Cast: Henry Cavill, Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne
Director: Zack Snyder
Runtime: 182 min.
Verdict: Could be argued that it is the finest movie made as yet on superheroes.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-fi, Fantasy
Height and elevation and all their vertically aligned synonyms seem to be at the very heart of Mr. Snyder’s film. I look at my 11-month old daughter who crawls on the floor and cranes her neck up looking at us expectantly. She tries to hold onto things and stand up and gain height she doesn’t have. Height gives her control, and when we squash bugs with our foot or stomp on little palms, it could be said, height gives us power and thereby a measure of cruelty. For a reason, I guess, we have all those close-ups in all those movies of shiny leather shoes rubbing cigarette butts to the ground. Height is aspirational, and there could be a version of Mr. Snyder’s film told entirely through eyes looking up, sometimes in awe, sometimes in prayer and sometimes with pure anger running through them.
If height and scale and superhero movies are all essentially synonyms of each other, then is it almost understandable that they are inherently about violence? I mean, is there a superhero who can put babies to sleep, and for a one-liner asks his baby daughter – “Do you bleed...You will.” Or maybe, being a superhero is intrinsically about action, about being masculine, and doing things. It is only logical then that Mr. Snyder contextualizes his film in an epoch – “Mankind is introduced to the Superman” – and turns what has been transcendent/escapist only a moment back – a young Bruce levitating (a man’s refuge to fantasy interpreted as an altitudinal exercise, and thus a synecdoche for religion et al.?) – into a matter-of-fact and often ruthless visualization of a world with Superman.
The sky and its stars have ceased to be wonders, and Mr. Snyder seems to flatten, or reduce the distance between the land and the clouds, often framing them like a chamber, not an expansive wondrous unknown, but a cagey known. In one terrific moment, Diana Prince (Ms. Gadot) looks on as the Superman (Mr. Cavill) bursts through the sky and pile drives Doomsday, all in one shot and seemingly (but not actually) in one frame. It is a shot of the Superman’s speed, but it also seems to render the sky so perilously close to the land, like when Cloverfield burst through it and into our lives all those days back. Modern world-in-peril disaster movies do have images with both the sky and the land, like typhoons, or portals from other worlds, but they often seem to want to have a sense of awe, often going for outright scale (numbers, width), or have it look at it vertically. This one here is just flat and matter-of-fact and interestingly (okay, probably not intentionally) from Ms. Prince’s point-of-view.
Which leads me to another instance of a very interesting point-of-view shot, of the Batman looking at Doomsday wreak havoc to both Superman and Ms. Prince, and thus rendered effectively an onlooker.
These shots, of an utter lack of control, of being dwarfed, of being effectively emasculated, is the perspective we need of the Batman (especially when everybody thinks the ending of The Dark Knight Rises is a dream), much in tune with all the Rorschachs and Nite Owls rendered inconsequential in the age of Dr. Manhattan. Batman’s Gotham is spoken of as a city that is a world unto itself, not much unlike the little villages Hercules Poirot and Sherlock Holmes visited nearby London to solve cases. The idea probably is to have Metropolis (much like London for the two detectives, or New York City for Ichabod Crane from Sleepy Hollow) a setting for the real world and its modern dynamics, and those little villages act as settings far removed from the reality – a place where Batman has been something of a demi-god for a good part of twenty years. The arrival of Superman collapses those definitions and associated boundaries, and Mr. Snyder’s narrative rhetoric – of stacking the narrative of Batman within the world of Superman – contrasts the scope of this contextualization quite brilliantly. Metropolis falls down as the world looks in awe and shock. Villages are razed somewhere in Africa, and Superman is credited. A senator hears the tale of a woman whose parents died in those villages. And amidst all that, Batman’s nightly shenanigans of hanging from the ceiling in a room somewhere in Gotham where Asian women are kept prisoners, and then doing the standard-issue disappearing act feel, well, childish. The point is, Bruce Wayne knows that, and to echo Alfred’s observation (we will come to it in a minute), which is one of the film’s central ideas, it makes him cruel to cause effectiveness.
The thing about cruelty is that it is a relatively faster way of seeing a desired effect. A need for cruelty is borne out of a desire to witness fast change, and one way to go about it is to perform the desired set of actions. The Batman could break your jaw, but then the Superman could ram you through walls within a blink of an eye. There is little choice but for a superhero movie to be inherently about violence, about exhibiting the adolescent need for control when there is none, and there Alfred’s one-line explanation of the film’s central theme - about how a lack of control turns good people cruel - coming right at the heel of both Superman and Batman's exploits is a useful example of Hollywood’s pragmatic approach to show-and-tell narration. Alternately, as Armond White suggests here, it is a lovely little romance.
Parents loom large, well obviously, and Mr. Snyder draws interesting correlations here, especially between Lex Luthor (Mr. Eisenberg) and Bruce Wayne, each missing a father, and each distrusting/envying this new God. Where Bruce’s is a crisis of masculinity, Lex’s is a cousin – a crisis of identity. Lex is a millennial, his personal issues cloaked under a garb of pop culture references and academic jargon. Bruce speaks like a conservative (“the son of a bitch brought war to us”), and Lex – referencing his father’s struggles in Nazi Europe – speaks like the leftist millennial desperate to have equality across the board (meta-humans, aliens), his superpower being knowledge. Ms. Lionel Shriver has written a terrific piece down at New York Times while I write about this film, and you should forgive me if I am seeing parallels where there are none.
Superman, meanwhile, sees parallels in aerial and opaque elements like the military drone (symbolic that he knocks them out in the opening act, and yet humanity at large questions his motives and the presence/absence of humanity). While some folks show the middle finger to the drones, some raise their hands and pray to the Superman.
Superman has always been an abstraction, and we never truly understand (in a quantifying sense if you will) the limits and scope of his powers, and using that as the central examination factor of the character, it very much seems to me that Mr. Snyder, in Dawn of Justice, has made the finest picture on Clark Kent. In shots of tremendous isolation, he finds Clark so terribly confused and lonely, so eager to be understood and approved of, and so easily eulogized or demonized. This is a young man here, having his own daddy issues, and so easily branded an authority, and Mr. Cavill – in our age where gritty James Bonds and dark Jason Bournes are probably working overtime to find an anchoring for us millennials – brings grace and dignity to Superman. Again, and I could guilty here of elitism and condescension, and I do beg your pardon in advance, but where a lot of Marvel’s popularity is centered around Iron Man and Hulk (again representations of the ironical generation), I believe the heart lay in Mr. Chris Evans’ Captain America. Here is an extremely likable actor playing a character from the 30s trying to come to terms with the present age, and with Mr. Cavill’s Clark Kent we have a millennial trying to live the ideology of a man from the 30s (an abstract idea again) – being confused between exercising unilateral power to respecting to seeking approval to loving and as a result always in a state of flux. In my notes on Man of Steel I had mentioned parallels to Kazantzakis’ Christ. It is a beautiful performance, of a native who has always known he is an immigrant, a pretender worried about getting caught, a wanderer desperate to find a home, or a world. Mr. Snyder has built a world where I so eagerly want to get into and which I fear will not stay the way it is for too long, and I hope I am wrong.
Note: The “Martha-touch” is absolutely brilliant.