- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
There’s a concept in American jurisprudence called “fruit of the poisonous tree.” It means evidence that is obtained illegally cannot be used in court. It means that the product of something bad remains bad.
The deeply unpleasant “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is, in a different sense, fruit of the poisonous tree that is the equally execrable 2013 “Man of Steel,” though both would be valuable exhibits if comic book fans ever sue director-of-both Zack Snyder for character assassination on behalf of the titular heroes.
“Steel” introduced the world to a brooding Superman who thinks nothing of battling fellow Kryptonian General Zod in the middle of a city, killing thousands and then, running counter to literally decades of characterization, snapping Zod’s neck.
So I suppose it’s no wonder that Snyder, the man Warner Brothers has entrusted to build a “shared universe” of DC heroes a la Disney/Marvel’s “Avengers,” figures the seal is broken on this sort of thing.
Which means a Batman who brands bad guys with a red-hot bat symbol (which gets them killed in prison). Which means a Batman who uses guns or grenade launchers (counter to decades of characterization). Repeatedly. And lets bad guys die. Repeatedly.
Which means a Superman, still brooding as hard as the deeply mediocre Henry Cavill can make him brood, who crankily shouts, “If I wanted it, you’d be dead already!” to a trapped opponent and “Consider this mercy!” to an enemy he wants gone.
In a deeply ironic twist, Snyder said recently that he is interested in turning Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” into a movie. It’s a novel whose author believed that self-interest was the highest moral calling, a philosophy literally the opposite of that of both Batman and Superman. Warners, did you even talk to this guy before hiring him?
Snyder, directing from a noxious, plot-hole-driven script by Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer, leans into the disaster porn that was “Man of Steel” from the first frame of “Batman v Superman.” We open on Bruce Wayne (a continually hacked-off Ben Affleck) running towards a collapsing Wayne Financial building in Metropolis during the climatic battle from the first film. Covered in ash in the manner of a 9/11 survivor, he glares up at the alien whose recklessness brought chaos upon the city.
Two years later, it turns out this has prompted Batman, who has been operating in Gotham for 20 years, to a) become convinced that Superman is a menace (frustratingly understandable, frankly); b) become obsessed with how to kill him; and c) start becoming a much meaner Batman. Or as his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons) puts it, “The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men … cruel.”
Superman, who really doesn’t seem to be the sharpest knife in the super-drawer, is in the hotseat in general. In spite of being something of a savior figure to many, his ill-conceived rescue of reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) from a tight jam in Africa has turned him into a political football.
The government (as embodied by a Kentucky senator played by Holly Hunter) wants him regulated, somehow. Elsewhere, young, annoying industrialist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, seemingly convinced he’s actually playing the Joker) has discovered both Kryptonite and the body of the dead Zod.
Sure, Batman is furious at the very existence of Superman. But for a guy who is supposed to be the World’s Greatest Detective (a title to which he has never, ever lived up to on screen), he keeps wandering into obvious traps, be they emotional or literal. And Superman just keeps getting more and more cynical, mumbling, “No one stays good in this world.” This … from Superman?
Eventually, Batman is donning the Kryptonite-powered armor made famous by the game-changing 1986 book “The Dark Knight Returns” and throwing down with the big guy. Batman has dedicated an awful lot of time to destroying Superman, and we know from previews that they eventually team up, so shouldn’t his conversion be as hard fought?
Nope. It takes about 60 seconds for Batman and Superman to bond over what is essentially a piece of DC Comics trivia, and suddenly they are on the same team. And they still have to stop Luthor and his very 1990s endgame. And Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) shows up. She is the closest thing to fun the movie offers, and even she is pretty grim.
I’m not sure what Snyder has against these characters, why he is so determined to make them as distasteful as possible. Is it a Randian mind trick he’s playing on the audience (and Warners), a philosophical Trojan horse designed to convince the world that being a decent, thoughtful person is inherently incompatible with power?
Superman’s mother, Martha (Diane Lane), doesn’t help, telling her adopted son: “You don’t owe this world a thing. You never did.” Which, again, misses the point of Superman rather profoundly. Superman’s greatest power is his role as a living Golden Rule coupled with a love for all mankind. Those are his greatest abilities; the superpowers just mean he can make it happen.
At the start of the film, a title card comes on the screen: Based on characters published by DC Comics. Never has the phrase “based on” jumped out at me so egregiously. I am not sure who these jerkwads on the screen are, but they are far afield from anyone that anybody, anywhere, could call heroic.