Note: Spoilers. Lots of spoilers.
So, as we all know, the latest superhero movie came out recently, and as usual has caused something of a furor. To begin with, the “Batman vs. Superman” fight has been argued over in comics shops ever since DC developed something that might actually be called a “fandom,” which attracted a lot of attention. Throw in the fact that the movie reboots Batman again, introduces Wonder Woman, is a sequel to the rather controversial Man of Steel, and was directed by Zack Snyder, and you have trouble a-brewin’.
I should note that before you get into the meat of this review, you should read this. The sensibility of that review will heavily inform this one.
To begin with, the movie does have its issues. Plotwise, claims that it seems more like an introduction to some kind of DC movieverse than a movie in its own right have some substance—the “Lex Luthor is looking for metahumans” subplot has virtually nothing to do with the main plotline of the movie by itself, and the sequel hook at the end is ridiculously blatant.
Characterwise, Lex Luthor degenerates, over the course of the movie, from a compelling character who almost directly quotes Reinhold Niebuhr and might have a valid point about checks and balances to an utter psychopath and plot device. This decision rings true to the source material, but is also utterly disappointing from a storytelling standpoint and the promise shown at the beginning for a discussion of power and what to do about it.
Senator Finch embodies some of the worst stereotypes of politicians, saying that she wants to do something about unchecked power but refusing to actually do what would be required to check that power, in the apparent belief that government rests on something other than force.
Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, unfortunately, is essentially a plot device in this movie, serving primarily to introduce the “Lex Luthor is studying metahumans” subplot and as an aid in the fight against Doomsday. However, while showing slight “grrl power” tendencies, she manages to get over them, and with hints at a backstory that involves World War I at the very least, shows a lot of potential for being a very interesting character in her own right.
Lois Lane also suffers slightly in this movie, primarily serving to move the plot along by being kidnapped in Africa as part of Luthor’s plot to discredit Superman, investigating a questionable bullet found there that leads her to Lex Luthor, getting put in peril by Lex Luthor in order to draw out Superman, intervening at the end of the Batman/Superman fight, and then dumping Batman’s Kryptonite spear into a flooded stairwell and nearly dying trying to retrieve it when Doomsday shows up in order to add dramatic tension. Fortunately, she does undergo some character growth in her own right, realizing that she’s made some bad decisions and that being a reporter does not mean that you know everything.
However, our two main protagonists are presented quite well. Bruce Wayne/Batman, played excellently by Ben Affleck, of all people, is an odd mix of his initial incarnation in Detective Comics and Christian Bale’s portrayal of the character, but it’s one that works quite well. Hardened by years, if not decades, of fighting crime in Gotham City, and having come face-to-face with powerlessness in the face of almost god-like power in Metropolis during the fight between Superman and Zod, he represents the skeptic of unlimited power and the real-world of fighting injustice, where the lines get blurry. He also, in the ease with which Lex Luthor manipulates him into fighting Superman, represents the limitations of that worldview.
Clark Kent/Superman is also very well done, although thanks less to Henry Cavill than to the writers. He is young and idealistic, determined to right all wrongs and use his incredible power for the good of all. However, he also has the arrogance of youth and power, failing to consider the potential consequences of his actions when saving Lois Lane in Africa and attempting to dictate to Batman because he thinks the latter is terrorizing the people of Gotham with the connivance of the local police, failing to realize that perhaps he doesn’t understand everything that’s going on.
I’m not going to go into the plot, beyond the fact that it presents one of the few halfway-decent reasons for Superman and Batman to get into a brawl that I’ve ever seen. In terms of thematic material, however, there’s a lot to work with.
The first element is dealing with the aftermath of the fight between Zod and Superman in Metropolis. Oft-criticized in certain circles for the amount of collateral damage incurred, the movie presents the event as the origin of Batman’s animus against Superman, as well as that of much of the country. Left unstated in this movie, as in the last one, is the fact that Zod’s objective was not “Kill Superman,” his objective was “Destroy Metropolis, then the world,” which meant that there was virtually no way for Superman to avoid incurring massive civilian casualties. I can understand that people directly affected by such events might not see that; people separated from the events by a screen should be able to consider this carefully. However, at least this view is presented as being wrongheaded.
The second theme is that of power and its limits, its uses and abuses. While this is obscured by the fact that the most plain-spoken expounder of this idea turns out to be a psychopathic nutbar, the fact is that the core of this movie is about power and its uses. Superman is the most physically powerful being in the setting until Doomsday shows up, but Lex Luthor is able to put him in a nearly impossible position by pushing his buttons properly, and Batman is able to reduce him to human limits with the proper preparations. Senator Finch represents the most powerful government on the planet, but she is unable to control a determined, demented fanatic like Luthor, while the nuclear might of the United States government is powerless against Doomsday—or, for that matter, Superman. Batman is the scariest thing in Gotham, but Superman drop-kicks him in their first meeting without mussing his hair—a fact that leads to Superman abusing his power by demanding that Batman cease his crimefighting activity, with no prior interaction beyond a thinly veiled lecture based, as nearly as the viewer can tell, purely on his own presuppositions.
The third and final theme is that of fear. Those that are fearful of Superman are proven wrong. Batman uses fear in order to do good, but the reaction it engenders demonstrates that it is easy to cross the line in doing so. Lex Luthor has no fear, and it leads to him nearly destroying the world. Superman is scared of himself and what he can do, and that allows him to do what he needs to do, and it is when he has no fear that he does foolish things.
All this goes to say, that while Batman vs. Superman is a disappointing movie, it’s not a bad one, and it’s worth the watching. And there’s a lot to be said for it.
‘Til next time,
Lowell Van Ness