In any matchup between Batman and Superman, I side with Batman. I’ve never liked the character of Superman, because he is not a man at all. He’s basically a god. He’s not a human being who has raised himself to the pinnacles of human excellence. He’s an alien who is simply endowed with superior abilities. There is nothing heroic about Superman, because he is almost invulnerable. He faces no risks. There’s nothing he must struggle to overcome.
Batman, however, is a true Nietzschean superman, a man who has made himself more than a man, a man who faces injury, death, and imprisonment night after night in order to fight evil. I don’t want to live in a godless universe, but frankly I would prefer that we make ourselves into gods rather than find them readymade.
I didn’t like Zack Synder’s first Superman movie, Man of Steel, so I had very low expectations for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. That said, for the first 80% of Batman v Superman, I found myself thinking this is a pretty good movie. Zack Snyder would be a great silent movie director, and the opening credit sequence (based on Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight graphic novel) is pure poetry. The first appearance of the Batman is genuinely terrifying. There is a great nightmare sequence in which Batman fights against Superman’s henchmen who are dressed as Nazi soldiers while giant cockroach-Valkyries whisk the fallen to some sort of hellish Valhalla. The directing, editing, and special effects throughout are superb. Hans Zimmer’s score, moreover, is one of his better efforts. But for all that, at about the 2-hour mark, the movie became ludicrous, unintelligible, and uninvolving.
The movie is set about two years after Man of Steel. The public is souring on Superman. Sure, he saved the earth from the Kryptonians, but a lot was destroyed in the process. And maybe the Kryptonians came here because of him. And he is one of them too. How can we trust him? How do we know he will always be benevolently disposed to us? Is Superman outside the law? Shouldn’t he have to follow the same laws as the rest of us? Superman may look human, but he is not. Shouldn’t we fear a god who has no real attachment humanity?
Three of Superman’s critics are Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), billionaire Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, whose characterization is a cross between Zorg from The Fifth Element and the Joker from The Dark Knight), and billionaire Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), who moonlights as Batman. For his part, Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, sees Batman as a dangerous vigilante. There are also conflicts between Luthor and Senator Finch, who refuses to allow him to import kryptonite, and between Luthor and Batman, who steals the kryptonite after it is smuggled in.
Conflict, of course, is the stuff of good plots. But characterization is essential too. Unfortunately, Luthor’s motives are the murkiest, which is unfortunate, because he drives the entire plot. Luthor gets Lois Lane taken hostage by African revolutionaries, knowing Superman will come to her rescue. Then he has mercenaries massacre the guerrillas, and Superman is blamed. Luthor tries to acquire kryptonite to use against Superman, but it is blocked by Finch then stolen by Batman. Luthor bombs a Senate hearing at which Superman is testifying. Superman, of course, survives but is humiliated and disappears for a while.
When Superman returns, Luthor gets Batman and Superman to fight one another. Batman, however, is prepared for the fight with new armor and kryptonite weapons, which significantly weaken Superman. However, when Batman is poised to kill Superman with a kryptonite spear, he pauses at the last minute when Superman says “Martha,” his mother’s name—which, coincidentally, is the name of Bruce Wayne’s mother as well. Then Lois Lane arrives to explain that Superman has been blackmailed into fighting Batman by Luthor, who has kidnapped Martha Kent. Then the two superheroes unite to fight Luthor and rescue Martha.
Now, this sort of peripety is the stuff of classic drama and grand opera and Bollywood. Yes, it is ludicrous when stated baldly, but it doesn’t have to seem that way. It could have been handled well. It almost works as it is. But it also marks the point when the movie stopped working.
After Superman and Batman team up to fight Luthor, he unleashes his final assault. Using technology from a crashed Kryptonian vessel, Luthor has created a monster (basically an electrified version of Peter Jackson’s cave trolls) that is capable of destroying Superman.
Batman and Superman are then joined in their epic battle by Wonder Woman, played by Israeli actress Gal Gadot. Although I admit that my reaction is not entirely rational, given the amount of disbelief I had already suspended, I found the addition of another superhero intensely annoying. I had the same reaction to Twilight. I was fine with the vampires but thought the whole thing was ruined by adding werewolves.
Superman realizes that the troll, like him, is vulnerable only to kryptonite, so he uses Batman’s kryptonite spear to kill it. Unfortunately, using the spear also weakens Superman, whom the beast kills in its death throes.
To my great surprise, when Batman began to deploy his kryptonite weapons against Superman, weakening him to the point that he could have been killed, I found myself liking Superman more. It makes sense, though, because to be vulnerable is to be human. But to fight on in spite of vulnerability is true heroism. Before this, Superman may have been super, but he was no hero, because he was invulnerable. Invulnerable men, however, do not face risks, require virtues, or make sacrifices. And when at the movie’s climax Superman risks death and then actually dies to save us, it had a real emotional punch. And when all the whooshing and zapping dies down and the movie shifts into dénouement mode, it somewhat recovers.
Lex Luthor is imprisoned (and when his head is shaved looks like a rat), Superman is memorialized, Clark Kent is buried back in Kansas, and Batman joins Wonder Woman to search for other “metahumans” like herself, since after Superman’s death the earth is vulnerable to other threats that lie beyond. I smell francise.
But it appears that they will have some help after all, for in the last shot of the film, a few particles of earth thrown on the lid of Clark Kent’s coffin begin to levitate. Yes, that’s right, Superman did not just die to save mankind, he will rise from the dead to continue the fight. This confirms Gregory Hood’s reading of Man of Steel as offering Superman as an Aryan warrior Christ.
Superman’s experience of vulnerability to kryptonite was, in effect, his incarnation—his descent from being an immortal god to being a mortal man—in order that he could die for our salvation. And his impending resurrection is a return to divine status, although this time he will also have a connection to humanity, because he lived and died as one of us, which makes him far less threatening.
Zack Snyder is an extraordinarily talented director. Watchmen remains the greatest superhero movie ever made. But it had an excellent script, a script that even improved upon the original graphic novel. The best director in the world can’t overcome a bad script though, and Snyder’s recent works, from Sucker Punch to the Superman movies, suffer from bad scripts.
In terms of performances, Jesse Eisenberg’s Luthor was more a collection of quirks than a character. Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck look better than they act. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman isn’t even good-looking.
The Christian allegory in Snyder’s Superman films is an interesting dimension. Batman v Superman is relatively free of political correctness. But it is also free of the philosophical depth and Rightist political themes of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Although the portrayal of Luthor as a shrimpy, neurotic, fast-talking Jewboy who manipulates two hulking white superheroes into trying to kill each other does have an archetypal quality that gives one pause.
After a strong opening week, Batman v Superman sank like kryptonite. Let’s hope it is the end of the franchise and Zack Snyder finds a better outlet for his considerable talent. He’s actually talking about remaking The Fountainhead, for instance. (Snyder and Christopher Nolan would be among my top picks for a proper Atlas Shrugged adaptation as well.) Until then, he remains on artistic probation.