The astonishments of the quasi-Biblical clashes and catastrophes in the director Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” left me impatient to see his “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The earlier film conveyed an awed and even terrified sense of the colossal, a delight in the cinematic ability to realize wrenching destruction and, at the same time, to shiver at the very imagination of it. Snyder turned the superhero universe around on itself, constructing backstories and out-there stories of an apocalyptic force; it was silly but potent, shallow but thrilling. Perhaps Snyder’s new film is the victim of great (or any) expectations, but “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” remains literally Earth-bound, and this fair planet is where Snyder bumps up against the limits of his vision.
Where “Man of Steel” opens big, with an intergalactic origin story that has the heightened tone of pseudo-scripture, the first big set piece in “Batman v Superman” is a catastrophe from home, a virtual replay of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) looking on with horror and hatred as the tower of Wayne Industries collapses (vertically) into a blinding gust of light-gray powder—as a result of the battle waged by Superman (Henry Cavill) against the Kryptonian usurper General Zod.
That start gives off a strange whiff of competition with—or emulation of—Marvel’s irrepressibly successful “Avengers” films, the first of which, in particular, is an unabashed post-9/11 allegory. (The connection is surprisingly direct. One of the climactic moments of “Batman v Superman”—a leap from the ground that vaults through the atmosphere and into outer space—is a virtual duplication, both dramatically and visually, of a similar climactic feat in “The Avengers.”) In Snyder’s new film, Superman appears, from the start, as a hopeless naïf, a battler for good who doesn’t admit to his own capacity to do incidental evil, a blinkered warrior who deploys his nearly infinite powers according to his unquestioned moral intuition rather than to the prudent calculation of results.
Bruce Wayne isn’t alone in his disdain. Superman becomes the target of popular protest, editorial denunciations, and critical hearings in the Senate—a state of affairs that suits a clear-eyed villain, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Knowing that Superman is the prime obstacle to his diabolical plot for world dominion, Lex acquires a trove of Kryptonite in order to create a weapon that will kill Superman—and he seeks to stoke public and official enmity toward Superman so that the actual attack on the archetypal superhero will be undertaken by others. The leading other, of course, is Batman.
Snyder parses the difference between the two superheroes with an inspired pair of special effects. Both Superman and Batman have eyes that glow with supernatural powers; Superman’s are red, Batman’s are blue. In effect, Superman is the Republican superhero, Batman the Democratic one. The classic distinction between the right and the left is that the right represents the uninhibited force of natural power, while the left represents a check on natural power in the name of an idea. Batman embodies that check—and, because he himself isn’t up to a mano a mano with Superman, he needs allies.
The movie’s one great line comes in the final showdown, when Superman tells Batman, “If I wanted it, you’d be dead already.” (It’s a “Godfather” riff.) The line announces the rules of the game: Superman is stronger than Batman, but his one great vulnerability renders him more tragically destructible than Batman’s multivariable modalities of death. It also explains, in one phrase, the entire plot and its implications: Superman may be able to kill Batman at will, but Batman, in order to combat Superman effectively, has to have help. He has to make an alliance, even an unwitting one, with other forces, which, in the event, turn out to be the forces of evil, at the command of Lex Luthor.
It’s a salacious political charge to suggest that the Democratic left is inclined to dubious and unwitting alliances with evildoers in order to oppose unwarranted authority at home. The notion has no relationship to contemporary politics (despite some Republicans’ claims of that sort). It’s a powerful metaphor, though, all the more so because Snyder realizes it in hectic images. Even at his most pedestrian or bombastic, Snyder makes a far more engaging film than Christopher Nolan (an executive producer of “Batman v Superman”) ever did—because Nolan presumes to know and to show, whereas Snyder wants to see. Even his slender philosophical world seems like he’s discovering it, not delivering it.
“Batman v Superman,” especially in an election year, foresees woe to those who want superheroes at all. The movie suggests that there’d be much less of an urge to find a superhero—or to magnify demagogues who pretend to be one—if politicians merely did their jobs competently and sensitively. (The movie presents the long-dithering antics of politicians mainly through the actions of Senator June Finch, played by Holly Hunter, whose awakening comes too late.)
Snyder’s movie dramatizes the very presence of a being with unlimited power, Superman, in a world of people whose powers are (fortunately) sharply limited. As the story makes clear, Superman is nearly a god, while Batman is mainly a man. It isn’t too much of a spoiler to say that what ultimately unites them is mothers (all that’s missing is the apple pie). Batman won’t help Superman try to save the world, but he’ll help Superman try to save his mother, because the desire to do so indicates that, essentially, Superman has—despite it all—a human heart.
The devil gets, as usual, the most florid dialogue, and Jesse Eisenberg dispenses it with exuberant intelligence. He steals every scene. In a recent interview in Le Monde, Eisenberg discussed his approach to the role:
Luthor becomes a character from Greek tragedy. At least, that’s how I approached it, in accord with the screenwriter. He only talks about ideas, which makes him a profoundly theatrical character. I can also play on a paradox: rendering this individual funny although he behaves in an appalling way, also showing him prone to deep depressions because of his internal conflicts. I did everything I could to theatricalize him in the extreme. I had read lots of the adventures of Superman in comic books, but it was impossible to draw on them to find a way to play Luthor. Too schematic. Too much of a caricature. I reconfigured the character as if he became in fact the center of the film.
Eisenberg’s gleeful and inventive performance suggests that he may be at his best in a tight framework that restrains his physicality and converges his acting to vocal inflections and turns of phrase, gestures and facial expressions. (Those were his great contributions to “The Social Network” as well.)
It’s also good to see Wonder Woman turn up as the voice of reason—and as a living preview of movies to come. The character doesn’t have all that much to do, but Gal Gadot lends her a confident stride, a commanding presence, and plenty of attitude. As for the gigantic Kryptozoic creature who emerges from the deep to fight all three superheroes together, he’s unintentionally funny, starting with his humanoid but genital-free nakedness. The monster is a huge, stony, Hulk-like thing but without a Hulk-like character or sense of conflict; his wrath is neither terrifyingly eruptive nor shockingly rapid. What the monster does to Superman, I think everyone knows by now. What’s most disheartening is how unspectacular a quietus it turns out to be. The movie, staking little on its long-foretold climax, more or less just peters out.
Where the grand scenographic universe of “Man of Steel” conjures a turbulent swirl of passions, “Batman v Superman” suggests a restraint on passion overall and endorses, as a prime virtue, the masked blandness of heroes who don’t put on much of a show, and the modesty that such blandness implies. The fact that Snyder makes that point with a spectacle of uninhibited bombast is a self-critique as strong as any reproach that a critic can levy.