This article contains Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice spoilers.
One is dark, artistically high-minded, and aggressively violent; the other is bright, shiny, and excessively chipper. One is full of angst and existential brooding; the other has more puns than there are snowflakes in the arctic. And one is the desperate gasp of a studio trying to cash in on a top-heavy superhero monstrosity—but so is the other. For when you get right down to it, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Batman & Robin are essentially the same exhausting experience.
For nearly 20 years, the genre has been running in the opposite direction of Joel Schumacher’s infamous nipples and Bat-Visa that buried the original Warner Bros. Batman franchise in a permafrost grave back in 1997. But for every action, there is always an equal reaction, and while Batman v Superman treats its material with the wide-eyed sincerity of scripture, it still represents the culmination of several trends in the 21st century, and within this modern superhero movie formula, that have been pushed to their breaking point. Once again a studio stands on the precipice of a layered marketing plan, and once again the latest Batman movie these sky castles are built on is every bit as hollow and empty-headed as the plastic figurines it pushes.
Now, just as audiences begin to realize the blatant, crass commercialism and vile subtext of Dawn of Justice’s overbearingly bleak presentation, do Steven Spielberg’s words about a superhero movie implosion discover their face. Of course, this movie will make a mint at the box office, but its numb, draining effect could still prove as lethal to its brand as that time a rubber-clad George Clooney had ice skates emerge from his boots.
Batman & Robin was intended to sell toys to cartoon-loving children while Batman v Superman is intended to sell a shared universe with a dark, “mythological” weightiness to adults, but each is as inept at its goal as the other. They are the genre’s alpha and omega: two sides of the same scarred Harvey Dent coin. And they spell doom for all who dare to stare too long into their joyless cinematic abyss.
On paper, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a daring piece of studio franchising: a Wagnerian passion play with so much dour admiration for its own mythmaking that Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy looks lighthearted in comparison. However, these artistic aspirations proved as thwarted as when Joel Schumacher was charged with making a crowd-pleasing toy commercial in 1997 that, like Snyder, took the perceived positives of the last Batman movie (the cheery romp of Batman Forever in lieu of the sprawling The Dark Knight Rises) and amplified their presence a thousand-fold. All of the elements that proved so beloved in 1995 and 2012, respectively, returned to audiences in a grotesquely mutated form—unholy creations with countenances so misshapen as to be worthy of Shelley’s prose.
In the case of Batman & Robin, this manifested in the presence of multiple superhero costumes with nipples and (eventually) shiny silver plating, as well as even more neon-colored villains spouting the most garish puns ever uttered this side of Commando (my particular favorite being Mr. Freeze hissing, “Let’s kick some ice!”). But rather than cultivating the sense of fun that created massive success a few years earlier, the results were a nightmarish fever dream that crossed the ninth circle of Hell with Studio 54.
Yet, are the results really any better for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice? While the film aspires to reach the lofty brashness of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it almost instantly forgets that film also had the elegant stylishness of an auteur marrying “serious” filmmaking tropes and techniques with thoughtful and challenging subtexts in relation to the War on Terror. In contrast, Batman v Superman opens with a pointed and slightly tasteless sequence that hardly hides its 9/11 parallels—but it’s at least effective:
Ben Affleck is introduced as Bruce Wayne, the only First Responder in Metropolis during the climactic bout between Superman and General Zod in Man of Steel. He saves a little girl from the debris of a collapsed building, and in the midst of so much devastation, the Man Who Would Be Batman stares up to the skies as two gods fight to the death, and he plans to ensure there will be no victor.
However, like everything else wrong with this film, the intriguing idea is left unresolved in a movie that is too busy juggling its commercial duties. The intellectual pretensions that Snyder piles atop the piece with as much excess as his CGI explosions are never revisited or elaborated upon in any meaningful way. Instead, his real world parallels miss the collapsing building for the falling bodies.
A few scenes later, Henry Cavill’s Superman is given a proper introduction when he straight up murders a terrorist threatening the life of Lois Lane in the deserts of Africa, but it has no more artistic value than when he later fails to stop Lex Luthor from blowing up Capitol Hill. These acts of terror do not inform the film’s story (or lack thereof) but merely serve as an excuse to have Superman again refuse to smile for a whole movie while he broods in listless, existential exile.
Or in other words, Snyder evokes real world tragedies like 9/11 so his heroes can throw pity parties at the North Pole while more people die.
Similarly, whereas the ideological war between Batman and the Joker could be one of words in The Dark Knight, Snyder and Affleck’s Batman flies through the film like a computer-generated wrecking ball, murdering seemingly dozens of enemy combatants with machine guns mounted on his Batmobile and Batwing. Any sort of philosophical distinction between Batman and Superman in this form is nearly impossible to articulate since their methods are identical. Jesse Eisenberg espouses, they are “day vs. night,” but they both soar through dark clouds and slaughter their enemies without feeling, compunction, or any sense of awareness; Superman can just get to his meat sack target faster when he isn’t sulking.
They are essentially fascists inflicting their viewpoint onto the world. But any such pseudo-intellectual underpinnings are as buried in sound and fury as Batman’s supposed arc about trusting Chris O’Donnell to drive his car in Batman & Robin. It’s just rhetorical lip-service for a half-baked plot that strings together a series of mindless set-pieces, whether they be of dancing gorillas or Batman sounding like an ape as he wails on Superman’s face.
That is until the insidious ending.
In the first climax of Batman v Superman—a film so bloated that it needs two finales to justify its destruction porn—Batman and Superman finally commence the war promised in the title. Granted, it makes both of them look like rubes since they were easily manipulated by an outside force. (Seriously, why does Batman never investigate who sent him those letters, and why does Superman not use his super-hearing to find his kidnapped mother, instead of doing the bidding of Lex Luthor?) But when the eponymous donnybrook is finally commenced, Batman becomes the more damnable monster since he won’t stop to listen to Superman or have a conversation about someone being kidnapped. He instead clobbers the hell out of the other guy in a cape.
Thus, after Batman finally has Superman at his most vulnerable, the film at last gives its impassioned stump speech in a sequence worthy of Triumph of the Will.
With all the self-righteous nastiness of a 2016 presidential frontrunner, Batman rants, “My parents taught me a different lesson dying in the gutter. This world doesn’t make sense unless you force it to!” All but exclaiming he thinks we need to build a wall, Batman in essence announces that “might makes right,” and his strongman authority allows him the ability to judge other men (and superheroes) worthy of being executed with extreme prejudice.
Personally, I suspect that Snyder is trying to achieve the accolades he saw Christopher Nolan receive for making his superhero an allegory about the use of American power in the 21st century by now retreading in 2016 the points that Alan Moore’s Watchmen graphic novel made also about superheroes 30 years ago. However, in The Dark Knight films, Batman’s philosophy is constantly challenged by the likes of both villains and his allies, and he is perpetually grappling with his own ethical self-doubts. Snyder, on the other hand, does not seem to understand that Watchmen is diametrically opposed to such positive nuance about centralized authority since that book views superheroes (and American myths about rugged individualism in general) to be naïve, dangerous, and potentially dictatorial.
So in this climactic moment, Snyder’s Batman becomes a fascist who believes his strength is justification for any action, as long as nobody can stop him. In fact, the only thing that spares Superman’s life is the absurdly asinine plot development where the Man of Tomorrow pleads with the Dark Knight to save “Martha.”
Apparently, shocked that Superman’s seeming last words were the same as his father’s—as the Wayne parents’ murder (reenacted for the 900th time in BvS) culminated in Thomas whispering “Martha” before his death—Batman is shaken out of his desire to kill his foe. “Why do you say that name?!” he repeatedly demands.
This moment, in which Batman pivots from desiring Superman’s head on a plate to wishing to team up with him because of a potentially supernatural intervention by providence, is as ludicrous now as when M. Night Shyamalan used the exact same ending in Signs with the magical meaning for “swing away, Merrill” reinstating religious faith into Mel Gibson’s lapsed minister.
Except that entire film was at least about Gibson’s loss of religion; here, the emotional turn is about as earned as Arnold Schwarzenegger pulling out a bundle of neon capsules and telling Batman, “Take two of these and call me in the morning.”
But just as Mr. Freeze’s return to the good side was necessitated by the fact that he was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, this teaming up of Batman, Superman, and the last minute introduction of Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was also mandated by outside forces to set up more movies.
Ultimately, the endgame for Batman & Robin was selling toyetic tie-ins, but for Dawn of Justice, it is all about prepackaging the next 20 movies. However, will audiences want to buy them? Honestly, it wouldn’t be shocking if next weekend’s box office drop indicates a weariness for the entire DC Extended Universe. While the aforementioned conclusion of Batman and Superman’s fight was abysmal, the tone of the second ending returned to the noisy and vapid darkness that proves just as desensitizing as Schumacher’s Little Las Vegas routine from Batman & Robin.
Like all the other characters without capes in BvS, Wonder Woman and Doomsday are so busily shoehorned into the movie that Spider-Man 3 is a naturalist indie drama by comparison. All of the heroes for next year’s Justice League movie are also bizarrely introduced from security videos kept by Lex Luthor, which are no more satisfying or less hilarious than when Clooney and O’Donnell watched Arnold Schwarzenegger falling into an “icy” swimming pool in Batman & Robin’s CCTV origin for its main villain. The carelessness with which this is laid out is so lazy and undercooked that the other superheroes are no more appealing than Doomsday, whose third act destruction of Gotham is an orgy of lousy digital effects is as grating as Arnold shouting, “Freeze in Hell, Batman!”
In a funny way, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice represents the two movies that Warner Bros. has spent 20 years trying to make. First, it is the “Batman vs. Superman” project that has been bandied around the studio since the early 2000s. Secondly, it finally adapts the iconic (for better or worse) “Death of Superman” story from comicdom’s heady ‘90s bloat, which infamously was also the basis for the failed Nicolas Cage/Tim Burton Superman project that was aborted in 1997, around the same time as Batman & Robin killed interest in the superhero genre for at least a few years.
Now, by finally adapting in it in a fashion as half-assed and half-hearted as that time the studio demanded Joel Schumacher give them a fast food-approved Batman movie, they have taken away the shiny pedigree of Superman and the Christopher Nolan-deified Batman, returning both to the gutter of late ‘90s comics movies. This new film ends with Doomsday literally punching a hole through Superman’s heart, but he might have punctured the entertainment value of the fledgling DC cinematic universe too.
Just as Batman & Robin was the nadir of everything wrong with superhero movies of its era, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a Doomsday-shaped monster that represents all the worst tendencies of modern superhero movies. It has the “darkness” and violence of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films with none of their cleverness, and it is a hapless, formless, and hideous mess that gropes after the shared universe formula of Marvel Studios—but with the opposite effect since it makes us not desire to see more of these characters.
It is a movie that thinks having Batman battling a giant CGI bat in his dreams is artful, and seeing him later throw a grenade at an unconscious man is heroic. In many ways, it’s a film that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze could approve: a cinematic iceberg that Snyder obliviously steered the DCEU headlong into. All that’s left now is to wait for the band to play it off into that good night.