I love DC Comics. While I’ve mostly skewed towards Marvel for most of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood, whenever someone asks me their first comic or graphic novel read should be I almost always say a DC title first. Over the decades since comic books became an integral cog in the pop culture machine, DC has made its name as the home of some of the most iconic, pure, deep and entertaining super hero stories ever told.
Which is why Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice makes me so upset.
(And yes, I did watch the Ultimate Edition, so there are no excuses here based on what was left out of the theatrical release.)
Is it nearly as bad as I thought it would be? No. On a very base level it is fun for me to see super heroes jump from the page to the big screen with fun little easter eggs (parademons that look like parademons!) and call backs to the comics (and blatant plugs for future movies…hi, Khal Drogo). I did not find Batfleck to be all that bad and, depending on the director, I would probably watch a full length Batfleck movie. I’d be lying if I said some of the visuals weren’t absolutely breathtaking too – Zack Snyder, to his credit, knows how to make a movie LOOK good (but so does Michael Bay). Wonder Woman (what little time she actually had on screen) and, in particular, Amy Adams’ Lois Lane were also highlights for me.
But the film never rises above that base level of entertainment and those inconsistently good character portrayals. And, worse, I don’t think it wanted to either.
I didn’t want to dislike this movie. I really did not. I wanted to watch it, knowing how poorly it was received during its theatrical run, and be able to say “it wasn’t THAT bad.” It has happened before with many other franchises, but not this time. It’s taken me a little bit of time to figure out, but I keep coming back to the same overall conclusion:
This movie thinks I’m stupid.
I know it thinks I’m stupid because there IS a strong underlying theme to this film. The idea of what role or position regular human beings inhabit in a world of super heroes is a good, meaty subject. It highlights elements of power and privilege that exist in our society and some of the theological questions it also raises (specifically the re-insertion of God into a modern context that has more or less abandoned the idea of God) have so much potential! It is clear that the filmmakers have given some thought to all of these questions but then, for some reason, decided that the viewership was too dumb to understand them. Exit deep thought, enter grunts and explosions. This baseline lack of faith in the audience is what dooms this movie more than any bad plotting, dead father vision quests and deus ex machina could.
The impact of this choice is much more damaging to the overall film than one might anticipate. Grunts and explosions are all well and good, especially when they are as pretty as they are in this one. But what I feel Zack Snyder and crew have forgotten here is that they are not working with a blank slate. They are adapting stories and characters that have existed longer than any of them and will continue to exist long after them. And that comes with a certain level of responsibility that was absolutely squandered here.
Public perception of comics and graphic novels has shifted dramatically within the last 20-30 years or so. What were once viewed as cheap, childish cartoons meant to appeal to children and other lowest common denominators have transformed into something more akin to literature. Chock full of deep thought and impressive artistry, comics have transcended the original intellectual confines of the medium (as theater, film and television did before them). However, even during this time, there have been sections of fandom that have just liked the blood, boobies and base level storytelling. They could take or leave the rest of it and don’t really care either way what place comics have in the general media gestalt. While this is a perfectly fine opinion to have, when you are handed the keys to a multi-million dollar super hero franchise you should probably aim to appeal to a wider audience than just the meathead bottom feeders.
And make no mistake, this is a puka shell necklace of a super hero film. Disjointed elements thrown together because it SHOULD look cool but really just makes itself look like a walking douchebag.
There are four major elements of the film that I think exemplify this metaphor best, and the biggest one is all of the individuals that die by Batman’s hand, either directly or indirectly. I hated this with Man of Steel (the last Superman film to which this is a quasi-sequel), and I hate it here. Super heroes that kill are not impressive or realistic. As metaphors, super heroes should represent the best of human ideals. In our world it’s really easy to not hold ourselves to a higher standard. Killing people is the easy way out, valuing human life is much harder. This movie, and the heroes contained therein, have been infected by the realities of our world: a world where peace and non-violence is perceived as weakness and, since super heroes cannot be seen as weak, have morphed into something unrecognizable.
Ironically, the film itself eludes to this fact briefly during the conversation between Bruce Wayne and Diana Prince following the dueling funerals for Superman at the end of the film. When Wayne makes a comment about the “circus out east” (IE the public, military-style funeral in Metropolis (or Washington…its not 100% clear) wherein an empty casket was put in a stone memorial with Superman’s actual body being laid to rest near his father in Smallville), Prince calmly states: “they honor him the only way they know how…like a soldier.” Super heroes are not soldiers (well, most of them aren’t anyway), they are people with power and strong moral compasses. They need to have both to function well. These heroes do not.
Speaking of Diana Prince and her more well known alter-ego, Wonder Woman, her inclusion (while one of the aforementioned bright spots) in this film is a bit questionable. Sure, her appearance here is tactically just a set up for her full length adventures next year, but it is clear that the filmmakers approached her with the absolute wrong attitude. Yes, she burst onto the scene as a conveniently placed third act non-twist and the day is saved partially because of her, but the whole ordeal came across as the worst kind of armchair feminism. “HEY GUYS LOOK! A GIRL CAN SAVE THE DAY! LOOK HOW BADASS SHE IS! BAAAAAAAADDDDDDAAAASSSSSSSSSSSUUHHHHHH!!!!!!!!11” I think this is exemplified best by the musical queues chosen for her introduction. What was used to introduce the ancient warrior woman that can save us all? Why, a thunderous electric guitar solo of course!
Wonder Woman! Brought to you by NASCAR.
Another element that stands out as problematic to me was the commentary on God itself. Like I said, the theological underpinnings of this movie are solid, but the way in which they are portrayed comes across like a petulant teenager that finally decided to question WHY they have to go to Church every week. What could have been the starting point for a conversation about the role of faith in society and the impact of metahumans on that that faith turned into vapid, baseless whining (mostly on the part of Jesse Eisenberg) that probably THINKS it’s super deep but is still very much floating in the shallow end.
Yes! Batman’s dead mother and Superman’s living mother have THE SAME NAME! That’s right, its not the fact that they are both clearly pawns in a madman’s scheme that bring the Man of Steel and the World’s Greatest Detective together. It is not the unbelievable negligence of the United States Government in its handling of Lex Luthor that make them unite despite their differences. It is the fact that their mothers have the same name and one of them is still alive to be saved. Again, this movie thinks we’re too dumb to get the heavy stuff, so it throws in a base level explanation that is relatable because who doesn’t love their mom, right?
I wanted to like this movie. I want to believe that the studio responsible for The Dark Knight trilogy will eventually put out something that approaches the high bar set by those movies. Yes, they had PLENTY of grunts and explosions, but backed up all of it with a story that didn’t disregard the baseline intelligence of its audience. I want to believe that the home of some of the best super heroes stories ever told can catch up to the standard Marvel has set for its own super hero cinematic canon (Captain America: Civil War came out two months after this movie and featured many of the same themes and also happened to have super heroes fighting other super heroes as a major plot point and was the best structured, choreographed and shot entry in the MCU to date). I want that to happen, but it hasn’t yet. Without a major course correction and a basic understanding that people CAN grasp deep thought, I’m not sure it will.
Post-Script: Nothing I said above was meant as a reflection or indictment of the folks that liked this movie. We all like things for different reasons and that is perfectly fine. I personally like plenty of movies, comics, books, tv and other media that lack depth. But there is a difference between intending to tell a simple story, and intentionally dumbing down the story you have.