Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ★★★★½

"You're not brave. Men are brave." – Batman

"You must have learned that man is mortal." – Vizzini

"[T]he climax is pure sensation, all shooting flames and rousing music... and a sense of near-abstraction..." – preston

Batman v Superman is a movie fully determined by the implicit logic of its extremes and Superman's place between them. Kal-El exists, and is shown to be overcome, by the noise of a planet seeking to define him, not to define him, but themselves. This is made clear in the actions of the two people he is framed between in narrative terms—Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor—who are both actively invested in this definitional endeavour.

Both wish to kill god, one as an anonymous act of legacy, the other as an act of demonic self-enthronement. In all of this, Superman is made voiceless and reduced to gestures of globe spanning assistance (thanked chiefly by the helpless and voiceless) that can only ever serve to reverberate in the echo chamber of bureaucratic-global hysteria. A Senator insists on the democratic mandate to "converse" to establish terms and protocols to stop Superman's unilateral actions—yet, the 20th century as a century of horrors, as another character remarks more or less, provides the context for how this kind of conversation is given to collapse under the weight of the history of ideas and atrocity that cements it. The appearance of the Superman doesn't break with but adds to and redoubles the fervent and maddening terror of this history. How to place a being that fits no previously established and internally debilitated category? Superman cannot fit himself, and nor can we fit him—he is the embodiment of an exception. The appearance or emergence of the "godlike", as our anxious categories would have it, leads only to emergency.

It is this anxiety that Batman and Luthor act within, as agents relating to the other on the basis of unilateral definition. Superman is not a god, no one even asked him who or what he is. It is complained he acts unilaterally, but the definition of Superman comes from only one direction: ourselves. It is humans who cannot place, but are ever willing to try. This is why Superman takes a seemingly minor role in the film: the world silences him, even wishes to destroy him. The world wishes for a "conversation" on the terms of a status quo—a status quo it sets.

This is something of the implicit logic that grounds the film, without it one will be lost as the film flits between the wild, scurrying behaviour of its lead characters and their continuous need to assert categories and identities: "god", "devil", "monster", and so on. Be any of it, all of it, none of it, Martha Kent intimates. True, surely; but how among those who will kill you for doing so?

The first and second acts of Batman v Superman, do great, almost schizophrenic work to establish the terms of this world's mania. The opening sequences are harrowing and do much to ground Wayne's vendetta. As the film proceeds and eats genres and moves between dreams, visions, spectacle, and intrigue there is a distinct sense of disorientation. It truly is the equal to the logic at work in the film. Indeed, it’s worth singling out the early work visualising Affleck's wonderfully realised Batman, who truly makes his character a terror—a beaten and violent beast. Undoubtedly the film could have used more of sequences that exuded this level of purpose and coherence because they are sadly limited.

Only once we are deep in the third act—when the hard cuts, reported along with the film's official runtime, begin to show—and the movie begins to move toward its rather stayed conclusion, does Batman v Superman begin to properly lose and gain different kinds of coherence. The cuts generate a loss of coherence in basic story (Where did this character go? When did this terrible thing happen? etc.), yet there is still a generally satisfying thematic residue in the movie's climactic set pieces.

While Luthor continues to operate within the terms of his unilateral defining of Superman, it is Batman who is forced out of his. It is his overt desire to draw Superman into combat, rather than evade it, that forces this realisation. Batman repeatedly accuses Superman of not being a man (or mortal?), like so many others he cannot hear any assertion of Kal-El's own assumed humanity from his own lips. All he hears is a name, a name he already knows: Martha (the name of his own mother, too). The identity of whom he hears from another human: Lois. Superman's humanity can only come into focus for Batman as a distinct community of humanity surrounds and incorporates Superman, not as an exceptional figure, but as one like itself. Yes, surely Superman is not only brave, but he is surely afraid. Afraid for his mother—and it is this that finally speaks to Batman. Superman's humanity speaks only when Batman is confronted with fully inducing and compounding the most human of sentiments: fear for another person.

The fighting stops between the two, as it was inevitably going to, when Batman relinquishes his insistence on categorising Superman himself, and embracing Superman's own sense of self-understanding and tangible and apparent mortality, along with the latter’s fear for the mortality of another—"man is mortal." Superman cannot be something he is not. He is not a god.

This indeed is the indisputable core of what many very mistakenly complain about with regard to this iteration of Superman. It is demanded he be like previous incarnations of the character: infallible, unshakable, like no other. Snyder has worked out a character like us, one like any other in this world, but disbarred from being part of it. I find this fully and squarely fascinating and resonant.

I openly confess that it is in its final third that Batman v Superman becomes undeniably tiresome. Doomsday is poorly drawn, except as an embodiment of our own monstrosity: hellacious and incoherent, a pure and empty violence demanding the destruction of difference. Further, while Snyder's visual signatures are present, they are only momentarily so. Wonder Woman and Batman move and fight with purpose and character for the briefest of moments, with both enjoying smash cuts that make movement through space a delightful abstraction. While the battle at times succeeds given its remove from any now commonplace sense of doom (with statements as to how much it is mentioned characters are in unpopulated areas being greatly overstated)—it is a highly dislocated arena of combat, almost bizarre in its commitment to bursts of gigantic lone colour—the drama loses any clear roots in proceedings; no where to be found within this rarefied catastrophe, with the mournful finale coming out as rather disappointingly poorly established—even as it is itself a full instantiation of the thematic core of the film: which is to say, as in Jay Z's terms, Superman isn't Superman, he is simply a super-man.

With all that said, the film's otherwise very implicit thesis is relatively well made in these final moments: Superman does not exist above us, he does not and cannot condescend—he is as fallible as any of us, much as we may not want him to be (and people in this movie world very clearly do not want him to be). Any return he experiences will be only to redouble his frailty, and provide the exact physical contours of his repeatable and reinscribable mortality—man, as Vizzini knew, is very much mortal.

Perhaps now, for the world of the film and the audience at large, this character and those around him will be placed and allowed to define themselves rather than suffer under the weight of ours or another's unilateral instance as to who they are or what they can or must be.

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