Batman v. Superman: What Movie did the Critics See?

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A few days ago, as I was exiting the last Toronto IMAX screening of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, a few hundred fans were lined up for an advance screening of Captain America: Civil War. The stylized S on my t-shirt was met by an army of starry shields. I half-jokingly asked if anybody in the line had been stood up and therefore had an extra ticket. But my query was half-hearted. Batman v. Superman had exhausted me in the best possible way and, after having my senses battered and my emotions bruised for two-and-a-half hours, I doubted that I could endure a double feature, or give Civil War a fair shake.

I am baffled by the critical drubbing that greeted BvS. The movie I saw bore little resemblance to disaster described by reviewers, and Zak Snyder managed to grab me by the lapels and drag me into his world from the very first frame.  And that world felt like the pages of a comic book.

Batman v. Superman begins with  gorgeous retelling of Batman’s oft-repeated origin and then introduces us to Lois and Clark as a cohabiting couple. While it may seem like Snyder is shortchanging the audience by dwelling on one but not the other, this narrative choice offers a significant payoff later in the film, as it sets up a pivotal moment between the titular heroes. Snyder jumps from one scene to another like he’s jumping from panel to panel, often introducing story elements just as they needed, rather than setting them up, employing narrative shortcuts and visual shorthand in ways familiar to comic book readers.

Snyder’s strategy often works. For the most part, Dawn of Justice is hyperkinetic, with pauses for exposition that sets up the personal and ideological conflicts between the characters. The best of these scenes feel like single comic book panels brought to life, the worst merely necessary, but the latter are made bearable by the excellent performances of the cast.

Ben Affleck is stellar as Bruce Wayne/Batman, and plays the part with unparallelled intensity. Wayne is one pissed-off vigilante, and his partner in crime-busting is not the deceased Robin, but Alfred Pennyworth, who is not at all a manservant but mission control at the Batcave. Jeremy Irons matches Affleck’s intensity note for note and his concerns for Wayne’s safety are not those of a family retainer and guardian but of a fellow combatant. These men are veterans and they see the world through the distorted prism of post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is an elemental version of Batman who is both terrified and terrifying. We see fear underneath the cowl, and that is a first for a cinematic version of the character.

While it is Affleck’s muscular performance that provides the pulsing heart of this film, Henry Cavill’s stellar turn as Superman imbues the character with soul. Critics of the character have often dismissed Superman as boring. They question the point of a man with godlike powers who always does the right thing, and whose morals are unassailable. Yet Zak Snyder has been reviled for rejecting the boy scout version of Superman in favour of someone far less perfect.

Cavill’s Superman is tortured. He is uncertain of his choices and the world is uncertain about him. Some hail him as a saviour and a force for good while others fear him as an existential threat to humanity. This polarity fuels the film and makes BvS one of the most interesting takes on Supes in any medium.

Indeed, an early montage of Superman’s exploits provides some of the most iconic images of the Man of Steel ever committed to film.

Despite his great powers and Kryptonian lineage, Clark Kent is Jonathan and Martha’s son. His frame of reference is a farm in Kansas, and consequently his sense of right and wrong doesn’t account for the complexities of geopolitics or even the editorial slant of a big city newspaper. He’s a small town boy who wants to do the right thing, and it is this weakness that is exploited by the homocidal genius Lex Luthor.

To be sure, Kryptonite plays a role in Luthor’s schemes, but Superman’s traditional enemy, played with twitchy abandon by Jesse Eisenberg wants to see him destroyed because a being so powerful and so luminous cannot be allowed to exist in his dark world, which may be darker than it seems, as is hinted throughout the film.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman completes the heroic triumvirate in Batman v. Superman, and while she gets little screen time, she plays a pivotal role not only as an Amazon warrior but also as the mysterious socialite Diana Prince who is at once Bruce Wayne’s foil and confidante.

The other two women in the film, Lois Lane and Martha Kent, are the anchors of Superman’s humanity and are solidly portrayed by Amy Adams and Diane Lane. Adams especially imbues Lois Lane with strength and intelligence. She is savvier than Clark, gets things done at the Daily Planet, and repeatedly puts herself in the line of fire. If she is a damsel in distress, it’s because she stepped into the heart of a conflict. Martha, on the other hand, is Clark’s moral compass and in more ways than one, steers the course of his destiny.

There is much to admire in the way the future Justice League comes together. Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and Diana Prince each have their own agendas, which preclude collaboration. Superman is the rescuer, Batman is the enforcer, Wonder Woman wants to erase herself from history. They are all too monomaniacal to see the big picture. Luthor, for his part, does cast a wider net, but his world view is equally skewed. It is this inability to see beyond themselves that makes the heroes and the villains in the drama so very human.

This being said, the most jarringly bad thing in Snyder’s film is the clumsy exposition that introduces the remaining members of the Justice League, in case you don’t know that Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash will be joining the big three to complete the team.

At it’s core, Dawn of Justice is about choosing a world view, triumphing over trauma and erring on the side of hope. Also, in a refreshing divergence from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Snyder’s superheroes are not weaponized. They are not a militarized force that works in tandem with, or for the government. The emerging Justice League is not a team of super soldiers, and in a world that is in a state of constant war, it is a refreshing take on the genre.

I unabashedly love this movie and am saddened that the negative reception may result in a less authorial and authoritative approach in the future Justice League movies.

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