It's been almost a year and a half since Zack Snyder brought the world's two most famous superheroes, Batman and Superman, together on the big screen for the first time ever in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but it seems that even now, the film is still the subject of fiery debates between its many critics and supporters. There seems to be little middle ground when it comes to this film; people seem to either vehemently hate it or believe it to be a masterpiece within the comic book film genre. Since it premiered in theaters on March 25th of last year, critics have been outspoken about the many flaws they consider the film to have, some of which have merit and others which point to a complete misunderstanding of the film's major themes and overall message.
As an unashamed fan of the film, I am here to shed some light on what I believe is a tragically misunderstood masterpiece, one which defies the familiar trappings of its all too formulaic genre in order to present its characters as being multi-dimensional and flawed people trying to do what they feel is right in a messy world which we know all too well. By setting these familiar characters in the real world, the film experiments with the very notion of heroism and power, reexamining what it actually means to be a hero in our increasingly suspicious and cynical world.
In order to understand BvS: DOJ better, we must take a quick look at the film's predecessor, 2013's Man of Steel, Zack Snyder's Superman reboot which grounded the legendary superhero in a realistic world much like our own, a world full of fear and suspicion of the unknown. What Man of Steel did for the first time in a Superman film was show the real world repercussions of having a godlike being among us and how the world as we know it would drastically change, not necessarily for the better. The film also illustrated how alienated and frustrated Clark Kent was growing up with the knowledge that he was different from all those around him and having to hide his abilities for fear that he'd be rejected by humanity. Despite these very understandable fears, Clark still endeavors to help people whenever he can and not for recognition or glory, but simply because he knows it's the right thing to do. When the entire planet is threatened by Zod, Clark reveals himself to the world and stands up for us against the last of his own people despite his fear that humanity might hate and reject him.
Many people who saw MOS were disappointed in not seeing a version of Superman they'd been used to seeing in past films, namely the inspiring, smiling Superman who always seemed confident and sure of himself. For many people, this somehow translated into a Superman who seemed less heroic, while the truth is that Henry Cavill's Superman in MOS does more to save the world than all past cinematic versions have done. Despite his very real fears that humanity will hate and fear him once they find out what he can do, he saves the entire planet twice, the second time being forced to kill the last of his own people to keep him from killing every one of us. Many people took issue with Superman's decision to kill Zod, but I point out with much passion and energy that not only has Superman been forced to kill in the comics (including, but not limited to Zod), but he simply had no other choice unless he wanted the battle to go on and more humans to die. Zod laid it out in simple terms: he would kill every single human unless Superman killed him. In the end, Superman made the hardest choice for the greater good and that, not smiling, is what makes a true hero.
The other complaint levied against MOS is the massive amount of destruction that Superman's fight with Zod causes in Metropolis. There is a lot of damage no doubt, but anyone who's seen the film knows that the majority of the destruction was caused by the World Engine, which Superman destroyed at the risk of his own life. Even during their epic slugfest through the city, most of the destruction comes from Zod's complete disregard for collateral damage. In order to keep Zod from killing all humanity, Superman had to focus on stopping him, leaving him no time to stop buildings from collapsing, much to his horror.
Zack Snyder, obviously listening to these criticisms, even used this destruction and loss of lives as a way to justify the fear and mistrust that many people, including Batman, feel towards Superman in BvS. In the film, Superman must deal with the real world consequences that his actions, although done with the best intentions, sometimes create. It makes sense that half of the world would fear and hate while the other half would see him as a hero and even a Christ-like savior. This echoes how a being like Superman would be perceived in our world, one where sadly, many people are fearful and mistrusting of those foreign and unknown to them. Giving into that fear has the potential to bring out the cruelest qualities in even good people, qualities which have often led to some of the greatest atrocities in history. The film reflects this tendency in its portrayal of Batman as a world weary superhero veteran who's seen the absolute worst humanity has to offer. He's seen good men turn bad, friends and family murdered and it has made him jaded and cynical, even for a normally jaded and pessimistic character like Batman.
When Bruce Wayne sees firsthand the destruction and loss of life that Superman's battle with Zod brings, he's traumatized in a way similar to when his parents were murdered before his eyes. He feels utterly powerless in the face of this superhuman event. At the time he has no idea that Superman is trying to help, he just sees two gods throwing each other through skyscrapers. This feeling of powerlessness brings out a darkness in Batman that even he isn't known for having. Throughout the film, it's clear that Batman isn't himself; he's giving into his worst paranoia and mistrust because of his sense of helplessness. Meanwhile, Superman is still trying to help people however he can despite the constant questioning of his true intentions. Those who complained that the Superman in BvS is too depressed and not inspiring enough missed the point; he's depressed because he wants to help everyone and no matter how many people he saves or how pure his intentions, his motives are still suspect and many people still see him as a threat.
It's this mass fear and insecurity about Superman which Lex Luthor feeds into, turning public opinion against Superman and tarnishing his stature as a savior figure to many. The point that the film tries to make is that Superman is neither a savior nor a devil; he's simply a guy trying to do the right thing in a world where knowing what's right for the greater good is often impossible to discern. It's Lex Luthor who manipulates these two heroes into finally fighting each other, artfully fanning the flames of their dislike for each other's methods as well as Batman's paranoia that Superman is a potential threat to the world.
This all comes to a head during the now infamous Martha scene, where Batman, seconds away from killing Superman with a Kryptonite spear, hears him blurt out the name Martha, the name of Bruce's mother. Superman was referring to his own adoptive mother, Martha Kent, who at that moment is scheduled to be burnt alive by Luthor's goons if Superman doesn't kill Batman in a certain amount of time. Many people seemed to think that simply learning that their mothers share the same name is what stopped Batman from killing Superman when the truth is much deeper than that. In fact, just hearing him say the name Martha initially infuriates Batman even more until Lois Lane shows up, pleading for Clark's life and explaining that Martha is Superman's mother. In that moment, Batman realizes that he's on the verge of becoming the very evil that he swore to fight against, the very evil which stole his parents from him as he watched helplessly. In that moment Superman went from being some alien threat to earth and instead became just a boy, who like Bruce years earlier, is helpless to save his own mother from dying. Once Batman stops long enough for Lois to explain that Lex is behind everything, Batman understands who the real evil is.
Despite how dark and grim it may appear on the surface, underneath BvS: DOJ is really a story of redemption and how despite the human temptation, we mustn't let our fears of what we don't understand drive us to do terrible and cruel things. In the film, both of these iconic heroes experience their dark night of the soul, grappling with the very fears, doubts, and insecurities which we all face as we try to find our way through a world of smoke and shadows. For some, it may be hard to see these characters who we hold up as icons of moral certitude wrestling with these very human flaws, but it only makes their inevitable triumph that much more triumphant. When Superman sacrifices himself to save the planet from Doomsday, even after Lex turned much of the planet against him, Batman tried to kill him, and the military nuked him, it shows what true heroism looks like. Not only did this Superman save us after what we did to him, but his sacrifice restored a broken and weary Batman's faith in humanity. If that's not inspirational, I don't know what is. Our heroes have to stumble and fall so that they can rise again, stronger than ever. As we know, the night is always darkest just before the dawn and, as the title suggests, the dawn is surely coming.