Why this polarizing superhero movie remains profoundly impactful to me amidst a largely homogenized superhero film fabric after 3 years.
1. Ben Affleck’s Batman: The aspect of Batman that Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan failed to evoke, but Zack Snyder and Ben Affleck grabbed by its neck and hit a home run with, is the the fact that Bruce Wayne doesn’t have just a human struggle, and instead it is something more metaphysical and grand, all tying to the never-ending proverbial and literal mission. Comic book fans of the character should be more than aware of the Bat’s obsession with the mission. Affleck just packs a lot more brooding intensity, the existential torment and that testosterone so very essential to Batman, that other cinematic Batmen lacked. And those only describe the surface level traits, and not the nuanced performance he gives in the movie. You can immediately tell that this man has always been on the moral fence, being a violent vigilante, yet his pensive gaze has that heroic wisdom to it that only a man who is at heart a hero would have. Affleck sells that defining mythopoetic Batman torment and vengeance incredibly well. To quote the (in-)famous and prolific Frank Miller:
“He is not small, he is not petty, and he is not a whiner: there is not a hint of self-pitying in him. He is smart. He is noble. And most important: he is grand. His passions are grand. Even his woes are: he is not subject to mere depression, but to Wagnerian ruminations and torments.”Frank Miller
Snyder also showcases his intelligence and adeptness in tid-bits and teases of scenes with him analyzing situations from a scientific perspective. Snyder shows this adequately (though, in my opinion, not enough to satisfy this fan‘s appetite) via the Kryptonite engineering scenes in Batman v Superman, and in smaller moments like his analysis of Barry Allen’s proto-type suit in the little parts that ultimately made into the frankenstein theatrical cut of Justice League. Certainly, enough for a future Batman director to pickup and elaborate on (a lost opportunity, at this juncture). Batfleck‘s more violent/reckless ways mirror stories like A Lonely Place of Dying (by Marv Wolfman) which also happens to be a post-Jason Todd death story where Batman has descended into a self-destructive and self-effacing path with no real end in sight, not unlike the Batman in this movie who has a desecrated Robin costume in the batcave as a morbid reminder of sorts.
2. A deconstructed Batman: Affleck’s portrayal is meant to reflect the narrative circumstances he’s placed in – more akin to his state of mind in Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying, as mentioned above. Reckless, brutal, careless and consumed in his self-imposed war to the point of irrationality and clouded judgement. The Bat in the movie has thrown all romanticism out of the window, and sees Superman as merely a future source of trouble – in this attempt at being hyper-rational, he is in turn irrational and romanticizes his own little crusade to the point of a Messianic complex (“This may be the only thing I do that matters“). The Knightmare scene also further reinforces the same, portraying a post-apocalyptic scenario where earth has succumbed to the Anti-Life Equation (see: Darkseid and the Fourth World), with that version of Batman having been captured with three other insurgents – invoking the Biblical penitent thieves imagery.
People see this as vanilla paranoia and irrationality, accusing it to be uncharacteristic of Batman, when it is in fact very much in line with Batman’s canonical modus-operandi, which is to nip a problem in the bud and have contingencies for it otherwise (Grant Morrison and Mark Waid’s JLA: Tower of Babel being perhaps the most iconic example). Despite the character deconstruction and the manslaughter the character finds himself guilty of, at its core, this radical character treatment of the Bat still resonates with and invokes the canon.
3. Non-action and contemplative scenes: The best example for this is the respective heroes’ prelude to the fight. This is beautifully approached, as Snyder shows us the contrast between our heroes. First, with the Superman mountain top scene, where he attempts a self-imposed exile and penance of sorts after failing to stop the Capitol Bombing, and has an interaction with his father in a dream sequence of sorts, reaching the ultimate conclusion that while he can’t save everyone, he can certainly do his part and hold onto the emotional fulcrums that ultimately solidify his humanity. This scene is immediately followed up with Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth in a dilapidated Wayne manor – very much an allegory of Bruce’s state of mind. Yet another conversation is had between the Son and the Father figure, with a more grim conclusion that ending Superman’s existence might be the only valid legacy he leaves behind – in line with the fact that the first generation of Wayne’s traded in pelts and skins – They Were Hunters.
Thus, we see the contrast bare itself to the viewer – the former, who has had the guidance of his father in his pivotal years and thus turned out more balanced, and the latter – who lost his father so early that he has to rely on the dark romanticization of the tales of his paternal family’s legacy as a justification for his misguided hubris. The former is contemplative – but ultimately results in hopefulness and a moral reinforcement, while the other simply solidifies his descent into self consuming darkness.
4. Philosophical, mythic and archetypal allusions: The sheer existential and emotional weight of this movie is life-changing, from a personal perspective, and the life crises and the characters’ individual, distinct hubris that culminates into one epic arc, affecting all the players is profound. The various characters all have something to takeaway from an introspective perspective – call it a Socratean gaze inwards, if you will. A search for self-knowledge, revealing their individual misguidance. Personally speaking, this movie helped me deal with my own mental demons and made me a better, loving human striving for constant self improvement. The Batman in this movie itself is notably a marvelous manifestation of the Nietzchean concept of Will to Power. Additionally, Superman is very much an Arthurian archetype, Batman is Lancelot-esque in the sense that he is initially an anti-hero of sorts that ultimately bands with our primary protagonist, with Lois Lane serving as an analogue for the Lady of the Lake as well as Mary Magdalene in a Biblical context – especially in the third act of the movie. The manner in which Superman and Doomsday (our Mordred, for all intents and purposes) impale each other also mirrors the manner in which Arthur and Mordred’s battle pans out in Excalibur (1981).
5. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor: Welp, burn me at the stake for this, eh? Hear me out. Jesse Eisenberg’s cockiness, the surety, the neurotic gaze, those heavy brows and cheekbones and slimy gate – all emanate this almost exaggerated sense of villainy that was so perfectly in contrast to the hulking, heroic presences of Cavill (Superman) and Affleck (Batman). Eisenberg is the most interesting character in the movie if one sees beyond the quirks but that in itself is the point – I loved the idea that this was someone who had an abusive childhood and yet, due to being from a privileged background concurrently also developed this heightened sense of entitlement and a resentment bubbling under the surface, all too reflective of us millennials. One must also appreciate that this Lex was more of a techy billionaire and had a Silver Age mad-scientist edge to him as opposed to being the strapping, bald businessman type archetype introduced by John Byrne. More on this interesting, quirky Lexophile of a character below, for those interested in an in-depth analysis:
6. Organic continuity of Man of Steel and a logical shared universe: In a sense BvS was a very natural extension of the events of Man of Steel and to that extent is a bridging gap without the need for tedious solo movies of established character(s). Zack Snyder has mentioned that this Batman essentially had the equivalent of the collective history and experience of the previous Batmen we’ve seen in mainstream media. Shared universes do not need to be in tandem with the need for solo sequels, so a hypothetical Man of Steel 2 followed by a rather mechanical reaction by this universe’s Batman to this existential and literal threat after his own solo movie would seem unnatural and forced. It would be silly for him to react a whole movie later and instead what we get here is something more organic, in my humble opinion.
7. Martha!: Burn me at the stake again! The Martha moment or resolution, if you will, perhaps the most reviled scene in the movie isn’t exactly meant to be a logical, rational conflict resolution at all. That is the whole point of it – a 180 turn for a man (Bruce Wayne) dealing with his own instability, consumed by cynicism a nd paranoia, as well as tragic events defining his life to the point of being hyper-rational: his argument of there being a 1% chance of being their enemy and taking it as an absolute certainty simply further accentuates this. This line of thinking is what defines the politics of fear.
This resonates in some sense with the with the right-wing political sentiment that universally prefers security over civil liberties (which Clark Kent incidentally addresses in the movie with regards to the Bat’s activities in Gotham). This coupled with Bruce’s inherent paranoia and need to form a contingency plan cements the need for a more emotional resolution rather than a logical, rational and dialectical conclusion based on exposition and character interaction.
Luthor’s entire plan ensures the lack of interaction between our two protagonists as more interaction in turn would lead to increasing common ground. Bruce needed this emotional shock to overcome this abyss of negativity he’s been falling into. It is so much more than “Batman deciding Superman is good because his mother’s name is Martha“. It is a man coming to terms with his own demons, his own guilt projected onto this God-like being that he considers an existential threat, the little boy in Crime alley finally coming to terms with the fact that while he can’t save his own mother, he can do right by Supes and save his. Superman instills that maturity in him – he can’t control everything, but he can do his part. It is a purposely dramatized and emotional conflict resolution to be sure, something us millennials are completely out of touch with and thus deem “idiotic”. It isn’t, and was never meant to be logical in its intent.
8. Chris Terrio’s writing: Chris Terrio of Argo fame (and now Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker) approaches the writing with a highly stylized, thespian quality, that really elevates the exchanges between characters to a mythic level. A welcome change amidst the vanilla, casual conversational littered with quippy one-liners and sarcastic dialogue. The dry humor, from characters like Alfred Pennyworth, is instead the what the film largely adopts for levity.
9. Superman: This is perhaps more of a Man of Steel and BvS collective praise – the otherworldly, alien nature of Kryptonian society and technology was definitely one of the standout aspects, as well as the allusions to sustainability and self-destruction. This, combined with the compelling emotional journey and struggle of the Clark Kent character in itself humanized Superman a bit more beyond the caricatured, simplistic dichotomy of the the clumsy Clark Kent and the ubermensch, everyman Superman of Christopher Reeve.
Perhaps this opinion varies based on country and cultural background, and it is mostly North Americans who, if anybody, strongly dislike this interpretation of Superman since it deviates from the Silver and Golden Age version of the character, with his limitless powers and jingoistic undertones. Man of Steel and BvS‘s Superman on the other hand goes far beyond the American archetype of truth, justice and the American way and resonates on a level that transcends these American ideals and tropes, making him a world hero, not merely an American icon. Sure, in some senses Supes’ characterization in BvS is a step backwards in comparison to MoS, but third world folks like yours truly appreciate that Snyder injected the modicum of gravitas needed to appreciate the layered nature of a character like Superman/Kal-El and did away with the subtle flag-waving tropes associated with him historically. Instead, he chose to tell a (not-so-)classic Immigrant Tale.
10. Visuals/Cinematography: The sets, costumes, cinematography, action scenes – really not much to be said in this regard that hasn’t already been said – even among detractors and aficionados alike. This video says enough on my part – the references and parallels to the literature and art of yore is aplenty.
In conclusion, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice only continues to gain relevance and significance in the face of a largely homogenized Disney-driven film-making monoculture, where anything left-field is immediately reviled, lest it be devoid of the passive-aggressive irony and non-self serious standard forged by the said empire’s media properties. Characters are vehicles for often meaningless levity rather than conveying distinct archetypes – forming a greater mythic tapestry. This movie was too auteurist for its own good, and few films come close to the way it balances emotional poignancy, fantastical drama, political commentary and bombastic superhero action. Praise and hail!
All featured art by the author (Achintya Venkatesh).
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