Clash of the Titans
In light of the heavy fire Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice has been taking from critics, I will say upfront that the film is a narrative mess. The main plotline follows Batman’s increasing distrust of Superman, whose battle against General Zod in Man of Steel caused huge and lethal amounts of collateral damage. Superman returns the sentiment, believing that Batman’s brutal brand of justice is a menace to law-abiding society, which in turn observes these two heroes with simultaneous appreciation and wariness.
If the screenplay had stopped right there, Batman v Superman would have had plenty of material for a sturdier, more streamlined superhero film. Instead, comic-book bigwigs Lex Luthor and Wonder Woman were added to the fray, both of whom are plenty interesting in their own right but take up story space that could otherwise have been used to develop the main plot. The resulting film unwittingly makes a strong case against multitasking: try to do too many things at once, and the quality of each individual task suffers. In its current, theatrical form (a Director’s Cut was recently announced, so there’s hope yet for a better organized version), Batman v Superman feels like three films crammed into one. It’s so overstuffed with plot that even the transitions between narrative threads take damage—there simply isn’t room in the film’s runtime for good transitions. Things happen in the story without having developed organically from previously introduced plot points, making the movie feel like a lurching vehicle constantly at risk of sputtering to a halt.
A lesser, more generic picture might have collapsed under storytelling this convoluted, but Batman v Superman is not this movie. If the film’s a failure in some respects, it fails in pursuit of visionary goals, among which is the creation of an aesthetic of literal hero worship. Notice how Lex Luthor, who reveals himself to be director Zack Snyder’s diegetic surrogate both by his excitement over the first meeting of heroes (“Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent! I love it! I love bringing people together!”) and the way he gleefully pits them against one another from behind the scenes, constantly invokes mythical archetypes in his speech, suggesting the reverence Snyder himself feels toward his heroes (and they are likely his heroes in a personal sense, given that Snyder is a known fanboy). “Black and blue, god vs. man, day vs. night,” Luthor crows in anticipation of the forthcoming clash of the titans, and the filmmaking reflects his enthusiasm. Through Snyder’s trademark use of slo-mo, a color palette frequently evoking the elements (earth, wind, fire, and water figure heavily into the imagery), and thundering sound design that reminds us that sound waves are in fact vibrations, the film aesthetically coveys that these characters are larger-than-life. Whereas most other superhero films pursue the current vogue of either light and irreverent (Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Deadpool) or gritty and relatable (Netflix’s Daredevil and Jessica Jones, as well as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), Snyder treats his heroes as mythic warriors whose struggles feel vast and archetypal. To him, Batman and Superman aren’t simply franchise property or even beloved characters. They are giants of the collective American imagination, doing for contemporary society what the the Olympian gods did for Ancient Greece. If Superman is the intuitive equivalent of a god given his powers, then Batman is the human with hubris enough to wage war against the heavens.
As a whole, Batman v Superman‘s evocative filmmaking articulates its director’s desire to re-mythologize two heroes who’ve been normalized and sanitized by the entertainment industry. That said, the deliberate overwroughtness of the film is also enjoyable simply as melodrama—here is a movie where intense emotions manifest themselves not only in the actors’ performances but in the images and every decibel of sound and fury. At the close of one illustrative scene, a murder victim’s necklace breaks, raining pearls into a storm drain as her child looks on. Snyder cuts to a shot from within the sewers, angled up, and we see the white orbs falling toward the lens in slow motion, signifying the white of innocence literally going down the drain. Completely wordless, this moment is a haunting visualization of grief, evoking Dr. Manhattan’s tragic flashback sequence from Snyder’s Watchmen.
In another scene, Lex Luthor directs a character’s attention to a Renaissance-style painting depicting angels and demons in flight. He proposes that the painting be flipped upside down, for “devils don’t come from hell beneath us. No, they come from the sky” (note the use of Biblical language, which has an outsized influence on the mythos of the Western World.) Here, the barely veiled condemnation of Superman verges on eye-rolling heavy-handedness, except Snyder doesn’t stop at heavy-handed. He goes full-blown baroque, inserting a soundtrack of violent strings and zooming in on the painting until its macabre artistry engulfs the frame. Set in one of Lex’s ornate parlors, the scene evokes the familiar association between high culture and decadence, calling to mind the likes of Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelson’s incarnation even more so than Anthony Hopkins’). Granted, Luthor is nowhere as compelling a villain as either Dr. Lecter, but the scene’s riff on a familiar schema of villainy adds to the entire film’s splashy grandeur.
With this level of stylistic excess constantly at play, I found Batman v Superman disorganized but almost always interesting. So forceful and charged was the experience that I remained engrossed until the film’s finale, during which the movie’s previously powerful visuals gave way to the kind of numbing explosion-fest many superhero pictures use in lieu of quality action filmmaking. But in Batman v Superman, this type of scene is offset by others that are relatively lucid and at times even virtuosic. One scene unfurls a desert brawl in a single, unbroken shot; another presents the jaw-dropping sight of the beefiest Batman ever created, thrashing a warehouse of baddies like a bull who’s seen red. Physical might obviously factors into Batman v Superman given Superman’s centrality to the film, but it is Batman’s physical performance that is the most satisfying to watch. In a world where men of steel can shrug off bullets and fly at supersonic speeds, seeing human capability hold its own next to superpowered talent has the kick of a good underdog story. Granted, Batman is no ordinary human—at one point, Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne does pull-ups with 90 lbs strapped to his waist—but he is human enough, such that one of the film’s greatest pleasures lies in watching him plow his way through armies of unfortunate extras.
No, these strengths of Batman v. Superman don’t cancel out its narrative disorganization. Throughout the film, I remained too aware of the story’s jerky motion, too distracted by the masterpiece that could have been. Perhaps most alarmingly, the victims most injured by the film’s overstuffed narrative are the female characters, whose lack of presence is egregious even by Hollywood’s standards. Wonder Woman, though motivating an entire narrative thread by virtue of her existence, is herself not a major narrative agent. She speaks maybe five lines the entire movie, and occupies at most 15 minutes of screen time. Even more problematically, the film makes pathetically little use of Amy Adams and Diane Lane as Lois Lane and Martha Kent, respectively, relegating both to playing Superman’s damsels in distress.
Despite all this, however, Snyder’s striking use of sound, image, and theatricality makes Batman v Superman absorbing and occasionally masterful, especially when he mobilizes them in pursuit of melodrama and modern-day myth-making. I gave the film the same grade that I’ve assigned to other, more tightly plotted superhero pictures. But whereas the relative fleet-footedness of those movies belies a puniness of vision, Snyder’s film is a sprawling beast of high ambitions that will stay in the mind long after its counterparts have faded.