Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

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There was a time before Superman, and a time after.  Now that the world knows there are men among them who might break the planet at a moment's notice, what do we do with our lives?  Batman takes it as a sign that he needs to return to punishing those who live in opposition to order.  What neither Superman nor Batman are aware of is another figure behind the scenes, one who understands all ethical systems may be manipulated to destroy one another.  So if Superman and Batman were to fight, would any of us win?  Zack Snyder directs Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, from a screenplay written by Chris Terrio, and David S. Goyer, and stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Jesse Eisenberg.

His light is our lightWhat are we talking about when we talk about Clark Kent?  We're all going to answer the question a different way.  Are we going to be discussing the paragon of All-Star Superman, the one who is able to take time for a woman contemplating suicide before giving Lois Lane superpowers?  Or maybe it's the flawed Clark of Kingdom Come?  This one couldn't handle what his symbol was inspiring, escaped the world to live only as Clark, and when he returned as Superman created a prison for those who wouldn't play by the rules.  My favorite, and the one who came to mind the most watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS), was the Clark of Superman for All Seasons.  The one who was manipulated to feel he couldn't make a difference, but when the time came to save a flooding town he put the cape back without question because, "...all I needed to know know was Clark."

Zack Snyder understands Clark.  He understood Clark was a boy raised in a humble, loving, and not always correct family.  Clark had abilities which made him unlike anyone else, and with that the pressure of becoming a symbol for something we as a species aren't capable of.  Man of Steel put Clark through the wringer, presenting him an impossible situation and a public suspicious of him, and still Clark found the strength to do what good he could. Snyder's Clark is not like Grant Morrison's, Mark Waid's, or Jeph Loeb's.  You may recognize bits of those other Clarks, but Snyder's is aware that he can't save everyone.  But still he tries.

If Man of Steel was Snyder embracing the optimism of a superhero in our troubled times, BvS positions itself as the critique that Clark's best is not good enough.  I don't agree with that, and thankfully neither do screenwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer.  This is because the critique comes in the form of Batman, whose perspective skews the moral lens of BvS, and exposes the virus of modern American society.  If Batman is what our policemen aspire to, the one's who are supposed to be protecting us, then they aspire to become careless xenophobic men of power who can hurt who they want - when they want.  Batman is not someone we should aspire to be.  Clark is.

Snyder's never one to shy away from a bold image to make the ethics of his films clear, and BvS is packed with them.

Zack Snyder's never one to shy away from a bold image to make the ethics of his films clear, and BvS is packed with them.

The venom of Batman comes from a much-maligned decision to cast Ben Affleck as the Dark Knight.  Affleck puts all of those preemptive criticisms to rest with a terrifying performance.  He presents Batman as a monster, born from the darkness which he mistakenly thought would bring him to the light, and has abandoned any pretense of being Bruce Wayne.  When Affleck asks Clark (Henry Cavill), "Do you bleed?" it's not from evil, but from a profound sense of anxiety that his efforts to shape the world through force could be brought down by seemingly indifferent gods.  Affleck makes himself a muscular brute who doesn't even try to engage his long-suffering aide Alfred (Jeremy Irons) when Alfred criticizes Batman.  Instead, Affleck makes Batman go deeper into a nihilistic mania while molding his body into the kind of monster he imagines Superman to be.  It's not all darkness, but the levity comes from the moments when Batman has to be Bruce, and Affleck makes these attempts so bumbling and transparent it's a wonder he pulled off the secret identity at all.

So if Affleck is the surprise backbone of BvS, then Jesse Eisenberg is its pulsing id.  Eisenberg seems to draw inspiration from our outgoing technological entrepreneurs, like Elon Musk, the '90s version of Lex Luthor with wild red hair and a daddy complex, and men with too much money and too little restriction on what they can and can't do.  Like, say, Donald Trump.  Eisenberg's Luthor is every bit the villain for our times, manipulating social media and corporate profits alike to make our heroes lose a bit of their luster, all while Luthor is free to do what he wants.  It's in this unpredictability that Eisenberg's Luthor becomes so compelling as he's just as likely to violently tap his fingers on a desk when not getting his way as he is to launch into angry retellings of deistic origins.  Eisenberg's Luthor is the flip side of the same dirty coin Affleck's Batman is on.  Both are men who see the system as a tool, one for Luthor to utilize in any way he sees fit and one Batman brutalizes those who stray from it.

Where, then, does that leave Cavill's Clark?  Once again, Cavill proves to be the conflicted moral center of the DC cinematic universe.  Cavill does not present Clark as someone who is impervious to the public scrutiny placed on his actions.  He may have the most one-note performance in BvS, but it's an essential one, as Cavill rarely lets the pain of the innocents escape his face.  There are bright moments, especially when he and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) have their time alone.  But Clark is someone who lives the words, "I feel your pain," and it's the pain of those he can't save that Cavill brands into his expression.

Clark's pain, Batman's rage, and Luthor's megalomania are the crucial character and performance-based components of BvS.  None of the performances or character work would be worth a damn without Snyder's direction.  He builds the ideological argument about what Superman is, and what he should be, not through the dialogue but a series of excellent sequences that only end when the credits roll.  The introduction is the stuff of nightmares as a boy is carried into the air by bats, an acknowledgement that Batman thought he could be the hero Superman is through darkness.  As Batman says early on, it's a lie, and when we first get a glimpse of Batman he is scurrying along the ceiling like a diseased spider.  When an officer shoots at the bat his superior condones him, "Don't shoot the good guys."  The "good guys", as Snyder shows us, who leave foreigners terrified and the guilty branded and bleeding.  Clark, by comparison, emerges slowly from a crowd whose faces are painted as skeletons, reaching out for him after he carried one of their own to safety.  Then he slowly drifts to a woman reaching out to him, toward the sun, desperate for hope.

If Batman preys on criminals as a bat because they are a cowardly and superstitious lot, what does that say about his decision to strike from the shadows as a bat?

If Batman preys on criminals in costume because they are a cowardly and superstitious lot, what does that say about his decision to strike from the shadows as a bat?

This is not subtle film-making, but the idea that a story concerning superheroes with the subtitle Dawn of Justice should be subtle is misguided.  Snyder is operating at a level of myth-making beyond the flawed narration which framed the violent desires in 300.  If Superman represents hope to these people, Snyder shows Clark providing that hope when he can.  If Batman terrifies, then Snyder shows how Batman creates and perpetuates the criminal terror.  Most appropriately, if a man like Luthor imagines himself a mortal god among literal gods, then Snyder shows Luthor as a towering and cocky man entering the Kryptonian spacecraft as a conquering deity.  These are powerful images painted in the faces of the terrified and the dangerous, and it's in this terror Snyder makes his ideological case.

Snyder tones the mythic film-making for other aspects of the ideological argument when observing what Superman and Batman mean to people of different races and economic classes.  When Clark attends a party celebrating Luthor, Snyder shows Clark ducking out of the mostly white attendants to be with the mostly Mexican laborers while Batman hobnobs with the rich whites.  The division is clear - Clark understands that to better the system he has to help those ignored by it, and the "American way" hurts more than those in America.  This focus on how the "American way" hurts those not fortunate enough to be rich white Americans is reflected in the dialogue, where Clark challenges his boss Perry White (Lawrence Fishburn) with, "Don't the poor buy newspapers?" Batman, in contrast, pays a black man to be beaten and then savagely beat another so Batman might find the information he needs to advance his own agenda.  For those who have found our "American way" of justice brutal to minorities and offering little in the way of rehabilitation, is Clark or Batman more inspiring?

With that question in your mind, it's good to remember that Snyder isn't all ideology when it comes to his touches both big and small.  When Wonder Woman (an underused Gal Gadot) pops into action she does so with a metal cello, courtesy of Tina Guo, that puts the most kickin' '80s cock rock guitar solo to shame right before she charges a monster with the intent to cut its Achilles tendon.  It's brilliant character building both in Snyder's way of defying expectation as the guitar used to signal the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme, and suggesting Wonder Woman's combat prowess by showing how focused she is in her strikes.  Even then, one of the big flaws of BvS is the way women are pushed to the sidelines or used as pawns.  Wonder Woman may create a vision of powerful women who don't pander to men, but it comes long after Lois and Martha Kent (an also excellent, and little seen, Diane Lane) have been moved to being tools of Snyder's own cinematic machine.

Wonder Woman's onscreen time is minimal, and one of BvS' weakest parts. But Gal Gadot and Zack Snyder's confident direction make her a potent force.

Wonder Woman's onscreen time is minimal, but Gal Gadot and Zack Snyder's confident direction make her a potent force.

Which brings me to a question I'm seeing a lot.  Is BvS fun?  No.

I was enthralled from beginning to end, and I was brought to tears by the sight of Clark helping those in need while the media breaks him down.  BvS is an excellent movie, but it is not fun.  That said, I reject the idea that superhero movies have to be fun.  What the Marvel Cinematic Universe has shown me since its inception is that "fun" comes at the cost of ignoring the system which oppresses others.  There is sparse redemption in fun, and what BvS does is provide us a painful balm to the narcissistic evils which dominate the American airwaves.  I cried, I smiled, I forgot to blink for such long stretches I cried some more, and I saw someone inspire the best in others.  But I didn't have much fun.

Movies are more than fun.  Superhero movies, especially, grow empty if the ethics of their universes are left unexamined in the spirit of fun.  If all we want is to see the pages of our favorite comics reproduced in faithful fidelity then we should ask why those very comics still leave a longing for more.  This more has come in the form of callous superheroes who eat shawarma after thwarting an alien invasion.  Clark doesn't eat shawarma, he works to inspire and hopefully redeem us all.  Look no further than Batman for proof.

Man of Steel was the best movie of 2013.  As it stands, BvS is every bit its equal in 2016.  I stand awed and filled with hope to work for better days to come.

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Tail - BvSDoJBatman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Directed by Zack Snyder.
Screenplay written by Chris Terrio, and David S. Goyer.
Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, and Jesse Eisenberg.

Posted by Andrew

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