As evidenced by movies like Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and 300, Zack Snyder excels at grim and dark stories. Snyder is known for his gritty antiheroes, so while it wouldn’t be fair to say he’s incapable of telling other kinds of stories, it does make for an interesting directing choice for Batman v Superman. Yeah. Superman—that guy whose kindness and moral compass are his leading motivations—and Batman—who despite his best attempts to convince people otherwise, is basically a rich guy who collects orphans. Snyder ditched both the morals and the orphans for this film.
Giving iconic characters like Batman and Superman to Snyder wasn’t necessarily bad at the onset, but it wasn’t the loving or faithful adaptation of the source material that Snyder produced with Watchmen. Instead, the bizarre experiment of throwing Batman and Superman into the boxing ring produced a film dripping with masculinity and misogyny. Batman doesn’t need a ragtag group of bird-monikered children to make a movie interesting (though it does help) and, okay, Superman has been successful without the presence of other Kryptonians. However, cherry picking plot threads and personality traits made for a story consistent with the grim-dark movies Snyder is known for, but inconsistent with the characters themselves. Both Batman and Superman were written like antiheroes instead of the widely respected and morally upstanding characters they are in the DC Universe. The end result was a film that seemed wildly out of context, one that also upheld a seriously toxic version of masculinity without scrutiny.
The core concept of Batman v Superman is a theme of absolute power, loosely based on one scene from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. To be fair to Snyder, Miller somehow managed to pack retrofuturist gangs, a new Robin, the Joker’s death, an almost there theme of governmental control of superhero activity, the role of the vigilante, and Cold War conflict into a four-issue miniseries. Adapting the entire story for film could have easily resulted in a frustratingly muddled five-hour epic. Batman v Superman took a single element from the story—Batman fighting Superman—as its base. The Frank Miller versions of these characters have been present in modern cinema for some time, first with Christian Bale’s angst-ridden Batman, and more recently with Henry Cavill’s first outing in Man of Steel.
Batman holds Superman responsible for the attack on Metropolis, which destroyed the city and killed thousands. He’s not wrong, per se, but it’s also hard to imagine the same judgment coming down on the comic version of Superman, since Superman did go out of his way to save the planet in the end. Superman, in turn, believes Batman to be a reckless vigilante who endangers the lives of Gotham residents on a nightly basis. Each believes himself right. The conflict at the center of all of this is the question of absolute power and who should have it, a theme that comes into play early in the film…and is dropped just as quickly as it was drummed up. The three central characters–Lex Luthor, Batman, and Superman–all grapple for power with no real winner. The movie offers no real answer to this conundrum and doesn’t force anyone to consider his own course of action in relation to how it affects the city.
The “Dawn of Justice” subtitle feels inappropriate, because justice is generally lacking in the film with the exception of Lex Luthor getting prison time and his signature haircut. Neither Batman nor Superman are held accountable for their actions, by each other or anyone else. The film lacks humanity in the most basic sense. Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent attack each other’s humanity while forgetting their own, giving the sense that the world belongs to the heroes and everyone else is just living it. The rest of Earth’s population is so unimportant that it’s impossible to gauge how Batman and Superman are received by the public outside of the conversation about Superman as a god. Batman, for his part, seems more like Gotham’s worst-kept secret than its savior. By not setting aside time to show the impact the so-called heroes have had on more than a select few characters, it reinforces the emotional and physical disconnect consistent with an unhealthy masculinity.
The conflict in the film, drawn from the conflict between Batman and Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, is absent of the thing it is also contingent upon. Despite the multitude of themes and events present in The Dark Knight Returns, the plot (scattered though it may be) is given an overlying political theme that is a direct result of the Cold War. Batman v Superman aims for a political nature, but it lacks the social and political context of the Cold War or an equally threatening situation adapted for the modern age.
When Batman and Superman do duke it out in an extensive but unsatisfying fight, it gives purpose to the “v” at the center of the title that has been confusing fans and non-fans alike for months, but doesn’t add much weight to the story. Previous squabbles forgotten, Batman and Superman tumble around, destroying the property they had been so committed to protecting in the first half of the movie. All of this results in a grudging team-up befitting a buddy cop movie, but one that lacks any of the humor of an Odd Couple trope. Throughout their fights, Batman and Superman are written as uncharacteristically cruel–Superman threatening to kill Batman, Batman launching Kryptonite grenades–and engaging in behaviors their comic counterparts would likely never consider. Both are disconnected from the communities they’re attempting to protect and to protect from the other. Batman fails his most known tenet of Don’t Kill People on multiple occasions, something Superman has already accomplished by the end of Man of Steel. Batman writes the death toll off as criminal scum and collateral damage, and Superman watches an entire courtroom blow up with silent detachment, then flies off without searching for survivors in the wreckage (or putting out the fire with his freeze breath, at the very least). Again, it’s hard to imagine both of their comic counterparts coming to the conclusion that death is an acceptable outcome without seriously questioning who they are and who they want to be as heroes.
All of this serves to build up a toxic masculinity that doesn’t offer nuanced portraits of its subjects. Batman and Superman and Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent tick off nearly all the boxes in this category, exemplifying violence, a severe lack of emotional response, and righteous anger framed as an exception to the no-emotion rule. It was disconcerting to not see Superman–or even Bruce Wayne, charming businessman and philanthropist–smile. Serious movies can and do have moments of brevity, but without them, the result is a film that simply ticks off squares like “cold and aloof,” “vigilante,” “brooding,” “scowls a lot,” and “They killed my wife/child/family!! I’ll make them pay!!!” in Tormented Male Protagonist Bingo.
Batman v Superman wasn’t great in terms of other characterizations, either. Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a new version of Lex that missed the mark on an old foe. The new Lex is a millenial boss, an outgoing guy who wears Chuck Taylors and t-shirts with suit jackets and has a basketball court in his office building. Making Lex such a seemingly young version of himself was an odd choice, especially in a film where Batman and Superman are older versions of their characters. The overall effect was more of an Edward Nigma than Lex Luthor, so while it was easy to picture Eisenberg playing a dark and twisted version of the Riddler in Snyder’s DC Universe, it was harder to take him seriously as Lex.
This aside, Lex Luthor was his own form of toxic masculinity. Though he isn’t calling bingo on the “biceps the size of your thighs” square, Lex is instantly recognizable as the kind of guy women on college campuses cross the street to avoid. He too possessed a disconcerting lack of emotion (save, again, for anger) as well as a tendency to commit violent acts without a thought. While it’s not made clear what his motivations are outside of an unexplained hatred of Batman and Superman, Lex Luthor makes no bones about destroying anyone who gets in his way. Women, especially, are inconsequential, as shown when he pushes Lois Lane from the top of the LexCorp building, and more subtly in how he treats his assistant, Mercy Graves. Though clearly on his side, Mercy was treated more as a fashion accessory than a human, barely communicating beyond nods and glances until her death in the Capitol explosion. It adds to Lex Luthor’s particular brand of toxic masculinity that she falls victim to the dreaded refrigerator. It’s also troubling because where other versions of Mercy portray her with a quick wit and expert martial arts skills, her lack of agency in Batman v Superman also plays into the harmful “submissive Asian” trope.
The film’s treatment of women doesn’t get much better with its remaining female characters, and it often plays hopscotch between toxically masculine and misogynistic. Mercy Graves and Senator Finch exist solely for their deaths, to further the conflict between Lex Luthor and Superman. Martha Kent’s, and largely, Lois Lane’s presences in the film are contingent on the fact that they’re used as bait in order to wind up Superman on numerous occasions. They too lack agency and the richly developed personalities of their source characters, and instead are entirely subject to Lex’s whims.
Though Lois did get the chance to do some investigative reporting in Batman v Superman, her screen time was skewed toward the time she spent with, pining for, or being rescued by Superman. This Lois isn’t the tough, resourceful character established in the Golden Age, and while her story is inextricably tied to Superman’s, Batman v Superman lacks recognition of the fact that it is, in fact, possible to be in love with someone without losing one’s independence. Lois was damseled on at least three separate occasions, and her presence in the film is relegated to Superman’s Love Interest, Kind Of. Superman, still reeling from the destruction of Metropolis, says at one point that he doesn’t know how to be Superman and her boyfriend, so instead of working through this like people in healthy adult relationships do, Clark spends half of his scenes with Lois ignoring her and the other half rescuing her. Lois seems to cause him more anguish than anything else, a relationship that lends itself to the newer, more tortured Superman.
In a way, this film seems inevitable, precluded by nearly ten years of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The success of these films have produced a brooding loner Batman and Superman, versions that exist only in a film genre that has produced lots of dark and gritty over the years. It’s a tone that can work in film, but with intention. There’s a difference between using grit to critique a genre (think Alan Moore’s Watchmen) and using it for the sake of being edgy and new, and that’s another aspect in which Batman v Superman missed the mark, because nothing about it felt new or exciting.
Wonder Woman and cameos from Aquaman and the Flash were bright spots in the movie, but weren’t quite enough to save it or reverse the damage done by its portrayals of other characters. It was nice to meet Gal Gadot as Diana Prince before her debut in the upcoming Wonder Woman, but her screen time was fairly limited, and Jeremy Irons was another enjoyable addition to the cast as Alfred. Despite fans’ initial surprise at the casting, Ben Affleck wasn’t the worst part of the movie, and was daresay entertaining, most notably in Bruce’s sleuthing and his interactions with Alfred. In a different film, Batffleck would have been a delightful surprise, but even Snyder’s version of Batman is still overshadowed by Nolan’s work. There’s a distinctly new story being set up, even though the Dark Knight trilogy also used The Dark Knight Returns as its base storyline. Nolan’s Batman is characteristically similar to Snyder’s, at times exhibiting the same toxic masculinity, and it’s clear that many of Batffleck’s traits were grandfathered in. The problem, then, is that Snyder’s Batman was written with the goal of being a new version of Batman while doing nothing to distinguish Affleck-Batman from Bale-Batman, except perhaps giving Batffleck an even darker outlook and a distinct lack of human connection. Because Bale-Batman was such a recent event in the DC Cinematic Universe history and Batman v Superman wasn’t given the eight-year gap that Batman & Robin and Batman Begins had, the effect was more of an indirect continuation than a fresh start.
Batman v Superman’s plot simply didn’t hold, trying to do too much from too little source material taken out of its original context. It tried and failed to be a new take on two of the most established superheroes in comic book history by losing their morality and asking questions it failed to answer. The toxic masculinity present throughout the film overshadowed everything else. The most radical thing this movie could have done was to show two compassionate characters who respect each other working together, but by treating Clark and Bruce as two men steeped in their own pain, it failed its source material and its fans.