I was an avid comic-book reader when I was young, but I never so much as glanced at the cover of a Marvel comic book. I was a DC-guy through and through. Maybe that’s why The Avengers generally bore me. The only Marvel superhero I enjoy watching on film is Spider-man.
Back to DC: My favourite comic book was World’s Finest, which featured both of my favourite superheroes: Superman and Batman. But my favourite superhero, by far, was Batman. So I much appreciated Tim Burton’s Batman films with Michael Keaton as Batman (though I had no use for the sequels), and of course I loved Christopher Nolan’s Batman films (with Christian Bale), though I had some serious problems with the second and third films.
Now we have Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While it’s breaking box office records, it has received mostly dismal reviews from the critics. Since I didn’t like Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (the prequel), and since I’m no fan of Ben Affleck (who plays Batman), I thought this was one superhero film I wouldn’t have to watch. But then I heard people arguing about all the religious talk and religious symbolism in the film and I couldn’t stop myself.
One of the most obvious features of Batman v Superman, and one of the biggest complaints from critics, is the unremitting and overwhelming darkness. Unlike in the Marvel films, there is no fun to be had here. Not even the eccentric-genius villain (Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg) is having any fun here. Superman (Henry Cavill) is confused and depressed about all the people complaining about his attempts to protect Metropolis (a senator, played by Holly Hunter, asks why Superman should be trusted when he never bothers to consult anyone about what he does) instead of complaining about the much more worrisome vigilante across the river in Gotham, the one branding his victims (baddies though they may be) with the image of a bat. Meanwhile, Batman is angry and depressed because twenty years of crime-fighting in Gotham seem like a waste of time for all the good they’ve done, especially now that this alien Superman fellow is causing so much trouble (Superman’s fight against General Zod in Man of Steel begins this film and results in the destruction of one of Bruce Wayne’s office buildings, and the death of many of his employees, something Batman is still stewing over eighteen months later). Meanwhile, Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is tired of putting up with his boss and worried because of Batman’s constant anger and depression, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) are worried about Superman’s enemies and his emotional wellbeing, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) is worried about Clark Kent’s obsession with Batman, and even the mysterious Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) just seems to want to get away from all the darkness.
If the darkness of the characters isn’t enough, the cinematography and atmosphere are as dark and gloomy as they can be, enhanced by the desaturated colours which are no doubt partly the result of making the film for 3D (I watched the 2D version of course). Then there’s Hans Zimmer’s overwhelmingly heavy (dark) score. Even the superhero action (i.e. violence) is dark, with dark thoughts fuelling the fight between the two superheroes and despair fuelling the fight against Luthor’s monster, Doomsday, whose name says it all.
But here’s the thing: All this darkness is what I liked best about Batman v Superman. I’m a Batman fan after all - I like my superheroes dark and I like my superhero films dark. Not sure how that fits into my personality (I’m an optimist at heart), but I’ve always been attracted to dark films (yup, I’m a film noir fan). Sure, I would have enjoyed the darkness of the characters much more if the plot and character-development had been stronger (the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, feeling contrived in a lazy way, unlike Nolan’s brilliantly-contrived plots), but I find it much easier to identify with superheroes who are in a dark space and thus felt much more engaged with this film than with any of the Avengers-related films. I also much prefer to see my superhero redemptive violence take place in a dark environment where it’s more difficult to enjoy the violence (instead of being disturbed by it and wanting it to stop), as opposed to the ‘fun’ environment of The Avengers, where the violence feels like it’s there to entertain. Which is not to say that I in any way condone all the violent action in Batman v Superman. I do not. I found the violence repetitive, boring and largely unnecessary, just as I do in most superhero films (most of which I describe as odes to redemptive violence).
Another thing I didn’t like about the film was the way it hinted at all the DC films to come, creating a superhero franchise to rival Marvel’s Avengers, though those of us familiar with the comics knew what Dawn of Justice was referring to (i.e. the Justice League). Despite my love of superheroes as a child, my ongoing fascination with Batman, and my deep respect for the Tobey Maguire Spider-man films, I grow weary of superhero films and I’m worried about the fact that few people seem to share that view.
One of the future DC-film superheroes already makes an entrance in Batman v Superman, in a scene which felt too much like The Avengers. As for the film’s controversial ending, I will only say that I was not dissatisfied, though it was drawn out too long for me.
While I will admit that Affleck was not the worst choice for Batman, I was not particularly impressed with his acting, or with the acting of anyone else in the film, other than some who appeared all-too-briefly (Hunter, Irons, Fishburne). It was all adequate enough.
But what about the religious symbolism that tempted me to watch Batman v Superman in the first place? I suppose it deserves an essay of its own, but it’s so difficult to understand exactly where the filmmakers are going with it that an essay seems pointless. There is no question that Superman is intentionally portrayed as a Christ-figure (as in Man of Steel), with a number of Biblical allusions and symbols. It’s likely that the Good Friday release was part of that. Exactly where Batman fits in with the religious symbolism is less clear. Bats have an association with hell and there are inferences that the battle between Superman and Batman is a battle not just between God and ‘man’ but between God and the devil. But I may be reading too much into that and it certainly doesn't go anywhere. It seems clearer that Doomsday is a demonic figure, but that isn’t developed either.
The most conspicuous religious content of the film is Lex Luthor’s words to Superman in which he discusses the age-old question of how God can allow so much suffering in the world. Luthor, who thinks Superman represents God (part of the Christ-figure storyline) concludes that God cannot be both all-good and all-powerful and tries to prove that Superman is neither. Again, all this religious talk doesn’t seem to go anywhere or say much to viewers (partly because of the overwhelming anti-Christlike presence of redemptive violence rather than Jesus’ emphasis on nonviolence). The Spider-man films were much more thoughtful and profound.
Nevertheless, going in with the lowest of expectations, I was surprised enough by my engagement with the film to award Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice a surprising ***. My mug is up.