Maturity, Depth, and “Dawn of Justice”

Note: There exist two versions of “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” The first is a theatrical cut which runs for about two hours and thirty minutes. The second is the “Ultimate Edition” which runs for three hours. I saw the latter with a friend who also saw the theatrical version. As he explained to me throughout the film, the “Ultimate Edition” differs in not only re-arranging scenes but also adding new ones in order to further explain character motives, backstory, etc.

The issue I usually have with superhero films is their lack of character depth. To clarify, because superhero films tend to be extremely expensive, their scripts and presentation are focused on creating spectacles, because that’s what sells—profit needs to be made. There’s nothing inherently wrong with creating a film focused on grandiose battles of CGI, but the deeper issue lies in the fact that it seems in order to set up and have those battles, what’s lost are characters with complexity. The result is that superhero films tend to be filled with characters that are cardboard cutout stereotypes. The consequence of that is while the spectacles may offer visual delights, the film is otherwise shallow and uninteresting.

I’ll offer a counter example: Sam Raimi’s “Spiderman 2,” which I think is a fantastic superhero film because it blends fun, action, and that touch of character complexity so well. In regards to that last element of the film, we see how Peter Parker (Toby Maguire) struggles with his Spiderman alter-ego because of the consequences it has on his life. Mainly, the danger it puts his loved ones in. But to discard his alter ego would be an act of selfishness; people need Spiderman to save them.

Well, enter Zack Snyder with his two latest superhero films, “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” David S. Goyer penned both those films with Chris Terrio also being a co-screenwriter on “Dawn of Justice.” What’s notable about Snyder’s superhero works is that the characters of his films are more grounded in reality, because they’re given that element of complexity. This goes as far back as Snyder’s 2009 “Watchmen” which did a more realistic take on the superhero genre. Like Raimi’s Peter Parker, Snyder’s Clark Kent also struggles with being a superhero. In Kent’s case, it’s not necessarily the fear of endangering others but rather the threat of ostracization. As an alien among humans, Kent worries that to take up the Superman alter ego would be to put his existence in danger. There’s no way he could ever be accepted, right?

“Dawn of Justice” serves as a direct sequel to “Man of Steel” and the set-up of the story is based off the final battle of “Man of Steel.” Superman (Henry Cavill) may have stopped Zod (Michael Shannon) from destroying Earth, but the cost was the leveling of an entire city and a countless amount of lives lost in the process. Not too far from Metropolis, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) keeps an eye on Superman from his own home city of Gotham. He believes that despite Superman’s great powers used for good, Superman is just too great of a potential threat to leave unchecked. Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), a billionaire scientist is the villain who will pit them against one another. As Luthor puts it, the battle is “God versus Man.”

In Snyder’s universe, the question of whether or not Superman can truly live among us isn’t a complete “yes” or “no.” Superman is ostracized, but he’s also hailed as a messiah. To that latter extent, Snyder heavily employs religious imagery. But what I really want to note is that despite Snyder’s efforts in making his characters fallible—which they are—those efforts fall short due to their execution. The religious imagery is too heavy handed and obvious. There’s no subtly employed and Snyder seems fine with simply comparing Superman to Jesus and leaving it at that. Sure, we may get speeches on how Superman is dangerous or how he’s a savior, coupled with shots of Superman forlornly staring off into the sky, but the full consequences of Superman’s identity are never explored; we only get the surface bits. Once again, character depth remains shallow.

Yet, that’s not necessarily the problem with “Dawn of Justice.” There are two new notable characters which are introduced here: Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman and Lex Luthor. Audiences may already be familiar with Batman’s mythos thanks to Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, but Snyder makes sure to refresh our memory, and so the beginning of the film is dedicated to his origins. Believe it or not, this version of Batman is even grittier than Nolan’s. Years of crime fighting have worn down on Bruce hard and this is reflected in his style: villains are no longer safe. Batman is out to kill. Those that survive are branded—a mark which would essentially get them killed in prison by other inmates.

I don’t care for the grit, but I enjoyed Affleck’s performance as Bruce for his capability of carrying the style Snyder was aiming for. Similarly, Eisenberg as Luthor removes the character from his cool genius billionaire roots and makes him damaged. Snyder’s Luthor is haunted by the family expectations. There’s something deeply, mentally wrong with Luthor and Eisenberg reflects this so well. I’ve very briefly talked about Eisenberg’s style of acting in my review for “End of Tour.” For me, Eisenberg is a master of short bursts of energy supplemented by bodily ticks. With “Dawn of Justice,” Eisenberg’s style is cranked way up but rather than come off as cartoonish, he comes off deranged. In essence, Eisenberg turns Lex not only into the perfect psychological threat, but a madman you can’t help pity.

No, the biggest problem with “Dawn of Justice” is the editing. The friend who I saw the movie with said that this was also a problem with the theatrical cut, so it seems that even with another thirty minutes added and scenes rearranged, “Dawn of Justice” just can’t live up to its potential. Scenes don’t end so abruptly so much as they aren’t explored. “Dawn of Justice’ is a mish mash of great ideas that don’t have enough time to develop and so the result is a film with just a lot of great ideas made mediocre.

For example, “Dawn of Justice” focuses on the destruction wrought by Superman in the previous film and whether or not he’s truly a savior. It also focuses on the strain that being Superman has on the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane (Amy Adams). It’s also, however, a Batman origin story, so there needs to be a focus and exploration on Batman as a character. But as the title of the film goes, Batman and Superman must also fight, so it’s also about their ideological differences, which, to be fair, falls in line with that first theme I brought up. Yet, and this is the last straw, with Marvel establishing that audiences want to see superhero cinematic universes, D.C. needs to play catch-up. That means “Dawn of Justice” also needs to be a set-up not only for the direct sequel but also the multitude of spin-offs that will ensue. Three hours is a long-time, but “Dawn of Justice” just tries to do too much at once.

Then there are more typical problems. While I think Eisenberg’s Luthor is a great villain for this more realistic style of superheroes, at the end of the day he’s only a frail human being (I’m aware that he has a power suit in the comics), and so he can’t possibly go toe to toe with the likes of Superman and Batman. That means a villain monstrous enough to battle our heroes must be summoned, and he does. Out of the depths of CGI hell, Luthor brings out a monster to fight the good guys. Even in the entertainment department, the battle itself is sorely lacking. And on a thematic level, don’t bother looking for a Frankenstein.

“Dawn of Justice” has a lot of ideas that make it a bit more mature, more nuanced than its other superhero counterparts. Its grit isn’t the same as Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy but what is comparable is that moment towards the end of the “Dark Knight” where Batman (Christian Bale) has to make the right choice that will inevitably make him a villain. “Dawn of Justice” wants to have that type of post-modern morality but instead of having one strong area, it’s just a weakly strung film of good ideas.

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