Imagine the following: a popular movie genre is categorized by smart but formulaic films, enjoyable and entertaining while also going out of their way to explain everything explicitly to the viewer and not engage any level of mystery or metaphysical questions. Another film comes along in this genre and while spending a lot of time on epic clashes and action sequences, it also deals with questions of how father figures impact who we are and how we view God; the nature of God’s relationship with man; the nature of good versus evil within the world and within ourselves; and whether change is possible and the extent to which we can control that change.
You might expect this film to be met with critical acclaim, or at least be recognized for taking risks. Instead, when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice premiered several weeks ago, it was critically panned and mocked.
So when I saw it this past week, I was shocked that I loved it. I don’t think it’s the greatest superhero movie ever made (that distinction goes to Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but I liked it more than most of the current crop of Marvel films, most of which I enjoy immensely may I add.
So why did the film attract so much hatred? Friends whose opinions I respect range on this topic, from criticizing the fact that it wasn’t “fun enough”, didn’t have “enough plot”, or differed greatly from the characters we know and love. I can tackle each of these criticisms in turn, but I think that would be a waste to fill a blogpost with thousands of words dissecting each aspect of the film. In fact, I think doing so completely misses the point of the film, which in my mind was to force the viewer to grapple with deeper, more personal questions while also setting in motion the cinematic DC Extended Universe.
We get a Superman and a Lex Luthor beginning their time as hero and villain while Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne and Batman is dealing with a cynicism and jadedness from decades of fighting crime without any stability or peace to show for it. Instead, he’s more haunted than ever before just as Superman begins to be haunted by his past, his reception, his legacy, and his purpose.
Theology, morality, politics, and psychology are all immersed throughout the plot, but you wouldn’t know it from the criticisms surrounding the film too concerned with every little plot point being perfectly explained to deal with silly questions about life, family, and the universe around us.
Although some defenses go too far in praising the film (taking the unfortunate step of even criticizing Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy), I understand the temptation to do so in the face of the mobs who uncharitably and unreasonably criticize Batman v Superman in a way that lacks any nuance or comprehensive analysis. Still, defenses like this one in National Review point out many of the strengths of the film, namely allowing the return of mythological debates of morality, politics, and more in a way that leaves mystery and debate instead of spoon-fed popcorn blockbusters.
The best discussion of the film is one I will generously excerpt here from my friend Jared Musgrove:
Throughout human history, enduring epics like Beowulf, The Iliad and Macbeth have not shied away from the bombastic form that embodies most classical storytelling. Before they became classics, these epics were simply the popular entertainment of the time, written for the commoner. They weren’t always English teachers’ critical darlings, but were works designed to stir the audience by staging big drama and big questions. They did not shy away from operatic arrangement of human drama, keying into the fact that our grandest fictions extract general truths for the individual to consider.
Comic books tend to function the same way. In fact, I believe they are the modern successor to Greek tragedies and Shakespeare. Sound and fury, good and evil, life and death, day and night—everything is heightened and dialed up to 11. That’s why, as a comic book movie made decidedly in the vein of classic mythical storytelling, director Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justicemostly works. It may never become a Hollywood classic, but when understood in this vein, I think it has a lot to offer. Despite some missteps that many critics can’t seem to see past, there is truth, goodness and even beauty to be found in the polarizing, crowded and furious movie.
This is a good moment to point out that I concede there are legitimate critiques to be made of the film. Reports of the first cut being more than four hours long reinforce the idea that much of it is sloppily edited together and its pace is clunky in spots. But the same has been said of other great superhero films in my opinion, most recently The Dark Knight Rises. What most critics of Batman v Superman fail to admit is that you can raise legitimate criticisms without completely writing the film off altogether. It’s as if the internet outrage machine has turned its focus on this film, burning up all nuance in the process.
Batman v Superman probably succeeds most in Snyder’s audacity to tell a comics story like a comics story. With heightened language and vast themes that speak to the individual about how we choose to live our lives, he captures the big and bold aesthetic of comic book—not to mention epic—storytelling.
Perhaps more than anything, Batman v Superman is a movie about choice—specifically as it relates to the two men on the marquee. Batman is embittered, increasingly violent and a self-professed “criminal” who perhaps started out to do good but has lost his way. Superman is still in the proto stages of his formation. Having saved the world on his first outing in Man of Steel, he is now a worldwide figure of controversy still trying to right wrongs.
Batman v Superman is a Superman film, but it is Batman’s journey. Superman is seen as many things, but ultimately portrayed to the viewer as “a guy just trying to do the right thing.” The world in the film, burned by far too many men trying to do their own right thing, is largely suspicious. The suspicion and savior discussion around Superman is general and vast, but we keep having it, signifying a very important truth of the human condition and an important consideration: We will look for, and indeed need, someone to save us. Even if we are billionaires with bat-gear. The world we live in is suspicious, as well. …
These two men with differing philosophical approaches meet. There is the inevitable misunderstanding and impasse which, in enduring drama, always leads to a duel. This time-honored but well-worn trope pervades Greek tragedies, Chaucer, Shakespeare and comic books alike. So what makes Batman v Superman worth watching? Is there any beauty to be had in such a bulging blockbuster?
In the finale of the title fight, there is a rebirth for this film’s version of Batman. It works in a way Charles Dickens would appreciate in its intensely personal and implausible connection. Without giving too much away, a single name uttered by Superman immediately humanizes the Man of Steel in Batman’s eyes. Both men change in this moment. Superman is humbled and perhaps a little wiser for the wear. And Batman regains his humanity in a single moment to become the Batman we know. This is what comics and classical storytelling do. In such heightened reality, a man’s heart can change in a moment when he meets another man in whom he sees a bedrock of principles and a moral compass.
This is the beauty of unwavering fictional heroes such as Superman; they can be a catalyst of reinvigoration for other characters, giving them—and us—reason to believe that the fight for truth, good and beauty is not lost so long as men contend for it. Batman and Superman, two orphans of sweepingly separated philosophical experiences, are united here. Batman immediately calls a man formerly considered a mortal “enemy” a “friend.” Both characters go on different journeys, but they end up at the same place.
The sound and fury that fills Batman v Superman signifies our link to the classical method of storytelling, of which comic book superheroes are our 21st-century tether. Whether we still have a place for such bombastic storytelling remains to be seen. But given the box office success of Snyder’s film, this kind of imperfect pop culture opera still has mass appeal in its audacity to cloak in capes the most basic questions about ourselves.
I, for one, can’t wait for Suicide Squad and the other installments of the D.C. Extended Universe to come in the years ahead. While I eagerly await Captain America: Civil War, it’s the D.C. cinematic films that continue to connect most with me as it addresses “the most basic questions about ourselves.”