For over two years, fans of DC Comics’ top stars have been waiting for the fight of the century. Ever since May of 2014, when the first image appeared of Ben Affleck in the new Batman costume standing next to the new Batmobile, both excitement and trepidation have been building. Facebook friends have been debating the interpretation of the heroes glimpsed as a series of trailers were released. News stories revealed that not only would we see the first two stars of the DC comics universe in “Batman v Superman,” but also Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) would make her debut along with other DC heroes—hence the subtitle “Dawn of Justice” (as in League).
Since I’ve written about Batman adaptations, many friends asked me beforehand, “Why are they fighting?” The film attempts to answer that question, but one’s reception of its answer depends on one’s perception of the characters of these two superhero superstars.
Comic Book Cage Match
As glimpsed in the trailers, the film’s reliance on imagery from the classic 1985 graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns,” along with the desaturated color scheme of 2013’s “The Man of Steel,” prepared knowledgeable fans for the story arc of the film. It opens with an incident in the African desert involving Lois Lane’s (Amy Adams) investigation of a possible terrorist group, which goes bad when another group attacks during the interview. Superman (Henry Cavill) intervenes in time to save her, but not before the massacre of others. Somehow, Superman gets blamed for the deaths, as if he was supposed to have picked up an automatic weapon and started firing. This for me began a series of implausible plot points that led up to the final confrontation. Both the main characters are being manipulated in various ways that undermines what longtime comics readers have come to expect from their heroes—that they’ll be smart and resourceful, clever enough to figure something out rather than staying constantly in reaction mode.
Bruce Wayne, played by Ben Affleck as a Batman in midlife crisis, lives inexplicably in a ruined Wayne Manor, in a field connected to the world only by a dirt road. Wearied by the meager results of his war on crime, pained by the loss of his company’s employees during “The Man of Steel’s” battle against the Kryptonian invasion (which Superman was trying to prevent), he thinks that his only contribution to helping the world is to rid the world of this alien in a red cape.
The only character true to his counterpart in the comics is Bruce’s loyal butler and tech expert Alfred (this time played by Jeremy Irons), who, like me, cannot grasp Bruce’s determination to go after so powerful and benevolent a being simply because Bruce has seen heroes go bad in the past. “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” So now Batman is paranoid and begins his search for a kryptonite weapon to kill the Man of Steel.
The Very Model of a Modern Superhero
And what of the Last Son of Krypton? He too, is hard to recognize, since director Zack Snyder tries to make the purest of DC’s heroes more dramatically interesting by creating conflicts that undercut his nobility and leave him with egg on his face. The comics have long established that the source of his mission originated in his parents’ insistence that he use his powers for the good of all. But in Snyder’s “The Man of Steel,” young Clark Kent’s adoptive father, Jonathan (Kevin Costner), insisted that Clark never reveal his powers to the world for fear that he would become subject to the authorities’ hounding and harm. The sunny warmth of classic Superman, exemplified in film by Christopher Reeves’s depiction, is replaced by a tormented Emo-Man, who barely smiles through the entire film. Even his widowed mother (Diane Lane) encourages him to “be their hero . . . be their angel . . . be anything they need you to be . . . or be none of it. You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” Thanks for the pep talk, Mom! So much for inspiring Superman’s unconditional care for humanity.
And that’s not all that’s changed from the classic comics. Apparently, since Lois discovered Clark’s true identity in the previous film, their relationship has moved to the next level, and he comes home to his girlfriend in the bathtub and joins her. Imagine kids asking their parents what’s up with that?
The biggest problem is that, with all this plus other plotlines and characters, the 151-minute film rushes forward and we never really get to know either character enough to care much about what happens. Thus, just when Batman appears to be doing what Batman does best, going hand-to-hand with a gang of thugs, he suddenly opens fire with automatic weapons and incinerates a man wearing a flame thrower. So much for Batman’s “one rule” against killing that serves as the running theme of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.
This film’s Lex Luthor continues Warner Bros.’ failure to capture Superman’s oldest enemy, played years ago as a campy chatterbox by Gene Hackman and then by Kevin Spacey, and now as a manic one by Jesse Eisenberg. Instead of the coldly brilliant character who exuded malice and threat, this Luthor is what a supervillain should never be: just plain annoying.
Along the way, the film tries to instill some philosophical gravity when it features Luthor arguing that Superman is a god who must be brought down to earth—hard. “If God is all-powerful, He cannot be good,” Luthor announces, sounding like a second-year philosophy major. “If God is good, he cannot be all-powerful.” This god vs. man theme doesn’t ring true, despite Superman’s power, because he’s obviously not able to prevent all bad things from happening. It dabbles in the question of worshipping such a being but doesn’t really take it anywhere until the end, when it suggests, perhaps accidentally, things might take a divine turn in the future.
As the trailer indicates, there is little contrast between our two supposed heroes. Instead of the classic distinction between the nocturnal Dark Knight and the Apollonian hero powered by the sun itself, we get Dark and Darker. By the film’s end, Batman looks like a dupe rather than the world’s greatest detective and admits his failure and responsibility for the awful cost of his misjudgment.
I can only conjecture that Snyder, a director who is the fortunate recipient of studio favor far in excess of his actual achievements, figured the best way to make these mythic characters dramatically accessible was to make them less than we have known them to be—less smart, less noble, less super. Yes, the film’s first weekend has set records (if a big box office were an indicator of artistic merit, the Transformers films would be modern-day classics), but really, putting the two biggest superheroes in a long-awaited film was bound to be a hit. But I expect the long-term result will be damage to some of the most beloved characters in popular culture. Given the abundance of great Batman and Superman stories in the comics, staying true to long-established characterization would have been a win-win for both fans and the studio. It’s a shame that this was beyond the power of these filmmakers.
Image copyright Warner Bros. “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality.
Alex Wainer teaches communication, media, and film classes at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
Have a Follow-up Question?
Want to dig deeper?
If you want to challenge yourself as many others have done, sign up below.