I swear there was a period in the middle of the movie where no one talked for like 30 minutes. There was just a series of barely-cohesive shots of people looking intensely at things. And maybe that’s a good wrap-up of how you’ll feel watching 2-1/2 hours of Batman and Superman versing various things. Let me backpedal a bit though: If you like comic books, especially the work of Frank Miller, chances are high you will like this movie. I had to break out the grading scale on this one, because it doesn’t do it justice* to slap it with a thumbs-up/thumbs-down.
“Stalking” is a good word to describe how Batman/Bruce Wayne (a hulking Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill reprising his neck-snapping role) move through the world. They move like bodybuilders who can’t quite put their arms down to their sides on account of all the muscles, their square jaws preceding them into every space. Cavill’s Superman is super-serious. It shows a lack of understanding of the Superman character, who is supposed to be aspirational not just ultra-powerful. (Sidebar: Stop reading this review and go buy a copy of Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman for my favorite take on the character.) Clark Kent, with only a few scenes, actually seems like a real person and I’d love to see a movie that splits the screen time a little more equally. But this isn’t a movie for Clark Kent. Regular people have very little to do here, other than alternately worshipping and reviling the meta-humans. Lex Luthor (Jessie Eisenberg) is a hyperactive child with enough tics to suggest mental health issues. He’s too small by half in this version (comic Luthor is always portrayed as muscular) and without a physical presence he doesn’t seem like a formidable foe. Affleck’s Batman is a great interpretation of the character. He’s a bit older and a lot wearier than previous versions of the hero, but not too weary to not have a shirtless training montage. How old is he in this universe? He’s been fighting crime in Gotham for 20 years, Wayne Manor has burned to the ground, and Robin is already dead. All that to say: it’s hard to tell. Age is a weird thing in superhero stories because if they’re too old we don’t get a sense of vitality, but if they’re too young they can’t have a mature backstory or sufficient angst.
Speaking of angst: Batman glowers. In BvS he is growing increasingly distrustful of Superman’s near-infinite power. Gotham City, inexplicably, is “across the bay” from Metropolis so Bruce Wayne has had a front-row seat to Superman’s destructive heroics. Key scenes in 2013’s Man of Steel from Wayne’s point of view are revisited and a series of apocalyptic dreams heighten his paranoia. Finding a way to neutralize Superman, “if there’s even a 1% chance” he could go rogue, becomes Batman’s mission. Of course the only way to hurt a Kryptonian is by weaponizing a certain space mineral. Comic fans will recognize one of Batman’s many contingency plans in this scenario (he has one for each member of the Justice League). Batman fans in particular will add the final showdown between the two heroes to the ample heap of evidence that he can defeat anyone.
The final boss isn’t Superman, Batman, or Lex Luthor. Spoiler: He’s an orc from the last Hobbit movie. And suddenly Wonder Woman (Israeli model Gal Gadot) arrives to help everyone versus some kind of mutant/alien/zombie creature. The final-final battle is quite good if you like punching and exploding. Frankly it’s a great teaser for Wonder Woman’s standalone film (coming in 2017).
Theodicy and Theology
Between all the glowering and stalking, director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer (part of Nolan’s Batman team) desperately try and infuse some philosophical heft to the story. Superman is compared to God a lot, and the question of who is worthy of his salvific acts, how he decides to save people, and who he is accountable to are a big part of the first half of the movie. Maybe it’s Goyer’s chance to put God on trial? We see a series of Superman rescues from Africa to Mexico to flood victims to space, where he attempts to save as many people as he can. He’s worshipped as a god as long as he can keep up the pace. It’s up to Luthor to pose the age-old argument: “If God is all-powerful, he can’t be good. If God is good, he can’t be all-powerful.” Superman, finally, is not all-powerful (so he must be good). What about free will? In the closing voice-over, humanity is let off the hook (“Sure, we hurt each other, but we always try and do better”), so the sense we’re left with is that God is not present and probably not there at all… but that’s okay because we have these heroes. (Sidebar: Jehovah is actually a comic character in the Marvel universe. His occupation is listed as “Supreme being of Earth’s monotheistic faiths.”)
These are great questions to ask. We all wrestle with the problem of evil and the nature of God. A core concern in BvS is “what does the existence of superheros mean for the moral universe?” How does human goodness compare to alien goodness? How do we fight evil without giving in to it? Arguably superhero stories from Beowulf on have been asking these questions. The questions are all good, but answers are fleeting in this film. Superman is as good a metaphor for deity as anything we’ve come up with, but metaphors eventually break down. And this movie is defined by its breakdowns.
Ultimately I didn’t hate it, like so many other reviewers seem to have. Yes, it’s long. Too long. And it’s grim. But if you’re a fan of the superhero genre and comics, you’ll like this film. Snyder will probably never have a MOMA retrospective, but he’s not a bad director. Affleck and Gadot are the best versions of their characters we’ll see in a long while (which is good because we’ll be seeing them a lot in the next 5 years). And if people getting punched through walls is your thing, you’re in for a treat. Would I like a quieter, more reflective, less CG-reliant superhero saga? Sure. But there’s always Marvel’s Netflix series for that.