I have to admit, the negative reviews of Batman v Superman have really surprised me. But on further inspection, perhaps it’s to be expected: this is a superhero movie that, much like Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, takes a wildly artistic, bizarre approach to pop culture icons. It won’t appeal to everyone. It can’t.

Zack Snyder, the director of both this movie and Man of Steel, has done something startlingly different with both of his films. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, like the early X-Men movies, created a universe grounded in reality, where a man in a bat costume and a costumed clown were brought down to the real world. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies embraced the larger than life aspects of the comics, while simultaneously balancing them against bittersweet, sincere, indie-style character interactions. Marvel Studios’s Avengers multiverse, while it contains a variety of different tones and styles, is mostly molded on the adventure film aesthetic of classics like Star Wars and Indiana Jones; fun, humorous, but not afraid to dive deep when necessary.

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Though Zack Snyder’s approach has been likened to Nolan’s, it’s only similar on a surface level.  Though Snyder’s DC universe is filled with both religious and political subtext, never afraid to show violent rallies or catastrophic incidents, what he’s actually doing here is portraying his superhero characters not as comic book heroes, but as Greek myths brought to life.

When Lex Luthor — who Jesse Eisenberg portrays as a sort of supervillain version of Mark Zuckerberg — says that “demons come from the sky,” this isn’t just a character moment that explains Lex’s motivations, it’s the central question of the entire movie. Similarly, when Lex tells a US senator that the oldest lie in America is the notion that “power can be innocent,” it’s the movie itself asking whether potentially authoritarian figures such as Batman and Superman should be trusted with world safety.

In fiction, superheroes excite us. We know who they are, and we know that they’re good people. We root for them. But in real life, would we not be terrified?

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Just consider Batman, and what a scary figure he is. While we all thrill to Batman’s adventures in the movies, just imagine if a real Batman existed in our world: imagine if a “terrorist,” as this movie refers to him, was creeping around in the shadows of your city, attacking criminals, taking the law into his own hands for reasons you don’t get to know. If Batman was real and we knew nothing about where he came from, would we trust him? Would we feel safe walking down the streets at night?

Superman takes this to the next level. Seriously, imagine that an alien swoops in from the sky and saves the world, but that this super powered battle destroys a major American city. In the wake of this devastation, the world now has to reconcile with the known existence of a godlike creature that can tear apart skyscrapers, bolt across the planet in seconds, and survive bomb blasts. Would the people, the government, or the media trust him to do the right thing?

Considering we live in a society that has been perpetually involved in never ending wars, that doesn’t seem so likely.

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Essentially, the reveal of Superman would undermine everything we think we know about our place in the universe. The vast majority of human cultures and religions have always cast humans as the center of it all, the makers, the masters.

A real life Superman would shatter that illusion. That’s about the most terrifying concept in the world.

Batman v Superman asks us to truly examine how the world would react to the existence of superheroes, without pulling its punches. When these heroes battle against cosmic threats, it does level a city block, and these actions do have real consequence on people’s lives. While the comic book Superman can usually rescue a building full of people without any fatalities, this cinematic Superman makes mistakes. He tries his best, but he’s like a giant trying to maneuver through an ant farm, and sometimes people get hurt.

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This means that the film doesn’t possess the sort of positivity or excitement that we expect out of most superhero offerings, so I can understand the disappointment that many feel. This is a shockingly different sort of film from what most expected.

Now, I enjoy those films as well. I love the MCU, I love Superman: The Movie, and all that. But there’s something to be admired about the fact that Snyder and his writers were willing to take a chance on a movie of this scale, to truly examine the consequences of superheroes that are often ignored. For the record, I expect that the upcoming Captain America: Civil War will examine similar questions, albeit in a different way, and I can’t wait for that movie as well.

In any case, while BvS mirrors some of the themes of Alan Moore’s Watchmen — which in comic circles is widely considered to be on the level of a religious text — where it differs is that this movie does believe in its heroes. It’s just not afraid to put them through the ringer.

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I don’t think that Henry Cavill’s Superman gets nearly enough credit for what amounts to a surprisingly subtle depiction of this classic character. Superman here is a more introverted and self-doubting figure than how he’s normally been represented, but it works. Unlike the obsessive and driven Batman, Clark Kent is basically just a good guy who wants to do the right thing, and hopes that he’s doing it the right way. He’s a normal man who possesses the gifts of a God, and struggles beneath the weight of what his existence means to the world.

So yes, Clark was born a God, but probably would have preferred to be a man. On the other hand, while Bruce Wayne may have been born a man, he has turned himself into a god.  In contrast to Clark’s humble unsureness, Bruce Wayne is a person motivated by obsession, constantly dedicating himself to an ideal that has stripped him of his youth, his friends, and every other aspect of his life. By the time of BvS, that obsession has only grown more fervent, and he’s lost sight of the idealistic goals that motivated it to begin with.

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Batman’s motivation to kill Superman, who he refuses to see as a human being, is essentially a midlife crisis. Bruce Wayne has spent his entire life fighting to make the world a better place in his own small way, and when two aliens drop down on the world and blow up half of a city, he sees in a very real way just how small he is, and how everything he’s ever done could be wiped out in a millisecond now that real gods walk among men.

This conclusion is driven home by two scenes in particular. First is the opening, which takes us back to Man of Steel‘s epic conclusion, and shows Bruce Wayne  helplessly turned into a bystander. Second is the Batmobile scene, which replicates the style of the Nolan Batmobile scenes. This scene shows Batman dominating everything in his path, succeeding the way we’ve always seen him succeed…

Until the Batmobile smacks into Superman, spins out of control, and is totaled.

Again, because of Superman, Batman’s efforts are rendered meaningless. Insignificant. He’s just a pawn in the game, shown to be worthless against an alien being that he perceives to be a threat to world safety.

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I had a lot of doubts about Affleck, but he delivers here in every way. I’ll admit, Affleck and Snyder’s more sociopathic version of Batman isn’t my Batman. While this version is clearly influenced by Frank Miller’s brutal take on the character in the classic Dark Knight Returns, I’ve always preferred the more idealistic, moral, and human Batman that Denny O’Neil wrote — the version brought to life in both Batman: The Animated Series and Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Because of that, Christian Bale will probably always be my favorite live action Batman, but Affleck does a great job here at depicting Frank Miller’s caped crusader.

Where the movie falters, compared to other superhero films, is in Zack Snyder’s lack of maturity compared to a more experienced director like Nolan. Whereas the Nolan brothers adeptly weaved together storylines that paid off in every way, Snyder sometimes leaves threads hanging, or unnecessarily kills off characters for shock value. Still, he’s his own director, and he’s telling a very different story from the one that Nolan did.

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I’ll put it this way: Nolan used the Batman mythology as a framework to tell a politically-charged parable about American life in the 21st century. Now, this worked amazingly. But what Snyder is doing here is telling a story centered around just how impossible these characters are, instead of making them more realistic.

Snyder and the writers want to ask the question of what happens to the real world when you drop an impossible figure like Superman into it.Once we understand this, I think Snyder’s approach starts to make sense.

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It’s not a fun movie, certainly. It’s often bleak, slow-paced, and doesn’t flinch from having terrible things happen to good people. I’m glad that this isn’t the blueprint for all superhero movies, because I do think it’s important that the majority of superhero films are more positive — and more accessible to younger audience members — but every once in a while, it’s good to have a different take on the genre.

BvS is not the expected approach to a superhero movie, but it’s nothing if not ambitious as hell. Whether Snyder succeeds or fails in his attempt is up to the viewer, and based on the reviews it’s clear that this is turning out be a divisive movie.

But all in all, I highly recommend it. It’s not for everyone, and you might hate it — but it’s a rare sort of film that doesn’t often get made in Hollywood, and for that bravery alone, it deserves a little recognition.

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8 thoughts on “Batman v Superman: A Different Take on Superheroes

  1. Totally agree with your take on the film. I’ve seen it twice (Both times with my teenage sons, who adore it for whatever that is worth) and enjoyed it at each sitting. While dark at times, it is really an amazingly realistic look at the true implications of a “Superman” appearing in the real world.

    • Yes, that’s exactly what I love about it. Superman is really the heart of the film, just a good guy trying to do the right thing, and the way that the world reacts to his existence — with awe, with fear, with hatred, with love — is amazingly realistic.

  2. I enjoyed this thoughtful review of this movie (which I haven’t seen as yet). I read a few other reviews online and they were rather negative, so I appreciated getting your very different take.

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