“You see, Clark Joe, what we call ‘God’ depends upon our tribe, because God is tribal. God takes sides! No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy’s fist and abominations. I figured out way back that if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He is all good, then He cannot be all-powerful…and neither can you be.”
I began sharpening my metaphorical knives in preparation for Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice from almost the moment it was first announced; from the moment Ben Affleck was controversially tapped to slip into the departing Christian Bale’s cowl as the caped crusader; in truth, from the moment the (approx.) fourth hour of Superman origin redux/endurance grit-a-thon Man of Steel’s overbearing climax began and my face more or less went numb. You didn’t need to be a prognosticator to feel something in the wind besides dust and falling debris. There was simply no way that grim, audacious, titanic experience would prove to be a standalone anything. Although technically a Man of Steel sequel, Dawn’s above title billing is surely no accident. Though Steel sought, intriguingly, incompletely, to plumb the depths of Superman’s soul, affording him levels of ingrained angst at seeming tonal odds with lingering memories of the late Christopher Reeve’s “overgrown boy scout”, Batman remains the more inherently interesting character, even, it turns out, without an established face behind the mask. Attempt #1 at correcting that imbalance makes some almost incidental headway, but has far bigger fish to fry overall. A joint venture between DC Comics and Warner Bros. Pictures, Dawn represents a fairly desperate, though by-and-large surprisingly successful, attempt to forge out of next to nothing a cinematic universe the equivalent of that of blood rival Marvel Comics, whose own namesake studio has grown, from exceedingly humble beginnings, into an industry behemoth, and the safest per-product bet in blockbuster filmmaking this side of that galaxy far, far away. I say desperate because, whatever other terrain it might cover, or questions it might broach, Dawn exists, first and foremost, as the single, perfunctory layover stop in DC’s madcap plan to leap from step A to Z in a mere three moves, the end result of which is the pre-destined, already in production two-part Justice League opus.
For this unprecedented acceleration from crawl to full sprint, DC seems to have definitively cast its lot with hyper-visceral veteran action director Zack Snyder, the divisive*, defiant showman behind not just Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice but also 300 and Watchmen, uncommonly ambitious tentpoles all, which share a common imprint as singular but bloated affairs – ear-rattling eye candy if you will – highly stylized but equally heavy-handed, consistently impressive visually and occasionally objectively beautiful, if you can negotiate the surrounding muck. Snyder has always specialized in not merely oversized but mythic figures; now he gets Superman. All Snyder’s films have employed a sort of “shock and awe” sensibility to varying degrees of financial and artistic return, but this subject matter has seen him shift sharply toward the development and increasing indulgence of a fetish for large scale urban destruction. All modern superhero movies put a premium on spectacle, of course, and, anymore, seem to find their purest expression in terms of journalistic depictions of escalating, frankly impossible, devastation. For Snyder, who, even among his peers, seems particularly intent on upping the ante, this seismic clash of uber-alpha males represents a perfect marriage of maker and material. Dawn of Justice is steeped with promise and riddled with imperfections. As an overbearing shortcut toward greener pastures, it unsurprisingly suffers from tonal difficulties, headscratching motivations, and a lack of fluidity to match its relentless kineticism. On the other hand, it looks like not merely one million bucks but many, even if almost every eye-catching sequence or breath-catching composition exists on a razor’s edge separating the lovely and lively from yet another stretch of slow motion widescreen explosion porn. The film is blessed with a ridiculously overqualified and overcompensating cast doing yeoman’s work. Most everywhere you turn, another veteran character actor is adding dignity to the proceedings.** Most interestingly, it is possible to intuit growth in Snyder’s overall stewardship from movie to movie, as if all his time spent deconstructing both superheroes and urban population centers had somehow matured him a little. The film’s dogged insistence at posing if not overly pondering grave moral and existential questions makes for inevitably strange bedfellows with the exact kind of action overkill that works best with the viewer’s brain switched off.
*Though he undeniably has vision, and the intestinal fortitude to both deploy and follow it – I remain one of the few unabashed fans of “Watchmen” – I refuse to call Snyder a “visionary”, largely because I am not a sentient Hollywood press release.
**Including Holly Hunter in an entirely too nuanced turn as a senator seeking to hold Superman responsible for Metropolis’ extreme makeover, Diane Lane as returning Super-mom Martha Kent, Laurence Fishburne as an entertainingly brusque, bottom line Perry White, Michael Shannon as the late but, even so, still halfway intimidating General Zod, plus – perfect segue – a “Walking Dead” cast regular in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo as one of Bruce’s late parents.
I’d forgotten quite the extent of the hideous human toll exacted during Man of Steel’s climactic battle. Lucky for me, Dawn of Justice has the foresight to revisit the carnage from both a ground level and human point of view. These are two affecting perspectives for which the prior film, with its laser focus on dueling space gods using populated skyscrapers as baseball bats, generally had neither use nor patience, and they ground (and also, predictably, pound) the audience emotionally. For a film that attempts to wring undue impact out of each and every single onscreen action, this is a far cannier and more effective beginning, with Bruce Wayne (internet lightning rod Ben Affleck, doing rather respectable if relentlessly one-note work) desperately navigating the warzone streets in an attempt to supervise the evacuation of Wayne Financial’s headquarters, than is its actual beginning – Dawn’s first of four alternately lazy and befuddling dream sequences – which is yet another callback to the formative murder of young Master Wayne’s parents in the mugging heard ‘round the world and subsequent misadventure after falling into a mineshaft teeming with bats. The Metropolis road course provides the most effective gut punch in a film replete with attempts. We feel Bruce’s helplessness and mounting anxiety as he races through the increasingly impassable business district. We identify with and even share his sick horror, already curdling into the beginnings of a (largely) intractable grudge, as he cradles a child rescued from the rubble and glares skyward at the war raging hundreds of feet above his head. Dawn will devote a healthy chunk of screen time and another couple dreams, one a bugnuts, hilariously bleak three-parter, to the care and feeding of Wayne’s vendetta, but never illuminate it nearly so well again.
According to the card accompanying the flashback to Mr. Wayne’s Wild Ride, it took the plucky surviving citizens of Metropolis at most eighteen months to rebuild after General Zod’s interstellar roto-rooter ripped the city’s guts out through its clenched teeth, though the truth Dawn suggests is probably closer to twelve, or maybe even less. Metropolis is therefore comfortably back in business following a cataclysm that I estimated at the time left a total of many dozen if not several hundred able-bodied residents suitable to begin never-ending relief and rescue work. Superman is a figure of controversy and consternation, immortalized by an ostentatious bronze statue on the one hand, sought as a congressional committee witness on the other in hopes he might answer for his role in the devastation. A town away (apparently) in Gotham, his ancestral home is a ruined husk and Bruce Wayne ruminates his days away in a spectacular, 110% glass lake house, which as an architectural marvel runs second only to the revamped Batcave lurking just below the water’s surface. Both suddenly resent the other greatly, though Superman more for idealistic reasons that seemed to me as much about deflection and personal guilt assuagement as principle. Largely unconnected vignettes abound in the early going, as each titular hero stars in an establishing action set piece – with Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score punctuating and/or piercing every larger beat and almost every silence – spends face time with his confidant – Amy Adams is a more confident and (relatively) grounded Lois Lane, and Jeremy Irons reimagines Alfred the butler as a refreshingly gruff (except when fretting about the family line) man of action – and books alone time for brooding over the curses and limits of his celebrity/infamy. Writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer deserve credit for keeping hard questions on the front burner, like whether saving lives is an absolute good when, through accident, inaction, or collateral damage, countless scores end up dying in the transaction anyway, or whether criminals in Gotham City even have rights. As tensions rise steadily on all sides and begin pointing towards an overwrought, undercooked showdown, the heroes become aware of the presence of a potential third, a head-turning young woman staking out high society from the inside for her own nebulous purposes.
For better or worse, DC’s two supreme leading men have finally, definitively taken a sharp turn away from the films that defined them for previous generations, though the comparisons linger and are still instructive. If nothing else, the brain trust surrounding executive producer and former arthouse bat-wrangler Christopher Nolan appears to have taken some of Man of Steel’s multi-pronged criticism to heart – the bits that they might plausibly affect without having to either sack or de-fang Snyder, who, as DC’s apparent house auteur, is already operating as much more of a Transformers-mode Michael Bay than, say, an Avengers-mode Joss Whedon – and sought a mid-flight course correction during the series’ inexorable journey to Justice League. Dawn of Justice is at once both messier and far more deeply felt than its predecessor, and allows its all-star cast to actually live in this world instead of merely wasting potential and collecting a paycheck. Amy Adams is afforded the wide-ranging, highly participatory role that Man of Steel never quite could figure out for Lois Lane, and she seizes the opportunity with gusto. Lois retains her knack for diving headfirst into ridiculous, untenable situations in the ostensible name of prize-winning journalism, though it’s admittedly easier to be reckless when you have a celestial protector poised to swoop to the rescue at a second’s notice. Slumming it-Brit Henry Cavill seems far more at ease as Superman this time around, and even brings mild pathos and some heretofore rare backbone to alter ego Clark Kent, whose grassroots crusade against the perceived widespread human rights violations of Gotham City’s “Bat” serve as a recurring, if never particular organic, plot point and bone of contention between the two heroes. Far from the calculating, impossibly narcissistic chess player of Gene Hackman’s iconic Reeve-era portrayals, Jesse Eisenberg’s younger take on Lex Luthor moves the supervillain in a few unexpected directions, making him comparably intelligent but injecting into the mix both an overriding petulance and a twitchy sense of resentment that manifest themselves in the fierce temper Hackman’s incarnation only ever hinted at when either foiled or, more often, offended.
Shut out of the first film, this Luthor is Dawn’s de facto engine, even more than its titular heroes’ ultimately fleeting grudge (sorry…SPOILERS?), a blinding dynamo of both theoretical and applied malevolence. He wants Superman dead for obvious reasons, and wants Batman to kill him, not just because of the effort involved but also to prove some obscure philosophical point about men and deities – or maybe, um, it’s the opposite, with the characters reversed? – and keeps as his back pocket contingency plan “Doomsday”, a standard-issue unstoppable behemoth mutated from the late General Zod’s Kryptonian DNA.*** There are times in this movie when Luthor’s thought processes defy easy analysis, sometimes even description, and Eisenberg’s interpretation of the character as an intellectual loose cannon with subtle but instructive daddy issues ends up being far more interesting than I went in expecting, at least when the script isn’t busy making him overexplain obvious plot points or channel his inner ham actor. Elsewhere, of course, dwells the creature “Affleck”, who, although he makes for at best an adequate Batman****, is actually a magnetic, well above average Bruce Wayne. He doesn’t turn the costume into a crutch or a talisman, and, indeed, at times seems in an undue hurry to get back into street clothes, perhaps because his battle armor set more closely resembles Robocop than the Caped Crusader we’re used to. With a disposition set on permanent glower and a mile-thick, steroidal physical presence that makes latter day depictions of Jason Voorhees look like a kale-mainlining yoga enthusiast, this is not the shadowy, fiercely controlled Batman of yore but rather a ticking time bomb, one taken to occasional enthusiastically illegal interrogations and to physically branding his criminal victims on the off chance they might somehow forget how, and with whom, their evenings were spent. Despite the Dark Knight’s perhaps overstated historical aversion to killing, Batfleck not only has multiple occasions on which to point a gun menacingly but also to pull the trigger…a whole lot. In general, Affleck’s Bruce Wayne demonstrates a toxic cross-pollenation of cynicism and proactive animosity, and looks at all times like he’d just as soon burn his latest problem to the ground as constructively analyze it.
***Our Lex is a fairly busy boy throughout, not only playing interplanetary mega-fight promoter and ad hoc Dr. Frankenstein, but also fronting his philanthropic organization while arranging safe black market passage for a tantalizing alien artifact, playing political chicken with the senate committee, and maintaining surprisingly impressive dossiers on a handful of photogenic but heretofore unknown superheroes. Hmm. Wonder if anything will come of that last bit?
****Though the sequence where his nigh indestructible Batmobile, stripped down and re-re-refined to a previously unimaginable level of badassery, decimates all comers is one of the single greatest things in the movie, and a perfect example of Snyder’s ambitious visual instincts yielding tangible dividends.
It’s so easy to speak of Dawn of Justice in disparaging terms that eventually even the compliments start to take on an unintended backhanded quality. The filmmakers, in their zeal for heightened dramatic impact, impart a few too many near misses and logistical hurdles on the finale, which somewhat dampens whatever fleeting reality might be inherent in watching a superpowered alien, a millionaire vigilante, and an ancient Amazonian warrior-princess quarrel amongst themselves before teaming up to take on a two-story tall, pyrokinetic, hardened lava flow that periodically secretes waves of sub-nuclear energy. Still, the level of sustained action is oft spectacular – at least commensurate with the climax of Man of Steel, which at the time I singled out as a dubious milestone the genre would strain to reproduce, let alone better – and will occasionally loosen your dental fillings, particularly during the Doomsday confrontation. For all the comic fans who have rejected the idea that Snyder’s prevailing cinematic mood, which is that of a raging disaster epic, is immaterial to whether or not the film works, it is objectively impossible to disentangle this narrative and these characters from the way in which they are presented. Grim and somewhat despairing in even its most balanced moments and oddly, noticeably pitch black in spots (purportedly the director’s cut might fetch an official R rating from the MPAA, though that seems almost like Snyder would be admitting, if not reveling in, the point of his legion of detractors), Dawn will surely terrorize some younger viewers. This is among the least of its troubles. With its one marquee name to ostensibly enrich and expand (it is his sequel after all), and another to re-craft out of whole cloth, complete with new, narrative-pushing pathology, villains both extra-long and extra-short term to introduce to and inflict on the populace respectively, four other major supporting characters to keep balanced and spinning, the aforementioned dream sequences, urban geography of two massive sister cities to manage and mangle, not to mention a few non-sequitur shout outs to the future Justice League membership, even though their existence is, to that point, a complete mystery, Dawn is just a hell of a lot to chew at one time, let alone swallow.
This throw everything at the wall and see what sticks approach to world building, wherein several elements hit with colossal impact while others inexplicably miss the wall altogether, mostly demonstrates just how good Marvel has historically proven to be at that sort of thing. Even Wonder Woman, who in part due to her comparative big screen novelty but also to Gal Godot’s understated charm is far and away the most intriguing hero of the bunch, is still essentially a glorified cameo role. Granted, it’s a little difficult to be inconspicuous when you look like Gal Godot and dress like every night is an A-list Hollywood première, and she is at least responsible for the approximately two times when Affleck’s perma-scowl contorts into something approaching a smile. Talk about jarring visuals you can’t unsee. DC, as a result of either poor planning or a principled refusal to deploy a virtually identical strategy to that of its evil twin, is operating at a tremendous initial disadvantage in this arms race, instead banking on the notion that its heroes are so iconic that they barely even require name checks let alone standalone movies as an introduction. Simply stand in front of your bathroom mirror, replace the word “Candyman” with “Batman”, and, upon repeating it three times, behind you he’ll appear, fourteen feet thick and humorless, brandishing a batarang in one hand and a branding iron in the other. The craziest thing about this strategy is that, despite all the shortcuts and self-indulgences, the occasional missteps and completely missing steps, DC might legitimately be onto something here. Dawn of Justice slowly, surely, sometimes painfully, convinced me of almost exactly that, though I retain some reservations. Despite solid to terrific performances throughout, I simply don’t care about these characters yet. Maybe I won’t ever. It seems unlikely such a problem might be constructively addressed by adding more. My main takeaways from Dawn of Justice were grudging, hard won respect, residual morbid amusement, a half-smile and surprising lack of a headache, plus (renewed) excitement to see a Wonder Woman solo adventure in 2017. Patty Jenkins – Someone else! Anyone! – has already been announced as the director on that cruise.
I, for one, could really use the break.
“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) 3/4 stars