Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is the most theological superhero movie I think I’ve seen. It explores topics such as whether the world truly needs a savior, can anyone truly be good in a world so filled with evil, and whether or not an all-powerful God can also be all-good. They are fascinating themes explored through the lens of Superman’s struggle to do what’s right in a world that’s struggling to trust him, and through Batman’s struggle with cynicism and distrust in a world where he’s seen so much pain and destruction that’s he’s been powerless to prevent. Eventually these two heroes find themselves confronting each other (and not necessarily for the reasons you might think), and then the movie quickly dives into an almost entirely different plot, (too) quickly resolving character arcs and plot developments in order to move on with the world-building that both Warner Bros. and DC hope will lead to a rival cinematic universe with Marvel’s. It’s hard to say that any movie approaching three hours moves too quickly, but Batman v Superman (BvS) teeters on the side of being overstuffed, which leaves much of its more interesting philosophical musings and character development feeling frustratingly rushed while it pushed forward with its Justice League-building mandate.
A project of this magnitude, Batman and Superman sharing the screen for the first time, is bound to come with all sorts of expectations and all sorts of scrutiny. Therefore, this movie will never live up to those expectations and will be lucky to survive all the scrutiny. That said, I thought it definitely met my expectations, though it did not exceed them. While I think the trailers have revealed far too much, they haven’t revealed all, and I enjoyed the surprises and twists that remained. While the WB and DC can be accused of a bit too much of a “me too” kind of attitude when it comes to their push for their own superhero cinematic universe akin to Marvel’s, there’s no real mistaking these movies for anything from the Avenger’s universe. The DC movie universe remains a very dark and gritty place (sometimes to the detriment of Superman’s character), and it’s also quite brutal at times. There’s far more drama (to the point at times of being over-serious), and certainly far more philosophical musings (which, at least for me, are never satisfactorily resolved). Some might find it too dark and brutal, and feel this comic book universe is a fairly joyless place (a shame when it does involve Superman), but at least it’s very tonally distinct from the Marvel movies.
As for the level of scrutiny it will receive, it’s unavoidable and perhaps unfair. Even I have struggled to try and step back in order to appreciate the film as a whole, removed from all the burdens of expectations. Still, there are elements that I can’t help but to scrutinize. It is over-stuffed and often feels rushed in its pacing, which again is remarkable for a movie this long. It would have been better served had the whole Doomsday plotline been excised and instead used that time to more completely resolve character arcs and plotlines that the film had actually done a fine job of building. Along those lines, not only are Lex Luthor’s motivations a bit short-changed and therefore feel somewhat forced (although they are very true to the comic roots) overall the portrayal here doesn’t quite work. Luthor is too manic, too obviously unbalanced and crazy. I was willing to give this take on the character a try, but the DC universe is filled with plenty of manic, crazy villains and Luthor always stood out due to his more cool, aloof, and calculating nature. He works so well as someone who is supremely confident in is superiority, as opposed to someone who is rampantly insecure in his inferiority.
However, the biggest hang-up for me is Batman. Don’t hear me wrong. Ben Affleck does a great job, and I don’t mind the idea of a more world-worn, cynical and therefore brutal Batman. However, the character edges too far into the Frank Miller All-Star Batman take for my tastes. It doesn’t go quite so far as the meme-creating version from the comic, but is clearly toeing that line. This makes it hard for me to see how there could ever be a reconciliation with him and Superman. While the two may not always agree with each other’s methods, there’s always an underlying respect for the fact that ultimately they pursue the same goal. With these versions of the character, I don’t know that I can say that’s true, which makes conflict more likely than any sort of partnership, let alone any future friendship. Also, quite frankly, Miller’s All-Star Batman just isn’t likable, which may have been the point, but it took a complicated yet noble hero (he’s not called the Dark Knight for no reason) and turns him into a psychotic jerk. This movie doesn’t go that far, but it definitely crosses that line.
Oh, and then there’s Wonder Woman. Yup, she’s in the movie, and she has some good scenes. Gal Gadot does a fine job with the character, but for the most part she’s just sort of there because, well, because DC wanted to have their “trinity” on screen together, I guess.
Now about those theological leanings I mentioned earlier. It’s always been one of the interesting elements of the Superman mythos; how might the world react to have what basically amounts to a god walk among them? However, this movie dares to probe even a bit deeper than that as it asks some important questions about God himself; or, more accurately, it levels some accusations at God. Specifically it’s put forth that God can be all-powerful or all-good, but he can’t be both at the same time. In short, God must not be all-powerful if he’s all-good because there’s so much evil in the world, and if he is all-powerful, he must not be all-good because there’s so much evil in the world. One way or the other, evil just shouldn’t exist in light of those characteristics of God. But is that really the case? This idea of the Problem of Evil is a pretty heady one; one that many of the smartest philosophers on the planet have struggled with over the centuries. However, there is one key element that’s overlooked in these arguments; the cross. What about the cross? What about what happened on the cross? What about how God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, sacrificed himself on the cross on behalf of a fallen and evil world? What about God’s loving willingness to let that happen? What does that say about who God is and what he’s willing to do? It’s a topic that Lex pointedly omits in his mad, selfish quest to justify his own nefarious acts. It’s a topic that is often overlooked, even at this time of year set aside to specifically commemorate that important, heroic and historical act.
BvS is going to face a large amount of cynicism just due to the fact that it’s the launchpad for DC’s “me too” cinematic universe. To be fair, that corporate mandate of “set things up for the rest of the movies” saddles this movie with an unfair burden that does interfere and hamper the story it’s trying to tell. Still, the scale is epic, it’s not afraid to discuss heady issues, and it has a (mostly) solid understanding of who these characters are. For now, this film will get hammered with everything it’s done wrong, but one day, people may look back on it and reflect on just how much it also got right.
Batman v Superman is dark, brutal and violent; definitely not for the younger crowd. It does have some pretty big misses, but it also hits on a lot of things just right as well. Plus, there are some pretty big surprises that are fairly bold for a movie that’s trying to accomplish all that this one has set out to do.