Thesis M.A. student Bradley Laufman reviews Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder 2016)
I have seen Zach Snyder’s superhero epic Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice twice now, but not for the reasons one would expect.
The first time around, I walked out of the film before it ended with a mix of anger, disgust, and fear. Anger, because I had a great deal of interest during the production of the film (Ben Affleck playing Batman! Academy Award-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio working on the script! Wonder Woman! Justice League!) that ultimately culminated in a final product that I can only generously describe as a trash fire filmed in slow-motion. Disgust, because these characters, many of whom I idolized in my childhood, were now being forced to swim through the raw sewage of this film’s plot. Fear, because I knew this film was just the precursor to many other DC-Warner Brothers productions and, for the foreseeable future, every summer I will have to bear witness to another bastardization of one of my childhood idols.
After the initial shock of my first viewing, however, I felt that I might have been a bit too quick to judge. Snyder and co. couldn’t possibly have put out a film as atrocious as my memory led me to believe. Maybe I was a bit too negative. Maybe I let nostalgia and fandom distort my response to the film. I shouldn’t write off the film simply because Snyder and co. are approaching these characters from a different angle. So, with a clear and open mind, I resolved to see the film again and judge it on its own merits, hoping to find something redeeming during its two-and-a-half-hour runtime.
I was wrong. I was so wrong.
Putting aside the many issues I have with Snyder’s interpretation of these characters, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is quite simply a disaster from top to bottom. First, let’s start with what I can only assume the filmmakers thought was supposed to be the story. Eighteen months after the events of Man of Steel, Superman (played by Henry Cavil, who exhibits all the charm of a wax doll), is still struggling to gain the trust of humanity. Supes appears genuinely confused as to why humanity hasn’t greeted him as a benevolent protector despite the fact that he destroyed half a major city and killed thousands of innocent civilians at the end of the last film. So, to make up for that little blunder, he spends his time doing all of the things we’ve come to expect of Superman: saving children from burning buildings, helping flood victims, and, of course, coming to the aid of the damsel in distress par excellence, Lois Lane. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne has dedicated his life to stopping Superman after witnessing the destruction of Metropolis firsthand. Finally, we have coked-up, silicon valley-reject wannabe-egomaniac Lex Luthor (played by Jesse Eisenberg, who, I assume, believed this film to be a spiritual successor to The Social Network) who wants Batman and Superman to fight each other.
Why does Lex Luthor want Bats and Supes to fight? Well, that’s something you’ll have to ask Snyder and his screenwriters. The film never gives any reason for its titular throwdown. And herein lines the film’s biggest problem: motivation. There is simply no motivation given for any of these characters unless the writers really want us to believe that they are genuinely as stupid as this story makes them out to be. Does Supes really believe that saving children from burning buildings will make up for the destruction of Metropolis? Does Bats really believe that fighting Supes (who, for all intents and purposes, is literally a god) will make the world a safer place? As for Lex Luthor, I simply have no question or answer for his motivation. While he appears to want to create destruction for the sake of destruction, the film goes out of its way to paint him as a high-minded philosopher preoccupied with man’s position in the universe and the nature of good and evil at the hands of the powerful.
Luthor’s high-minded philosophizing throughout the film reflects its second problem: theme. As we saw in Man of Steel, Snyder’s aim with these characters is to create a dark, realistic world populated by mature heroes who struggle with the morality of power. The problem, however, is that Snyder and co. are either unwilling or unable to cover these themes on any level other than the superficial. Several scenes are dedicated to depicting Superman as a Christ-like figure, but so far there has not been a single element of Snyder’s version of Superman that could thematically symbolize this trait. Similarly, Snyder dedicates several scenes to Batman’s struggle with morality despite the fact that this version of Batman appears to have no qualms with killing anybody who so much as appears to exhibit criminal tendencies. None of Snyder’s thematic aspirations are achieved in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and, consequently, none of the sequences designed to reflect these themes (a young Bruce Wayne engulfed by a cyclone of bats; Superman looking skyward as he stands amid the poor and hungry) feel earned. Snyder wants these characters to become mythic figures in the flesh, Apollo and Orpheus for the postmodern age, yet he simply does not exhibit the capacity or willingness to achieve this goal.
However, if the thematic heft or characters aren’t up to snuff, is the film at least entertaining? Unfortunately, no, and this may be the film’s biggest sin of all. Not only is the plot nearly incomprehensible (I’ve seen the film twice and I still don’t know what’s going on half of the time), Snyder’s dedication to the “grimdark” aesthetic of his previous films makes the proceedings a dire affair, with some sequences filmed in such low light and color-corrected beyond repair that I couldn’t see the faces of the characters on-screen. Nowhere is this more evident than in the final showdown between Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Lex’s Kryptonian monster Doomsday. At this point, the film devolves completely into a series of explosions and shockwaves without any thought to structure, narrative, or even the geographic locations of its characters. To make matters worse, Snyder’s heavy reliance on CG distorts the look of the film so much that none of the action has any weight to it. CG characters are punched by CG fists into CG walls over and over and over again to the point where we simply have no idea what is happening. Snyder throws everything he has at us, but he never stopped to think that what he had really wasn’t all that good to begin with. Teals and oranges and browns cover the screen, but without any semblance of meaning.
And here, finally, we have the sum total of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. A film that tries so hard to be something bigger than it is; a film that tries to throw everything but the kitchen sink (actually, scratch that. Batman at one point smashes a sink over Superman’s head) at the audience without realizing that it didn’t have anything in its hand to begin with; a film that seemingly screams at us to take it seriously, ends up as nothing at all, a throwaway cinematic dud. At the end of my second viewing of this film, I felt that same mixture of anger, disgust, and fear; but it wasn’t because Snyder bastardized my childhood heroes. It was because this film was so disposable, so bland, so nonexistent. And these characters, these personifications of American history, ideology, and culture, deserve better than that.