“You wonder, is this healthy?”
“Is she with you?” “No, I thought she was with you.” Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) stand on either side of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), set against a dark night and devastated buildings in Metropolis. She stands between them, her outfit skimpy and her eyes ablaze. It’s clear enough that she’s not with either of them.
It’s near the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the trio of superheroes has assembled to combat an awkwardly hulky version of General Zod (Michael Shannon). The route to this showdown is long and convoluted. Zod’s massive ugliness somehow results from a ritual mixing of his corpse’s DNA with the blood of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), whose extensive plotting to pit Batman and Superman against one another is nothing if not dedicated. Lex wants the guys to fight each other to the death, and he’s not above kidnapping and torturing girlfriends and mothers to get what he wants. As it turns out, his strategy is pretty much spot-on: as soon as the guys see their girls in trouble, they capitulate.
Until they don’t. It’s this part, the zigzagging back and forth between motives and ideals, that makes both Superman and Batman look erratic and angsty, sometimes a little schizzy. By comparison, Wonder Woman looks refreshingly healthy, though this is surely an effect of the lack of backstory: she drops in to the midst of the boys’ fretting, dons her gear, and fights the monster fiercely. In this movie, at least, she doesn’t have to grind through an origin story you already know, like, say, little boy Bruce Wayne (Brandon Spink), watching and re-watching his parents shot in slow motion, falling and falling again into a pit of bats, visiting and revisiting mom and dad’s mausoleum.
Bruce’s nightmares are too familiar to be weird, and here, in Zach Snyder’s follow-up to Man of Steel, they also feel like a pile-on. Just as young Clark Kent had a hard time in Kansas, so young Bruce had a hard time in Gotham, and now, at last, they meet as superheroes given to questioning their missions and themselves.
Their questioning is granted a trendily topical context with help by Senator Finch (Holly Hunter), who’s especially keen to doubt Superman’s exploits. Whenever he shows up at some site to save someone — usually his fiancée Lois (Amy Adams), who announces her right to interview terrorists with “I’m not a lady, I’m a reporter!” — he tends to leave in his wake wreckage and dead bodies. Finch takes issue with his propensity to act as an individual while making “state level interventions.”
Bruce takes the concern a step further, worried that Superman, being super, is like a god, not loyal to humans. Hunkered down in the Batcave with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and a bajillion super-expensive gadgets and weapons and free weights too, Bruce worries that Superman is an alien, and so warrants suspicion by definition. Worse, Bruce goes on, “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race. If we believe that there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.”
Before you can say “Dick Cheney“, Bruce has a plan to confront Superman, to bring him down, expose him, make clear to the plant the risk he embodies to the non-meta-humans. Repeatedly, Batman v Superman underscores that Bruce’s distrust is born of his own emotion damage, which also results in his persistent seething, his tendency to contemplate his bat mask, and his inability to have a girlfriend with a face (you see at least one lithe figure in bed beside him one night, but she’s mostly off-screen, blocked by his incredibly-worked-out torso). Alfred appears to deal with all this by offering helpful, but not forceful, observations of his master’s hypocrisies. No matter, Bruce presses on.
Bruce doesn’t so much participate in Finch’s public pursuit of Superman as he lets it go. Indeed, he hardly needs to be on hand for it, as the movie makes visible her investment in homeland security (“planetary security”, Lex corrects her) on any number of TV and internet platforms, with cameos by everyone from Nancy Grace to Soledad O’Brien, the Daily Planet‘s web presence included. (Thank goodness that Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White has some sense of comic distance on the increasingly fraught and ponderous nonsense everyone around thinks is news.)
The incessant media coverage and the many reaction shots of people watching TV are, of course, an indication of how masses are easily swayed. As you’re watching this movie, you might also contemplate your own part, in being swayed into consuming so much of what you’ve consumed before.
You might also think about how your view is repeatedly aligned with Bruce’s, as he obsesses over Superman. Thank goodness, you sigh, when he’s briefly distracted when he meets Diana Prince (Wonder Woman’s alter ego) at a gala event thrown by Lex (he of LexCorp, the self-loving name emblazoned on every bit of property or vehicle or product the company sends forth into the world).
As Diana and Bruce gaze at one another across the ballroom and later banter, you get an idea that she’s got better things to do than look after this lost soul. One of the items on her list, it turns out, is to recover a photo that Lex has in his super-secret-encrypted database, a photo that has her standing alongside Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) in 1918. When, in fact, Batman does discover this photo, he may or may not have some leverage over Wonder Woman. He does, certainly have questions that he spells out in a text message with the movie’s typical subtlety: “Who are you!?”
Such graceless social messaging aside, Wonder Woman’s remains Batman v Superman‘s most compelling story, precisely because it’s untold. How does she intuit what Bruce is up to, without help of super-hearing, as Clark deploys more than once. Why does she show up to support these lunkheads, so repetitively and unthinkingly intent on destroying each other, before they turn their attention to Zod? How does she know exactly the right look to cast on Lois in a moment of extreme duress? And how does her Lasso of Truth work, exactly?
For all the questions, you also fret that soon enough, with the Wonder Woman movie in the works, you’re going to be burdened with all the origin story answers you don’t need to know. “You know,” she tells Batman, “it’s true what they say about little boys: born with no natural inclination to share.” Alas, these boys like to over-share. You might take solace in Wonder Woman’s enigma, amid all the boys’ clunking assertions of need and self.