With 2013’s Man of Steel it seemed director Zack Snyder was intent on applying Christopher Nolan’s gritty Dark Knight aesthetic to Superman. Structurally, Man of Steel very much feels like Batman Begins and one would be forgiven for thinking that Snyder was something of a Nolan acolyte. With that film’s successor, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, however, Snyder proves himself a far more loyal disciple to the likes of comic book writer and artist Frank Miller, whose distinctive insistence on redefining what popular culture thinks of the Dark Knight can be felt throughout the film.
With Man of Steel, Superman was course corrected, moved toward the operatic grit of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. The tone of Superman was adjusted to mimic the tone of Batman, and in response, the Batman of Dawn of Justice is proportionately moved further into the bleak shadows to compensate. On a scale where a sad face is Batman, a smiley face is Superman and a neutral face lies somewhere in between, Man of Steel flattened out Superman’s smile and Dawn of Justice knocks Batman off the scale completely.
The Batman of Dawn of Justice, played by Ben Affleck, isn’t just bleak. He’s hostile. Not just to the criminals he brands but to the audience. He dares you to like him. He dares you to tell him what Batman does and doesn’t do. He aggressively challenges what Batman is supposed to be in 2016. He embodies the sort of confrontational maverick spirit of Frank Miller’s Batman texts.
Frank Miller wrote Year One, for many the defining Batman origin story, and The Dark Knight Returns, widely considered to be the greatest Batman story ever put to paper. His Batman is a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, cursed to be the only one able to see through a soft, shallow world of senseless violence and half-hearted political correctness. He’s better than the world around him, he knows it, and he’s less than gracious about it.
He’s a jarring reaction to the biffs, pows and bams of Adam West’s caped crusader of the 60s, a whiplash-inducing course correction.
He’s also kind of a dick.
And that was in 1986.
By the time Miller wrote All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder in 2005 his Batman was still reacting to popular culture’s perception of the character and, adjusting for inflation, had gone from kind of a dick to an all-out sociopath having sex on rooftops to the soundtrack of screaming criminals burning to death on the streets below.
A little over ten years later Snyder carries that torch forward, continuing Miller’s tradition of presenting popular culture with a Batman it doesn’t necessarily want, and one that doesn’t seem to want them either. The Batman of Dawn of Justice carries on less in the tradition of Nolan’s gritty realism and more in the vein of Miller’s blatant hostility towards the concept of what Batman should be. Like Miller’s Batman of the 80s it proves to be something of a reaction to what the world thinks of Batman. Like Miller’s Batman of the 00s it proves to be an overreaction no one necessarily wanted.
There’s an inarguable difference in quality between Miller and Snyder’s Batmen, undoubtedly because the latter is largely an adaptation of the former. It seems pretty clear already that Dawn of Justice will never garner the reverence of Miller’s best texts. Even its best Batman moments lack compelling context, and are best when you mentally pry them free of the film they’re buried in. But the feeling I get watching Ben Affleck’s Batman operate with such glorified cruelty is the most accurate filmic representation I’ve encountered of the sort of weary fascination Miller’s Batman instills in me.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is burdened by a script that too often forces you to do its work for it, putting the onus of rationalization, logic and character motivation on the viewer. By design it isn’t really fun, or funny and it seems content to wade in a tone of helpless despair. But if nothing else, it manages to mimic the confrontational hostility of the Frank Miller Batman texts that have become inseparable from the character.
While Zack Snyder hasn’t created a triumph akin to Dark Knight Returns, he has still rather successful emulated one of the most important creators to ever interact with Batman. Dawn of Justice is not Snyder’s Dark Knight Returns, but it just might be his All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder.