So, first things first. SPOILERS. All the spoilers. If you want to see the film unspoiled, come back and read this later.
And let us note up front that no one needs to agree with anything I am going to say in this review. I am not a fan of the film. But I do not hold the position that one cannot be. I merely have too many issues with it and the things it is doing, textually and subtextually, to have a positive engagement with it.
There’s a fairly wide gap between the overall critical and uncritical responses to BvS. And I’m going to put a lot of the uncritical responses down to both expectation (so much hype around this project, and three central heroes with massive followings) and a willingness to forgive flaws in favour of spectacle. One could also posit the following built up around Snyder’s work as a force for positive audience reaction. Snyder is, after all, the Michael Bay of slow motion and plotless shiny things, and both directors have their followings. But I find an uncritical response to this film troubling, for reasons we’re going to discuss below, organized loosely by section.
Continuity and Principal Characterizations
There are so many things wrong with this movie that I feel like I really should direct people over to this article, which I came across while writing this review: “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: 19 Things That Don’t Make Sense in This Nonsensical Movie.” Or this one I found when doing revisions: “Baffling Questions ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Refused to Answer.” Partly so I don’t have to go over all the plot holes, which are well covered in those articles. Because holy fuck there are a lot of plot holes. And we’re not talking missing connective tissue, though the film is highly disjointed via the editing and the choices of focus on the screenwriters’ part. No, we’re referencing key components of the film that don’t hang together:
The question of why Ben Affleck’s Batman is written as an idiot and a collection of crippling psychoses rather than the detective/brilliant criminologist that would have made this film work. Why Henry Cavill’s Superman doesn’t get to have a personality beyond moping. And what the motivation could possibly have been for using the Idiot Plot (referencing the trope) that drives this inchoate train wreck. Especially since there are far better bases for pitting these two characters against each other. Not like it’s never been done before….
I will note that though Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman may be in many ways a throwaway in this movie’s absurd plot, she is far and away the best thing in this film. And even her plotline is largely nonsensical.
I’m aware that Snyder has stated that the film is missing about half an hour of material he wanted to include. But a three-hour version of this film would not have helped matters, either in its ability to cohere, or in the choices made for characterization. The wooden, Christ figure Superman, and the psychotic, murderous Batman are the two most boring iterations of those respective figures – iterations that we’ve already seen as deviations from principal characterizations in past, so the film’s take is more retread than refreshing.
Those deviations are also problematic because the core modern depictions of both Batman and Superman that actually make them interesting are Superman as humanizing influence on his sphere of affect, and Batman as deeply moral anti-hero. But these deviations are still more importantly problematic because in a film that requires a conflict based on differing ideals in order to have tension or weight, the film provides two characters who are exactly alike:
Both Superman and Batman in the film are amoral characters, driven by personal rather than greater motivations. The script may give Superman lines near its close about how important the world is to him, but that’s never underwritten with proof. Indeed, the only things he cares about in the film are Amy Adams’s Lois Lane and his mother (Diane Lane’s Martha Kent) – rendering him for all intents and purposes a giant manchild, unnuanced and indifferent to the role the character embodies. The script has Batman likewise espousing protecting Gotham, and occasionally the larger world. But his primary motivations are rage-driven, and an inability to move past his fixation with his own mother. An overwhelming fixation for which no real reason is given; his parents’ death is shown in painfully lavish fashion (has Snyder ever met a shot of a gun or other weapon that wasn’t a visual fellation of its contours?), but the grounding for Wayne’s specific fixation on his mother is ignored. At least Martha Kent is around for us to see her interact with Clark, and show why he cares for her. I will argue against the retconning of her character to Ayn Randian mouthpiece (along with Kevin Costner’s Jonathan Kent) as long as there is breath to be had, but Man of Steel established plenty of reason for Clark to care for his foster mother because there was an actual relationship depicted there.
And at least in Man of Steel many of the excellent actors there were not arbitrarily wasted. That is not the case with BvS. And we are talking constantly, habitually wasted. The script is bloated with characters given short shrift or terrible lines, and a cast that’s painfully bleached except for Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White and a few others – most of the people of colour in the film there only so they can be killed off. (More on that later.)
It’s also been a while since I’ve seen a film that hates women this much while outwardly professing to give them presence and agency. (See Allyson Johnson’s Mary Sue article, “Batman v Superman and the Ridiculous Nature of the ‘Damsel in Distress’” for a brief overview of the film’s ingrained misogyny.) Though that’s not entirely out of the norm for Snyder’s work. It’s just so much more glaring in this film, perhaps because though there are more central or secondary women with speaking roles than generally appear in a Snyder film (even in comparison with Sucker Punch, if I’m recalling correctly), and yet none of them are three-dimensional characters. On top of which, all of them either end up murdered or damselled, with the one exception of Wonder Woman.
The foregoing, along with the general fixations that underpin Snyder’s work – lovingly crafted visuals of violence and a focus on the brutality of murder but without consequence or culpability, the degradation of women and their reduction to playthings, and an obsession with the politics of objectivism – make Snyder a bizarre choice to be handling the DC universe in the first place. A continuity that has enough problems of its own already given the blindspots of the comics side of that continuity.
There’s a reason the website http://hasdcdonesomethingstupidtoday.com/ exists.
And much as I had qualms with Nolan’s recent continuity for his trilogy of Batman films (though I quite like The Dark Knight despite its problems, mostly because: Heath Ledger as the Joker) I did not actively despise Nolan’s portrayals of many key characters. And would argue that that continuity, for all its flaws, makes vastly more sense than Snyder’s run at the DC universe.
Snyder’s film exists within a continuity divorced from Nolan’s work, so we miss the chance to see the fallout of Nolan’s trilogy on Gotham and Batman. (Though I grant you that would have been difficult given the end of The Dark Knight Rises.) Which would potentially have made for a much more interesting basis for Batman’s trauma and psychosis than whatever pseudo-Oedipal complex the script for BvS gave him.
Still, we need to take the film as is, not as it might have been. Which leaves us Snyder’s continuity to work with. Unfortunately, that continuity is to the clear detriment of us all.
From the film’s opening focus on the Wayne family’s murder (because we’ve never seen that in a film featuring Batman before), to young Bruce Wayne’s running away to fall down into a bat-filled cave and encounter a hallucination of being drawn up toward the light in an ascending maelstrom of wings and teeth, the attempted theological overtones are unapologetically ham-fisted. And the film carries on like this, positing Superman, Batman, and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor as figures of monolithic light or dark. (Prompting an argument about the problematic victim/villain role of the writing of Luthor, which I’ll get to below.)
Subtle this film is not.
And of course in that opening scene Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Thomas Wayne attempts to assault the mugger at the expense of his wife and child’s safety. It’s par for the course in Snyder’s universe that men are only men when engaged in violence. And then there is the inevitable camera’s caress of the gun at Lauren Cohan’s Martha Wayne’s throat, entangled in her string of pearls. Thomas Wayne’s final word, “Martha,” is perhaps where we are supposed to infer Bruce’s lifelong fixation with his mother’s name from? But that’s some pretty thin on-screen ice to rest an Oedipal complex on, if that was indeed the intent.
If you’re going to invoke the death of the Waynes, it might be more effective to give us some understanding of them as people beforehand. Man of Steel gave us a sense of the Kents as people. Horrible, selfish, isolationist people, but people nonetheless. Nolan at least gave us a scene of the Waynes as people – somewhat, as Martha Wayne was still a cipher – before executing them in Batman Begins. What personality we do get of Thomas Wayne – and again none for Martha: in BvS she’s a prop – is that of a thug, willing to sacrifice his family’s safety in a misguided attempt to regain control of the situation that ultimately kills him and his wife.
But, no, let’s not bother to dwell on any of this on screen, or do any kind of emotional setup beyond Bruce Wayne running away from his parents’ tombstones, interplayed with the memory of their murder. Instead, we have talk of visions and purpose to attend to, and then Batman needs to grow up and go watch Superman murder and/or let die people that Wayne cares about. Like that one old white man, Jack – the one managing (or possibly engaged in some other position; it’s never stated) the Metropolis Wayne Enterprises offices. I’m just glad this wasn’t Gotham, or we’d have lost Lucius Fox, and that would have been the death of yet another black man in this film. Honestly, given that parts of the film do take place in Gotham, I’m disappointed not to see a version of Fox in the film. Was two black men in charge of respective day to day operations of large scale companies (Fox and Perry White) one black man in charge of things too many? (Unless you’re an African warlord, then sure, by all means be in charge of something, as long as we’re sure one of the film’s protagonists will kill you – expanded gripe also coming.)
Although, I will note that given the portrayal of Batman throughout the film, his caring only for those closest to him is ultimately not that surprising. Indeed, by the time the film is done, we are surprised Wayne cares for anyone at all beyond Jeremy Irons’s Alfred, with whom there is one of the better interactions in the film. In large part because this Alfred is clearly giving no ground to Batman’s temper tantrums, and is presented as a figure of at least some authority in Wayne’s life. (He’s also hyper capable, which is reflective of the best incarnations of the character, and welcome here.) But outside that grounding influence, Batman is a murderous figure, devoid of moral compass. And even in that sphere of Alfred’s seemingly calming influence, madness occasionally threatens to seep through, as with the laughably absurd line delivered by Wayne: “[Superman] 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…” That’s not how statistics work. Delusional, xenophobic paranoia, yes. Statistics, not so much.
But back in the land of the never ending beginning of BvS – where we are still stuck following Wayne, as in some ceaseless, godforsaken carnival ride – we have the disembarking of Wayne from his car as his route is blocked. Then the rescuing of a guard – who loses the lower half of both legs because: plot. Let it never be said that Snyder isn’t willing to have the only disabled person in the movie be an expendable plot device. Or we could talk about the incredibly poor handling of the terrified young girl as a way to help us humanize Bruce Wayne. A depiction I rather want to save for later when discussing women as objects in this movie, along with the 9/11 imagery (a poor choice), because like the movie itself we are required to jump around between multiple points and plotlines in order to actually discuss everything, or to acquire what little sense and cohesion this movie deigns to offer its audience.
And then, post 9/11 allusions, it’s eighteen months later and things are happening: Hearings, memorials and the defacement thereof by plot device amputees, and Lois Lane in Africa. Occurring in an order that I can’t recall because this film is a fucking jumble lacking cohesive, connected narrative structure – Inception as written by an ADHD child flinging feces at a wall to see what sticks.
But let’s take a moment and talk about Lois Lane in Africa, shall we? Specifically the generic, stylized African environment of American mainstream media:
Handling of Race/People of Colour
There’s a larger point to be made, deserving of its own article, about this films’ consistently poor handling of racial representation, given that people of colour in BvS primarily appear in large numbers only when grouped together, segregated from white people, there primarily to be exoticized: the islanders in the Kryptonite recovery scene, literally positioned well apart from the white flunky; the Asian women in the cage in the sex trafficking sequence; the Mexicans in the Dia de los Muertos sequence, there only to set up an appalling Adoration of the Christ tableau with Superman. But for the purposes of this review, I want to specifically address the following:
In a film with very few black people normalized representation matters a great deal. And this ain’t that.
We find our intrepid reporter, Lane, in … Nairomi. Really? It’s not a real African country. We couldn’t be fucking bothered to use a real African country? I recall there being 54 to choose from.
To make matters worse – in terms of the filmmakers giving a shit about getting anything right – after talking with my significant other about the film (there has been much ranting going both ways), the conflation and stereotyping goes further: The actress playing the lone refugee – who I’m pretty sure is Nigerian-born Wunmi Mosaku – is adopting what sounds like an East African accent, while the clothes the “Nairomians” wear are native to the Sahel – a region of Northern Africa between the Sahara and the Savanna. The real world and its cultural and regional differences need not apply for inclusion in Snyder’s film, apparently. Because, I mean, Africa’s just one big country, right… ?
And in context of the African sequence, this is the perfect point to note the way black bodies – specifically African bodies at this juncture – are treated onscreen. Because the disposability of the black body is an ongoing conversation in film, literature, and in social justice circles, tying into larger historical conversations and conversations around representation. And this film is yet another in a long string of films to get this so very, very wrong. It’s typical of an American film from a major studio franchise that with the exception of Perry White, and later Harry Lennix’s Swanwick, the primarily appearing (not counting incidental figures in street or crowd scenes) black bodies in the film appear to be there only to be murdered.
Murdered, at this junction, by white mercenaries who appear to be working for Sammi Rotibi’s General Amajagh, an African warlord – because it wouldn’t be a superhero movie without an African warlord, and thus it’s totally fine when Superman kills him by smashing him through that wall a few minutes later….
Except those mercenaries are actually working for someone else. Dun-dun-dun. A double cross! Who could have foreseen this coming?
A double-cross that makes very little sense later when we find out that they’re working for Lex, because this was Luthor’s plan? Endanger Lois Lane in order that Superman will come save her, and then be blamed for a (very small, comparatively, in multiple contexts) massacre in Africa? A massacre committed (except for that one guy Superman pulped by putting through a wall) with guns? And demonstrably so. Down to the fact that Lois can take a bullet back with her to present to one of the few other black men who survives this movie: Swanwick. Because then we can eventually have Swanwick warn Lois that she shouldn’t go chasing Luthor because he’s dangerous, and untouchable, and so on. Because infodumping is so much better than visual narrative as evidence in cinema. It’s a blockbuster movie, who has time to establish visual proof of characterization when there’s punching and shooting things to be done?
And I’ll just point out that there is no justification for why the American committee holding the senatorial hearings gives a shit about the murder of citizens of an African country by an extra-national? Aside from being appropriately horrified on a human level, this is not their jurisdiction. And while they may well (I would fucking hope) be appalled at the loss of human life, that’s barely given time in the script. And since these senators are not, as far as I can tell, on a foreign relations or foreign aid committee nor seem to have any oversight on what looks like more than domestic hearings, the inclusion of the African “incident” as rationale for their reprimand of Superman seems to be entirely a straw man. Much like the rest of these hearings, meant to get us to a scene involving the explosion of a building on US soil that we then can associate with Superman. And thus blame him for the loss of American lives? Because, clearly, American lives matter more in this movie than anyone else’s.
Yes, Superman should absolutely have been able to stop that bomb from going off. But for plot reasons, he does … nothing. A very convenient failure of those super senses, or perhaps his forgetting that he moves so much faster than terrestrials. Or that he could contain or deflect at least a portion of the bomb blast with his body, since he’s nigh invulnerable. But no. Superman stands there, mopey faced. Still standing in the same position while what’s left of the building burns around him. And then flies off to acquire some hiking gear so he can go mope on a mountainside with his dead ghost father.
You know, that’s a sentence I honestly never thought I’d write.
But, before we move on from the discussion of Africa, and the disposability of people of colour in general in this very white movie, it’s worth noting that the big thing that we’re supposed to focus on during the first portion of that African sequence (pre the damselling of Lois), is that the mercenaries working for Luthor murder that cameraman who was working for the CIA – a cameraman accompanying Lois Lane on a McGuffin hunt that will be abandoned later in the film once we no longer need it, and Luthor is revealed to be the villain behind everything. That cameraman who was Michael Cassidy’s Jimmy Olsen.
The film murders Jimmy Olsen.
It’s odd to me that Jimmy Olsen’s death should be the breaking point for my dealing with the plot of BvS. Just given all the general misogyny, the lack of respect for or non-token presence of people of colour (and Swanwick and Perry are in this film token representations, let us not kid ourselves), and the openly objectivist and fascist ideology. Especially given how early his death occurs in the film. Maybe it’s because after that comes all the misogyny I’m going to address below, or maybe it’s because that and the mishandling of the African segment in general presages the muddled, deeply offensive tenor of much of what constitutes the film in sequences like: A needless bathroom exposition scene in which Clark Kent is clothed and Lois Lane is covered only by a layer of bathwater – a scene that continues at excessive length and finishes with offscreen tub fucking. A throwaway transmisogynist joke had when Lois Lane wanders into a men’s bathroom to confront Swanwick. (Which is a frequently occurring joke in film, one that has never been funny, and is generally seen as a way of making women “good enough” to be men in usage, further compounding that joke’s many, many problems.) And so many things in this film that remind us it was written and directed by several eternally pubescent children.
As others have noted, Lois Lane is this film’s whipping or errand boy. If there’s a needless scene to be had, or a stupid decision to be made, it’s going to fall to Lois. So of course the murder of Jimmy Olsen is just going to happen in a scene she’s in, and she’ll have no visible onscreen reaction to it. Lois Lane isn’t given deep emotional range in this film. And that’s not because of Adams.
Amy Adams is a highly capable actress. She, like every other actress in this film, doesn’t get a chance to actually do anything. Which, as with any story issue, falls directly on the writers and director.
It’s not even worth engaging with the rest of the film’s plot. The writers certainly didn’t. And what there is of it, other reviewers have covered at length: Luthor’s plan is absurd in the extreme, and seems to involve mostly putting Lois Lane in harm’s way, repeatedly, to provoke Superman in order to move him about like a chess piece. Luthor doesn’t have to provoke Batman nearly as much, beyond giving him a McGuffin of his own to chase, but only so that said McGuffin can lead Batman to a party Lex is throwing at which Clark Kent will also be, because those crazy kids can come up with reasons to fight on their own once they’re on the same side of the river. Arguably not an ineffective theory given that Batman’s presented as psychotic in this movie, and probably doesn’t need much provocation to go kill people. As he keeps proving. By killing people. (Yet another thing we’ll tackle below.)
And though all the clearly lovingly crafted violence makes me want to joke that the film is two and a half hours long because of all the slow motion, BvS is two and a half hours long because it’s a cobbled together mess of tangential storylines, missed transition cues, terrible editing, and a story packed to the gills with useless McGuffins and sidereal narratives.
The Chekov’s guns of the script lie primarily ignored on their mantelpieces, wondering why they were ever invoked in the first place, since they are clearly superfluous to this outing.
A film with coherence was not out of the question, given what the constraints on the film were: set up the franchise elements, continue the work of the prior film, and make it entertaining enough to make its money back. But Snyder has never been a good storyteller. His one and only skill lies in visual set pieces. Unfortunately, with a film like BvS where the CG work is largely subpar, I will agree most especially with a reviewer who asked: “How do you fuck up fire in CG?” I would also note that Superman in flight looked especially bad this time round, and that with so much of the film being unclear night shooting or possibly green screen work to create night sequences (I’m not sure which), we’re left with an unexpectedly ugly film. One whose few moments of genuine pleasure come from watching Wonder Woman be the fucking badass we all know her to be – for five minutes near the end of the movie.
There is perhaps half an hour of necessary material in the movie (base character building, and the arcs of the useful, not tangential or McGuffin plot points). Another hour, hour and a half, could have been added to that by doing better characterization of the film’s principals than we are given here. Or by actually giving Lex Luthor a character. An oversight and problematic existing characterization that gets its own section below, because that fuck up is huge, and should be properly addressed.
The point is this: We could have had an effective ~90-120 minute movie. The dream sequences/visions, the sideline plots for Lois Lane that amount to nothing, the red herrings re Luthor’s plans, and even the senatorial hearings could all have been cut, or written better if they were going to be included.
Though even the film’s plot issues pale in comparison to its handling of character. Especially the characters of women. Because, as previously stated, there are no three-dimensional women in this movie:
Handling of Women
We can tackle this problem by starting with the objectification of women via an extreme example of objectification indicative of how the film thinks of women as people (spoiler: it doesn’t):
Cut to: a shot of a bared back in Wayne’s bed as he wakes. This unnamed woman’s form cut off by sheets below the waist, and her upper body above the shoulders obscured by Affleck in the shot. The message is: This is a thing. You do not need to see more than the base meaning it implies, because it is shorthand for a sexual object – a receptacle. Because in Snyder’s narrative (if we can even call it that), women are not just objectified, but rendered inhuman or dehumanized as often as possible.
Move, then, to the young girl meant to tug at our heart strings. The young girl Wayne comforts outside his own collapsing tower in the film’s opening rehash of the chaos and destruction in the later portions of Man of Steel. This girl, too, is unnamed. Requiring of none, apparently. Because she, like all the other women in this movie, is a prop. Her mother, we are told by the child, is trapped in a burning, lacerated building. If, indeed, the mother still lives. The visual implication being that this is unlikely. But this girl, either traumatized or merely dazed, is so unable to help herself that Wayne has to tackle/grasp her out of the way of a falling girder, before we can learn from her that she is lost and seeking her mother. As noted earlier in the review, she is a tool to help us humanize Wayne. Granted, the bar was set incredibly high for this kind of sequence by the scene of the young Mako Mori in Pacific Rim, alone and terrified in a city under siege. (Though there there’s a much more effective larger purpose to that sequence as well, which further aids in investing in multiple characters, in a very well-layered scene, handled without dialogue.) But even without meeting the excellence of Pacific Rim‘s example of how to do this kind of scene, BvS didn’t have to fall back on blatant 9/11 imagery to make its point. Again, in comparison, Pacific Rim showed us how to do this in a more somewhat universal context, at least tangentially, by addressing global fallout for catastrophic events. We only ever see a devastated U.S. in BvS, and so the focal imagery is presented through an American lens of tragedy – but in a way that objectifies rather than calls back to the actual event.
Given the way the film chooses to focus on New York – we’re all aware that Gotham and Metropolis represent New York, you can’t get away from that given the material – I’m fairly disgusted (by this among many other things in the film) by the wanton use of 9/11 imagery to bolster this film’s narrative. It’s not my country in question – not my tragedy – and I still find the use of that element both affronting and abhorrent. To abuse something so deeply scarred into the American psyche to lend legitimacy to your fictional parade of violence and fascist fearmongering (see: every fucking diatribe from Batman and the Kents) is utterly perverse.
I would be tempted to say it was a singular act of attempting to borrow real-world events to lend credence to a fictional narrative and grant it visceral, if inappropriately acquired, weight. Were it not for the McCarthian nature of those senatorial hearings led by Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch. Finch, who is also not presented as a three-dimensional character: Aside from some less than sterling (and often laughable) dialogue given to Hunter, we are given little to turn Finch into an actual character, rather than a prop for yet another agenda, on the part of both the screenwriters and Luthor. She’s primarily a character who is murdered to progress the narrative. At least she gets to be fridged (dubious, disgusting honour that that is). Tao Okamoto’s Mercy Graves gets to be collateral, after a preceding parade of being an adjunct in every scene she’s in and being posited as the largely voiceless, efficient Asian stereotype. Where is the well-honed portrayal of Graves built up in the Superman: The Animated Series continuity? All of that is thrown aside for a one-note portrayal of yet another object – a woman who is more PDA than personal assistant.
Martha Kent’s dehumanization, on the other hand, is slightly more complicated. Though equally troubling. We had character development, more or less, for Diane Lane’s portrayal of the character in the first film. But in the second she is reduced to first yet another voice against Superman endangering himself at the expense of others, and then later to a damsel by virtue of the kidnap/endangerment of women portion of the narrative. On top of which we get the pictures of a terrified, running-mascara Martha, with “Witch” scrawled across her forehead; these markings, though absurdly pertinent to Luthor’s diatribe at the time (shoehorned in, as the remarks are totally unnecessary, and expand Luthor’s fixations in a previously unexplored and single-appearance direction), are later mysteriously absent, as though a function of the script and art department at solely that moment; material so casual in its degradation as to be unnecessary to continuity. Material in these photographs presented by Lex Luthor to Superman, because once again we have the threat of fridging as motivation to a male character. A motivation we, the audience, are made complicit in by showing us the pictures. If you’re going to have the damselling at all (which you don’t need), then the more effective and far less degrading approach for the character is for the pictures to be seen only by Superman, not the voyeuristic camera. It’s also a stronger choice, dramatically, to let us imagine whatever horrors lie in those photos rather than show us. But we are shown them because Martha Kent is objectified as damaged, imperilled goods in those photos – as not a person, but a bargaining chip.
Wonder Woman, too, is objectified in some deeply uncomfortable ways. By the audience as the camera lingers on her in primarily male gaze while she’s still in her role as Diana Prince. And more directly by Batman, who regularly literally hauls her from one place to another. In her unarmoured, unsuited role as Diana Prince, Wonder Woman exists in this continually passive context. She offers no argument to being dragged from one thing, or one place, to another. Though it is entirely possible the writers thought they were establishing better character for their depiction of Wonder Woman through the cat and mouse games played by Prince and Wayne across several scenes. Though that’s ultimately a failure as Prince is the plot-convenient victor in those encounters, and thus there is no actual balance or tension between the two of them.
In her role as Wonder Woman, at least, the character gets to eventually have some kind of narrative via looking for a photograph taken of her that she is eager to retrieve. (Is there no end to this film’s McGuffins?) Her role is one note: most effective warrior on the field. But it’s at least some kind of eventually active role. And by not being damselled at any point in the film, Wonder Woman has the unique perspective of being more than a thing to be pushed around (kind of) throughout the film. Though her alter ego, as noted, does have to go through that crucible of being objectified to be allowed to take that active role and eventually don her costume. A crucible that would be more effective had its result not been a speech about how she “walked away from mankind” (the gendered usage appropriate to Snyder’s worldview wherein the world revolves around men). One could make the argument that Wonder Woman distinguishes what works and what does not as the result of men, not women’s, fucking up the world of mortals, as a function of coming from an island of women (which would have at least made sense in character, and addressed her larger origins via the character’s wealth of – sometimes convoluted – origin material). One could, were that argument not undercut by Snyder giving Batman the last word on the matter with the lines: “Men are still good. We fight, we kill, we betray one another, but we can rebuild. We can do better. We will. We have to.” Apparently in Snyder’s universe, even Batman thinks “#NotAllMen.” (And doesn’t know where to end the exposition for brevity and impact.) And uses that to curtail any potential point made by Wonder Woman, text or subtext, about women not damaging the world while men do.
Indeed, in light of so much of the sexism in BvS, how bizarre is it that the film’s misogynist, psychotic Batman is the one whose entreaties are meant to motivate Wonder woman into rejoining the world again. To, wait for it: fight. Because that’s all Wonder Woman’s good for, right? Who needs the compassionate, intelligent, more-than-a-sexy-lamp version of the character from the comics when you can have an action figure?
The entire film, incidentally, fails Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test. And I’m pretty sure fails the Bechdel test as well.
Unfortunately, after her fucking fantastic fight sequence Wonder Woman goes back to being a passive character. Able only to give input to Batman as he discusses the formation of what no one has yet named the Justice League. Though we all know we’re going there, and one might as well just say it, given that the film is subtitled: “Dawn of Justice.”
Which sure as hell didn’t refer to Batman branding people or Superman putting them through walls.
Given the failings of all the other representations of women in this film, we could spend an inordinate amount of time on Lois Lane’s characterization as well, expanding on the couple of things noted earlier in this review. But Allyson Johnson’s discussion of the problems with Lane’s presentation in the film mostly cover that ground well enough that I’m going to leave it alone here.
Partly because I will just end up further incensed if I spend more time thinking about the way this film absolutely hates women, and we’d be here for ages if I took all of that apart piecemeal. And also because there are other failed characterizations I want to touch on:
Handling of Mental Illness
First among those other characterizations is Eisenberg’s portrayal of Lex Luthor, which is deeply troubling. Irritating, yes. But primarily troubling. The manic approach to Luthor lends the character no weight, and if, as others have suggested, it’s an attempt to create a characterization in the vein of Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in Nolan’s continuity, Eisenberg hasn’t managed to pull off something that potent, or that disturbing.
But Eisenberg’s approach to the character, given the script’s background for him, actually has a far more insidious problem: The screenwriters’ choice to utilize the trope of having a sexual abuse survivor be not only mentally damaged but villainous is a toxic portrayal by virtue of its being the only representation of (stereotyped, but quite clearly an attempt at) mental illness in the film. As with any representation, without a normalization by virtue of multiple instances, a sole portrayal becomes the film’s narrative. The film’s – I can only imagine unintentional – victim-blaming subtext that sexual abuse makes you a monster is the only representation we’re given. A vile enough suggestion, and a hoary trope. But especially problematic as the film’s subtext by virtue of BvS having no balance in its portrayal of mental illness (unless you want to argue, too, for a more clinical basis for Batman’s psychosis, which is an argument for another article):
Many reviews I have seen online touch only on the physical abuse. But the line is (paraphrasing the first portion, because I wasn’t taking notes) “No god came to save me from my father’s fists or his abominations.” Without the all-important counterpoint of a non-villainous portrayal of mental illness, the choice of “abomination,” the incredibly poor depiction of Luthor’s PTSD (outside the one scene between Eisenberg and Hunter in Luthor’s father’s study wherein Eisenberg makes a stab at real emotion, and comes very close), Luthor’s obsession with the imagery of the biblical Fall in his father’s study, and Luthor’s obsession with god and the Fall or corruption of divinity, all come together to form an unchallenged narrative of abuse victims descending into madness (or in this case mania) to become destructive and/or murderous themselves.
It’s one of many deeply uncomfortable posits made in the film. Alongside all the objectivist or openly fascist leanings seeded throughout, with Superman occupying the former ground and Batman the latter. Even Wonder Woman is, throughout much of the film, cast in an objectivist light – largely re her unwillingness to engage the conflicts at hand, or indeed to do anything but be apathetic and aloof until being acted on, mostly for plot purposes, by Batman’s pleas for her to act.
One can argue that the tipping point for Wonder Woman’s choice to finally act is the televised instances of destruction she witnesses while waiting for her plane to take off near the close of the film. But this comes only after Batman has already impressed upon her the need to act.
A state of affairs balanced loosely, if not remotely sufficiently, by the fact that Wonder Woman at least gets to be mercifully free of motivations grounded in religious imagery. Luthor gets no such reprieve. Above and beyond what’s already been mentioned, the creation of Doomsday is an allusion to the birth of a nephilim – via the idea of “the mud of man” (I think was the phrase used in the film) mingling with the blood or bodies of gods, as Luthor views the Kyryptonians. Which then becomes a very confused attempt at a metaphorical assertion of Luthor’s goal of humanity murdering gods (because they didn’t come to help him, see?) by virtue of Doomsday’s killing of Superman, whom Luthor has done nothing but liken to a god throughout the film. This instance of the death of Superman storyline at least being devoid of the Pieta shot that often accompanies it, with Superman cradled in Lois’s arms.
And of course we have that final shot in the film of Clark’s coffin shaking from an impact (which, oddly, is not in some of the international cuts as my SO informed me when I mentioned it), presumably from within – in case anyone was previously unaware of the arc of the death of Superman narrative, in that the full arc is usually referred to as the death and resurrection of Superman, completing the Christ imagery and allusions. Although with perhaps more coffin-punching than the Christ narrative normally includes.
And then the credits roll and you have an entire audience waiting for the post-film credits sequence. Which: surprise! There isn’t one. Because this isn’t Marvel, kids. (I wasn’t actually expecting a post-credits sequence because DC doesn’t normally do that, but was surprised at how many in that theatre were.) They already gave you your gift; it was that steaming pile of shit you just watched for two and a half hours.
In retrospect though, I’m not kidding when I say there are parts of the film I enjoyed, for all that it was a prolonged shitshow. Above and beyond Wonder Woman, I actually do care for the portrayal of Alfred, and those rare glimpses of Batman when he’s not a psychotic mess. Which does still leave the misogynist asshole of the portrayal, so there’s really no win there, unfortunately. Though Affleck and Irons do play quite well off each other, and in the Batman solo film Affleck is tackling they will, I suspect, manage to pull something out of what’s guaranteed to be an awful piece of writing and a version of Batman I will continue to be horrified by if this film is any indication.
But I can’t get away from the fact that Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Amy Adams, and Gal Gadot are all utterly wasted. Their dialogue is often appallingly bad, and each of them is clearly trying to invest character into roles where there is little to none. The problems with Adams and Gadot’s characters are covered above. But Irons practically sleepwalks through the film, and he still gives an excellent performance. While Fishburne is working with a portrayal of a Chief Editor in a newsroom environment that bears only a passing resemblance to the actualities of the job. Bizarre actions aside, like creating headlines (not his job…), or assignments to his reporters that make no sense – why the fuck is Kent covering sports instead of a dedicated sports reporter? Did the paper only have one? Did that person die in the events of Man of Steel? It’s been eighteen months; they’d have replaced their (I still can’t believe there’d only be one) sports reporter by now. And White’s dialogue, while meant to be commentary from a “harsher” viewpoint on the world, does little more than hint at how deeply the writers, and Snyder, don’t really care about what they’re doing. And that BvS is a framework on which to build a very troubling view of the world:
Tone and Ideology
In general context, a grimmer, grittier worldbuilding exercise is perfectly doable. But that thing that Snyder and crew think they’re doing? Much as Frank Miller and others before them have thought they’re doing with the darker take on DC’s characters? It’s not new. And it’s certainly not edgy. Indeed, the entire idea of engaging the Dark Knight Returns, Injustice, and Flashpoint material (all of which occur tangentially in the film – though the Barry Allen dream visitation that I think was hinting at Flashpoint might actually just be part of the Injustice arc, I’m not sure), draws on some of the most boring throwback material in the DC universe. I’m thinking especially of The Dark Knight Returns. Because as we just covered, Frank Miller didn’t turn the character dark, he returned him to the boring, murderous instance of the character Bob Kane and Bill Finger originally created:
When Batman first appeared in the comics in 1939, he had no established moral code (although one could potentially argue the case for a minimalist version thereof). He was an anti-hero who regularly murdered the criminals he sought. This state of affairs continued until the introduction of Robin in 1940, and the massaging of Batman’s character into something lighter, if not a complete move away from the dark vigilante character he had been created to be. The idea of Batman’s moral code developed gradually, and has been codified in different ways in different eras. I have no love for Miller’s writing in general, but I am especially unfond of the Dark Knight Returns arc because it’s regressive, not transgressive. I will absolutely accept a transgressive version of Batman’s storyline, but you can build anger and viciousness from grief, and still have the sound basis of a morally interesting character. One who defines their moral basis on weaponizing themselves in order to protect others from the trauma that shaped their character – rather than falling back on a gun to do it.
It’s not nearly as effective to craft a moral compass from psychosis and fixation on a mother figure (to the point where it leads to that incredibly idiotic resolution to the fight between Batman and Superman: “Both our mothers are named Martha. Did we just become besties?”), as the film’s writers have chosen to do. Indeed, the Batman of the film is without moral compass: he has sacrificed his humanity in order to become a better killer. The most blatant instance of which is the dream sequence/vision of the future in which Superman has gone dark and chosen to rule rather than aid, and Batman wields a gun freely to brutal effect. But this is merely an extension of the Batman who brands the criminals he assaults, ensuring they’ll be murdered in prison. The Batman who uses his batmobile’s weapons and its crushing weight to kill with impunity during the truck chase sequence – up to and including tethering and flipping one vehicle on top of another, both occupied by several people, and crushing those two cars together. As well as the Batman who murders, through various means, all of Luthor’s guards stationed around Martha Kent during the rescue sequence late in the film – from that painfully audible neck snapping as one henchman lands on his crown and rag dolls down, all the way up to shooting a flamethrower attached to the back of another leading to an inevitable explosion.
But at least the script allows Batman to make choices in this movie. However painfully out of character they may seem given better incarnations. Superman is allowed no such luxury.
Superman, like the women in the film, is made an object. He is removed from moral complexity by his own fixation: Lois Lane. From reacting to her situations come his choices, and his apathy toward any other heroic action in the film; his motivations almost entirely tie in some form back either to Lois, or to self-serving goals. Were the film not already intent on hammering home the idea of the self-serving god in spoken dialogue throughout the film, or in the endless fucking onslaught of Christ imagery touched on above (I’m not even going to wade into a full discussion of the Dia de los Muertos sequence; just … no), then it would be apparent in the ways in which Superman refuses to engage actually saving other people (as when just floating above those stranded people while the flood rages on; so helpful). Which would at least be consistent were his actions not muddled further by the needs of the film’s overly complicated attempts at plot.
It then being at least marginally consistent with his character doing … mostly nothing … to have Superman, post-exploding courthouse scene, engage in: the long disappearance of Superman while he finds himself; again, because every one of these films needs to see Superman wandering the world not being Superman, I guess? Then to have him return only when Lois Lane is literally pushed off a roof so that we can have yet more damselling. Because twice wasn’t enough?
A sequence that inevitably leads us back to talking about the Kents. We really can’t get away from it. Their consistent approach to instilling in their foster child the notion that he should only help himself, and maybe some other people close to him, leads to some impossibly idiotic material. And the problems start even before we see ghost-Jonathan-Kent. They start with Martha Kent’s “You could save them, if you really want to, I guess. But you don’t owe them anything. All those people who can’t haul themselves up by their own bootstraps. Fuck those people, Clark.” Her diatribe coming before the creepy, dead Jonathan Kent still manages to be an Ayn Randian stand-in: “I had to make a choice to save our family farm once, Clark, and it fucked over some other people. And I heard drowned ghost horses screaming, Clark, every night until I met your mother.” (Because women are magical healing vaginas in Snyder’s world.) “What I’m saying, son, is: Don’t act. Don’t use your powers for other people. Stay up here in the mountains with me and we’ll build fractal art out of stones and wood. Don’t go back into the world unless someone pushes your girlfriend off a building. Because women are just there to be damselled, Clark. Now hand me that big rock behind you.”
Was the “don’t help people; they’ll hate and fear you for being better than them,” isolationist bullshit of the first film not enough? Did we really have to double down on it in this one? On top of everything else the film was doing?
I think we all figured out that Snyder was a dedicated objectivist before learning that he wanted to adapt The Fountainhead into a movie. (It’s been done at least twice, leave the damn thing alone already.) But BvS kind of brought that home in a way only superheroes and everyone around them reduced to gibbering, objectivist/fascist mouthpieces can really do.
The sad thing is that, again, given that Affleck and Irons play well off each other, were this portrayal of Batman not a psychotic, fascist, misogynist take on the character, I would be interested in seeing Affleck do more with it. Even in light of his thoroughly idiotic role as unwitting Cassandra – by virtue of the onslaught of oracular visions the film foists on him. (Visions whose basis I understood as presented, but which require far too much knowledge of DC universe continuity to play well to more than a small subset of the audience – die hard DC fans primarily – without additional context.) As it is, I’m hesitant to see where Batman goes from here. As, indeed, I’m hesitant about the introductions of the movie versions of the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. Of those three, only the Cyborg introduction remotely interests me. I find the Flash and Aquaman takes poorly handled and reductive in their introductions. There’s nothing interesting there to latch onto. The Cyborg introduction, at least, gives me something to work with in terms of base characterization around the protagonist, and lets me feel there’s a larger world at work there in terms of the worldbuilding. Both of those things being the case because of Joe Morton’s brief, if still excellent, performance alongside the actor playing Cyborg.
But it’s Gadot’s Wonder Woman that gives me the most hope for salvaging something from this massive pile of shit. Gadot’s acting is excellent, she just had next to nothing to do in the film.
And at the close of the ordeal, the film leaves somewhat random, lingering questions:
Questions like why is Wayne manor gutted and abandoned in this continuity? It’s an interesting idea, that not only do we not explore, we don’t even hint at. If this is a lead-in to events or things to be touched on further in the upcoming solo Batman film(s) it would still have been a good idea to introduce what was going on here in BvS, and introduce some actual character depth to Batman in the same breath.
Other questions are clearly set-up for future films: Luthor’s rambling speech to Batman, post-Luthor’s-capture and incarceration: “He’s coming, and he’s hungry! The bell has been rung!” Which, admittedly, made me think of Starro, which is probably not where you want your audience to go first thing when the likeliest plan is to introduce Darkseid as your main big bad in the forthcoming JLA film.
In the end, there’s a lot that gets unaddressed in BvS.
You can put all that down to it being a superhero film, if you want. Many of the ones in the past have been notoriously bad on continuity following the exploits in their film when something occurs in the same universe. And there is that tangential attempt to hold Senatorial hearings to discuss the destruction of the city. And for some reason a monument to Superman despite the general governmental distrust of him and the public’s occasional negative reaction as well. But it’s a clumsy attempt to address Man of Steel‘s continuity and drag it forward.
An attempt made clumsier still following where we’ve gone with Marvel’s continuity. Which doesn’t by any stretch hold up perfectly across that universe, or even at times competently within a franchise. But it does manage to create a sense of a larger universe, wherein things connect and overlap with some form of sense and intention. Especially in light of the forthcoming Captain America: Civil War, which looks to tie together so much of that continuity, to form a close to one phase of storytelling, and kickstart another.
By comparison, BvS is even more of an unwieldy mess. It’s a strong argument for not trying to start a connected team-up franchise with the big movie up front, or nearly so, after introducing only one character in that current iteration previously. You end up having to shoehorn far too much into one film. Snyder’s not a director good enough to do that properly to begin with, though I’m hard pressed to think of who could have tried to launch a team-up franchise in this rather backward fashion and done it successfully.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day a film needs to stand on its own merits, regardless of what it’s doing in terms of a franchise, a continuity, or trying to capitalize on an existing body of work’s success. And BvS not only manages not to do any of those things well, but outside of Zimmer’s actually quite excellent score – operatic, if occasionally overblown; and his Wonder Woman theme was excellent, despite the fact that the rest of the score didn’t really match any of the film’s beats – BvS can’t even manage to be a good film by any measurable capacity.
At this point I’m just waiting to see Civil War. So I can go see a franchise-defining movie, featuring vastly popular characters, that knows how to, you know, be a movie with developed characters and narrative and pathos.
It really shouldn’t be that much to ask, should it?