Bright Lights Film Journal

Watch it Again! Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

So as you peel back the folds of the opening of Batman v Superman you get the sense that even in its immediately awkward, tone-deaf plotting, this is not a perfectly market-researched, laboratory-produced popcorn flick, but the full-on wet dream of a visionary director on a brood kink.

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When Batman lays his bat-fists into Superman’s perfect Boy Scout teeth in The Dark Knight Returns, author Frank Miller performs to the DC comics canon the equivalent in writing of a spinal osteotomy. That’s where you remove a vertebra (Superman) from the spine (DC comics) and realign the whole thing to match the absence, in this case, against the Americana that had defined comic books since their Golden Age and which had taken Superman as their mascot. Miller does it with a wrestling match, one written like we’re paying witness to the Titanomachy of the Greek myths. This battle so potently realigned the posture of our primary-color heroes to stand and act more like Batman that most comic book films today are based in some part on this one fight, the original superhero Civil War.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is so unfounded and off-putting in adapting this one battle into an entire film, so morose in frames filmed so strikingly, that it actually converts visual wonderment into nausea. But in that way, it acquires a kind of perverse beauty, like an amusing hunchback, by brutally cataloging so precisely everything that was so delightfully wrong with superhero films before Marvel made them all equally uninteresting. It’s so operatic and non-ironic in its absurdity that somewhere along the line it passes beyond bad and becomes avant-garde. If you’re tired of wandering Marvel’s bleary parking lot universes, DC has made the eccentric playground ball pit you never asked for, but maybe should have.

This genre that was once humane even in the badness of Spider-Man 3 or mystifying even in the over-production of Batman Returns has become under the Disney reins a vehicle for glam superstars to play-act as geeks in factory-produced pantomimes of Audi commercials. As someone who dislikes every Avenger and every strained attempt at humor or self-reference on another sterile playset with yet another pretension of a deep theme, I appreciate Snyder’s Wagnerian excesses at the outset. In concept I would take it over Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, which plays to me like a cosplay party at JC Penney, and certainly over DC’s attempt to imitate it with Suicide Squad, like the same party but at Spencer’s Gifts.

So as you peel back the folds of the opening of BvS you get the sense that even in its immediately awkward, tone-deaf plotting, this is not a perfectly market-researched, laboratory-produced popcorn flick, but the full-on wet dream of a visionary director on a brood kink. Its narcissistic excess is sadistically comforting to me. The script is so excited to be there that it starts four or five times before we have any sense of what the film’s about.

It amounts to this. In an admirable effort to reconcile with people who still have working inner ears after being Zack Snyder fans for a decade, the Watchmen director reacquisitions the berated events of his Man of Steel with a new perspective: that of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). Here you must think of the famous billionaire first and foremost, running through the wreckage of a smoldering Metropolis, not as Batman but as a former Superman fan. His plight is entirely relatable to the plight of people viewing the new DC movies as he scorns, as we did, the brooding asshole in his high tower, flying without passion through a movie that doesn’t want him. Snyder’s self-appointed quest is to hold the man of steel (and thus, himself) accountable for his actions.

And since Snyder is a vendor of outstanding visuals before ever believing himself to be a filmmaker, the opening in Metropolis sparkles. Superman as a tiny dot at the end of a zoom lens, causing cataclysms on a godly scale (and ones that should wring a millennial American’s heart), blasts us into this Batman’s view as an atheist on the ground to the point that the film’s Nietzschean prerogative becomes its cinematic slogan. This film is not held together by pretty people quipping, but by sad people proselytizing. It’s unglamorous, pretentious, over-sensitive, and hyper-male. It’s practically a tour through Batman’s mind palace – events and character are so effectively conflated that I wonder if Warner Bros. would not have any wounds to lick if they had let BvS simply become the self-righteous Batman film it believes itself to be.

As BvS transpires ostensibly as a story for both titans, all of this compulsory visual action becomes excessive in a story that cannot hold it, like 300 pounds of Batman in a normal-sized suit, even if that is exactly how comic books have been sold for decades.

Uniting in disdain for all that crisp ’50s Americana that Supes used to embody when George Reeves made him seem like a grand idea would be easier if Snyder had ever considered that making him a distant tightwad has the opposite effect. BvS says that we’re turning against a savior Superman as if he had been Reeves, while in Snyder’s reality the difference between him and Batman is little more than a choice of attire. For the record, the real difference between these ostensive opposites is that Batman kills guys he decides are bad because he’s convinced it has to be done, while Superman (Henry Cavil) kills guys he decides are bad because Lois (Amy Adams) is in trouble. All else is dreary, overcalculated semantics. Toppling Reeves, the Boy Scout grinning like he owned the place, was the real challenge. From fear, I suspect, either from the director or the studio, BvS attempts and achieves far less.

But character quibbles amount to a nascent fly perched on the rubble heap of the film’s dilapidated structure – it is a marvel of anti-synergy. I would liken BvS less to any film I’ve seen than to what I imagine an alien might make if it intercepted five pages of “The Dark Knight Returns” without ever having met a human before. I would say that I could make the script better by dropping the pages on the floor and picking them back up at random if I was not so convinced that this is exactly what they did. Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer are credited with the script, but they ask so much of us to believe in it that I could swear they were passing the bat-buck.

Take, for instance, the generally accepted rules for screenwriting an opening scene, which Terrio and Goyer must know very well else they would not be able to so comprehensively break all of them. In general (though there are always exceptions, they are not written by Goyer), you should not begin your film with a flashback, as it disrupts the film’s present and does with time what would be done to the mood of a house if the front door opened into the bathroom. BvS begins with several flashbacks in an attempt to set up Batman as a character who apparently existed in the previous film but was never shown. Where the film even properly begins or who it’s about are things totally impenetrable to any normal Homo sapien. “Psychotic,” Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) says, “is a three-syllable word for any movie too big for little plots.” Or something like that.

And what about that Lex Luthor? Eisenberg takes a page from Tommy Lee Jones’ Two-Face via Batman Forever to, when in doubt, approximate the Joker. I’m not sure who told him to act like an actor pretending to be a smart person with Tourette’s, but his scenes are so hammy that they begin to break down the pact an audience has with their movie, to be shown characters and not actors playing pretend. If you could put his spastic performance on paper you would swear Luthor was made in the likeness of Nicolas Cage.

But the badness in BvS is asymptotic: at a certain point it couldn’t be any more off-putting, structurally unsound, or plain strange, and so it actually ascends to a splendorous big-budget parody of movies, like a $250 million version of The Room with fistfights (or the best Joel Schumacher movie ever made). Tiny details become mystifying macro-themes. Someone painted a facsimile of a Goya for a recurring analogy to Miltonian apocrypha and hung it up in Batman’s dreams and Luthor’s mansion. Superman snatches Lois from the air and the shot sweeps over him like it’s catching a miracle from the corner of its eye. Dream sequences, provoking Batman’s recent postmodern video games, have the kind of eerie awe that reminds that once, in a quainter time, Tim Burton was the perfect person to direct him.

Perhaps most of all, between the two superhero Civil Wars, Snyder’s establishes an essential conflict rather than a circumstantial one. Their battle is not over a falsely-accused friend, but over a falsely-acquitted god. You must know by the time Doomsday finalizes BvS as a cartoon that it doesn’t deserve its pretensions of depth, but hidden in its disastrous failure is an attempt to capture the bleak shadow self that has whirred beneath the Sunday-strip fisticuffs since Siegel and Schuster long ago thought that Nietzsche was an appropriate forum for a child’s role model.

Being like me and hating every hunky smile in the sterile Vaio ads Marvel passes off as summer entertainment is practically the only way you could get anything other than a seizure from BvS. It seems so opposed to you liking it that I imagine it thinking of return visits as its failure to convince you of its gross apathy, like a sadistic performing artist nailing his dangly bits to wooden planks and treating winces as achievements. The spectacularly serious failure at seriousness is just so accidentally endearing and even emergently critical of its genre that I can’t turn away, like it’s this bombastic rendition of Wagner’s Ring Cycle opera where none of the performers realize they have no pants. It’s so refreshing to feel like you’re the only one who gets a joke; how obliging of Mr. Snyder to give me that feeling for upwards of three hours. I have no doubt that since no one got it, the solution on display by Justice League is no accident: not to make anything better, but to make it just a hint more Marvel, or in other words, more disposable.

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All images are screenshots from the film.