If there’s a thread running through Zack Snyder’s comic book adaptations, it’s a fascination with the ways in which gods and men interact.
You see it a bit in 300, where the false god-king Xerxes demands that the men of Greece kneel before him. Only the Spartans—demigods cast as descendants of Hercules and portrayed without their armor in a variation on heroic nudity—can oppose him. Here the half-gods stood as saviors in defense of freedom.
"I never said, ‘The superman exists, and he’s American,’" a talking head says of Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen. "What I said was, God exists, and he’s an American." Watchmen is very much a meditation on the way the world might respond to a big, blue divine presence. He is first used, by Nixon, as a deterrent to stave off thermonuclear war and, at the film’s close, an enemy for the world to unite against, tenuous peace traded for lasting salvation.
And then you have Man of Steel, Snyder’s reboot of the Superman franchise and the predecessor to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It was, until now, Snyder’s most in-depth examination of how humanity would respond to gods walking amongst us. Would humanity, as Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) thought, fear and resent a nigh-on invulnerable alien visitor? Or will Clark/Kal-El/Superman (Henry Cavill) "give the people of Earth an ideal to strive for," as his other father, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), suggests?
Pa Kent’s fears were brought to life during the closing 45 minutes or so of Man of Steel. A klatch of Kryptonians first try to wipe out humanity by terraforming Earth to alien standards before the final survivor, General Zod (Michael Shannon), wages an epic aerial fist fight in the streets of Metropolis with the Big Blue Boy Scout, killing countless thousands more.
But Snyder framed Clark as a rather explicit Christ figure—he’s 33 years old during the film’s main action; in a church, there’s a shot that frames him in front of a stained-glass Jesus; later, he falls to Earth arms outstretched, as if on the cross—and pitted him in opposition to Zod, your classic new man. Zod, remember, believed that free will was a heresy, that Kryptonian society’s central planning and population control was just, and that his planet’s "degenerate bloodlines" had to be extinguished. A figure of faith and freedom wrapped up in red and blue standing strong against a totalitarian eugenicist dressed in black: the symbolism was, perhaps, a bit on the nose.
That was the God’s-eye view, anyway. Things looked a little bit different on the ground. And Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice is at its best when we switch to that man’s-eye view.
The film opens with a sequence that puts Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) in the midst of Metropolis as Zod and Superman are duking it out. Wayne sees the destruction and the terror and runs toward it, toward the tower that bears his family name and corporate logo. But he’s just a man, one who has no power to stop the gods above him smashing and tearing down skyscraper after skyscraper, killing tens of thousands of people in the process. It’s a powerful sequence, one unlike what we’ve seen in any other superhero film.
Knowing what we know about Wayne and his alter ego, Batman, his frustration—not fear, exactly, but anger at his own impotence—pulses off the screen. You can practically see the world’s greatest detective vow to solve his hardest case: How can a man kill a god?
In this feeling of frustration and desire to do something about it, Wayne has a counterpart: Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). The 20-something head of a tech conglomerate, Lex is similarly working on a "silver bullet" to take out Superman. Or, rather, a green one: Kryptonite was found in the wreckage of the world engine from Man of Steel, and the green stone remains the best way to take out the last son of Krypton. Lex is using his corporate muscle to develop an anti-Kryptonian weapon and more nefarious means to engineer a crisis that results in Senate hearings about Superman’s role in the world.
"Good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision," Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) says in a committee room. "Does he act by our will—or by his own?" In other words: Do men have any place in a world where god-like power is bestowed upon the few?
Lex Luthor is portrayed oddly in this film. On the one hand, he seems concerned with the idea of Kryptonians running around the planet with nothing to check them, an idea any reasonable person would have some sympathy for. "Bittersweet pain is having knowledge with no power," he says at one point during a rambling speech at a fundraising gala. This is a Luthor we can empathize with. Or, at least, understand—just as we understood Man of Steel’s General Zod (Michael Shannon), a man literally bred to defend his people who had been stripped of purpose by the destruction of the Kryptonian race.
Unfortunately, Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer don’t stick with this characterization of Luthor throughout: his personality swings wildly, suggesting an odd combination of Lex Luthor and Batman rogues the Joker, the Mad Hatter, and the Riddler. In part, Luthor fails as a character because he moves away from Snyder’s central preoccupation: the struggle between men and gods.
An inconsistent Luthor is far from Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice’s only (or biggest) problem, however. It’s wildly overstuffed and oddly slapdash, filled with characters and sequences that serve little purpose other than to set up a "cinematic universe" clearly designed to match Marvel’s commercial juggernaut. It’s hard to describe exactly why almost none of this works without going into serious spoilers, but thinking about the treatment of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is instructive: She’s just kind of thrown in there, a mysterious tertiary character at best, before, out of nowhere, showing up as a super-powered heroine in the film’s closing moments.
If you didn’t know who she was before you headed into theaters, Dawn of Justice isn’t going to help you out. I’m not even sure her given name, Diana Prince, is spoken aloud in its entirety. "Wonder Woman" certainly isn’t. I’m not suggesting we need a full history of Themyscira or anything, but her treatment here is perfunctory to the point of confusion. This is to say nothing of the exposition-dumps that constitute the revelation that other "metahumans" are hiding amongst us or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them-assuming-you-are-even-equipped-to-understand-them-in-the-first-place references to uber-baddie Darkseid, D.C.’s counterpart to Marvel’s Thanos.
Batman v Superman could’ve been great. It had all the requisite elements: spot-on casting (Gadot, despite playing a cipher, radiates elegance and strength; Jeremy Irons is an amazing Alfred, more handyman than butler; and Affleck is a solid Batman and a great Bruce Wayne); well-done action sequences; and a compelling thematic idea.
Unfortunately, we also have to contend with Dawn of Justice. And one has to wonder just how much damage this impatient, studio-mandated bit of world building will do to the cinematic universe Warner Brothers hoped to create.