This article was written with the help and input of my pal, Gareth Madeley. Follow him on Twitter!
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a much maligned film to say the least. Not only does it's rating currently stand at 27% on Rotten Tomatoes but it also won four Razzies. The hostility towards this film baffles me. As far as I'm concerned Batman v Superman is not only one of the best films of 2016, it's also one of the best superhero films ever.
We've all seen Batman's origin hundreds of times, but before BvS we'd never seen it end with young Bruce Wayne ascending to heaven up a big pipe, carried by hundreds of bats. This happens in the first five minutes and it sets the tone for rest of the film. BvS is about modern day gods meeting in battle, if it were anything less than huge then it would be doing the subject matter a disservice. The action, the emotion, the effects, everything about this film is turned up to 11, and punctuated with orchestral hammer blows from Hans Zimmer's soundtrack. Vehicles are flattened or plowed through during the chase scenes and bathrooms are drenched during the love scenes. A nuclear missile is launched during the final battle, but only provides a temporary lull in the combat before the grand finale. During the titular battle between our two heroes, Batman throws everything at Superman, including (literally) the kitchen sink!
It's grand, melodramatic, operatic, and yes, a bit silly. But what I love about this film's silliness is that at no point does it attempt to apologise for itself with a joke at it's own in expense or a knowing wink to the camera. This film knows how gloriously over the top it is but doesn't care if you know it knows.
Ben Affleck is a perfect Batman. His performance brings to mind quite a few comic book takes on the character. The way Bruce Wayne is distracted by Diana Prince at Luthor's party, and his subsequent almost-flirty encounters with her bring to mind Grant Morrison's "hairy chested love god". The demon bursting from the Wayne tomb is no doubt inspired by the demon Barbathos in Peter Milligan and Kieron Dwyers' Dark Knight, Dark City. But the film's biggest and most obvious comic book influence is Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns, with many scenes lifted straight from the comic itself. Unlike Miller however the film doesn't celebrate what Bruce Wayne's various traumas have turned him into. This Batman's anger blinds him rather than fuels him.
In fact "anger blinds" is a major theme of the film, with both Superman and Batman being as blinded by their anger as Lex Luthor. Alfred points out "That's how it starts, sir. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men... cruel." Batman is angry, not only about his parent's death but also about the powerlessness he feels at the seeming futility of his mission. "Twenty years in Gotham, Alfred...How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?" Batman's powerlessness is rubbed in his face by the presence of Superman, particularly during the "Battle for Metropolis" between Superman and Zod. He has once again become the little boy who was forced to watch his parent's die, even after spending his whole life fighting never to be that powerless again.
Henry Cavill's Superman is frustrated by his inability to reconcile his two worlds and the world's unwillingness to accept him as a man. He is viewed either as a threat or a god. Superman is as uncomfortable with the awed crowd in Mexico who gather round to touch their saviour as he is with those who fear him. It is Batman who finally bears the brunt of this frustration when it's unleashed during Superman's battle with him.
This is why the much derided "Martha" scene is one of my favourite bits in the whole film. While the fact that Superman says "Save Martha!" rather than "Save my mother!" feels contrived, it's effect is beautiful. The coincidence of their mothers sharing the same name is a slap in the face for Batman that pulls him out of his anger and forces him to see Superman not as a god or a threat but as a man. Superman finally gets his humanity acknowledged by someone and Batman sees that Superman is just as powerless as him. This one scene resolves not only the conflict between the two men but also plays a part in resolving the conflict that's been raging inside them for the whole film. It is for this reason that a bond is instantly forged between them and they leap into battle side by side.
The only characters not blinded by anger throughout the whole film are women. Until Batman has his moment of clarity, Diane Lane's Martha Kent and Amy Adams' Lois Lane are the only characters who see Superman as a man. Lois is one of the few characters to suspect the extent of Luthor's machinations and manipulations and spends much of the film attempting to unravel them. Holly Hunter's Senator Finch is pragmatic about the potential threat she believes Superman poses. She is disturbed by Superman's unaccountability but she seeks to resolve this by discussion and debate rather than allowing Luthor to build a weapon to destroy him. She is clever enough to see right through Luthor. You could even argue that Alfred, who sees the folly of Batman's rage, is playing a maternal role in Batman's life, with his advice, his concern, and his desire to see Bruce Wayne living a life of safety and contentment.
Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman also plays an important role. She is another example of a woman seeing more clearly than the men of the film. For example she sees right through Bruce Wayne straight away. Although she has turned her back on the world she is inspired by Batman and Superman to join the battle once again. Her presence then helps to galvanise the battered Superman and Batman into one final assault against Doomsday. Gadot is a powerful presence who completely steals the show. For me, the moment she truly nailed it was when she fell back while battling Doomsday and gave a smile that showed how delighted she was to be facing a worthy adversary.
As well as the "Martha" scene, Superman's decision to sacrifice himself in order to stop Doomsday also helps to resolve Superman and Batman's blinding anger. Superman realises that there is no conflict inside him between two worlds because Lois is his world. All he needs is for her to see him as a man. Batman finds a purpose once again. The inspiration provided by Superman's sacrifice and the knowledge provided to him by Luthor (and his own prophetic dreams) of the looming threat of Darkseid provide Batman with a new war to prepare for and a new way of preparing for it. Superman's death also proves his humanity and mortality beyond all doubt. Bruce Wayne is present for Superman's very human funeral in Kansas rather than the grand ceremony in Metropolis.
In a film packed with memorable performances Jesse Eisenberg stands out. Lex Luthor's "hmmm"s and chuckles and tics all point to a man sitting on a seething cauldron of spite and rage, who's barely able to contain it. At one point Luthor is delivering a friendly speech about his own philanthropy and towards the end of it he begins to trail off as if distracted by his own hate. Luthor violates the personal space of everyone he meets. For example, the way he immediately shakes hands with Clark and Bruce upon meeting them, the way he pushes a Jolly Rancher into the mouth of a politician, and the way he taps Lois on the head. Every interaction he has with another person is about showing them who's boss. But when people invade his space he can't handle it. Senator Finch grabs Luthor's hand to stop his finger's drumming and he visibly flinches. She can beat Luthor at his own game and he eventually kills her for it. His "Granny's Peach Tea" gag is a spiteful reminder of who's in charge before she dies . Like Batman and Superman, Luthor is also blinded by anger. Anger towards god and anger towards his father, the closest thing to a god in his life. In Superman, Luthor is presented with an actual god to direct his anger towards. "No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from daddy's fist and abominations. I figured out way back if God is all-powerful, He cannot be all-good. And if He is all-good, then He cannot be all-powerful. And neither can you." It's ironic that when Doomsday first emerges Superman literally intervenes and saves Luthor from the fist of an abomination.
Luthor also points us to another of the film's main themes, the inversion of gods and demons. He spells this out while pointing at a picture of angels and demons "That should be upside down. We know better now, don't we? Devils don't come from hell beneath us. No, they come from the sky." Doomsday is a demonic inversion of Superman, leeching power from the city, just as Superman absorbs power from the sun. Luthor is John the Baptist literally baptising a resurrected Antichrist in Doomsday. Later, during his battle with Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, Doomsday the Antichrist gets a spear in his side. If Doomsday is the "Son" then it could be argued that Steppenwolf, (who vanishes like a ghost as soon as the police turn up to arrest Luthor) is the "Holy Spirit" and Darkseid is the "Father" who talks to Lex through Steppenwolf. The theme of inversion is also hammered home by the film's music. Hans Zimmer's theme for Luthor is an inversion of his theme for Superman.
Batman is another demonic figure in the film. When he first appears in the film he's clinging to a wall like something from a horror film. But the opening dream sequence shows us that this particular devil was once a boy who ascended up towards Heaven rather than descended to Hell. Batman sees himself as a demon who will save Earth from a dangerous god. It can't be a coincidence that when Batman finally realises that Superman is not a god his mask is cracked and his human face is showing. Just as Superman ceases to be a god at that moment, Batman ceases to be a demon.
Despite all this, Batman v Superman is far from perfect. It's most egregious flaw is the fact that we recieved an incomplete film in the cinema and it's only on the Blu-Ray "Ultimate Edition" that the film reaches its full potential. For example, the theatrical cut does not make it clear that Luthor is behind everything that leads to Batman and Superman's conflict. We don't see that Luthor is arranging for prisoners branded by Batman to get murdered and we don't see that Kahina, the witness who speaks of Superman's involvement in the massacre at the start of the film was threatened, paid off and later murdered by Luthor. As a result of these omissions the theatrical cut is less coherent and the role of Lois and Senator Finch in uncovering Luthor's plan is diminished. Steppenwolf is also omitted from the theatrical cut, somewhat spoiling the theme of a "Dark Trinity" and making Luthor's knowledge of Darkseid's impending threat more of a mystery.
To my mind these were key scenes that could have remained in the theatrical cut at the expense of scenes teasing the existence of Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. I will admit to a giddy fanboy thrill experienced when Ezra Miller's Flash appeared to Bruce Wayne, and when Wonder Woman watched the footage of the other heroes on her computer. But these scenes added nothing to the story that was being told in that particular film and served only as adverts for a film that, at that point, hadn't even been made yet. They also slow down the action. Batman and Superman are about to fight, the whole film has been gearing up to this battle, and suddenly we're being shown Wonder Woman doing the equivalent of checking her Facebook. These glimpses of the future Justice League may have fitted poorly into the theatrical cut of Batman v Superman, but they would have made great bonus scenes for the Ultimate Edition. The wrong scenes were cut from this film.
While this poor editing means that Batman v Superman is not as good a film as Man of Steel (yes, Man of Steel is great, read this) it's still a fantastic superhero film that deals with some clever themes, boasts a unique operatic tone, and some brilliant performances. It would have been so easy to make a lighter film in the crowd pleasing mold of Marvel Studios, but Zack Snyder and Warner Bros. went for something bigger, grander and more ambitious. Characters like Batman and Superman deserve nothing less.