I really liked Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s 2013 reboot of Superman: I liked how it gave him soul and tragedy and inner conflict like we had never quite seen before in the character. (At least onscreen. I cannot claim to have in-depth knowledge of the character’s long and varied history in print.) The son of Krypton we saw there didn’t enjoy the powers he possessed, and he hesitated to wield them. If it seemed as if he went overboard in the end, finally acquiescing to use his strength and abilities to fight Zod — laying waste to much of Metropolis in the process — it was at least understandable, from our perspective, why he did so: Zod had to be stopped, and whatever collateral damage was inflicted was nothing compared to what Zod would have done had he been left to rampage.
Of course it still would have been horrible to be in town on that day! So it would be understandable, too, if the people of Metropolis did not look on Superman with kindness, after Zod. Yet apparently most of them worship him, as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice opens. There is a statue of Superman, many times larger than life, near a memorial wall upon which are inscribed the names of “The Heroes” of that terrible day… and it’s clear that those “heroes” are the innocents killed as skyscrapers toppled in the battle. Is this wishful-thinking valorization of poor schmoes who had the dumb luck to be in the wrong place at the wrong time who died for nothing? Are the people of Metropolis and the rest of the planet fools to venerate Superman?
Such certainly seems to be the gist of things in BvS. For it presents us with a Batman — though at first only as his Bruce Wayne alter ego — who seethes with horror at Superman’s unstoppable destructive capabilities and holds the stupid proles who venerate him in contempt… a contempt that it is difficult to dismiss when we witness Superman kill almost unthinkingly, reflexively, and in no noble cause. Has everyone been duped by Superman? Has Superman been seduced by his own power? Such ideas could make for a truly provocative superhero story! (Though probably one that would have Superman purists up in arms.) But these are not, alas, questions that interest Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole). Nor do the potentially intriguing questions, the serious stuff that has always underlain pulp comic-book stories, that Wayne’s objections to Superman initally raise: What is the nature of the relationship between humans and a godlike alien? How far can such an alien be trusted?
What is this movie, then? It doesn’t feel like a sequel to Man of Steel, with its emo ET Boy Scout. Damn if it doesn’t feel, completely unironically and unawares, like a movie from the world in which the superhero-cynical Watchmen was set (which Snyder also brought to the big screen): cold, cruel, borderline incoherent in its testosterone-fueled rage and paranoia, misogynist, paternalistic… fascist, even. And not in any way that feels right or good or even vaguely interesting. This is a movie that doesn’t seem to realize that one of its putative heroes, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck: Gone Girl, Runner Runner), shares the same goal with its clear villain, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg: American Ultra, Rio 2): to destroy Superman (Henry Cavill: The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Cold Light of Day). Luthor actually suggests to Wayne that they team up on something, what with both of them being scientifically minded billionaire genuises… and though it’s plain that Luthor doesn’t realize that Wayne is Batman, that suggestion hangs over the rest of the movie: Why don’t they just team up? (Their traditional roles in the mythos, on different sides of the good/bad divide, is not a good enough reason why not, certainly not based on what we see here.)
And yet BvS cannot even commit to its brutal vision of Batman, who channels war criminal Dick Cheney — applying his appalling “one-percent doctrine” to Superman — and has apocalyptic nightmares about the Man of Steel. The thing that eventually brings Batman around to siding with Superman in an even bigger battle (one that — *sigh* — destroys some more of Metropolis) is the thing that finally made me guffaw out loud, and to give up on this movie when I had still been reserving the tiniest bit of hope that it might be salvaged. It is not the fact that respected and adventurous investigative journalist Lois Lane (Amy Adams: American Hustle, Her) exists in this movie solely to be a damsel in distress to be rescued by Superman, or that the most exciting bit of action that Diana Prince/Wonder Women (Gal Gadot: Triple 9, Furious 7) gets here involves downloading files that Bruce Wayne has emailed to her, but it is related to how women in this movie are nothing more than vectors that allow men to experience powerful emotion. Screenwriters Chris Terrio (Argo, Heights) and David S. Goyer (Man of Steel, The Dark Knight Rises) are to be derided for taking a coincidence in the backstories of Superman and Batman and turning it into the most risible example of damselling, and of women as supporting characters to men’s stories, that I think I have ever seen on the big screen. If this is what it takes to make superheroes reconsider their perspectives, then we have no superheroes.
So Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a movie that trashes the idea of heroes, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Except BvS doesn’t seem to realize that that is what it is doing, and it is very explicitly about setting up a new franchise of superhero movies. There is a deep cynicism here not only in the context of the story it is telling but also in how it thinks it can be edgy and gritty about superheroes by outright telling is we are fools to believe in them. In this case, I think any insult to the characters is outweighed by the insult to the audience. Should we love Batman and Superman, or not? Should we buy tickets to your next Justice League movie, Snyder, or not?