Jean-Luc Godard, a filmmaker as prone to hyperbole in his own way as our current subject, once intoned on the merits of cinema up to the point of his own game-changing chicanery. Writing that “there was theatre (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir)”, he implied a stoppage – a modernization of cinema to its own fully-emerged, blossoming self – with his godfather Nicholas Ray, one of the most brash American filmmakers in existence and a director whose expressionist-tinged monstrosities of American life desperately beg for a rediscovery today.
We can now append one further animal to the list. In 2016, there is a new art, neither theatre nor poetry nor painting: instead, Zack Snyder proposes “watching CPSAN in front of a building actively being dynamited” as a sort of Eighth Art beyond the conventional Seventh of cinema. You can see where Godard was heading, right? Like an unholy Dr. Frankenstein stripping Christopher Nolan, Michael Bay, and Bill O’ Reilly for parts, Snyder has evolved far beyond the comparatively jejune, primordial days of his crypto-conservative bro-fest 300 and into the filthier tumult of appending message movie cinema to his particularly grim variant on Rocky vs Jake La Motta. Less a feature length advertisement for future movies than an aggrandizing rejoinder to his own ego, and to the stultifying lengths modern blockbuster cinema will go to achieve self-importance, Dawn of Justice strives not to wow you so much as to wear you down.
Girth, it turns out, is its primary weapon. Gone are the whimsical, campy days of 1978 when Christopher Reeve’s dimple could wink at us with the tacit awareness that superhero cinema was just enjoying itself for a moment or two, blithely unaware of the outside world. In 2016, a superhero film’s primary obligation is not its audience but its own self-esteem. Watching Batman V Superman, one feels like they’re privy to, or voyeur to more appropriately, a secret, clandestine self-hyping match played in the tune of gathering precedent for a Supreme Court hearing.
Rather than a pop-fried fantasia of kaleidoscopic color and movement, Snyder envisions a funereal trudge through political paranoia, worrisome security concerns, and contradictory jeremiads on liberty. He materializes the nebulous notions of self-aware modern political turmoil as the tissue through which the modern superhero movie must pass in order to justify its own existence. Yet, because Snyder is a certified pop-smith dressing up as a speculative critical theorist, he treats these heady concerns not as questions in and of themselves but as the swampy red tape he must slash and burn – with impressive CG pyrotechnics, mind you – before laying down the wringer with a third act superhero smack down positioned somewhere between Sanders vs. Clinton and Godzilla vs. King Kong (a much more endearing, cheeky Japanese film from 1962, and not nearly as long to boot).
So not only are we witnessing a work of remarkable self-enmity but a film whose attempts to convince itself of its self-worth are merely disingenuous ruses on the eventual path to shotgunning a six pack with itself. Self-consideration eventually tumbles into self-aggrandizing, and they both coagulate into a noxiously heavy, gluttonous breed of self-contradiction. Questions are raised by the minute and then anyone who dares ask the film to seriously explore the implications of those offerings is knocked into submission by the film’s pummeling ego. Any and all concerns, wit, or moments of levity are set afire within Snyder’s peculiar tone of lugubrious, barrel-chested conflagration.
Relying on the full complement of slate grays in the cinematographer’s cookbook, Snyder’s film douses any sense of crackle or gusto in a political zeitgeist it doesn’t much understand. Call it the bro’s guide to the NSA if you will. The film begins by dusting off hot-button issues when melancholy rich kid and Hot Topic poster child Bruce Wayne/ Batman (Ben Affleck) finds himself trapped amidst the carnage of Superman/Clark Kent’s (Henry Cavill) city-leveling feud with General Zod (Michael Shannon) at the back end of the last film. Believing alien/god/unknown quotient Superman to be a potential menace to society, the caped crusader sets about restraining the man of steel, who, in a fit of chance that turns out to be the machinations of billionaire-id Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg), is himself worried about the dark knight’s more vigilante-inspired brand of firebrand justice.
Snyder’s film interrogates and then avoids the sharp angles in between Superman’s aww-shucks charisma and Wayne’s weary midnight disaffection. The screenplay doesn’t quite imply the differences between Superman the alien and Batman the home-grown hero, but it sure hopes that we do the work for the film in tethering those connections. The gulf between Kent’s middle-America working-man’s brow and Wayne’s spoiled, alienated wealth is theoretically a point of contemplation, but following that thread, which the film doesn’t, only leads one to wonder what Snyder thinks of his reactionary Wall Street world where the rich man must exert more effort than the nominally middle-class one.
That neoliberal fire is stoked when, lo and behold, any of the film’s legitimate questions about the value of individualist superherodom are whisked away like a magic trick when the real culprit turns out to be a now-deranged Mark Zuckerberg (played by Eisenberg as a techno-bro from hell in the only flicker of life in the whole film). The slippery slope, if one is so inclined, is a suggestion that singling out the “evil” empowered elite from the benevolent ones – and relying on the largesse of men like Wayne as counterpoints to Luthor – is the divine path to justice in the modern world.
Rather than submersing itself in the thickets of justice and honor, Dawn of Justice pays so much lip service to the questions you wonder if it has them on perpetual legal retainer. In the end, it’s a means to pat itself on the back for earning its full-throated commitment to the superhero fiction we’ve all been weened on for a decade now, vaguely whispering parsimonious questions about the negatives of our commitment to such a notion of justice and then ultimately stomping those questions to smithereens when it realizes it needs to upend the Box Office and kickstart a franchise of superhero movies that use self-hate as a diagonal, slantwise path to self-love.
Where the film really secures its albatross is in its inconstant commitment to those questions and its suffocating insistence on its own distended, corpulent thematic indulgence. Even if you take politics out of the question and interpret the fight in purely aesthetic terms, you’re left with the film’s shamefully monochromatic vision in hand. The dialectic between two heroes with disparate, even diametric worldviews provides a veritable toybox for visual and aural stylistic shifts between the two – explorations of cinematic framing, editing, and color as embodiments of worldviews and perspectives – and Snyder and co. drop the ball in a murky, one-size-fits-all monotone drone. Ever since his rollicking barnburner debut feature Dawn of the Dead twelve years ago, Snyder’s grasp of cadence and tempo has continually devolved into torpor. Even more than Marvel’s yearly grab-bag of mercenary tricks, Dawn of Justice stands as a totem to nothing but its own existence.