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Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

I don’t usually write movie reviews or talk about pop culture here, but today I’ll make an exception. Contrary to what you have probably heard from most film critics, Batman v. Superman is quite good. It is not without its flaws, but on the whole it succeeds in what it is trying to do. It serves as a fitting sequel to Man of Steel and lays the foundation for the later Justice League movies that will start coming out next year. I have seen it twice this week, and my opinion of it improved after the second viewing.

There is a strange, widely-shared idea that the movie doesn’t do justice to the main characters. That is probably the least credible objection one could make, and I’ll try to address it below. Some have even gone so far as to say that the director, Zack Snyder, hates Superman and uses the movie to attack and abuse him. As Mark Hughes has explained very capably, this is completely wrong:

Yes, those things are all meant to criticize Superman and what he stands for. The trick is, you’re supposed to realize they’re all wrong, because that’s the actual point of the movie — everyone mocking and criticizing Superman is wrong.

Hughes has also written a very positive review of the movie. I may not be quite as enthusiastic as he is, but he is right in what he says. My guess is that almost all of the complaints about the portrayals of the two title characters stem from a lack of familiarity with the source material, a reflexive dislike of this genre of movies, or some grudge that critics have against the director himself. It is fair to say that this is a comic book movie that assumes a fair amount of knowledge from the audience and makes references that many viewers may miss or not understand, but that underscores the respect that the director and the writers have for the characters and the world they inhabit.

Some major spoilers follow, so most of the post will come after the jump. Read on if you’ve already seen the movie or don’t care about finding out what happens.

To lay my cards on the table, I am a DC Comics fan, and I am hardly unbiased when it comes to movie adaptations of these stories. It may be that the movie is not as accessible for non-fans as it could be, and if I had seen a movie like this ten years ago I probably wouldn’t have understood some parts of it. That said, I think Batman v. Superman does a superb job. It forces the audience to question the methods of both of the main characters, it makes those characters acknowledge their failings, and then gives them an opportunity to make things right. The supposedly “grim” and “dark” film that so many are lamenting concludes with heroic self-sacrifice by one main character and redemption for the other. In the end, cynicism, self-doubt, and hatred are defeated. The heroes (including Wonder Woman) prevail, albeit at the apparent cost of Superman’s life.

The Batman we encounter at the start of the film is an older, embittered figure who resents his own powerlessness and fears Superman because of the events at the end of Man of Steel, in which a large section of Metropolis is laid waste and many thousands are killed during the battle with Zod. These victims include many of Bruce Wayne’s friends and employees. Batman’s anger about his powerlessness is impossible to miss, since Alfred addresses it directly in a quote that was included in multiple trailers: “That’s how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.” Wayne perceives Superman purely as an alien menace at this point, and he is eventually provoked by the real villain of the story (Lex Luthor, naturally) into seeking to destroy Superman on the assumption that he is protecting the world from what seems to be an existential threat. Like so many that think they perceive an existential threat, Batman is horribly wrong about all of this, but he believes he is safeguarding mankind. In fact, he is actually at risk of destroying his own humanity, but he realizes this only at the end. That leads him to acquire Kryptonite and design weapons to kill Superman, and Superman is then maneuvered into a no-win scenario in which he feels compelled to confront the other hero. Lex Luthor has kidnapped Clark Kent’s mother and threatened to kill her unless he fights Batman, and that forces Superman into the showdown for which Batman has been preparing.

Instead of trying to kill Batman, Superman attempts to reason with him, and even when he has been beaten in the fight his only concern is with rescuing his mother. He begs Batman to save her, and the use of his mother’s name–Martha–makes Wayne pause. The fact that the two characters happen to have mothers with the same first name causes Wayne to remember the death of his father and mother, which was also the scene that opened the film. That humanizes Superman in the eyes of his would-be foe, who has made a point before this of denying the other hero’s humanity. The resolution of the fight between the two may feel a bit contrived, but it still works well enough. Wayne is forced to realize that Superman is a man with parents ultimately no different than he is instead of being an alien threat that needs to be eliminated. As a result, he casts aside his fear of Superman and rushes to help rescue Martha Kent.

There are nods to many different sources in the comics throughout the movie. The doubting, unsure Superman that we see as he comes under fierce public criticism is reminiscent of elements from the Superman: Earth One story, in which Superman faced similar fear about his possible abuse of power and being a danger to the planet. There are numerous obvious visual references to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which strongly influences the portrayal of the fight scenes between the two. There are also hints of influence from the Injustice series, but with the fundamental difference that the Superman portrayed in the film is the noble and selfless version of the character that we expect to see. The so-called “Knightmare” vision that shows a world ruled by the villain Darkseid and a puppet Superman refers to the main enemy from the New 52 Justice League series and foreshadows the most likely threat to be confronted in the next movie. The seemingly fatal confrontation with Doomsday is a direct and obvious adaptation of the death of Superman from the comics. All of this is readily apparent to people familiar with these stories, but it may be lost on most moviegoers.

The main weakness of the movie is that it assumes that the audience understands the sometimes obscure references made to other characters and stories. The seemingly random appearance of the Flash as part of a Bruce Wayne dream sequence comes out of nowhere, and anyone not already familiar with the Flash character and his ability to travel through time will have no idea what’s going on. The inclusion of parademons in the same dream sequence raises more questions for most viewers than it answers. The brief video showing Cyborg’s origin story will likewise be fairly baffling to those that haven’t followed the comics in recent years. As far as I’m concerned, these details help to flesh out the DC movie universe and lay the groundwork for later stories, but they might not make much sense to a lot of people.

Following a terrorist attack engineered by Luthor that he failed to prevent earlier in the plot, Superman briefly loses heart and seems to be giving up on the world. Despite Lois’ insistence that the symbol of hope on his suit “still means something,” he says that it meant that only on his world and now his world doesn’t exist. Possibly the most poignant moment in the entire movie comes near the end when he realizes that he has to risk his own life to destroy Doomsday (the abomination that Luthor has helped to create to kill him). He turns to Lois and says, “This is my world. You are my world.” He affirms his dedication to his adopted planet–and the people on it–and then proves his willingness to die in its defense. Nothing could be truer or more faithful to the Superman character, and through that sacrifice at the end he draws Batman back from the edge on which he was teetering and brings him back into the light. Instead of destroying him, Superman ends up saving Batman from himself and in turn inspires Batman to become the hero he used to be. I can scarcely imagine a more fitting ending to a story about a fight between two iconic heroes.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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