Comic books have frequently examined the tortured nature of superheroes in depth, often with excessively grim results. But with big-budget superhero movies being designed for a family audience, with the youngest viewers desiring caped crusaders that they can idolise, any darker elements are mere surface level distractions to make you feel the story is far deeper than just people in costumes punching each other.
Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice is the first mega-budget superhero film that will leave no child leaving the cinema desiring to be a superhero. It is constantly brooding and bleak in spite of its inherent silliness – with foreboding references to 9/11 and religious fanaticism rubbing shoulders with bizarre jokes about piss drinking. It is a complete and utter mess, but a fascinating and undeniably distinctive one. That $250 million of studio money was spent on making something so strange and incoherent, seemingly uninterested in getting casual audiences interested in the rushed cinematic universe it tries in vain to establish, is a rare achievement. It is not a good film by any means – but like a car crash unfolding before my very eyes, it proved impossible to look away. In that regard at least, it definitely represents a huge step up from the mind-numbingly dull Man of Steel.
It is best to approach BvS as the superhero genre’s equivalent to Heaven’s Gate, the 1980 Western that financially destroyed its parent studio and resulted in directors having little to no say as to the artistic direction on bigger budget projects. For better or worse, Zack Snyder is a distinctive director (dare I say, auteur); only Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson are the modern filmmakers with a more immediately recognisable “house style” to mainstream audiences. Here, he continues his recurrent theme of making comic book adaptations faithful to the look of the source material, without actually paying attention to what is going on in the panels he is aiming to replicate. Whereas Marvel Studios play it safe by hiring directors and giving them little say in the creative direction of the film, Warner Bros. have made a bizarre leap by giving their chosen filmmakers complete creative control.
There is nothing in Batman Vs Superman that feels rigidly tested to ensure its target audience will actually enjoy it. It is most comparable to Marvel’s Age of Ultron, an overstuffed sequel that all but resulted in superhero fatigue by offering too many characters with too little to actually do – although that film was a mess due to studio interference. This feels like a mess because it is directed by a man who should not be allowed anywhere near a film set. I’m not a fan of Snyder’s films, but there is something enjoyably perverse about watching him completely fuck-up a surefire commercial hit by making it paradoxically depressing and goofy; too adult for young audiences, too immature for older ones. As a person who suffers from superhero fatigue, I can’t deny getting a ton of joy from witnessing a gigantic franchise crumble before me, a monument to the mind-numbing idiocy of Hollywood’s current “too big to fail” mentality when it comes to caped crusaders at the movies.
But if you divorce the film from its nonsensical narrative, there are plenty of interesting themes bubbling under the surface, which one would suspect are entirely drawn from co-screenwriter Chris Terrio. As Ben Affleck’s co-screenwriter on Argo, for which he won the Academy award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Terrio was likely brought in to do the thankless task of “polishing a turd” by a presumably embarrassed Affleck. He doesn’t add to the narrative, but he does add interesting thematic elements of political intrigue I couldn’t help but wish the film hinged on more.
A throwaway line of dialogue tells us Bruce Wayne is a media mogul who owns several newspapers, all of which regurgitate his point of view. Twinned with his violent nature towards people outside of the law (predominantly sex offenders), it is hard to not see Bruce Wayne as Rupert Murdoch’s fascistic diatribes come to life; there isn’t a single reader of The Sun who won’t rejoice at Batman wishing to bring back the death sentence for paedophiles. Reading Wayne as a right-wing nut job undoes the potential damage to the character, with complaints about Snyder deleting Wayne’s inherent moral code rendered moot. It also serves as a nice counterpoint to Superman, who appears to be a humanitarian on the surface, even if his approach to saving lives is repeatedly destroying the same city and causing innocent people to die. Of course both characters team up in the end – in Snyder’s vision, both end up prioritising saving the few (Lois Lane, Martha Kent) over the masses, without the moral quandaries that defined Christopher Nolan’s far superior Dark Knight trilogy. There are glimpses of anguish, but ultimately, they don’t show deeper feelings for those not related to them or relevant to the narrative in any way. They are self-involved superheroes too caught up in their own personal problems.
There are also recurrent themes about terrorism, in an ill-fated attempt to hold a mirror up to society through the lens of comic book fiction. Lois Lane at one point goes to some vaguely Eastern country to interview a terrorist group who appear to be a cross between ISIS and the Sons of Anarchy – an attempt to bring in societal anxieties currently in the news media to make the film relevant, yet dumbed down enough so as to still be regarded as escapism. You could argue there is a dubious streak of anti-Muslim propaganda in the film; portrayed as ISIS style terrorists who are against the Christ-like saviour of humanity for clashing with their own religious beliefs. Unsurprisingly, these themes are more than a little problematic, and very clearly mishandled, but I was fascinated as to how such repugnant right wing talking points made their way into one of the year’s biggest tentpole events.
Additionally, in the earliest sequence where we see Bruce Wayne’s parents killed for the millionth fucking time, the killer looks vaguely Middle Eastern; the camera never dwells on his face to establish this, but it does further the film’s portrayal of Wayne as a right-wing nutjob. Coincidentally, Snyder plans to make a feature adaptation of an Ayn Rand novel once he’s finished with the Justice League, with the overtly unironic themes of fascistic vengeance in Watchmen and 300 equally highlighting his sympathies may be more than just a little right of centre.
With an arduous running time, it is hard to not leave the cinema feeling drained of all joy, the superhero myth all but being destroyed in a grim Fox News-style fantasy of an America constantly at war with itself, where the most powerful men in the country are constantly on the verge of causing full-scale societal apocalypse. Dawn of Justice is a complete and utter mess. Yet it is the final word on the superhero genre, all but destroying any chance of buying into future idealised portrayals of these saviour characters.