I went to go see Batman vs. Superman this Sunday. I did this in spite of everything I’d heard about it: the reviews were almost uniformly negative, with critics savaging Henry Cavill’s joyless performance of Superman, Ben Affleck’s hyper-broodish performance of Batman, Jesse Eisenberg’s hyper, almost Jokerish take on Lex Luthor, and an apparently confusing and muddled plot. Fellow Pen and Society member Landon Porter urged everyone not to see it this weekend, and author Chuck Wendig went so far as to give everyone permission not to see it. My Twitter feed is full of people savaging it. A lot of people have decided not to bother seeing it. From my experience, most of the people I interact with approach the movie with a level of disdain and dismissive contempt previously reserved only for Uwe Boll movies.
The fact that I loved the movie—let me rephrase, the fact that I thought the movie was fantastic—may explain, at least in part, why my serial Curveball isn’t particularly successful.
That aside, if you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it, and I’m going to tell you why. But first…
SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT THIS REVIEW HAS BEEN RATED A 3.5 ON THE GRANTHAM-KESSLER SPOILER SCALE which I just totally made up and I’m not going to actually explain what a 3.5 means I’m just saying there are going to be spoilers so if you don’t like them you should probably watch the movie before you read this
(Not, like, a lot of spoilers. I just don’t think it’s possible to talk about why I thought the movie was so fantastic without getting into some specifics.)
SO YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED
To understand why I liked this movie so much, we have to start with the foundation of this movie, which is the movie that came before it…
A lot of people didn’t like Man of Steel.
It doesn’t require a lot of research to figure this out, and it doesn’t require a lot of research to know why: people went to a Superman movie expecting to see Earth-1 Superman, or Christopher Reeves’ Superman—Truth, Justice, and the American Way. That’s not what we saw in the movie. The most common criticism of the movie was “that wasn’t Superman,” and I agree with that criticism to a point—but my counter to it is “that wasn’t Superman yet.”
What I saw in Man of Steel was an origin story that was a little different from the origin stories of previous movies, and certainly of the comics. Previously, you saw Superman’s childhood, saw his values, and then saw him kick off his career and nail the Superman ethos on the first try. That’s not what you get in MoS: what you get instead is closer to the James Bond reboot in Casino Royale.
In Casino Royale, Bond becomes 007 but hasn’t quite slipped into is iconic persona. He’s amazingly competent but doesn’t have a handle on being Bond yet. He makes mistakes, he trusts the wrong the people, and it’s not until the end of the movie that he slips into the persona we expect. In Man of Steel, Superman is not quite Superman: he clearly is shooting for that mark, but he doesn’t have the experience he needs yet, and life is complicated by the fact that dozens of other Kryptonians—all just as powerful as he is—are trying to terraform the planet to be like Krypton, which will kill everything that is already alive.
That’s a lousy first outing. There’s a huge worldwide crisis, one of the two world-ending machines is parked right over a huge freaking city, and the people trying to kill your adopted planet can hit just as hard as you can, and you hit really, really, freaking hard.
So in Man of Steel this guy who wants to be Superman—but hasn’t become the Superman we recognize in Earth-1 just yet—has a really big picture to focus on, and in the process of focusing on that Metropolis is devastated and a lot of people die. They die in Smallville, they die in Metropolis, and at the very end this guy who wants to be Superman has to kill the last link to his biological heritage in order to save the life of a family who apparently can’t process that someone’s laserbeam eyes are going to cut them in half. He’s put in a no-win situation and does what he has to do to save his new family. Zod dies.
“But Superman doesn’t kill!” was the primary objection, except for the times which he has, both in the Action Comics days and in a few specials (and once when he actually killed General Zod) but fair enough, it’s true, a core part of Superman’s character is that he doesn’t kill. Which brings me back to my original assertion that Man of Steel is an origin story in the same vein of Casino Royale—except that, unlike James Bond’s origin story, at the end of Man of Steel Superman still hasn’t become Superman. The end goal in sight, but his introduction to the world was pretty traumatic.
That is the foundation for Batman vs. Superman.
One of the primary criticisms for this movie is that neither Batman or Superman are portrayed canonically or with respect to the material. Zach Snyder helps this criticism along a bit by saying some embarrassingly stupid things about both characters, but everything I’d read him saying was, at least for me, negated by the performances of Cavill and Affleck. Snyder obviously had a vision for the film—that vision was modified by the visions the actors had for their characters, and the result was something that made me think a lot about how ideals can remain the same even as times change, but how those changing times can damage the people who hold those ideals. I thought about that a lot during this supposedly action-heavy, plot-thin movie. I saw it as Superman struggled with what he wanted to be, and what he wanted to be understood as, while the world kept not getting it. And I saw it as Batman struggled with a sense of failure and exhaustion, only to be faced with a being who was apparently unaware of the devastation he’d brought when he inadvertently totaled Metropolis.
(Oh, and also? Wonder Woman kicks ass. There’s actually more to her than that in the movie, but the 12-year old kid in me went nuts when she showed up, took names, and then laughed at the bad guy who just tried to turn her into slightly radioactive pulp. Also: Magic Lasso!)
Batman vs. Superman: Setting
So first, let’s talk about the setting. This obviously isn’t Earth-1. It can’t be, since Superman and Batman aren’t quite contemporaries (Batman has been in the business for 20 years before Superman shows up, and Metropolis and Gotham are two huge cities separated by a big river). I’m going to call it “Earth-2016” because, as I hope to convince you, it really fits.
Earth-2016 is pretty new to the idea of Metahumans. In Earth-1 continuity, the idea of superheroes has been around for a long time: the idea of Superman’s “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” morality was introduced to the public when the “Kansas values” that Perry White criticizes in the movie was portrayed as pretty much what everyone accepted as The Way America Was… and Superman has been around for so long it’s pretty easy shorthand to have him show up and express those values and have everyone nod, because Superman has been around long enough for the audience to accept that expression.
But the thing about Earth-2016 is that it’s portraying that guy, in modern times without that archetype for the people to recognize. Previous attempts at showing a modern Superman have relied a Möbius strip, banking on the people in a movie responding heartily to the “old-fashioned values” of Superman by leaning on the archetype previous versions of Superman established during times when society was more likely to nod and say “yeah, well, that’s how a hero is supposed to be.”
In Earth-2016, some people do indeed react to Superman that way, but the entire picture is more complicated than that. Not everyone trusts that those actually are his values. And why should they? There are plenty of examples of people who talk a good game but don’t live up to the hype. People are living in a post-Kent State, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-911 world. People don’t immediately believe that power and authority can be trusted. People don’t immediately believe that politicians who espouse pretty-sounding values actually believe in them. People are more likely to believe that power corrupts, and that those who have power will find a way to screw you.
It is our modern world, except that it’s a world where there was never a Superman archetype, because there was no Action Comics character that turned into a DC Character that become so huge that they made successful movies about him even before movie executives thought superhero movies were feasible. So in 2013 people encounter this all-powerful godlike person for the first time, and in the context of him fighting a bunch of other all-powerful godlike people trying to destroy the entire freaking planet. It’s a… difficult introduction.
In that context, I found the overall reaction to this man trying to become Superman pretty realistic and compelling. The world is more cynical, which is not the same thing as saying that it is less idealistic: cynics are idealists who have learned to flinch. Some people love him, others fear him, others were ambivalent. And in that environment there’s someone trying very hard to make him look bad and bring about his demise.
Batman vs. Superman: Superman
This is the world Superman finds himself in, and it’s a difficult one for him to work through. I’ve heard criticisms that “Zach Snyder hates the character of Superman,” and have seen comments he’s made that have been generally dismissive of Superman’s morality and values, and how they may be incompatible with the modern world. The movie is certainly makes an argument against those values, and the argument appears strong, and the argument takes a toll on Superman throughout the film. And I found the depiction of that toll very compelling. It resonated with me, and I suspect it will resonate with anyone who finds themselves in a prolonged social situation where their values set them at odds with their environment. The look on Superman’s face—the one critics laugh at as petulant—struck me more as a man who is clinging fiercely to doing the job in the face of opposition that he doesn’t understand. Superman clearly believes in what he’s doing, and he doesn’t quite get why so many other people don’t understand what he’s doing. That expression was one I’ve worn myself in situations where I had to do good work with people who just didn’t want me there. That feeling is one I’ve had when I’ve had to work with people who obviously didn’t share my personal values or political views—to a rather aggressive degree—but we had to get things done anyway. Cavill’s Superman—who, for most of the movie, still isn’t quite Superman yet—sees himself as doing the right thing, holding up the right values, but people are accusing him of atrocities that he had nothing to do with.
But he isn’t quite Superman yet. This is driven home when Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne have an exchange where Kent accuses Gotham City of enabling a dangerous vigilante who puts people in danger, delivers vigilante justice with no due process and no respect for the law, and Wayne throws it back in his face, pointing out that the Daily Planet is all too happy to excuse Superman of any culpability for his activities. Through much of the movie Superman has the end point in sight but can’t quite reach it because he doesn’t recognize what the actual cost of holding those values is… and at one point—Superman at his lowest—he’s convinced that he can’t succeed. He’s convinced that he can’t be a force for good, because he can’t find it anywhere.
All of this is what people seem to be focusing on when they talk about Snyder hating Superman, and yes, it is very influenced by the Watchmen and it is very cynical… but damned if it isn’t completely obliterated at the very end of the movie, and it’s all on Cavill. There is a moment in the movie when he makes a decision, and all the tension and determination goes out of his face and he is completely at ease, and there’s a look of genuine joy in his face as he finally takes the last step and stops just calling himself Superman, but becomes him. And then he does what Superman does, because it’s the right thing to do.
It’s a damn fine piece of acting. You can make a solid case for Snyder not thinking too much of Superman, but in the end it’s Cavill, not Snyder, playing the part. And in the end we see Superman, and then he steps up and earns it.
(The pessimist in me notes that it could all be undone in future films, but that was a moment of pure awesome for me, and it’s all to Cavill’s credit.)
Batman vs. Superman: Batman
I suspect there are those who will never forgive Affleck for Daredevil, but I’ll come out and say it: I loved his Batman a thousand times more than Christian Bale’s. And that’s not a knock on Bale: he was a great Batman.
Here on Earth-2016, Batman has been around for 20 years, and he’s had a rough time of it. 20 years of fighting, and as he himself remarks to Alfred, criminals keep cropping up like weeds. Gotham doesn’t seem to get any less crime-ridden. You can make a case that he actually is an effective deterrent—that crime would be even worse without him—but he doesn’t seem to feel like it. There was once a Robin, but Robin was killed in the line of duty. One assumes it was by the Joker: Batman keeps Robin’s costume—complete with the taunting message someone left on it—in the Batcave as a reminder of what happened. Other than Alfred, Batman doesn’t have a “Bat family” to rely on, so he’s been going it alone.
This has made him grimmer, and exhausted, and he’s become more extreme in his methods. He’s started branding the bad guys he takes down, and apparently people with the brands wind up dying in prison—it’s described as a “death sentence” by the media, and it’s also described as a new thing rather than part of his standard MO.
Affleck’s Batman has been doing the job for 20 years and it’s making him crazy. He’s hallucinating when he dreams. He’s committed to his fight but he doesn’t see an end to it—it’s not just resolved to a cause, it’s resolved to a lost cause. I found it an immensely compelling performance, and Affleck deserves a lot of praise he probably won’t get for it.
And there’s no way this Batman, at this time, could ever think of Superman as anything but a threat. Maybe ten years ago, he would have seen a potential ally, but at this point in his life, he stands helplessly by and sees Superman’s battle destroy the Wayne building, and despite everything Bruce Wayne does to try to save who he can it’s not enough. A lot of people die. Superman doesn’t seem to suffer any consequence from it. People react to him as if he’s some kind of god. And as Bruce tells Alfred in one scene, he’s seen plenty of good people go bad in 20 years time. By his calculations, it’s inevitable that Superman will go bad and when that happens, pretty much everyone dies.
Of course this Batman has to find a way to kill Superman, and then actually do it. He’s convinced he knows what will happen next, and no one else seems to see it. If he can’t clean up Gotham, at least he can keep the entire world from being destroyed by an unstoppable alien who will eventually go mad.
Affleck doesn’t show us the Batman of Earth-1, he shows us the Batman of Earth-1 who suffered so many setbacks that most people would just give up in disgust, but he doesn’t… he fights harder, and the fight leaves its mark.
Also of note in this movie: it shows us as much of Bruce Wayne as it does of Batman, and it’s the first movie where I believed they were the same guy. Bale’s character was Batman playing at Bruce Wayne—Wayne was, at least for the first and second movie, just a cover story that he used as a smokescreen. Affleck’s character is Bruce Wayne being Batman—he still uses his private life as a smokescreen, but it’s also him.
And then finally: there’s a point in the movie when he’s fighting Superman, when he makes a connection between Superman and himself… and when he’s still trying to process that connection, there is this feeling of pure agony as he demands, over and over again for Superman to explain himself. Affleck communicates a wound that goes deeper than any physical blow they’d traded beforehand, and that wounded anguish manages to come through even when he’s covered in bat-tank armor with only half of his face uncovered, while is voice is distorted.
As a side note: Jeremy Irons is a great Alfred. And maybe I’m crazy, but he looks like Robert Downey Jr.’s aged clone. For a second I wondered how DC managed to get Iron Man to play Bruce Wayne’s Butler in this movie.
Batman vs. Superman: Wonder Woman
HOLY CRAP WONDER WOMAN IS AWESOME SHE USES A SWORD AND A SHIELD AND A MAGIC LASSO AND HER REVEAL IN COSTUME WAS AMAZING
Sorry, I don’t have a lot to add to that. There’s not as much character development devoted to Wonder Woman as there is to Batman or Superman. She starts out as a mystery character, there are hints to her past that will undoubtedly tie into her movie, but her reveal is my favorite part of the movie.
The movie is mostly about Batman and Superman, but Wonder Woman’s participation in the final battle is significant and it’s a great ramp-up to her solo movie.
Batman vs. Superman: Lex Luthor
Lex Luthor has been described by some critics as a knockoff of the Joker, and in this case I think the criticism is valid. They obviously wanted a villain whose motivations were intriguing and mysterious as Heath Ledger’s Joker, and Jesse Eisenberg actually delivers a pretty good performance in that regard. In fact, I think you can make a strong argument for this version of Luthor is a more accurate reflection of the wunderkind-tycoons of this age, who tend to be younger and at least superficially more irreverent.
The problem is that there’s already a Joker on Earth-2016—Bruce Wayne even refers to him, albeit obliquely—and the Joker will always be a better Joker than Luthor will ever hope to be. Luthor’s allure as a villain (for me, at any rate) is that he is deliberate, goal-oriented, and methodical. He’s a driven mastermind who is a villain because he chooses to be, not because he’s loopy. Luthor is portrayed well but remains an off-note for me because I can’t tie the Luthor on the screen to the Luthor in DC comics, while I can see how both Superman and Batman fit.
How it all fits together
As everyone is fond of pointing out, Batman vs. Superman is a dark movie. And many critics have pointed out that Zack Snyder seems more interested in the darkness and post-modern despair of Watchmen than in the innate hope and optimism that Superman represents. But Batman vs. Superman is a movie that starts in darkness and progresses. The titles characters are changed by the end of the movie—both are changed existentially, one is changed, um, a little more physically than the other is—and the change represents a movement away from the kind of darkness a lot of critics are complaining about. And the change, in both cases, is toward the Earth-1 versions of those characters. In Superman’s case, he comes closer to (and I think finally attains) the thing that makes Superman what he is—he finally earns the name. In Batman’s case, it’s a step back toward what he was, and what he had been losing.
That is not Watchmen. In Watchmen, most of the heroes decide it’s better to accept the horrible things the villain has done in the hope that maybe it will create a better world. They’re diminished as a result of that decision, and they know it, but they can’t think of anything more effective to do. It’s the best of a pile of lousy choices. The only character who refuses isn’t so much embracing his values as he’s rejecting the compromise.
In Batman vs. Superman, Superman struggles with the difficulty of living up to his beliefs in a world that appears to be more hostile to them as time goes on. And when he chooses his values, he is deliberately choosing them. Batman starts out as a character who has chosen increasingly questionable tactics as his personal war against crime wore on and on and on, and by the end of the movie he takes the tentative steps away from that path, and back to something more classic.
That kind of thing is the equivalent of pure, liquid awesome being poured directly on my brain.
So yeah, I loved watching this movie. It pushed all kinds of right buttons for me, made me think about some interesting things, I found the performances enjoyable and Wonder Woman was freaking awesome. I think, if you haven’t seen it, you should give it a try.
…if you have seen it and hate it with the passion of a thousand Red Sons, well, feel free to shout at me in the comments. That’s what the Internet’s for!