From the very outset, Zack Snyder’s attempt to revive Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill) and the DC universe was going to be a challenge. First and foremost, his vision has to deal with the burden of Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Michael Keaton and Christian Bale’s Batmans, arguably three of the strongest superhero franchises ever to grace the big screen. In addition, bringing Batman and Superman together means finding some common denominator between Gotham and Metropolis. Whereas Marvel characters seem to inhabit a shared universe even when they’re cast into outer space, there is something utterly incommensurate about the architecture, ambience and attitudes of Batman and Superman’s home cities that gives Dawn of Justice a dissonant, schizoid feeling from the very first scene. Sometimes Metropolis and Gotham seem to be a single place, sometimes they seem to be part of some larger megalopolis and sometimes they barely seem to inhabit the same notions of space and time at all, with Batman’s noir realism sitting uneasily alongside Superman’s more science-fictional vistas.
If that all weren’t challenge enough, the DC superheroes are not especially conducive to shared universe building, since their own universes are so distinctive, detailed and monolithic that it is enough of an achievement and effort to construct even them. In that sense, they feel very different from the Marvel ethos, which revels in self-consciously minor superheroes, making it much easier to conceive of bands of misfits in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad and, of course, The Avengers. Even the more austere characters, such as Captain America, have a certain minor quality that makes them amenable with the wider Marvel universe, as well as with serial extension in other media and platforms, with the Agent Carter television series being the most prominent example. After all, for all Captain America’s steely sublimity and Chris Evans’ perfectly sculpted body, this was a superhero that was constructed by the state for the state, removing the kinds of self-appointed salvational rhetoric more common of the DC universe.
In that sense, part of the ingenuity of Marvel as an aesthetic, a project and a business plan lies in how comprehensively it has managed to integrate superheroes of every possible persuasion – and directors, actors and genres of every possible persuasion – into a trademarked Cinematic Universe. At one level, there has to be something inspiring about the way that has remediated and restored the actual cinematic experience for a younger generation of movie fans. Almost single-handedly, the MCE has returned people to actual theatres while also ensuring that theatres continue to maintain a significant position within the wider media ecology as well. For all that Marvel fans revel in TV adaptations, online trailers (both real and mashed), Tumblr pages, gifs, memes and fan fictions, there is an overarching sense that all these modes of enjoyment are still rooted in cinematic experience and a quite old-fashioned anticipation of the cinematic release schedule.
At the same time, there is something violent about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Moving away from the salvational capitalism of an older brand of superhero – and DC superheroes in particular – Marvel films are capitalist realist in their insistence that you revel in their imaginativeness while refusing to imagine anything outside their perky self-awareness as well. If capitalist realism consists in knowing the system is flawed but turning that very knowingness into an aesthetic stance, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the capitalist realist artefact par excellence, explaining why it has tended to attract “knowing” auteurs in the vein of Joss Whedon, but also why it tends to revive and remediate a very 90s brand of irony, archness and meta-awareness without any accompanying belief in the redemptive and restorative power of true wit.
As a result, it frequently feels as if the MCE is somehow prohibitive of any alternative cinematic expression, to the point where it seems like the true aim of the franchise is not simply to restore cinema but to absorb it. As they recruit more actors, directors and genres, the Marvel films feel more and more like a synecdoche for cinema itself, and there’s something stifling and megalomaniacal about the way the MCE has internalised cinema that often makes the franchise itself feel like one of the amorphous corporate nemeses that drive virtually every instalment. Replacing cinematic marvel with cinematic Marvel, there’s something dispiriting about seeing veteran actors (Holly Hunter, Robert Redford, Michael Douglas) and independent directors (Peyton Reed, Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh) incorporated into the Marvel stable. While it feels as if the MCE is in some sense canonising these luminaries, it is really only for the sake of its own self-canonisation, which seems to sediment and ossify even the most charismatic talents that it touches.
In that sense, there is something strangely refreshing about the utter inability of Dawn of Justice to live up to the Marvel universe-building enterprise, let alone the legacy of DC itself. After all, aside from being a Superman sequel and a Batman reboot, Dawn of Justice is also – as the title suggests – a foundational gesture in the establishment of the Justice League franchise, DC’s answer to the Avengers. As a result, the film occupies a weird space between Man of Steel and the future franchise, with a great deal of back story assumed but also a great deal simply elided, creating an oppressive, crushing density that is light years away from the perky self-awareness of the Marvel universe. To some extent, that makes for a bit of an overwhelming experience, since it’s clear that universe-building is not enough at this stage for Dawn of Justice to match Marvel and that what is in fact needed is an entire overhaul of the superhero mythos altogether.
To some extent, the opening of the film succeeds in setting up that overhaul, in what frequently feels like a riposte to universe-building itself, or at the very least an allegory for a world in which universe-building is already exhausted as an aesthetic strategy. For whereas the very concept of universe-building depends on a sense of anticipation, forward progression and futurity, Dawn of Justice opens in the late days of a superhero regime, with both Gotham and Metropolis starting to challenge and question the assumptions of Batman and Superman, who have both become fairly quotidian figures. Batman is perceived as being too aligned with the streets, Superman is perceived as being too aligned with the sky; Batman is increasingly seen as an urban vigilante, Superman is increasingly seen as an alien who has somehow been permitted to act unilaterally on behalf of his adopted planet.
That’s a very promising premise, since it draws out the darkest and most interesting sides of these two superheroes – and, to its credit, the film really goes out of its way to paint Batman as a hoodlum and Superman as an alien. The alienating qualities of Superman, in particular, work brilliantly to contour his fairly flat character, especially in a series of fantastic sequences in and around the Chair of the Committee for Superman, headed by Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter), with the single best scene revolving around the bombing of the Committee halfway through one of Finch’s speeches about democracy during an enquiry into Superman’s recent spate of “shadow interventions.” Choreographed around the alternations between sped-up and slowed-down time that Snyder does so well, it’s one of the few moments in the film that feels truly worthy of Nolan’s vision, whose style suffuses everything here and compounds Batman and Superman’s own anxieties of influence and authority.
Of course, the Marvel cycle also increasingly deals – in some sense – with the late days of the superhero regime, but whereas the MCE opts for comedy, irony and self-awareness, Dawn of Justice instead falls back upon the 9/11 iconography that prompted the superhero craze in the first place. In fact, it’s hard to think of a single film since Spiderman – with the exception of The Dark Knight – that feels as viscerally and traumatically inflected through September 11, possibly because Dawn of Justice is about the only superhero film to begin with the destruction of a city rather than build towards it.
Not only does the film open with the alien invasion of Metropolis, but it occurs so suddenly – and yet so obliquely – as to almost rival the apocalyptic attack at the beginning of Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. That imbues the rest of the film with a unique tone – part dirgey, but also part administrative resilience – that feels more attuned to the continuing aftermath of 9/11 than any superhero film I have seen. And while Dawn of Justice is rarely as spatially ingenious as the Marvel franchise, there is something quite breathtaking in the way it sketches out a post-disaster topography, in which even the most traumatic remnants of the attack – such as the alien spaceship – have been incorporated back into the fabric of the city amidst a swathe of new commemorative and memorial infrastructure.
Within that context, there’s clearly a scepticism about power and about the superhero ethos more generally. At one point Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) suggests that it is impossible for a superhero to be both all powerful and all good, and the film as a whole is filled with aphorisms about power that rise above the regular ponderous speechifying you might expect from a superhero film (“Do you know the oldest lie in America, Senator? It’s that power can be innocent.”) In some ways that scepticism about power isn’t all that different from the Marvel outlook, except that the DC universe doesn’t – or can’t – permit itself to wrap it all up in the blithe knowingness of the MCE, as much as Eisenberg’s Luthor often seems to be channelling a Marvel inanity and insanity.
As a result, the film comes very close to critiquing the peculiar fascism of superheroes –not merely their assumption of unilateral privilege but their assumption of a certain brand of self-appointed seriousness peculiar to people who think it’s their special burden to save society from itself. While the fact that Ben Affleck is clearly older than Henry Cavill adds a different level of sententiousness to his performance, both actors more or less subsist on this brand of performative seriousness in lieu of any real charisma, character or even dramatic delivery. Of course, it’s at the very moments when this seriousness is challenged that the serial potential of the franchise feels most in jeopardy, so it makes sense that Dawn of Justice poses this challenge to the superhero ethos only to double down on superhero ideology in the last act, at which point Batman and Superman go from being troubling deities to religious icons, surrounded by crucifixes and Christian imagery. In some ways, that’s their strongest incarnation in the film, since the flatness of Snyder’s vision actually becomes quite striking when his superheroes are condensed to pure one-dimensional icons. For the last act, they’re really just suits of armour anyway, so it feels as if the film has reached its apotheosis once they’re rarefied and condensed to these noble silhouettes, lit by momentary flashes of lighting in tableaux that feel grafted straight on the screen from a magnificent comic book panel.
Still, that’s all contained within one of the most turgid, incoherent and miserable multiplex climaxes I’ve seen in a long time. While the style of Dawn of Justice is hyper-cinematic, the scope is almost that of a TV series, with so much packed in – including Wonder Woman and Aqua Man – that the film finally collapses under the weight of its own ambitions. Contrary to what so many critics have argued, this is undeniably a high concept exercise – perhaps the most high concept since Nolan – but there are so many conceptual imperatives that it feels as if the film is being pulled in all ways at once, and that it is only the most profound act of will on the part of the cast and crew that is providing it with a semblance of sustained narrative, tone and atmosphere. And yet that will – the will of the film and the franchise to even exist – feels more and more continuous with the aesthetic experience of the film itself, not unlike the audacity with which the Avengers films turn the business strategy of the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself into a kind of spectacle. Certainly, to some extent, the pleasure of watching serials consists in the pleasure of watching the serial mechanism itself come into play. However, in both the Avengers films and now Dawn of Justice, that mechanism has expanded to encompass the entire film, making for a curiously decentred and absented viewing experience, as if the real business of the film is happening elsewhere, or as if the film itself is finally nothing but business.