*I’ll always try to write spoiler-free reviews, but I’m not perfect, read at your own risk
Imagine if you will, that Superman caused 9-11.
That’s the premise that serves as one of the driving forces behind Batman and his pursuit of vengeance against Superman. Like all superhero movies this one is chock full of good and evil, but the waters are muddied by two lead superheroes who show us, if not the actual deeds, at least the possibility of both sides of the coin.
Early in the movie we see a flashback to the battle between Superman (Henry Caville) and General Zod that occurred in Man of Steel (2013). That epic battle took place in Metropolis, and the visuals of alien craft flying through the skyscrapers of Metropolis while the humans are slaughtered by collapsing buildings is very reminiscent of 9-11 (and dozens of other apocalyptic movies of course). On the ground during this catastrophe is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), looking up to the sky as he sees Superman hurtling through the air in combat with Zod. The scene cements in his mind an association between Superman and the most evil day the nation has ever experienced.
In this 9-11 type scenario Superman becomes a figure who could be interpreted to represent Islam (or any “other” of your choosing–Japan during WWII, the USSR during the Cold War, you get the picture). Like Islam, Superman is not inherently evil, but he has the capacity to be. He is powerful, mysterious, and oftentimes verges on frightening. While his innate nature seems good, Bruce Wayne and others like U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter) are of the opinion that he holds far too much power with far too little oversight to deem him safe. So, while Finch sets about trying to legislate the Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne sets about trying to cripple him through the acquisition of one of the only known chunks of Kryptonite on Earth.
The storyline is complicated, but the symbolism isn’t. Batman is the embodiment of the fearful American consciousness–lashing out against the entirety of Islam rather than only the part that might be harmful. He goes after Superman full force, unable to separate the good person from the potentially dangerous capacities. And while we know Batman, like Superman, has noble intentions, his singularly focused obsession with expunging the world of evil leads him to do some pretty questionable things. Batman is dark, he always has been, and this version of him definitely follows that tradition.
In the midst of all of this there is the insertion of Lex Luthor (Jess Eisenberg), a villain who is simple, unlike the “potential” and much more complex villain that was being presented with Superman. The moment when Batman realizes that Superman may be “other” but isn’t evil, is tied up in a lovely little bow for us as the Bat stands over a Kryptonite-weakened Superman, ready to deliver the killing blow. Superman chokes out a plea for the Bat to rescue his mother from Luthor. “Martha,” he rasps. And guess what? Batman’s mother was named Martha too (and we all know how effed up Batman has always been about his parents and their violent murder). Here we have the wake-up call–While Superman may not technically be human, Batman is reminded–finally–of his innate humanity. Superman is still a person, like the Bat himself, and potential for evil isn’t equal to evil realized.
Thus, we are left with Lex Luthor as the villain who actually commits terrorist acts. He literally blows up democracy with a bomb planted in a Senate hearing, he takes hostages, he baits and taunts, and views his mission as somehow more righteous than any other. He is our “ISIS,” in this analogy, and he is true evil.
As far as performances, Ben Affleck gives us an aging, bitter, and wholly believable Batman. His physique and looks are perfect for the role, and he nails it with subtlety and seriousness. Ben’s Batman is damaged, he is tired, and he is scared–of what’s coming for him, for his city and country, and for mankind. The younger, “alien” Superman is poised to take his place, and it is heartbreaking in a sense, but also inevitable. Batman is mortal, he is middle-aged, and he cannot possibly compete. But he is also still useful, still savvy, and still powerful enough that he can affect change–his choices about what that change should be hang in the balance until the pivotal moment of the Marthas.
We are also treated to a brand new Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and while the role was too limited to make many assessments of Gadot, her performance was solid, and the character absolutely has the capacity to carry a storyline all her own. We can all hope that DC will give her that opportunity in the not so distant future.
The other outstanding performance is given by Eisenberg as Lex Luthor. While playing a character from the Superman storyline, he manages to convey the requisite psychoses of a Batman villain without being too over-the-top, something that has been all too common in the Batman franchise over the years. His demented mental state is consistently right there for you to watch, like a horrible wreck you can’t look away from, but it doesn’t dominate to the point that you can’t see the many other things going on around it.
And “many things going on” is perhaps the biggest negative of the film. While I found the symbolism and metaphors to be fascinating, the storyline is tangled–there are large and often unexplained info-dumps, flashbacks, dreams, and predictions in addition to the multi-layered main story. Some of this is because it’s a set-up movie for the future League of Justice films, but some of it may simply be because they tried to cram too much into one movie.
Batman vs. Superman isn’t finely crafted, but in the end that didn’t bother me. It has performances and themes that make is worth the watch. Ultimately, it is as flawed, yet as compelling, as its heroes.
B+ for Batman vs. Superman.