Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ★★★★½

"There was a time before....there were perfect things, diamond absolutes. But things fall." FYI, this is on the "Ultimate Edition," which to my mind is the only version of the film.

What a lovely tagline BVS has on it's main letterboxd page: "Justice or Revenge." Generic - much more-so than the film actually - but it does get to the heart of dichotomy between the films two principle characters. Though perhaps a better tagline might have been, "The Billionaire and the Alien." Snyder has been criticized frequently in the past regarding his adaptations for straying too far from the source material, or blatantly misreading it, so to speak. Watchmen in particular it appears that the source material went over his head, and it becomes the most literal read possible - yet I can't help but admire the meditation on power, unrestricted individualism and free will gone awry that it had ended up becoming. Even his long-promised adaptation of The Fountainhead becomes promising in this regard - he'll miss the anti-left screed working solely as metaphor that it was intended as, and instead it'll be a work on creative struggle and the forging of creative identity. But, though my favorite is still his Watchmen, it's still a surprise to see that BVS is actually a shift off these previous terms into something far more clever and far less blatant in its literalisms, preferring to explore dynamics. More than a sequel to Man of Steel, it's actually his Watchmen 2.0 - one that actually appears a better "adaptation" of that source material than the actual adaptation was. It's also a structural marvel (no pun intended) for movies, running nearly an hour and a half before an action sequence connected to the films core narrative (we'll get one earlier in a dream sequence, 66 minutes in) while the rest of the film is attuned precisely to dynamics and purposes between the principle characters as well as exploring the intricacies of the plotting Eisenberg's Luthor - making revisits to the film both enjoyable and rewarding as you see how well everything connects together.

Batman v. Superman is like a needle in a haystack - the rare blockbuster that's intentionally not a crowd-pleaser. It's far less invested in the narrative context in which these characters live and rather towards the role of superheroes within culture as a whole - something which actually goes against Snyder's usual instincts as a filmmaker but as result becomes a remarkable interrogation into the myths and tenets of myth-making which he so adores. Under these circumstances it should be no surprise that film doesn't really function as a straight-on sequel in the traditional sense, rather placing Superman in a far broader context regarding the films narrative broadness and that character's cultural position at large - and even with the films relentless detail and set-up, most of the films ultimate emotional affect comes through iconography rather than character. But I'd still argue that this gives the film more depth rather than cheapening it, and one can argue that it’s penchant towards revisionism and deconstruction is still valid even if a traditional baseline throughout the films haven't fully been set up - because of the iconography which comes from the superheroes history themselves, detached from the traditional rules of a “sequel.” It’s also completely fair to assume that it’s refusal to play by the rules in this regard is part of why so many people hated it so much when it first came out. Yet even as it functions as a more detached work - Superman more the heart of the film than the main character per say - it gets to the heart of Snyder's own sense of characterization, one of the core aspects that separates his heroes from others - if we're to use say Marvel as an example, those films are defined partially by their tendency to make their heroes a sort of "one of the gang," the everyday person you meet on the street. Snyder, while not cynical, is not so naive: his heroes are defined by their alienation from the world around them, which is admittedly part of their allure for me.

It's also why the film seems to have aged so well over the last few years (how could it not, really) - while it does perhaps miss its predecessors tremendously moving vulnerability and faith in unabashed heroism and straightforward ethics, it does offer more as a straight character study. But it's still surprising how utterly go-for-broke this movie is: the film opens in auto-critique of it's predecessor's finale before shifting into a relentless mode of construction, creating a sense of a modern-day "palace intrigue," something mitigated by Snyder re-applying the magnificent world building of Man of Steel to, essentially, the world as-it-is, in BVS. The lure of the film lies here: through this maneuver which basically places comic-book characters into a kind of simulacra of reality (the opposite of the Nolan approach, actually, which is to create a comic book simulacra of normality) which naturally ends up identifying the weaker planks of a socio-political system - something only pointed towards in Man of Steel (the simultaneously poetic and ironic imagery of Superman turning himself in, walking down halls in handcuffs) but expanded upon here in ways to an extent that I could have never expected. It's also perhaps a reason why this was so viscerally reacted against back in 2016, this idea of placing the seemingly transcendentally superhuman within such a dour reality. Unlike its predecessor, the film takes place entirely in "the world as it is" - a vast political theatre so outmoded, with planks so obvious, that it can so easily be manipulated by a corporate figure. In fact, even if Lex didn't actually win in the end, it would still be a complete deux-ex machina, because superheroes don't actually exist. Nearly the entire film - literally until Batman nearly kills Superman - takes place within Lex's theatre of normality. It's no surprise then that BVS can get to the heart of this alienation.

Yet with such connections being increasingly explicit, it always seems like BVS is trading in narrative coherence for something more akin to symphonic movement - the truth is that it's doing a bit of both, which is just about one of the hardest things to pull off as a filmmaker. Man of Steel has a lovely two-part structure in which the second half essentially turns the film into a modern-day silent picture, with set-piece after set-piece - yet it works remarkably well because how well informed that section is by the surprisingly intimate first half. But BVS seems to move between the two almost effortlessly, with whole sections - not even action sequences - taking place with nary a word being spoken. The film is a constant back and forth between the divulging of information, character related and otherwise, before watching those dynamics play out in real time. I'm still in awe of how sophisticated BVS is, frankly,

BVS is Snyder's vision of the world is it is, a cruel, unjust and graceless one. Superman - the same way he was as a child in MOS - is alienated by the world because of his difference, even after learning his responsibility to the world. Batman is alienated in a similar manner, yet reacts differently: his alienation stems from his own childhood trauma, guilt, and self-hatred - that he turns on Superman is no surprise because it could be his last chance at fitting in, performing for the world forever yet never addressing his own pain. He ​takes matters into his own hands, accomplishes all by force; at home he has a bottle of bourbon sitting at his bedside table and can't stop waking up from the nightmares. But Lex is also at the heart of this - he's the clever one: even if he has the least screen time of the three he's essentially an invisible character through the film, because Batman and Superman are playing by his rules all until the exclamatory "Martha!" moment; they've been pawns on his chess-board the whole time. This is where BVS moves forward from Watchmen - its two principle characters are fictional: there are no alien Superman's and billionaire vigilantes dressed as Bat-men running amok in our daily life. The third isn't so unlikely - a corporate heir, literally an hereditary CEO with geopolitical interests and aspirations, even with his own private militia and dealings in weapons trafficking, who is able to deceive the most powerful other figures around him - whether they be in government or not - because of their own adherence to traditional codes and signifiers in a world far too modern than any of their realization. Luther actually wins in the end. It gives us four facets of how power can function within the contemporary world - the ineffectual US Government (Luthor actually has the US Capitol bombed and framed on Superman with relative ease), the transcendental "post-human" figure, who nevertheless in their sincerity and unprejudiced heroism is made the most vulnerable, the borderline psychotic billionaire who uses his wealth to enact "justice" towards who or what he sees fit, and the aforementioned Lex. A friend mentioned to me recently how through these DC films, Snyder has actually continued to develop the Dr. Manhattan figure from Watchmen - he's actually been dealing with these ideas for years! But if MOS gave us a vision of what a just and heroic Dr. Manhattan could be, it's much more complex in BVS - it's unclear who that character is, if it's not all of them at once. The film is essentially about these broken systematic planks of today, and how power around it functions. However, this relationship to power only makes itself explicit in a rather subtle moment - when the art curator shows Wonder Woman around the museum, leading her to "the sword of Alexander; the blade that cut the gordian knot." - just preceded by "I believe it's the action perfectly in keeping with a king who was also a psychopathic killer." Superman is the only one who doesn't fit into this mold, but it's perfectly plausible of both Batman and obviously Lex, who's completely willing to use and dispose of human life as he pleases - as we see with Holly Hunter's character or the woman who he hires to testify against Superman.

Batman v. Superman covers so much ground in its three-hour runtime that it's hard to really feel like you're doing the movie justice (no pun intended), but those lines are the first sign in the film of the broader mythic vision, or at least Snyder's thesis of superheroes as modern-day mythic figures which is already considerably alluded too in its predecessor and expanded greatly in its follow-up, but here in its darkest iteration. There's loads and loads of what one can go on about this remarkable picture - frankly unbelievable that it was ever even made in retrospect - there's particularly something to be said perhaps in how Lex uses emotional affect itself quite literally in order to manipulate both Batman and Superman - the former by triggering him with allusions to the deaths of his family, the latter by quite viciously threatening the most beloved people in his life. All three are ideas of unlimited power manifested - while part of the world, but outside of state. The much maligned "Martha!" sequence may still be too melodramatic for some, but its a moment fundamental both to this movie and these dynamics in that those dynamics are finally broken, even if it perhaps comes too late. At last the billionaire and the alien exist on the same plane, that cathartic moment being at which the former at last resolves his own self-hatred, and sees the alien as a person at last. The dynamic is revised from one from lust for power disguised as fear of power to a sudden vision of the two as equals in the discovery of a mere common humanity.

Batman himself is the vision of the world as it is, Superman is the vision of the world as it could be - even as heroes find themselves at last. People mocked the finale initially - even with its remarkable visual beauty - as being like Snyder crashing action figures together. But that's essentially what it is, with superheroes at last in this film taking their rightful place. We at last see the iconography, the statues, the toys, in action - the climax becomes a beautiful play of figurines, and one can see how much a deconstruction is necessary in order to understand why we create these superhuman, mythological figures in the first place. So as such, it's actually quite moving to see Superman's eventual death, because it reflects a world so horrible that martyr's are still necessary, even with the toys you played with as a child. As such, I find it tremendously touching in these climactic moments when the remaining heroes stand over Superman's dead body as though Pieta - they litterely look like action figures; a vile world where even the toys are sad and face defeat.

Yet, Batman V. Superman does not conclude on cynical or pessimistic notions but rather on themes of teamwork, alliance and unity. That even the prevalence of a dominating force should not disallow a collective effort, and rather, may very well be what provokes it. It’s moving enough that it distracts from the fact that Lex has actually succeeded, the events of Justice League are necessitated, and Superman has died. And as such, it’s not just Superman that has died but the vision of the world that could be, and the climactic laments as such are for the preservation of not the world as it is, but the world it could become.

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