There are a couple of caveats we need to get out there before you read this spoilertastic appraisal of Zak Snyder’s masterpiece.
The first is that I hate Superman – both dramatically, and as a character. I’ve always sided with Lex Luthor, basically. Now, I’m not saying Lex isn’t without his faults, and some of his schemes to discredit Superman have not been exactly ethical, or logical, or sympathetic – I mean, he’s a sociopath. But he’s on our side, fundamentally. Luthor, despite himself, always represents the pinnacle of human achievement, and pitting himself against a demi-god is an act of faith in humanity and a peerless example of how we strive to beat impossible odds. Luthor represents the best and worst of us, as opposed to the impossibly perfect and unreal Superman.
The second is that I went into this movie having decided in advance to give it 5-stars. It seemed to me that a lot of people made up their minds about this film pretty early on – before having seen it. I had one usually sober and sensible friend watch the first trailer and post on Facebook that it looked like an incoherent mess whose emotional centre was completely opaque to him – well fine, the trailer “sucked’, go see the movie and judge that. Plenty of awesome trailers have disappointed as films – I think there are actually more jokes in the trailer for Undercover Brother  than in the actual film; similarly, the movie promised by the Phantom Menace  trailer looks awesome and I can’t wait to see it. Trailers are not the film, and any film sufficiently captured by the trailer is likely to be absolutely crushingly simple – if you can tell a story in 3 minutes, why take the now-standard 2 hours? So I too decided in advance – I just decided the other way.
Lastly, and a minor point, I’ve avoided almost all reviews so far, and I have entirely avoided the publicity junket, so you’re getting only my own thoughts on this. I’ve glimpsed a couple of scathing one or two liners, none of which brought to mind anything like a meaningful critical engagement; my favourite of these was someone saying “in this film Ben Affleck hits a tyre with a sledgehammer, and that is literally all you need to know”. If that sounds like a sufficient explanation of why this film was good or bad, you should stop reading now.
I bought my first Batman versus Superman comic book more than 20 years ago. On the cover was a picture of Lex Luthor menacing Superman with a piece of kryptonite while nearby Batman leans nonchalantly on some monumental architecture saying something like “I’m glad you’re killing that dick” or words to that effect. It was, of course, an enormous fake-out. Because canonically, Batman and Superman are like best friends on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and simplistically I’m picking Batman as the republican even though Kansas has voted red virtually every chance it got. They disagree on methods and applications, but not fundamentally on the objective of justice. The sharpest divide the pair has is probably in Frank Miller’s definitional The Dark Knight Returns, where Wayne comes to think of himself as almost protecting Kent from his own naivety – Batman has always channelled the Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men. What I like most about this film is precisely that rehearses exactly the genuine disagreement the pair has about the methods – Superman has unlimited power, and this film directly dramatises the only conflict that matters when absolute power is on the line. On the one hand we have someone saying that power must have limits, and on the other we have someone who’s not even engaging in a discussion – Superman opens this film beyond any kind of mortal accountability or interaction, simply accepting the worship of those he saves, unable to engage in mass rhetoric either to affirm himself as a deity or reject the hope of the people.
This makes Snyder’s Superman my favourite, because while he wields absolute power, Superman has the history of a mortal man and there is nothing more human than retreating from what you fear. Kent fears Superman, and the withdrawal into self and refusal to engage with his super-fans is a far more understandable emotional response than Donner’s absolutely peach-pie cheeseball hokey folksy bullshit. The worst moment in Superman on film must surely be in Singer’s irredeemable Superman Returns when, having saved a plane from terrorist action, Superman reassures the rescued that flying is statistically the safest way to fly. The total disconnection from the emotional lives of his beneficiaries reveals Superman as a sociopath with a god complex – why not, he is a god, right? Nothing in the film suggests this is a defence mechanism, though I’ve heard it argued. Snyder’s Superman retreats literally and figuratively from an overwhelming emotion for which there is no possibly-equavalent response. What we have for the first time is a psychologically complex Superman, rather than a two-dimensional moral absolute. Killing Zod freed this Superman from those formerly-unbreakable bonds, allowing him to become fully realised as a person and not an abstract notion of heroism.
Simultaneously, Snyder has wiped away the single dumbest aspect of all Superman lore hitherto seen – Lane recognises Kent as Superman. They have a relationship, and while the time allowed in the film is short for showing all aspects of a fully-developed intertwined life, there is enough chemistry and enough of a gesture in the direction of a real relationship for the purposes of the film. Superman jumping fully-clothed into the bathtub to lighten and cheer his girlfriend is a more human moment than all of the films so far added together. Lane too is freed from being the dumbest woman ever, more able to assume her proper role as one of the greatest reporters. The Lane in Superman Returns made her reputation by writing a heartbroken personal memoire, this Lane takes the tough stories and asks the tough questions. It is her attention to detail, her investigation, her contacts, which link Luthor to the massacre in the desert and crack his plot wide open. Those who try and argue on “factual” grounds that parallel sources reveal this are the same idiots who argue that Luke’s battle with the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi doesn’t matter for the outcome of the battle on Endor – films don’t work on the basis of mechanistic determinism, but on a holistic generation of emotion. Lane is the much-needed brain behind the eventual victory of the heroes, crucially asking the right questions, even if not always immediately getting the right answers. “Who paid for the mercenaries?” – Lane is probing for the truth, and she finds it.
What Lane’s recognition of Kent as Superman puts on the table is the more general weakness of super-hero identities. This has been an achilles heel in the plausibility of narratives and lead to the heavy over-use of revealing a secret identity as an easy emotional ploy. The team on How It Should Have Ended have absolutely skewered this one, with their Batman offering to take off his mask at the slightest provocation. From the other end, it’s always a completely lame story move to have the hero captured without the villain taking off the mask. How bored is everyone with the dual-identity crutch of the superhero genre? Putting the secret identities on the table makes complete sense dramatically – it allows the characters to act as complex facets of a complete human being, rather than awkwardly compartmentalised figures. It’s not necessarily that it’s an invalid strategy, but it has been over-played. Raimi’s Spider-man  milked the last drop of dramatic potential from the idea of the separate-but-equal notion of superhero identity. In BvS, the freedom of action to move between the different compartments becomes a key driver for the mechanics of the plot, rather than the rather sentimental afterthought it was in The Dark Knight Rises , where inexplicably, alone of the whole world Blake was able to penetrate Wayne’s disguise. In BvS the logic that can have Lois unmark Kent can have Luthor unmask Wayne.
Perhaps even more importantly, allowing Lane to know Kent’s identity allows their relationship to exist on something like a recognisable plane. We’ve all internalised the idea that Superman/Kent “loves” Lois Lane in every incarnation of the franchise. But it’s a love that Kent feels can’t stand up to the reality of his dual identity – he prefers to hide from the possibilities of love and relationships that go beyond an idealised fantasy. It’s a silly chivalric mode of courtly love which may at one time have had some dramatic weight, but that ended with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in the 14th century – or if you want to be generous, Mallory absolutely killed it with Le Morte d’Arthur a century later. In most dramatic versions of Superman, he can really only be challenged by threatening his loved ones – the abstract love he has for the citizens of Metropolis, or the specific love for Lane. But existing as it does in an infantile fantasy, his love for Lane has never worked for me as a true dramatic foil. Allowing them to experience a human rather than semi-mythical relationship for the first time grants dramatic power to the connexion between Lane and Kent. Snyder doesn’t even have to threaten her for her presence to become dramatically interesting, simply knowing she is now genuinely on the table as a dramatic stake provides that. And when Snyder delivers the coup de grace, of Superman being killed, it works as a dramatic moment only and precisely because we can now feel that two-way and equal dramatic loss. Lane’s grief at losing her lover bears no comparison with other Lanes losing their idol.
Challenging moribund traditions doesn’t end with the freedom of identity. One of the big criticisms made of, say, Avengers Assemble  was that it depicted a war in New York with no casualties. The idea persists in the genre that despite the large-scale devastation wrought by super-heroes, the damage can be ignored. The exception is when some high-and-mighty agent of someone who wants to control the superhero population brings up the devastation as a kind of emotional blackmail. It’s pure emotional blackmail because all sides of the conflict are equally tarred. The super-hero who defeats the super-villain is held equally accountable in a number of these fictions, and the weak accept the blame, because they recognise how much more terrifying the situation is. for the poor mortal who’s caught up in it. However, these same fictions hide the devastation from view – so you never see the corpse of a child in The Avengers. This helps to maintain its aura as entertainment, and allows the storyteller to retain the sharp focus on the emotional conflict that drives the personal story of the protagonist without diluting it down with generalised pity and fear. In BvS, Batman assumes the point of view of the ordinary mortal, because despite his prowess, he is simply not a hero who can demolish buildings. The change in perspective as the final fight is replayed between Superman and Zod shows how distant Superman is from the consequences of his actions, and shows how they can be allowed to become abstract to him. The juxtaposition of this godlike distant perspective with the more humanising touches earlier in the film shows the real danger that Superman faces – of becoming a tyrant. It’s a case never more eloquently stated than in the Third Man, where Harry Lime asks Holly Martin whether he would really care whether one of the insignificant spots on the town square below were permanently extinguished. BvS puts the mortal perspective into the drama as no other hero story has done before, because a main protagonist, a heroic protagonist, is now brought into line with us, making Batman our avatar in the fictional world. Superman doubtless has the best of intentions, but the consequences are placed front-and-centre for the audience. This isn’t about demonising Superman at all, it’s about putting his power in perspective, an exploration that will drive the remainder of the narrative.
This radical shift in the relative power-level of Batman requires a fundamental revision of his ability to be magnanimous in victory. When Superman chooses to spare the life of a foe, it’s from a position of infnite superiority, but the equal or inferior cannot afford that luxury. This was wonderfully illustrated in the first season of Daredevil, where the centra conundrum faced by Murdoch is how far to. go in his vigilantism – death is too far. A theme being echoed and expanded in season 2. The person who crosses that line and does murder is Karen, who is powerless and hence has no choice but to win a total victory. When Murdoch leaves a scumbag alive, he knows that person is no real threat to him and the moral trade-off for murder is a kind of resigned inconvenience or fear of consequences. When Karen kills Wesley, it is a necessity. This obsession with death as a step too far is always presented in simplistic terms, as the irrevocable step which dooms a hero to tyranny. The “Justice Lords” from Justice League is perhaps my favourite example of this – once Superman decides to effectively kill Doomsday, there’s no turning back. It’s a moral absolutism that’s at odds with the rest of our contemporary power fantasies. To pick the most benign example, I grew up on The Three Musketeers, who leave a wake of corpses wherever they go and it never bothered anyone. Are the people who’re sad about Superman killing Zod also going to protest at Inigo revenging his father? Do we think Emperor Palpatine was better off rotting in a Jedi prison than tossed into the bowels of the Death Star? Most palpably for my ilk – who shot first? It sure wasn’t Greedo.
What Snyder has done in some senses is pick up the transgressive legacy of The Watchmen and discard moribund genre traditions about the role of the hero, about his purity. His film adaptation of the graphic novel may be deeply flawed, but it’s clear Snyder learned a lot from it. You’re not allowed to think that super hero stories are about the fighting, and you’re not allowed to think they’re about pure innocents whose intentions are always good. The world of the Watchmen and their descendants is automatically complex, contingent and morally ambivalent at best. If we can, as Deadpool suggests on the freeway, accept that nobody’s getting hurt, we have also to accept we’re operating in a hyper-stylised storytelling medium that’s as constructed and discontinuous as a Racine tragedy. Entertaining? Beautiful? Touching? All true – but the point is it’s not the only way. When Nolan built The Dark Knight around Batman’s unwillingness to kill the Joker, he took that story as far as it can go, and I’m delighted that Snyder has discarded a conventional approach to his characters, looking for a new kind of superhero and a new kind of story. Of course he’s recycled and adapted familiar elements, but there is a fundamental reevaluation of their context and purpose. If Deadpool tacks ultra-violence and smutty humour onto a basically conventional heroic arc, BvS genuinely interrogates that conventional heroic arc.
Part of the innovative transgressive quality of the film is its very structure and editing approach. It’s a film which eschews a lot of conventional framing and continuity, so that rather than leading the audience closely through the action, it simply assumes the audience can fill in the gaps. The best example of this is the flash-forward about a third of the way through the film. In a conventional narrative there would be some kind of exposition, a tagline scrolling along the bottom “the near future” – BvS trusts that its audience knows what a time-jump looks like, and it simply does it with no explanation. When Wayne hacks Luthor’s server, 99% of films would have had some kind of technobabble about logarithmic encryption blah blah blah – this film knows that the audience knows Batman is on the cutting edge. It similarly doesn’t waste time with any kind of explanation of who Wonder Woman is, or what her powers are. She’s simply dropped into the action. The impression this creates is of a world that we’re observing, rather than a narrative constructed for our benefit, enhancing the emotional impact of scenes and not wasting precious screen seconds over-explaining itself.
My suspicion is that a lot of the people who didn’t like this film see all of these strengths exactly as flaws. Where is the pure and noble Superman? Why is Batman killing people? What’s going on with the continuity? They want a film like The Avengers where a sweet and gentle hand guides you through all the simple story beats and makes sure that any confusing concepts are carefully and patiently explained. They want to see the same heroes, the same stories, that they’ve seen before. They want the comforting blanket of conformity. They’re the bastards that mean we have to see Uncle Ben actually get killed in every new version of Spiderman – how else will you know for sure that he understands Great Power blah blah blah than if some kindly simpleton has laid it out for you step-by-step? The vibe I’m picking up from the re-linking to negative reviews and the poor word-of-mouth from friends who’ve seen it is that this film has been spectacularly misread by people who thought they knew what Batman and Superman were about before they went into the film. Like other films who defy ordinary filmic convention, it’s difficult to accept – but this film will be retrospectively seen as an important genre challenge to the cosy and simplistic moral conventions that have long been banished from the printed page but remain heady and strong in celluloid.
Batman v. Superman – 5 Stars.