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Film Review: Old heroes go postmodern in bold, brooding “Batman v Superman”

DC answers Marvel’s success with ambitious, mythopoeic epic
By: Andrew Westrope,
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What is the world coming to, that Batman and Superman should come to blows?

The answer posited by director Zack Snyder’s brooding, swing-for-the-fences epic, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” is a post-heroic era, or at least post-superheroic; an era in which power corrupts, virtue is a liability, and people are skeptical of do-gooders and all that they represent. In other words, more or less, our own 21st century.

It’s a dour turn for characters once played by Adam West and Christopher Reeve, both thematically and aesthetically. But if these caped crusaders existed in today’s world as the movie supposes -- if an all-powerful alien came from the sky and an unstoppable vigilante rose from the urban underworld -- their relationship with society would be unpleasant to say the least.

Snyder and his writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer explore this tension, not in the background of a megalomaniac’s plot to destroy the world as many other superhero movies do, but as the driving force between an inevitable character-based conflict, and that’s what makes their movie so interesting.

Throw in a complicated scheme by the villainous Lex Luthor, played by Jesse Eisenberg as an unscrupulous Millennial with an inferiority complex; two stables of supporting characters around the head-butting heroes; the introduction of Wonder Woman; and several teases for future sequels and spin-offs, and Warner Bros. has a gargantuan canvas for the cinematic future of its DC Comics characters.

It’s an awful lot for one movie to tackle, and whether “Batman v Superman” succeeds as an entertainment probably depends on whether you think the characters are worth that much scrutiny. (For my money, it turns out, they are.)

The film begins with two flashbacks that define Bruce Wayne’s place in the story, portrayed without a false note by Ben Affleck as an embittered, war-weary cynic near the end of his rope. The first sequence recalls the murder of his parents in montage, which is so familiar to most audiences that it would be unnecessary except for its relation to the scene that follows: Wayne as an adult, again looking on helplessly as his employees -- his work family -- are killed in the mayhem wrought by Superman’s climactic battle in Snyder’s previous film, “Man of Steel,” starring Henry Cavill in the title role.

This moment of helplessness, reflecting the one that created Batman, sows the seeds of a grudge match and sets the stage for questions that define the film: Who does Superman answer to, and what if he has a change of heart? Is he human enough to be corruptible? Is he superhuman enough to be infallible? To be worshipped?

More than an hour of subplots involving congressional hearings, military operations, terrorist attacks and media reactions address these questions, featuring cameos from public figures like Charlie Rose and Neil deGrasse Tyson. There are many conversations about gods and monsters and accountability and corruption; but of course there are, because of course there would be! If an invincible alien were flying around unchecked, the world would be talking about it.

The film is also a continuation of Superman/Clark Kent’s journey in “Man of Steel” as the ultimate immigrant, a man from a different world trying to find his place in a new one full of prejudice and fear at his arrival. Suffice to say, without spoiling it, that the movie is not especially concerned with happy endings.

When the titular battle commences, it’s loud and brutal, and steeped in atmosphere. Gone are the velvet shadows and polished surfaces of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy, which was photographed to look like a noirish version of the real world; Snyder’s own “real-world” aesthetic is more mythic and baroque, filmed partially in Detroit amidst vacant skyscrapers and wrecked cathedrals, augmented by CGI to be more painterly.

As with any fundamentally corporate enterprise, there are creative missteps: an obnoxiously percussive score, occasionally gaudy visual effects and a climactic battle with a CGI monster, borrowed from one of the most famous storylines in Superman lore, that might have been better served as a man-versus-nature story in a movie all its own instead of, as it is here, being shoehorned into the third act. But these seem like nitpicks in the face of such a monumental undertaking.

I’m on record as being impressed but increasingly bored with superhero movies, because they represent such giant financial investments that their corporate owners tend to avoid taking big risks with them. Admittedly, “Batman v Superman” is a $250 million franchise stepping-stone between 2013’s “Man of Steel” and a forthcoming pair of “Justice League” movies, which themselves are a corporate strategy by Warner Bros. to replicate Marvel Studios’ success with the Avengers films.

But it’s also a grandly conceived, if occasionally clumsy and overstuffed, piece of pop filmmaking that renders cultural idols and their mythology with reverence and breathtaking imagery: the hulking ruin of Wayne Manor in a dry field; a string of pearls roped around the hammer of a handgun; a throng of people reaching for Superman as though he were the Christ; visions of a post-apocalyptic future in which Superman’s benevolence has run out.

In a moment when superheroes are everywhere in American culture, “Batman v Superman” puts them under a microscope, reinterpreting the genre’s two most essential icons as metaphors for opposing notions of heroism, and vessels for conversation about power and morality. Some have called it a corporate calculation, but I would argue that something like this movie was both inevitable and overdue. If we must be inundated with superheroes, they might as well mean something to us.

Why critics hated the movie so much, I’m not quite sure. I suspect they couldn’t get past the dissonance between the movie’s thematic pretension and juvenile pleasures, no matter how well-executed -- talk of mortality and Greek gods might seem silly juxtaposed with clanging, crashing violence between two preposterously muscled men in capes and Spandex. Or maybe critics remember fondly when those characters stood simply for truth, justice and the American way.

Alas, the year is 2016. Times have changed, and so have our heroes.