Superman vs. Batman: Dawn of Justice (dir. Zack Snyder, 2016) re-conceptualizes the mythologies of America’s two greatest superheroes. The film early on announces this fact when an African warlord murders Daily Planet photographer Jimmy Olson, who is really an undercover CIA agent. In the film, Batman’s Gotham and Superman’s Metropolis are neighboring cities, within uneasy sight of each other. Superman has been in Metropolis only two years, and although he was initially greeted as a great hero, some now question how far he would or should go in exercising his powers. Power corrupts is the idea they fear. They see him as an alien being, not a welcome new US citizen. In the course of defeating various menaces to the city, he has caused many deaths and considerable carnage. Some blame him for not saving their cherished relatives. Superman himself is young and somewhat naïve, unable or unwilling to understand the fears that some express, not wholly aware of his flaws. Batman, on the other hand, is a dark and anguished vigilante who has never recovered from the murders of his parents 35 years in the past. He doesn’t merely stop criminals or rescue hapless victims. He punishes evildoers by literally branding them with his bat symbol, which dooms them to murder in the Gotham City prison, where he has arranged for certain inmates to carry out his will. Even more so than in the Christopher Nolan films, Batman here verges on psychopathology, a dark and tormented figure tottering on the edge. He is also jealous of the newcomer Superman. Each finds it easy to believe in the potential dangers of the other.
I watched the “extended” three-hour version of the film. I found it interesting and mostly entertaining throughout. By questioning the nature of Superman’s limitless powers, it treads where earlier films have not gone. It shows these two superheroes in the context of the modern world—of terrorism, concerns about science, of social order, of immigrants. It questions the very concept of a superhero, of how such a being might fit into our society. Of course, the Christopher Nolan films gave a similar treatment to the Batman figure.
The first two-thirds of this film set up its raison d’être: the epic battle between Batman and Superman, both of whom through misunderstandings and the machinations of Lex Luthor (wonderfully played by Jesse Eisenberg—we can’t forget that he also played Mark Zuckerberg in Social Network (2010)—does this film suggest a connection?) have become convinced that the other is a profound threat. The battle itself is long and bombastic but entertaining enough, especially when Wonder Woman shows up (her presence is hinted at throughout the film). When the battle begins, the intellectual and philosophical pretensions of the first parts of the film fall away and we have what amounts to a prolonged encounter in semi-glorious DGI—all the rules of nature and physics and Batman’s physical fallibilities to the side.But I enjoyed the film, which was significantly better than most reviews allowed. My son asked me whether my judgment had lapsed when I told him my opinion. It’s possible. It’s also possible I don’t view this film from the perspective of younger viewers steeped in the lore of these fictional heroes and the new era comic books, that I was immune to or unaware of all its true badness. It’s possible that the film’s focus on philosophical concerns put off some viewers and reviewers. I’ve always been a Superman fan and have enjoyed the films (excluding Superman III, 1983). I read the comic books as a child but as an adult haven’t paid much attention to the graphic novels about America’s super heroes. It’s also possible that exposure to all the virulently negative reviews of this film stirred my contrarian inclinations.