Superman and Batman, undoubtedly the most beloved superheroes of all, finally together in a movie that would see them going against each other is something many fans had waited their entire lives. But the enormous amount of hype surrounding the project meant there was no way the final product was never going to please everybody.
Personally I didn’t like the idea of a shared universe built on top of the thoughtful and grounded world of Man of Steel. I felt it would cheapen the concept just to get on a trend and that the movie would descend into a by-the-numbers action flick. However, director Zack Snyder, along with writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer, decided to make something different and continue the path started with the previous movie and further explore the themes and characters from that movie, and build this shared universe in a way that was meaningful.
While Man of Steel touched upon the idea of what the world’s reaction to the existence of Superman would be, in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that becomes one of the central aspects of the story. There was a reason Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) wanted to keep Clark’s abilities hidden from the public, and the film explores the impact that Superman’s presence has had in the world.
In the opening credits we are reintroduced to a new incarnation of Batman (Ben Affleck), taking us to the fateful night his parents were murdered and his subsequent fall into darkness. It’s a story we’re already familiar with, but its retelling is necessary to establish the character in this world. Thomas Wayne’s calling his wife’s name just before they both die would also play a key role later in the film. As Bruce is lifted by bats into the light we learn this is a nightmare. Bruce is constantly having bad dreams due to its past traumas and fear for the future.
Bruce has spent 20 years fighting crime in Gotham. He has suffered personal losses and seen the worst in people, and has grown weary and reached a point where he doesn’t think he’s making enough of a difference. Then along come these powerful beings causing destruction and death, and standing there, in the middle of the street while buildings fall, Bruce feels powerless to stop them. In his mind, Superman is the one who brought the war to our planet and must be destroyed before he turns on us. Alfred (Jeremy Irons) doesn’t think Superman is the enemy and tries to convince Bruce of it without success.
For many people Superman is as a savior, someone to look up to. Some see him as a god-like figure. There’s a beautiful montage in the middle of the film where we see Superman saving people, while his very existence is discussed in the media. Some believe that even if he’s doing good in the world, someone that powerful shouldn’t be able to act unilaterally or be involved in state-level affairs without any kind of control. Meanwhile one commentator suggests that perhaps in the end, Superman is just a guy trying to do the right thing.
With the entire world debating about Superman’s existence and what his role should be, as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) all he wants is to live a normal human life. Clark is happily living with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and trying to make some good as a reporter of the Daily Planet as well. However it’s hard for him seeing all his good intentions questioned everyday by politicians and those who feel he’s responsible for the damage his people has caused. In many ways Clark is an allegory for immigrants victims of intolerance.
While Bruce sees Superman as an imminent threat, Clark’s investigation as a reporter has led him to believe the Batman is a dangerous vigilante whose extreme methods are keeping the people of Gotham living in fear, and it’s causing the criminals he brands to be killed in prison.
The conflict between these two characters is exploited by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), who is determined to destroy Superman’s god-like image and bring him, and any other metahuman for that matter, to our level and reveal him as a fraud. Luthor’s childhood with an abusive father has convinced him that good and power cannot be absolutes, and that it is impossible for a powerful being like Superman to exist and be all-good. Destroying Superman’s image in the eyes of the public is something he needs to feed his own sense of superiority, and he confidently moves the pieces here and there to ensure his plan succeeds.
Luthor’s bombing of the Capitol, staged to implicate Superman, pushes Bruce’s anger over the edge, while Clark questions himself for not being able to stop it. By the time Lois uncovers the truth and Luthor’s involvement it’s too late.
Bruce is determined to kill Superman before more innocents die. With his mother taken hostage, a desperate Superman is forced into fight, but he doesn’t want to kill Batman and tries to appeal to his better nature. It doesn’t work and the battle that follows is brutal and hard to watch. These characters are going through difficult times and are being manipulated. Superman could easily kill Batman and done with it, but he doesn’t want to, and Batman is too blinded by anger to see reason.
It’s only when he hears his mother’s name that Bruce recovers his humanity and is able to see Superman not as an alien threat but as a human. He was so consumed by his own demons that he came close to take the life of someone who was trying to protect his own mother from death. When Bruce promises Clark he won’t let “Martha” die, it’s a cathartic moment for him. It’s his chance to do what he couldn’t as child: to save this woman, to save this mother, to save “Martha.”
When Luthor’s plan to have the heroes battle to the death fails, he unleashes Doomsday, and Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) suddenly joins Superman and Batman to the fight the creature. When it becomes clear that the creature only grows stronger with every attack, Superman makes the decision to protect the world, and to protect Lois at all cost. Using the same spear that was meant to take his life, he charges towards Doomsday while Wonder Woman and Batman restrain him, and kills the creature but he’s mortally wounded in the process.
By sacrificing himself Superman proves the world he was truly a force for good. After experiencing a tragedy of her own, and knowing that men created a world where it’s impossible to stand together, Diana decided to walk away from mankind. Bruce’s faith in humanity, however, has been restored and once again he’s able to see goodness in others. Superman has become a beacon of hope for this two broken heroes, and Bruce makes the decision to find other metahumans so that together they might fight the danger ahead.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is in no way a typical comic book movie. The big CGI-filled fight at the end is the closest it gets to that, and even then there are real consequences for our heroes. This is a movie that not only takes its characters in a serious way, but deconstructs them uses them to explore different aspects of humanity the world we live in. Its tone might be bleak and depressive but its final message is one of hope. Hope that we can be better, and that we can see the best in others as well. Hope that we can overcome whatever tragedies are in our past.
My only minor gripe with the movie is the way future Justice League members where introduced, Wonder Woman obviously being the exception. The idea that Luthor had been investigating this exceptional people is great, but the way it was handled felt a little out of place with the rest of the story. Still, I applaud that, rather than making individual movies, throwing some references, and then just putting the characters together later, Batman v Superman builds upon the world established in Man of Steel and shows this characters were already part of it.
Visually Batman v Superman is perhaps the most beautiful looking comic book movie ever made, and that’s saying something for a director who made 300, Watchmen and Man of Steel. There are so many iconic shots of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman that would be perfect cover images for any of their comics. The editing and slow-motion are once again some of Snyder’s most powerful tools to tell the story in a powerful way. Specially beautiful is the opening which recounts Bruce’s childhood tragedy, as is the montage of Superman saving people while the media discusses his existence, and Superman’s death and the aftermath of it.
Accompanying such rich visuals is Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s score. Zimmer provided a new and powerful musical identity for Superman in Man of Steel, with Junkie XL collaborating in the action sequences and here the pair build upon that delivering a thoughtful, sometimes chaotic, but ultimately fitting score. Even though Zimmer had already redefined the music for Batman in The Dark Knight trilogy, there was a need to create something for this specific version of the character and the pair delivers. Batman gets a menacing five-note motif for his darker more violent side, and a slower melancholic melody to represent his internal conflict and personal tragedy. For Luthor a twisted version of the Superman theme is used as the basis and later developed into a somewhat playful tune. Wonder Woman gets what’s easily the most crowd pleasing theme, an energetic cue performed by cellist Tina Guo, one of Zimmer’s frequent collaborators.
While the theatrical version is already an accomplishment that tells the story Snyder wanted to tell, the film is better served by the Ultimate cut. The longer version sheds more light into Luthor’s complex plan and how he’s in control of everything. Lois investigation is expanded with the key revelation that Superman couldn’t see the bomb that blew on the Capitol because it was covered in lead. Superman is shown helping people in the aftermath of the explosion rather than just leaving. Clark is shown doing some actual reporter work in Gotham that adds more weight to his disapproval of Batman’s methods.
With a complex story that brings these larger than life characters into our world in meaningful way, the building of a modern mythology, the incredible visuals, music and excellent performances all around, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a milestone for comic book adaptations. This is definitely not an average, easy to digest tent pole, and doesn’t try to be. This is a movie that rewards those who let themselves immerse into its narrative, from a director who doesn’t underestimate the audience, and no matter how divisive it might have been on its release, in time it will get its due like so many other misunderstood masterpieces.