The latest big superhero mash-up opened on Good Friday. Given the allusions hearkened to by one of the titular characters—allusions first played up in Mario Puzo’s script for the 1978 Richard Donner Superman film—it cannot be a coincidence. (Hold on to that thought.)
With its first week now over, the verdict seems to be that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a big, absurd mess. The go-to comparison is Marvel’s well-received mash-up Avengers films and the relatively lighthearted Marvel cinematic universe in general, alongside which critics see DC’s latest big screen counterpart as needlessly gloomy, quite overwrought, and much too serious. The film certainly has a myriad of flaws. But while I understand much of the criticism it has received, I cannot say I did not enjoy this film.
Is a superhero film taking itself seriously really so uncalled for? After all, this was Christopher Nolan’s approach when he kicked off his very successful Batman series with Batman Begins back in 2005: mix in broader themes and explore them in the context of a superhero—Batman—grounded more in the real world. This could be a way for Warner Brothers to separate its gaggle of heroes from those over at Disney/Marvel. While the Marvel films are always fun, they are also—for the most part—pretty forgettable. Can anyone recall the plot of Iron Man 2? Thor 2: The Dark World? Avengers? I say this as someone who has generally enjoyed these films, because they are, generally speaking, enjoyable. But story lines with a little more substance are a welcome thing.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice opens by revisiting the mass destruction caused in the climax of Zack Snyder’s previous film, Man of Steel, this time from the vantage point of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). In a strange sort of meta-storytelling approach, the filmmakers took a criticism of Man of Steel—Superman’s leveling of Metropolis in his fight with fellow Kryptonian, General Zod—and turned it into the basis for this film. Having inadvertently caused so much death and destruction, Superman (Henry Cavil reprising) is viewed somewhat ambivalently both by everyday folk and the powers that be. Bruce Wayne is particularly troubled by the presence of what he perceives to be such a potentially destructive force as Krypton’s last son. This provides the seed for their eventual confrontation.
The film also introduces Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, the flamboyant evil genius secretly hatching a rather convoluted plot to pit the world against Superman and also build a Kryptonite weapon. The story also sets up Wonder Woman and some of the other “Meta Humans” (who will presumably make up DC’s super group, the Justice League), while simultaneously giving us the first big screen incarnation of “Doomsday,” a creature infamous for killing Superman in the early 90’s Death of Superman comic story line. And then of course there is the titular battle royale between the film’s two protagonists.
The film’s biggest problems is simple: the story tries to juggle way too much, and falters along the way. As with Sam Raimi’s Spiderman 3, it’s packed, leaving no time to properly develop many of the threads running throughout. Each of the main plot centerpieces are worthy of a film all to themselves. Ideally we should have gotten at least one sequel to Man of Steel and a new Batman standalone film to introduce us to Affleck and Snyder’s interpretation of the character before launching into this mash-up. An issue that could have been ameliorated by an Affleck standalone film is that Batman’s psychology in this current depiction, important in setting up the plausibility of a confrontation between the good guys, seems a bit out of character for what we are accustomed to seeing in the character.
And so the film suffers from disjointed storytelling, especially early on, an obvious symptom of its story being packed to the gills. Much of the criticism of the film remains valid and yet, somehow, I don’t think the sum of its flaws obviate the fact that the film has all the entertaining qualities of its more lighthearted Marvel counterparts. Combine that entertainment value with the addition of one very significant story choice and I actually paused to think, “Ah, now that’s interesting!” Which is something I’ve never experienced in watching a Marvel film.
This is where we come back to the Christ symbolism of Puzo and Donner. It’s not hard to see the latent Trinitarian allusions of that 1978 film: Marlon Brando’s Jor-El (Father) sending his son Superman (Son) to earth to be a light to humanity, providing guidance through a ghostly apparition (Spirit). This new film continues this theme and also has its own Christological elements. The messiah who came to save humanity now faces indictment from the very people he was sent to liberate and guide. There’s even an apocalyptic vision of how this messiah might turn the world upside down. What struck me was how the film actually innovates on the theological angle by introducing a Marian element. Without spoiling too much, I will say that mothers mediate and intervene for their sons at a pivotal moment in the story.
It is, I grant, merely one gem in the otherwise rather mangled mess that is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. However, for all its flaws, the film remains completely watchable. I was prepared for the worst but was pleasantly surprised to find myself entertained and, at times, actually intrigued.
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