. They are brooding without a reason to brood, outside of what has happened outside of this film’s story.
Batman has become this jaded vigilante who repeatedly and indiscriminately breaks his comic book rule of not killing anyone. He literally guns down bad guys. There could be a very good reason for this evolution of his character. In some of the comic storyline on which the film is based, there is an explanation. We walk with Batman through pain, loss and hopelessness, which makes him into a much different man. In the film, Snyder only gives us a graffiti-covered Robin suit as brief hint at a much larger story hidden behind epic fight scenes.
Nothing symbolizes this shameless grab for emotion with providing any plot investment better than a death at the beginning of the film. A significant character in the Superman stories is shot and killed very early on. It’s meant to be a shock to the audience. Even someone this important can die. The only problem—the character is never mentioned by name. You cannot have emotion without investment, though Snyder continually tries to bring that about.
After praising so many Marvel movies, I could be accused of simply being a fanboy for the alternate cinematic comic universe. I will readily admit that I have always been more drawn to X-Men and Spiderman than Superman and Flash, but I can appreciate DC characters. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy was tremendous. And my current favorite comic book TV shows are based on DC characters—The Flash and Supergirl.
But those two shows readily capture what Snyder’s cynical version of superheroes misses—you have to care about the people under the mask and without the cape. As friends and family will quickly tell you, somewhat regularly I shed a tear watching those two DC shows. I care what happens to the people involved. That never happens in Batman v Superman.
That’s not to say there is nothing positive about the film. Ben Affleck was good as the aging, tired Batman. Every time Gal Gadot is on the screen, the movie gets better. This is especially true when Wonder Woman gets involved in the climactic fight. There were audible cheers from the theater at her reveal.
But even that seemed to be more the audience expressing thankfulness at a potential reprieve from the film’s predictability and cynicism. She seemed so much brighter because of her dim surroundings. And the moviegoers were longing for something, anything to break up monotony.
At one point, the film cuts to a beautiful, tropic scene of a diver discovering kryptonite in a spaceship crash site turned coral reef. The vibrant blues and greens in the ocean and sky make it seem as if you were watching a different film than Snyder’s gray saturated one.
That moment along with a few others, like the fleeting witty banter between the superhero trio, demonstrates the film could have been different. But those glimpses of color and fun serve less as a necessary break from the dour environment and more as a sad pointing to what was missed.
Batman v Superman is the ultimate cynical superhero movie—not only in how it treats the characters, but also in how it treats the audience. You want to care about the people involved, but every moment that could possibly evoke emotion and connection is instantly buried under the rubble of another fight scene happening under another gray sky.
In one of his rambling soliloquies, Lex Luthor says, “Do you know the oldest lie in America, senator? It’s that power can be innocent.” It’s a shame the movie agrees with its villain.