Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Both Grunting": A Detailed Look at "Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice"

In preparation for my viewing of Justice League, I decided to revisit Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I've been dithering with this post on and off for a month, and while I don't think it's gotten any shorter, at least I feel like it says all I'm going to need to say on the subject. Also, I added some pictures.

Anyway, you may recall that I did not care for the movie the first time around. I'm approaching this like I did with my Man of Steel rewatch that I did in preparation for that viewing: trying to focus on the positive, to find the movie that I've seen fans posting gifs of on Tumblr for a year and a half. To that end, I'm watching the Ultimate Edition, which I've heard is better than the theatrical cut.

Without further ado...

I listened to the opening voiceover three times, twice with subtitles, and I'm still not sure what it means. "What fallen," is, I suppose, meant to be a way to set up Batman's character arc, that he goes from this nihilistic place to learning to hope again, but hoo boy does it make Batman sound like a pretentious MFA student.

As unnecessary as the rehashed Batman origin is, I like that we see Martha Wayne being the proactive one in the alley. We typically see Thomas trying to take control, rushing forward to protect Martha and Bruce, and this is a nice change of pace from that. Batman and Superman's stories tend to be way too dad-centric, especially in adaptations, to the point where Martha Wayne is largely a cypher, despite having existed for almost eighty years. I'm no Batmanologist, but I think the only comic I've read that tried to characterize her at all was Batman: Death and the Maidens.

Looking back to Man of Steel, this is an ongoing theme. Moms live longer in the Snyderverse, whether it's a few days, with Lara, a few seconds, with Martha Wayne, or indefinitely, with Martha Kent. Moms are also badasses, with Lara facing down Zod, Martha K. taking on Faora, and here, Martha W. trying to protect Bruce.

It's a little weird that the Batcave is apparently adjacent to the Wayne family cemetery plots.

Ugh, "the Superman." I'll accept "the Batman" as something people call Batman, but seriously, "the Superman" is what Nietzsche wrote about, not Jerry Siegel. At least, post-1933.

There's a giant alien spaceship destroying cities, and it's been active long enough for Bruce Wayne to ride a helicopter over to Metropolis and drive halfway across town in disaster traffic, but nobody at Wayne Enterprises looks out the window or starts to get out of the building until they get a call from the boss. Those are some dedicated employees, let me tell you. This is also a stark contrast to Superman, who never so much as shouts at bystanders to run during the big fight with Zod.

Why doesn't Jack leave the building? It looks like the rest of the staff made it out, and as far as I'm aware, there's no tradition for the CFO or whatever to go down with the ship. Moreover, why does Bruce think he's still in the building? We just saw that he had no cell phone service, so it's not like their call was still connected. This scene tries to do what Man of Steel really failed at, examining the human cost of this destruction, but it doesn't work. There's no reason for Jack to make the sacrifice (at least they could have had him run back into the building to save someone, to make a parallel with Pa Kent in MOS—in the Snyderverse, Moms survive and Father Figures die for no reason), there's no reason for Bruce to think he's not among the evacuees, and we have no emotional connection to this character that we've never seen before in any medium. At least if it were "Lucius," the film could play on audience's previous familiarity with the character to tug some emotional strings, like it does with Jimmy Olsen later, but this is just the movie reaching for an emotional payoff that it hasn't earned. It's the same problem as the Jenny saying "he saved us" in Man of Steel—it relies on characters knowing things because the audience knows them, even though the characters have no way of knowing. It's a weird inversion of dramatic irony.

The moment with the little girl who's lost her mom works considerably better, because at least it ties back to the origin flashback. The closest thing we have to a throughline for Batman's character in this movie is that he doesn't like it when people lose their moms.

When I rewatched Man of Steel, I kept wondering what impression people on the street would get of Superman, and this is actually a nice reification of that. Bruce sees Superman pushing Zod back down from space, apparently in control, surrounded by debris from a Wayne Enterprises satellite, bringing him right back to the huge, densely-populated city that they were fighting in before, when presumably he could have flown him into the ocean just as easily. Bruce seems to have nothing but contempt for the battling aliens, and that's a way more genuine reaction than seeing him as a hero.

I am just infuriated by the callous incompetence of the Superman in this universe. Eighteen months later and there is still a wrecked alien spaceship leaking radioactive xenomaterials into the Indian Ocean. Like, for a movie so focused on mothers, it doesn't speak well of Martha Kent's character that she never taught her son to clean up his messes.

We cut to a fictional country in Africa, where Lois acts like a jerk to Redshirt Jimmy, then sits down to interview General Amajagh with literally no chill. He says that he is "a man with nothing except a love of [his] people," and that's one of those lines that feels important. On one hand, it's more or less exactly what Zod said toward the end of Man of Steel, so that connection's made; on the other, it resonates with Batman's attitude, and Lex Luthor's as well. "These pious American fictions, spoken like truth" is another such line, and Luthor's "oldest lie in America" line echoes it later.

The most suspicious thing about Jimmy Olsen is the idea that he'd be using a camera with film in 2016.

Hooray for casually lethal Superman. People like to justify the idea that Superman should be able to kill people in situations like this, where an innocent person is being held at gunpoint by a Bad Guy, because it would be a justified use of lethal force. And that would be true if Superman weren't, you know, Superman. He's not limited in the ways that, say, human law enforcement officers are. Even in the real world, we've seen an epidemic of police officers resorting to lethal force when effective nonlethal options are available. But for Superman, there are always nonlethal options available. We've seen this scenario before a thousand times, where Lois is in danger, held at gunpoint by a Bad Guy, and Superman manages to stop him without killing him. He can grab the gun at super-speed, he can block the bullet from exiting the barrel, he can melt the gun or the firing pin with heat vision, he can knock the Bad Guy out with a flick of his finger. We've seen literally all of those and a dozen other options spread out across half a dozen media for nigh on eight decades. But this is a Superman who defaults to lethal force, and I'm sorry, but that's not a heroic trait. Not in general, and especially not in the world of the last several years.

Also, Lois and Superman share this look before he does the death-flight move, and she nods and lets go of Amajagh's arm and braces herself, implying this has happened before, or at least that they've discussed what they'd do in this situation. That adds a layer of complicity to Lois's behavior that's uncomfortable at best.

We cut then to Nairomi villager Kahina Ziri's Congressional testimony, where it seems like the security contractors' intent in killing Amajagh's people was to frame Superman for their deaths. Which, first, is wholly unnecessary given that Superman actually does kill Amajagh, and second, would almost certainly be more effective if they had just used the flamethrowers rather than shooting the men and piling their bodies before burning them. Or did this universe's version of Lois Lane's "I Spent the Night with Superman" column mention his bullet-vision? Senator Finch decides to hold Superman responsible for the deaths of Amajagh's people (despite the fact that he stopped the CIA drone strike that also would have killed them, but that's actually fairly believable), and we see that the driving theme of the story is going to be the Responsible Use of Power and Holding the Powerful Accountable. It's a reasonable theme for a Superman movie (it's very similar to the theme of Superman IV, in fact), and a common theme of Superman stories going back to the Golden Age. Rarely, though, is it told through a version of Superman who is so obviously and disastrously irresponsible in his use of power.

Ziri turns out to be lying, as part of Luthor's scheme, which is highlighted by how her recounting of events is directly contradicted by what we just saw. Leaving aside the elaborateness of Luthor's scheme, it's not a good look for all these African characters to be either sinister or witless pawns.

The cops watching a Gotham/Metropolis football game are call sign Delta Charlie 27, and if you don't catch that Easter egg, don't worry, they repeat it three or four times to drive it home. And hey, if you thought "d***splash" was a weird phrase to hear in a Superman movie, wait 'til Officer Rucka drops an f-bomb.

Clark comes in while Lois is in the bath, and right off the bat says he doesn't care what was said at the hearing. Which...kind of validates the point of the hearing. He also says he "didn't kill those men," which isn't quite accurate, is it, Clark? Like Ziri's testimony, Clark here is saying something that is directly at odds with what we just saw. Unlike her, though, we're never given a reason for the incongruity.

It's common in superhero stories to have characters survive experiences that would cripple or kill normal humans. People point out how brutal Captain America is to a lot of the guys on the ship at the beginning of The Winter Soldier, and how some of the guys he kicks or throws his mighty shield at would likely have sustained pretty grievous injuries. There are two ways to deal with this; in Winter Soldier, we never really revisit the issue. Whether the anonymous cannon fodder died or were injured or were knocked out never comes up again, so we can assume whatever we like. The other way is to show some indication that, however improbably, the person survived their experience. Having a quick shot where they groan or rub their head or squirm on the ground is pretty commonplace, especially in superhero cartoons, for instance. This movie tries to do the former, treating these minor villains like goons in a beat-em-up arcade game, whose bloodless bodies disappear once their hit points are exhausted. Which might be fine, if not for the fact that "who administers lethal justice" is an explicit theme in the movie. As a result, we're left with an inconsistency between what Clark says and what we saw him do, with enough ambiguity in his words to make us wonder if he's being as duplicitous as Ziri was.

Lois points out that there's a cost to his actions, which again feels like one of those "this is thematically important" lines. The Lois and Clark interaction is good here; I like seeing them being affectionate and even physical with one another. And yet, as if to drive home that point about themes, Lois warns him that he's going to flood the apartment if he climbs into the bathtub, and he just smiles and continues. This is a Superman who does what he wants, and damn the consequences. Hope they don't have any downstairs neighbors.

Alfred tells Bruce that "a feeling of powerlessness [...] turns good men cruel," in case you're taking notes on themes. And then this leads into our scene of Silicon Valley Startup CEO Lex Luthor, who offhandedly mentions that his father grew up poor and oppressed in East Germany before launching into his kryptonite weapon pitch. There's some weirdness here in the way they go from kryptonite weapons as deterrents to the "metahuman thesis" which suggests that Lex thinks metahumans are related to Kryptonians, and I wonder if that ties into the rumors from before this movie came out that the Amazons would have been descended from that empty pod on the Kryptonian ship.

Lex's negotiations with Senator Jolly Rancher underscore that theme of power, and the abuses thereof. Lex pretends to be interested in preventing the metahumans from instituting a fascist state, but really just wants to be the guy with the launch codes. Much as I dislike this Heath Ledgeresque portrayal of the character (though he's not my least favorite version of Lex), this is a good understanding of the core of Lex's character.

Clark has a sad at Kahina on TV pointing out that his actions have consequences. Meanwhile, there's a "beloved" statue of him in Heroes' Park. I wish we had a little indication of how we got to that point, how the city apparently got back to normal and built a massive monument in the span of 18 months. For comparison, only a handful of buildings in a single area were destroyed or damaged in New York on 9/11, and they didn't start constructing the memorial until almost five full years later. A line about how Superman assisted with the cleanup, a shot of a newspaper article on how helpful he was in rebuilding the city, those little things would have helped to make sense of the world we're presented with. As the story actually stands, it's another attempt to have a meaningful moment without actually earning it, and it further undercuts the movie's inconsistent attempts to explore the consequences of these superhero battles.

Clark Kent, news reporter, is unaware of the vigilante in the town across the bay whose exploits were literally front page news the day before. So he's actually incompetent at both his jobs. And so is Perry White, who is a cynical jerk here who basically flaunts his lack of integrity. When Clark hits him with the same point that Kahina made on the news, he dismisses the very notion of the American conscience.

Lois comes in with the bullet she recovered from Amajagh's camp, which is a one-of-a-kind cutting edge bullet not available anywhere. So, to recap, Lex Luthor had his people use unique, easily-traceable bullets to kill people in an attempt to frame Superman, who does not use guns, for their murder. And yet Lois thinks this means the U.S. government armed the rebels while claiming to support the elected government, even though it was already said that the government was officially neutral, and she knows the CIA was involved in going after Amajagh because she just washed the agent's blood off her shirt. Superman blew up a damn drone on the way to save her. Did he not mention that?

One day it'd be nice to get back to superhero costumes that look like they might believably fit under a person's civilian clothes, rather than having to spend all their time on mannequins in those heroes' basements.

Clark Kent, news reporter, doesn't recognize the famous playboy billionaire businessman who lives in the town across the bay, owns an office building that he helped demolish (not to mention a satellite), and who was namechecked by the guy defacing a statue of him. It's bad enough that Clark managed to even get this job when his résumé reads "fisherman, waiter, US Air Force baggage handler," and it's worse that he doesn't find it odd that he, a guy with no more than 1.5 years' newspaper experience who struggles to file sports articles, gets specifically requested to cover a high-class fundraiser, but he hasn't even bothered to research the big-name donors who were specifically invited to the event he's covering? He is staggeringly incompetent. As bad a newsman as this movie's Perry White is, that he even tolerates Clark is a testament to superhuman patience.

Clark tells Bruce that he's "seen" the "Bat vigilante,", he hasn't? He's seen a newspaper story about it, and talked to a few people who fear Batman, but he hasn't actually seen Batman. He makes a crack about Batman thinking he's above the law, after scoffing himself at the idea of being accountable to a higher authority a few scenes ago. Again, Bruce is 100% right here: Clark is being a hypocrite, and doesn't even have the "Batman's tactics are too brutal" moral high ground to stand on when he risked an international incident by unnecessarily splattering a warlord through two brick walls. Like, the charitable interpretation here is that Clark is dealing with a crisis of conscience, trying to find an answer to the question of using power responsibly. So he's putting this question to other people with power—Perry, Bruce—in hopes of, what? Finding a satisfying answer for himself? Getting the guidance he seems to need? Exploring alternative points of view? The closest thing we have to a conclusion to this muddled plotline is that Superman sacrifices himself in the end, which could indicate that he realizes there's no way to use this much power responsibly.

That would be a potentially interesting take, even if I think it's ultimately at odds with the whole point of Superman. If this were the Dark Knight Rises of the Man of Steel-iverse, a coda to Snyder's version of Superman the way that DKR was for Nolan's Batman, it could work. Instead, this is the springboard for the entire DC shared film universe, so it can't end with the message of "superhumans shouldn't exist because that amount of power inevitably corrupts or has unforseen negative consequences." It has to end with "Superman was actually great and now we need to get all the superhumans together because bad things are coming that regular people can't stop."

Even if that weren't the case, we still have a situation where Superman sacrifices himself knowing full well that there is technology that could resurrect him as an unstoppable monster and that there are people willing to do just that. Even if the conclusion of his asinine soul-searching is "no one man should have all this power," his sacrifice doesn't fix that. It just wipes his hands of having to figure out who has that power and how it's used. Even his heroic sacrifice represents an irresponsible attitude toward the enormous power he possesses, and that's almost impressive.

Lex Luthor pops up, and the World's Greatest Detective doesn't find it odd that he knows the name of the occasional sports reporter who's covering the gala. Lex could not be more obvious about knowing who the two of them are. He also mentions that Bruce is finally in Metropolis, "after all these years." Metropolis, you'll recall, was home to a Wayne Enterprises building less than two years ago, and Bruce was heavily enough involved in its operations that he was on a first-name basis with the manager, and the staff didn't bother evacuating until they got the word directly from Mr. Wayne. Like, even if we imagine that Bruce traveling across the harbor to a building he owned was a freak occurrence during the battle, this also suggests that after witnessing and being traumatized by all that destruction, Bruce Wayne didn't bother setting foot in the city to help rebuilding efforts.

Clark sees a report about a fire in Juarez and saves a little girl, leading to another "here's some religious imagery" scene, and a talking heads segment about how "every religion believes in a messianic figure," which I'm almost certain is complete nonsense. What's worse is that this segment made me agree with Andrew Sullivan of all people. The last bit poses the same basic question that young Clark asked Pa Kent in Man of Steel: should he just let people die on principle? And yeah, it'd be hard to tell a parent that their kid died because Superman restrained himself from saving them. But isn't it also hard to tell a kid that their parent died because Superman acted without restraint and, say, disabled a spaceship so that it would crash in the middle of a city?

There's a fairly rapid-fire sequence where the bat-branded crook from earlier gets transferred to Metropolis and killed on the orders of Luthor's Russian merc, Wally the statue vandal gets released on Luthor-paid bail, gets cleaned up, and meets with Senator Finch, and Lois confirms things she already suspected about the strange bullet (with a bit of bathroom gender essentialism from General Swanwick).

Clark gets in another fight with Perry, who tells him "you could stand for something in 1938, but not anymore," which...

And we also learn that not only has Clark Kent, a guy who can travel from the northeast coastal U.S. to Juarez in seconds, hasn't filed either of the stories he's been assigned so far. Like, sports stories don't have a long shelf life, my dude. You are a terrible reporter.

We're treated to a painfully unfunny Jon Stewart monologue about Superman wanting not to be considered American anymore. It's weird on several levels, since we've had no indication that Superman's made any statements at this point about...anything, but it's also just not well-written. Superman must be American because he wears red and blue and has an S on his chest? It's a bigger stretch than the right-wing radio host I heard circa 1997 saying that the blue-and-white electric costume meant Superman now represented the United Nations. It makes more sense as a response to that Goyer-penned story from a few years back about Superman renouncing his U.S. citizenship, but even then it's still not good.

Verbal sparring with Bruce and Diana, then we get the "Knightmare" sequence. I want to laugh about Batman wearing a mask over his mask, but honestly that's pretty true to the character.

Mad Bat-Max fights Superman Nazis and Parademons with guns until Superman kills him for taking "her" from him, presumably Lois. And then the Flash shows up to say "Bruce! Bruce! Justice League premieres in November, 2017! Mark your calendars!" or something. Did we need two scenes back to back where Bruce dreamily realizes that Lois Lane is important and Superman is bad (though Flash is notably vague with his pronouns)? Do we have any indication at all as to what's behind Batman's weird dreams? I've seen Justice League at this point, and I still can't answer those questions.

Speaking of scenes we've already seen, Clark Kent gets a mysterious envelope with the Batman newspaper article he waved around earlier and a bunch of Polaroids of that dead bat-branded criminal, with the phrase "Judge Jury Executioner" written on the bottom. Literally none of this, down to that phrasing, is news to Clark, but hey anything worth doing is worth doing twice I guess. Also, even though he hasn't published anything about Batman, even though he's only asked a handful of people about the Bat vigilante, he doesn't stop to wonder who would send him these pictures, or whether it might be an attempt to manipulate him.

Bruce learns that the White Portuguese is a ship, which I feel like he probably could have found out without downloading Lex's mainframe. He already knows about the kryptonite, and he knows it's being delivered to Lex Luthor, so he's going to steal it and use it to kill Superman, based on logic straight out of the Iraq war. It's a bad argument, especially for a guy who we know doesn't care about the consequences of his branding low-level thugs but has allowed the Joker to keep on living. It is easy to craft actual reasons to rein in the reckless, inexperienced, cavalier Superman of this universe, but Batman manages to be just as wrong and just as hypocritical as Superman.

For the record, I think this is really the turning point of the movie, the sequence from Knightmare to this point. This is where the movie takes a hard right turn from a kind of fascinating mediocre to Actually Bad. All these overwrought dialogue-heavy scenes hammering on the same points as though the universe itself is trying to force Batman and Superman to fight, because it is. It's not just Luthor; as much as he's orchestrating, he isn't behind Batman's dreams or the branded crook's girlfriend being in the police station when Superman shows up. Every conversation Clark and Bruce have is driving them to fight each other because that's the title of the movie, not because it makes sense for either of their characters. And they both have to be hypocritical idiot fanatics for the plot to make any sense at all. I was going to say that this is plot driving character, but it's not, because there's not enough of either. This is a fight scene driving everything else. The battle between Batman and Superman is the given, and nothing else needs to make sense so long as it ends up with them fighting.

So, after seeing Days of Future Bats using a handgun, we get a fakeout with him aiming a sniper rifle at the guys hauling the kryptonite. Psych, it's actually a tracer! Batman doesn't kill people, silly!

And then he Batmobile-rams an apparently-occupied car so that it flips over several times and takes out a trailer office. Psych! Batman totally kills people. Okay, so maybe the office was empty, and maybe that car was just sitting next to all the other occupied cars, with its headlights on, but empty as well. Maybe? Maybe you can argue that he didn't kill anyone with it.

Not so much after he harpoons it and uses it to flatten a car with at least four guys in it. And then uses his hood-mounted bat-guns to 1000% kill at least another two in an SUV.  I won't even blame him for the guy he let drive into a tanker truck, but he definitely decapitates at least one more with his car driving through the top of the semi carrying the kryptonite.

Are we supposed to be okay with this because Batman only has the power to kill dozens of people, rather than millions? Is his argument against Superman really just a matter of numbers?

The thing about this scene that's most galling, though, is how unnecessary it is. Batman knows what ship the kryptonite is on, where it's docking, who's taking it, and where they're planning to deliver it. He puts a tracking device on the truck. There is no reason whatsoever for him to be chasing after them in his sports tank. He kills at least seven people and endangers at least a half-dozen other drivers we see on the road because, what, sneaking was too hard for The Batman? He was too lazy to set up an ambush? Nothing in this scene makes sense, and it thoroughly undermines what little moral high ground Batman had. It makes him look less like he's upset that Superman endangers people and more like he's just upset that Superman does it more efficiently.

And then his car bounces off of Superman, which is actually a pretty cool idea. I always like it when Superman's powers are treated kind of casually; it makes him seem so effortlessly powerful.

But then he gives Batman this 'go home and stop being Batman, or else' speech, and Batman asks "do you bleed," and ugh.

That little detour kept Batman from pursuing the kryptonite shipment, so instead he uses the tracer. Surprise, it's at a LexCorp research facility! Except now they know Batman's after them! World's Greatest Detective, everybody!

Lois meets with the General again and gives him the bullet. Senator Finch asks Superman to come to Congress. Lex ogles the kryptonite. Superman meets with Martha Kent, who tells him "when people see what you do, then they'll know who you are." She follows this up with "you're not a killer. You're not a threat." Except that he is. He's both of those things. He killed Zod, he killed Amajagh, and that's just the two we've seen directly, that's not even blaming him for all those killed in collateral damage. The last time we saw him in costume, he was literally threatening Batman. Martha's pouring a big ol' glass of Granny's Peach Tea right here.

And then "you don't owe this world a thing. You never did," which is a pretty garbage sentiment, there, Martha. It's no wonder that this Superman doesn't bother to clean up his messes, doesn't think he should be held accountable, doesn't seem to have much agency beyond asking other people what he should do, if that's the message he's been getting his whole life. Hide your abilities to save yourself, you don't have to help people...these aren't the philosophies that build a hero. And Superman doesn't argue with her, doesn't plead a case. He just looks melancholy.

Ziri sees the contractors, then goes back to tell Sen. Finch that she lied before. The General meets back up with Lois to tell her that the bullet was developed by LexCorp and that it was a setup to make Superman look responsible. So, again, LexCorp hired mercenaries directly, armed them with unique LexCorp-designed bullets, and had them shoot a bunch of people to frame Superman, who doesn't use guns, for killing them, when he did in fact kill their leader and didn't actually need to be framed for anything. Everyone in this movie is an idiot.

Perry won't run Lois's story against Luthor on the word of an anonymous source, and Finch knows that Ziri lied about pretty much everything because Luthor threatened her. So, if all this could be stirred up by one witness lying, why did they even need to kill the villagers in the first place?

Luthor shows up, sends Mercy into the Congressional chamber, and tells Sen. Finch that the oldest lie in America is "that power can be innocent." And, again, he's right. We know he's right. Superman and Batman's reckless abuses of their respective powers makes them both responsible for unnecessary, avoidable, unjust deaths. And while you might argue that Luthor's being a hypocrite here, since his men push Ziri in front of a subway train and since he's about to blow up Congress, it's not like he's exempting himself from that statement. Luthor is willing to use his power, lethally if necessary, unilaterally to achieve his own ends. How is he any different from our two ostensible protagonists?

We've seen this kind of question asked before, particularly in Lex Luthor stories. Luthor is cynical, megalomaniacal, and narcissistic. He can't imagine that Superman would use his power altruistically because he can't believe that anyone wields power without expecting something in return. And in these stories, we know that Luthor is projecting his own flaws onto Superman because he's unwilling to accept that he might be wrong. But having the Superman of these films, who uses his power irresponsibly and doesn't care about accountability, recontextualizes Luthor's position. He's no longer obviously wrong, no longer clearly trying to justify his own actions. This Luthor is a power-hungry narcissist, sure, but when opposed to a cavalier, unrestrained Superman, he's got a point.

Anyway, in keeping with the movie's need to hammer every point home, Senator Finch chokes on her speech no less than three times as we take four long, loving shots at the jar labeled "Granny's Peach Tea" on her lectern. Then the Wallybomb blows and Superman just stands there, looking melancholy. Was his last line when he threatened Batman? Is this meant to be another allegory, Christ remaining silent under Pilate's questioning or something? Or is this Superman just a passive observer when he's not chasing down the Batman story or murdering warlords?

Like, seriously, the U.S. Capitol Building just exploded. There are probably people in other rooms. There are priceless artifacts in this building. Maybe don't just stand there?

To Superman's credit, we do see him rescue a woman and bring her to the EMTs. And then he looks melancholy at Lois and flies off. The Capitol is still smoking, EMTs are working with people on stretchers, cops are zipping up body bags, but Superman doesn't try to reassure the crowd, doesn't ask the first responders how he can help, doesn't tell Lois what happened or where he's going. He just flies away.

It's as if the filmmakers heard the criticism that Superman barely saves anyone in Man of Steel, and put this in as a "fine, see? He saved someone. Happy now?" As if Superman's got better things to do than help people who need help. We learn on the TV at Wayne Manor that first responders are still bringing victims out. Superman has to at least suspect that this was targeting him, right? And he just disappears, rather than help people who got hurt because they were near him. It's a theme for this version of Superman.

Naturally, this drives Batman to go steal the kryptonite from Luthor's lab, which he was already going to do but now I guess he did it angrier.

Superman has a sad with Lois about how he shouldn't have even bothered with helping people, and it was his dad's dream anyway. Lex gets into the Kryptonian ship's database, Batman does crossfit and makes his kryptonite weapons, and then he gets into Luthor's "META_HUMAN" folder where he's helpfully assigned the Justice League handy symbols and, apparently, names (or two-letter designations that just happen to correspond to their names).

If you were worried that maybe you wouldn't recognize one of the surveillance shots of Diana, it's okay, she always makes sure to look directly at the camera. But we get to hear her amazing theme music for the first time, so that's good.

Luthor brings Zod's body into the Kryptonian ship and drips his own blood on it for reasons, and in the Daily Planet office and around the world, people are debating the degree of Superman's complicity in the bombing of Congress. It's not entirely fair to pin that on him, but the point that he's got nigh-unlimited power and did nothing to prevent people from being killed can be levied on other things he's done, so it's kind of a wash.

Lois Lane, who generally makes out pretty good in these movies, sits at home watching TV, where they've figured out who the bomber was, but still haven't ruled out Superman as a co-conspirator. Because if he wanted to kill a whole bunch of people, he'd have some rando who hates him build a bomb. I can't decide what's dumber: that Lex keeps trying to frame Superman for murder with tactics that Superman doesn't use, or that people buy it.

Lois eventually gets up and investigates Wally (and learns that the bullet and wheelchair were made of the same metal, because why not? Lex Luthor, criminal mastermind everybody), but she's weirdly passive here. You'd think she'd already be out fighting to clear Superman's name, badgering police officers and so forth. So much of this movie happens to our protagonists.

Clark's already been sad in a field, and sad in a building, and sad in a city, so now he gets to be sad on a mountain.

And look, sad dead dad is there too, giving a speech about well-intended actions having unintended negative consequences. There's no clear message here. Is Pa saying that trying to be a hero means other people will get hurt?

That having a loving relationship will assuage your guilt? You'd expect there to be some kind of turning point to this conversation, that Clark would hear what he needs to hear, either that he's doing the right thing or the wrong thing, but we don't really get that. At most, it implies that he should listen to Lois (or maybe Martha), but even that's a bit of a stretch.

Martha Kent gets kidnapped, Lois Lane gets kidnapped, and Lex throws her off a building so he can ramble Theology 101 at Superman. We get confirmation that Lex's dad was abusive, which hearkens all the way back to Alfred's comment about powerlessness making men cruel. We also get confirmation that Lex knows who Batman and Superman really are, because of course he does. He's going to force Superman to kill Batman so that the public sees what a monster Superman is. For killing a guy who's already a criminal vigilante that the papers say have gone too far. He also had Martha tied up, humiliated, and photographed, for a bit of that Killing Joke flair.

Superman tells Lois that he has to convince Batman to help him, or he has to die, and the first part of that would ring truer if he hadn't threatened Batman earlier. Strange doings are afoot at the Kryptonian spaceship, and Wonder Woman reads her e-mail one 18-point line at a time.

When Superman confronts Batman, he sends some mixed messages. He tries talking, admits he was wrong, says there's no time, then shoves him because why not? It's not like he's in a hurry or anything. He hits Batman for no reason except that he has to hit Batman in order to fulfill the promise of the title. He also keeps throwing Batman, when he could pretty easily restrain him in order to, you know, ask for the help he needs. Instead, he's got to win the pissing match.

The bit where Batman's punching Superman in the face until the kryptonite gas wears off is very well done. It's one of the best bits of Superman fight choreography ever on film, up there with the bullet to the eye in Superman Returns and the punch-rush-punch in the Zod battle in Man of Steel. It's also pretty great that Batman literally hits him with a kitchen sink. He tells Superman that his parents, dying in the gutter, taught him "the world only makes sense if you force it to," which seems like a good metaphor for this movie. People seem to be able to derive a lot of messages out of this film, largely because it throws a whole bunch of stuff out that's meant to seem deep even if none of them actually fit together coherently.

And then "you're letting him kill Martha," which is, yes, dumb from every possible angle. Superman doesn't specify who "him" is, doesn't specify who "Martha" is (but we get some flashback sequences to remind you that Bruce Wayne's mom was also named Martha!), and this doesn't make Batman even more enraged since he got that letter earlier about how he let his family die. I do like that Lois saves Superman. And suddenly they're all bestest friends, after wasting a bunch of time in a totally avoidable way. Batman kills several people from his bulletproof plane with his giant bat-Gatling gun, kills a few more dudes in the next fight, and finally kills the Russian in a scene pulled from Dark Knight Returns. Except in Dark Knight Returns, that scene stands out as a kind of turning point for Batman, because despite how ruthless he is in battles up to that point, killing a guy with a gun is still a line he doesn't typically cross. In this movie, Batman's already used a gun in a prophetic dream sequence, and he's been cavalier about killing people already, so it's just another notch on the utility belt here.

Martha and Batman's banter is very good, though.

Doomsday is born amidst Luthor's continued nonsense about killing gods, and let's talk about Doomsday for a second. My feelings on Doomsday are well-documented (and oddly similar to my feelings about Zod), but I have a soft spot for the big galoot because the Death of Superman got me into Superman comics. Doomsday, for all that he's a long-haired bone monster in bike shorts, was a distinctive monster. This version of Doomsday, on the other hand, is basically indistinguishable from trolls we've seen in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies. He's slimy, he's smooth, and somehow turning into a monster gave General Zod the groin of a Ken doll. His design is totally uninteresting. Even making him into something more clearly a misshapen hybrid of Zod and Luthor would have been better than this gray hulk. He gets bony and glowy later, but it's still weirdly restrained compared to the designs we've seen in the comics.

Superman saving Luthor from Doomsday's punch is one of the few moments that a recognizable Superman comes through in this movie. Doomsday has his King Kong moment, and Wonder Woman wonders if maybe her great power entails some kind of great responsibility. Superman and Doomsday get nuked because it gives the movie an excuse to do another Dark Knight Returns scene devoid of its context.

Batman realizes that Doomsday is Kryptonian, so rather than flying over to the spear and returning to the uninhabited island that Doomsday currently occupies, he thinks the best plan is to lead the rampaging indestructible murder monster back through the heavily populated city whose partial destruction so traumatized him before, so he can retrieve the kryptonite spear there and kill it. These are literally the worst superheroes. Thankfully, Wonder Woman shows up to save his bacon and to improve the movie by a billion times or so with her awesome theme music.

Batman mentions that the port is abandoned, in a nice illustration of how a line or two can smooth over apparent plot holes (though I suspect the buildings Doomsday heat-visioned to get at the Batwing weren't quite so unoccupied).

It's about as elegant a solution as the "Duke's alive!" dub at the end of the G.I. Joe Movie, but several scenes would have benefited from more of that.

Superman does the heroic sacrifice thing, and it's more necessary than I gave it credit for the first time I saw it. Wonder Woman is occupied keeping Doomsday tied up, Batman is out of his league, and Superman's clearly struggling to do a head-on charge with the kryptonite spear, so getting around to hit it from behind isn't much of an option. Unlike the end of Man of Steel, this feels much more genuinely like there wasn't another choice, rather than like the writers painted themselves into a corner.

Some black ops guys go spelunking into the Kryptonian ship to find Luthor communing (?) with Steppenwolf (???), then take him into custody, where he gets his head shaved. The Daily Planet runs with a simply godawful headline, "SUPERMAN DEAD[:] NIGHT OF TERROR MORNING OF LOSS," which leads me to believe that all the copy editors died during Zod's attack. Clark Kent also died, and the Daily Planet prints in color on interior pages, so they must be doing all right.

At the memorial for Clark, Martha gives Lois an envelope Clark had sent to surprise her, and it's an engagement ring. I could quibble with the logic of this scene, but it's poignant enough to let it pass.

The dual funeral scene is done pretty well, jumping back and forth between the big to-do at what appears to be the Metropolis branch of Arlington National Cemetery, and the more understated service in Smallville. The Smallville priest does a really weird reading that's clearly about resurrection, rather than a more standard Psalm, but it's ~*~foreshadowing~*~. Bruce and Diana talk about the Avengers Initiative, and now Batman believes men can be good, and they can rebuild. He's so full of hope now. For reasons.

Batman comes to visit Lex Luthor with his Bat-branding iron, and says he's going to have Lex transferred to Arkham Asylum. Lex raves about bells and another pronoun that presumably belongs to some Apokolips thing, setting up the sequel, and I'm just tired. And then the dirt levitates off of Superman's coffin.

Final thoughts: I'm definitely not as angry this time around as I was walking out of the theater a year and a half ago. Whether that's because the Ultimate Edition hangs together better or because I spaced it out over the course of three days or because I knew what to expect, I really can't say.

So, positives: Ben Affleck isn't bad as Batman, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams do fine with what they're given, and Wonder Woman is great.

The rest? There are scenes, like Amajagh's death or the aftermath of the Zod battle, that would be improved with a single line. "I dropped him off at an Interpol office." "Superman led the rebuilding efforts." "Rubber bullets, honest." Those would be clunky telling-not-showing moments, but they could easily smooth over some of the film's bigger problems. On the other hand, we have so many unnecessary scenes, things that happen over and over, driving home muddled thematic points (power, gods, etc.) or references ("Martha," "granny's peach tea," etc.) so that even the most inattentive viewer is going to catch everything the filmmakers thought was significant.

What's telling is the things they thought insignificant. The text of the movie is so preoccupied with putting a human face to the casualties of these superhero battles and the ability to decide who lives and who dies, but the visual language of the movie doesn't care about those things at all. I keep harping on Amajagh's death because it's the clearest example of this; Superman slams the guy through two stone walls, and he is never mentioned again. The text of the film suggests that Superman didn't kill anyone in the village, but we have no reason whatsoever to think that he didn't kill that guy that we definitely watched him kill. Batman is so angered by Superman's callous disregard for life, then goes hurling cars around with no regard for safety, and no justification in the plot. During that chase sequence, I had a hard time judging just how many people he killed because of the effects shots. A car that was visibly full of dudes shooting at Batman before the stunt... empty immediately after.

The text of the movie is telling us about how dangerous it is to let individuals decide who lives and who dies, and real people get hurt as a consequence even to well-intentioned actions. But the visuals tell a different story, that violence is cool and bloodless, that victims of violence don't even matter enough to be shown on the receiving end of that violence, and that those who commit crimes deserve neither due process nor the continued freedom to live (unless they're good criminals like the titular protagonists). This is a problem, and this kind of dissonance subverts every message the movie is trying to send, every theme it's trying to explore.

Take, for instance, the repeated, not-even-subtextual theme of power: who has it, who abuses it, and how to hold the powerful accountable. We have three powerful characters who abuse their power: Superman, Batman, and Lex Luthor. Of the three, only one is punished for it: Lex, whose punishment comes in the form of Batman continuing to abuse his power by threatening him in prison and sending him to get abused in Arkham. Batman forgives Superman for the death and destruction that followed in his wake because of his sacrifice, and he feels no need to turn himself in or moderate his actions, just to assemble an army because Marty McFlash said he should. Heck, Batman's justification for building the kryptonite arsenal and Superman trap is ludicrous even judging these characters as they are (as opposed to how the movie wants us to see them), but he's vindicated because if he'd failed to build those weapons, Lex Luthor would have destroyed the city and probably the world with his laserface murdermonster.

And to what end? Lex Luthor's master plan requires him to be both a Xanatosian genius and a complete idiot. He figures out Superman and Batman's true identities, manipulates them in ways that end up being both obvious and unnecessary (unless we're meant to believe that he plants Santos's wife in the police station for Clark to meet), and all so he can turn General Zod's corpse into a monster that immediately tries to kill him? If the implication is meant to be that he's been under Apokoliptian control the whole time, it might have been a good idea to make that clear (maybe trade one of the piss jar shots for that). As it stands, it looks like Luthor's plan was to occupy Superman and Batman long enough that he could destroy the world.

For a movie that clearly has ambitions of being more complex and deep and dark than your standard superhero fare, that's an incredibly cartoonish goal.

And that's kind of the story of the whole movie. You can't argue that Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice isn't ambitious. It has aspirations of being deep and meaningful, of exploring the meaning of superheroes in a real world, the human costs of their battles, the responsible use of power and the methods we might use to hold the powerful accountable for their abuses. But it's not so invested in exploring these ideas that it's willing to tone down the explosions and lethal violence. It gives us two protagonists who are like parodies of the characters they're meant to be. Batman is a terrible detective who hates Superman for endangering people's lives, but who kills criminals for no reason and doesn't care who gets hurt in his crusade for his idea of justice. Superman vacillates between cavalier and passive, either using his powers with reckless abandon or asking other people what he should do but not actually coming to a position himself beyond "being Superman is dumb." He acts like saving people is a chore (much like doing his assignments for the paper), like accountability and responsibility are grave impositions on his brooding time.

The movie dwells a lot on parents and the lessons we learn from them, so maybe it's intentional that our three principal male characters are all emotionally-stunted man-children who need to grow the hell up. I doubt it, though.

All this wouldn't be such a problem if we weren't continually being told by the text of the film that Superman saves people and is a symbol of hope and doesn't kill, that Batman is concerned about one man having the ability to kill and using it so irresponsibly. The text of the movie is at odds with the visuals, with the world that was created in Man of Steel, and with its own larger role in building a Justice League shared universe. And none of these elements quite jive with the story that the filmmakers clearly wanted to tell.

So, in the end, just as in Man of Steel, we see the villain's philosophy validated. Power isn't innocent in this world. Everyone with power in this movie is corrupt or compromised, from Amajagh to Luthor to Superman to Batman to Perry freaking White. Even Wonder Woman is tarnished a bit when you realize that, according to her stated backstory, she didn't think it necessary to fight off the alien army that tried to kryptoform the world two years back. She just spends her time going to fancy galas.

There might be an interesting story to tell along those themes, about how the powerful must either be corrupted or paralyzed by their power, but the movie can't decide what it wants to be. Is it a sincere meditation on the nature of power and accountability? A smash-bang action movie built around a classic superhero fight-then-team-up? A deconstruction of superhero morality in a real-world context? A mash-up adaptation of Dark Knight Returns and the Death of Superman? An exploration of the unintended consequences and human cost of these summer blockbuster set pieces? These ideas fight for dominance, and none of them ever quite gains the upper hand. The result is this muddled, cynical mess of an action-driven film that wants to say something important but never quite figures out what.

Bottom line: if you want to watch a movie that attempts to explore the "must there be a Superman" question, features some brooding, an inconsistent tone, and a great cast doing their best with a story that can't live up to its potential, I know one that gets it done in half the time:

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