starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg
written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer
directed by Zack Snyder
by Walter Chaw This is what I know: that the first time I saw Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, a friend had to acquire it from some disreputable dealer and send it to me, unmarked, in a brown box. When I watched it, I thought to myself that the United States would never suffer something like this in the popular conversation. Not long after 9/11, The Hunger Games became a YA phenomenon capped with a run of blockbuster adaptations. I know that immediately after 9/11, witnesses on the scene could only compare it to something they would have seen in a movie. I know that the United States started remaking the nihilistic horror films that Japan had been churning out for decades, and I know that this is because after 9/11, we became the second modern, industrialized nation to experience the effects of weapons of mass destruction detonated over a civilian area. The other thing we had in common is the arrogance to believe that something about our island status left us immune to that type of offense; I know that most other nations on the planet don't live under any such illusions. If we accept the premise that film, as all art, is sociology and history, then 9/11 is the inciting event that brought us closer as a culture, cinematically, to Japan. The myth of indomitability, whether it be that your Emperor is the descendant of the "living god" (rescinded in 1946 at the request of Supreme Commander Douglas MacArthur) or that you are the island "nation" of Manhattan and your priapic symbols of financial power stood as gatekeepers to the world, suddenly dispelled by an alien power. Poof. Justlikethat. And suddenly you're a citizen of a different place where gods are capricious and maybe not on your side, and terrible things happen for no reason. The world didn't get more dangerous, the mainland just lost its virginity.
I know, too, that where the Japanese had their kaiju eiga, films about "strange beasts" or "monsters" that are sometimes heroes, sometimes not (and always destroying cities either way), we developed superhero movies about "strange beasts" who are sometimes heroes, sometimes not, and always destroying cities. In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (hereafter BVS), there's a moment where Superman is referred to as a "monster." Batman is called that throughout--often by the very people he's helping. I don't think director Zack Snyder did this on purpose, though I do think it doesn't matter what Snyder intended. What he's done with this film is create the perfect monster for us in 2016. BVS is the most unpleasant, unsettling big-budget action/adventure movie to hit the friendly neighbourhood cineplex since Spielberg and Lucas's film maudit classic Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (Cementing the connection, there's even a scene where someone gets "Mola Rammed.") Batman (Ben Affleck, fantastic) is a psychopath; Superman (Henry Cavill, fantastic) is a sociopath; Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, well-cast) is Short Round, the only decent person in the whole damned thing and something of a caricature, a sketch of an idea of virtue. Take that as you will.
I saw this ugly, bleak film on the day that religious fundamentalists blew up themselves and 31 other people in Belgium. This, a week or so after religious fundamentalists blew up themselves and 4 other people in Istanbul (a month after they blew up 13 other people in Istanbul), causing our homegrown religious fundamentalists to start talking about torturing, rounding up, and building ghettos for 1.6 billion people. 1.6 billion is also the number of dollars, roughly, that BVS needs to make to break even. That's called a false equivalency. Bear with me, there'll be a few of these, and they're ultimately not all as false as they might seem. Snyder's BVS is exactly the Superman movie we deserve. It begins as an apologia of sorts for Man of Steel, in which Snyder took the most Christ-like figure in Silver Age Comics and made him a Golden Age figure all noir and war and crime and horror. He created the single most irreducible icon of my childhood and made him a murderer indifferent to the suffering of thousands of collateral casualties, buried by his fecklessness and rage in the rubble of his adopted home of Metropolis. It's interesting to me that this film and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War will be dealing with the consequences of levelling cities, packed to the brim as these franchises have been with city-levelling 9/11 iconography. It's interesting, too, that this iteration of Superman continues to have no problem with killing people. He demonstrates this early on when someone holds a gun to the head of lady love/professional hostage Lois Lane (Amy Adams). My response to that was a "well, of course he could kill anyone he wanted to at any time" horror. This is symptomatic of a movie that doesn't seek to explain the ways of God to men, but imposes upon gods the petty weaknesses and tunnel vision of their creations. It's an attractive teleology vs. theology argument. Except that for this avowed atheist, pop-cultural Superman was the only divinity I ever truly believed in. What I'm really trying to say is that BVS will make its $1.6 billion, because as a culture it's not only the Superman film we deserve, but also the one we most ardently desire.
When the Justice League first appeared, it was as a reaction to the Comics Code and this new movement away from gore and screaming leathernecks. It banded together Earth's greatest superheroes and had them work together as a team against all manner of threats to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I watched the Hanna-Barbera "Super Friends" every day after school. It was as much a part of my development as Star Wars or "The Twilight Zone". "Justice" meant upholding a value in that context. The "Hall of Justice," where the Super Friends lived, looks like a courthouse designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. "Justice" in the "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" context suggests violent ends justifying questionable means. It refers to vengeance. The picture plays games with our heroes: the sadistic kind, where Superman is blackmailed into murder, essentially--the kind where there are suicide bombers and references to pedophiles and sex slavery, cages full of brutalized, filthy Asian women and all. It shows a series of Polaroid snapshots of a beloved character, gagged and terrified with terrible things written on her forehead. It includes a "thank you" to Frank Miller in its closing credits, lest there be any doubt that BVS is anything other than fascist provocation.
Villain Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) says at one point that "psychotic" is a "three-syllable word for any thought too big for little minds," not long after he delivers a speech at a library benefit where he almost quotes Sophocles's "how terrible is knowledge when it brings no profit to the wise." He functions in the film as a Cassandra. He is the scientist figure in sci-fi horror flicks whom no one heeds, and he is the mad scientist in "B" monster-movies who creates, from his own blood, a thing he can't control. The tension of the Luthor character is that he is at once the literal creator of "Doomsday" and proverbially its unheeded herald. Luthor is the fringe Right in our nation, warning of the Apocalypse and inching us closer with every goose step. Luthor's final moments in BVS are a warning, to no one, that something is coming. We know what that "something" is: more bombings, more atrocities, more dead mothers, and more heroes "forced" to sacrifice what they believe in, in the belief that mortgaging every principle on which we were raised is a good trade for continued survival.
DAILY PLANET editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) declares that the American conscience died with "Martin, Bobby, and John." He's admonishing one of his idealistic reporters, but he may as well be addressing anyone left in the audience hoping to see the hero who protects us. The biggest lie, Luthor says, is the idea that power is ever innocent. How terrible that he's right. How terrible that this truth is the truth in a Superman film. How fascinating that Snyder's better Watchmen adaptation is BVS. Snyder paints himself into a curious corner with his interpretation of Superman as this moping, solipsistic god. There's a montage of him doing wondrous things, like blowing up missiles and rescuing farm families from rooftops. But if Supes isn't governed by an innate morality, the cornerstone of this character, then the only reason he hasn't thrown every bad guy on the planet into orbit is because he doesn't really care to solve that problem. He whispers at the end that Lois Lane is his world. She is. The sum total of it. Oh, and his mom, sort of. He has a penchant for running away when things get hard. He's a whiny, truculent, occasionally homicidal child, and if that's not a better representation of the United States and what it believes in, then I stand chastened with knuckles rapped. Who knew that the Superman symbol would go the way of the Confederate flag? When White wonders aloud if Clark clicks his heels together to be transported back to Kansas, in my head I'm thinking that The Wizard of Oz was released in 1939, the year after Superman was introduced in Action Comics, and that Thomas Frank has wondered aloud--and famously--what happened to the progressive idealism of Kansas to make it the wingnut capital of the Midwest. It's a loaded jab that speaks to what a pussy I am to cry at a new Star Wars film that reminded me of the old one in every meaningful way. That time is over. More, it never existed in the first place. Glory to the Superman movie that removes hope, and every memory of hope. Every shred.
I should mention that this Batman kills people as well. Not even Frank Miller's Bats killed people with this kind of purpose--at least not the one from Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns. In that way, he's like Tim Burton's Batman, and like Tim Burton's Batman, Snyder's Batman is a psychopath. He is, indeed, a thought too big for little minds. BVS is best read as expressionism. It isn't bound by character development or sense. Rather, it's strung-together dream sequences, perverse emotions, and nightmare imagery. There are bleeding crypts and holy levitations; unabashed Christian imagery and infernal suggestions abound (one of the caged human traffickees refers to Batman as "a devil"). Desecration of corpses and resurrections? Yes, both. There is the murder of parents--the ghosts of them, too, haunting literally and figuratively at the periphery. BVS is itself deranged. Its consciousness is delusional and subject to hallucination. There's a scene where Lois almost drowns in radioactive green water, not because it moves the script (the circumstances of her immersion are silly, the exposition setting it up clumsy and obviously a post-production crutch. "Did you find the spear?" When was the decision to look for it ever discussed?), but because the image of her trapped in glowing green is straight out of a Dario Argento movie. Inferno, to be precise. Batman/Bruce Wayne is angry with Superman for killing thousands of people, even though Superman did it to save thousands more: the Devil's rationale. So Wayne builds some Kryptonite weapons and challenges Clark Kent to a duel. Then Wonder Woman appears to a soundtrack sting that's suspiciously like Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," and she's as awesome as the suggestion that it's immigrants who will save Gotham and Metropolis. When Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman stand in hero poses, I had a moment of nostalgia true and painful to the kid version of me, eating frozen french fries and contemplating the value of teamwork and halls of justice. It doesn't last. Dreams never do.
BVS isn't about that. It's about branding the bad guys like cattle, deep in their flesh, so they get "justice" in the prison yard. The word "justice" is so cynical a euphemism that you can only say it now with a sneer. BVS is about wholesale murder for the greater good, and the word "fear" is used so much that it should actually be the picture's subtitle instead. Take careful note of the moment where a hostage is freed and how our hero neglects to ask the one important question. Or another where a 9/11-esque memorial is used as a weapon. Take note, too, of Superman fucking Lois Lane in a bathtub. BVS is brutal to nostalgia. Batman's entire battle cry is how Superman is a naïf, a child, and how he's going to make him into a man by beating him to death. He crystallizes the struggle as offense that Superman's code is borrowed from a dead Kansas farmer, while Batman's is forged in the understanding that people die for no reason and that the only sense in the Universe is the sense one tries to impose on it.
There is an unbelievable amount of baggage to unpack in BVS. It bears mention that the third-act baddie looks just like a Cave Troll (WETA appears to be mainly good at making Cave Trolls) and acts just like Superman IV's pathetic Nuclear Man. It's totally meta and absolutely senseless. I described Man of Steel as a collection of trailers, and that's true again here. BVS is an unerring pastiche of who we are at this moment in time: scared, angry, violent, disjointed, poisoned by hiraeth (Batman keeps a Joker-defiled batsuit in a Plexiglas display case like a mad hobbyist), driven by emotion rather than logic, by ideologies rather than reason. It's polarized, xenophobic, hyper-sexualized, hyper-desensitized, and, in the final analysis, more than a little psychotic. BVS is the inmates running the studio. And it's going to make a billion dollars. Maybe a billion-six. One of Wonder Woman's only lines is to label the last hundred years "a century of horrors." BVS is a visit to father confessor and obeisance to mother dominatrix. It'll make you feel like shit and you'll go back again, and again, and again, because it's what you deserve, isn't it, worm? I know this because it's what we all deserve.