Man of Sequels
by Andrew Collins
Central to the role of film criticism, the critic Alyssa Wilkinson recently remarked, is to mourn “the missed opportunity of the badly made work.” Such a critique is in order for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The longer the film goes, the more it loses its way, but beneath the crust of DC universe-building, there’s actually a pretty good story embedded in there. The problem is a failure of constraint.
The only story worthy of the scope of a single film in Batman v Superman is the triangle of conflict between Superman (Henry Cavill), Batman (Ben Affleck), and Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). The introduction of Bruce Wayne to the story shakes up the traditional protagonist/antagonist dynamic and sets the stage for a worthy sequel to Man of Steel. We first meet Bruce in a flashback to the battle of Metropolis at the end of Man of Steel, as he rushes to a Wayne Enterprise building amid the chaos, only to watch it fall, killing and injuring his employees.
The fallout from this moment is the film’s one chief strength. It confronts the human cost that its predecessor, Man of Steel, failed to address. When Superman and General Zod squared off in a superhuman Kryptonian grudge match, their battle surely caused hundreds, if not thousands of casualties. This was the great critique of Man of Steel – the story flattened half a city without batting an eye.
Well, in Batman v Superman it turns out Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor, and a U.S. Senator share those concerns. Where is Superman’s regard for human life, they ask? Look at all the damage and death he caused. Superman’s powers are so great that he poses an existential threat to humanity, and let us not forget that he himself isn’t human, he’s an alien. If there is even a one percent chance that he ends up taking down the entire human race, Bruce reasons with Alfred, then he must be stopped. The world needs a silver bullet it can use against Superman. In Kryptonite, Luthor finds such a bullet. This creates a triangle between hero, antihero, and villain in which the surface-level goals of Batman and Luthor overlap.
This is perhaps the most realistic iteration of Superman to date. The world is unsure whether to trust him. He’s unsure if he can trust himself. Is his power really providing a net good for the world? Is he morally culpable for every good deed he could do yet failed to do, such as failing to perceive the bomb that blew up a wing of the U.S. Capitol while he was on trial? It’s a sharp departure from the hero Superman is supposed to symbolize in the American consciousness. Some see this as a tragic abandonment of good and idealism. Perhaps it is, but if so it is a excellent attempt at modern mythmaking for a cynical age. As the writer James Renner observed in a reflection on today’s most popular stories, “Despair is so hot right now.” Indeed, it is so hot that even the symbol for hope itself – Superman, of all people – shakes on the precipice.
Here’s where the mourning begins. Sadly the quest to recover the idealistic Superman we know and love falls to a pithy plot turn and rampant, numbing spectacle. Batman v Superman may give an account for one of the flaws in Man of Steel, but it also shares one of its biggest weaknesses: as soon as the action sequences start the both movies become profoundly uninteresting.
The appearance of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) at the eleventh hour makes good fodder for a spinoff film, but little more. In the plot she functions merely as a sex symbol (complete with her own electric guitar-driven musical score) and an unnecessary deus ex machina who emerges just in time to save Batman from a deadly blast from the kryptonian monster Doomsday.
It’s hard to conceive of a superhero film whose villain doesn’t need to be defeated in a flurry of fists, but nixing Doomsday completely would have made space for Lex Luthor’s supposed evil genius. Again, as a character he gets off to a fine start. It’s about time Hollywood brought us a psychopathic Mark Zuckerberg, and Eisenberg steps into the character with all the jittery zest the role demands. When the chips are down, however, Luthor turns out to be simple-minded.
Just what was his plan, exactly, after using the wreckage of a Kryptonian spaceship to create and loose Doomsday to kill Superman? It’s not clear. Luthor hates Superman, presumably, for the unchecked power he wields. But the power Luthor himself unleashes on the world makes him an even worse sinner than Superman for bringing Kryptonian aliens into the world, because he did it on purpose.
Villains with inscrutable motives can be scary (see Heath Ledger’s Joker, Hannibal Lector, et al.), but poor Lex comes off more like an undergrad who just finished a few semesters of philosophy and literature classes and can’t wait to deploy his wit and knowledge upon the world’s small-minded imbeciles. His closing words, “the redcapes are coming, the redcapes are coming,” are as campy and confusing as they are haunting.
If by “redcapes” Luthor means superheroes, he’s right. The unabashed goal of Batman v Superman is to perpetuate superhero stories in the DC universe. It’s just too bad it didn’t focus on telling a good story itself.