by Scott Lerer
*WARNING: This review goes into full spoilers for the film.
Please note that this is the theatrical cut that I am analyzing. I have not seen the Ultimate Edition yet.
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is an American film distributed by Warner Brothers, directed by Zack Snyder, and written by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer. Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jessie Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons, and Gal Gadot star. The film uses the characters, objects, locations, etc., owned and created by DC Comics. Although the film does take inspiration from many DC storylines, most noticeably The Dark Knight Returns, the film is an original story with plenty of unexpected twists and turns. Batman V Superman is a fascinating 5 act character driven revenge tragedy that explores interesting themes that are extremely relevant to modern day society.
The film follows Man of Steel (2013) and events in that film directly impact characters in this one. In the event that audiences had not seen that film before seeing BvS, there is a scene recapping the important climax of Man of Steel. The plot summary of BvS goes as follows: “Fearing that the actions of Superman are left unchecked, Batman takes on the Man of Steel, while the world wrestles with what kind of a hero it really needs (IMDB).” This storyline sets up the way for fantastic nuanced storytelling.
One of the film’s titular characters Superman/ Kal-El/ Clark Kent is portrayed by Henry Cavill. Cavill pulls off the role extremely well portraying a stoic yet still caring hero who wants to make the world a better place. Superman illustrates the film’s most recognizable themes: If you are a non-cynical person in a cynical world, either you will change the cynical world, or the cynical word will change you (Mark Hughes). This is the exact situation that Superman is in. He tries to do the most heroic deed possible, but there is always going to be unintended negative repercussions. The world is constantly criticizing him no matter what action he takes. He figures that he can only do what he thinks are the right actions because, if he tries to do what others order him to do, they will be hypocritical and possibly make him not follow their orders, or in trying to please everyone he will end up pleasing no one. If you are walking fully on neither side of the street, you will get run over. He stays true to himself even when faced with death. When Batman is about to kill Superman, Superman does not try to kill Batman. All Superman cares about is saving his family, and with barely any breath, yells out to Bruce to save his mother Martha Kent. This makes Batman see that Superman truly is a good person inside and makes Batman realize that he has lost focus, and Superman is a good hero, just as Batman was. Before changing the cynical world, Superman changes Batman, a good heroic person who was corrupted by the cynical world. Superman does what he thinks is heroic and finally, he changes the cynical world from hating him to loving him, and makes Batman a more heroic person. Superman is not appreciated for this while he is alive though. Just like many famous artists are only called great and have their work revered once they have died, Superman’s work is only realized by the people of Earth as heroic once he has died fighting Doomsday. We see an immediate juxtaposition between Superman going to the Senate hearings where there is a mob outside moving, chanting, showing their hate towards Superman and Superman’s public funeral where people stood still, quietly remembering what Superman did for them. Superman changed the cynical word, and did not let the cynical world change him. His other persona CLark Kent also tried to change the world by fighting for truth in an age of false percolation and media manipulation. Instead of writing articles on the football game, Kent tried to investigate the Batman in Gotham and how he was hurting the city.
The other titular character, Batman/Bruce Wayne who is portrayed by Ben Affleck, unlike Superman, did not change the cynical world. The cynical world not only changed Bruce Wayne, but it created Batman, and then further changed Batman. His butler Alfred Pennyworth even says, “That’s how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men… cruel.” As shown by the film’s opening sequence, when Bruce Wayne was 10 years old, his parents died and he was left with a feeling of powerlessness. Batman later says, “My parents taught me a different lesson, dying in the gutter for no reason at all…They taught me that the world makes sense only if you force it to.” Ten year old Bruce Wayne was unable to stop the injustices of a cruel world. He was unable to stop the murder of his parents and so he becomes Batman to stop anyone else from having those feelings of powerlessness, and isolation. Bruce also became Batman to stop criminals from striking fear into the hearts of the innocent, and to protect people from the abundance of crime in Gotham. Batman still feels guilt for not stopping his parent’s murders and so he embarks on a never ending quest to have a world full of justice. Later in his career, the cynical world changes him even more, creating a greater feeling of powerlessness. The first event to do this is the death of Jason Todd by the Joker. Jason Todd was Batman’s apprentice and the second person to don the Robin costume. Batman feels guilty for not being able to stop the death of another person close to him, who he considered family. The feeling of guilt and powerlessness resonating in Batman from this is shown directly in two ways. Before Batman goes out at night, he stops by Jason Todd’s costume to remind him of those who have fallen in the war on crime, and to remind him he needs to be careful. Batman being reminded of his greatest failure every day makes him remember those feelings of guilt and powerlessness over and over again. Also, Batman says, “Twenty years in Gotham, Alfred; we’ve seen what promises are worth. How many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” Batman could also be referring to Harvey Dent/ Two-Face, but it is most likely he is referring to the death of Jason Todd. The second act that the cynical world does to change Batman is the battle of Metropolis. This is the second scene in the film, recapping events of Man of Steel. This scene opens with a wonderful Kubrick like transition, which displays the words “MANKIND IS INTRODUCED TO THE SUPERMAN”. Batman although at the peak of human physical and mental condition, is still human, and therefore this is his first introduction to Superman. Since the audience is human as well, this title card gives the viewer an immediate outsider’s perspective on Superman, letting the viewer see the world through Batman’s eyes. Bruce Wayne sees many employees he knows and cares about, more people who he considers family, to die in front of him, and be powerless to stop it. Even in Batman’s dreams, Zod’s machine from the battle can be heard. Batman blames Superman for these attacks as Superman’s fight with General Zod is wrecking the city and killing many innocent people. Batman, in a bad mental state, does not consider that this is hypocritical, considering how Batman is unable to stop collateral damage from hurting criminals. He looks up to the suit of Jason Todd in the same tragic face of guilt and powerlessness, as he does to a blown up building during the Metropolis battle. He is a character who has flaws, just like any other well-written character. Batman is powerless to stop collateral damage from hurting, and sometimes killing criminals, due to his loss of focus in the film from the repeated tragedies of Jason and Wayne Entyerprises. On three occasions in the film, Batman hits a criminal who is throwing a grenade. Therefore, the grenade bounces towards the criminal, who is injured from the explosion. The idea of Superman as Batman’s enemy is further supplanted in his head after all of Lex Luthor’s tricks. Batman when speaking to Alfred at Wayne manor, compares himself to the first generation of the Waynes in America. Bruce explains to Alfred how the first generation of Waynes, “Made their fortune trading with the French. Pelts, skins. They were hunters.” They hunted wild animals that were dangerous to the safety of the colony (Ivan Krolo). Batman sees Superman this way as well. When Batman is ready to kill Superman, Batman says that Superman, “was never even a man”, comparing Clark to a wild animal. Batman sees Superman as the biggest criminal threat to society. Not the Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, or even Ras Al Ghul. Batman considers Superman the biggest threat to society. Batman also compares himself to a gardener with a garden full of weeds. He says that killing Superman might be the only thing he does that matters. Alfred questions, “twenty years of fighting criminal’s amounts to nothing?” Batman responds, “Criminals are like weeds, Alfred. Pull one up, another grows in its place.” Batman sees all his acts as meaningless, because of his powerlessness, and killing Superman would be the only thing that matters. In this scene, an interesting visual metaphor is shown that was introduced earlier in the film, with the knightmare sequence. Some viewers might just take that scene as just setup for upcoming films in the DC extended universe, but this scene is much more than that. It demonstrates Batman’s fear of a tyrannical Superman, but also shows what Batman is not seeing. In the dream, he can’t see himself. Only the audience can see what this Batman is doing in the dream. This dream shows what a fully realized Batman would become, a person who resort to any means, even killing. When this knightmare dream Batman first appears, you can see the Wayne Manor in complete ruins like an ancient city. Here, in the scene where Bruce announces and explains his planned attack on Superman, Bruce and Alfred are speaking in the dilapidated Wayne manor. Since Batman has let his public persona as Bruce Wayne go into ruin, he hasn’t cared enough to keep his manor well maintained. The manor’s dilapidated state mirror the eroded state of Bruce’s humanity. In this final scene in the manor, Bruce turns his back on the heart of his home. Bruce is turning his back on his own humanity. He doesn’t care about Alfred saying that fighting Superman would be suicide. (Micheal Shinke). He goes to fight Superman, and is about to kill him. Batman is on the precipice of losing his humanity. He is on the edge of no longer being Batman, and instead being what Batman was originally created to stop: Joe Chill. batman is about to become the killer of Superman, like how Joe Chill is the one who killed the Waynes. Then, Superman begs to Batman to save Clark’s parents, and not for his own life. Batman initially becomes angry, and thinks this is just a trick by Superman. Batman’s mind flashes back to his memory of his parents murder. Batman realizes that Superman is an innocent person, just like 10 year old Bruce. This makes Batman relate to Superman, leads Batman to see that he is not a criminal, and that Superman cares for the world more than himself. Superman changes Batman and gives him a new outlook on humanity and the world by this. If Superman told Batman to save Martha earlier, the scene would not have worked.This scene works so well, because it shows batman finally realizing that Superman is a good person, and that Batman himself is becoming a worse person losing track of his humanity. If just one of those happened and not both, batman would have probably killed Superman. Batman sees Martha Kent in need as a chance for redemption. He can feel partially redeemed himself for being powerless to stop his own parents from getting killed, by saving Superman’s parent. Batman goes to the warehouse where Martha is being kept hostage. Batman invades the warehouse in a scene lifted straight from the comics and Arkham games, with spectacular and kinetic, yet still grounded, visceral, and realistic fighting. Batman then goes to the room where Martha Kent is held hostage. This sequence is straight from The Dark Knight Returns. The director Zack Snyder does a great job here. Batman breaks through a wall to grab one of the criminals. This is a traditional horror movie trope of a scary monster or ghost going through a wall. It works to great effect here, as the criminals are scared of Batman, and think of him, as an urban legend, such as a scary monster or ghost. Batman holding the criminal with a gun, points the gun at Anatoli Knyazev. Knyazev points is gun at Martha Kent, and says, “Believe me, I’ll kill her.” Batman says in response, “I believe you”. Knyazev fires his flamethrower at Martha Kent. Meanwhile, Batman, instead of killing Knyazev, shoots his flamethrower’s tank, and dives for Martha Kent. Batman saves both Martha Kent and Knyazev, managing to stop people from getting killed. Some people have complained that Batman kills Knyazev. This complaint is a misinterpretation of both the scene and Batman’s mental abilities. Batman is a seasoned crime fighter, who has years of training, and would know how to solve the situation. The complaint that this scene flies directly in the face of the comics Batman who doesn’t kill, is completely shortsighted. For those who are comparing this scene to events in the comics in a complete and non-biased manner, will recognize the character of Anatoli Kanayzev as KGBeast. KGBeast was created by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo in the storyline “Ten Nights of the Beast”, where Batman caught KGBeast and had ready for capture. KGBeast, instead of being captured, cut off his arm and got a new cybernetic replacement. KGBeast may return in a later installment, and some viewers who have a strong familiarity with Batman’s comic book history, may theorize that his arm will be burnt off. After Batman feels partially redeemed from his powerlessness, he helps Superman and Wonder Woman fight Doomsday and Lex Luthor. Superman’s death further motivates Batman to continue his pursuit of justice, and form the Justice League to stop bigger threats. The film is bookended by funerals. The opening funeral turns Batman into a darker and twisted persona while the ending funeral pulls him from the darkness and changes him into a brighter and forgiving persona (Harish Chengaiah). One of the most obvious pieces of evidence for this is at the first scene where Batman appears and brands a criminal with the bat symbol. At the end, with Lex in prison, Batman instead moves his fist to the side and punches the wall, with the bat symbol showing on the wall. Batman’s character arc in this film has been compared to that of another mythological character- King Arthur’s arc in Excalibur. The idea of this film is subconsciously placed into the mind of the viewer by Zack Snyder. In the opening sequence, where Thomas and Martha Wayne are murdered, the cinema showing they went to played The Mark of Zorro and Excalibur. The Zorro connection was there from the start of Batman. A wealthy playboy with a cave lair, fighting for justice using a black mask and cape to hide his secret identity, describes both Batman and Zorro. The Excalibur reference is more for this film exclusively. Both films have a unique epic and dreamlike narrative. Both films play with the connection of dream vs reality. The color green resonates through both films, with the Kryptonite that Batman uses against Superman. Both films feature the main character as a knight. Both movies see a pivotal weapon impaled into a rock and tossed into a body of water, before returning to the surface in important climactic moments. It’s as if Snyder is implying that Batman’s Holy Grail is his never ending search of justice. Like Arthur, he lost sight of his true purpose, though it takes the coming together of the Justice League or Knights of the Roundtable to finally get him back on track (Niall Browne). Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice’s best element is its portrayal of Batman. Both Batman and Bruce Wayne are at incredible lows during this film, but are able to climb back to where he thinks he should be mentally, physically, and emotionally. Several people have criticized how hypocritical Batman is during this film. The simple explanation to this is Batman’s failing mental state. Bruce Wayne says many things irrationally, so he can rationalize it internally. Once his mental state becomes better and he acts more heroic, he stops using this hypocritical rational. All aspects of the character are brought out like no other film depiction before with Batman actually being a detective and mentally ill, and having well-made fight scenes. Ben Affleck gives the performance of his career in this film showing one of fiction’s greatest characters in several states from a deranged hunter control freak to a dark tragic hero.
The film’s main antagonist is Lex Luthor played by Jessie Eisenberg. Lex Luthor, just like Batman, feels powerless. Unlike Batman, it is out of out of jealousy though. Luthor thought of himself as a great human who would lead mankind with his great intellect and vast finances. Terrio, Snyder, and Eisenberg present Luthor as a Trump like figure, but born into the modern age alongside the young Silicon Valley millionaires. Just like how this version of Luthor is an amalgamation of the old money like Donald Trump and Richard Branson, and the new money such as Mark Zuckerberg; Luthor is also an amalgamation of the golden age mad scientist and the 1986 reinvention billionaire Lex. Luthor had a bad upbringing, and he focuses on how to make humanity better. He sees an alien coming to Earth as bad for humanity, and not only wants to kill it, but ruin its reputation. Lex sees himself as the leader of humanity, and considers his intellect a superpower. He thinks that knowledge is power, but that changes once someone more powerful, but less smart comes into the picture. He sees himself as leader of the human race, and Superman as an evil oppressor of humanity. Lex thinks that Superman’s actions are just a trick to get humanity to let him have a position of power. Luthor sees Superman as a danger- a nuclear bomb about to explode. Lex creates a plan to kill Superman by either tricking Batman into doing it, or having his creation Doomsday do it. If Batman kills Superman, Luthor proves that Superman isn’t good enough to save the humans. If Doomsday does it, then Lex can kill Doomsday and look like humanity’s leader. The parallels to United States presidential candidate Donald Trump may go over the head of some viewers. Both of them own wealthy companies, and continue the success of what his parents started and gave them, and both used false perception and media manipulation. Both are motivated by a strong sense of nationalism, and see a large threat to that. Just as Trump references the old America that he finds superior, Luthor calls back several times to an even older America, one he never experienced and heard only people dream of it, the land of freedom and opportunity. Luthor talks about American history such as Paul Revere’s Ride and the Salem Witch Trials. Both events placed within the context of a world with Superman, villainize Superman. Trump sees the growing threat of the Chinese economy, and wants to lead the country to its “good old days”, just as Lex wants to be the leader of America, and even the leader of humanity. This parallel may be further noticeable by comic readers who will know of Luthor’s run for presidency in the early 2000s. Luthor ends up successful killing Superman, but is captured, only managing to contact aliens he found on the scout ship’s codex. Luthor sees himself as the embodiment of the American dream. Lex is the son of immigrants and strengthened his company giving more power. Lex gained this power by gaining knowledge and escaping from the dictator n Germany. Lex earned that power and sees anyone who is just given power as a nuclear bomb about to explode, just like the dictator in Germany, which Superman could become. Lex is an extremely timely villain, who will most likely grow into the more timeless Luthor later on. It is a great portrayal by Eisenberg who pulls off an early Lex Luthor extremely well.
The entire supporting cast does their jobs extremely well. Jeremy Irons, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, Holly Hunter, and Scoot McNairy all give great performances.
The geographic location of characters in BvS plays a role symbolically. For instance, Bruce is close minded and stuck in Gotham losing his focus on the outside world and letting his inner self centered evils consume him, just like what the city of Gotham is goin thorugh throughout the film, and more specifically, Wayne Manor as was mentioned before. Superman is traveling the globe, and when Batman and Superman finally understand each other, and change realizing each other, they are midway in between gotham and metropolis during the doomsday fight. Superman has to go into Batman’s closed mind, or Gotham and take him out and realize the world as it really is, taking him out of Gotham. The only times Batman is out of Gotham/his closed mind in the film after the metropolis battle is during and after the doomsday fight. Gotham and Metropolis are closer together than the audience thought, just like Batman and Clark are more similar and close together than they thought. The fight taking place midway between metropolis and gotham is a huge marker of these character’s changes.
Hans Zimmer does great with the score. Each character has their own theme song that delves into their character by the instrument and sound. Superman’s theme is played using mainly drums to emphasize the stoic, peaceful, methodical nature of Superman. Batman’s theme uses mainly horns to emphasize the hunter idea, as well as something more loud, frightening, and unknown. Wonder Woman’s theme uses mainly electric guitar to emphasize her foreign roots, and to emphasize the surprise of her first appearance in the film. Lex Luthor’s theme uses strings to demonstrate how he is pulling the strings, and manipulating things behind the scenes.
Zack Snyder does the best work of his career in this film. Snyder has a new style here combing the styles of masters specifically Kubrick, Kurosawa, and Hitchcock. As previously noted, the film uses several Kubrick transitions, most notably the “MANKIND IS INTRODUCED TO THE SUPERMAN” and the time jumps. The film also uses a more thematic and visual structure, making a viewer see the film several times to truly understand the work. Some audiences may be confused and not know what they are watching, and call the film a mess. Batman V Superman is not a mess but simply a misunderstood great film that will be considered better as time goes on. This film, just like Kubrick’s films, makes you question many things. They all comment on human nature, violence, filmmaking, politics, and society in extremely subtle ways. Just like Kubrick’s films, instead of outright telling you something, this film shows it to you. Take for instance all the countless subtle and nuanced visual clues this film has, some I may not even have noticed. One instance is the camera focusing on Batman’s feet (Harish Chengaiah). This indicates that Batman is slipping closer to his ultimate fall, killing Superman. There is also the use of the Kubrick stare when Bruce stares at the Batsuit into himself, like it’s a mirror. What I found the most intriguing was the horse motif throughout the film. At the Battle of Metropolis and the Senate bombings, a horse is shown running amok. This shows how Batman views Superman as an animal, and later in the film, horses are shown carrying the coffin of Superman. The animals running wild shows how Batman thinks Superman will act connecting to the destruction he supposedly causes. This is also connects to the deranged hunter idea in Batman’s character arc. At the end funeral, the horses are carrying Superman’s grave, where Batman sees Superman as a good person and a hero. All of these and the countless other visual motifs could be analyzed for years just like the work of Stanley Kubrick. Zack Snyder in addition to using several strategies from Kubrick expands on a trick from Alfred Hitchcock. The master of suspense talked in an interview about the difference of surprise and suspense. Hitchcock used the idea that the surprise gives ten seconds of audience interest, while suspense can give a lot longer. If two people are sitting at a table and a bomb goes off, it is surprise. If we see the bomb and are given a visual of a timer or clock before the bomb goes off, it is suspense. Snyder combines the two extremely well, creating both great surprise and great suspense. The capital bombing sequence has great suspense with the audience knowing that Luthor has something planned with the reintroduced jar of piss. Then, the surprise comes with the bomb and shock the audience has. Snyder is also perhaps the best director at visual movement since Akira Kurosawa. In the all the fight sequences, there is plenty of visual movement within the frame making the viewer stay active watching the film and not get bored and disinterested. He does still keep the frame clear and visible through great blocking and field of view. The eye can only see so much at once, so the rain and fire draw the viewer’s attention to the well-lit action that contrasts nicely with the dark sky in the background. Snyder fixes one of his mistakes in Man of Steel, where a fight scene takes police in the completely visually uninteresting middle of the day. The nighttime not only gives better visuals, but also makes things clearer. The yellow from the fire and light, the white from the light, the blue from the rain and atmosphere, and the green from the kryptonite and kryptonite gas really contrasts the armor suit of Batman with its steel texture, and Superman’s bright costume. The characters have a strong sense of weight that Snyder is able to create a great fight scene with actually strategy and intellect behind it, not just a mindless slug fest. There are many other countless great things Snyder does here in the best work of his career, creating stunning visuals and genius visual parallels with cinematographer Larry Fong.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio did a great job. He mentioned in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “This has been the most rigorous intellectual exercise I’ve had in my writing life. For “Batman v Superman,” I wanted to really dig into everything from ideas about American power to the structure of revenge tragedies to the huge canon of DC Comics to Amazon mythology.” This shows how much Terrio put in to make the film the great quality that it is, as well as establishes the ideas and themes of the film that were explored. Terrio wrote this script in after 2013, where media false perception, politicians weaponize and manipulating media, as well as the culture war in America between conservatives and liberals, were already going on, but 2016 when the film was released, made these things more relevant and meaningful. All of these subjects BvS talks about with the rich, white, 1 percent, businessman, who wants away from government interference Batman representing conservatives and the foreign immigrant wanting universal action and change Superman representing liberals, both of which have problems, and are forced to fight because of false perceptions, when they really should come together to fight for their end goal: the greater good.
Overall, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is a near masterpiece that excels on all levels besides a few minuscule problems that barely tamper the film. Each theme and character in the film could have their own analysis by themselves. Overall 9.4 out of 10.
Further Reading and Sources
Justice League Universe Podcast and Scene by Scene Analysis of Batman V Superman http://comicandscreen.blogspot.com/p/scene-by-scene-analyis-of-batman-v.html
Mark Hughes on Popular Opinion Podcast
Ivan Krolo’s Batman Character analysis
Niall Browne on the similarities to Excalibur
Harish Chengaiah’s Analysis
Countless Dc Comics
Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice