‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ Review

Superhero movies can either be bright candy nonsense or trenchant scrapes at our own collective psyche. They’re rarely both, but with this latest incarnation, Ben Affleck offers us a Batman who stands at the center of a story which stares accusingly back at its audience. It asks us angrily how we could have let something so regularly ugly, so consistently vicious into our hearts. Batman v Superman is a bitter pop culture pill that may be the exact medicine we need to cure us of our reliance on heroes.

I mention Batman because Superman is essentially nowhere to be found in the film. He’s inert, almost evanescent. More a metaphor than a physical presence. Why do we keep begging flawed Gods to save us?

Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, is a walking scar. A man born on third base who would have stolen home if he hadn’t been taken to an alleyway behind the stadium and beaten to a pulp. He’s the product of multiple traumas (including the death of his parents), a mind broken hard against the knee of his own need to save everyone. It can’t be done. Perfection can’t be attained. People are ripped from our lives without our consent. Every fight scene — physical and verbal — exposes the demons that Batman isn’t so much exorcising as he is exercising with. Strengthening them against the new enemy he has in his life who, incidentally, is the one person on earth who should be his closest ally.

The film works solely because of the risky changes the director made to Bruce Wayne’s character — alterations that have already incensed dedicated fans who question why any filmmaker would craft a version of Batman who even insinuates he’s capable of killing (let alone doing it). The whole historical point of his character is that he stands for justice within the system’s framework, content to merely blur the line between “harmful vigilante” and “officer of the law.”

His relationship to the actual police remains fluid here. He’s hated by some, appreciated by others who are overburdened, and the main detective he works with shifts from wary distrust to a dedicated team player by the end. That goes for the broader citizenry living with Bruce Wayne in their neighborhood and for us, sitting in the audience, choosing whether to loathe or love the “hero” in front of us.

Three foundational shifts set up this genre-busting film as the greatest, most cynical product of/commentary on the Era of Superhero Dominance.

The first is choosing to make a superhero movie without the costumes. We’re wholly street level here. No spandex in sight. We’re not allowed to forget the humanity of the heroes we’re rooting for and against.

The second is boldly deciding to make a two-and-a-half-hour movie dedicated to Batman’s origin story. This seems insane considering how many damned times we’ve seen it, but it works here because a decision like that demands that the filmmakers change everything we know about the character.

Which leads us to the third foundational shift: transforming the Bruce Wayne who’s been our pop culture great-grandfather into a cipher more rooted in 2016. Instead of being a billionaire playboy, he’s an upper middle class suburbanite, still bolstered by inherited money, but unfulfilled in every aspect of his life. He’s still reeling from his parent’s death, but this version sees him — in a nod toward Clark Kent — as a freelance writer of sorts who spends large chunks of the day drinking, playing video games and moping around the house he shares with a deeply contemptuous wife.

This marriage may be the fourth most radical change to the character, but it’s a welcome addition not only because it allows the subversive plot gears to grind into motion but because it finally gives Bruce Wayne some genuine, living familial tissue to worry over. In a brilliant play to undermine the standard Damsel in Distress nonsense where a women’s inclusion serves only to challenge the super-male protagonist, Bruce isn’t in the warm throes of Honeymoon love, but in a deeply hateful marriage.

How troubled is it? Bruce’s wife fakes her own death in order to frame him for murder and send him to the electric chair. It’s a twisty, soap operatic overture plucked right from the campy, outlandish pages of comic books and given the clinical seriousness of modern blockbuster filmmaking.

The bulk of the film after her disappearance shines a spotlight on how we as an anticipatory audience process spyglass glimpses into a house several thousand miles away from our own. Clearly a dark mirror held up against a frothing fan culture of expectations, the film asks us at every turn to judge people who we cannot possibly know, and we do it with gusto, relishing the buffet of incipient opinions without realize that we’re being fattened up for harvest.

For all the consternation about Batfleck, Ben Affleck gives the performance of his career here, acting steely and cold while managing to turn on the charm boosters at unexpected (and often unfortunate for the character) moments. We are primed to wonder about his true intentions so that every throwaway smile becomes suspect.

The end of the film brutally slaps all of us in the face for becoming addicted to the media frenzy surrounding art. Instead of dismissing his crazed wife outright (and doing what’s healthiest for him), Bruce chooses to stay with her out of a sick allegiance to what the public wants from him. We’re at fault for wanting to be entertained this badly. “This is the story you want,” the movie screams. You’re going to get it, and much more than you bargained for.

It was a massive risk for director David Fincher, but changing Batman’s essential backstory doesn’t change his psychological compulsions. The post-colon title — Dawn of Justice — is clearly ironic. Every character arguably gets exactly what they deserve in all its sneering glory. We’ve borne witness to and played a role in it all; a careening psychological vehicle that leaves Bruce even more broken, but also more desperate for a greater values system for which to fight. No more moping around the house. It’s time to take action.

As the movie ends with him stroking his wife’s hair and questioning what’s going on inside her twisted brain, you can so, so easily imagine him dawning a ski mask and heading for the inner city to dip his toe into crime-fighting by taking down muggers in the very next scene.

It’s too bad if you went into the film hoping to see more of that. Instead, you get a flashing neon light telling you not to put so much value in things meant only to keep you from being bored. Don’t worry too much, though. Batman will inevitably beat up a bunch of bad guys in the sequel.