Of Course the World Still Needs Superman, Zack Snyder. Of Course It Does. [BATMAN V SUPERMAN Editorial]

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is the boldest comic book adaptation in recent memory, if only because DC has handed the reins to its cinematic universe over to a director whose contempt for these characters is palpable.

While there’s some merit to be found in shying away from those who might be too close or overly reverent of source material, it feels like Zack Snyder is establishing this universe through perpetually gritted teeth. It would be one thing if his obvious lack of fondness revealed itself through an indifferent, half-hearted final product, but Dawn of Justice is nothing if not committed to its ruinous depiction of its heroes, particularly Superman. Some conspiracy-minded corners of this fan base have (hilariously) speculated that critics are working on behalf of Marvel in an insidious plot to sabotage DC’s efforts, but they may want to make sure Snyder isn’t a sleeper agent working on behalf of Kevin Feige.

It’s perhaps the only way to explain how The Last Son of Krypton has regressed so noticeably since the wonderful first hour of Man of Steel, wherein he had already realized his calling but struggled with the logistics of fulfilling it. He wasn’t burdened or tortured by his duties as the would-be Superman so much as he hadn’t quite figured out how to carry them out, and Snyder’s answer was a brain-numbing hour of mayhem and destruction that’s unbecoming of the character. Superman doesn’t strike me as the type to make out in Ground Zero, after all. Still, the film’s final — and, if I’m being honest, unearned — scene hinted at the uplift expected from this character, presumably laying the groundwork for a sequel that wouldn’t be so preoccupied with reconfirming if we even need a Superman. Of course we do.

Well, unless you’re Snyder, who essentially backtracks on his own promise by returning to the scene of the last film’s dispiriting mayhem. To be fair, it’s an admittedly clever hook, one that surveys the carnage in Metropolis from the ground level, as we follow a frenzied Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck) attempt to evacuate his employees to safety. After saving a girl from certain death (thereby rescuing more people than Superman did during the climax of his own movie), he continues to sift through the rubble and ash before turning his eyes upward, his rage swelling as he recognizes Kal-El as a very alien threat capable of levelling the world if he so chose. A longtime vigilante in Gotham City, he devotes the next 18 months of his life to devising a plot to take down Superman.

Acknowledging and attempting to account for the wanton destruction of Man of Steel isn’t the worst entry point for a film promising a title bout. For about thirty minutes, the basic thrust of Dawn of Justice works, even if it unfolds via a haphazardly assembled, leaden collection of scenes that feel like abridged bits from separate Superman and Batman movies. A solid, straightforward motivation slowly (but mostly surely) drives the two icons towards a conflict that’s convincing enough, particularly if you’re acquainted with the ultra-paranoid, borderline fascist depiction of Batman that’s become popular in the past thirty years. It’s not my preferred Batman, but it’s the one this film needs to ignite a conflict.

But what it also needs — and doesn’t supply — is a Superman that acts as an optimistic counterbalance to Batman’s grim, sullen disposition. Rather than provide a glimmer of hope in Snyder’s nigh-dystopian, Frank Miller-inspired hellscape, Superman acts as if the world is constantly tugging at his cape, yet also vilifying him as a potentially wrathful god who may someday smite him. In short, much of the world seems to agree with Batman, including Snyder himself, who shoots Superman’s heroic moments with a ponderous, ominous gaze, stripping them of any semblance of triumph.

At one point, a group of families huddles on a rooftop during a flood, pleading for help, only to seemingly find themselves sinners in the hands of an angry god that looms above, casting judgment. When Snyder deigns to depict Superman actually rescuing a girl from a burning building during a Day of the Dead celebration, the resulting scene is like something out of Revelation, as the crowded, skull-faced masses reach out for their indifferent savior. You begin to understand how this world distrusts a Superman who never particularly seems like he wants to be there. Somehow, Zack Snyder has crafted a movie where Superman never smiles. I don’t think this is what Jor-El had in mind when he predicted his son would help to accomplish wonders.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Snyder would conceive a Batman v Superman movie where the former is introduced as a demon and the latter is constantly portrayed as a distant, cold deity. His work has often centered on demigods whose murky means have justified even murkier ends, particularly his adaptations of Frank Miller and Alan Moore’s seminal works. Unsurprisingly, Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns infects Dawn of Justice, from the dreary, vaguely apocalyptic aesthetic to its treatment of two “heroes,” here edged to their most pessimistic extremes. After twenty years on the job and frustrated by the lack of “good guys” left standing, Batman is a psychotic vigilante taken to literally branding criminals; meanwhile, Superman has to continually insist he doesn’t kill anyone during skirmishes with Middle Eastern warlords and a bombing at the U.S. Capitol. Imagine a world where we need Superman to insist something like this.

Deconstructing these characters in such a manner isn’t unheard of, obviously, but there’s actually very little deconstruction to be found in Dawn of Justice, a film that only skims the surface-level aesthetics of the works that inspired it without grasping what made them so fascinating. What Snyder seems to have taken from Miller and Moore is the realization of a 14-year-old who can tell his mom that he no longer reads “comic books” — no, now they’re graphic novels, and they’re, like, totally serious and shit. It’s this mentality that leads to a Batman v Superman movie that’s only a future director’s cut away from an inexplicable R-rating; even in its current form, this is an unholy shrine crafted at the altar of “grim and gritty,” one that’s embellished with shattered bones and broken teeth and shrouded in a thick, inky darkness. Ironically, this is a Superman movie where a yellow sun feels like an impossibility.

Subjecting Batman and Superman to these rigors winds up being a hollow exercise in re-contextualization. At best, the film is an especially twisted Elseworlds tale that imagines these two as wayward icons stripped of their moral compasses. World’s Finest Assholes might be a more suitable title. The unchecked, righteous behavior of both men (but especially Batman, who kills with impunity) make the Bush-era crypto-fascism of The Dark Knight seem quaint. Dawn of Justice — a title that becomes increasingly ironic — hails straight out of President Trump’s America, where immigrants are rallied against on the Capitol steps and law enforcement is an accomplice to a psychotic, violent vigilante.

You could almost begrudgingly respect this perverse approach if Snyder fully committed to it. A lean, two-hour, unapologetic plunge into the superhero genre’s dark night of the soul could be worthwhile (if not slightly deranged); however, this film’s title promises that the advertised bout is but the darkness before the dawn. All of the build-up essentially amounts to a two-hour prelude as the overstuffed script adds characters, subplots, and barely-concealed promotional material. An impetuous, twitchy Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, who apparently didn’t get the memo that this is serious graphic novel business) is threaded through as an attempt at connective tissue, only his motivations shift from scene to scene and become increasingly nonsensical.

Comic book movies — okay, most movies — rely on the audience’s willingness to embrace its logic, but Dawn of Justice requires leaps that even Scott Bakula couldn’t make. An already shaky (but succinct) premise turns into a bloated, muddled backdoor pilot for the DC cinematic universe. Essentially, Luthor is an insurance policy that guarantees the two heroes will eventually put aside their differences, and the film can’t escape this black hole of inevitability: nearly every plot development and character decision hinges on reaching this predetermined finish line, logic or consistency be damned.

Because of this, the film degenerates into a parade of needlessly contrived sequences, including the fight itself, which is ludicrously overbooked: rather than simply have Batman’s own motivation serve as the lone, logical impetus, the screenplay interjects Luthor (whose various designs make little sense) to provide Superman with a reason to also fight the Dark Knight. Like so much of this film that’s technically based off of children’s characters, this development is something out of a horror movie, complete with snuff Polaroids of a bound and gagged woman and a warped moral quandary. To save a woman he loves, Clark must kill the Caped Crusader for Luthor; he’s less a Christ figure and more like Herod, asked to deliver the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

In a rare display of decency, Superman is initially reluctant and appeals to Batman instead, only to quickly pummel him anyway. The fight does deliver on the level of pure spectacle, though that was never truly in doubt with Snyder at the helm. Without question one of the great modern visual artists, Snyder captures the sheer grandeur of these larger than life, modern day myths, especially when they’re in motion. These scenes in a vacuum replicate the most dense, action-packed splash pages of a voluminous trade paperback, with nearly each frame capable of doubling as a pin-up you may have found tucked inside of Wizard magazine in the 90s.

Dawn of Justice is unquestionably the product of Snyder’s imagination: it’s bold, garish, and kinetic, as his camera sweeps and zooms, capturing chaotic action with refined clarity. Batman especially benefits from Snyder’s direction during one sequence that should immediately be canonized as one of the great moments for Gotham’s vigilante (well, once you get past just how ruthless he is). Moments like this confirm that Snyder is the ideal candidate to adapt comic books—it’s just that he may not be suited for the Brave and the Bold.

It seems that just about every positive aspect of Batman v Superman comes with that sort of caveat: sure, the action is spectacular, but it’s spawned from a flimsy script that robs them of any weight or coherence. It’s a screenplay that seems to have been hastily reverse engineered from the action beats since the foundation is so fundamentally shaky: you accept — through the sheer force of big-screen will — that this spectacle is unfolding, but you never really believe in it. An exciting film — like even The Dark Knight Rises — can overcome the niggling gaps in logic with a sense of thunderous pacing and propulsion, but Snyder doesn’t have the same sensibilities as Nolan here.
Each moment is more ludicrous than the last, yet is treated so ponderously: the moment the film pivots from the titular confrontation is particularly absurd, hinging on a cosmic and arbitrary coincidence that inexplicably papers over Batman’s bloodlust. If the impetus that smashes these two together feels like something out of Saw, then this moment is straight out of a cartoon, resulting in a severe tonal whiplash. Characters crack jokes minutes after attempting to murder each other, and I’m not referring to Luthor, Doomsday, or the other assorted villains eventually introduced: I’m talking about Batman nearly driving a Kryptonite spear through Superman’s heart and then lightheartedly quipping about being his friend within the space of about three minutes. It was at this moment I truly knew I somehow didn’t care much about either Batman or Superman.

Where the last hour of Man of Steel is a bizarre combination of thrilling, exhausting, and disastrous, this follow-up is mostly just confounding. During the climax (wherein the justice doesn’t dawn so much as it thuds) what should be DC’s biggest movie moment to date — the first team-up of its prominent trinity of heroes — has nearly no impact. Like so much of the film, Wonder Woman’s (Gal Gadot) introduction presuming preexisting familiarity is enough to coast upon. In theory, this is a monumental moment, but you can’t help but wonder how truly monumental it would have been if we’d spent more than a couple of scenes with this iteration of Diana Prince.

Likewise, the camaraderie between the three might even be somewhat believable — or maybe even existent. The three don’t properly team up here so much as they each tackle Doomsday individually until the goofy, half-hearted climax reaches for some contrived emotional beats it can’t possibly grasp. Dawn of Justice actually features one of the most daring resolutions imaginable — only it’s not really that daring since there’s so little emotional attachment to these characters, nor can it really be considered a resolution, not when the film reneges on it before the credits even roll.

Dawn of Justice constantly finds itself speeding through the motions and clumsily peeking ahead to the future of the DC Cinematic Universe via confounding dream sequences, not-so-cryptic dialogue, and glimpses of future Justice League members as files Wonder Woman watches on her computer. It makes the awkward universe-building of the early Marvel films look graceful by comparison. It’s almost miraculous that Wonder Woman at least emerges with some promise here: Gadot acquits herself well in her brief scenes with Affleck, commanding the screen with a slinking, exotic presence that slyly underscores Diana’s confidence. When she finally appears during the climax, she’s completely credible — in fact, it’s a shame the script doesn’t allow her to completely steal the show since she’s the most inspiring hero on display.

Batman remains interesting, at least, in so far as he’s the only character with an actual arc. Technically, the story is framed as Bruce Wayne’s, as his opening narration puts the audience into the headspace of a man whose quest to avenge his parents (who are killed on-screen yet again) has become a warped obsession that’s seen him lose more loved ones along the way (as evidenced by a memorialized Robin costume scrawled over in graffiti by the Joker). Affleck’s muted intensity transforms Wayne into a powder keg of rage, guilt, regret, and (most notably) desperation. His propensity for savage vigilante justice — which not only includes horrific brandings but also mowing down criminals with his Batmobile’s machine guns — rightfully rings false for any traditional depiction of this character, but it’s halfway justified because this is his arc.

Again, a Batman that takes 20 years to learn that it’s not okay to callously execute criminals in the streets isn’t my idea of Batman, yet this is the only plot in the film that’s remotely functional. It’s a testament to both Affleck and Jeremy Irons (stepping into the role of Alfred, now less a butler and more like James Bond’s Q) that a character that’s essentially been shoe-horned into Man of Steel 2 feels so lived-in: by the end of the film, there is some small measure of satisfaction in seeing him grow into a more selfless Bruce Wayne. When we meet him, he’s a vengeful loner haunted by deranged nightmares that have condensed his parents’ death and his first traumatic incident with bats into one feverish recollection. Snyder shoots the latter moment as if it were the Ascension: bats swirl around the young Wayne, preternaturally lifting him towards the light, cementing the messiah complex in his mind. By film’s end, he’s overcome that complex, as he’ll lead the effort to recruit other meta-humans into the Justice League.

On the other hand, Superman practically suffers a character assassination in Dawn of Justice. Snyder is right to portray Kal-El as a god, but he should hardly be one that lords over humanity, remotely judging them for their failings. No matter the situation, Superman should be above it, literally and figuratively, and extending a hand downwards to lift the world up. Ostensibly, this was the lesson learned in Man of Steel, though it’s practically obliterated by Dawn of Justice, a movie that conquers Superman’s indomitable spirit to the point of having him declare that “nobody stays good” in this world.

Considering many of the story choices here, you can hardly blame him for thinking as much, as Snyder and company seemed to have made it their explicit purpose to drag his entire mythos through the mud. An unnamed Jimmy Olson is unceremoniously shot in the head, the victim of a war crime; both Lois Lane and Martha Kent have guns and flamethrowers pointed to their heads; even Kevin Costner’s Pa Kent returns in what is either a dream or a vision quest, only to relay a story about a time he accidentally destroyed a neighboring farm. The moral of the story here seems to be that you’ll eventually overcome trauma by meeting the right woman, as he did. It’s a wasted opportunity to finally allow this character to deliver an inspiring message that motivates his son; instead, it doubles down on the bizarre self-centeredness of the previous film.

By now, it is clear that — at best — Snyder simply doesn’t get Superman; at worst, he doesn’t like him, and finds his square brand of idealism to be impossible, so he spends an entire film attacking it. In doing so, he does raise some intriguing questions about the intersection of power and responsibility: should someone like Superman be held accountable for what he does and for what he could do? But when the moment comes to address these questions on Capitol Hill, a bomb explodes instead, thus absolving Snyder and company of having to actually answer it in any meaningful way. If anything, this is the moment that breaks Superman, as he becomes increasingly doubtful and begins to wonder if he can’t be an unwavering hero because, perhaps deep down, he doesn’t want to be.

Once he finally resolves this conflict during the climax, it’s a hollow, illogical moment of messianic grandstanding: unlike Wayne, we never sense that Kent fully grasps what it means to be selfless. His decision to sacrifice himself reads like a petulant desire to show mankind what it’ll miss since they never appreciated him. It’s such a bizarre, needlessly complex treatment of a character that’s supposed to be better than us, yet whose humility will never let that show. This is a Superman that wants us to know he’s better.
It’s hard to imagine Cavill’s Superman flashing a smile and calling himself “a friend” or insisting to a prison warden that they’re “on the same team.” This is no fault of Cavill himself, who during brief glimpses in Man of Steel proved himself to be perfectly capable, but rather of a creative team that’s out to destroy him. Consider this: in the previous nadir for Kal-El, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the Last Son of Krypton calls for worldwide nuclear disarmament; in Dawn of Justice, the United States government knowingly and willfully shoots a nuke at Superman.

There’s a temptation to assume this is somehow the Superman we deserve in a modern world that’s full of horror and unease, where bad guys hiding in terror cells may be difficult to tell apart from the good guys. Our political system seems corrupt and broken, the result of decades of increasingly fractured partisanship. Maybe it has no place for an unwavering boy scout. After all, as Perry White pointedly states in Dawn of Justice, it’s not 1938 anymore, the year that Superman debuted in Action Comics.

Perhaps he’s right: after all, at that time, the world was mired in the Great Depression, Hitler had taken control of Nazi Germany, and an entire hemisphere was on the brink of a second, catastrophic war. And yet, despite this, two American kids dared to dream of a character that represented decency and triumph when they created Superman. They conceived a hero the world both needed and deserved because Superman isn’t meant to reflect a worldly morass so much as he deflects it. Likewise, when Richard Donner brought Superman to the big-screen in the late 70s, he did so in the long-reaching shadows of Vietnam and Watergate, during an era that few would refer to as an American golden period. And yet, there was the remarkably square Superman, reconceived almost as a man-out-of-time thanks to a 12-year sojourn to the Fortress of Solitude that essentially allowed him to miss a decade’s worth of chaos. He was a man who still dared to stand up for truth, justice, and the American way — even if the latter had been twisted and perverted in reality. No matter what, Superman should endure, and this was even the message of the somewhat mopey Superman Returns, a film that only looks and feels increasingly (but wonderfully) archaic as newer films feature Clark Kent crumbling under the weight of the world. Dawn of Justice suggests that his complete demise is the only way he can be effective; I humbly suggest that it is incorrect. We need fewer films inspired by panels like this….

…and more that are inspired by the likes of this:

It’s time to stop asking if the world needs Superman; instead, let’s get back to allowing him to save it because that’s what he does. That’s Superman. That would be justice.

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the author

Brett Gallman is a member of the Online Film Critics Society. He was raised in and around video stores and hasn’t stopped talking about movies ever since. You can find him on Twitter @brettgallman.