For boldly reflecting the darkness of U.S. politics, "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is the most powerful superhero movie yet. With two of the most overexposed superheroes in pop culture, director Zack Snyder draws frequent attention to an anti-immigrant, God-doubting crisis, transcending the more superficial, marketable goal of connecting comic-book characters through a "universe" of films. Most U.S. citizens, if they look hard enough, can recognize the fruit of their political sentiments in one or more of the main characters or plot points in "Batman v Superman." This mirror effect is what makes Snyder’s concluding moral image of diverse people standing together so resonant.
The conflict in "Batman v Superman" begins by revisiting the climactic battle in 2014’s "Man of Steel" (also directed by Snyder), this time with greater focus on the collateral damage. In a scene evoking the 9/11 terrorist attack on NYC, Batman’s millionaire alter ego Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) watches one of his buildings collapse before spotting Superman fly away from the destruction. As this vision contributes to Wayne’s descent into violent paranoia, Superman (Henry Cavill) struggles with doubt about his status as savior of the world, as he is under public scrutiny for his interventions into human affairs (one protestor spray-paints “False God” on a statue of the caped hero). What follows is a collision of cynicism (Batman) and good will (Superman), with hipster philanthropist Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) agitating the situation as a self-proclaimed rejecter of God’s power and altruism.
This set-up allows Snyder to craft the most audacious personal statement on post-9/11 America in recent blockbuster history. It’s specious to say Snyder is just riffing on Frank Miller’s "The Dark Knight Returns" comic book series, which also puts Superman and Batman at odds. (Besides, Snyder’s sense of awe and prophecy is more reminiscent of work by "Kingdom Come" painter Alex Ross.)
With constant references to an alien operating outside of the law, a man in the sky, and the Messiah, Snyder makes Superman represent both the immigrant and the Christian deity (God/Jesus), presenting an obvious target for the xenophobia and atheism of Batman and Lex Luthor.
This type of symbolism for Superman isn’t new, but "Batman v Superman" is the first film to so blatantly use superheroes to explain the times we live in. Snyder doesn’t pull any punches in spelling out the understandable rage that supports bad-tendency philosophy and law like The Patriot Act. At one point Affleck’s Batman suggests if there is a one percent chance Superman can destroy the world, society must take it as an absolute certainty. In contrast, Christopher Nolan’s allusion to increased surveillance in "The Dark Knight" doesn’t articulate the emotions behind U.S. policy; it merely tries to turn a plot device to catch the Joker into a topical ethical dilemma.
Snyder’s blunt commentary is amplified by the most striking imagery of his filmography. Snyder has become a more sophisticated visual storyteller since experimenting with slow motion with an amateur’s enthusiasm in "300" and "Watchmen." The deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents, for example, have never been more provocatively framed than in "Batman v Superman." In this scene, Snyder uses short depth of field to evince the anxiety of being at the wrong end of a gun, with morbid emphasis provided by slow-motion shots of the gun’s slider and a shell hitting the ground. This is topped by another first-person shot of the gun barrel, this time with the weapon inside of the mother’s pearl necklace. With pearls raining down after the gun fires, Snyder captures innocence and hopelessness, two concepts connected to the loss of power and control that Americans experienced as they watched planes strike the World Trade Center. Wayne’s tragedy in "Batman v Superman" is not just another origin story but parallels the outrage and trauma that fuel contemporary U.S. in-fighting.
"Batman v Superman" astutely identifies the yearning in the United States for social solidarity. Batman reminisces about a simpler, almost mythical time of “diamond absolutes.” Wonder Woman sums up a common sentiment on the futility of partisan politics (“Man made a world where standing together isn’t possible.”). The most powerful reminder of America’s moral confusion comes from newspaper editor Perry White (played with a perfect no-bullshit tone by Laurence Fishburne): “The American conscience died with Robert, Martin, and John.”
"Batman v Superman" is unlikely to provide inspiration to a sociopathic murderer (see James Holmes and Nolan’s "The Dark Knight") because it doesn’t ultimately imply goodness is unfashionable or must be compromised. Earlier in the film, Batman states to his butler Alfred, “We’re criminals,” as if there is no political alternative. But after seeing Superman sacrifice himself, Batman shares a more profound self-reflection: “We can do better. We have to.” These lines show an urgency that can be felt in all corners of Election Year 2016.