MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
By now everyone who was interested in seeing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice has probably caught a whiff of the terrible reviews coming from film critics. The movie polarized movie fans also. Some say it's the greatest thing ever; others say that Zack Snyder should be fired. Comparing it to Avengers doesn't help things either. In spite of all the problems the movie has, it does still have worth as a piece of cultural reflection. This movie reflects a few relevant anxieties to American audiences about Millennials' dissatisfaction, America's vulnerability in a post 9-11 world, and America's numbness towards daily gun violence. First we'll examine the legitimate story-telling problems the movie has, and then look at how the movie succeeds thematically.
Let's get the problems out of the way. I don't agree that the film was "awful", but it needed some improvement. It seems that Snyder was relying heavily on his revealing trailers to show the audience the skeleton of the plot ahead of time in hopes that they wouldn't get lost during the actual movie. The plot is a hodge-podge of character-building scenes contrasted with intense action sequences and precious little plot exposition. Snyder never uses establishing shots to tell the viewer that the story has now moved to a new time, place, and character, so scene changes are sometimes jarring. Snyder has all the exuberance of a kid with his action figures, staging his grandest battle royale between his two favorite characters. His reasons for having his action figures fight are a little ambiguous; he's focused more on the spectacle of it all than he is on explaining how characters get from point A to point B.
Lex Luthor's plot to get Batman and Superman to fight is circuitous. He wants Batman to die too, but his reason makes sense since Batman (foolishly) leaves a calling card after he steals Luthor's Kryptonite from him. His solution: make Superman kill Batman before he unleashes Doomsday to kill Superman. His reasons for hating Superman are vague, and it seems to boil down to superstitious theophobia. The battle of the movie’s namesake occurs to Luthor as a last minute change of plans in the third act. Without Luthor’s meddling, Superman probably wouldn’t have accepted Batman’s challenge.
Superman represents the dissatisfaction and puzzlement of the Millennial generation. The Millennials might be the most hated generation to come down the pike. They get a bad rap for being entitled, lazy, and narcissistic, but behind that appearance of entitlement are hugely un-met expectations. The Millennials' parents (the Baby Boomers) ended up doing much better in life than they had ever hoped they would, and they told their kids that they were talented, gifted, and special, and that as long as they went to college and worked hard, their efforts would be rewarded with a good life. Millennials have, for the most part, kept up their end of the bargain. They worked hard; they got degrees; they did everything they were supposed to do. The result: They can't find gainful, white collar employment, so they can't save for the future or buy homes, so they have to move back in with their parents (who are just as stunned as they are); they're building a "sharing economy" to make up for their shortcomings, and they're looking around going "I did everything I was supposed to do, why didn't life work out?"
How on earth does Superman reflect this? There's a scene in which he tells Lois that all the work he's done to be a hero ended up being all for naught. He tells her that the life he had been living was "just the dream of a dead Kansas farmer." If you recall Man of Steel, Clark said that he let his dad die because he trusted him. He trusted his father, and believed that if he lived the way he was supposed to – as a selfless hero – that everything would work out. Superman does do heroic deeds, but it doesn't matter how much good he does, he doesn't get the result he was promised. People still fear him, mistrust him, hate him even. He reaches a point in the movie where he looks around and wonders "I did everything I was supposed to do, why didn't life work out?"
True, he doesn't take selfies, but Superman, like Millennials, has been duped into believing that if he just works hard and does the right thing, he'll earn something worth his labor. Clark is a thirty-something white collar worker who knows he has special talents, but his special talents have turned out to be worthless. His parents taught him that his specialness would be worth something. But it isn't.
It's popular to characterize Millennial disappointment as the outcome of everybody-gets-a-trophy parenting, as though they never learned that life isn't fair. That stereotype is a broad mischaracterization. They're not after trophies and medals as much as they are a job that pays them what they're worth (I.E. enough to buy a home and save for retirement); after all, their parents had at least that much. But many can't find jobs that pay them what they're worth. The message they then receive is that they are worthless. Superman gets the same message from the protesters in front of the Capitol. His talents and labor are not only worthless, they're unwanted.
The Importance of Destruction in Man of Steel
Batman V Superman is the setup for Justice League, but the plot of the movie is about the consequences of Man of Steel, so it's difficult to understand one without the other. Critics of Zack Snyder's first Superman film weren't happy with the iconography of toppling skyscrapers that so closely resembled the collapsing twin towers of 9-11. Some fans said it proved that Superman was an inferior super hero because he couldn't control the destruction in his brawl with Zod. After all, The Avengers stopped a whole alien invasion with minimal destruction and loss of life because they were better, more competent super heroes, or so goes the logic.
Avengers is also a Disney movie, so it is sterilized and sanitized for the kiddies. Disney wouldn't dare show the consequences of too much power in a movie aimed at 10 year olds. Don't get me wrong, Marvel makes a great movie, but the Avengers is much cartoonier than Man of Steel is, and it is consequently more of an escapist piece – a place where the heroes CAN save the day and everything works out, and then we all go out for Shawarma together. It's cute, but it's thematically shallow. Man of Steel reflected America's scarred psyche from 9-11, the day it realized it wasn't invincible after all. In Man of Steel, Superman strives valiantly to do the right thing and save lives, and though he's the most powerful hero on the block, even he can't stop the enemy from hurting us. We're vulnerable, and we don't like it.
Power is the other half of the dynamic. Superman is powerful. Too powerful. The movie questions whether a person with that much power could ever be a hero. Luthor says "If God is all good, then he can't be all-powerful, and if he's all-powerful, then he can't be all good." This is the world's attitude about Superman in BVS. The academics of the BVS world argue that Superman is a lightning rod for trouble. Others argue that the only reason the world is still turning is because Superman has permitted it for one more day. It's bound to piss some of you off, but the comparison between the U.S. and Superman is undeniable: We see ourselves as the good guy doing the right thing, but the rest of the world sees us as a trouble maker, an interloper, a force too strong to be restrained that serves its own ends. Batman sees it, and that's what drives him to challenge Superman.
Batman's Use of Lethal Force
Some fans have gotten upset over Batman killing people in this movie. He doesn't exactly leave a trail of corpses behind him, but he does kill a few people. It's not like we haven't seen Batman kill people before. There is a precedent for it. Tim Burton's Batman blew up Axis Chemicals, mowed down scores of bad guys with machine guns and rockets from his fighter jet, and he threw the Joker and another guy off of a bell tower. Perhaps fans have Chris Nolan's Batman in mind, who operated on a thou-shalt-not-kill basis. That Batman had the luxury of being nice.
Zack Snyder's Batman is the Batman of open-carry America. He's jaded, even war-weary, and he no longer cares about going out of his way to fight bad guys gently. Like Chris Nolan's Batman, his mansion also burned down, except 20 years later, he still hasn't rebuilt it. This Batman doesn't care. It's not clear if he ever did care. He tells Alfred that "We're criminals. We've always been criminals." We also see the former Robin's costume on display, still marred by spray paint from the Joker that says "Jokes on you, Batman." It heavily implies that Robin was murdered by the Joker, which suggests this is a Batman who has suffered more losses than victories. In the trailer, he mentions with a cynical smirk to Clark that "It's the Gotham City in me" that has become jaded to "Freaks dressed like clowns."
He sounds like someone who has encountered numbing violence and tragedy on the evening news too many times. Mass shootings, preventable, accidental shootings, terrorist shootings – like many Americans, this Batman has grown indifferent to the uniquely American firearm death toll – so indifferent that he's not above using his opponents' own guns against them.
Furthermore, his use of guns isn't glorified like it was by Tim Burton. When Michael Keaton used guns, it was heroic, just like all the hyper-violent, macho action movies of that decade. Snyder's Batman doesn't come across as triumphant, he does it simply because he has to. Snyder frames Batman as a picture of our own exhaustion with violence, a picture smeared in soot.
The other half of Batman's representation is that of America's belief in the power of the preemptive strike. He says to Alfred that "If there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy then we must take it as an absolute certainty." This has been our handling of terrorists abroad. The infamous White Paper Memo lays out broad powers for the executive branch to order drone strikes against unknown targets that more or less have a "one percent chance" of being a terrorist. It's just the way we do things now, and that's how Batman does it too. Snyder's Batman is extremely utilitarian with little interest in moral grey area. To him, the ends justify the means. He does declare at the end of the movie that he "won't fail [Superman]" again. This could mean that he intends to learn from Superman's example and change his ways, or it could just mean that he is determined to find Cyborg, Flash, and Aquaman and create the Justice League. It's a vague declaration that's very open-ended, so we'd best not hang our hopes on it. This Batman is jaded and utilitarian, and he's probably going to stay that way.
For all its plotting problems, BvS is both a cultural product and a cultural commentary, showing that if superheroes are the American myth, that myth has become darker in the shadow of our social anxieties. Consequently, it isn't quite as "fun" as its critics would like it to be, but in twenty years, writers about American myth won’t use Avengers to describe the zeitgeist of the 2010s; they’ll use Snyder’s movies.