A couple of years ago, I saw Man of Steel and didn't hate it. It didn't cause me anger when a young, unsure of himself Superman snapped the neck of his equally-super enemy in order to save an innocent family. Many people reacted badly to this sequence as canonically Superman has always refused to kill, instead insisting on finding "another way." While I see this argument, I did not object as I took the events as presented to me, even Superman's anguished scream afterwards, indicating that he wished that he could have found a better alternative. This told me that Superman did not spring onto the scene with his values fully-formed and inviolable, but someone who was still trying to find his place in a world that was not prepared to receive him.
This theme stood out to me throughout the film: Superman as a man doing the best that he can, looking to be accepted and trying to do the right thing. And while I know that director Zak Snyder can have difficulties with telling a strong story, his ability to show us "pretty pictures," that is, exceptional visual sequences is unparalleled in the superhero film genres.
Now we get to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Zak Snyder has never been a target of harsh criticism from me, as everything I've seen from is very well done, from a visual perspective, and that is typically what I notice far more than anything else. But this movie disappointed me.
I probably should mention that there may well be spoilers in my critique, so turn back now if you haven't seen the movie yet.
As a way to become more effective in this mission of providing content for this blog that is worthwhile to Christian Geeks, I felt that I needed to improve my awareness of comic book characters, their histories and their motivations. As a result, a number of well-done histories of both general comic book characters and Superman in particular, have landed on my shelves. What I learned is that historically, Superman has often been portrayed as more at ease, smiling, even laughing on occasion. He is serious when he has to be, but is far less the brooding anti-hero that is Bruce Wayne/Batman. In fact, they are at opposite ends of the spectrum in this regard. So for Superman to still be portrayed in this way, as he seems to be in this movie, makes me wonder about character development. In Man of Steel, Superman killed General Zod. How did that action impact his worldview? Has he struggled with that decision? We really don't get any insight from Clark Kent/Superman in this movie. Yes, it has been something like eighteen months to two years later, but I would want to see some development here, even if it were in an offhand comment to Lois Lane. There really appears to be very little, if not zero, character development between Man of Steel to this film. And for someone who usually doesn't notice to point that out, that's saying something. But that is not the end of my issues with this film.
Let me start with the other characters. Most of them, including Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne/Batman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane were fine. I really don't have anything but minor quibbles (such as I would prefer Lois to be a brunette than a redhead) with them. But Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor has me rolling my eyes. His twitchy, Asperger-like delivery grew tiresome for me very quickly. I'm not sure I have ever seen him in a film that I've cared for his character at all, so that may be more a personal preference for me than anything of substance. Really, the only character I found interesting and wanted to know more about was Wonder Woman, and she was not a featured character.
Another area that really glared out to me was something that I barely remember from the comics I read at my aunt's house as a young boy, namely, that Gotham and Metropolis were not that far apart geographically. In this film, they are "across the harbor" from each other. So here's my question: for the last 18 months to two years, Batman has been operating in Gotham (the movie seems to indicate he's been active for nearly twenty years), and Superman is only now being bothered by his activity? If crime and corruption was such an issue in Gotham, why hasn't more of it spilled over to Metropolis, and if it hasn't, why didn't Superman just jump across the harbor and deal with all the ills, introducing him earlier to Batman? Why has it taken nearly two whole years for this encounter to take place?
When we do get to the big fight at the end, it's only because Luthor has kidnapped Ma Kent and threatened her life unless he kills Batman. It is made clear through dialogue with Lois that he flies to Gotham to enlist the aid of Batman to help, and when he first sees Batman, Superman tries to explain what is happening but is caught in a Bat-ambush, and then all thought of parlay is immediately forgotten. Why was this a surprise to Superman? They've already had preliminary bouts in the first half of the movie. For someone as smart as Superman he should have seen that coming and held back. But no, we get the full fighting match on. Batman "cheats" and uses Kryptonite gas to weaken Superman, and just as he is ready to deliver the coup de'grace, Superman blurts out the name of his mother, Martha, and this freezes Batman, as it was the name of his mother who was murdered many years before. Now, I'm not saying that they should have known each others' mothers' names, but why did it take Superman so long to remember why he was there in the first place, and why did Lois have to decode the message for Batman to understand what was going on? From that point on, they put aside their philosophical differences and become best buds.
Finally, we get to the final third of the movie, part 2, where since the writers have to somehow introduce Wonder Woman and the Dawn of Justice to a sequel to Man of Steel where Batman is the billed first in a fight with Superman, they decide to riff on another comic story. If the first two-thirds of the film is riffing on Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, then the last part riffs on the Death of Superman arc where we are introduced to Doomsday and Superman has to die in order to kill Doomsday and save the world. This causes me concern that the writers just really don;t know how to tell a Superman story. We have to throw in other characters and plots from other books to get us to the story we really want to tell. And I also find it telling that the upcoming Justice League movie will most likely not have Superman in it as a result of what happened here.
Finally, I'm going to pick on themes. Snyder and the writers seem to want to say something important about power corrupting, and there's even a throwaway shot where there is graffiti with the Latin phrase quis custodiet custodes? - Who watches the watchmen? This is a reference to a major theme here as well as a shoutout to Snyder's other film on this theme Watchmen. Another theme that gets espoused by Luthor is what is known in theology as theodicy, or the problem of evil. In other words, how can a good and all-powerful God allow evil in the world? We recognize that evil exists, therefore God must be either all-powerful and not good, or else He is all good, but not all-powerful. But these themes are not really explored or get lost in the comic-book imagery of the fight scenes which Snyder is very, very good at.
In short, I have to confess that as spectacle, Batman v. Superman is a fun and enjoyable movie, if you really don't think too hard. However, I had problems with it and was very frustrated as a result.