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Batman v Superman – Dawn of Justice (2016)

Rating: *** out of 4

“I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you’re here for a reason. My parents taught me a different lesson, dying in the gutter for no reason at all…. They taught me that the world only makes sense if you force it to.” - Batman

"Be their hero, Clark. Be their angel, be their monument, be anything they need you to be or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” - Martha Kent

"Boy, do we have problems up here! The problem of evil in the world. The problem of absolute virtue…The problem of you on top of everything else. You above all. Ah. ‘Cause that’s what God is. Horus. Apollo. Jehovah. Kal-El. Clark Joseph Kent. See, what we call God depends on our tribe, Clark-Jo, because God is tribal. God takes sides. No man in the sky intervened when I was a boy to deliver me from Daddy’s fist and abominations. Mm-mm. I figured it out way back, if God is all powerful, He cannot be all good. And if He’s all good then He cannot be all powerful. And neither can you be. They need to see the fraud you are. With their eyes. The blood on your hands.” – Lex Luthor

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, and Diane Lane.

Writers: Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer

Director: Zack Snyder

After the polarizing reception to Zack Snyder’s reboot of Superman, he and his team at WB decided to shake things up and dive headfirst into a full-fledged cinematic universe to compete with Marvel’s immensely successful slow build up to The Avengers. This meant that after Man of Steel there would be no need for origin story films because the characters would be already existing people within the film world set up in that first film and to demonstrate they decided to pit the Man of Steel against the Dark Knight, while also allowing for cameos from many of DC’s other forthcoming properties, such as; Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg (while also hinting at Joker, Robin, Batgirl, etc.). What followed was an even more polarizing film that had fans clambering for more and nay-sayers condemning the filmmaker, the film, the studio and even the intellectual properties themselves.

The plot picks up where Man of Steel left off, only we see the final climactic battle again from the point of view of a man on the street. That man is Bruce Wayne and his role as witness is central to the film’s strengths. More on that later. But, Bruce Wayne watches in visceral horror as buildings fall around him, as people die and all because of the Gods above who have made his home their battlefield. This sparks within him a rage and determination to bring someone with so much power down. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor who takes umbrage with Superman’s very existence acts as the man behind the curtain, guiding these two titans to battle. And, while all this happens, Clark Kent struggles with his very existence and fears that he is not the beacon of hope his father wanted him to become.

Love it or hate it, you have to acknowledge that the film reaches beyond that of the standard comic book movie and really moves to examine who these characters are, and why they fight. Convoluted as it may be at times, the film soars best when it reaches beyond the confines of its genre. I criticized Man of Steel for merely flirting with the Superman/Jesus allegory. Well, this film uses that base concept and runs with it, which I found incredibly captivating.

The film really is about the believer, the non-believer and the agnostic struggling to figure out where he stands amidst all these ideals. Superman is Christ in this film. Lois Lane and Martha Kent are firm theists who strive for the world to understand what Superman is. Lex Luthor is the atheist, who is determined to make the world see what fraudulent constraints the Man of Steel works under. And, Batman is the agnostic who strives to discover meaning from seeming meaninglessness, which is why his role in the film’s opening as the man on the street is so damn important. He sees with his own eyes, but also understands what dangers lie within the belief of what his eyes saw. This is incredibly heady stuff for your average movie, let alone a comic book movie. The film reaches, and while it does not always succeed, it earns massive credit for trying to do something different and examine the allegorical comparatives for what they are.

The Dark Knight v the Man of Steel!!!

Unfortunately, while the script is by and large a great screenplay (yes, even the “Martha” stuff…I will address that too), Zack Snyder is incapable at delivering the execution this film needed. Breaking it down between this film and the Marvelous elephant in the room that is Captain America – Civil War; another film wherein the two biggest heroes the studio can offer go head to head over basic idealistic disagreements, it is this film that has the stronger script and makes braver dramatic choices. So why is it, that this film is merely good while that one is great? It is all about execution.

The Iron Avenger vs the Soldier out of Time!!!

First off, it took thirteen films to get to the point in the Marvel universe where you could pit these characters against each other in a fully believable fashion. This one takes a couple of minutes to set the scenario wherein they would want to do battle. The second biggest misstep in execution stemmed from a base misunderstanding of who these characters are. Sure, the Batman in this film directly reflects the Batman seen in Frank Miller’s exceptional The Dark Knight Returns and Superman goes through the same character journey as in Brian Azzarello’s masterpiece, Superman for Tomorrow, but it took 50 and 70 years, respectively, to get to the point where those stories could even be told with those characters. The writers had to build to them so that they could resonate at the level most fans agree they do. This film shirks that in an effort to launch into quality, but the quality of storytelling is never earned. The biggest complaint from the average viewer of this film is that they didn’t set up the fight well enough. Why would they fight at all? It seems a simple conversation could suss everything out. Right? This is not something you hear when people address the Civil War storyline, but that is because their conflict was a believable, and natural progression to get to that point. Both Batman and Superman seem to be acting out of character in this film and many viewers found it off-putting and overtly bleak.

And while Zack Snyder painted his filmic canvas with unparalleled beauty, he often seemed more concerned with delivering a hardcore action epic, which didn’t seem to be called for with the script given. His complete inability to focus, caused a potentially great film to occasionally flounder. He did release an expanded edition on bluray which does fix some of the film’s flaws, but I think the film would be better focused if they released an edition that cut the runtime to about two hours. Scale back all of the world building and pay service to the film at hand and not the films yet to come.

While these flaws are truly damning, the film is heightened by a many number of things that are at the very least admirable. Ben Affleck’s turn in the cowl is magnetic and played to gritty perfection. He owns this movie and makes for one hell of a threat. Lex Luthor, as written on the page, is the best Lex that has ever been brought to screen. Eisenberg’s casting was a misstep (perhaps he would have been better served for The Riddler), but the character is still there and perfectly embodies that character from the comics. But it is Wonder Woman that steals the show. Was her role necessary? Not really, but damn if she isn’t the most memorable thing in the film.

As I mentioned before, Snyder’s brilliant eye for creating thrilling, and pathos enriched visuals is never more apparent than in this film. There are stills from this film that I would like to hang on my wall, they are that good and perfectly embody the messianic story the film goes about telling.

The last great thing this film does is take a chance with its climax. It willingly kills a central character that hasn’t really been done in one of these kinds of films before, but it does so in service to both the story and the morality play that it is trying to make a statement on. It is through death that people were able to fully put their belief, their faith in the man who would act as shepherd into tomorrow. Justice dawns after the twilight of a hero’s sacrifice. A bold move done by a studio that has already made many bold moves. (I will grant you that many have not panned out, but still.)

Most of what sells this film is the sincerity that it goes about fashioning its heroes, villains and common men. It makes a statement rich in religious metaphor and never gets overtly preachy in trying to do so. Most of the film’s failings come about because of a misguided director that would have you focus on the action happening now and the stories yet to come rather than centering on the moral quandaries that the film brings up. That and rushing the whole Doomsday plotline in a film that didn’t really call for it. But at the end of the day, this film set out to deliver spectacle and lord did it deliver. It also dived into these characters in a way never done before and that is saying something as these characters have been in nearly 15 movies between them.

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Lastly, I will leave you with a short defense of “Martha.” For Bats to be won over by merely hearing the name Martha works on a dramatic level in that it is the moment that he, as the agnostic, can find a core human relation to the messianic figure that he has been suffering an internal (and clearly, external) struggle with. He relates that both he and this God both come from a common woman, so common that their mother’s share the same name. On paper that is poetic, if a bit maudlin, beauty. Once again, its execution was something left to be desired, but I dig the concept. I, however, did not dig when ten minutes later Bats told Mrs. Kent that he was “a friend of your son.” Cut back a few minutes and Batman was literally cutting Supe’s face with a Kryptonite dagger. So, yeah, a flawed film…but good.

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