It tends to happen every election cycle. A movie comes along that encapsulates the national mood, one that shrewdly diagnoses what is ailing a torn country months before voters head to the polls.
If you had suggested that title for 2016 would be Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, say, one month ago, I would have recommended seeking professional help. But there I was, staring at the Lie Max screen, not thinking about how overstuffed director Zack Snyder's two and a half hour superhero epic is (though it certainly is), or how it twists itself into a pretzel to introduce the major players in the DC Extended Universe, Warner Bros.' great multicultural hope for an interconnected, lucrative franchise (though it certainly does just that).
Instead, what stands out about this sequel of sorts to Snyder's Man of Steel is its steadfast refusal, at least for a sizable chunk of its running time, to kowtow to facile fan service demands (though it eventually does, with mixed results). Somber and morose, it holds a mirror to the current news cycle, and as it turns out, it doesn't have to stray very far to create its alternate society in turmoil. Rather than make viewers leave their worries about the country's future behind, it throws those concerns right back at them. Say what you will about this cluttered, densely plotted do gooder yarn; it sure doesn't play like escapism.
Normally, I'd take issue with that. Three summers ago, fanboys salivated over Snyder's sci-fi-centric take on DC Comics' golden boy, but from where this Superman fan was sitting, Man of Steel was ruined by its derivative Kryptonian mythology and Snyder's penchant for destruction porn. Stumbling out of the screening for that film, crestfallen and temples throbbing, I failed to recognize the soft spoken boy from Kansas in screenwriter David S. Goyer's heavy handed portrayal. Any hint of levity had been drowned out by earache inducing spectacle that tripped on its attempts at philosophical depth.
The new film may be just as serious as its predecessor, but it enhances its existential quests with stimulating political intrigue. BvS' screenplay is credited to Goyer and Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio, and indeed, there are echoes of that Oscar winning thriller, particularly in its depiction of lawmakers' distrust for the illegal alien in the red cape, for anyone with superpowers, really. Sometimes introducing a new writer makes a world of difference, and the bureaucratic acumen Terrio brings to the table grounds the material in real world anxieties.
What's also striking is how much time the film devotes to exploring the lead characters' identity crises. It begins, aptly enough, with a funeral. A brief flashback, which feels like a deleted scene from Snyder's Watchmen, makes it clear it's Bruce Wayne's (aka Batman's) parents who are being laid to rest. Do we really need to sit through yet another depiction of the fatal street shooting of Thomas and Martha Wayne? No, but the iconic moment is rendered with such diabolical flair that for a moment I overlooked my contention that it's too goddamn soon for another Batman reboot, especially with the pre-Dark Knight series Gotham now showing on FOX.
Not long after Snyder's done fetishizing Mrs. Wayne's pearl necklace, he fast forwards to the destruction of Metropolis that served as the climax for Man of Steel. This time, however, the mayhem is seen, not from Supes' (Henry Cavill) perspective, but from Bruce's. Any misgivings I may have had about Ben Affleck being tapped to play the Caped Crusader vanished when I saw him staring daggers at the two Kryptonians duking it out in the sky and leveling buildings as a result. What initially sounded like a terrible casting call turns out to be a pretty inspired choice. Where other superhero franchise reboots are going younger, Batfleck shows off those salt and pepper locks like a badge of honor.
Now, Snyder's decision to dramatize the toll Superman and intergalactic prison escapee General Zod's (Michael Shannon) rumble took on the humans on the ground does not excuse the previous film's overkill. However, it suggests an acknowledgment that the orgy of obliteration was something that needed to be addressed. What Snyder has done is clarify that this mano a mano was clearly viewed by the victims as an act of terrorism, regardless of whose “side” Superman was fighting on. Could it be the 300 director is trying to make amends? In this regard, think of Batman v Superman as The Look of Silence to Man of Steel's The Act of Killing.
That's not the only way BvS differs from its predecessor. Clark Kent/Kal-El could still stand to lighten up, but here he displays something resembling recognizable human behavior, an improvement over the sullen extraterrestrial Snyder and Goyer tried to jam down our throats in Man of Steel. Unlike some prior incarnations of the superhero in newshound drag, he's dating Daily Planet co-worker Lois Lane (Amy Adams, effective yet egregiously misused). And he's “out” to her. In a scene that stands out for its casual intimacy, she reveals to him that she's worried about the future of their relationship all while she's naked in a bathtub. (Naturally, I had to fight the urge to scream, “Keep the cute alien from Smallville. He can actually cook.”)
Looking to ruin the lovebirds' shot at happiness is Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, reportedly channeling Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis), portrayed here as a millennial corporate dweeb, a Machiavellian putz whose cringeworthy social skills conceal a dangerous lust for power. (Gene Hackman this ain't.) He's courting Kentucky Sen. June Finch (Holly Hunter) a vocal critic of Superman's unchecked abilities, to help him recover kryptonite from Zod's stash. Luthor wants to use the green mineral rock whose radioactive qualities defuse Supes' superpowers to make a biological weapon. Hunter, playing the kind of public official Elastigirl would frown upon, finds nuance in the small but significant role.
Meanwhile, Bruce puts his detective skills to good use as he tries to find a way to take down Superman. At least, when he's not being sidetracked by statuesque bombshell Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) who claims she's an antiques dealer but acts like a secret agent. Meanwhile, Bruce's hands on, tech-savvy butler Alfred (Irons) plays devil's advocate by stating the painfully obvious: That Kal-El, the brawny spaceman who looks like he stepped out of an Alex Ross illustration, is not the enemy.
BvS hurtles somewhat sloppily toward the highly touted smackdown between the two comic book titans. What comes as a pleasant surprise was that when it finally unfolds, the sequence, inspired by Frank Miller's superior graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, is not the kinetic brawl the trailers promised, but an unpleasant, bitter melee that makes it clear both parties are not so much fighting each other, but the haunted, demon plagued basket case staring back in the mirror.
Purists from older generations might carp that the Superman they grew up with is not the ambivalent being with messianic baggage, but the portrayal works in the context of the world Snyder and his collaborators have erected, a doom laden minefield where no place is safe. In his Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan was considerably more adept at intertwining the “popcorn” content with his dead serious thematic motifs. But the sheer scope and ambition Snyder is aiming for, coupled with a commitment to delve deep into his characters' psyches, yields a brainy and mature showcase for the filmmaker's lyrical brand of visual storytelling.
Alas, once the titular bout is over, BvS devolves into the kind of overproduced superhero spectacle it had so adeptly avoided becoming until that point. Diana comes out of the closet, and in a killer costume, as Wonder Woman, and of course, we cheer. But Terrio and Goyer don't know what to do with the Amazonian warrior beyond some crowd pleasing ass kicking. Actually, they don't know what to do with most of the women in the film. Lois, in particular, is too often relegated to plot device/damsel in distress duties. Adams, who has nice chemistry with Cavill, deserved better.
But even as Snyder mishandles these characters and indulges in the kind of tentpole title havoc he appeared to want to move away from, he has still made a film that feels like the work of a singular vision. (For instance, the movie closes with some powerful images of grief that come across as the dark side of Rockwellian idealism. In other words, something that feels distinctly Snyder's.) Yes, it's hampered by studio interference, but in a world full of costumed crimefighters whose exploits on the big and small screens have been micromanaged to the point of nondescript uniformity, the compromises in BvS are of the kind that grant its creative team the freedom to make mistakes.
It's an understatement to say BvS has generated scorn and derision from some comic book fans and mainstream audiences who argue, accurately, that the film is hardly a fun night at the movies. It also has its fair share of defenders, but the haters have drowned them out in the social media boxing ring . . . even as the film crossed the $500 million mark in worldwide grosses just days after opening across the globe. As the debate it has triggered continues to reflect the real fissures that have contributed to the toxicity of our current political discourse, I salute Snyder for having the gall to craft a morality play that, instead of allowing us to forget our troubles, forces us to confront them in the confines of a darkened auditorium. He's made a film that gives us much to quibble about but even more to admire.