The following post contains SPOILERS for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
“In a democracy,” says Holly Hunter’s Senator Finch in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, “good is a conversation, not a unilateral decision.” The 32 minutes added to the movie’s “Ultimate Edition,” now available digitally and released on Blu-ray and DVD July 19, include a lot of unnecessary shoe leather, and fills in gaps that don’t need the extra gob of narrative spackle.
But the Ultimate Edition also restores several characters whose appearances were truncated in the theatrical cut, or who were eliminated altogether, and in so doing greatly expands that critical conversation. It’s easy to see why Zack Snyder and company made every cut they did, and there’s nothing in the extended version to relieve the deadening slog of the movie’s final act, a nearly hour-long string of murky, clangorous battles. But if the longer cut is flabbier, it’s also grander and more ambitious, not just bigger but broader. It’s not a better movie, but it’s a more interesting, even occasionally admirable, one.
The net effect of the extended cut’s changes is to make BvS less a movie about Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill), and more about the world they both live in. Snyder frequently gets into or out of scenes by panning across a TV on which pundits debate how the discovery of Superman’s existence reshapes the world’s balance of power. Neil deGrasse Tyson compares the Man of Steel’s emergence to Copernicus’ proof that the planets revolved around the sun: We are no longer the center of our universe. There’s more talk of gods and demons, good and evil. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) confronts an African terrorist leader, and he responds by grilling her on the morality of U.S. drone strikes — a conversation that, we now see, is observed by an American drone. “Men with policy obey neither policy nor principle,” he tells her. “No one is different. No one is neutral.”
Some of this is in the theatrical version, of course. But the accumulated weight of the restored footage shifts the movie’s balance, at least for its first two thirds. (Not surprisingly, given that BvS’ ultimate aim is for Batman and Superman to pound each other’s faces in, the action-heavy last third made it to multiplexes more or less untouched.) Going into the extended cut, the biggest news was that Jena Malone’s character, whom many had theorized might be an early version of Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl), would finally make an appearance. But Malone turned out to be an exposition-spouting S.T.A.R. Labs tech, and the most important new character is Kahina Ziri (Wunmi Mosaku), a woman from the fictional African country of Nairomi who calls Superman to account at the Congressional hearings chaired by Hunter’s Senator.
Kahina Ziri appears briefly in the theatrical cut, as a generic representative of African pain that, in the movie’s racist syllogism, Superman later salves by rescuing endangered factory workers in Juárez. But in the extended cut, she’s a full-fledged presence, with her own discrete — and, as it turns out, easily excised — storyline. She appears on the TV in Lois Lane’s apartment as Clark fries up some post-coital eggs, questioning his role in the violence that left so many of her fellow villagers dead. “Superman is a hero,” she says, “but whose hero?” If she could ask him one question, Kahina says, it would be “how he decides which lives count, and which ones do not.”
Looking for her draws Clark to Gotham, and that starts him pitching stories to his Daily Planet editor about the rise of crime in Metropolis’ urban twin. “When you assign a story, you’re making a choice about who matters,” he says, virtually echoing Kahina’s words, and edging BvS just a notch closer to overtly referencing Black Lives Matter.
In other words, Kahina Ziri is responsible for Clark Kent getting woke. It doesn’t matter that we later find out her testimony was coerced by Lex Luthor, that her parents, who she claimed were dead, are still alive, albeit threatened by Luthor’s henchmen. She’s collateral damage either way. As Superman and Lois Lane converge on the Congressional hearings, Kahina slips away into the crowd; just before the bomb Luthor’s planted in an unsuspecting patsy’s wheelchair goes off, she’s shoved in front of an oncoming train, House of Cards style. The story she told Senator Finch about how government troops rushed into her village after Superman’s attack and slaughtered innocents may have been a lie, or only partly true, but its overall point holds: Superman can stop a bullet, but he can’t control the shrapnel. He can save the world, but not without hundreds dying in the process.
Batman v Superman feels like an honest attempt to take stock of the collateral carnage of its predecessor’s climactic battle — something that, whatever else one can say about the relationship between the two movies, it does far better than Captain America: Civil War. There’s real power in the moment when Bruce Wayne saves a little girl from being crushed by Metropolis’ crumbling rubble and nobly promises to reunite her with her mother, only to have her point to the smoldering ruin of the building above them: That’s where her mother was, and there’s nothing a man in a bat-suit can do to save her.
But by then, Snyder’s already blown his shot. As Bruce speeds towards the headquarters of Wayne Financial, he calls ahead and orders Jack (Hugh Maguire) to clear the building. It’s sensible enough, just the kind of take-charge moment you want to give your hero in the opening reel. But when Snyder cuts to Jack’s end of the conversation, the Wayne offices are utterly calm, as if no one has noticed the buildings tumbling all around them. They’re like actors on a stage, frozen in place until the lights come up and they’re allowed to move.
The extended cut makes clear that Snyder wanted Batman v Superman to be a sprawling tableau in which his heroes only gradually took center stage, a version of Nashville in which Keith Carradine, Ned Beatty, and Ronee Blakely team up in the last reel to fight a glowing pile of dog links. But Snyder lacks the feel for ordinary human characters that would allow him to truly realize that ambition. He’s great with iconic images, like the line of schoolchildren holding hands in the ruins of Metropolis, or the slow dolly through the Daily Planet’s empty newsroom as Superman is laid to rest. But when it comes to treating them as, well, people, he can’t quite muster the interest. He’s Lex Luthor, condemning innocents to death so he can make damn well sure that his heroes come to blows, or Watchmen’s Ozymandias, orchestrating global catastrophe in the hopes that humankind might learn something from it.
It’s been seven years since Snyder’s Watchmen was released, but in a way it feels like he never stopped making it — or maybe he’s still trying to understand it. Batman v Superman, a movie in which Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor paraphrases Epicurus, wants to be a philosophical epic; not just a superhero movie, but the superhero movie — a story about why we keep telling ourselves these kinds of stories. (If you gave Snyder half a billion dollars and no restrictions, he’d probably make something like Alan Moore’s Miracleman, in which an all-powerful superhero eventually becomes a benevolent tyrant.) But, to cite one of the best contemporary critiques of the original Watchmen series, he’s closer to “trotting out the Nietzsche and the Shelley to dignify some old costumed claptrap.” Batman v Superman’s fullest testament to human frailty is Snyder’s own feet of clay.
For more on Batman v Superman, watch our spoiler discussion of the film: